The Wall Street Journal has a shocking new report out today.  And when we say “shocking,” what we mean is “not even remotely surprising.”  To wit:

Leading U.S. intelligence agencies failed to predict the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan prior to the final withdrawal of American troops and instead offered scattershot assessments of the staying power of the Afghan military and government, a review of wide-ranging summaries of classified material by The Wall Street Journal shows.

The nearly two dozen intelligence assessments from four different agencies haven’t been previously reported. The assessments charted Taliban advances from spring 2020 through this July, forecasting that the group would continue to gain ground and that the U.S.-backed government in Kabul was unlikely to survive absent U.S. support.

The analyses, however, differed over how long the Afghan government and military could hold on, the summaries show, with none foreseeing the group’s lightning sweep into the Afghan capital by Aug. 15 while U.S. forces remained on the ground.

Like we said…

We don’t mean to sound like we’re criticizing the Journal here.  We’re not.  Even when everyone knows something, it’s still important to prove it.  Or rather, especially when everyone knows something, it’s still important to prove it.  Our problem here is not with the Journal or its analysis.

Our problem is with the intelligence community itself – for making its ongoing record of failure so incredibly banal.  If you’re anything like us, then A.) you have our sympathies; and B.) you looked at the headline on the Journal report – “Four U.S. Intelligence Agencies Produced Extensive Reports on Afghanistan, but All Failed to Predict Kabul’s Rapid Collapse” – and thought “uhh…duh?” Of course they failed.  Why would anyone expect them not to fail?  When is the last time they didn’t?

Interestingly, the answer to this last question is both instructive and damning.

As many of you know, the last great triumph of the American intelligence community took place some 45 years ago.  During the 1970s, the traditional intelligence apparatus was, as it is now, almost thoroughly incapacitated by groupthink.  Everyone knew that the Soviets sought nuclear parity with the United States because…why wouldn’t they?  And everyone knew that the United States would be wise to find common ground and to embrace détente because to do otherwise would be national suicide. Etc., etc., ad infinitum.

And then came Team B.

Team B was a “competitive analysis” project undertaken near the end of the Ford administration and led by the inimitable Richard Pipes.  It, quite literally, changed the world.  The following, from Air Force magazine, gives a pretty balanced taste of the effort and its critics:

As the Cold War built toward its peak in the 1960s and into the 1970s, the US Central Intelligence Agency was remarkably mild in its assessments of the strategic plans and intentions of the Soviet Union.

The CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate of Sept. 19, 1962, said the Russians were not likely to introduce missiles into Cuba. That was four days after the first missiles had arrived there.

In October 1964, the NIE said, “We do not believe that the USSR aims at matching the US in numbers of intercontinental delivery vehicles,” adding that circumstances appeared “to have ruled out this option.”…

Between 1965 and 1970, the number of Soviet ICBMs grew from 224 to 1,440, while the size of the US missile fleet remained essentially level. The Soviets also introduced the huge SS-9, twice as large as the US Minuteman and for which the only plausible targets were Minuteman silos.

Concurrently, the NIEs found that it was “highly unlikely” the Soviets would “try for strategic superiority” (1969 estimate); that the Soviets sought only “strategic parity with the US” (1970); and that “the USSR has concluded that the attainment of clear superiority in strategic weapons … is not now feasible” (1972).

In 1976, Drew Middleton of The New York Times pointed out that “the Russians have developed and produced four new ICBMs” while the US was still “talking in conceptual terms” about its proposed new missile, the MX.

Among those alarmed by the direction of the NIEs was the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. In 1976, the PFIAB—prominent public figures from business, government, and politics—persuaded new President Gerald R. Ford and the new director of Central Intelligence, George H. W. Bush, to order an independent parallel assessment.

The most significant part of the effort was an analysis of Soviet strategic objectives by “Team B,” headed by Harvard professor Richard Pipes. These findings were presented alongside those of the regular CIA analysts, who were designated “Team A.”

The Team B report was top secret until 1992, but the gist of it leaked to the press. It said the USSR sought strategic superiority, not parity or defensive deterrence. It further said the CIA was wrong about Soviet intentions and motives, underestimated the Soviet threat, and based its evaluations mainly on assumptions rather than on what the Russians actually did and said.

Critics vehemently attacked the report—which most of them had not seen—as erroneous and harmful. One CIA analyst described Team B as “howling right-wingers” and the Washington Post called it a “kangaroo court.”

Whatever it was, Team B’s arguments so overwhelmed the weak Team A presentation that the CIA revised its position. Pipes called the ensuing NIE “the first realistic assessment of Soviet strategic intentions” presented to the PIAB….

Teams A and B exchanged drafts but did not meet in person until Nov. 5. The Team A chief, a seasoned analyst, entrusted the opening confrontation to a junior staff member. According to Pipes, “The champion of Team A had barely begun his criticism of Team B’s effort—delivered in a condescending tone—when a member of Team B fired a question” that stopped him in his tracks.

By all accounts, the CIA analysts were completely outgunned, especially by Pipes and Paul Nitze, whose distinguished government service dated back to World War II. “We were overmatched,” a Team A member said. “People like Nitze ate us for lunch.”

The two teams presented their findings to the PFIAB on Dec. 2. “I listened with mounting disbelief as Team A advanced an estimate that in all essential points agreed with Team B’s position,” Pipes said.

That was reflected in the new National Intelligence Estimate on Dec. 21. In his cover letter, Bush said that “this estimate presents a starker appreciation of Soviet strategic capabilities and objectives” than previous NIEs had done.

This NIE said that the “ultimate goal” of the Soviet Union was “achieving a dominant position over the West, particularly the United States.” It acknowledged that “Soviet military doctrine calls for capabilities to fight, survive, and win a nuclear war.” It said the Soviets regarded détente “as a framework for nurturing changes favorable to Soviet interest.”…

In 1977, Stephen Rosenfeld of the Washington Post joined in the attack on Team B, accusing Pipes of “rank hysteria in scholarly garb” and “worst-case alarmism.” Rosenfeld revisited his conclusions in 1995 in an article, “The Hard-Liners Had It Right,” which drew on newly released Soviet documents.

“The archives of the former Soviet Union are opening” and “making necessary a rethinking on the part of those who turn out to have had it wrong before,” Rosenfeld said. The documents “pretty much confirm the approach long attributed to the political and academic right.”

In Memoirs, published in 1995, Gorbachev said, “the arms race continued, gaining momentum even after achieving military and strategic parity with the United States of America.” He added to this in another volume, On My Country and the World, in 2000.

In some years, Gorbachev said, Soviet military expenditures “reached 25 to 30 percent of our gross national product—that is, five or six times greater than analogous spending in the United States and the European NATO countries.”

Directly addressing the main proposition from Team B, Gorbachev said that the Soviet military objective had been “military supremacy relative to any possible opponent.”

Our point here, as you may have guessed, is that the nation’s intelligence community could probably stand to be subjected to a “competitive analysis” exercise again. But it won’t be, largely because our ruling class suffers from a crisis of epistemic incorrigibility – essentially, the belief that one’s understanding and knowledge of the world is inarguably correct and therefore unchangeable.

Consider, for example, the following:

The U.S. intelligence community will seek to "fully" integrate the effects of climate change into the analysis and assessments it offers policymakers, Director of National intelligence Avril Haines said Thursday, calling the varied, intersecting and intensifying consequences of climate-related phenomena "an urgent national security threat."  

"For the intelligence community, climate change is both a near-term and a long-term threat that will define the next generation," Haines said during a session of the Biden administration's virtual Summit on Climate. "And it's one that the intelligence community has long recognized as important to our national security, though we have not always made it a key priority." 

Climate change issues should "be fully integrated with every aspect of our analysis in order to allow us not only to monitor the threat but also, critically, to ensure that policymakers understand the importance of climate change on seemingly unrelated policies," Haines said.

Or consider this:

President Joe Biden identified white supremacy as a domestic terror threat that the country must remain vigilant against in his first joint address to Congress on Wednesday.

In discussing his order to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, Biden noted global terror networks have largely moved beyond the country and that white supremacists posed a bigger threat than foreign actors.

"We won't ignore what our intelligence agencies have determined to be the most lethal terrorist threat to our homeland today: White supremacy is terrorism,” Biden cautioned.

Is there anyone in the world who believes that these people would be open to the idea that they might be wrong, that maybe they are occupying themselves with irrelevancies rather than actual threats to the nation?

They wouldn’t be – which means that the very idea of a “competitive analysis” would strike them as horrific.  And can you even imagine them putting together a Team B that would pass their scrutiny and loyalty tests?

Never gonna happen.

We often fret about our current economic and political situations by noting that there is no Reagan who will follow Biden’s Jimmy Carter revival act, and there is no Paul Volcker to follow Jay Powell’s imitation of Arthur Burns.  Likewise, there is no George Bush to replace Haines, no potential intelligence director with the cojones to call out his own analysts and to force them to PROVE what they believe, in the face of contrary beliefs/evidence.

Of course American intelligence agencies bungled Afghanistan.  Get used to it.


Comments coming soon