Washington — Multiple U.S. intelligence assessments issued this spring and summer warned that Afghanistan’s security forces appeared increasingly fragile and that its government could struggle to withstand a, according to current and former officials familiar with their content.
Those warnings followed years of consistently pessimistic assessments of the Afghan military’s resilience and its ability or willingness to fend off Taliban fighters. Reports from the CIA were often among the bleakest issued, and some were at odds with more favorable Pentagon assessments of the strength of Afghan security forces, three former intelligence officials said.
Questions about what the Biden administration was told about conditions on the ground as the U.S. continued its military drawdown have arisen quickly and with fervor, especially as footage of rosier pronouncements made in recent weeks by President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has circulated.
On July 8, Mr. Biden said it was “highly unlikely” that the Taliban would be “overrunning everything and owning the whole country.” In congressional testimony in June, Mr. Blinken said, “If there is a significant deterioration in security — that could well happen, we’ve discussed this before — I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.”
“I would not necessarily equate the departure of forces in July, August, or by early September with some kind of immediate deterioration in the situation,” Blinken said.
Biden administration officials have since admitted that the sudden collapse of Afghanistan’s government and the fall of its capital, Kabul, happened faster than anticipated, and have chiefly placed blame on Afghan political leadership.
In a public address on Monday, the president said he stood “squarely behind” his decision to pull out of the country, arguing there was “never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
But the president’s glancing references to the chaos unfolding in Kabul fueled criticism that his administration was badly mishandling a preventable crisis, and lawmakers of both parties have that an intelligence failure may have been to blame. Multiple congressional committees have already pledged to hold public hearings on the matter.
Officials familiar with the intelligence community’s reports described them as increasingly dire, especially as the Taliban steadily notched military successes and seized control of districts earlier in the summer.
“This was policy. This outcome was always likely, and this timeline was always in the range of possibilities, albeit at the far end of that range,” a congressional official familiar with recent U.S. intelligence assessments said.
On Sunday, a senior intelligence official said the intelligence community had “noted the troubling trend lines in Afghanistan for some time,” and that “strategically, a rapid Taliban takeover was always a possibility.”
“We have always been clear-eyed that this was possible, and tactical conditions on the ground can often evolve quickly,” the official said.
Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, echoed those remarks in a White House briefing on Tuesday.
“We were clear-eyed going in when we made this decision that it was possible that the Taliban would end up in control of Afghanistan. We were clear-eyed about that,” he said.
Michael Morell, former CIA acting director and a CBS News senior national security contributor, said intelligence assessments about the timing of the Afghan government’s possible collapse — which earlier this month wereto be between 30 and 90 days — would likely have been pegged to U.S. making public its commitment to withdraw in April.
“When does the count begin? Is it when the last boot leaves? No, it’s not. It’s when the announcement that you’re leaving is made,” he said.
“That’s when the psychology changes for the Taliban — they know at that moment with certainty that they’re going to win, and the Afghan security forces know at that moment with certainty that they’re going to lose,” Morell said.
“The Afghan security forces were much more capable than the Taliban, but the Taliban had all the will and the Afghan security forces just had none,” he added. “It turns out that military capability is not the most important thing in a fight.”