PETE WILLIAMS: Crisis in Afghanistan: What’s happening now and what’s next?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.
MR. WILLIAMS: President Biden admits surprise at the speed of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The idea that somehow there is a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens.
MR. WILLIAMS: But pushes back at criticism he was caught off guard by the mayhem and disorder that followed.
FEMALE: (From video.) The Afghans that I’ve spoken to have talked about betrayal.
MR. WILLIAMS: After 20 years of fighting and billions of dollars of aid, why couldn’t the U.S. and Afghan governments stop the Taliban’s resurgence? Now what for Afghanistan and its beleaguered people? Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
MR. WILLIAMS: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I’m Pete Williams, in for Yamiche Alcindor.
Kabul has fallen, the Taliban have taken power, and the Biden administration faces a new, urgent mission: Evacuating thousands of Americans and Afghan allies stuck on the ground. The Pentagon has sent nearly 6,000 U.S. troops to protect Kabul’s airport to allow for flights out of the country, and a U.N. report shows the Taliban are already carrying out a door-to-door manhunt seeking reprisals against Afghans who allied with the U.S. On Friday, the president acknowledged the danger of this mission.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, that it will be without risk of loss. But as commander in chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary.
MR. WILLIAMS: What’s the latest in Afghanistan, how did we get here, and what’s next?
Joining us tonight with more insight are four top reporters on this story: Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and here in the studio with me, Anne Gearan, the White House correspondent for The Washington Post; Vivian Salama, the national security reporter for The Wall Street Journal; and Peter Bergen, national security analyst for CNN and author of The Rise and Fall of Osama Bin Laden.
Peter Bergen, let’s start with you. What’s the latest on the ground there? How well are U.S. officials coordinating this massive effort?
PETER BERGEN: Well, let’s pick a noun: fiasco, debacle. You know, they have said they’ve got 13,000 people out so far, but clearly we’ve all seen the images of the tiny baby being thrown over the kind of wall of the airport. I think it speaks for itself. We have reports of the Taliban beating Americans. We have reports from people on the ground saying that unless you have an American passport or a green card you’re not going to get on the airport, so that – what does – how does that leave the special immigration visa category people? So I think, you know, it’s not good.
MR. WILLIAMS: Vivian, the president seemed to suggest twice this week that this chaos was inevitable; whenever they’re – we were going to evacuate, this would happen. What about that?
VIVIAN SALAMA: I mean, it depends how you describe it. Chaos was inevitable with a Taliban takeover and nobody really saw the Taliban taking over as soon as they did, however chaos was inevitable because of the fact that we did not work earlier to get a lot of our Afghan allies and partners out, that we didn’t work to get our own people out with the Taliban closing in so quickly on Kabul. And a lot of pressure now on the administration to say you had so many weeks to prepare, why did you not implement this sooner and make sure people were safe and out of country?
MR. WILLIAMS: I want to come back to that issue, but Peter Baker, let me ask you this question: Did it seem to you that the president was sort of oddly disconnected from the actual reality of what’s happening outside the airport walls?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, I think several times this week you’ve heard him make assertions that were pretty much at odds with what we were seeing on television or what we were hearing from other reports. Among other things, he talked about how much smoother the operation was today, even though air flights were shut down for hours and people were, of course, still desperate to get in. You heard him talk about how there is no problem with credibility with the allies even as you hear all kinds of frustration and anger coming out of European capitals. You heard him say that, you know, nobody told him that the military actually would prefer to keep a small force there when, of course, there have been multiple reports saying that the top military brass suggested just that.
So I think that the problem for the president, among other things, is he does seem to be making assertions that are not in keeping with what journalists are reporting and what we’re hearing from government officials here and abroad.
MR. WILLIAMS: So, Anne, this question about why it didn’t – the evacuation didn’t start earlier, was it because the president made a promise to the Afghan president that we would wait so it didn’t – wouldn’t destabilize the country?
ANNE GEARAN: Yeah, Pete, that’s one of several reasons. I would add to Peter Baker’s list of things that Biden has said that seem somewhat disconnected from the current reality that as recently as a month ago, the president also said that it was not inevitable that the Taliban would take over and that he did not predict the kind of chaos and mayhem that we’re seeing now, that he actually thought that that would not happen.
So a lot has happened in that month, and during that month was really the window that the United States had to really get plans in place when it became clearer and clearer that the Taliban was getting close to Kabul.
I mean, this was not a huge surprise by the time it happened. I mean, they had, as of three weeks ago, functionally encircled Kabul, and then a week ago they started taking the largest cities in the country. So by the time it happened, it wasn’t an enormous surprise.
To your point about the president, Ashraf Ghani, he met with Biden at the White House, and according to Biden and aides later, asked the president not to mount some massive evacuation of Americans or vulnerable Afghans because it would undermine confidence in his own government. That really was President Biden’s opportunity to say, you know what, dude, like, we’re out and we’re going to start bringing people out no matter what, and he chose not to.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, of course, the war in Afghanistan spanned 20 years and four presidents, but much of what’s happening now can be traced to some recent decisions. Earlier this year, for example, President Biden pledged to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of this month, and on Monday the president addressed the nation and defended his position.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.
MR. WILLIAMS: The Taliban’s surge to power caught the U.S. off guard. U.S. intelligence as recently as last week simply underestimated the speed of the takeover. Here’s the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley.
GENERAL MARK MILLEY: (From video.) There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.
MR. WILLIAMS: Vivian, your reporting showed that an internal State Department memo last month warned the administration that the Taliban takeover was imminent and that the Afghan military may be unable to stop it, so were those warnings simply ignored?
VIVIAN SALAMA: The State Department asserts that they weren’t ignored, that Secretary of State Blinken received the memo immediately. He welcomed the feedback. But what they did about it is the question. These diplomats, about two dozen in total, really emphasized that the situation is getting – growing dire. The Afghan military is not up to the task. They’re not stopping the – they’re not able to stop the advance of the Taliban. And so the government needed to act quickly to get these Afghans out as well as Americans out, and they said by August 1st we need to start mass evacuations, otherwise, we’re in trouble.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, the president said today, yeah, we get a lot of advice, and this was just one sort of option.
MS. SALAMA: He was very dismissive about it, and that’s one of the issues right now is, you know, we’re going to be going back now and showing what they knew and when they knew it to understand whether or not they had the time to act and whether or not they could have mitigated some of the chaos that we’re seeing now on the ground.
Of course, you know, Peter Bergen was just talking about babies being carried over the walls of the airport to rush them out because people are so desperate to get out now. Some of that chaos that we see outside the airport probably could have been eased had we started moving people out in greater number earlier than when the Taliban was actually standing at the gates of the airport.
MR. WILLIAMS: Peter Baker, is there a certain factor here that the president just made up his mind and then whatever else anybody said didn’t shake him from his position?
MR. BAKER: Yeah. If you talk to Democrats that’s what they think. You know, you had a president here who made up his mind, really, in 2009, back when he was Barack Obama’s vice president, and they debated what to do about Afghanistan. He took the position even back then of a lighter footprint, you know, basically, beginning the idea of pulling out.
So I think he has been eager and anxious to do this for about a decade and he was set on doing it, and I think he was set on doing it regardless of what General Milley or any of the others might have warned him about in terms of the collapse.
And you’ve heard him say this week repeatedly that the fact that the Taliban came to power, whether it came in 11 days or 30 days or 90 days, he anticipated that and, basically, has no problem with that or at least was willing to make that sacrifice in order to get out, that he was going to get out regardless of whether or not it empowered the Taliban to take over the country because he decided that the war wasn’t worth fighting anymore, that, in fact, we weren’t really making any progress and it was time to get out.
So I think you’re right. He was already set on this. Whether – how much he listened to the people around him is a question that will be explored, I think, increasingly through hearings and other, you know, reporting and investigations in the days and weeks to come.
MR. WILLIAMS: So let’s focus in a little bit more on the immediate period. This week, Anne’s colleagues at The Washington Post compiled a tick-tock of President Biden’s weekend at Camp David and the 72 hours that shaped the president’s response to this crisis. So what do we know about what unfolded in the White House over the weekend and how has President Biden justified his handling of this?
MS. GEARAN: Well, I think the answer to how he’s justified it is that he felt compelled to speak again on Monday and then speak again today and interrupt his vacation a couple of times. They know at the White House that the – you know, the optic is – the optics, as they like to say, are not good here. Anytime you have the kind of – the scenes of chaos, sobbing, heartbreak, mayhem, that surround the airport that are being televised everywhere this week, it’s – you know, as the president said today, it’s heartbreaking.
But he keeps coming back to the same main point, which is that this war is no longer in the United States’ interest, in his view, and the longer Americans are on the ground in Afghanistan the more risk to those Americans. And he said, I think, three times this week, how long would you have me stay? A version of that. How many more Americans would you have me put at risk? And that is the crux of his argument, and as angry as he has been at the way this has all played out, as frustrated as many White House officials are, they just keep circling back to, we made our decision because it’s in the U.S. interest and we’re sticking to it, and it’s pretty unapologetic.
MR. WILLIAMS: So they’re, basically, saying this will pass?
MS. GEARAN: They are counting on a couple of things here, including overwhelming public opinion that says that – and consistent public opinion that says that pulling out from Afghanistan is the right thing.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, it fell, of course, to the Taliban just four weeks before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, President Biden explained why the U.S. military went to Afghanistan in the first place.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We went there for two reasons, George. Two reasons. One, to get bin Laden, and two, to wipe out as best we could, and we did, the al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We did it. Then what happened? We decided to engage in nation building. That never made any sense to me.
MR. WILLIAMS: So, Peter Bergen, this gets at the question that many Americans are asking: How did it come to this?
MR. BERGEN: When you say this, meaning what?
MR. WILLIAMS: To where we are now. In other words, who lost Afghanistan?
MR. BERGEN: Oh, my God, that is such a big question. I mean, let’s start with President Obama announcing a withdrawal on December 1st, 2009, at West Point when he announced the surge of troops. I mean, this goes – we’ve been saying we’re going to be leaving for a very long time. Then throw in Trump and his agreement, which was signed in February of 2020.
We’ve been saying we’re leaving for a long time. The Taliban are reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, watching TV. They’ve had a long time to plan for this, and then Biden just went through with it, I think, in a major unforced error. Twenty-five hundred troops. We have 1.3 million active duty troops, 2 million if you throw in the Reserves. This was a very small and relatively small insurance policy that was, I think, politically sustainable in the United States, economically sustainable as well.
MR. WILLIAMS: So, Vivian, what is the role of the Trump administration’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban for the U.S. withdrawal? Are we seeing the consequence of that or could it have come out differently?
MS. SALAMA: No. I mean, we’re probably seeing the consequences of two decades of policy measures probably, but the Trump administration decided that they believed a diplomatic solution was the best way. President Trump, as we all remember, was very keen on striking deals and he believed that a deal, a peace deal, was the way to go in Afghanistan and was going to be the measure that’s going to ensure that we could get our troops out.
And so last year, his administration signed a deal with the Taliban that, essentially, agreed in – for a number of things – A, peace talks, but also B, the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and that has been the start of some of the concerns that we’ve seen now that possibly could have empowered them, you know, given them a little bit of force and motivation, mobilization to get this – you know, get their offensive that we saw in the last week or so going. We know commanders that have been involved in the takeover of cities in the last 10 days or so were some of the prisoners that were actually released as part of that deal, and so of course a lot of blame and a lot of questions spill over two administrations; we can’t just blame one. But what’s so – been so interesting is how this administration has been handling the Taliban, is they’ve been very careful about not coming out and just full-on blasting the Taliban for some of – past offenses. They’ve used very careful language with regard to them. They say we hope that the Taliban of 2001 is not the Taliban of 2021 and that we can work together as partners. In fact, that cable that the diplomats sent asked the State Department to use harsher language when describing the Taliban to really expose some of their atrocities in the country. And so we don’t know; maybe they’re doing it as a strategic thing. There are people still – Americans still on the ground in Afghanistan, so maybe they’re just trying to play it cautiously until the August 31st deadline. Either way, they’re trying to take this new tack with the Taliban.
MS. GEARAN: They’re actually negotiating with the Taliban on the ground now, which is something that we’ve never seen before. I mean, in theory the negotiation – the peace negotiations are taking place in Doha. That’s become completely irrelevant now. We now have American military commanders negotiating face to face.
MR. WILLIAMS: So, Peter Baker, let me ask you this question about American public opinion, which the White House seems to be counting on, that, A, Americans agree that we should be out of Afghanistan; and, B, is the White House thinking that Americans don’t really care much whether we get all the Afghan allies out?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think that’s the cold calculation at the White House, which is that basically as long as they get Americans out that the Americans back at home won’t care about whatever happens in Afghanistan from now on, that this will fade, these pictures will be unpleasant for a few days but basically they’ll go away and Americans will – by the time they come back to the polls, won’t be voting on foreign policy because there won’t be any American stake seen in Afghanistan, and they have a point about that. You know, I looked through frontpages of newspapers across the country in the last couple days, and while this is obviously getting big play in the national media and the national networks, papers in, you know, cities like Phoenix and Fresno and Austin, they weren’t putting this on the frontpage anymore. So you can make the argument – that’s what they’re making, is that Americans won’t mind the fact that there was this chaotic, messy departure.
But there’s also another argument. The other argument is – and this is one that Republicans will no doubt try to take advantage of – is if it shows a lack of competence, if it plays into the notion or the indictment of President Biden as somebody who is in over his head or can’t handle the job or in some ways has made America look weak on the international stage, that could be a problem for him politically going down the road. It may depend on other events, other factors to see if they play into that kind of a narrative. This by itself might not do it, but it doesn’t hurt – it doesn’t help the president to have these pictures out there because I think he’ll see them again when we have future elections.
MR. WILLIAMS: So as the Taliban take charge, many in Afghanistan are fearing for their lives and their futures. On Tuesday, the Taliban vowed to honor women’s rights within their interpretations of Islamic law. Vivian, there already are disturbing reports of restrictions on women’s freedoms, so do you think the Taliban’s going to keep this promise?
MS. SALAMA: It remains to be seen. It doesn’t seem like they’re going to just flip a switch and kind of go back to the old ways. In many ways the Taliban wants to sort of win over public opinion of their own in Afghanistan, and so a lot of times – and I’ve seen this in Iraq; I’ve seen this in a lot of other places with groups like ISIS – they kind of slow roll it. They wait until they’ve sort of established themselves before they really impose the strict rules that they adhere to, and so we’ll see what happens. I don’t think a lot of people have too much faith, though, that they’re going to be completely different from the old iteration of the Taliban that we knew in 2001 or recently even.
MR. WILLIAMS: So, Peter, is this the Taliban 2.0?
MR. BERGEN: I’m very skeptical that they’ve changed. I mean, within the context of Islamic law is the modifier they use for everything, whether it’s women’s rights or independent media. Their understanding of Sharia law is quite different from most other Muslims, and that – you know, it’s really a Pashtun rural understanding of what women’s role – women might be able to work in a clinic that treats only female patients or maybe teach in schools for girls only up to the age of 12, and this is what we’re going to see, and it’s not going to be that different. Yes, they may have changed a little bit around the edges, but you know – they may allow television because now they’re pretty adept at propaganda. In the old days, of course, they banned television. So I don’t see it. And one thing, I think, that we should be looking at, you know, a lot of people were released from Bagram Air Force Base prison – Taliban prisoners, al-Qaida prisoners. These are huge force multipliers, not just the 5,000 that were released that Vivian mentioned as a result of the peace agreement.
So, you know, and picking up on something that Peter Baker said, on 9/11 the split screen is going to be every jihadi group in the world that’s managed to get to Afghanistan having this huge celebration. So, I mean, the stories and the pictures are not going to just fade away tomorrow.
MS. GEARAN: The head of the Haqqani Network is back there today. He’s got a $5 million bounty on his head from the United States. He’s walking through the streets of Kabul.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, what sort of – what sort of influence will the West have on the Taliban, any at all?
MS. GEARAN: A couple things. Definitely money. So to degree that the Taliban wants international recognition, there’s a – there’s a diplomatic lever. But to the degree that they want to be able to function as a government and actually run the country, they are going to need some continued influx of foreign capital. There just isn’t enough capital sloshing around in the country nor means to produce it to run the country. So a huge lever will be international aid, both government to government and international aid groups, and any commerce or business that the Taliban wants to do with other countries. That’s really the main hammer that certainly the United States has. Remember, we promised billions to the Afghan army. I mean, who’s going to get that money now if it flows at all?
MS. SALAMA: One really quick point to add to what they just said, Pete, is that today – on Friday President Biden said that al-Qaida is defeated in Afghanistan. I don’t think anyone at this table believes that al-Qaida is defeated; quite the contrary. They just talked about the Haqqani Network, which is linked – affiliate of al-Qaida. This is going to be a major problem moving forward, and if they empower the Taliban or if they fight against the Taliban, we can wait and see about that, but it’s going to be problematic for the – for the Biden administration moving forward and administrations to come.
MR. WILLIAMS: So what are the possibilities of a civil war?
MR. BERGEN: There’s been a civil war, Pete, in Afghanistan since 1978, even before the Soviets invaded, and we’re just going to go into another iteration. It’s like Back to the Future because Ahmad Shah Massoud, the great commander who was fighting the Soviets and the Taliban who was assassinated by al-Qaida two days before 9/11, his son is now leading the resistance in Panjshir Valley, which is in northern Afghanistan, never taken by the Soviets, never taken by the Taliban. Amrullah Saleh, who’s the elected vice president, is saying I am the legitimate president now that Ghani’s out of the country. And so we’re just going to be in another big cycle, unfortunately.
MR. WILLIAMS: So will we hear from President Biden again on this, do you think, briefly?
MS. SALAMA: President Biden definitely is wanting to sort of manage expectations. I think he also wants to move away from it and sort of focus more on his agenda. Don’t forget that he had this big infrastructure win in the middle of all this going on, and so I think he would love to shift focus on that, to shift focus to the COVID battle, you know, the pandemic battle, but you know, he’s going to have to answer to the questions and especially the more and more chaotic the situation gets he’s going to want to explain it.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right, thank you all very much. We’ll have to leave it there for this week. We leave you a couple of minutes early so you can support your local PBS station.
Thank you to Peter Baker, Anne Gearan, Vivian Salama, and Peter Bergen for their insights, and thank you for joining us. Don’t forget to tune in Monday to the PBS NewsHour for more on the fall of Afghanistan. Our conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra. Find it on our social media and our website. This week’s topic is COVID-19.
I’m Pete Williams. Good night from Washington.