Biden administration officials may try to blame the U.S. intelligence community for the Afghanistan debacle. The New York Times on Aug. 18 cited an unidentified senior administration official, who claimed that as the situation grew more volatile in July, U.S. intelligence agencies never offered a clear “high confidence” prediction of an imminent Taliban takeover. But the role of intelligence in critical national security decisions is to reduce uncertainty, not to provide perfect clarity.
Intelligence is difficult to collect and sometimes hard to analyze, especially when considering factors like how a foreign fighting force will react to battlefield pressure. Intelligence isn’t perfect—if it were, it would be called information. It is best used to warn against surprises and to understand developments well enough to avoid adverse consequences. Based on the information made public so far, intelligence failure doesn’t appear to be a critical factor in President Biden’s policy decisions leading to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The U.S. intelligence agencies filed public testimony before Congress in April, five days before Mr. Biden’s withdrawal speech, saying that the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces was possible. “Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield” and remains “tied down in defensive missions,” according to that assessment. The testimony even said that “the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.” This should have warned the Biden administration not to make rash policy decisions.
Mr. Biden was hell-bent on withdrawal. Intelligence gives policy makers an advantage, but it isn’t the fault of the intelligence community if policy makers ignore their reports. Many media reports indicate that Mr. Biden rejected options to keep troops in Afghanistan longer because he believed policy makers were being gamed by generals who supported a greater military presence. He dismissed questions about whether the Afghan government would fall. On July 2 he said, “Look, we were in that war for 20 years. Twenty years. . . . I want to talk about happy things, man.” His public remarks since the Kabul collapse revealed his firmly rooted desire to withdraw on his timeline without regrets.
Though it is true the intelligence community at first assessed in April the Afghan National Security Forces could hold off the Taliban for 18 months to two years, cascading failures in the execution of the withdrawal shrunk that timeline. The policy review that led to the April announcement was conducted with the secrecy of the Osama bin Laden raid, and the Biden administration didn’t sufficiently consult Congress, the Afghan government or U.S. allies. The April announcement that withdrawal would begin little more than two weeks later was unexpected. Imagine the demoralizing effect the news had on Afghan soldiers. The announcement gave the Taliban momentum and likely caused an increase in desertions among Afghan soldiers. The original withdrawal deadline of Sept. 11 suggested that the White House was motivated by public relations, not concern for the Afghan troops left behind.