A number of western leaders, particularly in the US, have said they were surprised by the rapidity of the Taliban's success over the last 2 weeks. For example, the Pentagon's top military officer, Gen. Mark Milley told reporters this week that the U.S. intelligence community estimated that if U.S. forces withdrew, it would be weeks, months, even years before the Afghan military fell to the Taliban. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Sunday that the defeat of Afghan security forces that has led to the Taliban’s takeover “happened more quickly than we anticipated”. Blinken indicated that the blame for this could be put at on the Afghan National Army (ANA) saying "I have to tell you that the inability of Afghan security forces to defend their country has played a very powerful role in what we've seen over the last few weeks".

However, I have not seen it reported what they did think was happening. It seems that there are a number of options, none of which are exactly the ANA's fault:

  • They expected the ANA to be ultimately victorious. This would make sense, but no one is saying this and would seem to contradict what Mark Milley said above.
  • They expected the Taliban to win, but thought the ANA expected to win. This would seem the fault of the western intelligence agencies to keep their counterparts informed, possibly so they would fight and die for a lost cause.
  • They expected the Taliban to win, and knew the ANA knew the Taliban would win, but expected the ANA to fight and die for a losing side. The whole of military history would indicate this belief would be in error.
  • Both the western governments and the ANA were uncertain enough about the outcome that a victory by the ANA or the Taliban were roughly equally likely (thanks Bobson).

Do we have any statements or other forms of intelligence to indicate what the western governments and intelligence agencies actually thought would happen, and why?

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    Fourth option: They expected the ANA and the Taliban to fight it out over the next few months/years, and then one of them would be victorious, but no way to predict who.
    – Bobson
    Aug 24, 2021 at 17:09
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    Western government may also have expected roughly the present outcome, maybe a bit less quickly. And not communicated it beyond need-to-know secret briefings. After all, do you really expect the ANA to fight if they're given say a 30% chance of winning by the analysts? And would you expect them to go public after that foreknowledge now, if it existed? Which will make this hard to answer until declassifications. I mean, one hopes the top experts saw it coming. Aug 24, 2021 at 18:06
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    Isn't the answer in your question? it would be weeks, months, even years before the Afghan military fell to the Taliban So they expected that the civil war would continue for some time, hopefully long enough to evacuate all our people and collaborators.
    – Barmar
    Aug 24, 2021 at 20:23
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    I'm not sure most of them really thought it out that far. I think it was mostly "We're getting out, and whatever happens after we leave, happens."
    – Barmar
    Aug 24, 2021 at 20:29
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    @PausePause I would take that documentary's claims with a large grain of salt. The US was overconfident in Vietnam all the way to Tet and a few analysts who "got it right" does not make it general consensus, nor does it mean the troops would have been told about the top brass' odds, even if it was consensus. Aug 25, 2021 at 16:44

2 Answers 2


Starting back with W. Bush, the US expected it could build an effective political culture in Afghanistan, a condition in which Afghans became accustomed to the benefits of political rights, appreciated the implicit power representative governance gave them, and developed aspirations for their future and the future of their children that would break up regional and tribal allegiances and reform them into a proper national identity. If that had been accomplished, the soldiers and leaders of the ANA would have seen the return of the Taliban as a deep existential threat: i.e., they would have seen something worth dying for, and felt a sense of pride and determination in combating the threat.

Unfortunately, the US did very little to build political culture over the subsequent years, acting more as an occupying force than a liberating power. The government they helped establish in Afghanistan was brutal, ineffective, and corrupt; US reputation was sullied by black-sites, drone strikes, and assorted political machinations; life for ordinary Afghans did not improve significantly. The US trained and equipped a decent military, sure, but too many of the personnel they acquired were mercenary about it: in it for the paycheck, bonuses, and skills they could acquire, not from a sense of duty or commitment to the national cause. US political leaders assumed (well, either naïvely assumed or cynically claimed, it's hard to tell) that Afghans would spontaneously develop an attachment to Western Liberal social and political values, and be willing to fight to retain them, so did nothing whatsoever to build it. If they were surprised when Afghans shrugged and walked away as the Americans withdrew, well... that's what happens when one allows political ideology to whitewash common sense.

  • As has been shown countless times, liberal freedoms cannot be maintained when bequeathed -- they have to be earned by sacrifice.
    – bishop
    Oct 9, 2021 at 20:55

I think the surprise is because the Taliban took control after about 2 weeks and the United States hasn't even fully withdrawn from the region yet. No one expected to take control of the region so quickly or for such a quick power grab to occur without some resistance or hesitancy since the evacuation of US troops was not complete yet. Even with the quick take over, some mujahideen fighters and others are resisting the Taliban & some believed this resistance would be enough to delay a complete Taliban takeover of the region, which it apparently did not. According to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a belief that there was unstable leadership within the Taliban made them believe the Taliban would not be able to conquer so quickly.

"They had all the advantages, they had 20 years of training by our coalition forces, a modern air force, good equipment and weapons. But you can't buy will and you can't purchase leadership. And that's really what was missing in this situation." -Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin


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