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Former CIA Director Gen. Petraeus Discusses The Taliban's Resurgence In Afghanistan

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After 20 years, American combat troops have all but left Afghanistan. Much of that time was spent training Afghan security forces to protect the country from extremists. But now as the fighters take city after city, the Taliban is poised to fill the void. Retired General David Petraeus is a former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He joins us now.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DAVID PETRAEUS: Good to be back, Audie. Thank you.

CORNISH: What is your reaction to kind of the collapse of the Afghan army in the face of the Taliban in so many of these provinces?

PETRAEUS: Well, it's disastrous. It's tragic. But sadly, I tend to think that it was somewhat predictable. And I noted months ago that when we pulled out our 3,500 troops that led the coalition, 8,500, to go home - and perhaps most importantly, just at the time that we were withdrawing the air support on which the Afghans always relied, we also withdrew about 18,000 contractors who were there to maintain the sophisticated U.S.-provided helicopters and planes that provide the resupply, additional forces, air medevac and close air support, all of which are critical, especially when your forces come under attack simultaneously in multiple locations in a huge country that is very mountainous and has very limited ground lines of communication, decent roads (ph).

CORNISH: So I want to come back to something because you've said in the past that Afghan forces have been, quote, "fighting and dying in very large numbers" but that the problem is that they're not sure if someone is coming to the rescue. So, I mean...

PETRAEUS: That's exactly it. You've got it exactly right.

CORNISH: ...Were you saying that there was no way for the U.S. - was - you were in charge - right? - of supporting the training and building up of this force? Did you know that it was not capable of surviving a U.S. withdrawal?

PETRAEUS: Well, we weren't contemplating a withdrawal when I was doing this. We had 150,000 coalition forces when I was privileged to command, U.S. and all other forces in Afghanistan.

CORNISH: What were you contemplating? Did you think there would be an indefinite sustained presence?

PETRAEUS: No, not at all. In fact, we - I made recommendations to the president near the end of my time as commander and before going to be the CIA director, how to withdraw. The key was that we always initially made decisions based on conditions on the ground, and ultimately, that obviously was discarded as a big idea that guided what it was that was done. Again, this was predictable. If soldiers - as you just quoted me saying that soldiers know nobody's coming to the rescue, they'll fight for a couple of days, and once that realization sets in, they're going to surrender, flee, desert, whatever. And I also said months ago that I feared that there could be a psychological collapse as these soldiers in more than one location realize that this modest Afghan air force, which is now degrading in operational readiness because all the folks that maintained it were no longer there, that they would recognize this situation.

CORNISH: But are you saying all of this is - this has all happened after you've left? Like, what responsibility do you bear for how this is playing out now? Was this ever a mission that could have been successful?

PETRAEUS: Well, I think you have to understand that you could never win in Afghanistan. In fact, I told Congress we would not be able to do in Afghanistan what we did in Iraq. The situations were totally different. The most important element being that the Taliban Haqqani network and the other associated extremists and insurgents have their headquarters, their major bases, outside of Afghanistan and beyond our reach in Pakistan, where our Pakistani partners refuse to eliminate them from their soil. So you could never truly win. You just had to accept that. And then what you have to...

CORNISH: So is Afghanistan on the verge of becoming a safe haven for terrorists?

PETRAEUS: Yes, certainly it is. It's on the verge of becoming a humanitarian catastrophe, an enormous setback for us in national security terms, something that we thought was going to help us to focus on the Indo-Pacific. And obviously, here now we've pulled out 3,500. We're already deploying 8,000 - not all into Afghanistan, to be sure; some will stay in the Gulf states - just to ensure that we can get our embassy and U.S. citizens out. But then what do we do? Do we allow Afghanistan just to completely collapse and, again, become a total disaster and a significant national security setback? Again, all of this...

CORNISH: You're raising this as a question. How do you think about it, I mean, having been in the position?

PETRAEUS: Well, I think that you - well, look; first of all, keep in mind, I commanded a decade ago. A lot has happened since then. But we're here and now, and when we decided to withdraw this final 3,500, I said I believe we would come - I feared we would come to regret this. And I think we already are. And numerable...

CORNISH: Do you see a scenario where the U.S. has more combat presence or has more presence similar to what's happened in Iraq?

PETRAEUS: Look; Iraq is actually not in a bad place right now. Of course, we probably shouldn't have withdrawn there, and then we had to go back in. I think we should acknowledge the severity of this particular situation, acknowledge that we withdrew overly hastily and essentially set up the Afghans for failure, recognizing that we had built a force that we enabled, and if we no longer enabled them with combat controllers, close air support, emergency resupply, they weren't going to be able to hold off a simultaneous offensive by the Taliban in all the different locations they've attacked. And then, as I said, the psychological impact at some point would lead to quite predictable collapse of those forces. If you recognize that and acknowledge it - and that's very, very hard to do. I recognize. But then you would issue an ultimatum to the Taliban and say, stop where you are, or we're going to deploy the might of the United States against you. We should have...

CORNISH: Do you see any indication...

PETRAEUS: ...An airlift out of Kabul for all these translators that we're leaving behind. There's 18,000 battlefield interpreters who still have not been able to get through this very bureaucratic process.

CORNISH: We heard from the White House saying today that they would be focused on doing that. And I think - in the time left, I want to understand this. You are - it sounds like you're saying that this was always militarily impossible to win. Now that the Taliban have momentum on the battlefield...

PETRAEUS: But you could manage. There's a huge difference.

CORNISH: ...And arguably no reason to negotiate, what is the lever to pull? What is the next move for the U.S., to your mind?

PETRAEUS: Well, the lever - first of all, again, what I said was it's not just that we could not win; it was that - but having acknowledged that, you could manage the situation, and that's what we should have done. Certainly, the situation prior to the withdrawal, even with the deterioration that was happening, was vastly preferable to what we see now. Again, this is an unfolding disaster in all proportions. Our leverage right now is to say to the Taliban, OK, we sort of let you get this far because we didn't do much about it to support our Afghan partners of 20 years. We are now going to deploy the might of the United States to stop you where you are. We're going to do the withdrawals. And keep in mind, by the way, there's 18,000 battlefield interpreters who served two years or more on the ground with our forces who qualify for a special immigrant visa.

CORNISH: It sounds like what you're advocating for is a U-turn on this decision and to bring back a major troop presence in Afghanistan.

PETRAEUS: I certainly would do that in the short term, and I would certainly consider it for the mid and long term. Again, we are otherwise just consigning a country of 40 million people to a medieval, theocratic, ultra-conservative Islamist emirate. That cannot be in our interest. Al-Qaida, the Islamic State, all will find sanctuary there. The atrocities are already terrible. This was a mistake, and we should acknowledge it. And therefore - and then we should take actions based on that assessment.

CORNISH: That's retired General David Petraeus, former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Thank you for speaking with us.

PETRAEUS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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