NYT: Despite Biden's public assurances, July intelligence said Taliban could overrun Afghanistan

AP Photo/Zabi Karimi

The U.S. intel community isn’t taking the rap for this one. Not while they still have breath left in their bodies.

And reporters’ numbers on speed-dial on their cell phones.

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Here’s Biden a little more than a month ago in what’s already become one of the most infamous presidential press conferences in American history. At one point a reporter claims that his own intelligence people have assessed that the Afghan government will likely collapse. “That is not true,” an indignant Biden replies. “They did not reach that conclusion.” Watch:

What he said at the time appears to be, at best, half-true. According to a new NYT report, it’s true that America’s intel bureaus never claimed with high confidence that the country would collapse. But they warned repeatedly that it could collapse. Which brings us back to the central mystery in the past week’s fiasco: Why wasn’t the administration planning for the worst-case scenario in its timetable for evacuating people, knowing that a rapid Taliban takeover was a possibility?

Why’d they chance getting caught flat-footed?

From the Times:

One report in July — as dozens of Afghan districts were falling and Taliban fighters were laying siege to several major cities — laid out the growing risks to Kabul, noting that the Afghan government was unprepared for a Taliban assault, according to a person familiar with the intelligence.

Intelligence agencies predicted that should the Taliban seize cities, a cascading collapse could happen rapidly and the Afghan security forces were at high risk of falling apart. It is unclear whether other reports during this period presented a more optimistic picture about the ability of the Afghan military and the government in Kabul to withstand the Taliban…

[I]n recent months, assessments became ever more pessimistic as the Taliban made larger gains, according to current and former officials. The reports this summer questioned in stark terms the will of Afghan security forces to fight and the ability of the Kabul government to hold power. With each report of mass desertions, a former official said, the Afghan government looked less stable.

Another C.I.A. report in July noted that the security forces and central government had lost control of the roads leading into Kabul and assessed that the viability of the central government was in serious jeopardy. Other reports by the State Department’s intelligence and research division also noted the failure of Afghan forces to fight the Taliban and suggested the deteriorating security conditions could lead to the collapse of the government, according to government officials.

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Is that proof that the White House blew it in this case, not the intelligence agencies? Well, hold on. The NYT claims that, as recently as a week before Kabul fell, those agencies were still insisting that the Taliban might not take over the country. When Biden made the decision to withdraw in April, allegedly the overall intelligence assessment at that point was that the country could still hold out for 18 months. Sources also told the Times that it was “often hard to get agency analysts to clearly predict how quickly [a collapse] would occur,” an assessment backed up by officials from Trump’s administration. Two sources who reviewed intel on Afghanistan last year said that the analyses warned that the government and the army were weak but “the agency resisted giving an exact time frame and the assessments could often be interpreted in a variety of ways, including concluding that Afghanistan could fall quickly or possibly over time.”

So, if I have this straight, the CIA and others warned that the country was shaky but that it might hold, that the Taliban could overrun it but possibly not, and that if they did it might happen very quickly or take years. Or not happen at all.

A sustained show of ass-covering, it sounds like, checking every conceivable contingency box so that American intelligence couldn’t be blamed for getting the outcome wrong no matter what happened. It’s an expert’s way of saying “I don’t know,” demonstrating one’s knowledge of the battlescape by describing various involved scenarios for how the conflict might end and then demonstrating one’s deeper ignorance of it by not being able to attach probabilities to any of them.

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The fact that their best guess as of late April, when the withdrawal orders were finalized, was that the government would last awhile is evidence enough that this was yet another intelligence debacle, though. That doesn’t excuse Biden for not assuming that the country could fall rapidly and arranging for immediate evacuations to hedge against that risk, since he was told that that was a possibility. But what good did it do him to be informed a week before Kabul fell that oh, by the way, the entire country might implode in a week? The reason we have lavishly funded intelligence bureaus is to anticipate developments months in advance, not days.

What would you say you do here, CIA?

Here’s the result of Biden being negligent and American intelligence being incompetent:

As a Twitter pal said, it’s hard to buy Biden’s argument that Afghans were unwilling to risk their lives for freedom when some of them were literally hanging off of U.S. military planes in hopes of reaching America.

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Anyway, if it’s true that the intel community missed the collapse of the government until it was seven days away, Biden’s well within his rights to start firing people. He can start with his NSA, Jake Sullivan, and DNI, Avril Haines, and then go from there. But heads need to roll.

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David Strom 10:40 AM | April 12, 2024
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