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Former Intelligence Officials on the ‘Deteriorating’ Situation in Afghanistan

July 28, 2021 by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — Had President Biden sought Gen. David Petraeus’s advice on the Allied troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, he has made no secret of that fact he would have advised against it, even though the general admits the goals from engaging in 2001 have largely been met. 

“The decision didn’t end the war, it merely ended U.S. involvement in the war,” the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and former CIA director told Ambassador Mark Green, CEO of the non-profit Wilson Center, during a recent discussion of the implications of the withdrawal in Afghanistan. “We should always recognize that these movements continue… and clearly Al Qaeda will come back.”

“We stayed for a reason: to prevent them from reestablishing… sanctuary,” he said. “We didn’t go there to nation-build. We didn’t go there to enable girls to go to school… We stayed for what we could do, prevent Al Qaeda from establishing sanctuary [on Afghan soil].”

And now that troops have been withdrawn and bases have been closed, Petraeus worries not only that terrorists will come back, but also that the U.S. has neglected its pledge to helpers in the region, and that Allied partners may wonder about U.S. sustainability and commitment for long-term conflicts in the future. 

“There is an issue of credibility here,” agreed Great Britain’s Sir John Scarlett, former chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service. 

While Scarlett admitted that there would undoubtedly be a difference in the way the U.S. and the U.K. reacted to the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, he feels in the U.K. there is a “degree of surprise” that it happened at this particular moment, especially as it is unclear that there was much consultation with major allies before the decision was taken.

He said that the consequences of the withdrawal of forces has led to “feelings of unease” and increasing the perception that “we could be facing something very difficult in the next few weeks,” whether that may be an influx of refugees from the region or even a need to return to stabilize a rapidly deteriorating situation. 

“Fundamentally this is a U.S. led situation, and there’s an inevitability at the end of the day about [eventual withdrawal],” said Scarlett. 

“Specific objectives may have been met, but inevitably you get drawn in [to other challenges]…You can’t draw a line on responsibilities,” he offered, admitting the benefit of hindsight.

Of particular importance, both men insisted, was the key security concern for those Afghan partners left on the ground, whether interpreters or other workers associated with Allied forces, and what Petraeus called the “seeming lack of planning, until recently, for how to discharge our moral obligation” to them.

“A superpower has to keep many plates spinning at one time,” Petraeus said. “Among the plates spinning [should be] a very modest sustained and sustainable effort in Afghanistan.” 

While there was undoubtedly a clear risk that staying in the country beyond the Trump administration’s February 2020 agreement with the Taliban could result in Allied deaths and the renewal of attacks by the Taliban, Scarlett agreed that it “seems reasonable to say that the scale at which we were operating was sustainable.”

Preferring to call it a campaign rather than an endless war, Scarlett said, “I’ve yet to meet anybody who believes any… assurances from the Taliban. The return of terrorist activity is an absolutely key point and obviously a risk” not only to the urban society that has developed in Afghanistan over the last twenty years in all areas of life, but also to the safety of democracies worldwide.

“I fear this is a decision we will come to regret… and soon. I hope I am wrong on that,” said Petraeus. 

“I broadly support much of the foreign policy that is emerging [from the Biden administration],” he said, though, “Afghanistan is one of the few issues which there is a decision we may look back on and wish we had not made.” 

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