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Taliban's Afghanistan takeover raises big questions for U.S. security chiefs

“There absolutely was intelligence reporting that it could happen this fast. This was not a surprise,” one senior defense intelligence official said.

The Taliban's lightning-fast offensive across Afghanistan has placed intense pressure on the U.S. security establishment to explain the rout of the Afghan military, which the U.S. spent billions of dollars to train and equip in a war that cost thousands of American lives.

The Taliban, a force of 75,000 militants, overwhelmed a U.S.-trained army numbering about 300,000 — at times without a single bullet fired. While U.S. military officials had warned that the Taliban had the momentum in the 20-year war, the pace and manner of their victory two decades after being toppled has exposed how badly prepared U.S.-trained troops were.

The rushed evacuation of U.S. Embassy personnel in Kabul over the weekend has drawn comparisons to chaotic images of Americans being airlifted from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1975.

It is clear that the Biden White House did not see it coming.

On July 8, President Joe Biden said "the jury is still out" on what would lie ahead as the Taliban made significant progress, but he said "the likelihood there's going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely."

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On Sunday, as the Taliban entered Kabul, Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the militants' progress came much more quickly than the U.S. had anticipated.

Defense officials fear that a Taliban takeover could give Al Qaeda a chance to rebuild and grow its numbers. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and overthrew the Taliban, which had sheltered Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The puzzle for me is the absence of contingency planning: If everyone knew we were headed for the exits, why did we not have a plan over the past two years for making this work?" retired Army Gen. Douglas E. Lute, who led Afghanistan strategy at the National Security Council for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said in an interview with The New York Times published Saturday.

'Without firing a single shot'

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. was not able to give Afghan forces the "will" to fight for their country.

"We could not give them the will, and they ultimately decided that they would not fight for Kabul and they would not fight for the country," he said Monday on NBC's "TODAY" show.

U.S. officers have long worried that rampant corruption would undermine the resolve of badly paid, ill-fed and erratically supplied front-line soldiers.

Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups, a London-based think tank, said the Taliban took the opportunity to overcome an army lacking resources, leadership and resolve.

Afghan special immigrant visa applicants crowd into a cafe seeking help applying for the program that could pave the way for them to go to the U.S.Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

"Ultimately, you can have all of the capacity-building, all of the supplies, all of the things, but if you have a system that doesn't work, that's corrupt, and you have a lack of political leadership, those forces aren't worth very much," she said.

So while the Taliban have sought to portray each of their victories as a "capture," not every prize was hard-won, she said. Afghan forces and political leaders often opted to strike deals and surrender to the militant group rather than fight what many probably felt was a losing battle.

As they captured one strategic post after another, the militants were often met with little resistance, with even the Taliban fighters surprised by the speed of their advance.

The Taliban had previously told NBC News that they had signed deals with local administrations when they started seizing control of districts in the rural areas and used the help of local tribal elders to convey their message to local authorities, offering general amnesty in exchange for no resistance.

Where deals were not cut, Afghan forces still appear to have melted away.

"It worked very well, and we captured more than 150 districts in a few days without firing a single shot," said a Taliban commander in the southeastern city of Ghazni.

Intelligence officials, meanwhile, have been pushing back against the charge that they should have been able to anticipate the rapid collapse of the government and the Taliban advance. Accounts differ about when, exactly, the spies expected that to happen.

People desperate to leave Afghanistan climb atop a plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Monday. Wakil Kohsar / AFP - Getty Images

Doug London, a former senior CIA officer who ran counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan before he retired in 2018, said it was well understood within the intelligence community that Kabul could fall within weeks if the U.S. withdrew the bulk of its military and intelligence assets.

A Western intelligence official, who would not be named speaking about sensitive matters, added: "There absolutely was intelligence reporting that it could happen this fast. This was not a surprise."

The official said it was always clear that the military could not hold up without U.S. air support and that President Ashraf Ghani accelerated his own downfall by disregarding the advice of U.S. and British officials who urged him to make deals with potential allies.

Meanwhile, a U.S. official said: "We knew the Taliban would take over.

"We knew most Afghans wouldn't fight. It was faster than expected, but not that much," the official said.

The official added that Afghans who are now in fear of their lives because they helped the U.S. military "were not part of the calculus."

But a congressional official briefed about the matter, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that while intelligence officials always warned of a potential catastrophic implosion of the military, no U.S. agency warned that it could happen in days.

A senior defense intelligence official said the worst-case scenario in an intelligence assessment from last month indicated that Kabul could fall before Sept. 11.

"No official estimate has been pessimistic enough" for how this has played out, the official said.