Welcome to this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief… as all eyes are currently on Afghanistan and the chaos that has ensued following the initiation of U.S. withdrawal from the country, we’ll be focusing on whether there was intelligence beforehand that might have foreshadowed the events that transpired over the weekend. Specifically, we’ll look at 1) the events in Kabul, Afghanistan that played out recently, 2) what the CIA had feared might occur, and actually did, and 3) what this all means for the current timeframe the Pentagon has been given for the completion of the U.S. withdrawal from the region.
And with that, it’s time that we turn our attention toward the developing situation in Afghanistan, and what the U.S. intelligence community might have known in advance about the potential for how things have played out in recent days.
Collapse in Afghanistan
On Sunday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, instructed U.S. citizens to shelter in place as gunfire was reported at the city’s airport, where a chaotic scene had begun to unfold.
Images widely circulated in recent days conveyed panic at the airport over the weekend, where many Afghanis were seen struggling to board U.S. aircraft in a desperate attempt to leave the country. Thousands of individuals reportedly flooded the airport parking lot and terminal with hopes of securing a flight out of the country, The New York Times reported.
As Taliban forces entered the country, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wasted no time leaving the country. According to an account from Russia’s embassy in Kabul on Monday, Ghani reportedly “fled the country with four cars and a helicopter full of cash,” some of which was left behind for a lack of space.
Ghani, whose whereabouts since fleeing the country had been unknown for several days, reemerged in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, saying that he was forced to leave Afghanistan, though also vowing to return.
Meanwhile, although the resurgent Taliban have stressed that they intend to instate an “inclusive” government that will respect human rights, the attack of a group of Afghani protesters on Wednesday by Taliban militants, which resulted in one death, was viewed by some as a sign of where things may be going in the days ahead.
According to the Associated Press, many “have expressed dread that the two-decade Western experiment to remake Afghanistan will not survive the resurgent Taliban,” and in light of the country’s uncertain future, sharp criticism has erupted in Washington over the Biden Administration’s handling of the matter, following a statement by the President on Monday defending his actions.
Although much has been said already about the quickly developing situation in Afghanistan, one primary question that has arisen in the aftermath has to do with whether the Biden administration had access to intelligence beforehand that could have foreshadowed this outcome.
An Intelligence Failure?
As many wrestle with understanding how the situation in Afghanistan could have so rapidly spun out of control, it has now come to light that concern existed within the intelligence community that the situation in Afghanistan could escalate more quickly that anticipated, as reportedly conveyed within intelligence reports that appeared in the days leading up to Sunday’s events.
U.S. government officials familiar with the situation told NBC News that the “potential for a rapid, total collapse” had been something the CIA had warned about in its intelligence assessments outlining possible worst-case scenarios following the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The reports had likely been available by the time the encroaching Taliban forces began to move on acquiring territory as the withdrawal effort began.
Contrasting with this, in early July President Biden had expressed that “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” As of Wednesday, the White House had not confirmed if Biden and his staff had been briefed on the CIA’s concerns about other possible outcomes—which quickly became a reality over the weekend—by his national security advisors.
Similar sentiments were expressed during a press briefing earlier this week by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan who, when asked about the CIA reports, told one reporter that he was “not actually familiar with the intelligence assessments you’re describing.”
According to those familiar with the intelligence reports, the information they contained painted a bleak picture for Afghan security forces, which had already been severely weakened prior to the beginning of U.S. withdrawal efforts. Serious doubts were also raised about the ability for the country’s military forces to maintain security for the seat of government in Kabul.
Criticism of the administration’s wisdom regarding the situation has been seen from both the political left and right, as well as from the media in recent days. While the questions remain as to whether Biden and his national security team had been briefed on the concerns purportedly expressed in the CIA’s assessments, some might argue that having access to briefings from the intelligence community would not have been necessary to see where things were headed.
In an article published on July 2, the editorial board of the Washington Post likened the forthcoming withdrawal of U.S. troops to the abandonment of our allies in the absence of adequate defense capabilities.
“The descent from stalemate to defeat could be steep and grim,” the Post article read, adding that the board wondered “whether [The President] has fully considered the consequences.”
Meanwhile, as questions linger over what was known ahead of time, and what could have been prevented under the implementation of other strategies, rescue operations are underway to retrieve Americans from the firestorm that erupted on Sunday, as well as Afghani citizens who aided the U.S. effort over the last two decades and may now be vulnerable to retaliation from the Taliban.
However, further controversy erupted following statements from Jake Sullivan this week, who would not elaborate on whether current rescue operations would extend beyond the end of August, the current deadline the Biden administration has given for the Pentagon to complete its withdrawal.
What this could possibly mean for the U.S. and its allies in the region after August 31 remains unclear. Unfortunately, the same uncertainty remains true for the entirety of Afghanistan and its people, as the country continues to be enveloped in the aftermath of what has now been widely touted as one of the greatest foreign policy blunders—and intelligence failures—in recent memory.
Where things go from here remains to be seen. While questions remain about how we arrived where we are today, one thing now seems pretty clear: there had been plenty of warning signs along the way… none of which were apparently heeded.
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