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A total Taliban takeover can be avoided, “if the US commits to use its military power”: General David Petraeus

«What is unfolding in Afghanistan is truly catastrophic and did not have to happen»

Within days the Taliban has seized large portions of Afghanistan. Former U.S. Afghanistan commander and retired Gen. David Petraeus criticizes the U.S. government’s poor planning of troop withdrawal. In an exclusive interview Petraeus tells Die Weltwoche what needs to be done to avoid a second «Saigon» and what dangers the world would face from a new Taliban regime in the Hindukush.

In April 2021 U.S. President Joe Biden announced that all U.S. forces in the region would be withdrawn by September 11th. However, what was planned to be a safe end to the longest war in U.S. history has almost overnight turned into a nightmare for millions of Afghans. 

In the past few days, the Taliban has seized 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and 18 of its provincial capitals. On Sunday, Taliban fighters started entering the outskirts of the capital Kabul, according to officials. 

Overwhelmed by the rapid Taliban offensive, the Biden administration has decided to send 5,000 American troops back into Afghanistan. Two battalions of Marines and a battalion of Army soldiers arrived in Kabul on the weekend to help secure the evacuation of both U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals.

«What is unfolding is truly catastrophic and did not have to happen», former CIA Director General David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told Die Weltwoche. In this exclusive interview, conducted via email, the retired general and architect of the successful surge in Iraq talks about the resurgence of the Taliban and the dangers for Afghanistan, the region and the world. 

 

Weltwoche: The Taliban have seized two thirds of Afghanistan in a blitz. What are the reasons for the collapse of what has been painfully established over almost 20 years?

General Petraeus: The most proximate cause is that the Afghan Air Force was inadequate in size and capability to respond – with reinforcements, resupply, air medevac, reconnaissance, and close air support – to numerous simultaneous attacks by the Taliban all around a vast, mountainous country that has very limited road infrastructure. This situation was exacerbated by the withdrawal, when the 3500 U.S. and 8500 Coalition troops withdrew, of the approximately 18,000 civilian contract maintenance technicians who were the key to maintaining the sophisticated U.S.-provided helicopters and planes that make up the bulk of the Afghan fleet. 

The result was recognition by Afghan troops under fire in multiple locations that no one was coming to the rescue with reinforcements or close air support. I publicly raised concerns about this possibility when it was clear that the contractors would be withdrawn, and, tragically, my fears were confirmed. When troops know that no one is coming to help them after they have been fighting for 2 to 3 days, they will inevitably and predictably surrender, withdraw, or desert. And the psychological blow to Afghan forces as this took place was catastrophic.

In the past, Afghan forces fought hard and died for their country in considerable numbers as long as they knew U.S. air support would help them in tough fights if the Afghan air assets were not sufficient. This time, the American augmentation obviously was not available.

Weltwoche: It looks like the Biden administration has not planned the troop withdrawal adequately.

Petraeus: The current tragic situation, sadly, makes it hard to contest that assessment.

Weltwoche: Instead of waiting for winter, President Biden ordered the U.S. troops to withdraw during the Taliban fighting season after May.

Petraeus: An important observation.

Weltwoche: Will the success of the Taliban encourage Al Qaeda (AQ) to establish a new safe haven in the Hindukush?

Petraeus: I fear that will be the case. AQ has repeatedly tried to re-establish the kind of sanctuary they had under Taliban rule and in which the 9/11 attacks were planned. And we repeatedly destroyed those new sanctuaries. Additionally, I also fear that the Islamic State affiliate established in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area will seek to establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan as well. That said, I do not believe that either terrorist group will pose a near-term threat to the US homeland or our NATO allies. The longer-term threat will depend on our ability to identify, disrupt, and degrade any such sanctuaries, tasks that will be vastly more difficult without bases in Afghanistan or the neighboring countries.

Weltwoche: In February 2020 the Trump government signed the «Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan» with the Taliban. Was it a mistake to trust the Taliban?

Petraeus: Sadly, it was. The agreement we signed was really quite deficient, given that it required us to force the elected Afghan government – whose representatives had not been participants in the talks about their country – to release over 5000 detained Taliban fighters. Well over 700 of those have already been confirmed as being engaged again in fighting, and undoubtedly many more have been as well. We got virtually very little in return except for a Taliban pledge not to fight us, at a time when we were no longer on the front lines and relatively inaccessible to the Taliban.

Weltwoche: As the noose tightens around Kabul can the Taliban be stopped, can a new «Saigon» be avoided?

Petraeus: Yes, if the US commits to use its military power to halt the Taliban advance, either through an ultimatum or, failing a Taliban halt in response to it, through actual use of force, which we are very capable of doing, but which may cost more in blood and treasure than would have been the price of just keeping 3,500 troops on the ground.

Weltwoche: Geopolitically, what would it mean if Afghanistan was lost to the Taliban?

Petraeus: It would be catastrophic for Afghanistan and its people (and especially female Afghans, as well as for those who were part of the government, supported the US, or were resolutely secular), its neighboring countries (into whom millions of refugees will seek refuge), and, very likely, countries in Europe to which refugees will also seek to travel. And that is all before AQ and IS establish sanctuaries and rebuild their capabilities. 

Afghanistan’s government and leaders were certainly not without shortcomings that were very frustrating. But surely the democracy established over the past 20 years, however flawed, as well as the rights enjoyed by Afghan citizens (especially girls and women), the freedoms of speech and press that existed, and the economic vibrancy were vastly preferable to what will follow if the Taliban once again rules the bulk of the country. 

Beyond that, we will also have lost our most important bases in Central Asia for the conduct of the regional counter-terrorism campaign, as well as a staunch ally – again, however flawed. Sadly, this outcome was preventable with what would have been an affordable and sustainable sustained US commitment. Surely what we now see cannot be viewed as a positive national security development for the US, the region, or our coalition partners.