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Biden rejected US intel predictions of rapid Afghan collapse; called Taliban takeover ‘highly unlikely:’ report

President Joe Biden speaks to Department of Defense personnel at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
August 18, 2021

President Joe Biden rejected the possibility of a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan earlier this year despite U.S. intelligence officials warning him that Afghanistan could collapse rapidly, according to current and former officials who spoke with the New York Times.

By July, many intelligence reports were sharing a dismal view on Afghanistan’s future and intelligence officials questioned whether U.S.-backed Afghan security forces could resist Taliban advances and whether the government could maintain control of the capital city of Kabul, officials said. One intelligence report said if cities in Afghanistan began to fall, it would set off a rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces were at high risk of falling apart.

While intelligence officials shared their analyses, Biden said a scenario where the Taliban took over the whole country was unlikely. In a July 8, White House press briefing, Biden said Afghanistan has never been a historically unified country and “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

When asked on July 8 if there were parallels between the South Vietnam government before the fall of Saigon and the Afghan government facing pressure from the Taliban, Biden said there are “none whatsoever, zero.”

“What you had is — you had entire brigades breaking through the gates of our embassy — six, if I’m not mistaken,” Biden said. “The Taliban is not the south — the North Vietnamese army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.  It is not at all comparable.” 

Over the weekend, the Taliban gathered on the outskirts of Kabul, and military helicopters carried out evacuation flights from the U.S. embassy in the city, as the Taliban began to enter Kabul.

As the Taliban began to capture dozens of Afghan districts in July, one report described the growing risks surrounding Kabul and said the Afghan government was unprepared for a Taliban assault, one person familiar with the intelligence told the New York Times.

While some intelligence reports shared the warning signs for the Afghan government, a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified intelligence reports, said intelligence agencies never offered a clear prediction that a Taliban takeover was imminent. The official said their assessments were also not given a “high confidence” judgment, the agencies’ highest level of certainty.

One official said that as late as a week before Kabul fell to the Taliban, the overall intelligence analysis was that a Taliban takeover was not yet inevitable. Officials did, however, tell Biden around the time of his July 8 remarks, where he called on Afghan leaders “to come together,” he and aides were privately pressing those Afghan leaders to make concessions that the intelligence reports had indicated would help avoid a government collapse.

Even in the days before Kabul fell, intelligence assessments predicted the Afghan government still had weeks of time ahead. On Wednesday of last week, Reuters reported a U.S. intelligence analysis projected Kabul wouldn’t fall to the Taliban for another 90 days. A day later, the New York Times reported intelligence expectations that Kabul would hold out against the Taliban for 30 days. By Sunday, when the Taliban arrived on Kabul’s outskirts, those predictions collapsed.

“The business of intelligence is not to say you know on Aug. 15 the Afghan government’s going to fall,” Timothy S. Bergreen, a former staff director for the House Intelligence Committee, told the New York Times. “But what everybody knew is that without the stiffening of the international forces and specifically our forces, the Afghans were incapable of defending or governing themselves.”

Bergreen said, “There was an acknowledgment that the Afghan forces were not up to the long-term fight. But I don’t think anyone expected them to melt away quite that fast.”

Lisa Maddox, a former CIA analyst said she was ultimately “not that surprised” that the Taliban takeover “was as fast and sweeping as it was.”

“The Taliban certainly has shown their ability to persevere, hunker down and come back even after they have been beaten back,” Maddox said. “And you have a population that is so tired and weary of conflict that they are going to flip and support the winning side so they can survive.”