WASHINGTON — Congress is poised to force the Pentagon to study how it assesses allies’ will to fight, amid criticism from lawmakers that the U.S. government has regularly failed to make such assessments accurately.
A provision approved for inclusion in the Senate version of the annual defense policy bill would mandate a study by the Defense Department of how it judges the willingness of foreign militaries to fight their enemies.
In Afghanistan, some U.S. officials thought the Afghan military could hold together and continue to fight the Taliban after the American withdrawal. In Ukraine, U.S. officials initially forecast that the Russians would take Kyiv, the capital, within a few days. Both predictions were wrong.
While the Pentagon has acknowledged problems with its assessment of Afghanistan’s military, it has pushed back against accusations that it misjudged Ukraine. Intelligence officials have said errors in predicting the course of the Russian invasion were more a matter of overestimating the Russians than underestimating the Ukrainians.
Senator Angus King, the Maine independent who pushed for the provision to be included in the annual bill, said that the Pentagon and intelligence agencies had made errors in judging an ally’s willingness to fight, but that such assessments are far more difficult, and more subjective, than counting up tanks.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
“I am not naïve enough to think that this is easy or straightforward,” Mr. King said. “What I do believe is it’s damned important and that we have to do a better job. Within one year we had two pretty straight up failures in the opposite direction.”
Lawmakers from both parties have echoed Mr. King’s views, but a Pentagon spokesman disputed the contention that the Ukrainians had been underestimated.
“The Department respectfully rejects the notion that there was any doubt about Ukraine’s will to fight,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton T. Semelroth, a Defense Department spokesman. “It remains inspiring to see the courage and bravery of the Ukrainian people as they stand up against Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion.”
In a hearing before the Senate Arms Services Committee in May, Mr. King argued with Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, over whether the Pentagon had misjudged the capacity of the Ukrainians and the Russian forces rather than the will of the Ukrainian military.
The Pentagon, Mr. King said on Wednesday, needs to study what went wrong, where misjudgments were made and whether there is a better way to make predictions. The provision would require that the report be completed by next April. Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, has begun a review of how American spy agencies assessed the Ukrainian and Afghan militaries.
The studies are important, Mr. King said, because had better predictions been made about the resiliency of the Afghan forces, the military withdrawal from Afghanistan might have been done differently. Had the United States predicted how successfully Ukraine would fight, the government might have moved more equipment there faster.
“Intelligence is often shaped by perception of the viewer, of the listener,” Mr. King said. “And the challenge is for policymakers to have unvarnished, clear intelligence, even though it may contradict their policy preference.”
In the case of Afghanistan, Mr. King said intelligence briefers had been far more cleareyed than the Pentagon about the Afghan military’s problems. The can-do attitude of the U.S. military, Mr. King said, appeared to interfere with accurate predictions.
Pentagon officials declined to comment on the provision, which has not yet been voted on by the full Senate. The defense policy bill has been passed every year, though final approval usually comes at its end.
While Pentagon officials and lawmakers disagree about why predictions of the Russian advance were off, they agree that a review of the Afghan war assessments is needed. The military, officials said, is committed to better understanding what went wrong in Afghanistan and where the Pentagon erred in its predictions.
“The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces’ lack of a will to fight overwhelmingly contributed to their ultimate collapse,” said Army Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman. “They had the people. They had the equipment. They had the training. They had the support.”
Major Lodewick said that while the Afghan forces had struggled with corruption and desertions, the Pentagon had planned to continue to support them on logistics and maintenance from outside Afghanistan after the withdrawal.
“Long-term commitments such as these, however, can only accomplish so much if beneficiary forces are not willing to stand and fight,” Major Lodewick said. “One needs only to look at the current situation in Ukraine for an example of what an equipped, trained and resilient force is capable of achieving.”