Opinion: The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was neither unexpected nor sudden


THE COMPLETE TAKEOVER OF Afghanistan by the Taliban was “sudden” and “unexpected” only for those who have not been paying attention to the implosion of the country in recent months. There were certainly outliers, among them an assortment of Foreign Policy columnists, who, as late as July 28, were urging readers to stop “assuming the Taliban will win”. But ever since October of 2020, when United States President Donald Trump announced that American troops would leave the country (a policy that the Biden Administration eagerly adopted), the vast majority of reports about the future of Afghanistan have been unanimous: following an American military withdrawal, the Taliban would take over the entire country with little delay, and almost certainly without facing significant resistance.

This was certainly the view on the ground in Afghanistan, where desperate families have been leaving the country for many months now. The recent shocking images of Afghan men clinging on to American transport aircraft, were not the beginning of a desperate exodus from the country. Rather, these were the last groups of people who, for a variety of reasons, did not abandon the capital earlier. The impending reality of the Taliban takeover has been recognized especially by women in urban centers. They have been preparing for months for the change in the nation’s leadership, by burning their Western attire and throwing away their make-up kits.

Meanwhile, countries like Russia and the United Kingdom have been actively preparing to deal with the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. It was nearly five weeks ago when Ben Wallace, Minister of Defense of Britain, arguably the United States’ closest international partner, announced that London was prepared to “work with the Taliban, should they come to power”. Soon afterwards, Russia’s longtime Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called the Taliban “rational actors” and warned the Afghan government that it risked losing control of the entire country by not entering into a negotiated settlement with the militants.

For months now, practically every leading newspaper of every country in Asia has been carrying extensive analyses of what the region will look like when —not if— the Taliban returns to the government. India has been preparing to become “a frontline state against terror” once the “Taliban 2.0” are in command. Observers from the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia have been discussing what should be done “after Afghanistan falls”. And literally every other country in the immediate region has been beefing up its border forces in anticipation of the fall of Kabul and other major urban centers throughout Afghanistan. Even the United Nations has been in on the game, warning as early as July 22 that, “with the Taliban making rapid gains across Afghanistan, there is widespread concern the group will seize control of the country”.

It is also clear from open-source reporting that United States intelligence did not divert significantly from the majority opinion expressed by knowledgeable observers. On July 23, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said that the Taliban were “likely in the strongest military position that they’ve been in since 2001”, and acknowledged the possibility that “the Afghan government could fall as the Taliban advances”. Burns was expressing what was clearly the majority opinion among analysts across the US intelligence community, which, by July 16, were consistently painting “a bleak picture of the Taliban’s quickening advance across Afghanistan and the potential threat it poses to the capital of Kabul, warning the militant group could soon have a stranglehold on much of the country in the wake of the US withdrawal of troops”. On July 22, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed Burns’ warning, alerting lawmakers to the “possibility of a complete Taliban takeover” of Afghanistan, following the withdrawal of American troops. By that time, even former intelligence officials like retired General David Petraeus, who do not have access to classified intelligence products, were warning that, without the presence of American troops, “Afghan forces would […] desert their posts, flee the Taliban or surrender” en masse.

So why did the current political leadership of the United States not take into account these consistent warnings by the very people that it pays to provide it with actionable intelligence when making high-stakes decisions? One can think of a multitude of reasons. These differ little from the reasons why George Bush Jr. was determined to “bring democracy” to Iraq in 2003, even when he was advised by his own intelligence officials that such a move would unleash a civil war between the country’s Sunni and Shi’a populations. Or the reasons why Barack Obama decided to declare an “end to the war” in Iraq in 2013, despite concrete concerns among intelligence experts that such a move would aid the Sunni insurgency and allow it to metastasize into the Islamic State. Or even the reasons why Donald Trump decided to “bring the troops home” from Afghanistan in 2020, despite being told in no uncertain terms that doing so would surrender the country back to the Taliban. In all of these cases, the problem did not reside with the accuracy of intelligence. Rather, it resided with the stubborn refusal of America’s political leadership to take intelligence into account when making critical decisions that affect national and international security.

Ultimately, calling the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan’s “sudden” and “unexpected” is an insult to the multitude of observers —Americans and others— who have been chronicling the country’s gradual implosion over the past several years. It also serves those —Republican or Democrat— who are intent on using this international calamity to score cheap political points on the backs of the suffering people of Afghanistan.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2021 | Permalink

3 Responses to Opinion: The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was neither unexpected nor sudden

  1. TRC says:

    I suppose we should ask then, if there would have been a difference in ultimate outcome after 20yrs whether the bandage was slowly, painfully peeled off or quickly yet equally painfully ripped off. It could be argued that the calculus was that the latter prevented unforeseen circumstances from unfolding; for example, a high speed departure would prevent the Taliban from conducting offensives against slowly retreating US assets. Perhaps the ‘surprise’ of the end result is spin, as the optics of attacks by the Taliban against a US retreat was worse than the Saigon references. The current Administration may indeed have heeded the assessments by the intelligence community and made a tough decision because if Afghanistan was going to fall anyway, better it be done with as much control over the fallout as possible. This would make sense but it would also mean the intelligence community was thrown under the bus for political purposes which leads us right back to your point. Good article.

  2. Nicholas Dujmovic says:

    As Richard Betts has argued (Enemies of Intelligence), most so-called intelligence failures are really policy failures.

  3. Indeed hardly unexpected. If only the U.S. policy makers had paid attention during their history classes, they could have avoided this waste of time and lives. You can never change the mind of people, and certainly not force the Afghan tribal society with its own traditions and values into modernisation. President Kahn failed, the PDPA and later the massive agriculture, technical and education Soviet support (often forgotten) failed, and still, the Western world keeps trying. At some point, you have to accept that the only way to change a country is by their own people.. if they want it themselves. Already In 2001, the U.S. could have copy-pasted the Soviet 1989 withdrawal scenario. The Soviet and U.S. efforts are both excellent examples of mission creep (which only benefits the defense industries). My conclusion in 2012: “It seems as if nothing can prevent the recurrence of the events after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces in 1989”. Alas correct, as expected: https://rijmenants.blogspot.com/2012/10/virus-the-road-to-afghanistan.html

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