>> Terror and bloodshed in Afghanistan.
This week on "Firing Line"... [ Siren wailing ] More than a dozen U.S. service members were among the many who died in a suicide attack outside the Kabul Airport.
With ISIS-K claiming responsibility and the threat of more violence looming, President Biden has vowed to retaliate.
>> We will not forgive.
We will not forget.
We will hunt you down and make you pay.
>> And he says the mission to evacuate every American by August 31st will not be deterred by terrorists.
What will it mean for our Afghan allies and our future security?
I spoke to three-star general H.R.
McMaster, who served in a top post in Afghanistan before becoming National Security Advisor to the Trump White House, and separately, with four-star army general David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces during the 2010 surge in Afghanistan, then led the CIA.
What do Generals H.R.
McMaster and David Petraeus say now?
>> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... >> General H.R.
McMaster, welcome back to "Firing Line," and thank you for your service.
>> Hey, Margaret, it's great to be with you, even at this difficult time.
>> President Biden has been warning about threats from ISIS-K for days.
What is your reaction to the events at Kabul Airport?
>> Well, of course, it's heartbreaking to see the loss of our courageous servicemen, but also the loss of innocent life outside that gate, the loss of life among Afghans who are desperately trying to escape, and I think this obviously was predicted, and even though it was predicted, of course, it wasn't prevented, in large measure, because I think of the difficulty of that tactical problem, right, that we're in this airport that is right in the middle of an urban area.
It's very difficult to defend when you only have a perimeter and you don't have any depth in your defense, and we've been banking on an understanding, you know, with a terrorist organization, and that's an extremely dangerous position for our servicemen and women to be in.
>> ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack.
And this group is enemies with the Taliban, which was supposed to be in charge of security at the airport.
Tell us about this terror group, ISIS-K, and what is their relationship to the Haqqani Network?
>> Well, I think sometimes, Margaret, we try too hard to disconnect the dots, whereas ISIS-K is sometimes seen as in competition with Al-Qaeda and other jihadist terrorist groups, oftentimes they cooperate.
And I think what you're seeing is that the victory for the Taliban in Afghanistan is a victory for all jihadist terrorists, including Al-Qaeda and including ISIS-Khorasan.
You know, these groups often overlap, right?
They share resources, they share people, they share bomb-making expertise, and I would not be surprised if this was an attack that was incited by the Taliban with the cutout of trying to use ISIS-K. We've seen that in the past.
And so I really think that this is an effort to humiliate the world's only superpower on our way out of Afghanistan after we surrendered to the Taliban.
>> Do you suspect there will be more attacks like this?
>> I think they're gonna certainly attempt more of these attacks.
What they're hoping for are images -- images that are akin to the images of the U.S. withdrawal from Saigon in 1975.
But what I fear most, Margaret, is we're on fast forward to 1979, and what we'll see is a hostage situation with obviously the Afghan people being held hostage by the Taliban, but also potentially U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries.
>> General, what is an appropriate retaliation?
You heard President Biden address the nation after the attacks with a message for the terrorists that "we will hunt you down and make you pay."
>> Well, I think we have to pursue those who are responsible for this and track them down.
We have a long history of doing that, Margaret.
You know, it wasn't till years after the Cole bombing, for example, or the embassy bombings in 1998 that we tracked down and brought to justice the perpetrators of those attacks.
So we will.
We will pursue them, you know, to the ends of the earth.
But I think what you're seeing now are the limits of this sort of over-the-horizon approach to counterterrorism.
Frankly, Margaret, it just doesn't work, right?
What was working in Afghanistan was a sustained effort to support Afghans who were bearing the brunt of the fight and who had an opportunity to develop human intelligence, which is immensely important to augment your surveillance capabilities, especially in these dense urban areas where terrorists intermingle with civilian populations and are trying to avoid being classified as a target.
>> CENTCOM commander General Kenneth McKenzie said in a briefing this week the military shares, quote, "common purpose with the Taliban."
Now, the Taliban spent years, of course, trying to get the United States to leave Afghanistan, but is now in charge of our security.
How does that work?
>> It doesn't work, and, you know, I've got great respect for General McKenzie, but I'll tell you, I think McKenzie, he's just wrong about that.
And I think what he's wrong about is that the Taliban is not driven by just interest, right?
The Taliban is driven by an ideology, an ideology based in a perverted interpretation of Islam that is trying to push the world back, you know, into the 7th century.
And that ideology is what drives them, Margaret.
I mean, the leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada, celebrated the fact that his son died as a mass murderer, as a suicide bomber in Helmand Province in 2017.
What else do you need to know about Siraj Haqqani?
You know, who is one of the worst criminals ever on the face of the earth, who specializes his network in two things -- you know, mass murder of innocent people and kidnapping.
And that's the person who's in charge of the military wing of the Taliban.
He's also a member in very good standing in al-Qaeda.
It just shows you that these groups are completely interconnected, Margaret, and they exist in an ecosystem there between Afghanistan and Pakistan that houses 20 -- over 20 U.S.-designated terrorist organizations.
Just to give you a quick lineage on ISIS-K. ISIS-K came from -- many of their leaders -- most of their leaders came from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which was a splinter group from Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group that was formed by Pakistan's inner services intelligence to act as an arm -- a terrorist arm of their foreign policy.
Then, that group morphed into ISIS, and, you know, these people are not adherent to just one particular group, but to this violent philosophy -- this determination to commit mass murder against all civilized people, to establish their caliphate and to drag the world back into the 7th century.
So, I think what's wrong about that statement is, they're not driven principally by interest.
>> General, you said this week, quote, "It's time to reverse course, scrap the withdrawal deadline, and cut off dealings with the Taliban.
What should we do now, in your view?
>> Well, I think it depends on what the mission is, right?
That the President approves.
If the mission is withdraw-only, right, we're going to see, I think, a continued very, very difficult mission, you know, play out.
And -- but if the decision is to get all Americans out, we have to do something quite different.
We would have to, I think, look for alternative areas to make into safe spaces, to try to provide safe quarters by threatening the Taliban if they impede movement on those quarters, they'll suffer severe consequences.
I think, Margaret, we are going to have to intervene in some way when we see this humanitarian catastrophe unfold, right?
I mean, it's worth nothing that when the Taliban was in charge from '96-2001, there wasn't even one cellphone in the country.
We're going to be confronted with horrible images of human suffering every day.
>> You said it depends what the mission is.
President Biden vowed to continue with the evacuation, but also for it to end on August 31st.
How can we possibly get everybody out by then?
>> Yeah, I think that those two statements are in tension with one another and are incompatible.
I do not think it's possible.
I mean, I could be wrong about this, Margaret, but I don't think it's possible to adhere to this deadline that the Taliban has imposed on us and also be assured that we're getting all Americans out.
And that's why I think we're -- you know, we're on fast forward from Saigon '75 to Tehran 1979.
>> General, you just referenced Saigon.
Given your expertise on Vietnam, are there any other similarities you see between Afghanistan and Vietnam?
>> Well, Margaret, I think there are parallels, and in particular, our strategy and our effort in Vietnam suffered tremendously from a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of that conflict, and I would say the same is true, absolutely about Afghanistan.
And I think what is often said about Vietnam is true about Afghanistan -- in particular that the Afghan War was not a 20-year-long war, but a 1-year war fought 20 times over, with inconsistent and fundamentally-flawed strategies that artificially lengthened the war, I think, and made it more costly.
It's important to know, though, I think, in Afghanistan, is -- I believed, Margaret, we had won, right?
We had a relatively small number of troops there who were enabling the Afghans to bear the brunt of the fighting.
You know, it is true -- Afghanistan was not Denmark, but Afghanistan didn't need to be Denmark, it just needed to be Afghanistan.
It would probably still be a violent place, but I think what your viewers might do is compare what we're seeing today to the sustained commitment we had prior to the 2020 capitulation agreement with the Taliban.
And I think -- I think most people would choose prior to 2020 than the horrors we're witnessing today.
>> General H. R. McMaster, thank you for your sober assessment, and thank you for your service to our country.
>> Thank you, Margaret.
It's a pleasure to be with you.
>> The day before the attack on the Kabul airport, I spoke to General David Petraeus, who was already expressing concerns about the threat of ISIS-K and what American withdrawal would mean for security in the United States and around the world.
General David Petraeus, welcome back to "Firing Line" and thank you for your service.
>> Great to be with you again, Margaret.
>> General, you served as the commander in Afghanistan from July 2010 to July 2011, during the United States military surge and one of the deadliest periods in the Afghanistan war.
As a former CIA director, you're also an authority on US intelligence operations.
Everyone from President Biden to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has said that no one could have predicted that it would only take 11 days for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan, but you said, back on May 4th, that without US and coalition forces, there would be a decline in, quote, "The capacity and the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces."
In a scenario like this, we hope for the best, we prepare for the worst, but General, why didn't we plan for the worst-case scenario?
>> Well, clearly, it took, actually, longer than the few weeks in which it ultimately collapsed.
There was fighting -- very fierce fighting -- ongoing in a variety of locations around the country, really, for a number of months.
But it started to appear pretty obvious that if the US close-air support that always came to the rescue and also was the emergency logistics capacity for the Afghan security forces when they got into a tough scrap -- that we could get re-supply to them and additional ammo, food, water, provide aerial med evac, and ultimately, provide close-air support.
Once all of that was withdrawn, the only capability left to ensure that Afghan soldiers knew someone had their backs was the Afghan Air Force.
And then when people realized that the contractors that maintained that Air Force, that kept the missile defense system on, and all the various capabilities that are so essential to maintaining sophisticated US-provided helicopters and planes -- when that left, it became pretty obvious that the Afghan soldiers, after fighting for a few days in a simultaneous set of battles -- quite a comprehensive offensive, being pursued by the Taliban -- that they would realize no one was coming to the rescue.
And that much, I think, was quite predictable.
And especially in Afghanistan, if individuals think that they are doomed, they're going to cut a deal.
These are survivors.
And so, they did fight, for quite a while in some areas, but ultimately, as they knew no one was coming to the rescue, they had a choice -- they could either run, they could surrender -- cut a deal.
And they, together with local political leaders, had contact with the Taliban, and typically cut a deal.
And it became an epidemic of surrender.
>> General Petraeus, take on this argument that President Biden made on August 16th.
He said, quote... >> Well, let's remember the facts here, and that is that over 66,000 Afghans have fought and died for their country, the bulk of those over the last 6 or 7 years since we transitioned, on the front lines, security to Afghan forces completely.
That is 27 times the number of American casualties in Afghanistan.
So, again, when they knew that someone had their back -- if they knew that someone would provide aerial med evac, resupply, close-air support, and so forth -- and, by the way, intelligence on what was going on out and in front of them, with drones and so on -- if they knew that was there, they did continue to fight.
It was just in this set of circumstances that, again -- and by the way, you know, that comment did great on an awful lot of us who actually served with Afghan forces and saw them fight and die and take heavy casualties, trying to defend their country against the Taliban.
>> It was an unfair characterization.
>> Well, it was an accurate characterization of the final week or so, but it was an unfair characterization of the last 20 years of war.
>> President Biden has set his own August 31st deadline, which he is sticking to, and the Taliban says that an extension of that deadline would be crossing a, quote, "red line."
Are we going to be able to get all the Americans out?
>> I don't know.
I tend to think not all.
Again, you can never get 100% of anything.
In a very challenging endeavor like this, surely there have to be American citizens who are far from Kabul and can't get there.
Undoubtedly, there are citizens who actually want to stay, for some reason or another.
So, I doubt we get all of them out, but those that want to get out that are in Kabul, I think, should be able to be evacuated by the 31st of August.
>> General Petraeus, who is at fault for this debacle?
Is it the Commander in Chief, the Secretary of State, the Defense Department, the Generals?
>> Well, I'm sure that there are many of us who are at fault, including those of us who served there over the years, including, certainly, the previous administration that embarked on a negotiation effort that resulted in a horrible outcome.
I mean, if you go into a negotiation saying that you want to leave and you want to negotiate something that will, quote, "allow you to leave" -- in other words, to do what the Taliban wants you to do, you exclude the elected government of the country from those negotiations and you force the elected government to release 5,000 Taliban detainees, who go back to the front lines -- that is not a good outcome.
Especially when you do consider that there were actual alternatives that might and could have been considered -- that the retention of 3,500 troops on the ground seemed to me to be quite sustainable.
To me, it seems preferable to what has now taken place.
I mean, I don't know how you can compare the Taliban controlling the country and taking it back many centuries at the least with a democratically-elected government, however imperfect, corrupt, less-than-desirable and frustrating, maddening, and everything else, think of the opportunities that Afghan citizens did enjoy for the 20 years of this period, and they were vastly greater, clearly, than what existed under the Taliban prior to that and prior to the 9/11 attacks.
>> The Washington Post, General, published the so-called Afghanistan Papers, which was a compilation of interviews and memos that, quote... What is your reaction?
What is your response to that narrative, and what did we achieve in 20 years?
>> I mean, the first response is -- and, literally, I went back and looked at what I said in Congressional testimony, public statements, and all the rest, and I absolutely stand by what it is that I did put forward at that time, and also what I said privately, much of which has, of course, come out in the various memoirs of former presidents, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and so forth.
Over the years, undoubtedly, there were rosier assessments than perhaps should have been offered.
Over the years, I think, particularly as the sentiment of the top was, "We got to figure out how we get out."
Again, I think there were, again, assessments, rationales, reports, and so forth that probably didn't merit the optimism that some of them may have contained.
>> The reason we went to Afghanistan in the first place was to prevent al-Qaeda and other extremist groups from plotting attacks against Americans and against our homeland.
President Biden said on July 8th that we accomplished this mission of eliminating al-Qaeda's capacity to attack the United States from Afghanistan, but have we really done that permanently?
>> Not permanently, and I think that's the key -- underline "permanently" -- because, again, we went to Afghanistan for a reason that you just explained, we stayed in Afghanistan for a reason, and that's because al-Qaeda kept trying to reestablish that sanctuary.
We detected that numerous times over the years and then beat it back.
The Islamic State is out there now.
Now, they're not allies of the Taliban, but they are also trying to establish a sanctuary, most likely in Eastern Afghanistan.
They have the Khorasan group that acts in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region.
So, again -- and the president, to be fair, has been very forthright about noting that we will have to keep a very close eye on al-Qaeda and on the Islamic State.
The problem is, of course, it's very, very costly and much more challenging to keep a close eye on groups like that from offshore than it is from onshore.
And, by the way, keep in mind that Afghanistan is land-locked, so it's not even as if they have access to the ocean.
So everything that we do is going to have to come out of the Gulf states or off a carrier.
Either of those is exceedingly costly in terms of the amount of time spent going and coming and also in terms of the tanker fleet that will have to be overhead to do the aerial refueling to get aircraft there, keep them there, and then get them home.
So this is not going to be easy, and it's going to be very, very costly, as well.
>> Should we be concerned about al-Qaeda or other extremist groups mounting attacks against the United States from Afghanistan?
>> Not in the near term, I don't think.
And again, I think the administration has been quite forthright on this, as has the director of the CIA and various military leaders.
They have noted, however, that without question, our capabilities will be reduced, particularly when it comes to human intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan, which will be vastly more challenging.
But they will have workarounds.
They're going to employ a variety of capabilities that didn't exist prior to 9/11, and they will be very intent -- you can be assured that the administration is going to be very direct to the intelligence community, particularly the CIA, again, and also to the military, to do everything humanly possible to ensure that al-Qaeda is not able to reestablish a sanctuary that could build into a capability over, say, the mid-term that could threaten our homeland or the homelands of our major NATO allies in the way that the Islamic State, when it had a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, was able to do just that.
Keeping in mind that nothing succeeds like success, and the Taliban's success may be spinnable by al-Qaeda into something that can attract recruits that can be used to motivate followers around the world, can share -- because, of course, you know, you do have a much more capable cadre of individuals in all of these Islamic extremist groups, all of which have to keep an eye -- we have to keep pressure on.
And the lesson from Iraq is if you take your eye off them, they can reconstitute.
You can have destroyed them, as we did destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq during the surge, but several years later, when the government took its eye off and we had withdrawn, they were able to reconstitute as the Islamic State and cause unfathomable human tragedy, humanitarian crises and so forth, en route to establishing the first two caliphate on the ground that any extremist group was able to establish.
>> Some Pakistanis saw the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan as a reason to celebrate.
While the civilian government is a United States ally of Pakistan, the military and the intelligence apparatus, the ISI, remains aligned with the Taliban and includes the dangerous Taliban Haqqani network.
What does our exit from Afghanistan mean for this precarious situation in Pakistan?
>> Well, Pakistan is in a very, very difficult situation.
It's got a very considerable population, it's economy is severely distorted by all of the actions that the government has taken over many decades, to provide subsidies and all the rest of this, and on top of that, they have a very substantial number of extremists in their own country, going after them Foremost among these in terms of numbers would be the Pakistani Taliban.
In any event, they have enormous challenges, and many of the services that they have offered over decades have eroded public education and so on.
And so this is going to be a mixed blessing for them.
Yes, they will have, in a sense, strategic depth now, from their -- they see the principal adversary, of course, as India, and that does provide depth for them, but it's also going to provide perhaps millions of refugees.
If the Taliban are going to be in need of an awful lot, again, of goods and services, much of this has to come through Pakistan, and they may not have the money for it.
So you're going to see a huge humanitarian disaster in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, which is something, again, that Pakistan can ill-afford to experience.
>> How should the Taiwanese interpret this action of withdrawal from Afghanistan?
>> Well, this is the question of what has this done to America's credibility and reputation around the world?
And I don't know how you can see this as having shored up our credibility or reputation.
Our most important NATO allies were publicly quite critical about the withdrawal and the lack of real consultation, rather than just telling them what we were going to do.
I think those around the world should rest assured that our military capacity is extraordinary, and that where those interests are truly vital in the view of the administration, that our commitments will clearly be honored.
>> General Petraeus, thank you for your service to our country, and thank you for your insights here on "Firing Line".
>> Great to be back with you.
Thank you, Margaret.
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