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What should the U.S. role in Afghanistan be now?

How did the failure in Afghanistan come about and who is to blame? Multiple administrations and both parties own the blame for the state of the nation, says Col. Andrew Bacevich (ret.) of the Quincy Institute. We now have a responsibility to provide continued military and diplomatic support for the nation after our 20 year engagement, says Lisa Curtis of the Center for a New American Security.

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  • William Brangham:

    We debate the U.S. role and what we ought to be doing next with Lisa Curtis. She was a senior director for South and Central Asia during the Trump administration. She's focused on that part of the world. And 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.

    And we're also joined by retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich. He is a historian and the president of the Quincy Institute. He's written extensively about America's role in the world.

    Thank you both very much for being here.

    I know you heard the ambassador just there.

    Lisa Curtis, to you first.

    She is clearly saying she feels that the United States has abandoned Afghanistan, and that is what we are seeing unfold before our eyes. Is that your assessment of it?

  • Lisa Curtis:

    Unfortunately, it does look like we are abandoning the Afghans.

    I think the narrative a couple of weeks ago was that we were continuing our financial assistance, our humanitarian assistance, that we would stand by the Afghans. But now that we're seeing this routing of the Afghan government and the Taliban taking control of the country much more quickly than anyone expected, there is a sense that the Afghans feel completely abandoned.

    I don't think anybody expected that Taliban would be taking over this quickly. But there are some immediate things that the U.S. can do. Of course, we have to evacuate those U.S. citizens who are in danger, and we're doing that.

    But we also need to evacuate the thousands of Afghans who have been supporting the U.S. These are civil society leaders who have been fighting for human rights, women's rights. These are people who have targets on their back because of their cooperation with us.

    And so I think the U.S. has a moral responsibility to also evacuate those people. We also need to galvanize the international community to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, where you're seeing internally displaced people throughout the country. They're flooding into Kabul, so there needs to be concerted effort to stave off this humanitarian crisis.

    And, lastly, I think the U.S. needs to shift its diplomatic posture. The U.S. continues to fruitlessly call on the Taliban to engage in a peace process that we know they're not going to. Instead, the U.S. should lead an international effort to prevent the Taliban from carrying out further atrocities against the civilian population.

    These are atrocities like the assassination of the government public relations chief last Friday. This can start with sanctions against these Taliban leaders. I think that's the direction the U.S. should move in.

  • William Brangham:

    Andrew Bacevich, I know you have long argued that the United States should have gotten out of Afghanistan years ago, and perhaps our entire mission there was misguided in some ways from the start.

    But given what we are seeing now and this rapid advance by the Taliban, how should we be seeing this? What should our role be here?

  • Col. Andrew Bacevich(Ret.):

    Well, I think it's very fair to hold the Biden administration responsible for mismanaging the consequences of failure.

    I think Lisa did a very good job of summarizing actions that the United States needs to take now. The American war is over. The war is not over. We do have a moral responsibility.

    But I would hope that the conversation about Afghanistan would also focus on how this failure came about. The Biden administration, what, in office for eight months doesn't own it. Multiple administrations own it. Both parties own it. American military leaders own it.

    And I think that, before we erase the memory of the Afghanistan war — and our country does have a tendency to do that — we need to have some time of sober reflection to understand why this failure occurred.

  • William Brangham:

    I hear what you're saying, Andy Bacevich.

    But, Lisa, to you.

    You hear the argument that Andy is making, which is that this is the consequence of decades of mismanagement and a misguided foreign policy in Afghanistan. But, as you were saying, we have a responsibility, at this point, to do something better for the Afghan people.

    More practically, what should we be doing? Should we be putting more troops back in there to help secure Kabul? Should we be offering more direct military aid? Should we be upping airstrikes? What should we be doing to do what you think we owe them?

  • Lisa Curtis:

    I think we should be definitely increasing our air missions in support of the Afghans.

    As the ambassador pointed out earlier, this is one of the major reasons that the Taliban is having such success so rapidly, because when an Afghan is sitting at his post, if he knows there's not air support coming in to support what he's doing, yes, he's going to desert his position. So that is something the U.S. should absolutely be doing.

    Now, I do agree with Professor Bacevich that several administrations are responsible for where we are now. I would say, definitely, the previous administration bears responsibility for a very weak agreement with the Taliban, an agreement that did not provide appropriate counterterrorism guarantees.

    The agreement did not force the Taliban to break ties with al-Qaida or to eject al-Qaida from the country. That should have been the very least that the U.S. demanded. It also did not bring a peace process.

    The only thing the Doha agreement achieved was allowing U.S. forces not to be shot at by the Taliban as they departed. But, also, the Biden administration had the opportunity when it came in, in January, to reevaluate that agreement and reevaluate the Afghan policy.

    I personally supported keeping a minimal force presence in place. Our NATO partners were also willing to keep 7,000 to 8,000 forces there. This would have allowed us to continue air support for the Afghans. It would have allowed to U.S. to protect our counterterrorism interests.

    I think the cost of the small U.S. presence was worth preventing the reemergence of a terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan, which we are certainly going to see in the coming months.

  • William Brangham:

    Andrew Bacevich, the Biden administration has been making the argument, it seems, for a while that the Afghan army and the Afghan government have the tools they needed to at least hold the Taliban back, if not repel them and to stop this kind of a surge.

    Is that a fair criticism of the Afghan government, that it's a leadership and a will, a failure of those things, that's gotten us to today?

  • Col. Andrew Bacevich:

    I think it's very fair.

    It's too late for airstrikes. We need to look at the 20-year experience of the American war. We tried to do two things. Number one, we tried to create a legitimate government that would command the loyalty of have the Afghan people, and we tried to create effective military forces that could provide for the defense of the Afghan nation-state.

    All the evidence shows that we failed on both counts. And I think the beginning of wisdom is to understand the reality of that failure and then, yes, to do as Lisa suggested, to take seriously our responsibility to contain the fallout. And the fallout, in particular, relates to the suffering of those who supported us and the suffering of innocents who now are a victim of our failure.

    But simply to prolong the war, the American war, at this point, it might salve our consciences to some degree, but it won't do any good.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Andrew Bacevich, Lisa Curtis, thank you both very much for joining us tonight.

  • Col. Andrew Bacevich:

    Thank you.

  • Lisa Curtis:

    Thank you.

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