A U.S. intelligence assessment from June 2021 estimated that the Taliban would capture Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, within six months of U.S. military withdrawal. In early August, American intelligence officials projected that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan would occur in 30 to 90 days. Both estimates were catastrophically wrong. On August 15, two weeks before U.S. troops were scheduled to be completely withdrawn, Kabul fell under Taliban control after a military offensive that unfolded in mere days. Many Americans are understandably asking how these different intelligence assessments got things so wrong.
Answering that question requires first answering another:
Who actually delivered these various intelligence assessments, and how did they come to such different conclusions? The New Center investigated to find out.
What is the “intelligence community?”
News stories feature countless references to the U.S. intelligence community, often leaving the impression that it is a monolith. But the U.S. intelligence community is made up of 18 different agencies across the federal government that are supposed to cooperate to deliver strategic intelligence up the executive chain of command.
The Department of Defense (DoD) incorporates nine entities. The Navy, Army, and Air Force each contain a respective intelligence apparatus. Military-wide intelligence is gathered by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) exist outside of the DoD. Additional intelligence organizations operate under bodies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of the Treasury.
How much consensus is there between different intelligence agencies?
This month, The New York Times reported that “[s]harp disagreements have…persisted in the intelligence community” over Afghanistan. For example, the CIA questioned the strength and cohesiveness of Afghan forces while the DIA, according to The Hill, was “more optimistic” about the Afghan coalition’s ability to stave off the Taliban’s offensive. This difference in reporting is not surprising because “American military commanders given the task of training the Afghan military were reluctant to admit their efforts were failing.”
How does the U.S. intelligence apparatus compare with other countries?
Some argue that the U.S. has too many intelligence agencies. Russia has three, the UK four, and China two. Of the 18 U.S. intelligence agencies, the DIA, CIA, NSA, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, National Security Advisor, and others were involved in reporting on Afghanistan.
How has the U.S. tried to reconcile different assessments within the intelligence community?
After 9/11, investigations revealed that different intelligence agencies had crucial intel that, if pooled together, might have prevented the attack. In 2004, President George W. Bush established the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, responsible for uniting siloed agencies and information in the intelligence community. The ODNI’s “Joint Duty” program encourages and provides the structure for intelligence officers to work under agencies outside their own, although scattered and sometimes conflicting intelligence assessments continue to be a problem.
How thorough was the intelligence reporting on Afghanistan?
Probably not as thorough as it needed to be. An unclassified, 27-page report from the ODNI in April skimmed over Afghanistan in just under eight lines. The report stated, “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
In April, during the first confirmed month of troop withdrawal, the only unclassified intelligence report left information about Afghanistan that was vague and incomprehensive. Stating that the Taliban would be “likely” to “make gains” was an understatement.
How do political considerations shape intelligence reporting?
An article in the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence points to a plausible theory that underpins this Afghan intelligence failure. “When intelligence clashes with political and diplomatic goals, the sanctity of intelligence often loses: seldom do Presidents want their diplomatic initiatives to be the sacrifice.”
In other words, U.S. intelligence can be processed and digested to comport with a pre-established agenda. Both President Trump and President Biden sought the removal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan before September 11, 2021. To support the political goal of withdrawal, intelligence reporting could have been shaped to paint a rosier picture of the situation in Afghanistan.
When reporters write “intelligence analysts,” what do they mean?
News outlets covering the events in Afghanistan have used terms like “intelligence analysts,” “intelligence officers,” “intelligence officials, “the intelligence community (IC),” and more. These terms respect the confidentiality of sources who speak in anonymity—sources that work in one of the 18 intelligence agencies, a large enough bucket that a source cannot be identified even to a specific agency. For use of anonymous sources such as the nondescript “intelligence community,” the Associated Press stipulates three criteria: “The information is from a credible source with direct knowledge… it brings to light important facts that otherwise would remain in the shadows; and… the information can be obtained no other way.” Reporters must also verify their source’s information by attempting to consult other anonymous sources.
This spring, the White House released the two signature planks of President Biden’s Build Back Better domestic agenda–the American Families Plan (AFP) and the American Jobs Plan (AJP)–which envisioned more than $4 trillion in spending on priorities ranging from child care and affordable housing to infrastructure and climate change initiatives.
The traditional infrastructure components of the President’s agenda are moving through the bipartisan bill that recently passed the Senate on a 69-30 vote, while Democratic congressional leaders are planning to move the other parts of the AFP and AJP through a separate reconciliation bill.
But here’s an important question: Where did all these policy priorities come from? The answer may lie in a mostly forgotten document that was released at the end of the 2020 Democratic primary.
Last year, weeks before the Democratic National Convention, as then-candidate Biden became the frontrunner and Sanders trailed behind, both candidates came together in a gesture of party unity to recommend a set of policy guidelines for the country. The group of analysts and policymakers who were consulted became known as the Unity Task Force.
Their recommendations, released in July 2020, touched on climate, immigration, criminal justice, healthcare, economy, and education. The New Center sought to investigate to what extent this 112-page document has been a blueprint for understanding Biden’s domestic policy agenda. Was collaborating with Sanders merely a short-term maneuver to secure support from progressives? Or was it a bellwether for the four years to follow?
Here’s the biggest takeaway of our research:
- Almost every measure in the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan corresponds to a goal or a specific policy in the Unity Task Force document.
If this Unity Task Force document is indeed a Rosetta Stone for what the Biden administration is doing now, it also offers clues as to what it may aim to do in the future—as there are several policies in the Unity Task Force document that did not make it into the Biden administration’s initial Build Back Better agenda.
In the below interactive graphics, we do a side-by-side comparison to show exactly where the policies from President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda correspond to a Unity Task Force recommendation. We also show, separately, the Unity Task Force recommendations that could be coming down the pike.
The Unity Task Force Recommendations document has outlived its news cycle. Its direct connection with present White House priorities makes it a document that can foretell priorities to come.
Biden 2021 Build Back Better Agenda
American Jobs Plan
Click on a box to view research in greater detail.
American Families Plan
Biden’s Agenda for 2022 and Beyond?
Data comparisons gathered from the Unity Task Force Plan. Further, tax credit data provided courtesy of CRFB.