THE COMPLETE TAKEOVER OF Afghanistan by the Taliban was “sudden” or “unexpected” only for those who have not been paying attention to the implosion of the country in recent months. There were certainly outliers, among them an assortment of Foreign Policy columnists, who, as late as July 28, were urging readers to stop “assuming the Taliban will win”. But ever since October of 2020, when United States President Donald Trump announced that American troops would leave the country (a policy that the Biden Administration eagerly adopted), the vast majority of reports about the future of Afghanistan have been unanimous: following an American military withdrawal, the Taliban would take over the entire country with little delay, and almost certainly without facing significant resistance.
This was certainly the view on the ground in Afghanistan, where desperate families have been leaving the country for many months now. The recent shocking images of Afghan men clinging on to American transport aircraft, were not the beginning of a desperate exodus from the country. Rather, these were the last groups of people who, for a variety of reasons, did not abandon the capital earlier. The impending reality of the Taliban takeover has been recognized especially by women in urban centers. They have been preparing for months for the change in the nation’s leadership, by burning their Western attire and throwing away their make-up.
Meanwhile, countries like Russia and the United Kingdom have also been preparing to deal with the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. It was nearly five weeks ago when Ben Wallace, Minister of Defense of Britain, arguably the United States’ closest international partner, said that London was prepared to “work with the Taliban, should they come to power”. Soon afterwards, Russia’s longtime Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called the Taliban “rational actors” and warned the Afghan government that it risked losing control of the entire country by not entering into a negotiated settlement with the militants.
For months now, practically every leading newspaper of every country in Asia has been carrying extensive analyses of what the region will look like when —not if— the Taliban returns to the government. India has been preparing to become “a frontline state against terror” once the “Taliban 2.0” are in command. Observers from the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia have been discussing what should be done “after Afghanistan falls”. And literally every other country in the immediate region has been beefing up its border forces in anticipation of the fall of Kabul and other major urban centers throughout Afghanistan. Even the United Nations has been in on the game, warning as early as July 22 that, “with the Taliban making rapid gains across Afghanistan, there is widespread concern the group will seize control of the country”.
It is also clear from open-source reporting that United States intelligence did not divert significantly from the majority opinion expressed by knowledgeable observers. On July 23, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said that the Taliban were “likely in the strongest military position that they’ve been in since 2001”, and acknowledged the possibility that “the Afghan government could fall as the Taliban advances”. Burns was expressing what was clearly the majority opinion among analysts across the US intelligence community, which, by July 16, were consistently painting “a bleak picture of the Taliban’s quickening advance across Afghanistan and the potential threat it poses to the capital of Kabul, warning the militant group could soon have a stranglehold on much of the country in the wake of the US withdrawal of troops”. On July 22, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed Burns’ warning, alerting lawmakers to the “possibility of a complete Taliban takeover” of Afghanistan, following the withdrawal of American troops. By that time, even former intelligence officials like former General David Petraeus, who do not have access to classified intelligence products, were warning that, without the presence of American troops, “Afghan forces would […] desert their posts, flee the Taliban or surrender” en masse.
So why did the current political leadership of the United States not take into account these consistent warnings by the very people that it pays to provide it with actionable intelligence when making decisions? One can think of a multitude of reasons. These differ little from the reasons why George Bush Jr. was determined to “bring democracy” to Iraq, even when he was advised by his own intelligence officials that such a move would unleash a civil war between the country’s Sunni and Shi’a populations. Or the reasons why Barack Obama decided to declare an “end to the war” in Iraq, despite concrete concerns among intelligence experts that such a move would aid the Sunni insurgency and allow it to metastasize into the Islamic State. Or even the reasons why Donald Trump decided to “bring the troops home” from Afghanistan, despite being told in no uncertain terms that doing so would surrender the country back to the Taliban. In all of these cases, the problem did not reside in the accuracy of intelligence. Rather, it resided in the stubborn refusal of America’s political leadership to take intelligence into account when making critical decisions that affect national and international security.
Ultimately, calling the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan’s “sudden” and “unexpected” is an insult to the multitude of observers —Americans and others— who have been chronicling the country’s gradual implosion over the past several years. It also serves those —Republican or Democrat— who are intent on using this international calamity to score cheap political points on the backs of the suffering people of Afghanistan.
► Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2021 | Permalink
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