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Former Pentagon Officials: The U.S. Isn't Safer After War On Terror In Afghanistan

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You'll remember that the U.S. and its allies first went to Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The goal, as it was described, was to combat global terrorism. The recent attack at Kabul Airport and the near certainty that another was planned can fairly be used to show just how susceptible the region remains to terrorist networks. But with the withdrawal nearing its end and the Taliban reestablishing power, we wanted to spend some time thinking about what this shift means for the so-called war on terror, so we've called two people who have spent much of their careers thinking about this.

Bilal Saab is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. That's a think tank here in Washington. He is a former senior adviser at the Pentagon with oversight responsibilities for security cooperation in the Middle East, including Afghanistan. Mr. Saab, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

BILAL SAAB: Absolutely. It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: And Kathryn Wheelbarger is a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. That's also a think tank here in Washington. But she served in senior policy positions in Congress and the administration of George W. Bush and the Trump administration in a number of senior areas that pertain to international security affairs. Kathryn Wheelbarger, welcome to you as well. Thank you so much for joining us.

KATHRYN WHEELBARGER: Thank you very much for your time.

MARTIN: So now I want to go back to the beginning, this whole concept of a war on terror and the premise that this is a war and that Afghanistan was the place to fight that war. Can I just ask each of you - and I recognize that this is kind of one of the kinds of questions that, you know, courses will be taught on. Books have been written about, right? But I do want to go back and ask, was that ever a viable approach? Kathryn Wheelbarger, you want to start?

WHEELBARGER: I think if we go back to 2001 and recall the shock and horror of us being attacked from that location, it reminds us why we went there in the first instance. Now, I think there's much discussion, and as you rightfully said, books will be written on the mission creep that occurred over the last 20 years in terms of trying to build a security force and a democracy, et cetera, in that country. But at the same point, many of those activities that the United States and our partners and allies did together was to give our security forces and our - some of our more elite intelligence and military capabilities the space to continue to conduct operations against al-Qaida and then eventually ISIS, which do actually have motives to attack Americans and American - the homeland again, if they could.

The challenge we face with Afghanistan is it's still a magnet for many of those extremists. And there's a particular terrain challenge in Afghanistan with the mountains on - in eastern Afghanistan in particular, that makes conducting counterterrorism operations and getting in front of the threat particularly challenging.

MARTIN: Bilal, what about you? Was the premise logical to begin with? And what is your sense of whether any of the goals of this global war on terror was achieved in the 20 years that the United States and its allies have been there?

SAAB: Well, the premise, if it were limited to counterterrorism, which the president focused on in his August 14 speech, was certainly sound, except that for 20 years, the goalposts kept changing, right? And so instead of keeping a limited presence on the ground to collect intelligence, to collect data on the enemy, we morphed into something much more ambitious. It's always going to be a challenge - and I don't think we're ever going to be in a position to effectively pursue it - to address the root causes and the underlying conditions of terrorism. The host country has to do that, except that the host country has a politically fragile government, has a very big problem of corruption, has all sorts of social issues that it has to deal with. And all of those things, we were never in a position, really, to address them effectively. And now we've gotten back to where we were, back to square one. And I hope that we can maintain some kind of a presence in the country to at least pursue the one thing that we seem to care about the most, which is protecting the homeland, protecting our strategic interests in the region and abroad.

MARTIN: Kathryn Wheelbarger, I know that you're concerned about the U.S. relationships with NATO allies, many of whom have been a presence in this conflict through the course of it, just as the U.S. has been. So I'm interested in what concerns you most.

WHEELBARGER: From what I can tell, the way we conducted this withdrawal left many of our partners exposed and surprised and put their forces very much at risk as well. So I really think the Biden administration has an opportunity to renew its focus on building a strong alliance network and actually showing that this withdrawal, even if it wasn't perfectly conducted, does not mean that America is not going to show leadership with our allies in these other contexts. And I really look forward to the administration putting renewed effort into the NATO alliance in particular.

MARTIN: And can I just ask you a bit more to elaborate on that? Why would it? I mean, isn't it in these countries' interest to cooperate with each other going forward?

WHEELBARGER: The level of criticism that we've heard from some of our European partners - I would highlight the United Kingdom, in particular - it is extraordinarily rare for the U.K. government, particularly its defense minister, to be so critical of American defense policy. They really - our British partners really do see a very strong, strategic partnership with this bilateral relationship. And for their minister of defense to criticize the conduct of the withdrawal, because it put so many of their nationals at risk after 20 years of fighting together, is really a challenge that I think the Biden administration needs to address to make sure some of these key partners are together with us, especially when you're looking at a Russian challenge or a China challenge in the future. The West really does need to stay partnered together to - and address these challenges together.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Saab, let me ask you what this means for the global war on terror. So I want to first ask what you think this means for Central Asia, but then globally, what do you think this means?

SAAB: I'll be frank with you. I'm not exactly clear on the critical importance of Afghan real estate for international terrorism. And I understand why there's renewed focus on it, possibility of it being a safe haven once again, like it was pre-9/11. But the very nature of terrorism has very much morphed. And you can plan for an attack in a hideout in Kandahar or in the desert of Yemen just as effectively as in an apartment in Hartford, Conn.

Now, that said, you know, it's never good news when transnational terrorists can roam freely in Afghanistan and, you know, at least try to launch or plot attacks worldwide from the country, so - which gets me to, you know, the regional part of this question is - I think the one country that stands to lose the most or has the biggest worries is India. I mean, groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, they can launch attacks from Afghanistan now in Kashmir or even deep inside India. As you very well know, the Indians and the Pakistanis are both nuclear powers, so you don't need any kind of tensions between these two states, obviously caused or triggered by terrorism or terrorism that you can't control. And I don't know what the Taliban is going to do, what kind of cooperation they're going to offer us down the road.

MARTIN: So before we let you go - and I suspect we will be having this conversation again as we go forward - I'd like to ask each of you, is the U.S. safer as a result of the 20 years spent in Afghanistan?

SAAB: I'll keep it short. No, we're not safer. And I think that the threat has metastasized. I think that what we had to deal with before, which was limited to al-Qaida, now has to include groups like ISIS, which also has a transnational presence. And that's the tragedy of this whole thing, is that 20 years later, the one core priority that we've always focused on has not been met.

MARTIN: Hmm. Kathryn Wheelbarger, are we safer?

WHEELBARGER: Comparing today to pre-9/11 probably doesn't do a lot of justice to all that we have done in the last 20 years to actually avoid another significant attack on American soil in particular. Yes, the adversary has morphed, as we have also. So I think it's inappropriate to compare how we've been able to leverage certain areas and compare that to Afghanistan. It's a landlocked country that faces significantly more challenges. So in the sense of are we safer today than we were a few years ago, I would say no. And that is because we have now exceeded a hugely important terrain to this adversary that is continuing to try to attack Western interests.

MARTIN: That is Kathryn Wheelbarger. She's a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She has held a number of senior policy positions in the Congress and the White House. We also heard from Bilal Saab. He's a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. He's a former senior adviser at the Pentagon. Thank you both so much for your insights today.

WHEELBARGER: Thank you.

SAAB: My pleasure.

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