Claudia Rosett joins guest co-host Kelsey Bolar on the podcast to discuss this month’s policy focus: Debacle in Afghanistan. They discuss President Biden’s complete U.S. retreat this summer, and how Afghanistan became ground zero of the worst American foreign policy debacle in generations.
Claudia Rosett is a foreign policy fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum, and an award-winning journalist who has reported over the past 37 years from Asia, the former Soviet Union, Latin America and the Middle East. She is widely credited with groundbreaking reporting on corruption at the United Nations. From 1984-2002 Ms. Rosett was a staff writer at The Wall Street Journal, serving as a member of the Editorial Board in New York (1997-2002); reporter, promoted to bureau chief, in Moscow (1993-96); editorial-page editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong (1986-93); and book review editor in New York (1984-86). From 2003-2015 she was journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Hello, everyone. This is Kelsey Bolar, filling in for Beverly Hallberg over the next couple of weeks while Beverly’s off getting married and enjoying some much-deserved time off on her honeymoon. Huge congratulations to Beverly. She Thinks is a podcast from Independent Women’s Forum, where we talk with women and sometimes men, about the policy issues that impact you and the people you care about most. Today, we are joined by Claudia Rosett, senior foreign policy fellow at Independent Women’s Forum, to discuss President Biden’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal. Among Claudia’s previous roles, she served as the editorial page editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal and bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal in Moscow. Claudia is the author of a newly published policy focus on Afghanistan in which she writes quote, “America’s humiliation in Afghanistan sends a dangerous signal of weakness and bad faith to the world. The ramifications are huge and grim, discouraging to our allies and emboldening to our enemies.” Today on this week’s edition of She Thinks, we’ll get into these ramifications and how as a country, we can perhaps think about regaining some of the credibility that we just lost.
Claudia, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much. Thanks for that introduction.
Before we get into what happened over the last few weeks and months, I think it’s important to briefly establish the backdrop here. It’s hard to believe that it was 20 years ago that America’s war in Afghanistan began. I know 20 years is a lot to cover in just a few minutes but if you can remind us what led us to this war in Afghanistan and how that war evolved over the years.
Sure. The immediate trigger, if you like, was the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001, which were clearly, it was very quickly clear that these came from Al-Qaeda. And what the US already knew was that the founder leader of Al-Qaeda was being hosted in Afghanistan by the then Taliban regime. The Taliban who has just retaken power in Afghanistan were in power then and they were giving Bin Laden a haven, a harbor, and hosting his terrorist training camps. And that is the place from which these attacks basically were sort of conceived and choreographed. And in a matter of weeks, President Bush sent US troops into Afghanistan.
Basically, it sort of evolved as it went but a NATO mission. NATO, American allies plus partners ranging from the British were major partners in this, to South Korea, the Australians, countries that aren’t necessarily in NATO but partner with it, basically allies. And they very quickly toppled the Taliban and began what turned into a 10-year hunt for Bin Laden, who was finally tracked down in Pakistan and killed by SEAL Team Six 10 years later in 2011. But that’s what began America’s military involvement in Afghanistan and it was really a terrible blow against the United States and it’s something that we need to keep in mind if it seems now like oh, that was manageable. At the time that wasn’t how it felt at all.
Absolutely. And President Biden’s choice of the deadline to withdraw appeared to be driven chiefly by optics. Reportedly, he picked September 11th to have American troops fully withdrawn so that he could mark the 20th anniversary of Al-Qaeda’s attacks on America by announcing that the war in Afghanistan was over. Now, I think very appropriately, President Biden decided to not make that big speech he perhaps anticipated being able to make given how everything played out. But there’s one detail about this withdrawal I hadn’t actually read prior to going through your policy focus. And that is in early July, the US military departed from its main base at Bagram Airfield in the dead of night and without notifying the Afghans, according to the BBC. A lot of us only began to pay close attention to the withdraw when things got really bad but how did it begin? And how did we betray our allies in that process?
Okay. There’s a valid debate over, should the US have remained in Afghanistan longer or not? And how long? But I think the manner in which President Biden withdrew was atrocious no matter how you come at it, whether it’s right for America to get out or not. I actually think it would’ve been worth keeping a residual force. He gave us a choice of extremes. Either you have endless troops in there forever or you take them all out by my deadline. The deadline he gave was initially was just crazy, September 11th. That was a day of rejoicing for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban when they hit New York and saw people jumping to their deaths from burning buildings and that plane crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the Pentagon on fire and that the president of the United States, Joe Biden would pick the 20th anniversary of that as his deadline for America pulling its military out of Afghanistan was very badly thought out because it would be another reason for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to celebrate.
But I’m sorry, I’m going off on a tangent here. You were asking me about Bagram. On what it is that Biden should have done, President Biden should have done differently if he was going to withdraw. Bagram was a really crucial airbase, is crucial airbase. It was actually built by the Soviets when they invaded Afghanistan, the US took it over and it was vital for air support, for operations of the Afghan military, of our own. It was a space in central Asia where China increasingly is trying to spread its influence. And the accounts that came out of there were just incredible. I mentioned, I cited the BBC, but there were many accounts of this. Apparently, the Americans just left in the middle of the night, and shortly after that, the electricity went off. The place was looted, thousands of Taliban prisoners who had been kept in a prison on the base were let loose by the Taliban the following month.
It was just a disaster and it was the place, Bagram Air Base would have been the logical place if there was going to be an evacuation, to use, unlike the Kabul commercial airport, which is what the US was left with. Bagram has more than one runway. It has a big area inside. It has tremendous facilities. It’s a place that would’ve been very useful. And if President Biden or any other US president wants to keep a base, a military base in central Asia, there it was. We had it and he just had them walk away. And it was really at that point that the Afghan army began to disintegrate because what they read into that was, America just wasn’t there for them anymore. Didn’t have their backs.
And it was in the weeks that followed that the Taliban began rapidly rolling across Afghanistan and then that sort of acceleration in August leading up to the capture of Kabul on August 15th, where the provincial capitals just began falling at speed. Leaving Bagram was I think, a bad decision to begin with. That’s something the US should have found a way to keep and the way in which President Biden and his team ordered the military out was just atrocious, inexcusable. It was terrible folly, and we’ll pay for it.
Yes. And I am going to follow up on the repercussions of that decision to abandon the Bagram airport and also enable the mass release of a bunch of prisoners there and what followed that in just a moment. But first I want to talk about the human cost of this withdraw. Specifically to all the Afghans who had placed their trust in America over the past 20 years and also the immense cost, strategic cost to America’s credibility and power. Thinking of these two themes and what happened there, why should Americans care? At the end of the day, I think we have to be honest that we can’t be the world’s police.
No, that’s absolutely right. We can’t be everywhere. We don’t have the resources, it wouldn’t work anyway but policing often comes down to dealing with problems at the margin. Bad actors at the margin. You don’t police every second of everyone’s life, you go after the killers. And in this case, I think President Biden was making a whole series of statements that just didn’t add up. When he said he was arguing, as he tried to justify this withdrawal as our troops were frantically trying to get people out through the Kabul airport that, well, Osama Bin Laden happened to be in Afghanistan and if he’d been somewhere else, would we have gone there? Well, he didn’t just happen to be in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a location that makes it a natural place, it’s very rugged mountain terrain. It’s a pivotal part of central Asia between Europe and Asia basically, that’s sort of the corridor. And it’s the place where Bin Laden had actually spent time during the Soviet occupation in the eighties because he went to fight with what were then called the Mujahideen.
There’s a long history here of what sort of led to the Taliban and it was an accident. And in other words, there’s sort of deep roots to why it was such a problem, why Al-Qaeda picked Afghanistan at that point as a base, why it mattered that we made it really hard for them to operate out of there because we sent our military in. And what’s happened, it’s been a lot of criticism of America’s attempts at so-called nation-building in Afghanistan, trying to stand up democratic institutions, which is extremely hard to do in a society that hasn’t had democracy as we understand it. But there were a lot of things, that can take a long time. It can take generations to really change things. But there were some changes that were big and important, and I think well worth doing. They spoke volumes to the world, and they did keep us safer for 20 years.
And part of that was encouraging women in Afghanistan who had just been brutalized, basically completely marginalized, sidelined, shunned, kept at home, executed for going against any of the Islamic law as the Taliban imposed it. Women in Afghanistan who began to sort of stand up for their rights and a good thing, I think a useful message to the world. Something I believe they were glad the US was helping them with. And this has just a complete betrayal. They’re now looking at Taliban rule. They were out there. Their names are known. Anyone who stood up, said, “Yes, I want to join these democratic values. I want a piece of it,” is now a huge risk. It’s not only women but women in particular because the Taliban just won’t tolerate that.
And as well, who worked with the US or our allies or stood up in any way for real democracy, real freedom in Afghanistan. And this was all just left. And I would add, this is in a moral sense, this is bad. When you betray people, you ask people to trust you, you tell them you’re there, you want to help and then you just leave them as President Biden did, completely in the lurch, with the Taliban in charge of the whole country as the US gets out of there, runs, shuts down its embassy, leaves does nothing to fight back. Basically just makes a desperate run for the exits.
Well, strategically that’s not a good spot to be in because you may need people in other countries to trust you, to help you, to interpret for you, to support you, to rally to you, to fight for you. And people looking at what just happen in Afghanistan are going to be a lot more reluctant to do that. They’re going to have a lot of questions. Can I trust the United States? A good question after what we just saw. That’s the unfortunate fallout. Betrayal is something people remember and we need allies, especially in parts of the world where China is making big moves right now and that applies to central Asia. It’s just become much harder.
Right. It’s very sad that personally at times, watching what our president has done in Afghanistan, I don’t feel proud to be an American. I feel we have betrayed our allies there and specifically betrayed the women. And sometimes, when I use my voice or platform to speak up for those women, I have critics say, “Well, women in other countries like Yemen are facing the same or similar human rights abuses. Why is this any different?” And the big difference is, is that we were in Afghanistan for 20 years building this trust, telling these men and women that we have their backs, that there is a better life and empowering them with the means to pursue that. And it’s like we left without even giving them a fighting chance. We left them so vulnerable to the Taliban. And I want to circle back to that and talk about these over the horizon counterterrorism capabilities that we now hear the Biden administration tout as we tragically just saw those capabilities are far less superior to having eyes and ears and boots on the ground.
Correct me if I’m wrong, Claudia, but a prisoner who, it was a prisoner who was reportedly freed from the Bagram prison, who set off that suicide bomb that killed 13 American troops and dozens of Afghans. And it was after that, which led President Biden to launch this retaliatory strike against what he and the administration thought was an ISIS-K target but tragically turned out to be a humanitarian aid worker, another man, and seven children. It’s a horrifying account. Of course, these tragedies happen in war but what makes this so horrifying to me was that this entire mistake, this entire situation between the American troops we lost and these seven children who died at the hands of American decision making, feel completely avoidable and worse I fear that this is going to happen more because now all we are left within Afghanistan are these quote-unquote, over the horizon counterterrorism capabilities. Is that something you fear as well?
Of course. You’re absolutely right. Look, when the US spent 20 years in there, there was on the humanitarian aid side, there was plenty of waste and corruption and frankly, idiotic projects at times. There were also some very good ones. It was a mix. But one thing that certainly happened was America and where this was a good thing, was America had a chance to build networks. Our allies had a chance to build networks. Everybody’s talking about interpreters but it wasn’t just interpreting that was going on. This is, you need to know what’s happening on the ground. You need to know who’s doing what, why it matters, who’s who. And that’s the kind of network that was built up there. That’s the network or the networks that have just been destroyed with the precipitous manner in which President Biden pulled out.
American troops walked out of Bagram Airfield and basically turned an American withdrawal into a complete rout. And this is on several levels this is a terrible thing. There’s the immediate thing, as you say of you don’t want the US military killing children or aid workers, which is what happened with that drone strike that was supposed to be against an ISIS horizon terrorist but wasn’t, that’s wrong. And that’s not a good thing. That’s not going to endear the United States to anybody. The same, including Americans. Americans don’t like that. I think Americans like being proud of our country. And I would like to hear that we’re very good at killing terrorists and we’re not killing children. I lay this at the door of the Biden administration but the other thing is, it matters to know if you want to actually make sure that more terrorist strikes against the US or our allies do not come out of Afghanistan.
You need those networks, you need information. And what we just saw, it was a classic case of the administration putting out there really just propaganda. We had this great over the horizon capability they were promising. It doesn’t matter that we’ve lost our bases in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter that we’ve been, the US was run out of town. This wasn’t a matter of, we just left an airfield, we ran down the flag over the US embassy, we ran to the airport, we had military evacuation flights going for something, roughly two weeks, getting out a lot of people or we’re still trying to figure out who exactly got out. And this is just what was there that gave us intelligence on the ground, it’s just in ruins. And while Secretary of state Tony Blinken and President Joe Biden have been touting well, that’s okay. We can do this from a distance over the horizon. We just saw what that can mean.
And what we saw was the Biden administration bragging that they had conducted a righteous strike against ISIS-K, this terrorist group and then it turns out, oh no, they killed an Afghan aid worker and seven children and a few other people who were not terrorists. They were carrying water in their car. That’s the problem with over the horizon capabilities. And while mistakes take place in war, this kind of thing, very bad message to send the world again. Finally, if you’re actually trying to stop terrorist attacks, it’s not a good sign that you can’t even tell the difference with this over the horizon capability or that it’s so politically driven because the Biden administration wanted to show that they’d done something, between a real terrorist with explosives in his car and an Afghan aid worker with water and children. You’re not protecting America either when you don’t make that distinction or can’t make that distinction. This is just a chilling story in every dimension and a very bad sign. Over the horizon is nice but it doesn’t begin to compare to actually having real intelligence on the ground.
Absolutely. Well, I hate to end the podcast on this disheartening note but I sadly believe that’s where we are at this current moment. Of course, we are America. We can and should and will be better than this but I think it’s clear mistakes were made and you did an excellent job laying out many of those mistakes in your new September policy focus, which is available on iwf.org. It is called, Debacle in Afghanistan, again by Claudia Rosett, our senior foreign policy fellow. Claudia, personally to me, you are one of my most trusted foreign policy experts. I am so grateful for any time I get to hear your insights and specifically for the opportunity to share them with all of our listeners on She Thinks. Thank you so much for joining us.
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