Afghanistan: Looming Tragedy – Will President Biden Blame Bad Intelligence? | Charles Duelfer

Afghanistan: Looming Tragedy – Will President Biden Blame Bad Intelligence?

President Biden visited the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Tuesday (27 July).  In his public remarks he praised the Intelligence Community (IC) and promised to never politicize their workSounds promising and clear-cut.  But reality is never that pure.

Not being Trump, one might assume the President asked the IC for assessments on the future of Afghanistan before he decided to pull out quickly.  Did the IC provide analysis that underpinned the President’s calculation that full withdrawal was the way to go? 

Did the IC assess the Taliban would abide by commitments in their negotiations?  How long did the IC or President Biden think the government in Kabul would last?  Did the IC warn that the Taliban would eradicate all associated with the US (and our coalition partners)? 

The Taliban will decimate those Afghanis associated with the US  (interpreters among others). Thousands of Afghani citizens must flee or die.  Fear is more contagious that the Delta Covid variant.  How many will risk their lives (and their families) on the strength of the Afghan army?  How soon will the Afghan Army melt away, leaving abandoned uniforms in trash heaps?  The fall of Saigon is an obvious lesson.  (My mother as a retired teacher in the 70’s spent her time tutoring a Vietnamese family in English. One family of tens of thousands.) 

Will the President blame his policy decisions on lousy intelligence?   Or will his people create some other narrative that the collapse of the government was inevitable?  This could get ugly in many ways.

Possibly the intelligence assessments were bad. But you would think after two decades of total access to the country that there might be some folks in the US government who might have some foreboding insight into the fragility of Kabul absent even symbolic US military presence.  And someone must have warned that the Taliban would be brutal to those left behind. This is not a hard target like Iraq. Before we invaded, sources inside Iraq were scarcer than chicken’s teeth.

As the Afghan drama unfolds it will test the character of all involved.  After all, Biden’s foreign policy leaders are experienced veterans and colleagues from the Obama Administration.  And Biden is the most experienced foreign policy president as any since George H. W. Bush.  He was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before most Foreign Service Officers were born.  He co-sponsored a bill to provide additional humanitarian assistance for South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975.

Of course that experience may give him reason to be skeptical of IC pronouncements—which can be way wrong (sometimes for good reasons).

But what were the intelligence assessments that Biden either relied upon or dismissed?  This question will not go away. The press and even Democrat-controlled congressional committees will ask some pointed questions.  The looming disaster of Afghanistan will be a test of how non-political the Administration will treat the IC.  (I suspect an investigation is inevitable and, sadly, will become politically driven.)

CIA director Bill Burns has wisely stayed out of the limelight.  Last week, in a rare interview with National Public Radio he was pressed about Afghanistan.   National Public Radio’s Mary Louise Kelly asked if reports that the IC estimated the Afghan government could fall in as little as 6 months were true.  Burns danced around this inevitable question.  You can see his response tests the balance between candor and avoidance of damage to political leaders.  Remaining completely apolitical is not easy.  

Burns said, “Well, the trend lines that all of us see today are certainly troubling. The Taliban are making significant military advances; they’re probably in the strongest military position that they’ve been in since 2001.” 

Kelly pressed, “But that date, as soon as six months, is that correct?”

“Well, there are a lot of possibilities out there. I mean, what I would say is that the Afghan government retains significant military capabilities. The big question, it seems to me and to all of my colleagues at CIA and across the intelligence community, is whether or not those capabilities can be exercised with the kind of political willpower and unity of leadership that’s absolutely essential to resist the Taliban. So, as I said, the trend lines are certainly troubling. I don’t think that that should lead us to foregone conclusions or a sense of imminence or inevitability, but they really are worrying as well. So the U.S. government, as the president has made clear — and CIA will play a part in this — will continue to be strongly supportive of the Afghan government in every way that we can. And for CIA, we will be sharply focused beyond the withdrawal of the U.S. military and continuing terrorism challenges.”

Burns did a good job parrying Kelly’s question with a question.  But in private, he and his analysts will have made an assessment.  That’s their job.  They can’t simply respond to a president and shrug, “Gee Boss, that’s a good question. We were wondering the same thing.   Seems like a lot of our supporters might have a problem.”  They have to make a judgment, state their confidence level and what data underlies the judgment.

(There is more to the interview and the juggle of candor and political risks.  See:

Most tragic is the fate of the Afghani citizens and especially those who supported the US.  The consequence of our withdrawal cannot possibly have been a surprise to anyone familiar with the collapse of South Viet Nam.  The absence of preparation for this knowable tragedy will be tough to explain. The Biden Administration is populated with experienced State and Defense hands.

The government process to deal with so-called special immigrant visas is bureaucratic insanity.  Former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, to his great credit, raised this horror we are bequeathing to those we leave behind.   Crocker testified on 23 June before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee and detailed the appalling bureaucratic process that will last much longer than the collapse of Afghanistan. The 14-step labyrinth (involving bureaucrats with no stake in the outcome and plenty of excuses for doing nothing) can take years.  The loyal supporters of the US will be long dead. Crocker knows this from his Iraq experience.  There were the same issues—but the timelines were less critical.

Unless urgently fixed, this will be a black stain on the US reputation for a long time.  Loyal support downrange is essential in any American or NATO operation.  Loyal support needs to be reciprocated.  (See Crocker’s testimony at:

It will be hard for Biden and his administration not to own what comes in Afghanistan. Watch those who may wish to run in 2024. There will be many moon-walking away. Afghanistan may be to President Biden, what Iraq was to George W. Bush.  The difference maybe in degree and direction, one going in and one getting out. 

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