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What’s Going on in Afghanistan?

April 4, 2024
Notes
Transcript
Eric welcomes Will Selber, Military Affairs Fellow with the Bulwark and a 20 year veteran of U.S. military intelligence with multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to his writing at the Bulwark, you can read Will’s substack – Grumpy Combat Veteran – and listen to the podcast he co-hosts, Shoulder to Shoulder. They discuss the recent IS-KP attack on the Crocus City Theater in Moscow, the terrorist threat from both IS-KP and al Qaeda operating from Afghanistan, the difficulties of establishing an over-the-horizon counter-terrorist capability for CENTCOM, the Trump and Biden decisions to withdraw from Afghanistan, the failure to hold the Taliban to the terms of the Doha agreement, the repetition of US failures in VIetnam in training the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), a post-mortem on the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, the reputational damage to the U.S. for abandoning its Afghan allies, the importance of military introspection and accountability for some of the failures in Afghanistan, and the ongoing impact of the Afghanistan debacle on military recruiting for the all volunteer force (AVF).

https://grumpycombatveteran.substack.com

https://plus.thebulwark.com/p/al-qaeda-in-afghanistan-how-serious-threat

https://plus.thebulwark.com/p/president-biden-should-talk-about-afghanistan

https://plus.thebulwark.com/p/deeper-reason-for-military-recruitment-woes

This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions. Ironically, the transcription service has particular problems with the word “bulwark,” so you may see it mangled as “Bullard,” “Boulart,” or even “bull word.” Enjoy!
  • Speaker 1

    Welcome to Shield of Republic.
  • Speaker 2
    0:00:09

    A podcast sponsored by the Bulwark and the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, and dedicated to the proposition articulated by Walter Littman during World War two that strong and balanced foreign policy is the necessary shield of our Democratic Republic. Eric Edelman, counselor at the center for strategic and budgetary assessments, a Bulwark contributor, and a non resident fellow at the Miller center. My normal partner, Elliott Cohen, a Robert e Ozgood professor of strategy at the Johns Hopkins school of advanced international studies, and the Arleigh Burke Chair strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies is traveling. But we have today as our very special guest, Will Saletan military affairs fellow at the Bullwork online as well as a veteran of twenty years, as a Middle East foreign area officer, and publishing on his own sub stack and soon, I guess to the, podcast shoulder to shoulder.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:10

    Yes. Children to shoulder untold stories from a forgotten war. Yes. Thank you so much.
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:14

    Okay. Well, great. I’m looking forward to to hearing that. And, and your sub stack is, grumpy old veteran? Grumpy
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:22

    combat veteran. Yeah.
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:23

    Grumpy combat veteran. Okay. Great. Alright. I’m I’m I didn’t mean to Oh, no.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:27

    No. No. You’re fine. I must
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:28

    have been thinking of myself.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:29

    So No. No. No, sir. It’s a pleasure to be on. Thank you so much for having me.
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:34

    Well, it’s great to have you and it’s timely because, you, had not only tours downrange in Iraq, Afghanistan, but you were there for the denouement in Afghanistan. You’ve written, about that for the, Bulwark. I wanna start with, you know, part of the aftermath of that, which is the recent Isis K, the ISIS Coruscan province group, disastrous attack, terrorist attack in Moscow. Which even president Putin has, you know, conceded as Islamist always trying to, you know, wrap it in a Ukrainian envelope somehow. But, what does that say do you think about the terrorist potential that we’ve left behind in Afghanistan?
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:24

    I mean, I know that general Corolla, the centcom commander, a year ago, testified to the Congress that he thought ISIS K was maybe six months away from having the capability, to attack the homeland. He’s reiterated that there’s concern about attack on the homeland from Isis K in more recent, his more recent posture, statement and hearing. What is your, as a, you know, professional who’s looked at this and fought in these wars. What what is your take on that?
  • Speaker 1
    0:02:54

    Yes. It’s a great question. You know, I remember in twenty fourteen I was in Afghanistan on my third tour when, Isis’s case started coming up. And I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t think that they were going to have a lasting stand in Afghanistan, which shows you that there’s been a lot of, misanalysis on this.
  • Speaker 1
    0:03:12

    But I think that one of the important things to look at Islamic State Korazan provinces, not only did they do an attack on Moscow, they did it the same day on attack on Candahar as well. And that is important to note because it was an attack on the spiritual homeland of the Taliban movement. And so they did that. And then months earlier, they also conducted a strike on Iran on the ceremony for Custom Soleimani’s death as well. So those are some recent attacks that they’ve done.
  • Speaker 1
    0:03:40

    And I think it goes to the heart of the matter that What we left behind in Afghanistan is a state that is controlled by a terrorist organization, the Taliban that does not have the ability to do counterterrorism operations and to control that’s that state, especially in the northeastern provinces where the Islamic State kinda has a foothold. We struggled with that as well, but the Taliban do not have the ability. And then it’s questionable if they have the desire to do so as well.
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:11

    So let let me ask you, a couple of questions, about that. One is the ODNI’s, statement about worldwide threat. Basically said that al Qaeda threat is pretty much over and done with that they don’t anticipate al Qaeda will be able to reconstitute itself, in Afghanistan, but, the the fact of the matter is a, it’s not the only terrorist threat. Obviously, Isis K is the more serious threat right now. But we’ve left behind essentially a a petri dish for for terrorists.
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:58

    I mean, the Doha
  • Speaker 1
    0:04:59

    agreement said that the Taliban was not supposed
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:03

    to post terrorists, but obviously, we
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:07

    know they’re violating that agreement,
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:07

    because when when we ourselves killed, I’m in, Zawahiri. He was in, Afghanistan, in a guest house, if I recall correctly. And they can’t control ISIS K. So from that point of view, does that does it strike you that the DNI statement kind of was diminishing a little bit? Terrorist threat that still resides out there?
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:33

    I I don’t think that the the DNI I read it, is accurate on Al Qaeda. I believe that that Al Qaeda is still in Afghanistan, and they never went away. They’re getting stronger. They are part of the government. Sarah Longwell Hakani, is the minister of interior.
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:50

    His father, Jeanudin Hakhani, was a close ally of a of Osama bin Laden, Sarah Longwell Hakani, the minister of interior controls the police force, and it also controls who issues passports in Afghanistan, which should scare everybody to death. So Al Qaeda is part of the, of the government. Not only just, him, but also Corey Bar y’all who is the governor of Capisa province and also has also served in Kabul over the last two years, another mid level commander. So I believe that Al Qaeda is inside of the government. They’ve also if you look at the United Nations, recent sanctions and monitoring team report, they reported that there are multiple alconic training camps in Afghanistan.
  • Speaker 1
    0:06:32

    So I would agree that the Islamic State has shown a recent, capability to conduct attacks, across the borders, but I still believe that Al Qaeda has the intent and purpose to conduct out attacks against the United States homeland, and they said so. And al Qaeda pledge fealty, Tamola Omar and to Hepatula Akanzada, who recently in a recent report said that he was god’s representative on earth, which is the exact type of language that we heard from Mueller Omar twenty years ago. And so I think that both groups are a threat to the homeland.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:08

    Yeah. So, we’ve got an ongoing threat. What’s your judgment, Will, about, you know, our ability to deal with that threat. You know, the administration when it withdrew when it made the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. And then after the pretty disastrous collapse of the government and, messy withdrawal, in August of twenty twenty one, basically said we would constitute an over the horizon counter terrorism capability to keep tabs on all this my, you know, my question is how confident are we that an over the horizon capability will really enable us to deal with this sort of hydra like multi, you know, headed terrorist threat, you know, one that’s got a foot inside the government as you say with Al Qaeda and the other with, you know, ISIS K, which is in opposition to the Taliban government, but coolly capable of operating from from their the administration basically used the Zawahiri strike to say, oh, see, we’ve got our over the horizon capability.
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:28

    But I know from my own experience in government, I’ve been out for a long time now, you know, since, two thousand nine, so almost a decade and a half. But certainly, when I was inside, what I would hear from folks both in the military and EIC is if you don’t have folks on the ground. If you’re not working human sources, you know, just doing this with you know, various other ints rather than you meant is not you know, is not sufficient. What what is your sense as a practitioner?
  • Speaker 1
    0:09:05

    So I, I have I’m a career intelligence officer mostly specializing in human intelligence. I did inform internal defense. It’s been about three and a half years in Afghanistan and a year in Iraq. My thought is that the over the horizon counterterrorism option is limited, and it cannot find all the people that you’re looking for. The the strike on Zaraheri was a success And I know the people who are involved in it, and they did a great job and god bless them for doing it.
  • Speaker 1
    0:09:35

    But at the end of the day, You’re also relying on the Pakistani government to help you do counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. And the Pakistani government through the ISI was the safe harbor for the Taliban. They are the reason, in my opinion, that the Taliban was successful in pushing us out of Afghanistan. And so if you’re going to do over the horizon in just slowly look at that. You’re also going to more than likely use their, basis to launch drone attacks from, and it’s a deal with the devil yet again.
  • Speaker 1
    0:10:09

    And then also, I would absolutely, echo your sentiments. You know, we inside the intelligence community, they are divesting of past due linguists which are the the main language spoken by the Taliban throughout the country and also the Connie Bulwark. So there’s a divestment going on throughout the IC. And that’s understandable to to a degree because the the existential threat is Russia and China, but Now that we don’t have any human sources on the ground or at least nobody that we can operate outside of af inside of Afghanistan, you’re just relying on Ocent and more than likely Sigan and some other ants to try to pinpoint. And we had a hard time doing that even when we were in Afghanistan.
  • Speaker 1
    0:10:49

    I mean, we missed I’ll kind of training camps while we are in Afghanistan in twenty nineteen. I think we’ve stumbled upon some. So it’s gonna be even harder for us to do that while we’re thousands of miles away, trying to pinpoint where some of these HBTs are.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:04

    So it’s a worrisome, I think, you know, situation for those of us who have had some experience of dealing with these kinds of things in the in the past. It it certainly worries worries me. I wanna go back to the initial decision to withdraw and the way it was executed because you were there, so you’re an eyewitness to the execution. So let me start with the decision. In some sense, you know, the Biden administration likes to make the argument that their hands were tied because they had to deal with the Doha agreement that had been reached by the Trump administration that pump, you know, secretary of state Pompeo signed negotiated by my former colleague in government, Zelle, Colizard, our former ambassador to Afghanistan.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:55

    And a a, native born Afghan, immigrate to the United States educated here. And there’s some truth to that, of course, they did inherit that agreement you know, there’s nothing that says they had to, you know, you know, continue the agreement. They could have repudiated the agreement and or they could have insisted that the Taliban abide by the agreement because Taliban wasn’t abiding by the agreement once they came into office, and they Taliban abided by those parts that they enjoyed, the, benefits of, like the with, release of, five thousand Taliban prisoners, but they never stopped they stopped attacking the US, but they never stopped, attacking. They never really sat down to negotiate with the, with the Afghan government as the agreement called for. So, that that is one question.
  • Speaker 2
    0:12:59

    You know, was it kind of, you know, smart? Was there an alternative to just to, you know, accepting the agreement as it was? Secondly, you know, people, make the argument the administration does for sure, that had they decided to stay the Taliban would have turned on the United States and resumed attacking the US. Now US casualties were quite low even for the Doha agreement. So, you know, I’m I’m not quite sure how to parse that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:31

    But in any event, the military advice that they received was to keep a residual force in Afghanistan and the contractor to continue to support the Afghan national security forces, and they chose not to do that. I believe general Miller who was the final commander, was quoted as saying that with as few as five thousand troops, he could keep going pretty much in in indefinitely. So I guess the questions are one, you know, was it wise to, you know, insist on continuing with the agreement? And, B, do you think that the alternative of staying was a reasonable one that could have been executed.
  • Speaker 1
    0:14:19

    So I think the Doha agreement, was good in theory, but then, it wasn’t enforced. So if you’ve I listened to all the testimony by general Millie, And I read it again. And there was a statement in there that finally came out into the open in the public sphere where General Millie admitted that the Taliban had attacked American forces. And he they did throughout the entire last year. They attacked American forces.
  • Speaker 1
    0:14:49

    Now they did not in did they not kill American forces? But that in and of itself was the break of the of the Doha agreement, and it happened under Trump and the Biden administration So I would talk to a lot of the Afghan negotiators, when they were, in Doha, coming back. And the entire time was they are just playing us they are just stringing this along. After the Doha agreement, then they had, like, pre talks before the talks happened. And just the framework alone to get into the Doha agreements to start really talking about it took four or five months.
  • Speaker 1
    0:15:27

    And it was and you could see even while they were doing that, they were starting to incrementally get closer and closer to the provincial apples. So I I don’t think the doha agreements were wise because we did not back it up with a stick. And the Afghans could see us doing that. I spoke with all the senior officers as, inside the attaché office, and they could see us like, not holding them accountable for breaking this and that sap morale throughout the entire A and D SF, because they could see us doing this. So I don’t at the end of the day, I don’t think it was wise.
  • Speaker 1
    0:16:02

    I think it was a good idea to try to think maybe we could do this. I wish it would have happened earlier in the campaign when we had higher amounts of forces maybe during the Obama administration or stuff like that where we have a little bit more momentum. But second, the question about staying, Look, I am a advocate that we should have stayed. Now if you’re going to say that, then you have to then come back and say, There’s going to be American deaths because because of it. I don’t know how many it’s gonna be.
  • Speaker 1
    0:16:32

    Let’s just say it’s fifteen to twenty maybe to a hundred. I don’t know. Will Saletan opinion, that’s worth it because we are able to keep the Taliban Kaida, all these groups that are now operating freely at bay. And while we also keep bases up against the border against China as well. I mean, there’s other things that we’re able to do by having bases in in Afghanistan as well.
  • Speaker 1
    0:16:57

    So I think it was I think it was worth it. You could have had four thousand, five thousand troops maybe a little bit less, a little bit more. Then you also have the Europeans as well. NATO’s there. Also and and the majority of the people who are doing the dying and fighting are the Afghans.
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:13

    And this is really what I really wanna kinda the tragedy of the Afghan war, and there’s there’s so many different aspects of it. But one of them, at least, is that after twenty years, Finally, you started seeing the young generation of Afghan general officers making it up through the senior rank. I know you had general Sedad on this, Sami Sedad on this. We did.
  • Speaker 2
    0:17:36

    Yes. Yeah. Very impressive.
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:37

    Very impressive. A good friend of mine. Him, it’s not just him. General Alizai, the last, A and A chief, Mustofa Wardak, who is a core commander who’s trained at the school advanced military studies at Fort Levin dot. So you had all of these general offers, young general officers who studied in the west starting to come up through the ranks.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:00

    And they were starting to finally grab power from the old guard. And And then it went away. And the big thing that that really hurt them was the contract support.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:13

    Yeah. I was that’s I really wanted to get into that will because I that’s something I felt very strongly, you know, from the get go. Which was, okay, if you’re gonna pull out all the US troops, okay, I mean, I don’t agree, but I get that. But the, removal of all the contract support and pulling out a bagram and, like, throwing the keys over the fence, you know, to the Afghans leaving without telling them, to me, was, absolute you know, dereliction of of duty. And and here’s why I say that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:48

    You know, I I had a predecessor as under secretary of defense Bob Comer, who was, known essentially among other things for, having presided over the chords program in in Vietnam as the deputy to general creighton Abrams. And, of having essentially been very successful at at counterinsurgency. I mean, people I tend not to realize this about the Vietnam war, but the insurgency part of it had actually been defeated by the time we lost, who we didn’t lose to the Vietnam. We lost ultimately to the North Vietnamese army that came across the border after we left. But, you know, Bob Komer wrote a study called bureaucracy does its thing for rand after the fact about the training of the Afghan, excuse me, of the Arvin, the army of the Republic of Vietnam.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:47

    And what he said was we basically created a little mini US army in Vietnam, and and then we left, and they weren’t able to sustain it. And I worried about this while I was in government actually raised it in a speech I gave in two thousand six, I worried that we were doing exactly the same thing. And if you read the report of the special inspect general for Afghanistan’s cigarette report after the departure and the retrospective, it’s very clear that one of the things that led to the debacle was the fact that we trained the Afghan, national army and the security forces to essentially fight the way we fight with the kind of mission, you know, control that we use kind of the template that we use and with contract support, I mean, with with close air support, provided by the US Air Force and contract support for their rotary wing, aircraft, and for everything else that, you know, the trucks, the vehicles, everything that makes a military work, and we pulled that all out. And then we wondered why they couldn’t, you know, why they couldn’t and wouldn’t fight for themselves. I mean, one of the things I found most offensive about president Biden’s statements, in the end days was about the Afghan not fighting you know, for themselves when we had literally made that impossible.
  • Speaker 2
    0:21:14

    Am I wrong, or is that
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:15

    No, sir. You’re not. Yes. I I think, you know, I the thing that I when I talk about Afghanistan, the the biggest thing that I get is the Afghan sit and fight. And that’s unfortunate for so many reasons because they did.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:28

    Seventy thousand of them died, fighting just and DSF. Right? And then in the last year alone, thirty eight hundred them fought. So they they fought, and it didn’t just happen overnight. This was a thing that happened over years because of multiple things, and we can get into that as well.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:44

    But What we did was that we built an army in our own image. We made it addicted to close air support. Ubiquitous intelligence and fires. Now and then what we did was they we train them to do this, and they They were pretty proficient at it. If you look at the Annace Up, which is their special operation corps, and the Afghan Air Force, they were a very, very effective fighting force.
  • Speaker 1
    0:22:11

    Very effective. I know a lot of these guys, and the Afghan Air Force was pretty good. I mean, you had a twenty nine c one thirties rotary ring. The special mission wing did nightly insertions of commandos all over the battlefield. But the contract support, they weren’t there yet.
  • Speaker 1
    0:22:29

    To do the logistics, to do the maintenance, to even do the administration part, because the contractors did that too. So when they pulled all those out, it ground to a halt. So much so that they were thinking about doing, like, trying to help some of the Afghan Air Force mechanics via zoom. So if you call in via zoom and you kinda point to something and you try to figure it out. And that’s no way to conduct a war, especially when the Afghan Air Force is flying all the time, and they’re breaking down.
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:02

    And, I think that if you look at the fighting force, the the the top echelon, you had a lot of people that are willing to fight and they’re willing to fight in, even towards the end. They just ran out of ammunition. They ran out of bombs. They ran out of the ability to get their people off the battlefield. If one of the things, if I may, sir, to just to kinda underscore about the Afghans.
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:27

    Look, I fought with the Afghans. I fought with the Afghan local police. I helped train. Afghan National Army, Afghan Police. Some of them work good.
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:37

    It’s a, you know, impoverished nation that’s gonna take a long time to get get to that point. But I would also underscore that, like, for us, like, I served for three and a half years in in Afghanistan. And I’m considered, like, somebody who’s been around a long time. These these guys and and gals as well fought their entire lives. Their entire lives.
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:57

    Like, I got to go to the base at night. They had to stay there and fight. Not only that. If you got injured, lost a leg or got hurt, like, the amount of, like, the government taking care of you was very minimal. They just did not have that capacity.
  • Speaker 1
    0:24:12

    So I think that it’s important for Americans to understand that they fought. They fought very well for a long time. It’s just that the the support, the the the maintenance, the the the support elements were not there at the end. And it just ground to a halt.
  • Speaker 2
    0:24:28

    Yeah. You know, you make a point, Will, that I I make all the time when I try and talk to people about Afghanistan, which is the the degree to which it is one of the poorest societies on earth. And, you know, one factoid, and and I’m I’m I don’t remember now what percentage it is, but that the the, you know, the, income average per capita in Afghanistan is lower than Haiti. And by a lot lower than Haiti. And so I I think, you know, for Americans who are watching you know, nightly now the scenes of what’s going on in Haiti and having some sense of that that Afghanistan was, you know, you know, by an order of magnitude, practically poor is, I think, important, you know, important to bear in mind.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:17

    Yeah. My my sense all along, when I would, go to Afghanistan meet with commanders, meet with troops was that it wasn’t a problem of getting, you know, Afghans to fight, but that we did have, you know, some challenges. I mean, not the least of which was literacy. I mean, that that, you know, there was so much illiteracy in the country that mean you you had to begin by actually teaching you know, Afghans essentially had to read and write. And this was a product of before our time, before the Americans got there, the you know, twenty years of war that preceded us, which was the Soviet ten years of Soviet occupation and then the ten years of of Taliban, rule in civil war that, you know, just kind of tore the country tore the country apart.
  • Speaker 1
    0:26:13

    Yeah. I I think that in Afghanistan, there was a lot of progress that had been made. It would just I mean, people would talk about corruption, and it was absolutely a problem. That that we helped exacerbate by dumping full of aid money onto an impoverished nation and trying to make just quick impact just just in the next year instead of looking at it for a very long time horizon. So we dumped a lot of money on it And because the American government and the international community rotated out of that country at six to one year increments, we didn’t know where it was going from.
  • Speaker 1
    0:26:57

    And so it and we’re
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:59

    reinventing the wheel every year.
  • Speaker 1
    0:27:01

    Oh, it was even worse than that. I I know that general Mcmaster is, very, fond of saying that, you know, it wasn’t a twenty year war as a one year war fought twenty times. I would say it was even worse than that because only a few people, few institutions deployed for a year. The majority of it was four to six months. And so it was you know, hundreds of times, people are just rotating out.
  • Speaker 1
    0:27:23

    I had a boss in Afghanistan, when I was advising the ministry of interior of intelligence. Euro poll officer very, very smart, but he would stay for four weeks, and then he would go on vacation for two weeks, and then he would come back for four weeks, then he would go on vacation. And this is just a microcosm of the entire problem is that we didn’t have the institutional knowledge to to do a lot of that stuff.
  • Speaker 2
    0:27:47

    Well, I had a sense too. Tell me if you think this is wrong. But, I would go and talk to a lot of special forces units. And it was white soft, not black soft. But what they were doing was basically hunter killer missions.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:03

    And I kept thinking to myself, shouldn’t you guys be doing the Fed mission? Shouldn’t you be doing foreign internal defense? Shouldn’t you be training the Afghan? Why are you guys doing, you know, what Jsoc is doing?
  • Speaker 1
    0:28:16

    No. I think you’re right. I think that so I think there was a lot that were. Some of them were. So the the the big Fid mission for Soft in Afghanistan was the Afghan local police, right, the village stability operations.
  • Speaker 1
    0:28:29

    I did that for a year northwest Candahar. But even talking to some of the green berets there, you could tell that for a lot of them, this wasn’t what they liked. They liked to do the, like, door kicking. Right? Like rangers, you know, jsoc, all the fun stuff.
  • Speaker 1
    0:28:46

    Right? You know, at and that they had a little bit had lost that muscle memory of doing, like, foreign internal defense. And so I I think that a lot of that got kinda pushed off to other units to do. And some of them were good at it. Some of them weren’t.
  • Speaker 1
    0:29:03

    I am fond of saying A lot of the American advisors needed advising. And they and, you know, you come in there. It’s like when I would first sit down with an Afghan general officer. The first question I would ask him was, how many advisors have you had? And often would be, like, as many as the stars in the sky.
  • Speaker 1
    0:29:24

    Right? And so, you know, and they all have their own agendas trying to push the ball real quick. And so you just lose that capacity and it hurt us there
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:33

    for sure. You know, another thing I think that we missed a big opportunity on, and I I tried a little bit to help on this, although I obviously didn’t succeed, but you know, this was fundamentally a agricultural society. And I mean, I’m saying this because I’m I’m, you know, looking at you on the screen and seeing your, you know, your AGI had on. And but, you know, we have a lot of, you know, a lot of A and M universities in the United States. Notably Texas A and M, but that’s not the only one.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:08

    And, they had a lot of, you know, resident expertise and, you know, you were saying that we were pouring a lot of money into the, you know, assistance mission, which you know, completely distorted the economy, but I’m not sure we ever really kinda got to the agricultural economy, which is the basis of the society. That, you know, might have done us more good in the long term. But again, part of that was because people were looking for short term fixes rather than a long term, a long term solution, and even talking long term, because it, you know, you know, my sense of it when I first went out there was this is gonna be at least a twenty year or thirty year, you know, project, if not longer.
  • Speaker 1
    0:30:54

    Yes. I I totally agree with you. I I I think one of the problems with the Afghan war is that we didn’t really speak honestly about it. It was always like, We’ve turned the corner. We’ve defeated.
  • Speaker 1
    0:31:05

    We’re winning. And, you know, instead of being like, this is gonna take a very, very long time. This is gonna be forty years. They’re making progress. But in, you know, they’re not what we what we wish they were, but they’re the best that they can be.
  • Speaker 1
    0:31:19

    And always saying, compared to who compared to Pakistan, Iran to circumstance, turkmenistan, which ones next door. I mean, compared to them, not that bad. But yeah, for the agriculture, I was on, you know, a provincial reconstruction team, like a piece of province. We had some, we worked some agricultural development teams, which were national guardsmen who were most of them were farmers and stuff like that. And they did some good, but the problem, like you alluded to, is that there was no real long term thought process on how to make this a little bit better instead it was just pour something in.
  • Speaker 1
    0:31:59

    Let’s get some quick results. And by doing that, you don’t really think long term. You just pour money into it. So one of my favorite examples is There was a great hospital that the, South Koreans built years and, the early years of the conflict. But there was no staffing for it.
  • Speaker 1
    0:32:17

    So the Taliban took it over and used it as one as their field hospital. So these are the type of things that we kinda ran into throughout the twenty years. Let’s talk a
  • Speaker 2
    0:32:26

    bit about the, we’ve talked about the decision to to leave. Let’s talk about the way, you know, the way we actually left. You know, I I I don’t wanna, you know, claim any special prescience, but, you know, I did write in Bulwark and the dispatch about my concerns about the decision, in April of twenty twenty one. I thought it was the wrong decision like you. I thought we could could and should stay there.
  • Speaker 2
    0:32:57

    I thought the cost was worth bearing because of the potential to keep terrorist at Bay. I mean, I’d frankly had another reason, which is that, you know, if you worry about terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons, which right now, we’re more worried about Russians having their hands on nuclear weapons, but if if you are worried about that, the most likely route to that half is in Pakistan. And, you know, having a having a force in Afghanistan is, you know, frankly, would have been useful, to have in place in case something goes terribly wrong in Pakistan and those weapons start getting loose or we start worrying that they’re gonna get loose. And so I, you know, that was a a major concern for for me, but starting in July, I started to get worried things were coming a bit unglued. I actually, went on a, did, Bill Crystal’s, podcast his conversations with Crystal in July, and worried about it and then about a week before it all fell apart.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:00

    I had a piece in the in the bulwark, which was saying this is you know, looks like it could come down really fast. And of course, it it did. I’d be very interested in your view since you were on the ground there and thought about the sort of finger pointing that went on. You talked about General Millie and General Mackenzie’s, their testimony. You know, I don’t know that anybody pushed general Mackenzie, but it was widely reported at the time.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:31

    He was in Doha. And it was widely reported that, that, Mueller, Barradar, offered him to, that they could, that the US could secure Kabul before the Taliban came in, and he did not report that back to Washington. In part because he thought he knew what the answer would be, that it would be no because it would require additional troops to go in to secure the city. Although it seems to me that that would have been much preferable to, you know, what we certainly ended up with. I I don’t know how much Frank regrets that, but, I mean, to me, that’s one major regret that we didn’t didn’t do that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:12

    But there seem to be a lot of finger pointing that State department, particularly in, Charlie Sykes Wilson, who foreign service colleague of mine. We’ve served together in Moscow. Didn’t pull the plug quickly enough, on, ordering the evacuation. You know, I know, Ambassador Wilson has his own own, view of it. John Bass, former ambassador, who’s also a former foreign service colleague of mine.
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:40

    Both, good people, was the undersecretor for management. He got deputized to go out there and oversee the evacuation. What do you as someone who was, you know, there on the ground? What do you make of the kind of finger pointing and, you know, who hit John here?
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:58

    So I was there, from, basically, the last year. I left about six weeks before the, the fall. But I would tell you that Watching this and watching the figure pointing, what I want people to understand is that we’re all to blame for what happened. Right? We are all to blame.
  • Speaker 1
    0:36:19

    And I the Department of State has their share of the blame. Of course. I would say that, you know, you know this, sir, that it’s a small, department compared to the Department of Defense. The Foreign Service officers don’t take it up a lot. And but that really
  • Speaker 2
    0:36:36

    more people in military bands than we have in the foreign service.
  • Speaker 1
    0:36:38

    Exactly. Exactly. And that Yes. Maybe I don’t know the ins and outs of, like, you know, maybe maybe, you know, investor Wilson should have called it earlier. But I would always go back and say, well, the reason why he’s put in this position is because the military strategy failed.
  • Speaker 1
    0:36:54

    Yeah. The the thing that we did for twenty years did not work. And then I would also look at what was it a really great idea to pull everybody out of the provinces and just make a little place in Kabul, twenty five hundred people more or less, with a security element And then your your evacuation point is halfway across the city in a very hard to defend airport.
  • Speaker 2
    0:37:23

    Well, that And but pulling out a bagram also left you with a single point of failure. Yes. I mean, why why wouldn’t you have had belt and suspenders?
  • Speaker 1
    0:37:31

    Yes. No. I t totally agree. I I I I think there should have been multiple ones. And I so I think, part of the problem over the in the last year was that we we forget that it was COVID.
  • Speaker 1
    0:37:43

    And so people people weren’t communicating with each other. It was a lot harder to even we couldn’t even walk across Street from the embassy to the resolute support. It was all VTCs. And I just I don’t think people really it sunk in that we were leaving. And I just don’t think there was a sense of urgency behind it.
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:04

    I just think that didn’t really think that it would fall that quickly. Even though there was a lot of signs in it. And and you could see that in the way that that we even left Boggrom, like you alluded to kind of just overnight and then also like Kinda Hart Airfield. And we tried to to work with the Afghans into that, but even by the time we pulled out of that, they weren’t really ready yet. And it is because we built these airports and we built all this stuff, and it was an enormous, and it was hard for them to protect.
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:32

    So I I I I just don’t think that that there was I think everybody that has something to do with it is to blame. Because we’re all all, a part of this whole thing that happened in Afghanistan. But I I I think that General Millie and General McKinsey I think that there’s a lot of stuff that the military got wrong, and I think it would be really beneficial for a lot of Afghan combat veterans for senior leaders, retired senior leaders to come out and own this. And say that we lost, and that unlike in Vietnam, we’re going to actually learn from our mistakes here. And we’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen again because there’s no there hasn’t been any of that accountability yet.
  • Speaker 1
    0:39:20

    And it’s
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:21

    hurt very much introspection.
  • Speaker 1
    0:39:23

    Yes. Yeah. And it’s hurting, and it’s hurting our recruiting. I I it plays it it plays a part in that whole thing as well.
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:33

    I I wanna turn to the recruiting issues in a in a moment, Will, because in another hat that I wear on the National Defense Strategy Commission, we’re wrestling with this whole question since All of the services save the marines are are, missing their recruiting. Although some are doing a little bit better now, in in more recently, but it’s still like a big problem for the army air force and navy. But before we before we get there, I I wanna, you know, sort of tie this other, element up about, about the withdrawal the, you know, the you were saying that there hasn’t been enough introspection, you know, on the on the part of the military, and I I agree with that. There was, you know, this whole episode with the so called Afghanistan papers, that appeared in the Washington Post, that some people have compared to the Pentagon papers and, I I’d be curious to to your reaction to that. My my reaction was that that the post kind of mischaracterized a lot of what was in those documents.
  • Speaker 2
    0:40:50

    I mean, many of those documents were interviews with people for various, efforts by the military to derive lessons learned. And so they were encouraging people to speak candidly. And the candor about our deficiencies and mistakes that were made, you know, then somehow got turned into people were you know, lying to the American people. And my own sense of it is that, our military in particular has an ethos, which is a can do ethos. It’s very hard for people in the military say, yeah, we’re failing at something, and we tend also to try and apply metrics to a lot of what we’re doing, which frequently is things like morale and, you know, cap military capability of units.
  • Speaker 2
    0:41:42

    These things are not kind of strictly speaking. Measurable by, you know, quantitative metrics, but we wanna put a metric on it. And so, you know, secretary Rumpsel, you say you get what you measure, you know, and and so, I think we a lot of people with the best of intentions were, you know, you know, diluting themselves, maybe diluting their superiors, but not out of malevolence or, you know, a desire to to lie to people, but because they were trying to accomplish what they were being asked to do and the only way they they knew how and couldn’t square it up. But I’m curious whether, you know, what your take is on.
  • Speaker 1
    0:42:28

    No. I totally agree with your take. I think that when I say accountability, I don’t think, I’m sure there’s instances, but the vast majority of people there that were just trying to to to accomplish a mission and win the war We just kind of figure out what that meant. I think what what at the start of it, the Washington Post, revelations, I I I’ll be honest with you. I found them I found it that whole expose to be kind of, you know, telling that this was some type of you know, big admission that the war wasn’t going well when you could read anywhere, anything about it that would probably say the same thing.
  • Speaker 1
    0:43:05

    And these were just people that were trying to do it lessons learned, and that they were just talking about some of the deficiencies that they had seen in the And I wanna encourage people to be able to do that, not discourage them by then leaking it and saying that they were lying and then with the governments lying to the people Right. I I think that was a little bit too hyperbolic. Yeah. And I think that the strategy in Afghanistan, the Terry one. It failed for a lots of different reasons.
  • Speaker 1
    0:43:36

    And it’s not that people went in there with eleven on tenth. It felt, you know, for, you know, a lot of different structural reasons and people don’t understand the Afghans, not understanding the the Taliban, not understanding the reason, putting the personnel policy, all that type of stuff, but they didn’t go in there to lie to people. I didn’t believe that at all.
  • Speaker 2
    0:43:55

    Right. And and what gets lost and you’ve adverted to this in your comments, what gets lost is all the progress that genuinely was made. And the the education of, of a whole generation of Afghans, particularly women. And there was a lot that was lost, and again, I mean, one reason why I disagree with the, you know, the decision that was made was those gains, which were very real, were purchased, you know, in blood, and treasure and to some degree, the decision to leave in the way that we left kind of threw all that away. And I think I can’t think of anything that in some ways dishonors, you know, the memory of those who gave their lives in Afghanistan more than that.
  • Speaker 1
    0:44:42

    Yeah. I think that, The biggest victims of the Afghan were the Afghans themselves. And, you know, I I lost a lot of friends and a lot of them are Americans, but also Afghans as well. And they were left behind. You can agree with the decision to withdraw.
  • Speaker 1
    0:45:03

    You can agree with the decision. I don’t really care. That’s a different conversation. You know, we’ve been having a little bit of that. But I think at The fundamental thing that people need to realize is that we left behind our allies, and not just combat interpreters, although they get a lot of the love.
  • Speaker 1
    0:45:19

    Afghan special operation forces. There was thirty two hundred female inside the ANDSF. And towards the end, we were trying to push the Afghan government to bring in more. And all of them were left behind. And now you have a a gender apartheid regime who is flogging and stoning and killing people, kill and hunting our Afghan allies.
  • Speaker 1
    0:45:41

    Everybody in the world can see that this happened. That they and then and it is a very, very, very big ugly stain, on the the United States. And the American combat veterans see it. They know that. And, it’s a shame that it’s maybe it’s understood, but I don’t think it’s people really, really understand what happened when we pulled out.
  • Speaker 1
    0:46:05

    And to the Afghans that were there that believed in us, They’re the ones that are now trapped and they are being hunted.
  • Speaker 2
    0:46:12

    Yeah. I mean, that this all gets lost in the blather about you know, ending, you know, forever wars and all that nonsense. Let’s turn to the recruiting, piece of this, Will, you you, you know, you you raised it. We, you know, we are facing a a problem of, recruitment. What do you see as the major elements of the recruiting crisis and how much should Americans be concerned about the survival of the all volunteer force and and our ability to you know, to, to man train and equip it.
  • Speaker 1
    0:46:51

    I think it should be very worried about it. I don’t think it’s getting nearly enough press. It’s a national security crisis. It’s just that, again, all volunteer force, most Americans aren’t affected by it. So they don’t have skin in the game, which is one of the problems with the all volunteer force But I think when you get to it is that to understand the military is that eighty percent of military members come from military families.
  • Speaker 1
    0:47:15

    Somebody in the immediate family or just one removed, served in the military. So you get eighty percent of your force from there. So when you have sixty only sixty three percent of active duty military members saying that they would recommend military service, which is a twelve point drop. Since twenty nineteen. That’s a huge problem.
  • Speaker 1
    0:47:35

    But even bigger is that a recent survey by the Blue Star families found that only thirty two percent of family members would recommend military service. That is a twenty point drop in seven years. That is enormous. And because there’s only a small segment of the population that qualifies for military service for physical standards and drug use and all that type of stuff, So you already have a small pool to pick with just off of that. And now you’re starting to see quality of life issues, which is the big thing for military families that, like, spousal employment and stuff like that.
  • Speaker 1
    0:48:10

    And, you know, the economy having a good economy always hurts recruiting. So those are all quality of life issues is is is a big, big, big deep It’s a big reason. But I would also say that for especially the active duty service members and veterans, Afghanistan is a huge deal. It is just the war might be over for Americans, but it’s not over for most combat veterans. It has left a huge, huge wave of moral injury that is ripping across the Afghan combat veteran community.
  • Speaker 1
    0:48:41

    And they talk, and I know tons of my friends are, like, Why would I recommend service to anybody after what happened, after what the government did to me? No way. And I think to combat that is going to be a really big effort to try to get the recruiting numbers up because we need more recruits. We are facing, you know, near peer adversaries and it’s going to require more and more. The military isn’t less is more it’s just as busy now as they were during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
  • Speaker 1
    0:49:10

    They’re just spread all over the globe now.
  • Speaker 2
    0:49:13

    Yeah. And, I mean, the challenges we face are enormous with, as you say, to to peer near or near peer or peer competitors. I mean, we don’t have quite the, we don’t have quite the rotational deployment issues you know, that we had when we had a lot of folks forward in in centcom, although we still have you know, I don’t know. I’ve what I haven’t checked the numbers recently, but I don’t know. Last time I checked, it was around thirty five forty thousand.
  • Speaker 2
    0:49:47

    And it’s probably up a bit since October seventh, obviously, because of deployments, but, but still, you know, we may end up needing and that we’ve let the army, you know, get quite small and the air force, I think, the smallest it’s been maybe since Korea, and, same with the navy. So I I agree with you. You know, it’s a it is a a huge national security crisis. Let me ask you in does it raise questions for you about the, you know, survivability of the all volunteer forced. Do we need to go to a different model?
  • Speaker 2
    0:50:33

    Do we need to go back to a a draft? Should we have national service of some kind? The thing that The thing that worries me, I mean, I’m part of the Vietnam generation. And so I you know, I had a draft card. I had a number in the lottery and and, you know, I watched the draft go away while I was in college.
  • Speaker 2
    0:50:57

    The thing I worry about is, you know, our the, you know, our military proficiency has largely been built on the back of a a professional all volunteer force. And, particularly as warfare becomes more, technology focused with new technologies, you know, sort of bringing us to the cusp of a militant another military technical revolution with autonomy and AI and biotech and nanotechnology, but all these things are are playing, you know, are playing or gonna play a role. In the future, you know, not to mention already. We’ve got, you know, cyber space, you know, quantum computing and and etcetera. I mean, you need a highly skilled, highly trained force So I I worry about the idea of going back to a draft.
  • Speaker 2
    0:52:00

    But what what is your sense?
  • Speaker 1
    0:52:02

    Yeah. I’m not in favor of going back to a draft. I mean, I I don’t think it would ever be politically feasible and even theoretically. I don’t I I just the concerns that you raise or my I had the same concerns. I think that I think there’s a lot of problems.
  • Speaker 1
    0:52:18

    And one of them is that the United the Americans don’t understand the military, and the military doesn’t understand Americans. And I think that You know, if you look at it, the vast majority of teenagers can’t name, like, all the five branches. Right? Like, twenty percent I think there is a lack of civics, inside of primary schools. And just teaching high schoolers about the military would be invaluable to, you know, this is, you know, the United States military.
  • Speaker 1
    0:52:51

    Just because you join the military doesn’t mean they’re going to give you a gun and, like, send you to the front lines, right, if you’re worried about that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:53:00

    There’s a
  • Speaker 1
    0:53:00

    lot of different skill sets that you can get in the military. You know, I criticize the military, but I love the military. I think it’s an incredible institution that brings that has so many amazing people from all walks of life. If you wanna get, you know, encouraged and face and get some optimism, go meet a first generation American who just becomes a military member. It’s amazing.
  • Speaker 1
    0:53:19

    I have former interpreters who came to the United States, became SIVs, became American citizens and wins joined. So it’s a great institution. But I think that, you know, we have to teach Americans about it and then also connect, the active duty and veterans back to them, to the population that they serve. You know, since nine eleven, you know, it’s hard for people to get inside the military bases. Counter because of counterterrorism threats, I would be in favor of lowering that threshold.
  • Speaker 1
    0:53:47

    I think it’s good for us to all be together. And to have a little bit less of the deification of the military. I think that we went from, you know, Vietnam where it was, you know, you know, protesting the soldiers. And then we swung all the way because we didn’t wanna do that until a little bit too much, idol worship. And it needs to be a little bit know, not in the middle, but more to the right a little bit where people can understand the military because at the end of the day, the military needs Americans.
  • Speaker 1
    0:54:17

    So, obviously, serve, but also it needs Americans to hold us accountable for when we don’t do things right. And if you don’t know the military and you don’t understand it, then you won’t be able to hold it accountable. And I think that’s really necessary. And I think it’s necessary for, you know, high schoolers to understand it before they serve my if I may, the last year in active duty that I was in, we had a JRAC, a detachment that would come to our base. It was intercity, with a really low, graduation rate inside this high school.
  • Speaker 1
    0:54:53

    If you went and did the Jay Ratsey program in this high school for all four years, ninety nine percent graduation rate. So there’s, yeah, there’s a lot of goodness that comes out of this. And Jay Roxy is one of those programs that can be really, really powerful, to try to get our, our recruitment up.
  • Speaker 2
    0:55:11

    We talked about a lot of these issues actually with Peter fever.
  • Speaker 1
    0:55:14

    Mhmm. Yes. I heard the episode.
  • Speaker 2
    0:55:16

    In that episode of of shield in the Republic, couple of months, back when Peter, of course, working on a lot of the issues that you’re talking about. Will Saletan we’ve run out of time, but I I really wanna thank you for, you know, coming on shield of the Republic and sharing your experiences and and I wanna make sure our our listeners know that, not only can they read you in the pages of the board, but they can read you on your sub stack, grumpy combat veteran, and, soon be able to hear you in, in shoulder to shoulder, your, your forthcoming podcast that you’re co hosting. So look forward to that, and thanks very much for joining us on shield Republic.
  • Speaker 1
    0:55:56

    It was an honor. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.