The Intelligence Failure in Afghanistan; Precursor to the Military Failure

The Wall Street Journal published An article entitled “Agencies Missed Fast Fall of Kabul” (29 OCT 2021). William Burns the CIA director,( one of the primary operatives in the poorly conceived Iranian JCPOA, nuclear deal with Iran) tried to put a good face on it saying that, “There’s a very sobering picture picture we painted of some very  troubling trend lines.”  Strikes me as somewhat like saying American intelligence might have missed the attack on Pearl Harbor but they had warned concerning “troubling Japanese trend lines”

Proud architect of defunct deal with Iran on Nuclear weapons. Now head of CIA

All four intelligence agencies missed the collapse of the Afghanistan  military.  The CIA  reports warned of a Taliban takeover within 2 years after the American departure. The DIA gave the Afghan government 12 months,  The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and  the state Department’s intelligence Bureau similarly miscalculated the longevity of the Afghan government.

“Directionally they were all correct that things were going to deteriorate, ” said a senior administration official.  Well that’s comforting!

Army Colonel Thomas Spahr, in charge of the intelligence assets drawdown stated,” As you pull back troops you are not able to have intelligence collection forward.”  When you dissect that  statement a couple of thoughts came to mind. Do you mean that when the troops left province X, there were no covert collection assets remaining?  That the  prior intelligence before was mostly gathered by troop patrols, local gossip, and what the interpreter-translators told them?” That the intelligence assets of the Afghan Government were useless or nonexistent? If so who in the US Government  was in charge of assisting develop Afghan security and Intelligence? What were the issues?  Who actually, if anyone , was following the morale, and fighting spirit of the Afghans as our units departed. There are so many questions ……and no answers with any credibility.

see for a fairly good review of the  Afghanistan  failure but not enough on the military advisory mission which in my opinion was poorly thought out,  and with no disrespect  intended to the advisers who their  best in an impossible environment, was a total flop.

I spent a few years in the intelligence field  in the military and a couple of years as a CIA contractor. I know one famous quip was that if you wanted anybody to read  your article or report you had to classify it…and the higher the better. So I wonder who was reading the reports of the advisors at the lowest Afghan military  level?  They are generally not classified. Those done by advisors at a higher level are generally useless, being politicize  by the prevailing politically correct narrative at the  time. But having been in the advisory business also for a few years, there is a danger there as well. In fact several problems.

Advisor in Vietnam


The first one  and one I experienced was that , “field advisors( in Vietnam)  felt they were held accountable for their counterparts mistakes.. In their eyes , their superiors viewed South Vietnamese shortcomings as failures of the advisor to do hisJob properly.” “The burden of establishing a mutually agreeable working relationship was on the advisor in scavenging for supplies and equipment,  in minimizing everyday problems, and emphasizing even insignificant  improvements and success.” Jeffery Clarke: Advice and Support; The Final Years.  This problem was, of course, magnified by the American love of useless metrics good for briefings to VIPs. Thus even advisor reports were ( and are)apt to be skewed by the advisors need to provide happy news for the good of his own career.

In Egypt advisor in background as always

Secondly the American advisors did not for most part eat, sleep, and fight with his Afghan counterparts as opposed to the Vietnam advisor at battalion level who did so.  In the last five years of the Afghan  conflict they were not even at that level. At the higher levels of the advisory mission  there was too much emphasis put on harmony and collegial relations and  not enough on what was actually happening on  the battlefield.  Therefore information on how things were going in the Afghan fighting units was simply not coming from our people on the ground. Assessing the will to fight is not easy for a foreigner  to gauge and certainly not at a division or corps level. The assessment of the people down on the ground with the Afghans was the most important  aspect of determining the Afghan army will to fight.   They were not forthcoming. Our intelligence was based on guesses  (again) despite their determining the “trend lines.”


training Egyptians on HAWK air defense systems


In the vast overpopulated empires of our intelligence community was there not someone to raise a question and interject “what if the Afghan army collapses?.” One the required book on intelligence,  ( Knowing Ones Enemies, Editor Ernest May)  Intelligence professional  Ricg hard Betts argued that intelligence agencies should always anticipate surprises. In fact weeks prior to the Kabul debacle,  provincial capitols were being taken by the Taliban with minimal resistance, falling like dominoes …was this not a solid clue to the cumbersome Defense Department and  our excessively bemedaled generals  that they should  get out of domestic politics,  and start  concentrating on getting our people out?

Dean Acheson our very able Secretary of State,  ( 1949-1953) wrote, “I have long noticed that military recommendations are usually premised  upon meticulous statement of assumptions that often as not are quite contrary to the facts.” Dean Acheson,  Present at the Creation.

Did these people read anything from the Vietnam war?  Just one quote from a South Vietnamese General on the collapse of the RVN  army would have been salutatory.

“From an of  army of 170,000 equipped with obsolete weapons, the Republic of Vietnam armed forces emerged as a strong modernly equipped force with over a million men under arms, second to none in the non-communist Asian countries. It is equally true unfortunately, that in the process this impressive force became overly dependent on U.S. money and equipment for its own sustenance and on U.S. air power for moral support. There is no doubt that the South Vietnamese soldier could fight , and he did fight well! But in the years he had learned  to take things easy, taking it for granted that needed supplies would never cease to flow and if  he were in any kind of trouble  “Big Brother”  would always be there to bail him out. Such was the psychological conditioning that helped the armed forces of South Vietnam maintain morale and comforted the population.”


The author  goes on to ask how could the RVN, already stretched to the breaking point replace the 7 Divisions, 4 brigades  and innumerable support units the Americans  were pulling out of Vietnam? The belated “Vietnamization” program was introduced with a massive introduction of America   equipment, much of which the RVN army had no time to integrate into their army or learn to use. The Communists got it all.

As he wrote, “no amount off training, equipment, or political exhortation could fill the void or ease the feeling of insecurity that set in.” General Can Van Vien;( RVN) The Final Collapse.☀︎

General Can Van Vien accepting congrats from General Westmoreland


Any similarity to Afghanistan?  Of course many blamed  the defeat on RVN lack of will to fight, just as  today many  politicians looking for excuses for their incompetence, blame the Afghans. We set them up for defeat.

Unfortunately, unlike in President Lincoln’s time, incompetence generals and officials are never fired. They just retire and rotate to  big money storefront corporate  positions.

Lincoln to General McClellan after he failed to cross the Potomac to pursue General LEE. MacClellan claimed his horses were tired. “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anyone.” Again about McClellan. “He is an admirable engineer but he seems to have a special talent for a stationary engine.” He said repeatedly that the “army must be officered by fighting men. Tough hard fighting would win not by strategy.” The Union generals before Grant spent most of their time devising grand strategy which Lincoln saw as simply a way  to delay battle. T. Harry Williams. Lincoln and His Generals

☀︎I have found that the books and pamphlets  written by the Vietnamese, both north and south, are very informative in analyzing why we lost. How other see us is far more instructive than how we see ourselves. Hopefully we will see books written by Afghan officers  in the near future.







About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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