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Don’t Ignore the CIA’s Intelligence Failure on Afghanistan

Afghanistan CIA
U.S. Army Soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment "Wolfhounds," 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, fires an M240L machine gun at the support-by-fire position during a combined arms live-fire exercise at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, August 3, 2018. The exercise is part of an overall training progression in order to maintain combat readiness in preparation for a Joint Readiness Training Center rotation later this year. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Ryan DeBooy)

The Taliban’s rapid conquest of Afghanistan following President Joe Biden’s order to withdraw US forces is a strategic disaster and, no matter how hard Biden seeks to cast blame elsewhere, will shape his legacy.

For the United States, however, it represents not only a military failure but also an intelligence one. Not only did the Central Intelligence Agency and other US intelligence agencies wildly underestimate the speed of the Taliban advance, but they also appear to have been blind to the extent of political dealings the Taliban had made as the withdrawal loomed and the military prepositioning the Taliban achieved to begin a near-simultaneous assault on provincial capitals. They appear to have missed the fact that Taliban shadow governors were already in place, alongside their staff, to take over provincial functions.

The question of what went wrong with US intelligence is not simply Monday morning quarterbacking. Both the Trump administration and then Biden’s team prefaced America’s withdrawal on the notion that US intelligence capabilities would enable the United States to maintain an over-the-horizon strike capability against both insurgents and terrorists. The CIA’s failure, however, shows that as US forces withdrew, they were essentially blind and that the White House built America’s post-withdrawal strategy on a rotten foundation.

Perhaps the CIA misunderstood Afghan history and culture. After all, momentum matters in Afghanistan. Defections and political deals rather than military prowess guided the Taliban’s march through the country between 1994 and 1998. Perhaps the intelligence community’s sources within the Taliban were sincere two months ago but, as they assessed which way the wind was blowing, they decided to switch sides and feed nonsense to their handlers. Or, perhaps, the chief-of-station in Pakistan became so charmed by his hosts and the snake oil that Pakistan sells that he did not realize Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was purposely leading him astray.

Wishful thinking may also be at play. There is a long history within the US intelligence community of twisting intelligence in support of diplomatic initiatives. Indeed, the desire for diplomatic solutions rather than a desire for war explains the vast majority of intelligence failures.

The Pakistan-backed, multi-pronged Taliban assault is not the only offensive to catch the Central Intelligence Agency off-guard. Just short of a year ago, Azerbaijan—a country that, like Pakistan, hosts a significant US intelligence community presence—blindsided the United States when it launched a surprise attack on Nagorno-Karabakh. The CIA never explained that intelligence failure, perhaps saved by Congressional distraction with their own elections and the fact that few American journalists witnessed the human tragedy the Azerbaijani assault caused.

To misread intentions and capabilities so completely raises questions about whether the intelligence community has improved its products and capabilities since its 9/11 failures, or whether it has instead become just another jobs program focused more on playing Washington politics than conducting its core mission well.

The decision to withdraw American forces may not have been Director of Central Intelligence William Burns’ but the intelligence failures surrounding it are. As Americans grapple with a national security, diplomatic, and defense disaster that will have generational implications, it is essential that Burns testify to explain why his multi-billion dollar agency managed to read Taliban capabilities and actions so wrong.

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. He also regularly teaches classes at sea about Middle East conflicts, culture, terrorism, and the Horn of Africa to deployed US Navy and Marine units.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. dging

    August 15, 2021 at 8:47 pm

    The whole top brass of the U.S. military and U.S. intelligence needs to be court martialed. They spent 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars training the Afghan military. Where did that money go? It certainly didn’t go to training the army. So, where did it go? It was corruption on a massive, colossal scale. If the top brass didn’t know about the corruption, then they should be court martialed for gross incompetence. If they did know about the corruption and did nothing about it, they were complicit in the corruption and should be court martialed.

    They then lied to the president and told him the Afghan govt and the Afghan military could stand up to the Taliban. I knew that wasn’t true and you knew that wasn’t true. But the top brass told that to Biden anyway. If they knew it wasn’t true, and I’m almost certain they did know it wasn’t true, they should be court martialed for lying about a major political, military and national security issue. If they thought what they said was true they should be court martialed for gross incompetence.

    The should be court martialed, but they won’t be. They’ll continue with their careers. Retire with honors and get a six figure or seven figure gig in the private sector when they retire. It’s disgusting.

  2. Bill

    August 15, 2021 at 9:39 pm

    Have you read the CIA’s assessment of the situation or are you assuming that it has failed to give advance notice of what has happened in the last few days? It is entirely possible–and not ruled out by you–that appropriate warning was given to the President.

    Don’t you owe us a statement on this before issuing your condemnation?

  3. Chris Cha

    August 15, 2021 at 10:30 pm

    I get that intelligence is a nuanced business, but these are massive intelligence failures. Is there any place where we are getting it right? I fear I won’t like the answer.

  4. Wanda Sloan

    August 16, 2021 at 5:17 am

    Spoiler.
    There will be no accountability. No careers will end. Training for close involvement in BS domestic “insurrections” will increase and improve.

  5. Danimal28

    August 16, 2021 at 7:36 am

    Any Executive Service Officer being paid by the taxpayer over the last 15 years should be jailed for life or sent to Kabul over this failure. Sorry, you had our confidence and you are failures and government officials never experience the consequences of their failures.

  6. SoFineSoFla

    August 16, 2021 at 8:35 am

    The lasting damage caused by Bidens rush to the exits will resound with our allies around the world and there will be little appetite for supporting any US efforts from this point forward. What is telling is the presidential response (or complete lack thereof) to this crisis and it is quite obvious that our country is rudderless.

  7. Packard

    August 16, 2021 at 9:55 am

    Please do not forget to include the inextricably intertwined roles played by our FBI, DIA, and foreign services. All of which had human assets on the ground in Afghanistan for these past twenty years.

    That said, getting out of Afghanistan was ALWAYS going to be a stone cold, butt ugly exercise of panic, futility, and betrayal. It just was.

    The problem is that I am also guessing that a slew of very high ranking CIA Directors, FBI Directors, 3 & 4 star generals/admirals, multiple Secretaries of State, and an array of elected congressmen sitting on military oversight committees might have said exactly the same thing, only they would have said it fifteen years ago.

    Keeping nasty secrets are oftentimes like that. Especially when you are keeping them from yourself.

  8. Lauren R

    August 16, 2021 at 11:23 am

    @Chris Cha, the intelligence community is having incredible success at creating the illusion of collusion, corruption, and incompetence of Republican Presidents in order to elect Democrats. They’ve just changed their mission from protecting the United States and our interests abroad to protecting Democrat Party interests. Staff at all levels of every agency are overwhelmingly Democrats and their biases are reflected in their work. This will only get worse unless widespread house cleaning is done and actual diversity (political diversity) is fostered in the agencies.

  9. Rick

    August 16, 2021 at 12:27 pm

    I don’t pretend to have a snitch inside the top levels of the intelligence agencies, committing felonies to tell me what intelligence did and didn’t tell/warn Biden about. Ditto for Trump. Perhaps young Michael Rubin, as a former staff advisor to Bush’s Secretary of Defense before we invaded Iraq does have those leakers whispering in his ear.

    He might actually be right. On the other hand, we have been repeatedly told as rote that 9/11 was an intelligence failure, just as insistently as we’re told the Russia Dossier proved Trump was a Russian stooge conspiring with Russia.

    In the case of 9/11, a few years ago a series was done of interviews with former heads of the CIA and other agencies concerning the years prior to 9/11. Those men, appointed by both Republicans and Democrats, related in painful detail the insistent and finally desperate warnings they conveyed to the White House and JCOS.

    They no doubt did some butt covering in doing that – who wouldn’t? But at the end, only the most sophomoric would continue to claim the intelligence agencies were blind sided by 9/11, and the White House and JCOS didn’t have a clue of what was coming.

    I believe the CIA and other agencies are often politically corrupt (see: John Brennan) and often work to nefarious, illegitimate ends. But I suspect the pronouncement that “Intelligence never gave a single word of warning to Biden and JSOC” is more about making a buck off writing a column and passing the buck, attacking an agency that most of us have very good reason to mistrust and have an animus for.

  10. Scott Shannon

    August 16, 2021 at 6:35 pm

    The CIA was too busy securing it’s opium supply to provide accurate intelligence.

  11. wayne

    August 16, 2021 at 10:13 pm

    how would YOU know it was a failure? Do they confide in you on these things. Your jumping rivers way to wide for you talent.

  12. Jimmy

    August 17, 2021 at 7:43 am

    All the agencies within the Obama/Soros/ China regime are incompetent. Instead of doing their jobs, they are too political, they spend more time investigating/ setting up , True American patriots then protecting the country. The fbi, cia, nsa, justice department, all of them are no longer trusted and are considered corrupted and the enemy of real Patriots. Americans now know there is no justice or freedom in this country, run by the regime that overthrew the legitimate government and President that was elected fairly in a landslide victory. Obama has his fantasy 3rd term. He was never honestly elected the first or second time, cheating is Obama’s preference

  13. Jimmy

    August 17, 2021 at 7:59 am

    Of course not, they are incompetent traitors, the American people do not trust or have faith in any of the so called justice agencies. They are all comparable to the kgb.Just like the former USSR, the victims, meaning us citizens will never hear the truth about any major screw up or event that would embarrass the regime. But they were considered an embarrassment the minute they chose to commit treason with the fake/ stolen elections and none of them did anything to investigate. The U.S is forever gone, some idiotic citizens decided they want free stuff and they like socialism without knowing exactly how evil it is. Hope you enjoy the loss of every freedom, morons

  14. Jimmy

    August 17, 2021 at 8:08 am

    He doesn’t owe me a statement, I agree with him. You must be associated with a agency, the way you are defending them.

  15. sam

    August 20, 2021 at 10:46 pm

    Why you say that it was intelligence failure? The real job of our secret police is to spy on citizens. I am sure that they are spying on us right now. They seem to be very professional doing that.

  16. abhay

    August 25, 2021 at 5:11 am

    pakis have been leading yankis along rose path for decades………….

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