Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen has reported from Afghanistan since 1993. His new book is, “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is being widely characterized as a fiasco. One of the oldest tricks in the Washington, DC, playbook is to dress up a policy debacle as an intelligence failure, and we are hearing plenty of that from senior officials in the Biden administration. On this and other questions, it’s worth hearing the views of Douglas London, who oversaw operations and intelligence in Afghanistan as the CIA’s chief for counterterrorism in south and southwest Asia from 2016 to 2018. London, who served in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Africa during his 34-year career in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, retired in 2019.
London says the Afghan debacle wasn’t strictly an intelligence failure, but a policy failure that started with the withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 and the subsequent closing of every US base in the country except in Kabul. Those base closures, which began in earnest in May and ended at the beginning of July, effectively shut down the US’ ability to collect intelligence on the ground during a rapidly changing situation.
London says the collapse of the Afghan government could have been prevented if a relatively small US military contingent remained in place in Afghanistan. Now, the Taliban are likely to hunt down those suspected of collaborating with the US and its NATO allies, despite the official line from Taliban officials that they are granting “amnesty.” And al Qaeda is likely to grow stronger, especially after the Taliban released a number of jailed terrorists from a prison outside Kabul.
London is publishing a memoir of his time at the CIA next month, “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” My discussion with London has been edited for clarity and length.
BERGEN: Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs and the top military adviser to President Joe Biden, strongly implied at a press conference on Wednesday that there was an intelligence failure that didn’t predict how quickly the Taliban would take over Afghanistan. Milley said: “There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.”
LONDON: Gen. Milley receives pretty much the same intelligence as the President. I think it’s a bit disingenuous for the general to say, “Well, I never was told Afghanistan was going to collapse in 11 days.” I’m sure he was right in a very narrow sense. But this wasn’t 11 days in the making.
President Biden clearly said he was going to keep to the agreement that former President Donald Trump made with the Taliban in February 2020, which established a May 2021 deadline for withdrawal. Biden did change the timeline but he said that there would a total withdrawal by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attack, which the administration later amended to August 31.
The first major US base closings began back in May. The base in Kandahar, which was really the wedge against the Taliban in the south and the southwest, was, at its height, home to more than 26,000 US and international troops. By mid-May, however, the last US troops and whatever remaining intelligence presence had left and the airfield was turned over to the Afghan military.
At the same time the US had any number of smaller intelligence platforms in places that I can’t mention, which are known as “lily pads” – temporary staging areas that we or our partners control that give us the ability to pivot throughout the country – those places closed down as well. By the time the last troops left Bagram Air Base in early July, which was well over 11 days ago, every single base with a US military or an intelligence presence was gone. We were down only to Kabul.
So, it was a lot more than 11 days for the country to dissolve, and I certainly understand where the general is coming from, but unfortunately, it’s a bit of the blame game. It is really convenient to blame the intelligence community, particularly the CIA, because it’s not like the agency is going to run out and show you their classified assessments saying, “But no, here’s what we shared with the general on such and such date.”
BERGEN: In fact, CNN’s Barbara Starr, was reporting on August 12 that there was a window of 30 to 90 days that the intelligence community was positing for the possible fall of Kabul. The difference between 30 days and 11 days is not exactly huge.
When I saw that Ghazni had fallen on August 12, I said on CNN that those intelligence assessments needed to be revised as the fall of Kabul could happen in just days because Ghazni, of course, controls the crucial Kabul to Kandahar highway. To me, it seemed like the game was up.
LONDON: That’s a fair point. I left the service in 2019, but I guarantee you, as events were unfolding, there were daily updates and changes to those assessments. That would be the natural course of events. What intelligence assessments do is they try to avoid crystal-balling. They try to avoid saying, well, “If A happens, in so many days and hours, this will happen.” They give more of a range and a likelihood of how quickly things could collapse, which is why I know even back in my day, we talked about a potential dissolution of the Afghan government and how it could fall in a matter of days if all the circumstances that we faced over the last two weeks occurred.
BERGEN: Of course, even the Taliban themselves probably had no idea that they were going to have this success so quickly.
LONDON: That’s very true. But I think we were particularly vulnerable due to the fact that pretty much from May on, our intelligence collection capability was cut to almost nil in terms of our ability to collect against the broader Taliban presence throughout the country. So we were really flying blind.
BERGEN: If you constantly say publicly, “We’re leaving. We’ve leaving. We’re leaving,” and then you start closing all the bases – the Taliban are not dumb. And the forces opposing the Taliban also then made the calculation; better to live another day.
LONDON: There was no depth of loyalty to President Ashraf Ghani or any government in Kabul, and as the various Afghan warlords saw what was happening, clearly, they weren’t thinking, “Well, we’re going to stand and fight for Ghani until the last man.”
BERGEN: How would you assess Ahmad Shah Massoud’s son, Ahmad Massoud, and Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh? They’re regrouping in the Panjshir valley in the north of Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. As you know, the older Massoud was a legendary commander who fought both the Soviets and the Taliban and was assassinated by al Qaeda two days before 9/11. Will this be another episode in the civil war that has gone on in various forms for more than four decades in Afghanistan? How intense will it be?
LONDON: Ahmad is not his dad. His dad was just an amazing man, and what the older Massoud’s men had in the Panjshir when they were fighting the Taliban before 9/11 was a bigger force than what they have now and a lot more capable. And they had pretty dependable lines of communications across the borders of Afghanistan to neighboring countries such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
None of those things really exist now, But Amrullah Saleh is a smart and capable guy who can mentor the younger Ahmad Massoud.
BERGEN: What about al Qaeda?
LONDON: When Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was asked that question in June, he referred to an assessment that said a US pullout could allow al Qaeda to reconstitute within two years. In light of the Taliban takeover, Austin said that assessment needed to be updated. The earlier assessment was based on several conditions which no longer apply; it presumed an existing government in Kabul would be friendly to us, and that despite an ongoing war between the Taliban and a government in Kabul, there would still be a functioning partner for us on the ground with an ability to project force and collect intelligence.
Now with all bets off – having the Taliban in control – it’s a lot scarier. Clearly, the detainees who were released by the Taliban at Bagram Air Base included a number of al Qaeda personalities, with whom I am very familiar. Many of them were caught in joint military or CIA-supported operations and immediately transferred to Afghan custody upon which they were charged, convicted, and put away. Those folks are force multipliers for the Taliban, and they are likely to regroup what is left of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
BERGEN: Releasing prisoners was very much what al Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS did in Iraq, right?
LONDON: Oh, absolutely, and they had a lot of talent in those prisons. Just from what I’ve seen in the press, some of the Taliban commanders themselves are among the thousands that were released as part of the February 2020 agreement the Trump administration negotiated. I don’t think anybody in the West, at least in the CIA, had any doubt or question those people would not be back into action, as will the al Qaeda folks.
BERGEN: Could this have been done differently?
LONDON: Well, you got to define the “this” for me.
BERGEN: There are people who say, “This was badly executed,” and then there are others, myself included, who think that there was no real reason to get out at all. So everybody can agree that the execution has been terrible, but was there a better policy prescription that could have been followed by either the Trump administration or the Biden administration or both?
LONDON: I believe that the United States could have maintained a relatively small military and intelligence presence. When I say small, I would have preferred something in the 5,000 range as far as military troops. When Trump came into office, there were around 9,000 US armed forces in Afghanistan. So a force between 5,000 and 9,000, would have ideally kept the status quo because it would have instilled confidence. It would have shored up the willingness of the Afghans to fight, and it would have allowed the US military program to continue training Afghans.
Because the Afghans did fight. An estimated 66,000 members of the Afghan military and security forces were killed over two decades. It’s not like they sat on the sidelines, but they didn’t fight effectively, and they certainly weren’t going to stand up when it was just them against the Taliban and nobody backing them and the US military gone. And this idea that they were going to fight and die for Ghani? That just wasn’t going to happen.
So could we have done it differently? Obviously, the answer is yes.
BERGEN: How do you feel about all this?
LONDON: Well, as egotistical as I am as a spy, because you kind of have to be for the business, I try not to make this about myself. My sons both served in conflict zones; one son was a Marine who served in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, twice, and another son remains in uniform. I have a daughter who’s taking care of vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.
But I am thinking about, first and foremost, the threat to our nation, because that’s in the blood from 34 years in the CIA. And when I can get beyond that and I start thinking in my heart and soul, it’s about the folks that we’ve left behind, those who are already dead, surely, and their families, those who are on the run and what it means for those people. It’s hard for folks who I worked with and supported and were in dangerous places.
BERGEN: It seems that there are going to be a lot of Afghans who helped the United States who are just going to be left behind.
LONDON: And the Taliban is going to very much focus on finding those people. They’ve always been very effective at maintaining a counterintelligence operation. So, I see reflections of this in the press, about their first order of business for the Taliban will be identifying who was supporting the US, the Brits, and NATO. I really have no faith in their claims of amnesty and this idea that all is forgiven. I think they’re going to very effectively go after these folks.
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Now, whether or not they’re going to summarily execute, detain, or “rehabilitate” people remains to be seen. I think because they have become so attentive to media and PR, they might take an approach similar to what the Chinese government is doing by putting Uyghurs in reeducation camps.
Also, not being really a cohesively led military organization either, a lot of these local Taliban commanders are going to do things on their own. They’re going to settle old scores. They’re going to seek revenge against units and intel personnel that targeted them, their leaders, their family members. So that’s not going to end without a fair deal of blood.