The rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s US-backed government and the resurgence of the Taliban has dealt a severe blow to the Biden administration. The president had been attempting to contrast himself with his predecessor by presenting an image of radical competence on both foreign and domestic policy. That strategy is now in serious jeopardy.
Taking a page from the Trump administration, Biden has so far remained defiant in the face of almost universal criticism, rejecting any suggestion that he is responsible for the rapid reversion to the status quo of 20 Augusts ago. But some current and former national security officials and experts say the Biden team has more in common with those who preceded them than they would like to admit.
In particular, they describe a dysfunctional situation at the National Security Council (NSC), in which top aides did not fully grasp the seriousness of the intelligence being delivered to them by those on the ground because they lacked the operational experience to recognise the situation for what it was. Others say the failure of the US project in Afghanistan stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the motivations of America’s erstwhile Afghan allies.
“There were some reports that were just passed right over, and others that got a couple of glimpses of highlights, critical information and stuff like that [at top levels],” said one military intelligence officer who requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly. “It just didn’t seem to hit them.” The officer, a veteran of multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, said they felt reports that Afghan defence forces were not even close to the standards set for them by US and Nato trainers would “get pushed off to the side” by senior NSC officials who did not want to “create a panic”.
Brett Bruen, a former US diplomat and ex-director for global engagement in the Obama-era NSC, called the US withdrawal a “Trump-style process which we expected [the NSC] guys to avoid”.
People in Biden’s orbit who were contacted for this story pushed back on the characterisation of “panic” within the NSC. One senior administration official pointed to remarks made by the president last month questioning whether Afghan forces would be able to make use of the capabilities granted to them with US-made equipment and training.
A source familiar with the Biden administration’s efforts also revealed a previously unreported call between NSC adviser Jake Sullivan and his Afghan counterpart. In that phone call, the source said, Sullivan “pressed them hard to adopt a realistic military plan to consolidate their forces as the Taliban were advancing, regrouping and shoring up defence of key population centres so they could resupply, organise, and take the fight back to the Taliban”.
The source also said now-former Afghan president Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and officials of his erstwhile government refused to consider the possibility of any political settlement with the Taliban in conversations with US officials over the months preceding last week’s collapse. “They feared the political costs of seeming to concede to Taliban rule anywhere, and let short-term political thinking overcome strategic military thinking,” the source explained. “Their refusal to consolidate and regroup was a major factor in their swift collapse. Because they tried to defend everything, they wound up defending nothing.”
But Bruen said the reason for the Afghan military’s sudden impotence in the face of the Taliban’s offensive was due to the rapid withdrawal of US support. “We were the ones that undermined them successively over the last couple of years. We told them they had to release Taliban prisoners. We told them they had to make concessions, told them that we’re leaving. And then we have the temerity to ask, ‘Why don’t you have the will to fight?’” he said.
Bruen also decried what he described as a “dearth of institutional expertise” at the highest levels of the NSC. “This is what happens when you put a bunch of political appointees into positions where you ought to have those with recent relevant experience advising the president,” he explained. “They’re not in the room. They’re not being heard. And then the president has the gall to turn around and say: ‘Oh, well, it’s the fault of the career officials who didn’t give me good information’?”
A senior NSC official pushed back against Bruen’s characterization of their colleagues’ experience, citing what they described as the “significant experience” of their leadership in “defense policy and intelligence work” as well as their “subject-matter expertise from across the government,” including civil servants detailed to the NSC from the State and Defence departments and from across the Intelligence Community.
But one career national security official said the Biden administration’s rhetoric about respecting the expertise of career civil servants – another way the Biden team has tried contrasting itself with the Trump administration – has been hollow when it comes to national security experts who served the prior administration just as they do the current one. “Many of us… feel the Biden political appointees see us as toxic because we were part of what Trump did. But we were part of what Obama did, too. They have treated us the same way as the Trump people treated us, as if we’re moles who can’t be trusted,” they said. “The difference is that the Biden people have been more polite about it.”
For Bruen, the problem is more complex than simply respecting the judgement of career experts. He said the Biden team has repeated a mistake made by many recent administrations, in which they draw personnel from partisan think tanks which become administrations-in-waiting when a given party is out of power. These think-tank veterans, he said, have been used to fill positions that would be better filled by those with on-the-ground experience.
“They’ve packed the National Security Council, they’ve packed the State Department, even the intelligence community with people all cut from the same cloth. All from the same think tanks, from the same Obama administration background, [who] unfortunately do not consider other scenarios,” he said. “They drink too much of the same Kool-Aid, and then they wonder why things go wrong.”
Another former national security expert – a retired general officer who served at the highest levels of the US military establishment across multiple administrations – said the failure of Afghanistan’s government can be traced back to 2001, when the Bush administration launched the invasion “without a plan on what to do”. The gains made then and over the last 20 years, he said, are the result of the fundamental nature of Afghanistan.
“They didn’t have a clear intent, other than to punish the Taliban. They didn’t have a plan to get Osama bin Laden. They simply went in and put some special forces on the ground, and suddenly the government fell apart or the Taliban fell apart,” he explained, “because it’s Afghanistan, and people know that when you’re starting to lose, you better switch sides in a hurry or you’re going to die. They’ve been through it in 1978-79, 1994, and 2001, and a lot of these are the same people.”
“Afghanistan is not a country. It’s never been a country. It’s always been about tribalism. It’s about what’s good for the tribe. So, you know, you can have an Afghan national anthem, but that’s not what motivates people,” he said.
The current national security official who described attempts to avoid “panic” at the NSC largely agreed with that assessment and said one reason for the Afghan government’s collapse was a failure to include local warlords and other leaders in the country’s on-and-off-again conflicts in the government structure.
And Bruen, the former Obama NSC director, said that failure – as well as the intelligence failure that followed – stemmed directly from a lack of real-world experience at the NSC: “You need a diversity of views in the situation room, you need to have people that don’t just read the reports from think tanks and go to the same cocktail parties in Georgetown, but who spend their careers on the ground.”