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Kabul's fall to the Taliban, 1 year later

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One year ago, last August, as city after city in Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Frank McKenzie was watching from his post in Tampa, Fla. McKenzie was in regular contact with U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan. He was overseeing their orders. This is because Frank McKenzie is General McKenzie, Marine Corps four-star, at the time the commander of U.S. Central Command - so in charge of all U.S. military operations in East Africa, the Middle East and beyond. Well, he retired from command this past April, and he joins us now. General, welcome.

FRANK MCKENZIE: Thanks, Mary Louise. I'm glad to join you today.

KELLY: As the Taliban got closer and closer to Kabul and the U.S. embassy and the international airport, were you in communication with them? Was there a conversation in which you might have been able to say, hey; look; we're leaving; just stay out of Kabul; stay away from the airport so we can draw down, get our people out in an orderly way?

MCKENZIE: So, yes, I actually flew to Doha on the 15 of August to talk to the Taliban, to tell them that we were, in fact, going to withdraw. We were going to execute a non-combatant evacuation operation, a NEO in our technical lexicon. And if they interfered with that, we would punish them severely. And I delivered that message to them in Doha on the 15. They were actually receptive to that message. And let me be very clear. I don't trust the Taliban. I have long experience with them. I don't believe they keep their word. But in this particular case, we shared an interest. We wanted to leave, and they wanted us to leave. So in that very transactional, momentary period of time, they did not interfere with our withdrawal. And I thought that was very significant and probably allowed us to do it in the manner that we did it.

KELLY: Sorry. You said that was the 15 of August.

MCKENZIE: That was the 15 of August.

KELLY: And Kabul fell on...

MCKENZIE: That day.

KELLY: Yeah.

MCKENZIE: When I was going out to Doha, the plan was to try to get the Taliban to stop at a perimeter maybe 15 or 20 kilometers outside the city, a ring around it. We wanted them to not come any closer until we pull our forces out. Well, by the time I got there, they were already in downtown Kabul, so that plan was no longer operative, but they continued to be receptive. And so I left that meeting with what I needed to have, which was - we were going to be able to execute our plan to get our people out and as many other people as we could. The Taliban were not going to interfere with us. And we had, in fact, established a modality where my commanders on the ground could talk to them about security issues in the vicinity of the airport. So we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish in that meeting.

KELLY: So then what happened? - because obviously you were not able to get everybody out in an orderly way.

MCKENZIE: Absolutely. We were not able to do that. And that's something that haunts me to this day. So, as you know, we began - we had forces that were around the airport on the 15 and 16. I actually visited the airport on the 17 of August. I was on the ground, walked around a little bit, saw some of the things that were going on. And what you've got is - it's a capacity problem. You've got to process all these people. It took a while, frankly, for our counselor officials to get there in the numbers needed to handle the press of people that were outside.

So, no, we did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. You know, we got well over 120,000 people out. And that's the good news story. The bad news story - and I would never try to deny it - is we did not get everybody out that we wanted, particularly a lot of Afghans that had helped us down through the years that have been partners of ours, often in combat, often in other very demanding times. They had every expectation that we would bring them out. We did not, and we were unable to do that. And that's something that, as I noted earlier, still haunts me to this day.

KELLY: Yeah. You started to answer this, but I just want to put what I suppose is the central question one year on. I mean, the withdrawal was - and I mean this not disrespectfully, but I'm just going to say it. It was widely considered a disaster. With the benefit of a year of hindsight, is there something specifically you wish had been done differently, you wish you had done differently to prevent that?

MCKENZIE: Well, any time American soldiers, sailors, Marines lose their lives, you spend a lot of time thinking about decisions that you could've made and done differently. So, yes, I think about that quite a bit from the perspective of, right at the end, what could we have done differently? What we should have done was we should have begun to bring people out much earlier rather than waiting until the very end. And by - and that would have been - in the spring, even, we should have begin to do that. Now, the problem with that is - it's an interesting counterfactual, but you've got the government of Afghanistan that's saying, look. The people that you're bringing out are the best people in Afghanistan. If you want us to fight, you can't let these people go out.

KELLY: Who bears responsibility for that decision, for the way it all unfolded?

MCKENZIE: Ultimately, the chain of command does. That was a national decision made by the president, and we executed that decision. We had an opportunity to discuss it. We had an opportunity to give input. The president made a decision, and we executed it.

KELLY: I want to bring us up to present, the killing this week of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan. Administration officials say that was a CIA drone strike. And I wonder what that says about the role of the U.S. military now. I mean, the military's gone from Afghanistan. Do operations like that one going forward - will they fall exclusively to the CIA?

MCKENZIE: Central Command still maintains overhead presence in Afghanistan with unmanned aerial platforms, just as the CIA does. We look at threat streams against the homeland of the United States. You know, we've said all along that we believe that a collapse of the government of Afghanistan and the installation of the Taliban would probably result in the resurgence of both al-Qaida and ISIS. And I believe that is the case. And we're seeing that in progress right now. I think it clearly shows the capacity of the the Taliban and al-Qaida. It clearly shows that the Taliban negotiated in bad faith on the Doha agreement.

KELLY: You're reminding me of a question I put this week to Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser. I spoke to him right after the Zawahiri strike and said the U.S. went into Afghanistan in the first place to take out al-Qaida leadership after 9/11 and then fought for 20 years to prevent al-Qaida from re-establishing a base there. The fact that Zawahiri and his family turn up living in downtown Kabul - what does that say about what the U.S. managed to achieve over those two decades in Afghanistan?

MCKENZIE: Well, from my personal perspective, Mary Louise, I think we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan while we were there to prevent al-Qaida from striking our country. Over the course of our engagement over two decades, it grew into something much larger, an attempt to impose, you know, a form of government, a state that would be a state the way that we recognize a state. I will tell you I don't believe Afghanistan is ungovernable. I believe Afghanistan is ungovernable with the Western model that will be imposed on it. And so I think that's sort of what draws out to me. We lost track of why we were there, and we did not keep the main thing the main thing.

KELLY: Being...

MCKENZIE: Being preventing al-Qaida from being able to gather strength and conduct attacks against us and ISIS, too, once it began to manifest itself in Afghanistan. Clearly, you need an Afghan military to help you do that. But I think we grew far beyond the original scope and scale of our mission, the original mission.

KELLY: Last question, General, which is - I just wonder if there's anything, you know, one year on that you would want to say to the people of Afghanistan, anything you would want them to know from a former CENTCOM commander.

MCKENZIE: Well, I think this is now a tough time for the people of Afghanistan. I think that they're not well-served by the Taliban that's in there. The Taliban were never really a particularly popular party in Afghanistan, although they were able to to merge religious and other affiliations in a way that the government was never able to do. I think it's going to be a very tough time. I regret what happened last summer. I regret that we were unable to provide a form of government that would allow for the development of human rights, women's issues, a variety of things, all of which are being, as you know, systematically deconstructed by the Taliban right now. And I fear it's going to get much, much worse before it gets any better.

KELLY: General Frank McKenzie. He's the former commander of U.S. Central Command, speaking to us today from Florida. General, thank you very much.

MCKENZIE: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "BESIDE APRIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.