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Does the fallout in Afghanistan hurt American credibility?

To examine the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and how it impacts U.S. interests and credibility, Judy Woodruff speaks to Laurel Miller, former deputy and then acting U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2017. She's now director of the Asia program at the International Crisis Group.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now, for a different perspective, returned to Laurel Miller. She was deputy and then acting U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2017. She's now director of the Asia Program at The International Crisis Group.

    Laurel Miller, thank you very much for joining us.

    And let me just turn to you with the arguments General — former General — retired General McMaster was making. And that is that this is not just a failure for the United States right now; it is going to lead to a strengthening of the very terrorist groups that the United States does not want to even think about being in our future.

  • Laurel Miller:

    I think that's really quite a speculative assessment.

    I mean, it is true that there is some remaining al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan. And it is true that there are connections and relationships between the Taliban and those remaining al-Qaida elements in Afghanistan.

    What isn't clear is what's going to happen with them now. What the Taliban has said — and I'm not saying I take this at face value, but what they have said is that they're going to keep a lid on those terrorist elements in Afghanistan. I think we can be assured that, if they don't, that is the one thing that could bring the U.S. back involved in Afghanistan militarily.

    The Taliban also are reaching out to the regional powers, who they are cultivating their relationships with, now that the Taliban are the government of Afghanistan. And those countries do not want to see a rebirth of the al-Qaida threat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So your point being that the Taliban are trying to establish alliances.

    I do want to come back to another argument, though, that General McMaster made, that this sends a signal of American weakness, that it sends a signal, whether it's to the Chinese or the Russians or others, that the U.S. is not a country that sticks with its original promises.

  • Laurel Miller:

    Well, look, I think the counterargument to that is, there were consequences for American credibility either way.

    If continuing to fight the war in Afghanistan was not going to ever produce a victory over the Taliban, and instead produce only a slower defeat, then that's not good for American credibility either. It's not the case that the conflict was at some kind of sustainable steady state. The U.S. was keeping its finger in the dike in Afghanistan, but the dike was leaking already.

    For years now, since 2014, the Taliban has been gaining territory, and Afghanistan has been for a number of years running the most deadly conflict in the world. That's not a sustainable situation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The argument that we're hearing from so many quarters right now, Laurel Miller, is that this administration should have anticipated the chaos that's taking place right now, that they were being told by their own intelligence sources, by sources at the Defense Department and by allies that this kind of — that there would be a situation like what we are seeing now, which could lead to a humanitarian — a worsening humanitarian disaster.

  • Laurel Miller:

    Yes, I mean, I think there were two basic scenarios that many people projected, certainly from outside government, and I think probably from inside government as well.

    One was the possibility that, after the American withdrawal, the Afghan government resistance would be strong enough to achieve essentially a bloody stalemate, that you would have an intensified and protracted civil war. That was the best-case scenario. That's a scenario with a lot of humanitarian consequences as well.

    The other main alternative scenario was essentially what happened, rapid collapse. As President Biden noted, no one expected the collapse to be as rapid as it was. But that's just a question of a short difference in time.

    Nevertheless, that scenario was rapid collapse. And I expect that the decision to withdraw was made knowing that those were the two most plausible scenarios.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just very quickly, we heard General McMaster make the case that it's wrong, it's unfair to put the blame on the Afghan army, because they never were supported by a government that was going to back them up.

  • Laurel Miller:

    I think what is — what I would partially agree with in that is that the Afghan army was the army that the United States and NATO built.

    If they had weaknesses, those were weaknesses that were — and they did. They were weaknesses that were long known to the United States and to NATO partners who build that force. A lot of mistakes were made along the way, a lot of exaggerated ambitions that were never going to be realized.

    So, yes, you can blame them for not stepping up to the plate, as President Biden did. You can blame their political leaders for not providing the leadership that gave these fighters a cause to fight for, but there's plenty of blame to go around here. And a lot of it is attributable to the United States and how it went about building this army in Afghanistan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Laurel Miller with the International Crisis Group, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

  • Laurel Miller:

    It was my pleasure to be with you.

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