President picked ‘worst’ choice in Afghanistan withdrawal

by Admin
President picked ‘worst’ choice in Afghanistan withdrawal

President Joe Biden picked the “worst of all possible worlds” when deciding how to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the former commander who oversaw the U.S. withdrawal there told VOA.

Retired General Frank McKenzie writes in a new book, “The Melting Point,” that he briefed President Biden in February 2021 on four military options on Afghanistan: one that would keep about 2,500 U.S. forces in the country and maintain eight bases; one that would reduce U.S. force numbers to 1,800 and drawdown to three bases; one that took out all U.S. forces and kept the embassy in place, and one that pulled out all American forces and the U.S. embassy.

Biden picked the third option, which attempted to keep the embassy, American citizens and at-risk Afghans in the country.

“I felt that was the worst of all possible worlds to actually pick that particular approach,” McKenzie told VOA in an interview on Monday.

In a speech explaining the decision, Biden said the U.S. could not continue the cycle of extending or expanding its military presence in hopes of better conditions for withdrawal.

“While we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue. We’ll continue to support the government of Afghanistan. We will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defenses and Security Forces,” Biden said.

McKenzie also writes in his book that the Doha agreement, signed by then-President Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban in 2020, was “one of the worst negotiating mistakes” by the United States. Speaking to VOA, he said the negotiations, orchestrated by then-U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, committed the U.S. to an exit timeline while not requiring the Taliban to fulfill its agreed-upon conditions.

As Trump announced the agreement, he warned, “If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no one’s ever seen.”

According to McKenzie, Presidents Biden and Trump “shared one common policy objective, to get out of Afghanistan without regard to consequences.”

McKenzie said Iran and Russia now have a “marriage of convenience” and raised concerns about what Russia may be giving Iran in return for Iranian drones and missiles to use in its was against Ukraine.

He said Ukrainians should be able to fire anywhere inside Russia that’s attacking Ukraine, “but with certain limits” on areas such as Russian nuclear capable sites.

“You can’t give them a sanctuary there,” he said.

This interview had been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: You have a lot of criticism for the Doha agreement, which the Trump administration and the Taliban signed in February 2020. Why do you think it was, as you say in your book, “The Melting Point,” one of the worst negotiating mistakes made by the United States?

Former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie: I think because we signed on to an agreement where we committed to a timeline to leave. And that’s significant if you don’t condition that agreement, and we did not require the Taliban to fulfill the conditions that were imposed on them as part of that agreement. So the agreement potentially could have worked a little bit better had we not been quite so supine in the negotiating process that followed it. And so I think that really did a couple of things that gave new life to the Taliban, because they took it as a schedule that we were leaving. I think we, across two presidential administrations, took it as a schedule for when we were going to leave, and it deflated the Afghan government.

VOA: The former President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, he has called the primary negotiator for the Doha agreements for the United States U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, he’s called him “corrupt,” “incompetent” and full of secrecy. And in your book, you have some similar descriptions of Khalilzad. You used “secretive” one time, “compartmented,” “not sharing much within the US government.” Is it fair to say that you agree with Ghani here?

McKenzie: Well, to the extent that he was highly compartmented, kept his negotiations very secret … That’s observable truth from where I sit. The rest of it, I couldn’t comment on that.

VOA: Did you feel that he always had the US interests at the center of his negotiations?

McKenzie: Great question. I think, from the way it turned out, clearly, we were not served by the negotiating that he did.

VOA: An internal White House review of President Biden’s decision to withdrawal said that Biden’s decisions were, I’m quoting them, “severely constrained” by President Trump’s Doha agreement. But you and I have talked about this in several of our discussions. The Taliban was never abiding by the commitment. So to what extent does an agreement that the Taliban is not abiding by severely constrain the Biden administration’s decisions?

McKenzie: Let’s remember that the Biden administration chose to keep Ambassador Khalilzad on as the principal negotiator. That was a decision they could have revisited. They could have changed the negotiating team. They did not elect to do that. And I think that’s a very important thing to consider when you look at the trajectory of the Doha agreement. The fact of the matter was in January 2021, when the Biden team came into office, there were a number of parts of the agreement that the Taliban were not in compliance with, and we did not choose to force it to be in compliance with those agreements.

… I believe that we got into what happened in August of 2021 because two presidential administrations, as unlike as any two in modern American history, shared one common policy objective, to get out of Afghanistan without regard to consequences: President Trump, President Biden.

VOA: You outlined four options for President Biden on what to do with Afghanistan. Your first recommendation was to keep 2,500 US forces and some special operators inside Afghanistan, maintaining eight bases, including Bagram. Your second option was to reduce to 1,800 US forces, and you said that would allow you to have a tenuous hold on three bases, including Bagram. Option three was the complete drawdown, but keeping in the embassy. And then option four was a complete pullout with no diplomatic presence. Biden chose option three, and that is the one that you said offered the “highest risk to U.S. interests.” What made you say that?

McKenzie: Because we’re leaving under this plan, we’re going to withdraw basically the U.S. military, but we’re still going to leave a large embassy platform. We’re going to leave our citizens, and we’re going to leave the at-risk Afghans, tens of thousands …so the initiative will shift to the Taliban, and we would be dependent on their good judgment and on their good nature, which we know is in either case, not a good thing for the United States. So I felt that was the worst of all possible worlds to actually pick that particular approach.

VOA: And you have blamed both Presidents Trump and President Biden for what happened in Afghanistan. … But what’s interesting is that barring an unlikely third-party presidential candidate victory, one of those two men, either President Biden or President Trump, is going to be the next President of the United States. What concerns do you have with that?

McKenzie: Well, concerns probably wouldn’t be the appropriate word. The most important thing for the U.S. military and military four-star generals is to be completely apolitical. The US military needs to be prepared to answer the legal orders of the constitutionally authorized leaders of the country and to express an opinion beyond that is, I think, dangerous to the future of the republic … If you’re a four-star officer, you bear a unique burden. It’s different, really, than any other grade of officer because of the fact you serve at the very highest levels of the US military, at the nexus, really, where policy, military operations and, in fact, politics come together. So I think it is, it’s bad for the country to express an opinion about that, and I’m not going to do that.

VOA: Iran supports Hamas in the region, Hezbollah the Houthis. They also support Russia. … Where would Russia be in the fight against Ukraine without the support of Iranian drones and missiles?

McKenzie: So I think Iranian drones and missiles have been very helpful to Russia in their fight. They’re actually better than some forms of Russian equipment. They’ve allowed them to gain what we would call volume to their fires, and it’s very concerning. And what’s also concerning is, and I don’t have a good picture, frankly, what Russian technology is flowing back into Iran. But this is not, it’s not a freebie. These are two totalitarian nations, so any exchange of something is a quid pro quo. So we should be very concerned about what Russia may be injecting back into Iran…It’s a marriage of convenience and nothing more.

VOA: The counter-ISIS fight was largely successful because the U.S. and its partners were able to go in Syria, where the fight was. And experts say the fight in Afghanistan failed on many levels because the US was not able to go across the border into Pakistan. Now there’s a similar debate here in the Ukraine war concerning Russian forces firing into Ukraine from Russia. What are your thoughts on that? Should Ukrainians be able to fire anywhere inside Russia that’s attacking Ukraine

McKenzie: So yes, but with certain limits. So I think (limits are) not necessarily a geographic distance. I would not say, “Don’t fire further than 10 miles into Russia.” … I would argue that you need to be very careful not to attack Russian nuclear capable sites, Russian nuclear command and control facilities, things like that. Aside from that, I would say we should give Ukraine some flexibility in where they strike inside Russia, because, as you said before earlier, you can’t give them a sanctuary there. Russian command and control, conventional military control, Russian logistics and other formations are really free of danger there, and I think that has significantly hurt the Ukrainian ability to respond this latest offensive.

VOA: I want to switch to the war in Gaza. Is Israel’s battle against Hamas winnable?

McKenzie: So it’s winnable if they can fashion a way to a “day after” that makes sense. That doesn’t involve constant combat inside Gaza. And that’s going to require vision that may involve troops other than Israeli troops being in there. I think Arab troops would be perfect from being one of a number of different nations. It’s going to require significant investment, infrastructure, rebuilding, but provision of basic, basic services. But you got to ensure that Hamas is not part of that equation. I’m intensely sympathetic to the view, to the Israeli view, that you have to eliminate Hamas. At the same time. I think it’s a very high bar to say that you’re going to get rid of all of all of Hamas because it’s a revolutionary movement. There’s always going to kill 99 Hamas fighters. The 100th fighter is going to raise a bloody hand and declare the revolution. So I think that’s a problem that they set that they have to confront. They’ve done away with many of the combat formations of Hamas. There are still some left. I think they’ve been a little less successful at getting after senior Hamas leadership, because they’ve chosen to hide even when their fighters fight. And I’m sure they’re hidden deep underground, protected by Israeli hostages. And of course, the real hostages in Gaza, not just the Israeli hostages, but the population of Gaza itself, which Hamas has no interest in moving out of the line of fire.

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