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Afghanistan fell while Biden vacationed, exposing intelligence failures and policy missteps

Analysts and officials continue their months-long struggle to understand what went so wrong so fast to enable the Taliban's rush to complete power in Afghanistan. 

Updated: August 15, 2021 - 11:19pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

As overnight reports depicted harrowing scenes from a besieged Kabul, analysts and officials continue their months-long struggle to unpack what went so wrong so fast to enable the Taliban's rush to complete power in Afghanistan. 

Prominent among those attempting to deconstruct the unfolding humanitarian and military disaster was Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who reportedly blamed the Afghan National Army on Sunday.

"You can’t buy willpower, and you can’t buy leadership," Austin said during a virtual meeting with U.S. national leaders, according to Fox News. Others who joined Austin on two calls included Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley; and members of the House and Senate, the outlet reported. 

Austin told the House he was "beyond disappointed" that Afghan forces offered scant resistance to Taliban forces around the country, according to the report.

Whatever the cause, it was clear this weekend that U.S. intelligence grossly miscalculated the speed at which the Taliban would rout the country or how easily Afghan soldiers would sell out to Taliban offering money. President Joe Biden left for vacation on Thursday with no inkling Kabul was about to fall within 72 hours. 

And the Pentagon and State Department were scrambling into the wee hours of Monday morning to gain control of the Kabul airport so it could accelerate evacuations that were slated for later in August.

It wasn't supposed to end this way. U.S. intelligence said it was possible Afghanistan would collapse within six months after the U.S. troop withdrawal, but falling before the U.S. could even evacuate was not on most radars, a fact Blinken acknowledged Sunday.

“We’ve seen that that force has been unable to defend the country, and that has happened more quickly than we anticipated,” the secretary of state conceded.

The United States went to war in Afghanistan 20 years ago in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the American homeland. Over the course of two decades, the U.S. has sent its armed forces, and spent nearly $1 trillion dollars on the longest war in U.S. history - only to see the nation collapse to the Taliban while American-led detachments had not yet fully withdrawn. 

But as Austin and Blinken sought to blame the loss on the Afghan military and leadership, others have cited a range of other faults that include intelligence failures, financial abuses, corruption - and the previous administration.

"When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor," President Joe Biden said in an Aug. 14 statement. The deal, he said, left the Taliban in "the strongest position militarily since 2001,"  and imposed a May 1 exit deadline that Biden said he only briefly extended. 

In the process, though, Biden did not hold the Taliban to account for reneging on its end of the deal, U.S. military sources told Just the News. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that Team Biden failed to execute a plan left behind by the Trump administration to put maximum pressure on the Taliban as the withdrawal occurred.

"Our administration had a model of deterrence in place as we prepared to bring the soldiers, sailors, marines, everybody who is on the ground there, home," he tweeted. "It looks like the Biden Administration has not been able to execute this."

Additionally, Biden's aspersions did not factor in a range of circumstances that experts have cited.

Among those are the fundamental differences between the American and Afghan militaries, according to analyst and former infantry officer Jason Dempsey. 

"Afghan commanders weighed the sentiments of local political leaders above those of the American military in pursuing operations in the Waygal in 2013," Dempsey wrote in an essay reviewing two new books on Afghanistan. Further, he notes, the U.S. military command structure did not necessarily work in Afghanistan.

More significant failures were based on faulty intelligence, according to one political analyst.

"Not only did the Central Intelligence Agency and other US intelligence agencies wildly underestimate the speed of the Taliban advance, but they also appear to have been blind to the extent of political dealings the Taliban had made as the withdrawal loomed and the military prepositioning the Taliban achieved to begin a near-simultaneous assault on provincial capitals," wrote Michael Rubin in an essay for the American Enterprise Institute. "They appear to have missed the fact that Taliban shadow governors were already in place, alongside their staff, to take over provincial functions."

Analysis may best be saved for later, once the immediate crisis is over, according to politicians.

"There will be much analysis of our Afghanistan experience, but right now, I am gravely concerned for the safety of our Afghan partners who served side-by-side with our troops, our diplomats, our development professionals, and our partner forces to carry out our mission," House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement.

Those views were echoed by a Congressional colleague.

"There will be plenty of time to Monday morning quarterback, but right now, we need the airport in Kabul open to all traffic, including civilian charters," Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said in a statement. "The US military must ensure the safety of that critical location. Without that protection, Afghans who upheld our values but didn’t work directly for us will die. US security at the airport is critical and we need a declarative, public statement to that effect, given the chaos."

Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey on Sunday called on Biden and other Democrats to resign due to the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. Former President Donald Trump joined in the chorus by Sunday evening.

"It is time for Joe Biden to resign in disgrace for what he has allowed to happen to Afghanistan, along with the tremendous surge in COVID, the Border catastrophe, the destruction of energy independence, and our crippled economy," the former president said.