Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Sunday that intelligence assessments on the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan predicted the Taliban could retake the country in a matter of months, appearing to contradict President Biden’s reassurances last month that a Taliban takeover was not inevitable.
During an interview with ABC News’ Martha Raddatz at the Pentagon, Austin declared that “nobody” in the intelligence community predicted the Afghan government would fall to the Taliban as rapidly as it did.
“There were assessments that ranged initially from one to two years to, you know, several months,” he said. “But it was a wide range of assessments. And as the Taliban began to make gains, and we saw that in a number of cases there was less fighting and more surrendering and more forces just kind of evaporating, it was very difficult to predict with accuracy.
“This all occurred in a span of about 11 days,” he added. “Nobody predicted that, you know, the government would fall in 11 days.”
Asked by Raddatz whether he thought the planning for the military’s withdrawal from the region was “acceptable and appropriate,” Austin responded, “I do, based upon what we were looking at.”
“Like everyone else, the president listened to our input,” he said. “Again, he conducted a very rigorous and thoughtful process and he made a decision. And I support that decision.”
Austin’s comments about intel lie in contrast to what Biden said on July 8 about how a Taliban-takeover was not likely and that he trusted “the capacity of the Afghan military.”
When confronted by a reporter who said, “Your own intelligence community has assessed that the Afghan government will likely collapse,” Biden fired back at the time, saying, “That is not true.”
“They did not reach that conclusion,” the president said. “The Afghan government and leadership has to come together. They clearly have the capacity to sustain the government in place. The question is: Will they generate the kind of cohesion to do it? It’s not a question of whether they have the capacity. They have the capacity.”
“There’s not a conclusion that, in fact, they cannot defeat the Taliban,” he added.
Asked directly at the time whether a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was “inevitable,” Biden responded, “No, it is not.”
Biden spoke from the White House on Monday, saying the Taliban’s retaking of Afghanistan 20 years after their ouster by U.S.-led forces “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated” but that he still stood “squarely behind” his decision to withdraw troops.
The president declared toward the end of his speech that “the buck stops” with him, but not before blaming his predecessor, former President Trump, for negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban that made the current president have to choose between “escalating the conflict and sending thousands of American troops back into Afghanistan.”
Biden also pointed fingers at the Afghan army for lacking “the will to fight” for their future. And he said the slow-moving pace of evacuating the U.S.’s Afghan allies was in part because “some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier – still hopeful for their country.”