WASHINGTON — Classified ratings by US spy agencies over the summer painted an increasingly grim picture of the prospect of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and warned of the rapid collapse of the Afghan military, even as President Biden and his advisers publicly said it was unlikely. this would happen so soon, according to current and former US government officials.
In July, many intelligence reports became more pessimistic, questioning whether Afghan security forces would put up serious resistance and whether the government could hold its own in Kabul, the capital. President Biden said on July 8 that the Afghan government is unlikely to fall and there will be no chaotic evacuations of Americans similar to the end of the Vietnam War.
The boom of warnings over the summer raises questions about why Biden government officials and military planners in Afghanistan appeared ill-prepared to deal with the latest Taliban attack in Kabul, including failing to ensure security at the main airport and rushing thousands of additional troops back to land to protect the United States’ eventual exit.
A report in July — when dozens of Afghan districts fell and Taliban fighters besieged several major cities — explained the growing risks to Kabul, noting that the Afghan government was unprepared for a Taliban attack, according to a person familiar with the intelligence.
Intelligence forecasted that if the Taliban captured cities, there could be a rapid cascading collapse and that Afghan security forces were at great risk of disintegration. It is unclear whether other reports during this period gave a more optimistic view of the ability of the Afghan military and government in Kabul to resist the insurgents.
A historical analysis provided to Congress concluded that the Taliban had learned lessons from their takeover of the country in the 1990s. According to the report, this time the militant group would first secure the border crossings, claim the provincial capitals and capture parts of the north of the country before moving into Kabul, a prediction that turned out to be correct.
But key US decisions were made long before July, when intelligence agencies agreed that the Afghan government could hold out for two years, which would have left plenty of time for an orderly exit. On April 27, when the foreign ministry ordered the departure of non-essential personnel from the embassy in Kabul, the intelligence community’s general assessment was still that a Taliban takeover would be at least 18 months away, government officials said.
A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified intelligence reports, said that even in July, when the situation became more volatile, intelligence agencies had never made a clear prediction of an imminent Taliban takeover. The official said their reviews also failed to receive a “high confidence” rating, the agencies’ highest level of assurance.
Just a week before the fall of Kabul, intelligence agencies’ general analysis was that a Taliban takeover was not yet inevitable, the official said.
CIA spokesmen and the director of national intelligence declined to discuss the assessments with the White House. But intelligence officials acknowledged that their agencies’ analysis had been sober and that assessments had changed in recent weeks and months.
During his speech on Monday, Mr. Biden said his administration had planned “all contingencies” in Afghanistan, but that the situation was “unfolding faster than we expected”.
Faced with clear evidence of the collapse of the Afghan armed forces, US officials began to blame internally, including statements from the White House suggesting an intelligence failure. Such hints often come after major national security disruptions, but it will take weeks or months to get a fuller picture of the decision-making in the Biden administration that has led to chaos in Kabul in recent days.
Intelligence agencies have long predicted an ultimate Taliban victory, even before President Donald J. Trump and Mr. Biden decided to withdraw the troops. Those estimates yielded a series of timelines. Although they questioned the Afghan security forces’ will to fight without Americans by their side, they did not predict a collapse within weeks.
But in recent months, assessments have become increasingly pessimistic as the Taliban made bigger gains, current and former officials said. This summer’s reports grimly called into question the Afghan security forces’ will to fight and the Kabul government’s ability to maintain power. With every report of mass desertions, a former official said, the Afghan government looked less stable.
Another CIA report in July noted that security forces and the central government had lost control of the roads to Kabul and ruled that the viability of the central government was in serious jeopardy. Other reports from the Foreign Ministry’s intelligence and research division also pointed to the failure of the Afghan armed forces to fight the Taliban and suggested that deteriorating security conditions could lead to the collapse of the government, government officials said.
“Intelligence is not about saying you know that on August 15, the Afghan government will fall,” said Timothy S. Berggreen, former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee. “But what everyone knew is that without the reinforcement of the international armed forces and especially our armed forces, the Afghans would not have been able to defend or govern themselves.”
Afghanistan received little attention in the annual threat assessment released in April by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; but the brief discussion was dire, as the Taliban were convinced that they could achieve a military victory.
“The Taliban are likely to make a profit on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to keep the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws its support,” the report said.
But current and former officials said that while it was true that the CIA predicted a collapse of the Afghan government, it was often difficult to get agency analysts clearly predicting how soon that would happen, especially as Mr. Trump and then Mr. Biden make decisions about how soon troops should be withdrawn.
Two former senior Trump administration officials who reviewed some of the CIA’s assessments of Afghanistan said intelligence agencies warned about the strength of the Afghan government and security forces. But the agency resisted giving an exact timetable, and the assessments could often be interpreted in different ways, including concluding that Afghanistan could fall quickly or possibly over time.
Sharp disagreements have also persisted in the intelligence community. The CIA has been pessimistic about the training of Afghan security forces for years. But the Defense Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies within the Pentagon gave more optimistic assessments of Afghans’ preparedness, according to current and former officials.
Military and intelligence estimates predicted that the government in Kabul could last at least a year before building a Taliban takeover on a premise that turned out to be flawed: that the Afghan military would fight.
“Most US assessments inside and outside the US government focused on how well the Afghan security forces would fare in a battle with the Taliban. In reality, they never actually fought” during the Taliban blitz across the country, said Seth G. Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Two decades ago, this dynamic was reversed. When US-backed Afghan militias began taking Taliban territory in late 2001, Taliban fighters fell back relatively quickly, with both Kabul and Kandahar falling before the end of that year.
Some Taliban surrendered, some switched sides, and much larger numbers simply melted into the population to begin planning what would become a 20-year insurgency.
Intelligence officials have long noted that Afghans are making cold calculations about who is likely to have the upper hand in a conflict and support the winning side, a tactic that sees gains accumulate on the battlefield quickly until a tipping point turns the fight into defeat, according to current and former analysts.
At the heart of the US loss in Afghanistan was the inability to build a security force that could stand on its own, but that flaw was compounded by Washington’s failure to listen to those asking questions about the Afghan military.
Part of the problem, according to former officials, is that the military’s firm stance has often stood in the way of frank, accurate assessments of how Afghan security forces were doing. While no one was blind to desertions or battlefield losses, the American commanders tasked with training the Afghan military were reluctant to admit their efforts failed.
Even those in the military who were skeptical of the skills of the Afghan security forces believed they would continue fighting for a while after the Americans left.
For months, intelligence officials have been making comparisons between the Afghan national security forces and the South Vietnamese military at the end of the Vietnam War. It took two years for South Vietnam’s military, known by its American acronym ARVN, to collapse after the United States withdrew troops and financial support. Optimists believed that the Afghan military — with American funding — could last nearly as long. Pessimists thought it would be much shorter.
“For the past two or three years, I have noted with regret that ANSF is Afghan for ARVN,” said Mr. Bergreen, who worked on intelligence matters on Capitol Hill from 2003 to 2021. “There was a recognition that the Afghan armed forces are not up to the protracted battle. But I don’t think anyone expected them to melt away so quickly.”
Recent diplomatic maneuvers by the Taliban with other countries in the region, especially China, gave an inevitable atmosphere to a Taliban takeover that further demoralized Afghan government forces, Mr Jones said.
In the end, analysts said, the Taliban won with the strategy that has so often proved successful during the many decades of war in Afghanistan – they outlived their adversary.
“I’m not surprised it was so quick and drastic,” said Lisa Maddox, a former CIA analyst. “The Taliban have certainly shown that they can persevere, withdraw and come back even after they have been beaten back. And you have a population that is so tired and tired of conflict that they are going to turn around and support the winning side so they can survive.”