NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Gen. David Petraeus about whether the CIA and U.S. intelligence knew the Taliban were moving rapidly and that the Afghan government would fall so quickly.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
What’s unfolded in recent days in Afghanistan represent a massive intelligence failure. Did the CIA and the rest of U.S. intelligence know the government could fall so quickly? – questions to put to a former leader of the CIA, also a former commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.
General David Petraeus, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
DAVID PETRAEUS: Thanks, Mary Louise.
KELLY: I want to start here because I can’t tell you how many people I have interviewed in recent days – and I’m talking current U.S. officials, former officials – saying across the board that they are stunned at the speed of the collapse of the Afghan army and government. Was there an intelligence failure here?
PETRAEUS: Well, it is very, very hard to say without knowing what individuals were actually saying inside the situation room.
KELLY: You will have heard President Biden, the remarks he made at the White House, July 8, saying the likelihood that there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely. As you know, the president gets regular intelligence briefings. You used to deliver those at the White House. But President Biden’s words suggest that as recently as a month ago, July 8, he wasn’t briefed that the Taliban takeover was likely.
PETRAEUS: Well, again, without having been in those meetings, it’s hard to assess what the intelligence told him. Needless to say, his comments certainly are ones that I’m sure he wishes he could have back. They certainly conveyed, with hindsight, a tragic misreading of the situation…
PETRAEUS: …And into one that is now truly heartbreaking, disastrous, has to be enormously regrettable. But let’s, in a way, get past that for the moment and recognize what I think should be the urgency of the moment, which is seeing to those we have, so far, largely left behind.
KELLY: Well, general, I do want to get there, and we are going to get there. But your suggestion that we should move past this for now – I mean, this remains an urgent problem – the quality of U.S. intelligence on Afghanistan as the U.S. continues to make decisions. And I would love to hear your take.
PETRAEUS: Well, my…
KELLY: Collecting intelligence there was already hard. How much harder is it now without U.S. bases, without U.S. troops?
PETRAEUS: It’s going – and the director of the CIA has forthrightly observed that. Ambassador Bill Burns has stated that this will be much more challenging. The military have stated publicly. Keep in mind, we’re going to have to do this not just from neighboring countries. None of those will allow us to reestablish bases in them. And we’ve lost these extraordinary bases in Afghanistan, which not only allowed us to keep an eye on al-Qaida and now the Islamic State trying to reestablish sanctuaries in that country, but also what they were doing in neighboring countries and particularly in Pakistan. And again, by the way, not only did we give up the airbases. We gave up all the other, quote, “footprint” that we had in the country. So now everything has to come out of the Gulf States. A drone will spend probably 60 or more percent of its time just getting to and from Afghanistan rather than becoming the unblinking eye that we had when we had the bases in the country. So it’s going to be much, much tougher and much more costly, by the way.
KELLY: When you talk about the footprint, that the CIA has also lost the footprint, what do you mean?
PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, if you have military bases, if you have embassies, if you have consulates, if you have infrastructure on the ground, needless to say, they can be employed for a variety of other tasks – intelligence tasks among them. Needless to say, the loss of those is a huge blow to our ability to maintain real-time situational awareness. It’s not impossible, but it’s going to take a huge expenditure of assets that was not necessary before.
KELLY: Given all that, how concerned are you about Afghanistan once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists, about the resurgence of al-Qaida, of ISIS, of other groups?
PETRAEUS: That’s why we have always stayed. You know, I’ve often said, we went to Afghanistan for a reason – to eliminate the sanctuary in which the 9/11 attacks were planned by al-Qaida during Taliban control of most of the country. We stayed to prevent al-Qaida from reestablishing such sanctuaries – something they tried repeatedly, including during my time. And now, of course, the Islamic State Khorasan Group, an affiliate of ISIS, is trying to establish bases out there as well. So these are very real concerns. The administration has acknowledged these very clearly, and it’s going to take an enormous effort to ensure that we can identify such activities and then disrupt, degrade and ideally destroy them. By the way, I don’t think that in the short term, you’re going to see the kind of capability that al-Qaida had. I think it’s very difficult…
KELLY: International strike capability.
PETRAEUS: Exactly – a threat to our homeland or to the homelands of our allies and partners around the world. That said, you have got to be darn sure that they are not able to establish that.
KELLY: Let me turn you to the overall urgency of this moment, which – you have called this a Dunkirk moment and said U.S. decisions created the moment. You’re speaking to the evacuation of Dunkirk in World War II.
PETRAEUS: I am. We have left tens of thousands of people behind. Bureaucracy has prevented us from meeting what really is a moral obligation to those individuals whose service for and with us put their security and that of their family members in jeopardy. This is, by the way, not something I think that now is going to be micromanageable from Washington. There’s going to have to be individuals on the ground, diplomats and our most capable military assets because this is a very dangerous moment that may require us to examine reopening Kandahar or Bagram Airfield, because, of course, many of these individuals are in isolated locations and can’t get to Kabul.
KELLY: And with your four-star general’s cap on, what would a Dunkirk moment look like in 2021? Just walk me through that operation.
PETRAEUS: Well, as I said, you put your most capable forces on the ground. You augment them with everything that is absolutely necessary. You may have to do a demonstration or two of what our capabilities still are to ensure that the Taliban realize that. By the way, I don’t think that they want to mix it up with us at this point. I think they’ve shown, actually, that what they want to do is get everything calmed down to get various countries that are willing to recognize them or work with them. Russia will be, you know, at the head of the queue on that – other neighbors, including China, likely Pakistan and so forth.
And I don’t think they want to cause the United States to reengage. They know what happens if they do that. They’re on the losing end of every tactical and operational campaign just about over the past 20 years, starting with, of course, the post-9/11 effort that took them down. So, again, they’ve gotten what they sought. And I think, again, you can call it a Saigon moment if you want it to be more emotional and related to the United States history. But it’s a case where there are individuals crying out for rescue, and we owe them, and we should indeed rescue them.
KELLY: That is former CIA director and former commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus.
General, thank you.
PETRAEUS: Thank you, Mary Louise.
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