The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Afghanistan falls, the blame game begins

A former Afghan army outpost near the Pakistan border. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)
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As quickly as Kabul fell, the finger-pointing commenced.

“While President Joe Biden cowers at Camp David, the Taliban are humiliating America,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) wrote in National Review on Monday, amid scenes of desperate Afghans clinging to U.S. military aircraft as they barreled down the runway of the country’s main airport, part of a massive evacuation of American personnel.

“This administration was specifically told Afghan forces would surrender faster than our ability to exit,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted in response to comments from White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who had told ABC News that “when push came to shove, [Afghan soldiers] decided not to step up and fight for their country.”

Rubio’s rejoinder: “What a bunch of crap.”

The recriminations were bipartisan.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a former Marine Corps officer who served four tours in Iraq, wrote Sunday of Afghanistan’s breakneck implosion: “To say that today is anything short of a disaster would be dishonest. Worse, it was avoidable.”

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said the Taliban’s rapid takeover stemmed from “an intelligence failure,” echoing concerns across the political spectrum that the Biden administration appeared to have been taken by surprise by how quickly and easily the militants overran a national security force that the United States spent decades and hundreds of billions of dollars training and equipping.

On Monday afternoon, in a national address from the White House, President Biden seemed to agree.

“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden said. But he defended his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country, repeating his conclusion that no future investment of time, force or money could save Afghanistan if its leaders didn’t hold fast. And in the end, Biden said, they didn’t.

“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” the president said. “The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”

Biden defends decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after Taliban’s rapid return to power

While politicians took aim at various scapegoats — the military, the intelligence community, the White House, the Afghans — current and former officials, experts and veterans of America’s longest war said the past week’s events should have come as no surprise.

“There is plenty of blame here,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who led a review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan for President Barack Obama in 2009. “The most egregious is the complete failure of strategic planning and diplomacy.”

Biden “stuck by a poorly constructed deal” negotiated last year by President Donald Trump and signed off on by Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, even keeping their lead negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, whom Riedel derided as “inept.”

“The hasty and precipitous withdrawal was begun in the start of the fighting season instead of the winter. The evacuation was poorly planned. It cries out for accountability,” Riedel said.

For years, U.S. intelligence analysts warned that Afghanistan rested on a knife’s edge and that the withdrawal of American forces would probably precipitate the fall of the central government.

“We have noted the troubling trend lines in Afghanistan for some time, with the Taliban at its strongest, militarily, since 2001,” a senior intelligence official said Sunday afternoon, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly assess the deteriorating situation.

In remarks that echoed Biden’s Monday address, the official added: “Strategically, a rapid Taliban takeover was always a possibility. The question all along was whether the Afghan government and military would be cohesive enough and have the willpower needed to exercise its military capabilities to resist the Taliban.”

After Taliban triumph, Biden faces even greater test in preventing extremist resurgence in Afghanistan

U.S. intelligence agencies and military leaders had effectively put the public on notice beginning in the spring, after Biden announced that American troops were leaving.

In April, CIA Director William J. Burns told Congress that a pullout posed a “significant risk” to U.S. national security interests and that it would be harder to monitor the potential reemergence of terrorist groups without boots on the ground.

“The U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” Burns said.

That month, military and intelligence agencies raced to refine plans for countering extremist groups following Biden’s planned troop withdrawal.

Biden and senior policymakers didn’t alter their plans, despite worsening forecasts.

In June, a U.S. intelligence assessment said the Afghan government could fall within six months of the American military departing.

The Taliban continued to take control of districts across the country, and Afghan military units either laid down their arms or were routed in bloody clashes.

The intelligence agencies didn’t fail to warn policymakers. The number of reports spiked amid the Taliban’s military successes in recent weeks, prompting a fresh and even bleaker assessment, officials familiar with the matter said: Kabul could fall sooner than expected, possibly in as few as 30 days.

“That’s a blinking red light,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a veteran CIA officer who served several times in Afghanistan.

For years, he said, the CIA always offered the most “pessimistic” views of the ability of Afghanistan’s provincial officials and security forces to stand on their own. When the intelligence picture turned dark in recent months, Polymeropoulos said, he was hardly surprised. What was stunning, he said, was that an experienced team of foreign policy heavyweights in the Biden administration did not make better plans to evacuate Afghans who had assisted the United States and to put in place a more durable counterterrorism strategy for when American forces pulled out.

Biden officials have countered that notion, saying many Afghans didn’t want to leave — hopeful that government forces would eventually repel the Taliban.

Afghans who helped the West left in limbo as evacuation turns chaotic

Michael Morell, the CIA’s No. 2 during the Obama administration, said that for years the agency had warned policymakers of a dim future.

Morell recalled one meeting with two experienced intelligence officers, before a briefing for Obama. When he asked how quickly the central government would fall if U.S. forces withdrew, their answer was succinct: “Really fast.”

Morell attributed this week’s long-feared demise to a failure not of intelligence but of a policy — across multiple administrations of both political parties — that did not more forcefully counter the terrorist threat metastasizing in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks and then pivoted to a misguided mission of nation-building after U.S. forces successfully degraded al-Qaeda there.

For years, military officers also harbored private doubts that Afghan forces could ever stand on their own, despite rosier public predictions, according to documents obtained for the forthcoming Washington Post book “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.”

The Taliban’s quick and successful campaign was also aided by deals brokered in rural villages between the militant group and some of the Afghan government’s lowest-ranking officials, The Post reported this week. Afghan officials often described those agreements as cease-fires, but Taliban leaders were offering money in exchange for security forces handing over their weapons, according to an Afghan officer and a U.S. official.

The Afghan government’s final days may prove to be a chronicle of a death foretold, in private briefings and classified intelligence assessments rarely shared with the American people. But they should come as no surprise to the current administration and the leaders who came before.

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