Afghanistan’s former President Ashraf Ghani on the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover

Last August, the Taliban swept into Kabul after conquering the country at a torrid pace. Afghan security forces did not resist, the American withdrawal was thrown into further chaos, and the Afghan government dissolved in hours. Ashraf Ghani, the country's former president who fled Kabul in a helicopter, joins with Nick Schifrin to discuss the withdrawal and the Taliban takeover.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, last August, the Taliban swept into Kabul, Afghan national security forces fell apart, and the Afghan government dissolved.

    The man who sat atop that government was President Ashraf Ghani, who fled Kabul in a helicopter. The former president is now in the United Arab Emirates. And he spoke with Nick Schifrin yesterday.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It has been one year since the Taliban took over Afghanistan amid the Afghan government collapse and the chaotic U.S. withdrawal.

    To get some perspective on what happened and why, we turn to Ashraf Ghani, the former president of Afghanistan.

    Mr. President, thank you very much. Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's start with your departure from Kabul.

    Last May, on this program, you said: "I will not abandon my people. I will not abandon my forces. I'm willing to die for my country."

    But, three months later, on August 15, you left Kabul. And you recently said you left because you didn't want to give the Taliban — quote — "the pleasure of humiliating an Afghan president."

    Was avoiding humiliation worth abandoning the country?

    Ashraf Ghani, Former President of Afghanistan: I firmly committed to defending my people, our own forces in the public to the last minute I could.

    I left as the last person in the chain of command because our forces could no longer sustain. I had no one to fight with me. It was not a situation where sacrificing myself would have saved the republic.

    On the contrary, it would have created another trauma. And we have had enough of trauma in our history.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You just said that you were one of the last to leave the country. But, in fact, multiple senior officials in the government remained at the moment that you left.

    So, again, I ask you, why did you leave when you did?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    Because it became impossible.

    The presidential guard collapsed. I was ready to go to the Ministry of Defense. The ministry was completely empty. And when the national security adviser and the head of BPS came, they give me two minutes, with the information that everything had collapsed and the Taliban were ready with a couple of teams to enter in and destroy the palace.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You describe it as a last-minute decision to leave.

    But, in fact, the foreign minister, Haneef Atmar, that morning had prepared your passport. So did you, in fact, already have plans to leave?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    Yes, because my wife was leaving. The passport, as an eventuality, had been prepared. But I did not have plans to leave.

    If I had plans to leave, I would have left with something other than the Afghan clothes that I was wearing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A recent report by the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction found that it's unlikely to be true that you took millions of dollars when you left, which you have been accused of and you have denied, but the report did say there were $5 million in cash on the palace grounds.

    Did that money belong to you?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    I have declared $5 million in my declaration of assets in 2014.

    I don't know how much was left. But my personal assets were looted. I did not leave with anything, because — and I don't have any assets abroad.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's zoom out.

    In the months before the fall of Afghanistan, were you surprised at the speed with which districts and provinces were falling to the Taliban?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    The Taliban could only function for the long period because of sanctuary and support from neighboring countries.

    Second, Afghanistan became the ground for a proxy war between the United States and almost every other major power from Russia, to Iran and others. And related to this is the loss of logistical support. In the end of 2020, there were about 20,000 contractors, and they were withdrawn to less than 100 in July.

    But, most significantly, the Taliban onslaught went without any coherent diplomatic response.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, with the perspective of one year, what you believe has happened is that, between the American withdrawal, the peace agreement that the Americans signed, and international support, obviously, in Pakistan from — for the Taliban and other intelligence agencies around the world, that is what you see led to the collapse of your government.

    But do you also accept any blame?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    Well, of course, we all do.

    I mean, responsibility is shared. And where I take responsibility for is to have trusted our key partner that signed our withdrawal agreement. And, for one full year, its forces were not attacked by the Taliban, but our forces paid the highest price.

    One has to take responsibility for trusting a partner that then trampled our sovereignty and imposed the release of 5,000 prisoners, among them, the largest drug dealers in history in the region.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You're describing the Doha agreement signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban, which put a date by which the U.S. withdrawal and did force the Afghan government to release 5,000 prisoners.

    The Afghan government was not part of that negotiations. You and your aides have criticized that decision for many years.

    One of your former senior advisers told me this about the chief U.S. negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad. By the end, the republic was humiliated by Zalmay Khalilzad, and he called him a snake oil salesman.

    Do you agree?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    I'm not the one who you uses adjectives.

    What I want to point out, one, the assumptions regarding Taliban were highly flawed. They were based on wishful thinking. Two, its preparation and its implementation will go down in the history as one of the worst agreements ever concluded, because it violated all.

    And then they were false assurance systems. We were assured that a cease-fire would take place and political negotiations regarding the future government will be an indispensable part of the agreement, which they were not.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You're talking about the U.S. peace deal leading to what happened.

    But do you not acknowledge that Afghan government corruption and ineffectiveness sapped the willingness of many of your soldiers to fight and die for your government?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    Well, corruption is two parts.

    One, let me bring to your attention the wartime commission report that Senator McCaskill commissioned.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mr. President, I'm sorry. I'm going to interrupt you there.

    Can you not acknowledge that there was ineffectiveness in the Afghan government…

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    I do acknowledge, but we need to…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … corruption in the Afghan government that led to those soldiers not be willing to die when it most mattered?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    Absolutely. Absolutely.

    Where did corruption start from? It started with a — with buying of the warlords by the Bush administration. The scale of corruption in Afghanistan is a confluence between your new barons, which represent Beltway contractors, and military industrial contractors, and Afghan new and old warlords.

    My agenda was to deal with this corruption and to contain it. This corruption was a cancer. But, simultaneously, you need to see our sacrifices. We were losing between 200 and 400 soldiers and officers a day.

    A time comes when even steel has a snapping point. And that's the point it came, because the cities and the provinces where a lot of fighting took place could not receive sustained support.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Was there an alternative strategy in perhaps six months or a year before the fall of Afghanistan?

    You were presented with a couple of options, arming anti-Taliban forces before you actually did, something that you did right at the end. Or even pulling back from defending the entirety of the country to defending fewer — fewer districts and cities, did you ever consider that? Would that have made a difference?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    It could have.

    But we need to understand, 20 years of engagement had been building systems based on the premises of 2024 departure. There was an agreed date with NATO and with the international community. It was 2024.

    Key was predictability. Had the U.S. decided to tell us in the — on January 2019 that it will withdraw by 2021, we would have been able to plan.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sorry to interrupt, sir, but some of your senior advisers after Trump promised to withdraw, after he had talked publicly about withdrawal, did warn you that this withdrawal was coming sooner than later.

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    The U.S. was of two minds.

    The security component continuously wanted engagement. And without the full participation of the U.S. security forces, we would not be able to prepare alone.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's look at today, and let's look forward.

    There's a question here in Washington about how to treat the Taliban. So do you think the Biden administration should inject funds into Afghanistan beyond just humanitarian aid, even if that would help prop up the Taliban?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    The U.S. propped up the Taliban. The Trump administration — without the Trump administration's role, the Taliban would not be here today.

    So there is moral responsibility. I would propose a conditionality-based approach, where it goes to the people. The Taliban are not in need. Trafficking and other things, and now the very large arsenal that is becoming part of the international arms trafficking is available to them.

    The suffering of the people has to take priority. And that has to be the goal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you support the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan led by Ahmad Massoud and former Vice President Amrullah Saleh?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    The way that Taliban are conducting themselves, it's very likely that they will be facing resistance, their repression, their suppression, their denial of rights and denial of voice.

    We need people's peace, not the peace of the warlords.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have said you want to return to Afghanistan. Would you return under Taliban rule?

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    I will not return under the Taliban rule, but I'd be delighted to return as an Afghan citizen to an Afghanistan where every Afghan feels a sense of belonging, where Afghan women, Afghan youth, and Afghan poor becomes stakeholders, and, finally, we get the stability that has been denied to us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ashraf Ghani, thank you very much.

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment