History will testify that there has never been a greater intelligence failure for the US than the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Contrarian voices might bring up Pearl Harbor or 9/11 but it’s since been discovered that some in the US were at least somewhat aware of those two attacks ahead of time even if no action was preemptively taken to thwart them for whatever reason one wants to speculate. As for the War on Iraq that some might also bring up, that doesn’t count in this context since the intelligence that was supposedly relied upon was fabricated and only shared with the public to shape international perceptions in support of that preplanned campaign. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is altogether different than those three examples since America’s Intelligence Community totally failed to foresee that scenario.
It’s true that some in the CIA and the State Department warned about this over the summer but it was too late for them to change anything after the US’ massive military machine already set its withdrawal into motion. This is utterly unacceptable from a professional standpoint because it’s been known for quite a while already by members of the US’ own permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep state”) that their country was losing the war. Proof of this lies in Wikileaks’ Afghan War Diary covering the 2004-2010 phase of the conflict and the Afghanistan Papers that the Washington Post obtained in 2019 after a Freedom Of Information Act request. Both showed that the “deep state” was lying about the war, keenly aware of corruption, and pessimistic about the conflict’s prospects.
These internal observations didn’t in and of themselves automatically mean that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan even before the US completed its withdrawal but they very strongly suggested that it might do so inevitably with time. This dramatic scenario was missed by the “deep state” because its members believed their own self-interested lies about the war that they spun for the public’s sake. After a while, they were unable to objectively identify the truth between the falsehoods. They knew that the Afghan National Army (ANA) was incorrigibly corrupt and improperly trained, but they hadn’t properly assessed just how demoralized it always was, let alone after US President Joe Biden committed to completing his predecessor’s planned withdrawal, albeit with an extended timeline.
Another major factor that they missed was the Taliban’s genuinely popular and rapidly growing appeal among average Afghans, especially those serving in the ANA. The group successfully rebranded itself as a national liberation movement despite still being designated as terrorists by Russia and the rest of the international community. They were able to convincingly present themselves as the so-called “lesser evil” after the US and its ANA allies killed countless civilians as so-called “collateral damage” during their nearly two decades’ worth of purportedly anti-Taliban operations. The Taliban also took a strong stand against corruption, incorporated more minorities into its ranks (including its leadership ones), and was thus able to ideologically infiltrate much of the ANA.
This aforementioned outcome resulted in the US unknowingly training Taliban sympathizers on how to operate the $85 billion worth of cutting-edge military equipment that it left behind for them to fight against that group. That’s why so many of them surrendered en masse once the Taliban reached the gates of their cities, especially after some of the most stalwart holdouts among them become completely demoralized after their foreign patron cut off its air support for them. The Ghani Government was therefore almost more or less ephemeral and never truly existed in practice anywhere outside of Kabul and perhaps a few corners of a couple of other major cities. Speaking of the former president, he defied his patrons by refusing to resign in order to facilitate the transitional government that America expected to create ahead of its withdrawal to retain some influence.
The US thought that Ghani was their puppet, and while he veritably was for the most part, his ego was much too big to allow him to resign like that, especially after he talked so tough about holding out until the very end. He eventually fled though once he realized that he couldn’t trust his own men, many of whom secretly sympathized with the Taliban and didn’t want to risk their lives holding onto Kabul for his sake. Ghani’s hubris therefore blinded him to this reality, just like the US’ own hegemonic hubris blinded it to his principled refusal to resign despite being their puppet. As was earlier written, everyone believed their own lies out of professional or personal convenience and therefore didn’t have the will to objectively assess the situation. The end result is that the Taliban took over not only Afghanistan, but also captured all of its US-supplied military equipment.
In hindsight, it’ll likely be concluded that this was the result of several converging factors. First, the “deep state” couldn’t admit that it wasn’t winning the war by any conventional metrics, nor that such metrics were irrelevant to the conflict that they were fighting. This led to the second factor of them lying to the public and even their own colleagues about everything, which thirdly created the alternative reality whereby they believed their own lies and became too divorced from objective reality. Reliable human intelligence could have helped counteract these trends but was evidently lacking. In fact, the Taliban probably had countless double agents working for them and feeding the US more information to bolster their wishful thinking in order to influence them into continuing with their counterproductive courses of action.
The group was able to pull this off because the US lacked any other meaningful ways to obtain intelligence about it. The Taliban didn’t rely on modern-day information-communications technology like most other intelligence targets across the world do. Their messages therefore couldn’t be intercepted and analyzed by the NSA, which resulted in the US’ disproportionate intelligence dependence on human sources, most of whom were likely Taliban sympathizers (whether all along or eventually), if not secret members of the group. This whole time, the Taliban spun the US around its fingers, sending it on wild goose chases and deliberately deceiving it about the true extent of their grassroots appeal throughout Afghan society, which ultimately made its historically unprecedented and almost bloodless two-week liberation campaign such a smooth success.
The key takeaway is that the US’ technological superiority was irrelevant during its War on Afghanistan and its human sources were too unreliable. The “deep state” eventually believed its own lies, which thus perpetuated a self-sustaining cycle thereof which contributed to the formulation of even more counterproductive policies, and few had the will to objectively assess everything that was right in front of their eyes this entire time. Ideology can therefore be said to have been the most important determinant in this conflict: the Taliban’s ideology attracted enough Afghans to its ranks that it achieved intelligence superiority with time while the US’ liberal-democratic ideology convinced it that there was no way that its nation-building mission could ever truly fail. Had America properly dealt with these two factors, then the outcome of the war might have been different.