Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Afghanistan and Israel: Intelligence Surprise (October 4, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: In recent congressional testimony and comments, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley aptly termed the overall US performance in Afghanistan “a strategic failure”. Then he characterized the US Intelligence failure to anticipate the speed of the Afghan military’s August collapse as “a swing and a miss”. Is the US Intelligence failure that marginal an issue?

A: Compared to the enormity of America’s overall failure in Afghanistan after 20 years of occupation, yes, the Intelligence failure might be considered secondary in the long-run strategic scheme of things. But it is hardly marginal in the short term in its effect on American public support for the Biden administration following the Kabul fiasco. And it is momentous when one considers damage to America’s strategic image in the eyes of countries that are dependent on the US capacity to project power. Then too, the Afghanistan failure will remain prominent in the annals of Intelligence debacles, whether America’s, Israel’s or those of some other country or entity.

Q: Why the sudden interest in Intelligence failure?

A: The issue should interest us all. It’s a pity it was given such short shrift in Milley’s Senate testimony. If US Intelligence failed here, we should all be worried.

Here we have the US Intelligence establishment proving incapable of predicting how long the Afghan government and its army will hold off a Taliban takeover once American forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan. This, after 20 years of occupation in the course of which the US practically handpicked Afghan heads of government and security institutions. Americans trained and equipped the Afghan armed forces. These must be considered ideal conditions of familiarity with a country that is the object of intelligence assessments.

Yet American Intelligence failed. Can the same US Intelligence institutions be depended on to monitor the evolution of Iran’s nuclear program? The PRC’s ambitions in the South China Sea?

Still, Intelligence failures happen all the time. Israel’s most spectacular failure preceded the surprise Arab attack that launched the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. The surprise storming of the Capitol on January 6 of this year was an Intelligence failure on the part of the FBI and various police units in Washington. Not preparing for the Covid-19 pandemic constitutes a global Intelligence failure.

Q: And your own interest, specifically?

A: I am personally interested in Intelligence failure because I experienced one myself. In 1978-79 I was the Mossad’s Iran analyst. My job was to make sense of the gathering storm of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist revolution that threatened the rule of the Shah, Israel’s ally. Israel had a huge strategic and economic interest in the Shah’s ongoing rule. But the Iran that Israelis (and the West in general and even the USSR) were familiar with was not the Iran that erupted in revolution.

I looked far and wide for sources of information about what was happening beneath the surface and could not find any. I had no serious tools for assessing Khomeini and his movement’s aims and assets. We did not collect intel on the Shah’s Iran, which threatened to sever ties if we did. Like everyone else, including many Iranians, I failed to assess where this revolution was going.

In late January 1979 the Head of the Mossad, General Hofi, called me to his office and informed me that the caretaker head of the Shah’s government in Tehran, Shapour Bakhtiar, had asked us to assassinate Khomeini, then still in exile in France. “I oppose political assassinations,” Hofi told me. “But the stakes are very high, so leave that aside for a moment. What’s your response to this request?”

I thought for a long moment, running various scenarios through my head, then said, “We don’t know enough about Khomeini for me to have an informed opinion.” Discussion over. The rest is history. The Islamic Republic that was founded so brutally by Khomeini within weeks now casts a long shadow over the entire Middle East. I have relived that moment of Intelligence failure again and again ever since. So have my contemporaries from the CIA and British MI6, who had a similar experience.

Q: And returning to the Afghanistan failure?

A: So now I wonder about the US Army analysts and their CIA colleagues who apparently failed to predict the instant collapse of the Afghan government and armed forces in August. As the Biden administration’s political fortunes slide in the aftermath of Afghanistan and as friends and allies of the United States express dismay and lack of confidence in American security guarantees, these analysts presumably share the trauma.

General Milley for his part blamed a decision taken back in 2018 to remove political advisers from US units deployed in Afghanistan. He said US commanders had tried mistakenly to “mirror image” the Afghan army to fit that of the US, ignoring cultural and other differences. The US did not appreciate the depth of corruption that had weakened Afghan institutions. To this we can add that, without the logistics provided by American contractors, the Afghans could not operate some of their sophisticated US-supplied planes and other equipment. Do these explanations even begin to explain the debacle? In terms of America’s future conduct as the world’s preeminent superpower, is this merely “a swing and a miss”?

There is also, in Intelligence analysis, the equivalent of what is known in physics as the observer effect (sometimes confused with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle), according to which measurements of certain systems cannot be made without affecting the system, that is, without changing something in a system. Applying this notion to the Afghan system, US analysts may have failed to appreciate that the United States itself had become such an integral component of the system that its sudden removal would cause absolute chaos.

This is not surprising, by the way: Intelligence professionals are trained to assess the capabilities and intentions of the other, usually the enemy and in the case in question the Afghans, but not of their own forces. That task is usually left to the generals.

Did anyone in Washington ask the simple question, why should our friends in Afghanistan ‘hold out’ and fight off the Taliban for a few more months once we Americans have abandoned them? Just to create a ‘decent interval’? If they know their fate is sealed (because we told them as much), why bother?

So morale collapsed and everyone headed for the hills, opening the gates of Kabul to the victorious Taliban. Surprise, surprise!

Q: Can we predict or anticipate Intelligence failure? How?

A: When we can, we prevent the failure. So everyone tries. IDF Intelligence, after the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, set up a small unit calledIfcha Mistabra, an Aramaic term roughly translated “to the contrary” and usually presented as the Devil’s Advocate Unit. Its job, since 1975, is to probe the likelihood of the unexpected or unanticipated and challenge the mainstream analysts and their assessment of enemy intentions and/or capabilities.

In my book, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies, I analyzed Israel’s 1979 Iran Intelligence failure and suggested that Israel should, without ruffling any feathers and assuming the stakes are high, find under-the-radar ways to gather serious intelligence regarding opposition activities that might endanger friendly yet dictatorial regimes--the kind that would not tolerate their friends openly spying on them--in parts of Asia and Africa.

Q: Is it possible to point to areas of strategic interest for Israel where Intelligence ‘brainstorming’ might be warranted to prevent surprise, despite a current lack of alarming developments?

A: Bearing in mind that this is pure speculation, I would scan the map of Israel’s strategic interests and come up with a few possibly neglected areas toward which I would point the Devil’s Advocate Unit. Here are a few examples.

First, the danger of a ‘perfect Palestinian storm’ in which three seemingly distinct threads suddenly come together to pose a massive strategic challenge: the current wave of unbridled criminality and murder among Arab citizens of Israel that the Israel Police have failed to contain; the acute weakness and instability of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority; and Gaza-based Hamas’s drive to claim the overall leadership mantle of the Palestinians.

Could all three of these negative dynamics somehow combine? How? Did last May’s Operation Guardian of the Walls, an 11-day campaign against Hamas that spread to the West Bank, Jerusalem and mixed cities like Lod and Jaffa, offer a preview?

Second, China “chooses sides” in Israel’s conflict with Iran and its proxies and comes down resolutely on Iran’s side, cutting all ties with Israel. I know of no Chinese activities or intentions toward Israel that might warrant this. Yet as US attitudes toward China become more negative and aggressive, it is not inconceivable that China would direct its response toward friends of the United States.

Third (and this concerns the United States perhaps more heavily than Israel), the danger of a successful coup d’etat in Saudi Arabia. By a portion of the armed forces or a disgruntled branch of the huge royal family. Certainly the current de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has done enough to alienate more than a few powerful Saudis. And the stakes are huge.

Q: Bottom line?

A: The list goes on and on. A Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon, which is already on life support? A terrorist mega-attack on Tel Aviv? Intelligence surprise is as old as the Trojan Horse.