NPR’s Steve Inskeep talks to former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage about the moments the U.S. could have withdrawn from Afghanistan, and the cost of its 20-year military presence there.
Heard on Morning Edition
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The evacuation of Americans and their allies from Afghanistan is the most compelling story in the world right now. Tens of thousands of lives are at stake. Yet consider this. This epic story of struggle and peril and human suffering is just one detail of the 20-year U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The United States first attacked in 2001 while hunting for Osama bin Laden, author of the 9/11 attacks. By the end of that year, it seemed that bin Laden had fled. And after he was finally killed in Pakistan in 2011, it became harder to explain what the United States was doing in Afghanistan. The U.S. did support an Afghan democracy that offered new freedoms and opportunities to its people but was also profoundly flawed.
The many officials who focused on Afghanistan over those 20 years include Richard Armitage. He was deputy secretary of state on 9/11 and afterward under President George W. Bush. When we spoke, Armitage was profoundly critical of the mode of the U.S. evacuation, yet he gave President Biden some credit for getting out when other U.S. presidents did not.
When was the first opportunity for the United States to get out of Afghanistan?
RICHARD ARMITAGE: I think the first real opportunity was in 2002, in the winter when we were fighting in Tora Bora, trying to chase down Osama bin Laden.
INSKEEP: So after Tora Bora, you could have said we’re chasing bin Laden; he doesn’t seem to be there anymore. We’re leaving Afghanistan. The United States didn’t do that.
ARMITAGE: We could have done that. President Bush had said publicly we’re not going to nation-build. But after we turned to Iraq, we turned our attention away from Afghanistan. And in my view, it was on automatic pilot for quite a while.
INSKEEP: You were in the State Department. You were in the U.S. government in this period when you felt it was on automatic pilot. Did you sometimes turn your attention to Afghanistan and say, why are we still there? It’s 2005.
ARMITAGE: Yeah. And I’m – this is something that I had bear on my conscience. I think I’m one of those who are responsible during the Bush administration for not having turned around and gotten us out of there. After all, I did visit Afghanistan on several different occasions. But from my point of view, my inbox was filling up, and it was filling up primarily with Iraq.
INSKEEP: So you left office in the mid-2000s. George W. Bush left office and was replaced by President Barack Obama. When was the next opportunity to get out of Afghanistan, had the United States chosen to do so?
ARMITAGE: I think when the death of Osama bin Laden was announced, that would have been a perfect time and perfectly reasonable.
INSKEEP: As I recall, President Obama made an attempt. They did a surge. They brought a lot of troops in, and they brought them back down again and tried to announce an end to combat operations. Why do you think that didn’t stick?
ARMITAGE: Corruption stuck. And you couldn’t put an overlay of professionalism on them. Look. Does anyone doubt that the Afghans can shoot and fight? But the question is, is the sacrifice going to be worth it? For a tribe, it is – for themselves, for their tribe. For a man’s family, it is. But for the government in Kabul, just like the government in Saigon before the fall, the corruption was so overwhelming that it wasn’t worth the sacrifice of the troops.
INSKEEP: Now, the next opportunity to get out was in the Trump administration. And one thing that I know about the peace agreement that was signed under President Trump is that it was an agreement with the Taliban that did not involve the Afghan government. They were cut out. They were supposed to make their own peace with the Taliban.
ARMITAGE: Curious, huh?
INSKEEP: You’re smiling.
ARMITAGE: No, I’m – I just find it very curious. You have a negotiation. You ought to have negotiations with the parties involved. And we didn’t.
INSKEEP: And then President Biden decided to go through with President Trump’s agreement, just delaying it slightly. Was that the right strategic choice for the United States?
ARMITAGE: I’m personally of the opinion that we should have gotten out and that Mr. Biden’s choice was a correct one. However, it has been so hashed up that I think he brings to the fore a whole host of questions about the United States. Let me give you an example. The whole world had witnessed a conga line of grifters in the previous administration that paraded as Cabinet officers. Nobody knew better than our foreign friends what these folks were about. So that raised questions, first of all, about where the direction of the United States was.
Second, you’ve had two successive administrations, Biden’s and Trump’s, which couldn’t handle the challenge of COVID. Then you bring to the fore the 6 January coup attempt, and now you’ve got what appears to be an inability to even run a two-car funeral. So I think that the correct decision was made, but the manner in which it’s carried out is going to have long-lasting implications for the United States and our standing in the world.
INSKEEP: Well, let me think this through because we’ve all seen the catastrophic situation for many people in Kabul. But the president spoke to ABC this week and said, listen; no matter how it turned out, it was going to be chaos. Do you think that’s correct?
ARMITAGE: No. We chose the date, the arbitrary date, originally of 11 September. Does that ring any bells with anybody? That was just waving a flag in front of the Taliban or anyone who wishes us ill. My preference would have been to just to take the end of the year, make an announcement – we’re going to get out – and use all that time to process special immigration visas and other things. But the fact that even now, as I understand it, we’re still to some extent trying to enforce some sort of bureaucracy on those leaving Afghanistan who are not American, it strikes me as insane. We ought to get them out and then sort them out after. I think we’ve already lost the opportunity to have sort of a cordon sanitaire around Kabul. Had we moved in a little more quickly to kind of declare ourselves, I think there’s a possibility – not an assurance, but a possibility – that the Taliban could have been persuaded not to run into Kabul.
INSKEEP: Richard Armitage, it’s a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.
ARMITAGE: Thank you, sir.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS’ “THE EYES THAT SAW THE MOUNTAIN”)
INSKEEP: Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage looking back at the last 20 years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS’ “THE EYES THAT SAW THE MOUNTAIN”)
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