Washington can’t stop playing the blame game over the US’s disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal

Us embassy Kabul evacuation
A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.
  • Washington can't stop pointing fingers as it scrambles to figure out who's responsible for the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan.
  • Biden blamed Trump and Afghan forces, intelligence officials say it's a policy failure, and policymakers blame an intelligence failure.
  • "The fast collapse was not a surprise to the intel community. It is the policymakers who were surprised," a former NSA general counsel said.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

In April, nearly 70% of Americans supported withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan following a 20-year conflict. This week, that number plummeted to 49% as the American public watched with horror as the Taliban marched into Kabul and desperate Afghans tried to flee the country.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the finger-pointing began over who was most responsible for the house of cards collapse of the US-backed government, a catastrophe some have described as President Joe Biden's "Saigon moment."

Biden and his advisors blamed former President Donald Trump for making a deal with the Taliban to pull troops, and accused the Afghan government and military of not having the "will" to continue a fight that the US started. Trump said Biden was correct to withdraw troops from Afghanistan but blamed him for the chaotic nature of the withdrawal.

Over on the intelligence side, current and former officials painted the botched withdrawal as a policy failure. And on the policy side, lawmakers, diplomats, and some defense officials blamed an intelligence failure.

But to anyone who had closely observed the war since its conception, this week's events were entirely predictable.

The Taliban had been making gains across Afghanistan for some time and in July claimed to have control over 85% of the country. It was also widely known that that the Afghan military was plagued by corruption and a lack of discipline.

The US intelligence community noted these details in its annual threat assessment, which was released less than a week before Biden announced the troop withdrawal in April. "The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support," the report said.

Still, Biden and his advisors said they were caught off guard by the speed with which the Taliban regained control of the country.

Douglas London, the CIA's former counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia, wrote this week that "while it's certainly convenient to depict the shock and miscalculation US officials claim over Afghanistan's tragic, rapid fall to the Taliban as an intelligence failure, the reality is far worse."

"It's a convenient deflection of responsibility for decisions taken owing to political and ideological considerations and provides a scapegoat for a policy decision that's otherwise unable to offer a persuasive defense," he said.

London, who retired in 2019, added, "The decision Trump made, and Biden ratified, to rapidly withdraw US forces came despite warnings projecting the outcome we're now witnessing."

Robert Deitz, who previously served as the general counsel at the NSA and was a top lawyer at the CIA in the late 2000s, also attributed the rapid collapse of the Afghan government to policymakers' unwillingness to heed the intelligence community's warnings.

"There are no policy failures and intel successes. There are only policy successes and intel failures," he told Insider. "Bear in mind that policymakers can say anything they wish about intel, and the intel community effectively cannot respond because of classification issues."

Deitz added that "both the intel and defense communities were aware about the Taliban's growing power over the last number of months. The fast collapse was not a surprise to the intel community. It is the policymakers who were surprised."

One of those policymakers, Republican Rep. Peter Meijer, told The Washington Post that he wants congressional hearings on the Biden administration's withdrawal planning. Meijer, an Army veteran who worked in Afghanistan as a conflict analyst, also questioned the intelligence coming out of the White House.

"I think the underestimation of how long the Afghan government would hold is an intelligence failure on the level of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and downplaying the rise of ISIS," Meijer told the Post.

Some also blamed intelligence from the Department of Defense for overestimating how long the Afghan military forces they spent two decades and $83 billion training and supplying could hold off the Taliban.

A Democratic congressional aide told Politico this week that Pentagon officials briefed lawmakers on the intel last month, and that it was "overstated."

"The Taliban not only was planning this offensive, but was working with tribal/ethnic divisions to be able to secure control quickly for a long time," the aide said.

Other officials said the mayhem was rooted in a larger issue.

"For a lot of us who served over there, the focus is more on just the incredible institutional failures," a former senior defense official told Vanity Fair. "The failure of the US military to build cohesive security forces, that's a 20-year failure. And I think we've got to look at that from a policy perspective and figure out what went wrong over a longer period of time."

While it's clear the Biden administration mishandled aspects of the withdrawal - particularly delays in the evacuation of Afghans who assisted the US during the war - the reality is that the US failure in Afghanistan cannot be blamed on a single president, administration, or agency.

Four administrations - two Democratic and two Republican - presided over a 20-year conflict that was mismanaged from the start. It was also a conflict that they consistently misled the public about by saying that the US was turning a corner in Afghanistan.

"We certainly need to do a retrospective as a nation - the president on down - as to how potentially some of this transition could have been more seamless," the former New York congressman Max Rose, who served in Afghanistan, told Vanity Fair. "But make no bones about it, this overarching outcome of the Taliban in control of Afghanistan was inevitable. This is how the movie was going to end."

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