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.
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.”
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?
BERGEN: What about al Qaeda?
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: 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?
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.
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.