Analyzing the risk to U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan until Aug. 31

To discuss how evacuations in Afghanistan may be affected by Thursday's attacks, Amna Nawaz speaks to retired Col. Mike Jason, who was a battalion commander in northern Afghanistan, now the interim executive director of Allied Airlift 21, and Lisa Curtis, a former senior director for South and Central Asia on the National Security Council, now a senior fellow at Center for a New American Security.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    And now for more on how the evacuation mission might be affected by today's attacks, we get two views.

    Retired Colonel Mike Jason had a 24-year career in the Army. In 2012, he was a battalion commander in Northern Afghanistan. He is now interim executive director of Allied Airlift 21, which seeks to support the U.S. government's efforts to evacuate Afghans who worked with America over the past 20 years.

    And Lisa Curtis was a senior director for South and Central Asia on the National Security Council staff during the Trump administration. She was a CIA analyst in the 1990s and served in U.S. embassies in Pakistan and India. She's now a senior fellow at the Center For a New American Security.

    Thanks, and welcome to you both. We appreciate you being here.

    Colonel Jason, I want to start with you and just get your reaction to the remarks from the president and him saying he does not regret doing what he's done and evacuating, staying these extra days, but that he's sticking to that August 31 deadline.

  • Col. Mike Jason:

    Well, thanks for the opportunity.

    I mean, working this nonprofit group of veterans right now doing our best to connect and get our allies out and facilitate the evacuation, what I looked for tonight in the remarks from earlier General McKenzie and then the president was a commitment to finish the mission or at least keep going.

    And that's — after today's attack, that's what I was looking for. That's all we needed was, we got at least five more days, and we can get — put more people on airplanes. That was critical. And that gives us a little bit more oxygen.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lisa Curtis, what about you? What did you hear from the president? Did anything surprise you, particularly the very strong pledge to retaliate, to go after whoever is behind today's attacks?

  • Lisa Curtis:

    Yes, the president was very resolute.

    As you said, he committed to hunting down the perpetrators of the attack. And he committed to finishing the evacuation. And that did surprise me. I thought that he might speed up the evacuation process or just shut it down, quite frankly, because I think the reason he has been so adamant about sticking to the August 31 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops is because he feared such an attack as we saw today.

    But now that it has happened, I think he knows that we need to hunt down the perpetrators and we need to continue the mission. We can't be cowed down by the terrorists. He was very clear about that.

    And he was clear he is listening to his military advisers. We know that he hadn't listened to his military advisers about the drawdown decision, drawing down to zero, but he was very clear today that he is listening to them and taking their advice.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Colonel Jason, what about this risk balance at this point, though?

    Because we know the threat persists. General McKenzie said that even earlier today in his briefing. President Biden says the mission will be seen through.

    Even these extra three or four days, doesn't that put more U.S. troops in harm's way?

  • Col. Mike Jason:

    I mean, of course it does.

    This is — like the president said it, this is an extremely risky mission, right? So, I'm not going to question the commanders on the ground. I don't envy their position. But I have been on the other side. And it's a very, very careful balance of force protection and achieving the mission.

    And they have an incredibly tough job. I think we heard in a previous segment a description of having to be there. I think General McKenzie talked about in his press conference. Again, having — I have been at those checkpoints. You have to pat people down, and you have to be right among the crowd.

    If we're going to achieve the objective, our moral and national obligation of getting our allies out, we have to do it with the people, and we have to process them and get them on aircraft. And that's the balance. And that's what our commanders are dealing with on the ground. Extremely risky. They're not sleeping, I mean, 20 minutes, an hour of sleep a night.

    They have been there over a week. Very challenging conditions. It's hot. And it's dangerous. But I'm — again, I'm heartened to hear that our national leadership is committed and we're going to keep going. And those commanders will have to balance that risk for five more days.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lisa Curtis, what about the complicated matrix on the ground there between the perpetrators of these attacks, ISIS-K, the Taliban, who have been fighting the U.S. for the last 20 years and are now working with them to help evacuate American forces?

    I mean, explain that to us a little bit and how the U.S. is going to manage this.

  • Lisa Curtis:

    Well, we have been getting indications that some kind of attack was being planned, likely by ISIS-K. And we know that they have the capabilities to conduct this kind of attack.

    So, nobody was surprised, I think, by the attack and the fact that ISIS-K claimed it. And I think the president was very clear that we are working with the Taliban and that this attacker happened to get through. But we, the U.S., will continue to try to work with the Taliban in getting as many Americans and Afghans out of the country moving forward.

    So I think that the president was very clear on the difference between the Taliban and ISIS-K, and that they are mortal enemies, and they do fight each other.

    So it is a complicated scenario that we're facing. And, unfortunately, these attackers got through, and we have lost 12 of our extremely courageous Marines, 15 others wounded. One Naval medic also was killed. So this is a very sad day for the United States.

    But I think the president did the right thing and showing our resolve in moving forward and staying committed to the mission and not allowing the terrorists to deter us from finishing the mission we started.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lisa, I want to stick with you for just a minute.

    There is an estimate that, in leaving at the pace that we are, the U.S. could leave behind some 250,000 wartime, allies. Is there any moral obligation beyond the 31st for the U.S. to continue to try to get them out?

  • Lisa Curtis:

    I think we do have a moral obligation to get as many Afghan allies as we can out.

    Clearly, we're not going to be able to get everybody out by the time U.S. soldiers start returning home. But there is still an ability. It won't be as easy, obviously. But the U.S. can still try to get Afghans out even after our forces are no longer controlling the airport.

    There are other countries there that we can work with, countries like Qatar, Uzbekistan. We can look to their assistance in helping us in this endeavor. And with the Taliban — we do have leverage with the Taliban. The president alluded to this.

    They want to be — they want international recognition. They want access to financing. So we can continue this mission of getting our Afghan allies out, even when U.S. forces return home.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Colonel Jason, in this final minute, I want to ask you, because you have been working to evacuate some 20,000 people. I know you have submitted a list.

    What does that look like in the days ahead? It was already so difficult for people to make it to the airport. How does the U.S. do it in these final three or four days?

  • Col. Mike Jason:

    I mean, I think I want to recognize the courage of the 60 Afghan allies and their families who gave their lives today.

    I mean, these were people that gave everything to us for 20 years and lined up with the gate for a chance at a better life with nothing left. In addition to those 13 casualty notifications tonight, there are 60 dead Afghans that are probably, more than likely, our allies.

    And so that's their courage. And they will be back the minute the gate is open. They will be back tomorrow. And volunteers — like, there are many organizations like ours and Team America, No One Left Behind. We're all working together.

    I have 250 volunteers working 24/7 talking, texting, trying to guide them through this danger. And we have built this list. And we have documented now over 28000 Afghans and their family members. Individually, we have recorded all their records that are trying to get out. And that's the record. That's the promise.

    That's what we have turned over. And we continue to cooperate with United States government. We're prepared to work with nongovernment organizations or humanitarian organizations. But we will keep that record, and we have the moral obligation to continue to working down that list until we get everybody we can out of danger.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's retired Colonel Mike Jason and Lisa Curtis joining us tonight.

    Thank you both for your time.

  • Col. Mike Jason:

    Thank you.

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