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Will the withdrawal of U.S. troops enable the Taliban? Three Afghanistan experts weigh in

Judy Woodruff speaks with three experts on Afghanistan. Retired Lt. Gen. Doug Lute served in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations focusing on Afghanistan. Annie Pforzheimer was acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Afghanistan until 2019. And David Sedney was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia during the Obama administration.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to the president's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 2021.

    And for that, we get three views.

    Retired Lieutenant General Doug Lute served in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations focusing on Afghanistan. He also served as U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration. Annie Pforzheimer had a 30-year career in the Foreign Service. She was the deputy chief of mission in Afghanistan from 2017 to 2018, and was acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan until 2019.

    And David Sedney was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia during the Obama administration. Until recently, he was the president of American University of Afghanistan.

    And we welcome all three of you to the "NewsHour."

    David Sedney, I am going to start with you.

    Today, we heard President Biden say that the threat against the U.S. over the last 20 years has spread around the world, in his words, it's metastasized, and it just doesn't make sense to keep troops in one country, Afghanistan, at a cost of billions of dollars.

    What is your response to that?

  • David Sedney:

    I think he is dead wrong.

    The threat from al-Qaida and from ISIS in Afghanistan has not gone away. The pledges by the Taliban to combat that have been shown by the United — by a recent United Nations report to have been lies.

    So, trusting the Taliban, which is what this administration is doing, with the future of American security and counterterrorism is a very bad idea.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador Doug Lute, is it the case, as we're hearing David Sedney say, that there's still very much a live threat there from the Taliban and that pulling out is the wrong thing to do?

  • Douglas Lute:

    Well, Judy, I don't think anybody claims that al-Qaida is dead, but al-Qaida in that region, Afghanistan and Pakistan, is decimated compared to what it was 10 or 20 years ago.

    And, actually, al-Qaida franchises elsewhere. So, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, parts of Africa, are much more severe threats and much more imminent threats to the United States' homeland than the branches in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So — and, on that point, let me turn to you, Annie Pforzheimer.

    This argument that the threat that was so present and so enormous inside Afghanistan has spread around the world, in other words, that the Taliban is weaker than it was, what is your sense of that?

  • Annie Pforzheimer:

    Unfortunately, the Taliban will be emboldened by what has just happened.

    A conditionless withdrawal with a date is removing the leverage that we have had. And at this point, I don't believe that they have any reason to sit down to negotiations with the Afghan government, nor to fulfill any of the promises that they have made regarding fighting terrorism.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And why do you believe that?

  • Annie Pforzheimer:

    I believe that they can simply look at the calendar and also use the psychology of appearing to have kicked us out of the country, the way that the Soviets left, to portray themselves as winners.

    And Afghans, unfortunately, will have to make their decisions based on the idea that the Taliban could come back to power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Coming back to you, Ambassador Doug Lute, what about that, this notion, the administration argument that the United States can manage whatever Taliban threat there is from the outside, that we don't need to have boots on the ground?

  • Douglas Lute:

    Judy, I think it's really important here to be crystal clear about who the enemy is.

    Nobody likes the Taliban, but the Taliban have never threatened or harmed an American outside of Afghanistan. Their goal is to have a voice in the governance of Afghanistan itself. These are Afghan citizens fighting for Afghanistan in their own way.

    There's — that does not suggest that they are not repressive, Islamists, and so forth, but they don't threaten America directly. They're distinctly different from al-Qaida.

    Now, the two have linkages, and it's those linkages between Taliban and al-Qaida which have been promised to be broken by the U.S.-Taliban agreement, and which now have to be verified and confirmed and overwatched. But the two are very different.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Sedney, what about that?

  • David Sedney:

    That's, unfortunately, not at all accurate.

    The Taliban were the host to al-Qaida. The Taliban supported al-Qaida. And even though, in the agreement that Ambassador Khalilzad signed for the United States over a year ago, the Taliban promised, according to former Secretary of State Pompeo, to break ties with al-Qaida. They have not done.

    The United States has never had a good handle on what al-Qaida's presence are in the U.S. A few years ago, a number of people in the Obama administration, including General Lute, said the same thing, that al-Qaida has been decimated.

    But two years later, the U.S. found a large al-Qaida training camp outside of Kandahar that took us completely by surprise. So, any claim the Taliban doesn't have ties with al-Qaida, is not sympathetic to al-Qaida, is not allied to al-Qaida is just plain wrong, and any belief that the al-Qaida is decimated, as General Lute has said, is, unfortunately, not reliable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador Lute?

  • Douglas Lute:

    Judy — yes, Judy, if I may, what I said was that al-Qaida in this region, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are decimated compared to what they were previously.

    I just go back to David. I mean, what's the evidence of an al-Qaida transnational terrorist threat? The last one, by my record, by my survey of that history is 2005 in London. So, the presence of a few al-Qaida fighters doesn't constitute a threat to the American homeland.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me come back to you, because I do want to bring you back into the conversation, Annie Pforzheimer, and that is about what's going to happen to women inside Afghanistan.

    I know you were part of a conversation today with a number of women — Afghan women leaders. Tell us about that. How are they reacting? What are their concerns?

  • Annie Pforzheimer:

    Thank you.

    They are reacting with horror and grave concern. And if I may actually link the two for a moment, al-Qaida and ISIS are present in Afghanistan. If there is a civil war, which is the deepest fear of the women that we speak to, in addition to the Taliban taking power, the threat of militias that are arming themselves, people who will defend against the Taliban, could result in a civil war, which provides a power vacuum that ISIS will be more than happy to take advantage of.

    And I think the women are right to be concerned about this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador Lute, how do you respond?

  • Douglas Lute:

    My response is that Afghanistan's already suffering from civil war, and the women and children of Afghanistan are among the most suffering.

    Over the last several years, each year has featured 10,000 Afghan civilian casualties to the war that's ongoing today with our troops present.

    And on the top of that 10,000, another 10,000 Afghan security forces have been casualties to the civil war that's going on today. The best outlook for ending that civil war is not with 2,500 additional troops or sustaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, but by way of negotiating the end of the civil war between the two primary Afghan parties, the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Annie Pforzheimer, what would the women you're speaking to say to that?

  • Annie Pforzheimer:

    I think they will say this has not been a civil war.

    This has been a series of attacks on civilians by Taliban, by the Haqqani Network and by ISIS. A civil war would indicate that the people are taking up arms against other people. That's not the case.

    And, yes, it hasn't stopped because there have been international forces, but the idea is to push the Taliban to a real peace negotiation, not to give up our leverage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Doug Lute?

  • Douglas Lute:

    OK. So, first of all, I think Annie and David and I would agree that the war that is happening in Afghanistan today is basically Afghans, Afghan Taliban vs. the Afghan government.

    By fundamental definition, that is civil war, Afghans fighting Afghans.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Annie Pforzheimer:

    It's not a government.

  • Douglas Lute:

    I'm sorry.

  • David Sedney:

    It's not a civil war.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Douglas Lute:

    Can we settle on — without that term, can we settle on Afghans fighting Afghans?

  • David Sedney:

    No, it's…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Annie Pforzheimer:

    Well, a government enforcing its laws…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Douglas Lute:

    Right. I'm sorry.

  • David Sedney:

    And there's been a lot of problems here, Doug.

    For example, under your leadership, I helped negotiate a strategic partnership with Afghanistan. We should be keeping the terms of that strategic partnership agreement, not giving priority to an agreement with the Taliban that has failed in every respect.

    So, therefore, I think it's very clear that the United States is losing credibility in Afghanistan and losing credibility around the world. This agreement doesn't make us safer. It's what makes the world more dangerous to the United States. It makes us weaker and allows our adversaries in China and Russia to claim that the United States is weak and can be outlasted.

    This is a real strategic loss for the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is a conversation…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Douglas Lute:

    I just simply disagree.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I — we hear you, and this is a conversation that I know we are going to be continuing.

    But we thank the three of you, David Sedney, Ambassador Lute and Annie Pforzheimer.

    Thank you very much.

  • Annie Pforzheimer:

    Thank you for having us.

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