Did U.S. intelligence get it wrong or did Biden just not listen?

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

That’ll be the central question in coverage of the catastrophe in Kabul this week. No matter the answer, the fault ultimately lies with Biden; the bucks stops with him, whether because he hubristically ignored sensible warnings from his intelligence bureaus or because those bureaus were incompetent, which would be nothing new in 21st century America.

But obviously a White House that ignored alarms that the country would collapse before American allies could be safely evacuated is more culpable than a White House that was assured it had plenty of time to get everyone out once Bagram was handed over. “In meetings this spring about the coming U.S. withdrawal, Mr. Biden told aides that it was crucial they avoid the kind of scene that yielded the iconic photographs of Americans and Vietnamese scrambling up a ladder to a helicopter on a rooftop near the U.S. Embassy in Saigon when it was frantically evacuated in 1975, as the Vietcong swept into the city,” the Times reported today. What we got instead was “Saigon on steroids,” with desperate Afghans clinging to the outside of U.S. military planes as they took off in the belief that that was preferable to life in Kabul under the Taliban.

U.S. officials are already whispering to reporters this morning: Don’t blame us for this. Biden was warned how it would go down.

[N]umerous U.S. officials tell ABC News that the opposite was true, insisting that key intelligence assessments had consistently informed policymakers that the Taliban could overwhelm the country and take the capital within weeks — essentially repeating the 1975 fall of Saigon, when helicopters hastily evacuated diplomats from the U.S. embassy’s rooftop as the North Vietnamese Army stormed into the South Vietnam capital…

“[U.S.] leaders were told by the military it would take no time at all for the Taliban to take everything,” an anonymous U.S. intelligence official told ABC News. “No one listened.”…

“The intelligence community assessment has always been accurate; they just disregarded it,” the official told ABC News, speaking about the Biden administration.

Supposedly intelligence officials warned specifically that Pakistani intelligence was aiding the Taliban this summer, which would also be nothing new. Yesterday WaPo reported that deals were being negotiated as far back as *early last year* between the Taliban and provincial officials to lay down their arms in exchange for money once the jihadis made their move to reconquer the country. Where the Taliban got that money is another question that’ll be explored in the coming weeks and months; Pakistan will likely figure in the answer, as will opium. But, in the meantime, a year and a half is a long opportunity for Americans to get wise to what was happening and to factor that into our timetable for withdrawal. Did the White House know about these provincial surrender deals? If they did, why did they think the Afghan army might hold out for months?

An NBC reporter also says that there was intelligence that the country would collapse rapidly. He heard it from U.S. military officials himself:

Marco Rubio is the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee and therefore has access to foreign intel that even the average senator wouldn’t necessarily have. He has a partisan reason to claim that the intel was accurate and was ignored all along by the Democrat Biden, but just because he has a motive to say so doesn’t mean he’s wrong:

The complicating factor here is that intelligence assessments are rarely unanimous. Biden did have some people telling him that the country would hold out for awhile:

In fact, DoD officials briefed lawmakers last month on the intelligence assessment that the combination of Afghan special commandos, air force and local militias could hold off the Taliban long enough for a political settlement, according to a senior Democratic aide with knowledge of the briefings.

The intelligence was “overstated,” the person said…

In the end, intelligence assessments from earlier this year estimating that the Afghan government could hold out for six to 18 months after the U.S. withdrawal proved spectacularly wrong. Planners underestimated the effectiveness of the Taliban’s strategy and believed — incorrectly, it turned out — that the Afghans would fight to hold territory as American forces departed.

Maybe the real question isn’t “Was Biden warned that the country could collapse rapidly?” but rather “Why didn’t Biden’s contingency planning operate on the assumption that the country might collapse rapidly?” Clearly some military and intelligence officers believed that it could. Members of Congress have been urging Biden for months to pick up the pace on evacuating U.S. personnel and Afghan allies, knowing that the bureaucracy of processing visa applications moves slowly. Instead the White House seems to have simply gambled that they could ditch Bagram, pull everyone out, and the Afghan army would remain solid enough to give them time to evacuate everyone in a leisurely way.

Why on earth did they make that gamble?

It may end up being even costlier than it now appears:

Total abandonment of Afghan allies is reportedly now on the table as a matter of simple necessity, before U.S. troops at the airport get overrun by either the Taliban or frantic civilians looking for a flight out:

The best the White House can do to spin this unholy clusterf**k, according to a “personal familiar” who spoke to the Daily Beast, is cross their fingers and hope voters won’t care. “Probably, this is all going to sh*t. But we also have confidence that we’ll have political cover, that no one’s going to give a sh*t.” That’s possible. Like I said yesterday, American voters have gotten used to national disgrace.

Speaking of which, the latest news on the situation in Kabul is that the head of Centcom met face-to-face with Taliban representatives in Qatar to warn them not to obstruct the U.S. evacuation at the airport or else. Or else … what, exactly? We’re in no position to make demands. But it’s nice to know that this national humiliation can still get worse, with the regional commander for the world’s most powerful military politely asking barbarians to let us retreat in an orderly way.