The CIA warned of a rapid collapse in Afghanistan. So why did the US take it so badly?

As the Taliban began capturing provinces across Afghanistan in recent weeks, CIA intelligence assessments began to warn in increasingly sharp terms about the potential for a rapid, total collapse of the Afghan military and government, current and former US officials told NBC News.

In the end, the CIA’s description of what a worst-case scenario might look like was “pretty close to what happened,” said a former official who was briefed on the case.

The White House will not confirm whether President Joe Biden has ever received such a serious prognosis from his national security team. The president himself appeared to deny a month ago that intelligence indicated the growing likelihood that the Afghan military would collapse.

But that is precisely the result that has emerged as one of the administration’s main arguments to justify the president standing by his decision to end the US military operation in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country,” Biden told the nation Monday. “The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that it was now the right decision to end US military involvement in Afghanistan.”

On the surface, it is a stark contrast to what the president had said just a month ago. Speaking in the same room on July 8, the president was asked directly about reports that he was being presented with intelligence that predicted a rapid collapse of the Afghan government without a continued US presence. First, Biden challenged the premise.

“That’s not true. They did not reach that conclusion,” he said.

But when he was pressured into what the intelligence service said, Biden bypassed the problem.

“The Afghan government and leadership need to meet,” he said. “They have the capacity. They have the power. They have the equipment. The question is: Will they do it?

Afghans climb on top of a plane while waiting at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday.Deputy Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images

The answer was a resounding no. Now national security agencies in the Biden administration are inundated with accusations and finger-pointing, while officials seek to explain why America’s longest war ended in not only defeat but chaos. A theme that emerged from a series of interviews: There is plenty of guilt to go around.

Top military officials, for example, are furious at Biden’s national security team because they wanted to start evacuating vulnerable Afghans as early as May, but were not allowed to do so, several officials told NBC News. After their advice not to withdraw was ignored, the Pentagon brass sought to leave as soon as possible for the safety of the troops and planned to get all troops out as early as July 4, according to a senior official.

As the July date approached, the White House became concerned and ordered the military to suspend and retain troops until August 31, the official said.

On Wednesday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said the Afghan government was falling faster than anyone had expected.

“Intelligence clearly indicated that several scenarios were possible: one of them was a direct Taliban takeover following a rapid collapse of the Afghan security forces and government,” Milley told Pentagon reporters. “But the time frame for a rapid collapse that was widely estimated and varied from weeks, months and even years after our departure. There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days. . “

A senior intelligence official also said Wednesday that the Afghan government “unraveled even faster than we had expected.”

But the official added: “We have consistently identified the risk of a rapid collapse of the Afghan government. We also became more pessimistic about the government’s survival as the fighting season progressed.”

CIA officials were surprised by the rapid pace of military withdrawal, including the withdrawal from Bagram Air Base in the middle of the night in July, according to a former official. And many officials express outrage at the State Department, which officials say was extremely slow in processing the paperwork needed to deal with Afghan translators and others eligible for resettlement.

“Coordination between authorities, especially among war fighters, diplomats and intelligence officers, is critical at times like this,” the former official said. “Obviously, it was flawed.”

In the State Department, officials are pointing the finger at Congress, which created a cumbersome 14-step process for the special visa program that diplomats by law must implement before they can issue visas. No diplomat wants to be the one who cuts a corner and ends up shutting someone into the United States who could pose a risk, a diplomat said. Congress eventually passed legislation that streamlined and expanded the program, but not until late July.

The State Department also welcomed the proposal that it was too slow to issue visas, with a senior official saying the intelligence community bore some responsibility for not anticipating an immediate collapse.

Even during the grim emergency preparedness that the US embassy in Kabul had prepared for in the event of a rapid Taliban advance, the State Department expected that it would have at least several months to continue operating safely in Kabul before the capital would fall, he said. a senior official. The official said the foreign ministry had expected potential need for security reinforcements, but assumed they would still operate in territory at least nominally controlled by the Afghan government, not the Taliban.

Another State Department official blamed the Trump administration, claiming that the upcoming Biden administration had been left with a significant backlog of special immigrant visas, which could have been processed under the previous administration after former President Donald Trump signed an agreement on to withdraw American troops.

In his speech on Monday, Biden said that black money stops with him and that the Taliban’s takeover happened faster than he had thought possible. But one of his allies in Congress, Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., Noted in a statement that “intelligence officials have for years predicted that in the absence of the U.S. military, the Taliban would continue to advance in Afghanistan. is exactly what has happened. ”

Warner promised “to ask tough but necessary questions about why we were not better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a rapid and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces. We owe it to the American people and to all those who earned and sacrificed so much, these answers. “

The White House says it was prepared for all the incidents, including what has unfolded this week.

“When a civil war ends with an opposing force marching towards the capital, scenes of chaos will arise,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday. “There are going to be a lot of people leaving the country. It’s not something that can be basically avoided. “

He also acknowledged the debate over whether the United States should have withdrawn its embassy and worked to evacuate Afghan allies more quickly.

“We dramatically accelerated the SIV process and relocated a significant number of SIV applicants and families. But the Afghan government and its supporters, including many of the people now seeking to leave, made a passionate statement that we should not carry out mass evacuations so that we do not trigger a loss of confidence in the government, “Sullivan said.” Now our signaling support for the government obviously did not save the government, but this was a well-considered judgment. “

Sullivan, like the president a month ago, seemed to dispute the idea that the president was being presented with intelligence that the Taliban could take control of the capital within a few weeks.

“I’m actually not familiar with the intelligence assessments you describe. But I also do not want to get into specific intelligence products, ”he said. “And one thing I do not want to do from this podium or anywhere else is to talk about what another component of the internal agency did or did not do, because from my perspective we are one team with a mission trying to accomplish. and do it for the best in our interests and values. “

Taliban fighters patrol near Hamid Karzai International Airport, while thousands of Afghans rush to flee Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday.Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Taken together, the White House’s statements now and those it offered a month ago constitute a delicate balancing act that takes steps to avoid publicly expressing what it now offers freely: a lack of confidence in the future of the elected government.

When Biden disputed serious intelligence warnings last month, he went on to say that his own conclusion – specifying that it was not that of the intelligence community – was that “the only way that will ultimately be peace and security in Afghanistan , is that they are working out a modus vivendi with the Taliban and they are deciding how to create peace. “

It did not happen. As the Taliban emerged, the administration pressured Afghan leaders to adopt a realistic military plan to consolidate their forces, regroup and strengthen the defenses of key population centers so that they could supply, organize and take the fight back to the Taliban. Their refusal to do so was a significant factor in their collapse, a source familiar with the matter told NBC News.

“Because they tried to defend everything, they ended up defending nothing,” the source said.

Current and former intelligence officials insist there were no intelligence errors. Rep. Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Tuesday that the intelligence community could not detect the Taliban’s efforts to bribe, persuade and threaten local Afghan government officials in a successful attempt to provoke their surrender.

But US officials welcomed the move, saying they were well aware of the Taliban’s efforts. They also reported that the Afghan military had stopped guarding the roads into Kabul, a worrying sign of how easy it could be for the Taliban to advance.

“It takes something seriously wrong to be angry inside the Pentagon when they told us two weeks ago that Kabul would not fall for months, if at all this year,” said a senior congressional official who was regularly briefed on Afghanistan. The military, he said, “did not predict this complete collapse. So why would Biden be in a hurry if these military leaders told him it would not fall?

Biden said the United States did not evacuate Afghan civilians before because “some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier – still hopeful for their country. And part of that was because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus for to avoid triggering, as they said, ‘a crisis of confidence’. “

But now the crisis for many Afghans is of a different magnitude. Many are miles from the only way out of Kabul airport, trying to decide whether to stick to documents that prove their service to the United States – documents that can give them a flight out but also get them killed.

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