Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen has reported from Afghanistan since 1993. His new book is, “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
General David Petraeus called the Taliban takeover “hugely disheartening and sad” and said that the stage was set for the chaos now unfolding in Afghanistan by the US peace negotiations with the Taliban by the Trump administration in 2018 that excluded the elected Afghan government. Those talks, combined with the total withdrawal of US troops, fatally undermined both the Afghan government and its military.
Petraeus was deeply immersed in the war in Afghanistan, first as the commander of Central Command (CENTCOM) that oversaw the war in Afghanistan until 2010; then as the ground commander leading the war in Afghanistan, and subsequently as the Director of the CIA in 2011, overseeing all of the agency’s operation and intelligence-gathering in Afghanistan until 2012.
The general made his comments in an email exchange with Peter Bergen about the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
BERGEN: Did the peace negotiations with the Taliban over the past three years set the stage for what happened?
PETRAEUS: Yes, at least in part. First, the negotiations announced to the Afghan people and the Taliban that the US really did intend to leave (which also made the job of our negotiators even more difficult than it already was, as we were going to give them what they most wanted, regardless of what they committed to us). Second, we undermined the elected Afghan government, however flawed it may have been, by not insisting on a seat for it at the negotiations we were conducting about the country they actually governed. Third, as part of the eventual agreement, we forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters, many of whom quickly returned to the fight as reinforcements for the Taliban. Fourth, the commitment gave President Biden an additional justification/excuse to do what he wanted to do – leave.
BERGEN: Did Biden need to be bound by the Trump agreement with the Taliban?
PETRAEUS: No, and the Administration clearly has not felt itself bound by many of the other Trump Administration actions with which it has disagreed. In fact, the Biden administration has reversed the Trump withdrawals from the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord, among many other policy decisions and approaches with which it disagreed. Beyond that, the Administration has also sought to sustain commitments in most other locations where there are Islamist extremists; in fact, President Biden and other members of his Administration know from the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq in late 2011 that one must keep pressure on extremist groups or they will reconstitute and cause new problems as was the case with ISIS in Iraq after our departure, which subsequently caused enormous problems in Iraq and Syria and, to a degree, Europe.
BERGEN: Did the Afghan army fight?
PETRAEUS: Yes, at the outset; however, once it was clear to commanders on the ground that the Afghan Air Force could no longer respond to simultaneous attacks all around the vast country and provide reinforcements, resupply, air medevac, and close air support, local military and political leaders decided it was best to cut a deal rather than fight to the finish. This should not have been a surprise. Afghans have demonstrated over many centuries that they will do what is necessary to survive, and they are very skilled at recognizing which way the wind is blowing and when it is shifting.
BERGEN: What could have been done differently than a unilateral pullout? What US/NATO presence was militarily sustainable? Politically sustainable in the US?
PETRAEUS: Keeping in mind that no US soldier has been killed in combat in Afghanistan in some 18 months, it seemed to me that maintaining approximately 3,500 American men and women in uniform, with a lot of drones, close air support capability, and intelligence fusion assets, was more than sustainable – just as we have chosen to do in recent months in Iraq, Syria, Somalia and elsewhere in Africa, and other locations around the world. That would have been particularly true if our senior leaders had sought to explain why such a commitment was advisable.
BERGEN: The contractors were also pulled out: What effect did that have?
PETRAEUS: The contractors who were withdrawn constituted a critical, irreplaceable capability for maintaining the sophisticated US-provided helicopters and fixed wing aircraft of the Afghan Air Force. When the 18,000 or so contractors pulled out, along with the withdrawal of US forces, the readiness of the Afghan Air Force began to erode, especially as the operational tempo was exceedingly high and unsustainable, with many aircraft returning from missions with battle damage. Yet the Afghan Air Force was the critical element in ensuring that Afghan soldiers on the ground knew that someone had their backs in a tough fight. Without the Afghan Air Force doing what only they could do in the wake of the withdrawal of US air assets, Afghan soldiers knew that no one was coming to their rescue.
BERGEN: Was the Taliban takeover predictable?
PETRAEUS: Yes, once we pulled out our 2500-3500 troops, which necessitated the other NATO countries pulling out 7,000 troops and also the withdrawal of many thousands of contractors, Afghan soldiers realized early on that no one was going to help them.
BERGEN: Some have suggested this was an intelligence failure: Was it?
PETRAEUS: It is impossible to say without knowing what the intel community assessments were that were provided to the national security team along the way. Beyond that, as you noted on CNN last week, there is a longstanding practice of administrations in Washington recasting a failed policy as an intelligence failure. I tend to think that the latter was not the case here.
BERGEN: Ahmad Shah Massoud and Amrullah Saleh are leading the resistance to the Taliban. Any thoughts on how that might go?
PETRAEUS: They are both committed, charismatic, and determined leaders, and Amrullah Saleh is very experienced as well (he was my Afghan counterpart when I was Director of the CIA); they have attracted a number of forces who oppose the Taliban and refused to be part of the deals that were cut at local levels. But the major positive feature of the Panjshir Valley where they are leading the resistance – its inaccessibility and natural defensive terrain – can also be a significant shortcoming, given its lack of connectivity with the outside world, from which it needs to get many goods, commodities, and services, not the least of which is refined fuel products. Without a corridor to the border or some other arrangement to the north, they will be quite vulnerable to just being isolated, especially as the Taliban quite impressively seized many of the provinces in the northeastern part of Afghanistan near the beginning of the campaign, and that makes it difficult for those in the Panjshir to establish a corridor for resupply.
BERGEN: Are the Taliban reformed?
PETRAEUS: No one truly knows. And only time will tell. But we should recognize that the US potentially has considerable influence, given the size of the fiscal hole in which the Taliban will soon find themselves. The Taliban has to be short over $5 billion for their annual budget, and with their reserves around the world and their IMF special drawing rights frozen, they are going to struggle to fund their government, maintain basic services, pay their fighters and government salaries, and import products desperately needed in Afghanistan. It is not inconceivable that the Taliban may find the lights going out in Kabul.
BERGEN: What does this mean for al Qaeda and other jihadist groups? Threats to the US homeland? Or American targets overseas?
PETRAEUS: We have to assume that the Taliban victory will make it easier for al Qaeda and the Islamic State and other extremist groups to establish sanctuaries on Afghan soil – though I know that our intelligence agencies and military forces will do all that is humanly possible to identify, disrupt, degrade, and destroy any such sanctuaries (including virtual sanctuaries in cyberspace, too) well before they can establish a capability that could threaten our homeland or the homelands of our NATO allies.
BERGEN: How does this Taliban victory make you feel?
PETRAEUS: Hearing of the Taliban takeover was hugely disheartening and sad. That was especially so for those of us who worked with Afghans and who had such high hopes. I am sure that also has to be the case for families in the US and coalition countries who had a son or daughter or spouse in uniform give the “last full measure of devotion” serving in Afghanistan. Few individuals were as privileged as I was to observe – and lead – our men and women in uniform in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the greater Middle East. In my experience, with rare exceptions, those who volunteered to serve in the military in the wake of the 9/11 attacks performed with very enormous professionalism, determination, innovativeness, and courage. They earned recognition as America’s New Greatest Generation, and we should all be grateful to them for answering our Nation’s call at a time of war, regardless of views about the policies that we executed. Moreover, all who served there should take considerable pride in having provided Afghanistan and the Afghan people some 20 years of relative freedom and opportunity compared to the situation under the Taliban before we ousted that regime in late 2001.