Like most Americans, the debacle surrounding the fall of Afghanistan’s capital city to the Taliban caused me great concern. In fact, we are witnessing failures of leadership decision-making and foreign intelligence analysis worse than any in modern history; certainly, worse than the failures that lead to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
To a degree, this conclusion is based on my personal experiences of having lived in that part of the world in my youth (I graduated from high school in Tehran, for example), having worked at the CIA for eight years in the 1970s, and having served in the Congress before, during, and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Even without this background, however, the many negative short and long-term ramifications of this debacle cannot be overestimated.
Broadly speaking, there is more than enough blame to go around leading to the dismal situation in Afghanistan that President Biden inherited on January 20th, including mistakes by all three of his immediate predecessors (one Democrat and two Republican). But the final series of decisions – or non-decisions – leading directly to this fiasco, were made by this administration, and efforts by Biden to shift blame to others is an act of cowardice.
The lenses through which this administration viewed events in Afghanistan were deep rose-colored. This caused them to overlook the otherwise obvious weaknesses in both the Afghan military and its civilian government. They persisted in the narrative that the fall of Kabul to the Taliban was only a “possibility,” and certainly not an “inevitability.” Even worse, they concluded that this possibility was months away, and therefore we had adequate time to arrange for an orderly exit.
Last weekend’s collapse of both the Afghan civilian leadership and its military was either not foreseen at all by Biden, or even worse its fact was presented to him and ignored.
Regardless of which of these two horrible options prevailed over the past several weeks, during the course of 20 years, 2,300 military lives lost, and two trillion dollars, it appears that the Intelligence Community screwed up so badly as to make the pre-9/11 intelligence failure pale by comparison.
Whether our military leadership tried to save face after failing to mold the Afghan army into some semblance of a fighting force after two decades of tutorial, or whether civilian intelligence is simply that ineffective in the Middle East (even inside a country the U.S. government effectively ran), there is no legitimate way to attribute the gulf between expectations and reality in Afghanistan to a “miscommunication” or “bad intel.”
What appears to have happened is beyond fundamentally incompetent, and borders on intentional and deceptive.
The intelligence shortcomings resulting in our failure to stop the 9/11 terror attacks were devastating, but for the most part played out behind the scenes. Also, the 9/11 attacks were an American tragedy; they did not undercut our reputation with allies, or adversaries. If anything, the attacks engendered a rare bit of empathy from the international community, while providing an opportunity to remind the world the dangers of awakening the “sleeping giant filled with terrible resolve.”
Afghanistan’s fall is far different. The intelligence failures here happened in real-time, on live television, across the world. Worse, rather than being exclusively an American blunder, the international coalition of allies who helped with the U.S. effort means the decades of blood and treasure lost this week are theirs to share as well. There is no question their anger and distrust will reverberate years down the road if the United States seeks future coalitions.
America’s adversaries will be emboldened at our stunning defeat in Afghanistan. Already China is looking to move into the vacuum left in America’s wake, and seizing the opportunity to escalate saber-rattling over Taiwan. Their enhanced foothold in the Middle East will be employed to weaken ours. Had policy makers in Washington – Republican and Democrat – cared to read the long history of China and the so-called “Silk Road,” some in Washington might have seen this coming; but apparently not.
American citizens and the rest of the freedom-loving world, deserve better than what our Intelligence Community has become – a dangerous hive of self-serving bureaucrats.
As with the 9/11 Commission, Congress owes it to us all to find the truth behind the fall of Afghanistan, and the role America’s civilian and military intelligence services played in the government’s decision-making. If answers and learning do not then follow, the damage to our national security will be brutal and long-lasting.