NEW YORK: US intelligence agencies had warned of the prospect of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and a rapid collapse of the Afghan military, raising questions as to why the Joe Biden administration seemed "ill-prepared to deal with the Taliban's final push into Kabul", according to a leading American daily.
The New York Times said that according to classified assessments by American spy agencies over the summer, there was the grim prospect of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The assessment warned of the "rapid collapse of the Afghan military, even as President Biden and his advisers said publicly that was unlikely to happen as quickly."
"By July, many intelligence reports grew more pessimistic, questioning whether any Afghan security forces would muster serious resistance and whether the government could hold on in Kabul, the capital."
"The drumbeat of warnings over the summer raise questions about why Biden administration officials, and military planners in Afghanistan, seemed ill-prepared to deal with the Taliban's final push into Kabul, including a failure to ensure security at the main airport and rushing thousands more troops back to the country to protect the United States' final exit," the report said.
A CIA report in July noted that security forces and central government had lost control of the roads leading to Kabul and "assessed that the viability of the central government was in serious jeopardy," the NYT report said, adding that other reports by the State Department's intelligence and research division also noted the failure of Afghan forces to fight the Taliban and "suggested the deteriorating security conditions could lead to the collapse of the government.
"The business of intelligence is not to say you know on August 15 the Afghan government's going to fall," a former staff director for the House Intelligence Committee Timothy Bergreen said.
"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.
Further, the NYT said Afghanistan received little attention in the annual threat assessment released in April by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; "but the brief discussion was dire, noting the Taliban was confident it could achieve a military victory.
"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.
Even as President Biden said on July 8 that the Afghan government was unlikely to fall and there would be no chaotic evacuations of Americans, the NYT said according to one report in July, when Afghan districts were falling into the hands of the Taliban, "laid out the growing risks to Kabul, noting that the Afghan government was unprepared for a Taliban assault."
"Intelligence agencies predicted that should the Taliban seize cities, a cascading collapse could happen rapidly and the Afghan security forces were at high risk of falling apart.
"It is unclear whether other reports during this period presented a more optimistic picture about the ability of the Afghan military and the government in Kabul to withstand the Taliban," it said.
The report noted that before July, consensus among intelligence agencies was that the "Afghan government could hang on for as long as two years, which would have left ample time for an orderly exit.
On April 27, when the State Department ordered the departure of non-essential personnel from the embassy in Kabul, the overall intelligence assessment was still that a Taliban takeover was at least 18 months away, according to administration officials."
However, the report, citing a senior administration official, said that even by July, as the "situation grew more volatile, intelligence agencies never offered a clear prediction of an imminent Taliban takeover."
The official said their assessments were not given a "high confidence" judgment, the agencies' highest level of certainty, the report said.
It added that in recent months, assessments about the situation in Afghanistan became ever more pessimistic as the Taliban made larger gains.
"The reports this summer questioned in stark terms the will of Afghan security forces to fight and the ability of the Kabul government to hold power.
"With each report of mass desertions, a former official said, the Afghan government looked less stable," the report added.
The U.S. military is coordinating with the Taliban while accelerating the airlift of Americans and Afghan allies from the Kabul airport, and also bringing in additional U.S. troops in a scramble to complete the evacuation in two weeks, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
Overnight at the airport, nine Air Force C-17 transport planes arrived with equipment and about 1,000 troops, and seven C-17s took off with 700-800 civilian evacuees, including 165 Americans, Army Maj. Gen.William Taylor told a Pentagon news conference.
The total included Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas and third-country nationals, he said.
The goal, Taylor said, is to ramp up to one evacuation flight per hour by Wednesday, Taylor said.
On Monday the airlift had been temporarily suspended when Afghans desperate to escape the country breeched security and rushed onto the tarmac.
Seven people died in several incidents.
The chief Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, said U.S. commanders at the airport are in direct communication with Taliban commanders outside the airport to avoid security incidents.
He would not provide details but indicated this communication was in line with an arrangement made on Sunday by the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen.Frank McKenzie, when he met with Taliban leaders in Qatar and won agreement to "deconflict" forces and allow a safe U.S. evacuation.
Kirby said there have been no hostile actions by the Taliban, and that several hundred members of the now-defeated Afghan army are at the airport assisting in the evacuation.
He said U.S. forces plan to wrap up their oversight of the evacuation by Aug.31, also the date President Joe Biden has set for officially ending the U.S.combat role in Afghanistan.
On Monday, a defiant Biden rejected blame for chaotic scenes of Afghans clinging to U.S. military planes in Kabul in a desperate bid to flee their home country after the Taliban's easy victory over an Afghan military that America and NATO allies had spent two decades trying to build.
Biden called the anguish of trapped Afghan civilians "gut-wrenching" and conceded the Taliban had achieved a much faster takeover of the country than his administration had expected.
The U.S. rushed in troops to protect its own evacuating diplomats and others at the Kabul airport.
But the president expressed no second thoughts about his decision to stick by the U.S. commitment, formulated during the Trump administration, to end America's longest war, no matter what.
"I stand squarely behind my decision" to finally withdraw U.S. combat forces, Biden said, while acknowledging the Afghan collapse played out far more quickly than the most pessimistic public forecasts of his administration.
"This did unfold more quickly than we anticipated," he said.
Despite declaring "the buck stops with me," Biden placed almost all blame on Afghans for the shockingly rapid Taliban conquest.
His grim comments were his first in person to the world since the biggest foreign policy crisis of his still-young presidency.
Emboldened by the U.S. withdrawal, Taliban fighters swept across the country last week and captured the capital, Kabul, on Sunday, sending U.S.-backed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country.
Biden said he had warned Ghani, who was appointed Afghanistan's president in a U.S.-negotiated agreement, to be prepared to fight a civil war with the Taliban after U.S. forces left.
"They failed to do any of that," he said.
Internationally, the spectacle of the Taliban takeover and the chaos of the evacuation effort was raising doubts about America's commitments to its allies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was "bitter" to watch the complete collapse in a war that Germany and other NATO partners had followed the U.S.into after the Sept.11 attacks, which were plotted from Afghanistan.
The humiliating scenes seemed certain to give comfort to American foes.
At home, it all sparked sharp criticism, even from members of Biden's own political party, who implored the White House to do more to rescue fleeing Afghans, especially those who had aided the two-decade American military effort.
"We didn't need to be seeing the scenes that we're seeing at Kabul airport with our Afghan friends climbing aboard C-17s," said Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and Iraq and Afghanistan military veteran.
He said that is why he and others called for the evacuations to start months ago.
"It could have been done deliberately and methodically," Crow said.
"And we think that that was a missed opportunity."
Besides the life-and-death situation in Kabul, the timing of the crisis was unfortunate for Biden's domestic efforts at home.
It could well weaken his political standing as he works to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and build congressional support for a USD 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and an even larger expansion of the social safety net.
Still, the focus at home and abroad was on Kabul's airport, where thousands of Afghans trapped by the sudden Taliban takeover rushed the tarmac and clung to U.S. military planes deployed to fly out staffers of the U.S.
Embassy, which shut down Sunday, and others.
At least seven people died in the chaos, including two who clung to the wheels of a C-17 and plunged to the tarmac as it flew away, and two others shot by U.S. forces.
Americans said the men were armed but there was no evidence that they were Taliban.
Pentagon spokesman Kirby said Tuesday during television interviews that plans were being made to house up to 22,000 evacuated Afghans and their families at three U.S. military installations in the continental United States.
He did not name the locations.
Kirby added that the U.S. was in charge of air traffic at the Kabul airport, where military and some commercial flights had resumed after they were suspended for a period of time on Monday amid a stampede onto runways by frightened Afghans.
The U.S. hopes to fly out up to 5,000 people a day once the full deployment of 6,000 U.S. troops arrive to secure the evacuation, and once more transport planes can land, he said.