New Atlanticist August 23, 2021

David Petraeus: ‘The Taliban are about to be acquainted with a very harsh reality—that they are broke’

By Atlantic Council

Watch the full event

On Monday, General David Petraeus, the former director of the US Central Intelligence and commander of US and allied forces in Afghanistan, joined the Atlantic Council to assess the state of play in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s swift and stunning takeover of the country—and its consequences for counterterrorism, US alliances, and, most urgently, the evacuation of Americans and American partners. Below, edited for length and clarity, is his conversation with Barry Pavel, the director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

BARRY PAVEL: What size force roughly do you think is required, and under what timelines, to successfully and comprehensively conduct the ongoing evacuation operation in Kabul and potentially elsewhere in Afghanistan? It seems to me that the president might have set out the right objectives in terms of the operation, and that is getting everybody back, but it seems like in terms of how we’re accomplishing it, it’s sort of small ball, where—shouldn’t we be laying out the whole requirement and then executing it with allies and partners? So what’s needed? Do any bases need to be reopened? How do we get Americans, Afghan allies, coalition allies, people from far-flung parts of Afghanistan out of the country and to safety and resettlement? And what might the Taliban do in response?

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: The only honest [answer to the question] you’ve just asked, Barry, I think, is that we really don’t know. The military always keeps what’s called a running estimate process ongoing, and I’m sure that our military planners, together with coalition counterparts, are looking at all options, including having some folks assemble at other locations, not just inside Kabul but all around the country, where there are large airfields. Kandahar in the southwest would be very helpful, Herat in the west, Mazar-i-Sharif, even Bagram north of Kabul, which has an extraordinary expanse of concrete but we should recognize that all roads in Afghanistan lead to Kabul, not Bagram, as nice as all that concrete might be. And I’m sure that there are all types of forces on call and already participating.

Major General Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, the commander on the ground in Kabul, knows all of our most special mission units and other elements exceedingly well and he knows how to work with interagency partners from his time with such units also.

I’m sure that State is also examining, together with the Department of Defense and interagency partners, whether we should reoccupy that splendid embassy that we built for $750 million. It would offer a lot of benefits as we figure out how we might influence the government being put together by the Taliban, which is going to be in such a serious fiscal bind in the near to midterm that the lights could literally go out in Kabul and the country, and that’s just one of the many ways in which we have influence, needless to say, on the government that is now being formed.

I do want to offer one caution. It is one thing to fly a C-130 or a Chinook or even a C-17 to pick up folks at Kandahar or Bagram or Herat or Mazar; it is another not so trivial thing to reopen an airfield like Kandahar, as that would require substantial security, fuel, bed down, water, food, maintenance, generators, spare parts, and possibly munitions.

The real issue, I think, at the end of the day, though, surrounds who we will fly out of Afghanistan. Some categories are clear. US citizens, very clear. Green-card holders, even special immigrant visa holders, and applicants and family members are fairly clear. However, where does one draw the line when it comes to anyone whose security is jeopardized because of work with the US or Afghan governments, our innumerable implementing partners over the years, civil society groups that will be in the crosshairs, etc.? The Department of State and the White House really have to come to grips with that pretty quickly or many, many hopes will be dashed.

In truth, right now, having followed numerous individual cases and groups, it appears to me that there is no true system for those inside Afghanistan beyond American citizens, green cards, and SIVs. And those who are getting through have partners in Kabul who can operate effectively in the city, pick up individuals and groups, get them through the Taliban checkpoints, navigate the airport entry control point, and get to a private or chartered aircraft that was able to get landing rights. In sum, what they are doing is working around the system, not through it. I think Washington’s going to have to provide some more specific guidance on who can come to the US or even go to a third country. We have written right now a very substantial blank check that I fear we may struggle to redeem.

BARRY PAVEL: Where do you think the failure in the withdrawal operation to date has been greatest besides the overall policy of withdrawal, which we know you are clearly on record as opposing? Is it more of an intelligence failure, a planning failure, a policy failure, or maybe just an operational execution failure, or some combination of all four? How do we fix things going forward?

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: First of all, let’s just remember that there is a common recourse in Washington when something doesn’t turn out quite the way folks had hoped it would be, as Peter Bergen reminded us the other day, to declare an intelligence failure. I’m not sure that is the case at all here in this situation. In fact, if you followed even what’s just on the public record, it would not appear that that is necessarily the case.

Look, I think it was what my great diplomatic partner and great friend Ambassador Ryan Crocker described in a brilliant piece in The New York Times over the weekend. And he called it a lack of strategic patience, which, ironically, we are demonstrating in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere in Africa under this administration. And ironically, where we were prior to the decision to withdrawal was sort of what then-Vice President Biden always wanted us to get to but wasn’t possible back in late 2009-2010 and so forth because of the missions that we had been assigned. But Ryan wrote in this piece: “As Americans, we have many strengths, but strategic patience is not among them. We have been able to summon it at critical times such as the Revolutionary War and World War II, where, for example, Congress did not threaten to defund the war effort if it wasn’t wrapped up by 1944. In Korea, nearly seven decades after an inconclusive truce, we still have about 28,000 troops. But our patience is not the norm. And it certainly has not been on display in Afghanistan as the world watched the Taliban storm into Kabul.

“As the enormity of the events in Afghanistan this past week sinks in, the questions start. How did this happen? How could we not have foreseen it? Why didn’t Afghan security forces put up a fight? Why didn’t we do something about corruption? The list goes on. There is one overarching answer: our lack of strategic patience at critical moments, including from President Biden. It has damaged our alliances and emboldened our adversaries and increased the risk to our own security. It has flouted 20 years of work and sacrifice.”

He then goes on to acknowledge, unsparingly, our successes, our failures, our shortcomings. Near the end, he observes:

 “It did not have to be this way. When I left Afghanistan as ambassador in 2012, we had about 85,000 troops in the country. The Taliban controlled none of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. When President Obama left office, there were fewer than 10,000 troops. And when Mr. Trump departed, there were fewer than five thousand. The Taliban still did not hold any major urban area. Now they hold the entire country. What changed so swiftly and completely? We did. Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw all US forces destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure.”

We needed to acknowledge that we could not win the war in Afghanistan… but we could have managed it.

David Petraeus

The bottom line, I think, Barry, is that we needed to acknowledge that we could not win the war in Afghanistan, given that the enemy had sanctuaries and a variety of other factors that made it an exceedingly difficult place to truly prevail. But we could have managed it and retained a critical platform for our regional and Afghan efforts, an ally, however flawed the Afghan government may have been, and access. All of which are now gone and replaced by a regime that may have a more polished public-relations apparatus than it did before, but will likely take Afghanistan back many centuries, if not all the way to the seventh century as before.

Even our country wasn’t built in a couple of decades. In fact, it’s instructive occasionally to remember that we had a brutal civil war some eight or so decades into our history. And terrible corruption was a reality well into the twentieth century. It takes real patience to allow a country to build institutions, capabilities, identity, and so forth. And clearly, two decades was not enough when it came to Afghanistan.

BARRY PAVEL: Is your main point that there was, for a small investment—roughly 2,500 forces—on the ground for a sustained period of time going forward, we could have bought a lot of insurance for the types of threats and challenges that we’re now having to deal with head-on because of the full withdrawal?

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: It is, Barry. And, I mean, I don’t know how you can contrast what we had—and, again, of course, it’s 2,500. But what really makes it is the constellation of drones that we can now put over places like Afghanistan, especially if you can do it efficiently from bases in the country so they don’t have to commute to the fight, as we say, as they will now. Probably 60 percent of a Reaper’s flying time now will be taken up just getting to and from Afghanistan if they’re launched out of bases in the Gulf states.

So it would—it’s that. It’s a lot of intelligence fusion. It is close air support that is quite precise and for which we have mechanisms with the Afghan headquarters so that you can actually bring it to bear. It’s not easy to bring airpower to bear. You know that, actually, I know, from your time in the National Security Council staff and all the rest of that, and studying the defense issues, etc. You have to literally have systems. You have to have joint tactical air controllers to authorize it. It is not trivial. And we had that all set up—2,500, 3,500, whatever—plus these enablers.

What we really were doing—we were no longer on the front lines. It’s well known we haven’t had a battlefield loss in eighteen months. Not just because of the very flawed agreement that the previous administration signed with the—with the Taliban, having excluded the elected government of Afghanistan from the agreement, and then forcing them to release over five thousand detainees, most of whom went right back to the fight. So, yes, that would have been the way.

Afghans have learned over the centuries how to survive. … They will cut a deal if they can see which way the wind is blowing in a very strong manner.

David Petraeus

And of course, what we saw is that for the lack of those 2,500 to 3,500, it’s almost one of those tales of, for the lack of a nail the shoe was lost, for the lack of a shoe… and it goes on. For the lack of 2,500 to 3,500 Americans, 8,500 coalition forces withdrew. Eighteen thousand maintenance contractors withdrew, who kept the US provided. And we insisted on providing sophisticated US helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for transport and close air support. They couldn’t maintain them. You need a whole supply chain and all kinds of diagnostics and kits and everything else. And maintaining that from Gulf states via FaceTime or Zoom just obviously was not possible.

That was the critical element in providing response when the early days of the fighting with the Taliban, Afghan units did fight for two or three days before realizing no one has our back, no one’s coming to the rescue, resupply, aero medevac, or close air support, so why are we fighting? And Afghans have learned over the centuries how to survive. Some have called them professional chameleons at times, and I think that’s more than a bit unfair. But they will cut a deal if they can see which way the wind is blowing in a very strong manner.

Innumerable international organizations have provided very important basic services to the Afghan people, supplementing the government, and probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, will leave Afghanistan because of this as well, many of them seeking, of course, to come to the United States either directly or via a third country. And, again, that’s where we need some specificity on who is actually going to qualify because that is not present, to my knowledge, right now.

Much has been made that the Afghans didn’t fight. Look, Afghans have been fighting and dying for their country, particularly since, say, roughly 2014 or so when we transitioned frontline security, by and large, to them. But they’ve had over 66,000 casualties. That’s just, roughly, twenty-seven times the American losses.

So the idea—a lot of my old colleagues in uniform reacted to the assertion that they wouldn’t fight somewhat indignantly, frankly, having been out there and seeing them shed blood for their country. Again, by no means perfect. Lots of shortcomings, many issues, corruption, all the rest of that. But they would fight if they knew that somebody had their back, and for quite a while we had their back if their own air force and their own forces could not provide that.

BARRY PAVEL: Some people who aren’t as familiar with the details aren’t as familiar with how the coalition, the United States, and the contractors worked with Afghan forces. How should a hand-off at some point, assuming that the president was coming in and saying, we’re going to go to zero, how could that have been handled with more effectiveness than, perhaps, we saw?

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: Well, certainly, timing is an issue. I mean, this is a very rapid, arguably, hasty withdrawal right at the beginning of what was widely anticipated to be the most active fighting season since we’ve been back.

And so, again, there’s a variety of tweaks. To be fair to the president and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and others who have made the point, this was never going to be smooth. The question is, could it have been smoother and, perhaps, again, with some tweaks and at least extending the amount of time.

I have to think that there was probably disbelief still, certainly, in Afghanistan. I think it wasn’t just the agreement the previous year that started to shake people’s confidence. Then it was the announcement that we would withdraw, and I think people still thought they’ll look into the abyss and they’re going to draw back and say, whoa, this could be really ugly. Maybe we sort of, again, maintain some kind of reshaped force.

And then when the withdrawal really did take place and then the contractors and all the others followed, keep in mind, I’m just giving the wave tops here. There’s endless more everything in terms of institutions and organizations and implementing partners and everything else.

And then the dam breaks and everybody starts to try to cut a deal, find a way out, and so forth. And, of course, but people don’t want to leave their home. They don’t want to leave a business in which they’ve invested twenty years and all the rest of that.

So it’s only, I think, when reality really set in, especially in Kabul, because I think a lot of people were just in disbelief that there would not be a massive defense of Kabul and that they had more time than it turned out they really did have.

BARRY PAVEL: Let me turn a little bit to some of the challenges going forward, like the nature of the terrorist threat. Do you think al-Qaeda or similar terrorist groups might be more capable than they were in the 90s? Because in the 90s they didn’t have the internet. Now that they enjoy online connectivity, do you think that it will help them to recruit, to train, to plan, and to execute terrorist operations against those whom they perceive as their enemies, which is us?

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: Yeah. I’m a former economics professor and I learned in that endeavor that you can never go wrong by answering a question by starting, “It depends,” and in this case, it does depend, and there are numerous factors on which it depends, for example, whether the Taliban prevent al-Qaeda and also the Islamic State.

Keep in mind, there’s the Khorasan group out there in the AfPak area that has been established. They’re also trying to establish sanctuaries. By the way, they’re not working with al-Qaeda. They’re actually enemies of each other. But do the Taliban fighters keep them from reestablishing the kind of sanctuaries that al-Qaeda had when the 9/11 attacks were planned on Afghan soil under Taliban control?

It depends on how effectively we can identify any al-Qaeda or Islamic State efforts to establish such sanctuaries and then, of course, disrupt them, degrade them, destroy them. And we should be careful before we completely remove all authorities, by the way, that are associated with the authority to use military force because we may just have to depend on those authorities again in this kind of situation.

It depends on how well we and our allies and social media platforms, to get at your point about the internet, how well they do at making it difficult at the least for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to establish virtual caliphates—that is, effective presence in cyberspace that enables them to recruit, to inspire, to motivate, to plan, to share explosive formulas, tactics, techniques, and procedures and fuel up attacks outside Afghanistan in the way that we saw the Islamic State able to do this very effectively when it had a caliphate on the ground where it could build an internet center in Raqqa, and that enabled it to build the virtual caliphate in cyberspace as well. Ultimately, that was destroyed, needless to say, although there still is a presence on the internet and we all have to go after that together comprehensively—coalitions, partners, and private sector partners as well.

It depends on how well our Pakistani partners might do in identifying and disrupting al-Qaeda and Islamic State elements on their soil now that, presumably, the Taliban and Haqqani network headquarters and leaders can displace from Baluchistan. I mean, there’s a reason they call it the Quetta Shura, after all, and North Waziristan and in Pakistan, respectively, making it easier for the Pakistani army to go after true extremist elements.

But, again, we will have to see all of these. It depends. And let’s recall the very forthright words of CIA Director Bill Burns, who acknowledged that there will be a degradation of our ability to collect intelligence, having shut down the majority of our footprint in Afghanistan, presumably, which depends a good deal on military capabilities just in case they get into trouble and now we’re going to do it all from either countries in the region, which have not yet allowed us the kind of air-based platform that would be so helpful and cut down on the amount of time spent commuting, for Reapers in particular. But even for our fighter-bombers and other aircraft that can be refueled, it’s going to take a fleet of aerial refueling tankers to get them to and from Afghanistan, to keep them over it, should we need to do that.

There has been this… magnetic attraction for al-Qaeda when it comes to eastern Afghanistan.

David Petraeus

So lots of challenges out there, and lots of factors I think that will determine whether this will be able to develop, whether the terrorist threat can actually manifest itself once again on Afghan soil—noting that there has been this, to me, unexplainable attraction—magnetic attraction for al-Qaeda when it comes to eastern Afghanistan. I went out there on a number of occasions over the years in several different positions trying to understand what it was that they saw in eastern Afghanistan. And it was somewhat elusive for me, but clearly, it is not for them.

So I think that’s the way forward here. And, again, noting that, by the way, this administration I think has astutely recognized the need to keep an eye on Islamist extremists wherever else they are. This is really the outlier. And one of the big lessons of the past twenty years of fighting Islamist extremists is that they will exploit ungoverned spaces. You really do have to do something about it. We generally have to lead. And it should be a coalition, but we’ll have to be the base piece. And you have to do it for quite a while. You need a sustained, sustainable commitment—sustainability being measured in terms of blood and treasure.

BARRY PAVEL: Thinking about the the Taliban, will the leopard change its spots? And they have a good public relations machine now, but we’ve already seen reporting, videos: They’re beating people in the streets. They’re not letting women and girls act like normal citizens. So, are you optimistic that this new Taliban will not provide safe haven to extremist groups? Or do you think we should really prepare for the worst case?

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: Well, I think you seldom can go wrong by preparing for the worst case. You can have all the hope you want, optimism, etc. But at the end of the day, we don’t know at this point in time what their actions will be as we go forward. And we need to be prepared, again, for them to revert—maybe not all the way to the seventh century, as people have described life under the Taliban in the late 1990s—but certainly a number of centuries back. How abusive is it? How unacceptable is it?

But this is where again, I would come back to the fact that the Taliban are about to be acquainted with a very harsh reality. And that is that they are broke. Yes, they control the illegal narcotics trade, the poppy products, and all the rest of that. And maybe they can charitably get $500 million, billion from that somehow. But their budget, the budget of the Afghan government in recent years, has been roughly in the $18-19 billion range. That has been funded by the United States, Japan, the UK, and a handful of other major donor nations, because they can only generate about a billion to two billion in a great year. And this is not going to be a great year for the economy, with most of the internationals having either reduced or left, and from a variety of customs, duties, and taxes.

So the lights literally could go out in Kabul, as I mentioned earlier. If you can’t get refined fuel products in and other means of keeping generators going—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So much is done by that government, so basic services are going to degrade very considerably. And I noted earlier that many of the nonprofit organizations, international organizations that have done so much for the Afghan people, particularly over the past twenty years but they even did it in some cases before—again, many of them, fearing the security situation, have left.

So I think they’re going to find that they are going to be quite dependent on outside aid. The IMF’s Special Drawing Rights for $450 additional million have been frozen. Their assets around the world, in most places, have been frozen. They’re going to be in a very, very tough situation. Should we not retain a footprint at the embassy? What’s the best way to communicate with them? How can we try to influence them? Because, again, that—it may be possible. And if it is possible, I think that’s preferable for the Afghan people—if we truly care about human rights and all the rest of that, and I think we do—then let’s ask what it is that we might do in this new reality and determine that going forward as well.

BARRY PAVEL: Another difference from the 1990s is China. We’ve already seen China probably cutting deals with the Taliban over human rights and investments like the Belt and Road Initiative. So does that reduce our leverage because of the China factor?

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: It certainly may. Now keep in mind that China has always wanted to get into Afghanistan and extract the extraordinary mineral wealth. Again, we estimated—when I was the commander there, some nonprofit came in and estimated it at over two trillion dollars worth of minerals, including lithium, rare earth, and all the other minerals that are in such demand and that China has so aggressively sought around the world. They did, in fact, have—I believe it was a copper mine south of Kabul or in north Logar Province, which they shut down and left when presumably the Taliban and/or Haqqani shot rockets and mortars at them. Now given that that security threat may now be in charge rather than trying to obstruct progress, it’s possible that they could.

But keep in mind that their model is one that typically brings in Chinese workers, Chinese materials, Chinese food, Chinese construction and design techniques, and all the rest of that. That may get some royalties for the Afghans, but I don’t know that that is going to generate right now quickly the kinds of revenue that they need. And I’m a bit skeptical that China would sign a check for fifteen billion dollars or something on that order just again to gain favor with the Taliban. They’ll be a bit wary as well. And as you noted, they’re very, very concerned about the possible threat of Islamist extremism leaking out into the area of the Uyghurs. Of course, that’s the—Xinjiang is the area that—this tiny little sliver that extends northeast of Afghanistan, connecting the two countries. Now keeping in mind that it is literally snowed in probably four to six months a year depending on the weather patterns. So that could be an alternative.

Russia could be an alternative. Again, I don’t think that they have quite the resources needed. The point is going to be that the Taliban may have to adjust how they operate, may have to be a bit more benevolent than they have been in the past or they’re going to be in serious trouble.

BARRY PAVEL: The way this withdrawal was done has really caused some concerns, in particular in the transatlantic alliance. So how can we try to minimize the damage from the withdrawal operation so far to America’s alliances across the world? How can the US most effectively restore its credibility? We’re in this era of great-power competition against China and Russia. How do we get the allies back?

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS : Well, there’s an irony here, because I think one of the aspects of this administration that you and I and most of the Atlantic Council folks have all celebrated and applauded has been the outreach to allies, to partners all around the world. It’s been rejoining institutions that the previous administration left, like the WHO, the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran nuclear deal—we’ll see whether that’s possible or not and—but so on and so forth—and again, pursuing what I think is the most important overarching goal for the United States, which is obviously to achieve a comprehensive… policy for the relationship with China. And yet, this has obviously really bruised some of those relationships. Indeed, we’ve heard people such as the British minister of defense quite directly criticizing the US decision, Tom Tugendhat, a member of Parliament, very eloquently expressing reservations as well, and he’s a friend; he’s a fellow veteran, again, served there.

So, what do we have to do? Well, I think as always we have to demonstrate that we are steadfast, reliable, competent, thoughtful, and capable allies and partners. I think we are seeking to do that right now on the ground in Afghanistan. We’re certainly seeking to do it again as part of this effort to build the relationship between our allies and partners with China. It is crucial the way to influence a potential adversary obviously is by having as many folks on your side of the field as you can possibly assemble. But I think you also, to do this, you have to actually acknowledge that this episode has seriously shaken our relationship with our most important NATO allies, again, including the UK, and a number of others who would have preferred to have stayed. In fact, many, I think, if not most, of our partners wanted to stay but, again, they could not without the US, which is an interesting commentary, by the way, on the capability of those partners and it reminds us of the gulf between our capabilities, particularly in these areas that have been so important in what are called the advise and assist and enable missions, again, the constellation of drones, the intelligence fusion, and the precision air attack. And they just could not do that without us. We spend not just more than all of our twenty-nine NATO allies together on defense, as you know, Barry, we spend well over two times more than all of them, and that gulf is actually real and it’s something that we have to recognize.

So our departure from Afghanistan, its timing, the conduct of it have all called a lot into question. I don’t think this is actually debatable, and the process of rebuilding relationships is best facilitated by getting the ongoing evacuation right and doing so together and in true consultation, not just informing but consulting our allies and partners on the ground and helping in a whole variety of other ways.

BARRY PAVEL: Let me turn now to the questions we’ve gotten in. The first question is from John Petrik from the CyberWire. He asks: Do you have any insight that you can offer into what noncombatant evacuation planning the Department of Defense did against the eventuality of a Taliban victory?

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: Look, my understanding is there were actually various scenarios that were played out and noncombatant evacuation was one of those. But, of course, it’s one thing to do this in sort of a wargame kind of—you’ve been part of these as a member of the NSC staff over the years. It’s one thing to do that in that kind of scenario with, you know, [we say] OK, we do this, they do that, we do this, they do that, and it’s quite another when you see a country and a government just collapse in a matter of a couple of weeks, with a final collapse coming very, very abruptly, really over the course almost of a weekend but, at most, a week or so.

So, again, and I’ve been through many, many different neo-planning efforts, but then the plan collides with reality. As they say, the enemy gets a vote, the context gets a vote, and clearly, that’s where we are right now. But we have enormous capability on the ground; there’s considerably more capability on call. We’re now supplementing our considerable airlift with the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which is not going into Kabul, to be sure; it’s going to countries that are now at the limit for individuals that can be taken out of Kabul and put there for a period of time. And of course, that is the challenge. It’s not just getting people out of Kabul; it is finding places for them to go until we can determine what it is that will be done with them for the follow—it’s very easy with American citizens; they can obviously come home, green-card holders. But when you get into the SIV cases, the Special Immigrant Visa cases, for those who served two years or more as battlefield interpreters with our men and women on the ground sharing risk and hardship, where are they going to go? Again, have they been through the full process?

That process, by the way, I should—to be fair to this administration, the sluggishness, the bureaucracy, the glacial pace of progress on the special immigrant visa effort, in particular, has characterized three administrations, really, but especially the previous one. And that—as part of No One Left Behind, a nonprofit organization that focuses on this issue—one of the co-founders is, in fact, a former battlefield interpreter—this just has not moved swiftly enough, and again, despite lots of urging from Congress, despite additional visa quotas, money, etc., and it’s only now that we are really getting serious about trying to figure out how to do this. But as this—as tens of thousands become possibly over a hundred thousand or more, this is not a trivial exercise. And so there are many, many different elements of this that will be the long pole in the tent for a period of time and have to be solved.

But I think, again, to be fair, now that we have decided to do this in a very substantial way, it is going on very impressively, albeit I don’t know the solution or the definition or the specificity that will be required for those who do not fit those categories that are pretty easily defined of citizens, green cards, SIV holders or applicants. What is the definition going to be for others whose lives are in jeopardy according to their assessment, and what do we then do with them? That is going to be a huge challenge. And again, as I mentioned earlier, we have in a sense written a very substantial blank check, and I don’t know whether we can fully redeem it.

BARRY PAVEL: So that is an urgent policy recommendation that you would suggest. The administration needs to define with great clarity who are we getting out in this initial tranche anyway and who are we not getting out, which is a hardheaded and difficult set of choices that they’ll have to make. But they have to get that out there and they have to be very clear.

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: Yeah, because the problem right now is, of course, you just have everybody converging at one gate. It’s tens of thousands of people. Now, there are various workarounds that are now working and so forth, but at the end of the day, Washington can’t micromanage certain aspects of this. Clearly, they can’t be the ones making the decision at the entry control point. That’s going to be literally what we used to call the strategic sergeant or strategic lieutenant or captain, you know, who’s making a small decision that has strategic consequences in some cases, certainly for the individuals.

But what might—what Washington can and must micromanage is, again, figuring out how to define who it is that gets inside and a plane ride outside Afghanistan, and to where, and who does not. And that is a terrible decision to make, but it is going to have to be made. And I hope that there are State Department and Department of Homeland Security individuals who are real experts on this, once it is clearly defined, who will make those decisions rather than putting that on the poor strategic sergeant or lieutenant.

BARRY PAVEL: And just on that question, it just strikes me as so important to consider can we open one more runway somewhere else? Having one gate for an entire set of refugees and US citizens coming out just seems like a very narrow approach to an urgent problem.

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, there are multiple gates. And again, it’s how you use those gates. It’s do you want only American citizens here and can you push that out farther.

By the way, there’s something that is looming over this that we should acknowledge, and that is the potential—it has been publicly reported that there are concerns about Islamic State terrorist attacks. And if you remember back to the days in Iraq and so forth where you’d get a huge crowd of young men wanting to be recruits for the Iraqi army, that was also a huge target for al-Qaeda in Iraq. And reportedly, there are concerns about that. And that is very, very challenging. Anywhere you have some kind of control point, there is going to be a substantial crowd that is also in the eyes of the Islamic State a substantial target, and I know that that is weighing on people as well. And a lot of it comes down to how can you streamline the process for those who are very clear that they’re going to get on a plane. And then, how do you develop the process so that you can determine who can come in and who can’t come in? And again, a very, very tough decision that is going to have to be made on the ground, can’t be, again, micromanaged in Washington.

BARRY PAVEL: Let me turn to the next question, from Mahdi Sarmafar, a freelance journalist, who writes: What is your prediction on the fate of the resistance in Panjshir? Can Massoud organize and lead the Taliban opposition from there? Is it possible to hope for this resistance? Or will Panjshir also fall? And is that a point of leverage, I would add, for the United States and our allies and coalition members?

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: Well, it is a point of leverage down the road. But we need to be very, very careful right now because, for right now, the main effort—everything about getting—taking care of American citizens, green-card holders, and SIV qualifiers and applicants in particular, and then all these others. And the last thing you want to do is start supporting a group that could foment some kind of—again, this could be the civil war that we feared. And so, again, you need to see how does the Taliban operate, how do they act, is it so egregious? Is it unacceptable? That will take some time to manifest.

They have been actually slightly expanding the area that they control, sort of southwest of Panjshir just a bit. The real problem, for those who are in Panjshir right now, is that there is no connectivity to the outside world. When Ahmad Shah Massoud was there, they had a way of linking up to one of the Central Asian states at the least from the northeastern end of that valley. And, to my knowledge, the dots don’t connect right now. There’s some other fighting going on up in various other locations and northern provinces—modest fighting. And it’s possible that they could ultimately connect up.

But, again, I think that makes that somewhat questionable about how long that can be sustained if, again, the long pole in the tent here always for Afghanistan is that it is dependent on outside countries for a number of different goods, services, and commodities—not the least of which is refined fuel products. And they will run into the same challenges in the Panjshir as Afghanistan collectively could run into, depending on their financial future.

BARRY PAVEL: Let me turn to the next question from Ambassador Peter Galbraith, a former deputy special representative of the UN Secretary-General to Afghanistan. He asks: You are an expert on counterinsurgency and ran one of the military commands in Afghanistan. And for a successful counterinsurgency, there has to be a local partner. Our partner in Afghanistan, he says, was corrupt, ineffective, and, as a result of fraudulent presidential elections, illegitimate government. How do you make a strategy predicated on having a local partner work when there isn’t one that is where you need them to be?

And I raise this because—I think it’s a great question—because right now we’re saying: We’ll never do this again. But you know as well as I do, David, looking back at history, this will—we will be—we will be doing this again. It will be somewhere else. It’ll be in a different time, with different players. But this is going to be important. Again, at the Atlantic Council we have a three-year program on this very thing, how do you strengthen stabilization operations in fragile states? So this is really important.

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: Well, my PhD dissertation was titled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.” And among the conclusions was that we wanted to consign anything that looked like Vietnam—which in some aspects, at the very least, was counterinsurgency operations. Although, we also had a pretty big war going on, made a big war. But, we didn’t want to do that. The problem is, of course, that it may not be the war you want, but it may be the war that, again, the president orders you to engage in. That is exactly what happened actually, when we embarked on Afghanistan and then Iraq, at least beyond the early days.

And so you do have to have a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign. And for all those people that say it went wrong when we tried to do nation-building, well, tell me how you develop institutions to which you can hand off tasks that you have been performing in the past if you don’t help build those institutions? And so there’s a little bit of something there that’s somewhat counter-intuitive.

And we had to build Afghan forces, security forces, of a variety of different types. We had to help institutions be established, or we were going to be stuck performing those tasks endlessly. And we did actually hand off to them. We did establish processes for handing off security tasks. That’s why there were 66,000 Afghans who died fighting for their country. Was it imperfect? Certainly, it was. Peter knows that well. He was part of the process, actually. And he knows it in Iraq as well. Again, welcome to our world. You don’t get the partner you’d like. You get the partner you have. You try to do everything you can to help that partner achieve success, and to deal with, again, endemic corruption and all the other shortcomings that are there.

If [the Taliban] really want to prove that they truly mean what they say about ensuring that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are not welcome on their soil, they should welcome us back to Bagram Air Base.

David Petraeus

The problem is, the alternative is what we are just—have just done, which is to throw your hands in the air and leave. And I think we now see how that is working out. There should at least be some who have a tiny bit of buyer’s remorse over what has taken place here. Again, as I mentioned earlier, for all of its flaws the elected government—and, again, yes, you could say even the election was not without flaws. But there was a government that was, at the very least, our ally and partner. It welcomed us having bases in that country, which helped us in the region.

It’s well-known that these were the bases that were the platforms for the so-called regional counterterrorism campaign—the most significant operation of which, which is publicly known, was that which brought Osama bin Laden to justice, launched from Afghan soil to Abbottabad, Pakistan, home of the Pakistani military academy, and then back to Afghan soil. And again, phenomenal bases, intelligence facilities, partners—all the rest of that, however flawed. But we do not have that now. And certainly, the government that is assuming control, that is being formed, I don’t think is one that we can expect to be that kind of partner.

I have said already, though, if they really want to prove that they truly mean what they say about ensuring that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are not welcome on their soil, they should welcome us back to Bagram Air Base, for which they’re not going to have much use I wouldn’t think. We could build some kind of compound structure, we coordinate it all with them, and we continue to carry out operations that ensure that we can identify when al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are, indeed, trying to re-establish sanctuaries like the one that al-Qaeda had in which they planned the 9/11 attacks.

BARRY PAVEL: What should be US and allies’ policies toward the Taliban now? I think we—there’s an opportunity to shape that in a way that is productive for us and ideally considered as productive for them, to the extent that we can deal with them as an actor. But what do you think are the two or three basic outlines of the policy that the United States and its allies should take toward Afghanistan going forward?

GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS: Well, I think there’s going to have to be a degree of pragmatism, flexibility, and so forth going forward. We have to recognize a new reality. We probably should indeed—there should be a point at which we say, OK, look, this has happened. We can argue over, again, why and the blame and point fingers and all the rest of that. But in addition to focusing on, again, being sure we honor our commitment to our citizens, green cards, SIVs, and so on, what do we do going forward? What are the different options that the Taliban could exercise? How do we respond to those? What are the metrics? It always helps to have some kind of somewhat concrete measures that would help us determine how we do deal with the Taliban.

And again, to come back one last time to the idea of the embassy—and as we recognize now, it certainly would not be in the Taliban’s interest to have some kind of fracas with us over that embassy, and of course, it’s inside the greater Green Zone near the presidential palace. It might be convenient to still be able to walk over to the presidential palace even if you don’t particularly have great affection for those who might be in the presidential palace.

We have worked together historically with plenty of regimes that we have deplored and abhorred, and this may be yet another of them.

David Petraeus

But now we have to recognize reality and we have to move forward. We should stick to our principles, to the values, and all the rest of that that we are seeking to promote once again with greater emphasis under this administration, and that all has to be there. But it’s going to depend—again, remember the economic professor response—again, on what they do, how they act, and all the rest of that. And I do think, as you have mentioned, that there is opportunity for us to influence them. There are certainly very significant penalties we can inflict on them if they prove to be the kind of extreme organization that we most fear would be the outcome. But if they are not, if there are areas where we can work together, then we have to do that.

We have worked together historically with plenty of regimes that we have deplored and abhorred, and this may be yet another of them, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t try to do that and try to find some mode of operating with them to try to achieve our objectives, which of course are most significantly about the Islamist extremist threat that could emanate from there—although I don’t think that’s a near-term threat certainly to the homeland, or even probably to our NATO allies for the time being. I would be concerned if there is the kind of virtual caliphate that they’re able to build up because they’re uncontested on the ground and can build up some kind of capability like that, and then over time what they might be able to build if we can’t sufficiently degrade it and destroy it.

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Image: UK coalition forces, Turkish coalition forces, and US Marines assist a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 20, 2021. Photo via Sgt. Victor Mancilla and the US Marine Corps via Reuters.