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What Intelligence was there on Afghanistan?

When the Washington Post reported this week that CIA Director William Burns slipped into Afghanistan on Monday to meet with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, it was described as the highest level face-to-face meeting between the Taliban. and the Biden administration. WaPo cited anonymous sources for the information and the CIA offered no immediate comment on the report. If the report is correct, it does not answer any immediate questions as to why the President would send the Director of the CIA for such a meeting.

What we do know is that the unexpected advances of the Taliban that made headlines over the past week and a half were first blamed on an intelligence failure by many. At first, Cipher Briefing Expert and former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin tweeted that “The drumbeat of ‘intelligence failure’ begins. People should pay attention to the accusation if they haven’t actually seen / read the information… ”

So what information did the United States have that would have led to a different outcome in Kabul and across the country?

  • The New York Times reported last week that “classified assessments of US spy agencies over the summer have painted an increasingly grim picture of the prospect of a US takeover of Afghanistan. Taliban and warned of the rapid collapse of the Afghan army, even as President Biden and his advisers publicly said it was unlikely to happen so quickly. The newspaper quoted current and former US government officials as saying: “In July, many intelligence reports turned pessimistic, questioning whether Afghan security forces would put up serious resistance and whether the government could hold out in Kabul, the capital. .
  • On August 15, the Wall Street Journal reported that administration officials said they knew a “total Taliban surrender was a possibility, and they planned their withdrawal efforts accordingly.” But they also quoted an administration official as saying that “it was not so much an intelligence failure on which the administration based its decision, but rather a change in circumstances brought about by the rapid withdrawal of the United States. “.

But private sector analysts were also watching. Here’s a look at what The Cipher Brief has been posting since January with key findings from Cipher Brief expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey:

Brief: January 25, 2021

“The Afghans themselves are also watching Washington’s news feeds in great detail and will be encouraged by Sullivan’s statement. Lately, too many conversations in Kabul have been about when to go and which way to go. Some richer Afghans already have their money in Dubai and their children in foreign universities. Some even have passports and goods in the US, UK, or Germany. For those less fortunate, the discussions are about which route to take. The border to Uzbekistan is preferred as a visa costs only $ 30 and there are a variety of routes to the west via Turkey or Russia, while routes via Iran or Pakistan are more restrictive or likely. interference.

Brief: March 11, 2021

“Saleh will advise Ghani not to take Taliban or Pakistani promises with confidence. Instead, Ghani can decide to call Washington’s bluff. He may doubt that Washington is really prepared to abandon Afghanistan on 1st May with the risk of a quick victory for the Taliban jeopardizing all hard-won gains in areas such as women’s rights and the fight against terrorism over the past 20 years. The specter of reestablishing Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan would surely be too much for Biden and Blinken.

“Even if there were no helicopters from the roof of the US Embassy, ​​television footage of the Taliban entering Kabul and Afghan refugees fleeing their advance could bring to mind memories of Saigon in 1975. The reimposition of restrictions Taliban on women would cause international stigma. And subsequent reports of the re-establishment of QA training camps in Afghanistan would bring back recent and painful memories. After all the blood and treasures spent in Afghanistan, that would be a disastrous result. “

Letter: April 19, 2021

“The Afghan government may be able to retain power for a few years while the Najibullah administration survived after the Soviet departure. However, there is a danger that there will be a sudden collapse of trust with senior officials and politicians leaving en masse and hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing west across Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics. As the Taliban returned to Kabul, we could witness disturbing scenes of retaliation and, over time, the return of Al Qaeda figures from their hiding places in the tribal border areas of Pakistan. Only then will people reconsider this decision and recognize that Afghan deployments since 2014 have not been that expensive.

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In short: June 1, 2021

“According to my sources, the Taliban are convinced that they can take Kabul” in the days “following the NATO withdrawal and they think the Afghan army is” in shambles and demoralized. ” While the Taliban will not disrupt the departure of US troops (unless attacked), they are unwilling to wait until September to continue their campaign against government forces in Kabul.

“But we shouldn’t be very reassured by Najibullah’s example. Comparisons with Afghanistan today are misleading. Najibullah’s government was able to reach and supply all the major cities by military convoy. The Afghan army has been deployed to protect towns and road communications. In contrast, in 2021, only the road between Kabul and Jalalabad is reasonably safe. Convoys cannot go from Kabul to Kandahar, from Kandahar to Herat or from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif. The Afghan army is spread across the country in piecemeal district centers (often surrounded by Taliban-controlled countryside) and must be resupplied by air. It is not a sustainable model.

“In addition, a number of today’s Afghan military leaders, officials and officers have received offers of relocation to the United States, Germany and elsewhere. As the security situation continues to deteriorate, the gradual net of departures is expected to accelerate. Under such circumstances, the government could implode quite suddenly. “

“For some, it may conjure up images of the fall of Saigon in 1975, the big losers being the Afghans who remain, especially women, who face a future of uncertainty and anxiety. There could also be a migration crisis reminiscent of Syria over the past decade. “

Brief: 28 June 2021

“A key indicator is that Afghan security forces have started to surrender to the Taliban. The procedure is simple and fast. Tribal elders are used to deliver a clear message to Afghan troops who often occupy positions in district centers. The message is often; “Non-believers are leaving Afghanistan. They are defeated. Your leaders are corrupt. You can surrender now, and we’ll protect you; or you can fight, and we’ll kill you. Recently, the Taliban appear to have honored their promise not to punish the Afghan soldiers who surrender. News of this new-found leniency will likely encourage other units to follow suit and lay down their arms. In several provinces, including the north, the Taliban are tightening their grip on cities still held by the government. The Taliban will soon be able to cut food supplies and demand their surrender, possibly offering an equally lenient relief to the people. Now that the Taliban have captured armored vehicles and artillery, their ability to put pressure on cities is enhanced. In Kabul, a sense of panic began to take hold of the capital. There are desperate attempts to sell family homes but there are no buyers even when the homes are on the market at a tenth of their previous value. Some families have left for Tajikistan, aware that several land border crossings with the Central Asian republics have been captured by Taliban forces in recent weeks.

Read also Putin’s game on Afghanistan calculated by Cipher Brief expert Robert Dannenberg

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