How did US intelligence get Afghanistan so wrong?

19 August 2021

7:51 AM

19 August 2021

7:51 AM

It may well go down as the understatement of the year. In a quite extraordinary address to the nation after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the US President made this admission:

‘The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.’

More quickly? Than we had anticipated? As recently as 10 August, US intelligence said that it would take the Taliban up to 90 days to take Kabul. Within two days, the US said it was evacuating its embassy and on 15 August, Kabul fell. That is a pretty big misjudgement – and one for which Joe Biden has taken a considerable amount of flak for. As he rightly said, ‘the buck stops with me’.

But most national leaders, and most American presidents – with the possible exception of Donald Trump – do not make policy by themselves, on the hoof. They have advisers, they consult experts. Most of all, though, they rely on their intelligence services. And Biden, like all his recent predecessors, receives a daily classified report. However strong his belief in the importance of ending his country’s failed mission in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that he would have scorned intelligence information about the pace of the Taliban’s advance.

Unlike Trump, he is a veteran of the US political process, he respects its norms, and he comes across as cautious. If he was told by his intelligence agencies that the Taliban were advancing at such and such a rate, he was likely to believe them. Yet perhaps he should have taken a more questioning approach. Perhaps the scepticism shown by Trump towards the labyrinthine US intelligence services in particular was more justified than has commonly been supposed.

For whatever failures can be laid at the door of the US – and UK – governments in relation to the 20 year intervention, the failure of intelligence as the US completed its withdrawal surely has to be among the greatest. First, the information – at least in so far as it has been made public – was that if the Taliban were to reach Kabul at all, it would not be until well after the 9/11 deadline for the US departure. Then, suddenly, it was 90 days. And then, even more suddenly, it was 72 hours. Then came reports that Taliban fighters were at the gates of the city, and then they were filming themselves in the presidential palace that had been vacated by its occupant barely 24 hours before.

Now, it can be said in mitigation that the Taliban are a secretive and indisciplined bunch and their future moves may be less predictable than those of a more conventional fighting force. But that really isn’t good enough. What does a country have intelligence services for, if not to know the enemy, figure out its capabilities and forecast how it is likely to act?

By all these gauges, intelligence on Afghanistan appears to have been catastrophically deficient, even though the US had a military and civilian presence on the ground in the country for the best part of 20 years. And, given the special intelligence relationship between the US and the UK this failure reflects badly on the UK as well – both on the quality of intelligence the UK itself may have gathered in Afghanistan, and on the extent of our dependence on the US for intelligence-gathering.

If this were the only intelligence failing of recent years, then maybe a little indulgence could be shown. Collecting intelligence in Afghanistan cannot be easy; the landscape, the regional and tribal divisions, and the still simmeriing armed conflict are all complicating factors. But the whole purpose of intelligence is to penetrate the dark recesses of a country; otherwise everyone in government could sit back, study news reports and other open sources of information, and save taxpayers quite a lot of money.

And it is not the first recent failure at all. The war in Iraq rested on two assumptions backed by intelligence, both of which proved disastrously wrong. The first was that US and other foreign troops would be greeted as liberators by a grateful population; that, in the immortal words of an adviser to George Bush (Kenneth Adelman), it would be ‘a cakewalk’. The other was that Saddam Hussein was in defiance of UN resolutions because he had retained a stock of chemical weapons, although it subsequently turned out that, actually, those stocks had been destroyed. These two misapprehensions led the US, the UK and others into a costly war that did much to destabilise the whole region and only fuelled the jihadism that the US was seeking to uproot.

Then there was Libya, where the idea of the intervention – or so it appears – was to mount a limited operation to protect the threatened population of Benghazi, although it ended up with the violent removal of Gaddafi and a protracted civil war that has, again, destabilised the wider region. What did the intelligence assessments say about the feasibility of a limited military operation, the political lie of the land in Libya at the time, and the stability of the regime? It has to be hoped that the leading lights of this operation – David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy – were privy to intelligence that supported their presumptions, although Barack Obama himself was less keen and found himself accused of ‘leading from behind’.

All these failings may help to explain at least some of Donald Trump’s criticisms of the US intelligence services when he was in the White House. But it is hard to imagine him watching the debacle in Kabul, were he still President, and not demanding the heads of the CIA, the DIA and the NSA, to name but three of the services, as well as a mass clear-out further down the ranks. Afghanistan is, after all, as much of a US intelligence failure as it is a failure of military preparations.

Another conclusion can perhaps be drawn here, too. If US (and UK) intelligence has proved so deficient here, why should anyone be confident that it is so much more reliable elsewhere? Might our intelligence on the capabilities, plans and mentality of Russia or China be, at best, flawed, and at worst dangerously deceptive?

You can argue that intelligence-gathering for these countries may be on a sounder footing, based on more home-grown expertise and sounder methods. Then again, maybe not. Maybe the quality and usefulness of intelligence as currently gathered is ripe for review. The miscalculation in Afghanistan should sound a wider alarm.

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