TRANSCRIPT:

The Inside Story: Deployments and Diplomacy (Episode 08 October 7, 2021)

 

Show Open:

Voice of CARLA BABB, VOA Pentagon Correspondent:

20-years of US military presence in Afghanistan — under fire.

 

 

Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

 

It is clear. It is Obvious. The war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms we wanted.

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

A contentious Q-and-A on Capitol Hill over the lessons learned from America’s longest war —   

And how it will shape President Biden’s approach to future confrontations …

On “The Inside Story: Deployments and Diplomacy.”     

 

 

Show Begins:

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

Hello and thanks for joining us. I’m Carla Babb, VOA’s Pentagon correspondent. 

 

It’s been 20 years –that’s right, 20 years this week– since the United States launched a military campaign in Afghanistan in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. 

 

Now that American troops have withdrawn, the Taliban has returned to power to try to lead a different Afghanistan than the one it led in 2001. 

 

And after two decades of war, U.S. politicians and generals are trying to determine what lessons have been learned.

 

At a recent Congressional hearing, things got contentious. 

 

The top U.S. general Tuesday bluntly assessing the Afghanistan evacuation mission …

Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

 

It was a logistical success but a strategic failure.

 

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

… and the overall end of the war.

 

 

 

Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

 

An outcome that is a strategic failure. The enemy is in charge of Kabul. There’s no way else to describe that — that is a cumulative effect of 20 years, not 20 days.

 

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

Milley, along with Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie, said they personally had wanted a minimum of 2,500 troops to remain.

 

 

 

Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

 

My assessment was back in the fall of ‘20 and remained consistent throughout. We should keep a steady state of 2,500, and it could bounce up to 3,500, maybe something like that, in order to move toward a negotiated solution.

 

 

 

Gen. Frank McKenzie, US CENTCOM Commander:

 

I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. And I also recommended earlier in the fall of 2020 that we will maintain 4,500 at that time. Those are my personal views. I also had a view that withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and eventually the Afghan government.

 

 

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

The revelations contrasted sharply with U.S. President Joe Biden’s assertion in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

 

 

 

George Stephanopoulos, ABC:

 

So, no one told — your military advisers did not tell you, “No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It’s been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that?

 

 

 

U.S. President Joe Biden:

 

 No. No one said that to me that I can recall. 

 

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

The White House Tuesday again defending the decision to remove all troops.

 

 

 

Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary:

 

If we had kept 2,500 troops there, we would have increased the number of troops, we would have been at war with the Taliban, we would have had more U.S. casualties. That was a reality everybody was clear-eyed about.

 

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

Both Republicans and Democrats slammed the administration for leaving Americans and Afghan allies behind after the president said he would not do so. 

 

They also asked pointed questions on the future of the counterterror war there.

 

 

 

Sen. Joni Ernst, Republican:

 

Has the military’s task to defeat terror threats from Afghanistan gotten harder? 

 

 

 

 Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

 

 

Yes. 

 

 

 

Sen. Joni Ernst, Republican:

 

Does the Taliban and its other terror partners have more ability to train and prepare in Afghanistan now that we’ve left? 

 

 

 

Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

 

More ability, yes.

 

 

 

Sen. Mark Kelly, Democrat:

 

Are you confident that we can deny organizations like al-Qaida and ISIS the ability to use Afghanistan as a launchpad for terrorist activity?

 

 

 

Gen. Frank McKenzie, US CENTCOM Commander:

 

I think that’s yet to be seen.

 

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

The military has come under harsh criticism for its errant drone strike in the final days of the withdrawal that killed 10 civilians, a strike for which McKenzie has taken responsibility.

 

The top defense officials also reiterated that U.S. intelligence had failed to anticipate the rapid fall of Kabul.

 

But in their lessons learned, they had a message for America’s civilian leaders.

 

 

 

Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

 

I would advise any leader: Don’t put date-certains or end dates. Make things conditions-based, and two presidents in a row put dates on it.

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

…and ousted Afghan leader Ashraf Ghani.

 

 

 

Gen. Frank McKenzie, US CENTCOM Commander:

 

When your president leaves suddenly in the middle of the campaign for the capital, I think that finishes any chance of ever making a stand there.

 

 

CARLA BABB:

A few weeks ago we brought you the story of Nasria, one of the Americans trapped in Afghanistan after U.S. evacuation efforts ended August 30.

I kept in touch with her following our report and can now share a remarkable update: 

Twenty-five-year-old Californian Nasria came to the Afghan capital in June to visit family and marry her longtime boyfriend.  

 

Pregnant and scared after the Taliban takeover, she fled with her husband to the airport,    

waving her American passport…

 

 

Nasaria:

 

They won’t let us go. They’re gassing us and they’re shooting at us.

CARLA BABB:

 

But the Taliban kept blocking her.

 

 

 

Nasria:

 

I was, got a gun pointed to my head! Our troops were literally at the gate just waiting for us to continue walking. And they (the Taliban) had blocked us. And there was a time where I went past them and I started walking as fast as I can, and they started shooting right by my leg and told me to come back or they would shoot me.

 

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

When the U.S. military left, Nasria said the Taliban were hunting down Americans. 

 

 

 

Nasria:

 

There’s been days where you know I think to myself am I going to make it home? Am I going to end up living here? Am I going to end up dying her? What’s going to happen?

 

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

She hid in a basement for nearly three weeks, as VOA News and others in and out of government worked around-the-clock to help.  And then, a breakthrough:

 

The State Department put her on flight to Doha, and then the veterans’ group Operation Recovery bought her a business class ticket to Los Angeles. We can now report she is home safe.

 

And you may have noticed her little baby bump. Nasria tells me she went to her doctor after getting home, heard her baby’s heartbeat for the first time and was told the baby is doing well.

 

 

Let’s go back now to those hearings on Capital Hill. Earlier in the show we summarized some of the questioning of top Pentagon officials about the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the overall strategy of the 20 years of war. 

 

Now the President’s top military adviser, General Mark Milley,

 

And the Pentagon’s top civilian leader, Lloyd Austin — once a commander of troops in Afghanistan — 

 

Explain more on what happened and why — In their own words. 

 

 

 

Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

 

It is clear. It is obvious, the war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms we wanted, with the Taiban now in power in Kabul. Although the NEO (non-combatant evacuation) was unprecedented and as the largest air evacuation in history, evacuating 124,000 people, it came at an incredible cost of 11 Marines, one soldier, and a Navy corpsman.

 

 

 

Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Defense:

Noncombatant evacuations remain amongst the most among the most challenging military operations, even in the best of circumstances, and the circumstances and orders were anything but ideal. Extremely a landlocked country no government, a highly dynamic situation on the ground, and an active credible and lethal terrorist threat.

 

And as for the missions end my judgment remains that extending beyond the end of August would have greatly imperiled our people in our mission. But Taliban made clear that their cooperation would end on the first of September. And as you know we face grave and growing threats from ISIS K.

 

Staying longer than we did would have made it even more dangerous for o ur people, and would not have significantly changed the number of evacuees we could get out. Now as we consider these types of issues today. We must also ask ourselves some equally tough questions about the wider war itself. And pause to think about the lessons that we have learned over the past 20 years.

But I hope, as I said at the outset that we do not allow a debate about how this war ended to cloud our pride in the way that our people fought it. They prevented another 9/11. They showed extraordinary courage and compassion in the wars lands in the wars last days, and they made lasting progress in Afghanistan that the Taliban will find difficult to reverse, and that the international community should work hard to preserve.

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

 

We’ve heard from the generals and the politicians about America’s 20 year stay in Afghanistan.

 

Americans are now letting leaders know how they feel about the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. 

 

VOA Senior Diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine goes inside a new survey that shows a preference for diplomacy over deployments. 

 

 

 

CINDY SAINE, VOA Senior Diplomatic correspondent:

 

With the last U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan in August after 20 years, President Joe Biden told the United Nations that the United States is pivoting from an era of “relentless war” to an era of “relentless diplomacy.”

 

A new national survey of 2,000 U.S. voters finds that most Americans appear to agree.

A majority of those polled by the Eurasia Group Foundation want to decrease the number of U.S. troops stationed overseas and reduce security commitments abroad, while 58 percent say they want to increase U.S. diplomatic engagement.

Caroline Gray is a lead researcher on the survey.

 

 

 

Caroline Gray, Eurasia Group Foundation:

 

We found that 62 percent, quite a large majority, thought that the biggest lessons from the war was that the United States should not be in the business of nation-building or that it should only send troops into harm’s way if vital national interests are threatened.”

 

 

 

 

CINDY SAINE:

 

The report notes among younger voters, ages 18 to 29, 80 percent believe that unless the United States is under attack, the president should be required to seek congressional approval before ordering military action overseas.  

 

 

 

Caroline Gray, Eurasia Group Foundation:

 

65 percent of younger Americans want to revive nuclear negotiations with Iran. They’re more skeptical of America increasing its military presence in East Asia to counter a rising China and a majority of them also want to scale back U.S. defense spending. So, they are a lot more likely than their older counterparts to want to scale back America’s military posture and reliance on

 

 

 

CINDY SAINE:

 

Americans appear divided on the best approach to China and Russia, according to the survey – with 40 percent saying they are unsure about what the U.S. should do if China were to invade Taiwan.  This appears to contrast with what one expert said is the bipartisan consensus among U.S. foreign policy leaders.

 

 

 

Christopher Skaluba, Atlantic Council:

 

I think in the security realm, Washington, D.C., as you well know, is obsessed with China as a rising competitor. The president himself has talked very often about this era that we’re moving into an era of great power competition, an era of democracy versus autocracy, and a real concern that China as an autocracy that has a lot of resources and a clear plan, intentionality to dominate kind of the global discussion.

 

 

 

CINDY SAINE:

 

The survey found that humanitarian aid, disaster relief and COVID-19 relief are the most popular types of international assistance, while military assistance and weapons sales are the least popular. Cindy Saine, VOA News.

 

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

We have talked to Michael O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institution many times throughout the Afghanistan War about defense and foreign policy issues. I spoke with him again this week to talk about what’s next when it comes to the United States and its use of military force. 

 

 

Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings Institution:

We went up and down in Afghanistan. I don’t think we ever really had a chance to apply diplomacy to the Taliban early on. They were in cahoots with al Qaeda, they might not have been the ones that attacked us but they had a lot of intermarriages and close ties with al Qaeda. And until we proved that we were not in a mood to just sweet talk them, they were not going to engage in diplomacy. And then we overthrew them, maybe we had an opportunity to do some diplomacy with the Taliban in the early years before they made their comeback. But, you know, understandably most Afghan people didn’t want the Taliban to share power in that time they just lived under their rule.

My point is I can go through more of the history but the centra, the central lesson is I don’t know when we actually had this supposed moment for diplomacy. Now, by the end we were trying to create that moment, but the Taliban weren’t very interested. I think they had sort of figured out that we were not going to stay too long, regardless of whether they compromised or not, at the peace process table, and so they basically just made the showing of going to a few meetings, didn’t really offer any plans for power sharing waited us out, and then took the country by force once we were gone. So I just don’t really see where this supposed golden window of diplomacy was in regard to Afghanistan.  

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

For millions of the world’s refugees, the decision to leave home in search of a better life often comes at a cost.   

 

That experience is the subject of a recent documentary chronicling the forces that shaped Afghanistan and its people over the last two decades.    

 

The filmmakers spoke to VOA’s Penelope Poulou about their 20-year project on life in Afghanistan from early childhood to adulthood.   

 

 

 

 

PENELOPE POULOU, VOA Correspondent:

 

Phil Grabsky’s lens starts following young Mir’s life since U.S. and allied forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the September 11th attacks.

 

Months before the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001, the Taliban had destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, one of the most significant archeological sites in the world. Grabsky flew to Kabul to chronicle how these events were affecting the embattled country.

 

While touring the ruins he met young Mir and his family living in caves in abject poverty.

 

 

 

Phil Grabsky, Filmmaker, My Childhood My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan:  

 

That energy, that vivacity, that inquisitiveness, I suddenly thought, of course, the film is what will happen over the next year in this young boy’s life because that then projects the audience forward, thinking about the future of Afghanistan.

 

 

 

PENELOPE POULOU:

 

 

Gradually, says Grabsky, Mir’s boyish exuberance and optimism faded under the weight of poverty and family responsibilities.

 

 

 

Mir Hussein:

 

I’ve been having days off school. If we don’t plough, we don’t eat.

 

 

 

PENELOPE POULOU:

 

After years in front of the camera lens, Mir, now a father of two, has taken up the camera himself working as a cameraman in Kabul.

 

On May 31, 2017, a bomb exploded in Kabul, killing more than 250 people and injuring hundreds. The blast missed Mir by mere luck.

 

 

 

Phil Grabsky, Filmmaker, My Childhood My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan:  

 

We would have to check under the wheel arches of our cars every single journey because the Taliban were employing, and ISIS were putting bombs and blowing up journalists and judges and election officials. I mean, it’s horrific, horrible.”

 

 

 

PENELOPE POULOU:

 

Grabsky says recently he has not been to Afghanistan. It is no longer safe for Westerners to film there. His Afghan co-director, Shoaib Sharifi, has continued filming there but even for him it is not safe.

 

 

 

Mir Hussein: 

 

There will be war because the Taliban cannot be stopped. In the presence of foreign troops conflicts were prevented, security was maintained.

 

 

Mir’s wife:

 

Women are punished if they don’t maintain modesty. Those who are covered with hijabs will be fine. The Taliban believe they are real Muslims. They will be very cruel and oppressive.

 

 

 

Phil Grabsky, Filmmaker, My Childhood My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan:

 

I’ve met lots of courageous and brave women, but the Afghan women are something else and even now they’re out demonstrating. Unbelievable. They deserve our wholehearted support.

 

 

 

PENELOPE POULOU:

 

Grabsky says My Childhood My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan is a labor of love spanning almost 20 years. It chronicles the forces that shaped Afghanistan and its people. 

 

 

 

Phil Grabsky, Filmmaker, My Childhood My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan:

 

And it’s very beautiful to look at, it’s dramatic it’s funny, and above all, I think, gives you real insight into the type of person that’s currently queuing at the airport or arriving in your town.” 

 

 

 

PENELOPE POULOU:

 

Penelope Poulou, VOA News, Washington.

 

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

Many Afghans who fled their country as U.S. troops departed are now being housed at military posts across America as they wait to be resettled. 

 

One of those posts is Fort McCoy in the midwestern state of Wisconsin. That’s where our Kane Farabaugh found an Afghanistan War veteran helping those who helped him. 

 

 

KANE FARABAUGH, VOA Correspondent:

When Kyle Vanden Plas heard Afghans were coming to Fort McCoy not far from his Wisconsin home, he immediately jumped into action.

 

 

Kyle Vanden Plas, Team Rubicon Volunteer:

As soon as I read the email, within 10 minutes I had all my information down, and I was signed up and ready to go.

 

 

KANE FARABAUGH:

Vanden Plas volunteers with Team Rubicon, which is coordinating collection and delivery of donations and supplies pouring in for nearly 13,000 Afghan immigrants temporarily housed by the U.S. military at Fort McCoy. 

Kyle Vanden Plas, Team Rubicon Volunteer:

They need basic necessities. Right now, we’re processing through diapers and feminine hygiene products, and baby food and clothes by the trash bag full, and getting it sorted and getting it distributed to the people in need.

 

 

KANE FARABAUGH:

Fort McCoy is a temporary processing location. Only about 400 Afghans will stay in Wisconsin. The rest will resettle in other host communities such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 

 

Noorulhaq Fazly, Jewish Family Community Services:

We are preparing to do our best receiving families.

 

 

KANE FARABAUGH:

After working for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Noorulhaq Fazly left Afghanistan in 2018 on a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV. He is the only Afghan working for Jewish Family and Community Services, or JFCS, one of the agencies tasked with helping Afghans find housing and employment when they resettle in Pittsburgh. Fazly doesn’t yet know the total number coming — or when.

 

 

Noorulhaq Fazly, Jewish Family and Community Services:

The problem is that we get a very short notice. Maybe five hours, like, we had last week, five hours’ notice (that) a family comes. So, you have to deal with that. Usually, it was a month to take to do all this preparation. But now five hours.

 

 

 

Jordan Golin, Jewish Family and Community Services President:

Because this is a crisis situation, this is very different from the way things are typically handled.

 

 

KANE FARABAUGH:

JCFS president Jordan Golin says despite the rapid and chaotic evacuation of Afghans, any concerns about potential security risks to America are overblown.

 

 

Jordan Golin, Jewish Family and Community Services President:

Special Immigrant Visa holders, the SIVs, they are pretty similar to refugees.  They are a special class of immigrants that undergo the most rigorous screenings of any immigrant that comes to this country. They have to be cleared by the State Department to come here, but before that, they go through multiple levels of screenings, which include health screenings, security, background checks. It’s a very lengthy process. We know more about them when they come here than we do probably about pretty much anyone else who comes as a tourist or student or anyone else.

 

 

Kyle Vanden Plas, Team Rubicon Volunteer:

The Afghan guests that are here have been vetted by our government, and they worked alongside us overseas and sacrificed a lot.

 

 

KANE FARABAUGH:

Sacrifices Vanden Plas understands well. He is not only a Team Rubicon volunteer but also a combat veteran of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. He fought the Taliban in southern Afghanistan during the U.S. troop surge in 2009 and 2010.

 

 

 

Kyle Vanden Plas, Team Rubicon Volunteer:

I don’t know that there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think about something that happened over there or wake up from a dream that I have. And that’s something that’s permanently a part of me. It’s a part of my story.

 

 

KANE FARABAUGH:

A story Vanden Plas is still writing.

 

 

Kyle Vanden Plas, Team Rubicon Volunteer:

It’s really a full circle thing for me.

 

KANE FARABAUGH:

… trading in a military vehicle roving the dusty roads of southern Afghanistan for a rental truck navigating the paved streets of northern Wisconsin, where he hopes delivering supplies to those in need helps heal him as much as it helps them.

 

 

Kyle Vanden Plas, Team Rubicon Volunteer:

They made a conscious choice to help the American troops for hopes of betterment of their country and their lives, and I think we owe it to them to continue and uphold our end of it.

 

 

KANE FARABAUGH:

Vanden Plas says he’ll continue to volunteer as long as there are newcomers arriving in America that need his help. Kane Farabaugh, VOA News, Sparta, Wisconsin.

 

CARLA BABB:

 

Farida Nekzad ran one of Afghanistan’s leading independent news services and headed the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists. 

 

She is currently in exile in Canada after feeing Afghanistan in late August. 

 

As part of our Press Freedom Spotlight, VOA’s Esha Sarai talked to her about her work promoting female journalists and the future of Afghan media. 

 

 

 

Farida Nekzad, Afghan Journalist:

 

The hardest for me is you left behind your people, your colleagues, your staff, your office, your all memories, plus the country, homeland, you leave everything. Where you had your achievements, your values, and that – behind you, you you left behind. All of the hard work you did in the country for the better future you left and just come here. All investment, which I had – investment … I worked for 25 years, I was something in my country.  

 

 

We see there’s no hope. But I still think positive. [[With the]] support, those who are working for the protection and support or press freedom of journalists of the world, they have to talk, communicate, do advocacy in terms of public and private advocacy, with the Taliban to bring the position that woman should be confident that they are safe and they come back to work? This is one, my hope.

 

 

If we don’t have women, that means we will make a silence, especially about women’s life, and women’s situation in Afghanistan. None of the international journalists will be able to know exactly what is going on.  So I hope Taliban should understand that without women without press freedom without woman journalists, their their success, progress and development is impossible.  

 

 

 

CARLA BABB:

 

 That’s all for now. Connect with us on Instagram and Facebook at VOANews. Follow me on Twitter at CarlaBabbVOA for news related to thePentagon and U.S. military. And stay up to date online at VOANews.com. See you next week for The Inside Story. 

 

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