The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Afghan government could fall within six months of U.S. military withdrawal, new intelligence assessment says

Afghan militiamen join Afghan defense and security forces during a gathering in Kabul on June 23. Afghanistan's Defense Ministry is working with warlords to mobilize local militias across the country to try to stem the tide of the latest Taliban gains.
Afghan militiamen join Afghan defense and security forces during a gathering in Kabul on June 23. Afghanistan's Defense Ministry is working with warlords to mobilize local militias across the country to try to stem the tide of the latest Taliban gains. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

A new U.S. intelligence assessment says that the Afghan government could fall within six months of the American military departing, according to U.S. officials familiar with the information.

The assessment, distributed among U.S. officials within the past week, highlights an increasingly stark picture as the U.S. military sends home troops and equipment: The Taliban continues to take control of districts across the country, and Afghan military units are either laying down their arms or are being routed in bloody clashes.

One U.S. official said numerous criteria are trending in the wrong direction, prompting the intelligence community to conclude that the fall of the government in Kabul could come more quickly than previously forecast. The official and two other people familiar with the assessment, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the new consensus is that the government could fall within six to 12 months.

Militias in Afghanistan’s north are taking up the fight against the Taliban

The Pentagon’s top spokesman, John Kirby, said Thursday that the withdrawal continues “on pace” with the expectation that it will be complete by September, following President Biden’s order in April to withdraw. A few hundred troops are expected to be stationed in Kabul to protect the U.S. Embassy.

Meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the Oval Office June 25, President Biden said the United States will continue to support Afghanistan. (Video: The Washington Post)

Kirby declined to comment on the intelligence assessment, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, but he acknowledged that security in some parts of Afghanistan “is certainly deteriorating, and that’s of concern.”

The United States will continue to provide financial support to the Afghan government, but Biden concluded that it is no longer in the interest of the United States interests to keep its military in Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

“It remains to be seen exactly how this is going to play out,” Kirby said. “It’s their responsibility to protect their citizens and their sovereignty, and that’s what our ongoing, enduring support for them is going to be geared to helping them do.”

Kirby’s comments came ahead of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Washington on Friday. Ghani will meet with Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other senior American officials.

Kirby said Austin will emphasize to Ghani the U.S. commitment to the people of Afghanistan and the Defense Department’s goal of “ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups who pose a threat to the U.S. homeland.”

While a deal that the Taliban signed with the Trump administration called for the militants to break with al-Qaeda, they have not done so, according to U.S. and United Nations assessments.

As the withdrawal has continued, the Taliban has launched a broad offensive in several parts of the country, threatening provincial capitals like Kunduz in the north and Lashkar Gah in the south. The Taliban in recent days has said on social media that Afghan soldiers — some of whom had not been paid in months — have been sent home by the militants with cash, and the government troops left behind weapons and vehicles paid for by the U.S. government.

In the midst of the violence, U.S. officials briefly discussed delaying the expected American departure from Bagram air base, the largest airfield in the country, within the next week or so, three defense officials said. Administration officials ultimately decided to continue, with the U.S. military expected to consolidate entirely within Kabul in the final phases of the withdrawal.

On Wednesday, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that “it is not necessary for the United States to stay at Bagram for what we’re going to try to do here with Afghanistan.”

Eighty-one of about 419 district centers in Afghanistan have fallen under Taliban control, Milley said, with others contested by the militants. Sixty percent of the districts under Taliban control fell to them last year, and the other 40 percent in the past few months, the general added.

Milley said there are a variety of possible outcomes, including the worst-case scenario of a civil war and the fracturing of the Afghan government and security forces.

“That’s very possible, and that would be a bad outcome,” he said.

Milley also left open the possibility of a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and Afghan government, but described it as “not high on the probability list,” and said it is “unlikely but possible” that the Taliban could take over.

“We are executing the orders that we’re given in a very professional way,” Milley said. “And thus far, things are relatively stable on our end.”