Full Episode: America’s Longest War Ends

Sep. 03, 2021 AT 9:03 p.m. EDT

The U.S. has fully completed its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war. The panel discussed the criticism President Biden is facing from Republicans and Democrats as he continues to defend his decision, plus a look into the battle over abortion rights, and the deadly impacts of climate change in the U.S.

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YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Ending war abroad and battling crises at home.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago. It was time to end this war.

MS. ALCINDOR: President Biden ends America’s longest war.

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) There should be accountability for what I – what I see as probably the biggest failure in American government on a military stage in my lifetime.

MS. ALCINDOR: But he faces fierce criticism for the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and for the Americans and Afghan allies left behind. The president also faces growing domestic challenges.

FEMALE: (From video.) It’s completely unconscionable.

MS. ALCINDOR: The Supreme Court refuses to block a Texas abortion law that is the most restrictive since Roe v. Wade. Plus, in the South and East, deadly storms and flooding; in the West, devastating fires; and the Delta variant rages on, next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.

MS. ALCINDOR: Welcome to Washington Week. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.

President Biden has been in office for 226 days, and this week like the month of August was tumultuous and at times heartbreaking. We begin with Afghanistan. Today marked the end of 20 – or I should say Monday marked the end of 20 years of the U.S. military presence there and decades of bloodshed. Still, President Biden faces tough questions about when and how he chose to pull troops out. The GOP, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is blasting him.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) This was a disgraceful and disastrous departure. Two weeks ago, President Biden specifically promised he wouldn’t pull out before every American who wanted out had gotten out. By their own admission, the Biden administration has now broken that promise.

MS. ALCINDOR: On Tuesday, the president forcefully defended his decisions.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) There is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges, threats we faced, none. I give you my word with all of my heart, I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America.

MS. ALCINDOR: We will also have the latest over the battle over abortion rights in Texas and across the country. And there is, of course, the critical issue of climate change and intensifying extreme weather events. In the South and East, dozens of people are dead in the wake of Hurricane Ida; and wildfires out West are leaving a trail of destruction. Tonight, the big question: How is the nation’s political leaders – how are they going to be addressing all of these changes at home and abroad?

Joining us tonight to open their notebooks are four of Washington’s best reporters: Craig Whitlock, investigative reporter for The Washington Post and author of The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War; and joining me at the table, Courtney Kube, Pentagon correspondent for NBC News; Anita Kumar, White House correspondent and associate editor for Politico; and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. Thank you all for being here.

Craig, you reviewed more than 10,000 pages of documents, you interviewed some 1,000 people about the war in Afghanistan. What did your reporting reveal about how this came to an end in this way, and what is the secret behind – the secret history behind this war?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, the secret is that for most of the last 20 years U.S. officials under three presidents – President Bush, President Obama, and President Trump – kept telling the American people that they were making progress in the war in Afghanistan. They always gave these very optimistic reports on how their war strategy was going, but in private – in interviews that we obtained for The Afghanistan Papers and the book that was just published – they told an – the entirely different story of how they didn’t have faith in their war strategy and they really saw this as an unwinnable conflict that they were struggling to figure out how to end it – so, again, a complete opposite of what they were telling the American people.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Craig, President Biden said that there should be lessons learned from the United States about the – from the war in Afghanistan. What’s your reporting tell you about what lessons the president himself should learn, given that he was so caught off guard that the Taliban was able to move in and take control so quickly?

MR. WHITLOCK: Yeah, I think fundamentally the United States never understood Afghanistan. We sent people there for 20 years, but people would cycle in and out for six months, nine months a year, so very few U.S. officials spoke the language or understood the culture. And I think this became apparent in recent weeks when the Biden administration had said that the U.S. military withdrawal would be pretty orderly and that there wouldn’t be a Saigon moment, which is what the president said just back in July – he said there wouldn’t be a moment where we’d be evacuating people off the roof of the U.S. embassy like we had to do in Vietnam in 1975. Clearly, the images we’ve seen in the last few weeks from Kabul show that, you know, of course, Biden was completely wrong about that, and they hadn’t anticipated that the Taliban might sweep through the whole country, seize all these provincial capitals, and waltz into Kabul. The Biden administration had placed too much faith in the Afghan government and particularly in the Afghan army and police forces. They thought they could hold off the Taliban for at least a few months, if not longer, but despite the billions and billions of dollars we spent to prop up that government and the Afghan army they collapsed very suddenly in just a matter of days.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Courtney, you’re nodding your head here. The estimates are that we left about a hundred to 200 Americans behind, as well as Afghan allies. How did that end up happening, how do we get those people out, and is the cooperation with the Taliban going to be part of that?

COURTNEY KUBE: So there’s almost no way that the Taliban won’t have some role in getting these Americans out and any additional Afghans that the U.S. is still hoping to get out, people who are at high risk in Afghanistan right now. The question is, what will the U.S. do? The most likely way right now is going to be working through intermediaries, the Qataris most likely. They’ve been helping the United States with the diplomacy. That seems like an obvious way.

The U.S. also is going to have to look at what leverage they have over the Taliban right now. About 80 percent of Afghanistan’s funding is foreign funding, so they – the Taliban are going to quickly learn, if they don’t know already, if they’re going to run that country they’re going to rely – have to rely on foreign money. That’s where the U.S. has some leverage. There’s a lot of money that the U.S. has that’s frozen Taliban money; most likely that’s going to come into play here if the U.S. really does want to get these Americans and these Afghans out. The reality is, though, what the Taliban has been doing with the U.S. military on the ground there, it’s been a bit of a confidence-building measure. That being said, the defense officials who I speak with do not think that it’s going to lead to some kind of a larger military-to-military relationship, but the fact that they’ve been able to uphold their end of a bargain with what they’ve done with the U.S. military helping to facilitate Americans getting to the airport in the last couple of weeks, that has built a little bit of confidence that perhaps they can work with them going forward to get some more Americans out.

MS. ALCINDOR: It’s such interesting reporting and such an interesting way to look at kind of the dynamics at play.

I also want to talk about the human cost of the war. It was agonizing. More than 2,400 American servicemembers were killed, over 1,100 allied forces, and more than 115,000 Afghans were also killed. The war also cost the U.S. an estimated $2.3 trillion. On Wednesday, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke directly to the troops.

GENERAL MARK MILLEY: (From video.) We are all conflicted with feelings of pain and anger, sorrow and sadness, combined with pride and resilience. For any soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine and their family, your service mattered and it was not in vain.

MS. ALCINDOR: Was not in vain. Courtney, what are you hearing from military sources about how they’re processing this – the lives lost, the war that cost so much?

MS. KUBE: So there already was a very real mental health concern about people who had served in Afghanistan. It was a difficult conflict. There were many dark days among servicemembers who served there. So there was a veteran community that already was processing that.

But what’s happened over the last couple of weeks has taken that to a new level. There are a lot of veterans – and active duty, by the way – who served there, who have been watching these men who served next to them – interpreters, translators – who they consider their brothers in arms begging them for help, and in many cases they weren’t able to get them out. There’s been this tremendous, really unbelievable, veteran network that’s risen up that has gotten – they’ve gotten thousands of people out over the course of these several weeks. But many, many were left behind. Someone the other day who I spoke with, a retired servicemember, said to me: Where’s the honor in how this all unfolded? How did we leave these people behind? And that is going to have a long-term impact.

You know, you mentioned the cost of the war. That doesn’t even factor in the continuing years, decades, of medical care for the servicemembers who served there, both mental health, medical care, but also the physical care that it will take to take care of these men and women for decades because of the war in Afghanistan. But there is a very real concern about the coming months because of what’s happened, what the men and women who’ve served there have watched unfold over the last couple weeks. It’s not about the U.S. getting out. It’s not that. You can say what you want. There are a lot of opinions on that. But it’s the way that it happened and it’s the people who were left behind.

MS. ALCINDOR: And, Anita, I want to come to you because I’m wondering what are the – what are the political ramifications possibly of this for President Biden, when you have veterans – I’ve talked to them too – who are saying: Where is the honor? I’m embarrassed, I’m hurt by the way this played out. But I also hear from Democrats who say: The American people have a short memory, frankly. They think that they can get through this without being hurt.

ANITA KUMAR: Yeah, I mean, Democrats are counting on that, right? The midterms are still a long ways away. And generally, in the last decade or so foreign issues haven’t really been the number-one issue in elections. So they’re hoping for that. You know, only a couple months ago, when you looked at the polls, people did support – most Americans supported President Biden and they wanted to get out of Afghanistan. Now if you look at the polls, they’re faulting him for the exact way that we did get out of Afghanistan.

So he could have had – I don’t want to say a win here, because obviously it’s a war – but he could have been unscathed. He could have done something that most Americans wanted. But instead, what you’re seeing is Republicans and Democrats criticize him. And it’s not good. What you’re going to see him do now is try to pivot back to his domestic agenda and try to really work on these spending plans that he’s pushing to get a win here in Congress.

SUSAN PAGE: Well, in fact, the Biden defenders say he delivered on a promise that Obama failed to deliver on and that Trump failed to deliver on, which is to end the war in Afghanistan. And that was one reason I think they’re willing to make this calculation that over the long term Americans will remember that he got them out of this war that people didn’t like. But I think that depends in part on what happens next in Afghanistan. Does Afghanistan once again become a staging area for terrorists, some of whom might target the United States? Does the Taliban live up to its promises to treat women and girls in Afghanistan with higher regard than they did in the past? That will determine, I think, what Americans are thinking about when they think about the issue of Afghanistan.

MS. ALCINDOR: And, Craig, what Susan’s talking about is exactly what I was going to ask you about. What is next in this fight against terrorism? How does Afghanistan factor into that?

MR. WHITLOCK: Yeah, that’s a good question. And Courtney alluded to some of this earlier, about how the U.S. military and the Taliban sort of have a working relationship at this point, at least on one level. But one thing where both sides have a mutual interest is on counterterrorism with regards to the group Islamic State in Afghanistan, often known as ISIS-K. Islamic State is a much more radical group even than the Taliban, believe it or not. They see the Taliban as kind of moderate on issues. So they’re very hostile toward each other. And actually in the past couple years the United States has sort of tried to help the Taliban take action against Islamic State. For a number of years, the U.S. military was conducting a lot of air strikes against them.

So both sides have an interest in doing something about Islamic State. You may remember that the CIA Director William Burns flew into Kabul several days ago to meet with the top Taliban leadership. They didn’t discuss exactly what they talked about, but almost certainly it had to do with ways they might be able to cooperate against Islamic State. And so I think going forward we may see that happen quite a bit.

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, there’s a lot to talk about. Thank you so much, Craig, for joining us tonight.

Now let’s turn to domestic challenges. On Wednesday the Supreme Court refused to block a new Texas law that bans abortions after cardiac activity is detected, which is usually at six weeks. The law also allows anyone – anyone – to sue someone who helped with or performed an abortion after that time. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pushed back on a male reporter who questioned why the president, as a Catholic, supports abortion rights.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: (From video.) He believes that it’s up to a woman to make those decisions, and up to a woman to make those decisions with her doctor. I know you’ve never faced those choices, nor have you ever been pregnant, but for women out there who have faced those choices this is an incredibly difficult thing.

MS. ALCINDOR: That was quite a moment. That was quite a moment at the White House briefing. Susan, I want to come to you. Explain the implications of this law, especially because there’s this $10,000 reward possibly people can get. And there’s also some news tonight about what the courts are doing.

MS. PAGE: Yes, just tonight a district court judge in Travis County, Texas has issued a temporary restraining order against Texas Right to Life in suing Planned Parenthood clinics there to enforce the law. But this is round two in a hundred-round fight that we’re going to have, both in the courts and elsewhere. This Texas law is designed to be hard to challenge in the courts. And that’s the reason that the five Supreme Court justices who refused to enjoin the law from going into effect gave as their reason for making that decision. It has basically outlawed abortion in our nation’s second-largest state. And it has provided a roadmap for other states that want to restrict abortion about how they might go ahead in doing this. This is the biggest threat to abortion rights that we’ve seen since 1973, when the Roe v. Wade decision was first made.

MS. ALCINDOR: And, Anita, women of color in particular – when you think about, as Susan said, the biggest threat since Roe v. Wade – are going to be impacted by this, women who maybe don’t have the money to go to another state. Talk a bit about just the implications for the most vulnerable among us.

MS. KUMAR: Yeah, it’s women of color. You’re also seeing young women, teens, and women that live in rural communities. You know, people forget how big Texas is. To get to a clinic or a facility you have to drive miles and miles and miles – hundreds of miles in some cases. And what you’re seeing there this week is that women are not realizing, you know, how far along they are. Some of them don’t even realize they’re pregnant. And so what’s happening is they’re calling up, they’re waiting in line hours to go into a clinic on the day that this law – the day before the law went into effect. What they’re trying to figure out how is where can they go, how can they do this?

MS. ALCINDOR: And the other question is, what are Democrats going to do?

MS. KUMAR: Yeah. I mean, it’s a great question. We don’t really know what they’re going to do, right? I mean, it’s a big question mark right now. I think most people, many people, thought maybe the Supreme Court would just hold off on this and let this go through the courts. And so that didn’t happen. And so now the question is: What does happen next? As Susan alluded, we’re going to see even more of these restrictions, some people – some states copying this law. But we’ve already seen in the last year or so 90 restrictions on states across the country on abortion, as people are looking towards the Supreme Court and thinking that they’re going to keep these laws intact.

MS. ALCINDOR: And when they’re looking at the Supreme Court we’re already seeing some states, my native state of Florida, we’re also seeing it in South Dakota, in Arkansas, officials saying that they’re going to have copycat laws. I wonder, though, when conservatives are talking about having personal freedoms for the COVID vaccine and not wanting to be mandated there, they’re also, of course, telling women, we want to have laws to control your body. How do they reconcile those two positions? What are you hearing from conservatives? How do they get around that political conversation?

MS. PAGE: Well, those who oppose abortion in all instances would say that they believe that life begins at the moment of conception. They would explain the difference that way. But it’s a – but it’s a good point. And this is – this is really President Trump delivering on a campaign promise that helped him get elected, right? He solidified support among White Evangelicals in part with the promise that he would remake the Supreme Court and that they would then restrict abortion in new ways.

And that is what seems to be happening. Three appointments to the high court, two of them replacing justices who had supported abortion rights. And we’ve got the court ready to take up, this term, a case from Louisiana that deals with much greater restrictions on abortion than have been allowed before. And we’ll see if they’re willing to overturn Roe v. Wade, or at least allow much more encroachment on the guarantees that Roe v. Wade gave women back those decades ago.

MS. ALCINDOR: And it needs to be said that we’re not sure, in terms of legislatively, what’s going to happen, because as we are trying to answer the question of what Democrats might do, they don’t know if they’re going to be able to pass anything in the House or the Senate. It seems like a hard road ahead.

MS. KUMAR: It seems like a very hard road. I don’t think there’s anyone who really believes that this Congress that is so divided, with these thin – you know, razor-thin Democratic majorities – could possibly pass something. So then the question is, what do you do? And this is – President Biden has faced this on other issues, including voting rights, that states, these Republican legislatures, are acting. So then what can he do? It’s the same thing he’s now faced a couple times. And he’s really in a box here because there’s not a whole lot he can do.

What he can do is get other – get Democrats or people that don’t support these restrictions elected in state legislatures across the country, in these individual states. It’s something when he was vice president that President Obama was criticized for, that all these legislatures turned, all these Democratic legislatures went Republican. And it was a big criticism of President Obama. It’s something President Biden would need to look at.

MS. ALCINDOR: And, as Susan said, it was a long-term goal of conservatives. They’re starting to see a lot of the consequences of their work play out. The other thing, of course, that’s happening this week is that as fires rage in the West, this week Hurricane Ida devastated the country from Louisiana to as far north as Maine. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called for Congress to take action on climate change.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) Global warming is upon us. When you get two record rainfalls in a week, it’s not just coincidence. And that’s why it’s so imperative to pass the two bills – the infrastructure bill and the budget reconciliation bill.

MS. ALCINDOR: Now, you hear Chuck Schumer talking about this idea of this being a sort of national security issue. Courtney, I want to bring you back in. What do you – what do you hear from your sources, military sources, about the issue of climate change and the threat that it could have to our national security and to America?

MS. KUBE: It’s a very real concern, and in fact when Secretary Austin came in as secretary for the first time we had a defense secretary come in and say that was going to be one of his priorities, was focusing on the impact of climate change. And people may say, oh, come on, that’s not a real concern. On a practical level, you have bases that are based right along the coast and they have – their beaches are eroding. You have rising temperatures; that makes it more dangerous for men and women to train in the warm temperatures. So there are very real implications on a day-to-day basis of climate change, and as Chuck Schumer was saying there the science behind it is the more that the temperature is warming, the more potential there are for these very dangerous and difficult storms that pop up, like what we saw happen in New Jersey and New York, you know, this deluge of water that comes in on a – in a very quick manner. So it is a national security concern. The Pentagon actually put out a report about it, and it’s something that we’re going to see more and more of. It’s not just the impact that it would have on the day-to-day bases; it also has the potential to bring troops into other areas. So when you have something like the more – warmer temperatures, that may cause populations to move, it may cause water to dry up and people have to move to different areas, and then that causes instability, and then you’re talking about the potential to be – for troops to have to be brought in. So it’s definitely something that Pentagon leaders are focused on more so than I have ever seen in my time covering the building.

MS. ALCINDOR: Susan, is there – so there’s – you know, Courtney’s saying that they’re really focused at this about – focused on this in the Pentagon. Is there, though, the political will among Democrats and Republicans to do something together, or Democrats maybe have the votes to do something significant on climate change?

MS. PAGE: Well, this $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill that we heard Senator Schumer just mention has some really ambitious pieces of climate legislation as part of it that would, I think, go a long way toward an early Democratic agenda of getting it done, but as with every other piece of that bill you’ve got to get it through. You’ve got to get it past a Congress that is almost evenly divided where there’s no room for Democrats to defect on it, and we see every day debates between the most moderate or centrist members of the Democratic Party like Senator Manchin and the most liberals, the progressive members of the House, who have very different visions about what this legislation ought to end up saying and what it should end up costing, and that’s something that’s going to be worked out in the next few weeks. The crux of the climate change agenda will be determined in the next few weeks in this Congress.

MS. KUMAR: There’s one other piece, too, which is this $1 trillion bill, which is the infrastructure. It doesn’t combat climate change per se, but it does make roads and bridges and sewer systems and electrical grids able to withstand some of these other things that we’re seeing, and it’s something you’re going to see the president talk a lot about and maybe even some Republicans that, look, when these hurricanes come and these wildfires come, here are some things that we can do to help the entire country. So the Republicans might not say climate change, but they will be talking about how to shore up the infrastructure.

MS. ALCINDOR: And what’s – Courtney, if I can come back to you, I’m really fascinated about the idea that the Pentagon is talking about this more and more. Can you talk a bit more about what they might have on the agenda, how they might push for things, as of course they’re not political? But talk a bit about what they might be able to do.

MS. KUBE: So one of the things, you know, just look at the military’s footprint here in the United States but around the whole world. They are an enormous carbon emitter, so one of the things that they can do is try to reduce their carbon footprint. That’s something that – this study that the Pentagon put out several months ago, that’s one of the things that they recommended. But you know, one other larger thing that I – this – the terrible weather, Hurricane Ida that we’ve seen happen in the past few days, to me it also really underscores the role that the military has in responding to these crises, the National Guard in particular. There’s about 8,000 of them right now that are on duty just responding to Hurricane Ida, handing out water, food, helping with electricity, any way that they can, and they have been really taxed in the last year and a half responding to COVID. There were National Guard planes and pilots who were flying Afghans out of Kabul in the last couple of weeks. So that is another potential place where you have an already-taxed force, in particular these local National Guard troops who are there responding at the state level, helping their fellow citizens in their local communities, and they are particularly taxed right now, and this only – it will only get worse.

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, we’ll have to leave it there tonight. It’s an important point. Thank you so much to Courtney, Anita, and Susan for sharing your reporting, and thank you for joining us. And next week we’ll have a special edition of the show focused on the enduring legacy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Also, tune in Monday to the PBS NewsHour for a week of special stories marking 20 years since 9/11 and how it changed America.

Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. Find it on our social media and on our website. This week’s topic: crises at home.

I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.

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