The chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan shows that U.S. intelligence drastically underestimated how quickly Afghan forces would fold to the Taliban. But is this intelligence failure really that unexpected? The Afghanistan blunder represents the baseline performance of American intelligence, and this baseline has been failing since the end of the Cold War. While the jury is still out on how our foreign adversaries might fill the void in Afghanistan, a more immediate and widespread concern is that U.S. intelligence is sorely lacking and is losing to the competition, particularly China.
Core to America’s traditional model of intelligence is the primacy of secrecy—stealing and protecting secret information through clandestine or covert operations. This secrecy-driven intelligence model is behind the times. China is aware of this, and Washington will continue to cede ground to Beijing absent a fundamental reform of how intelligence serves policymakers.
Consider former CIA Director Stansfield Turner’s assessment after the Cold War that the agency’s greatest failure during his time was not foreseeing the rapid overthrow of Iran’s shah in 1979. The problem, according to Turner, wasn’t that the agency was ignorant of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s secret scheming, but that it overlooked “the breadth and intensity of feeling against the shah inside Iran.” His proposal in retrospect was a pivot to “forecasting events driven by ground swells in public attitudes.”
You’d be right to recognize the similarity between Iran’s “10 days that shook the world” and the Taliban’s tremor today. American intelligence misjudged the “ground swells” in Afghan forces’ attitudes, even after training them for 20 years.