Afghanistan seems like a million years ago, I know — it’s been about three weeks. But this is a very important subject, and it will likely continue to dog us. I have done a podcast with John Bolton on this subject: Afghanistan. As you know, he has had long, varied experience in the national-security field: in the State Department; at the United Nations; and in the White House, as national-security adviser.
For our podcast, our Q&A, go here.
We begin at the beginning: Why did we go into Afghanistan in the first place? Because of 9/11. Al-Qaeda killed some 3,000 of us that day. And, on September 12, we gave the Taliban an ultimatum — an “old-fashioned, 19th-century ultimatum,” as Bolton says: Hand over Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, or we will come after you. The Taliban opted for the latter.
We quickly achieved a “partial victory,” as Bolton says: We removed the Taliban from power and sent them into exile; we also chased much of al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. But we didn’t get bin Laden or other top officials.
In any event, 9/11 was an attack on America that had to be answered. All of us were worried that there were more attacks to come. Terrorists promised them. This is something that older people forget and that younger people have maybe never known.
A question: Could we have simply gone in and knocked over the Taliban and left? Or would that have been irresponsible? It would have been irresponsible, says Bolton. Remember, this was a war on terror — Islamist terror. This was never going to be a war between states — or merely a war between states — but something more amorphous, unfortunately.
Sundry terrorists were plotting against us. In the caves of Afghanistan, Bolton says, we discovered that “al-Qaeda had longed to acquire weapons of mass destruction: chemical and biological weapons, even nuclear weapons. In the months after 9/11, we worried about an anthrax attack. We worried about other biological and chemical attacks.”
And “to this day,” says Bolton, “I don’t think there are terrorists who have given up the possibility of acquiring weapons of mass destruction.”
Let me offer a memory: In the autumn of 2001, we at National Review took precautions when it came to opening the mail. I will quote from a Wikipedia entry, on the anthrax attacks:
Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and to Democratic Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, killing five people and infecting 17 others.
What about the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda? “If this were a criminal scenario,” says Bolton — he is a lawyer, incidentally — “we would call the Taliban ‘fully knowledgeable accomplices of al-Qaeda.’ They aided and abetted al-Qaeda, they shielded al-Qaeda, and, even when driven into exile, they stayed very closely knit with al-Qaeda.”
Over the years, the United Nations has reported on the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan. An alliance in exile. For 20 years, al-Qaeda has been in hiding. They may well now reemerge.
Okay, how about the question of nation-building? Did the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan morph into nation-building? If so, is that bad? There was such a morphing, says Bolton; and it contained both good and bad elements.
For 20 years, we had a strategic objective: make sure the Taliban don’t take control again and make sure that al-Qaeda and other terrorists don’t have the ability to attack the United States and our allies.
We succeeded. For 20 years, there have been no attacks on the territory of the United States or that of our allies emanating from Afghanistan.
Moreover, “we got a critical strategic position in the center of the Asian land mass,” says Bolton. “To watch Pakistan to the east. To watch Iran to the west. To be close to China and close to Russia.” This position “gave us a lot of advantages.”
Now, “while we were there, we did a lot of things for the Afghan people. Maybe more than we should have. Maybe we were too optimistic about what our presence would bring.”
Whatever one’s view of this question, “we have given up a huge strategic advantage for the United States and left ourselves more vulnerable — not just to terrorism emanating from Afghanistan but from the impression we created all around the world by withdrawing.” This was “an unforced error, the consequences of which we can only begin to ascertain.”
A great problem was a lack of commitment at the top. Bolton explains: “Three successive administrations — Obama, Trump, and Biden — didn’t believe in the efficacy, the insurance policy, of having American forces remain in Afghanistan. They never made the case to the American people that we were safer preventing the terrorists from coming back into power than we were if we tried to defend the homeland at the borders of the homeland.”
In Bolton’s view, presidents should have said, “Look: We’re gonna be in Afghanistan for a long time. And the reason is, so we don’t have another 9/11. We’re gonna do whatever we can to keep the cost down. We’re certainly gonna look out for our troops. But this is the safest way to protect us.”
A majority, says Bolton, would have understood and agreed.
But presidents kept saying, “We gotta get out.” The Taliban said to us, notoriously, “You have the watches, we have the time.” We kept saying, “Is it soup yet? Is it soup yet? Are we done? Are we done?” All the Taliban had to do was wait.
The Trump administration, in its negotiations with the Taliban, cut out the Afghan government. This was “the original sin” of those negotiations, says Bolton. First, “we violated one of our most fundamental principles: We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
But also, in full view of the Afghan people, we in effect delegitimized the government we had helped to create — a government that, for all its flaws, had some democratic legitimacy. Of which the Taliban has none.
So, why was the government demoralized? Why was the military demoralized? Wouldn’t you be?
From Donald Trump and his people, you have heard the following claim: Yes, we were going to withdraw, too — earlier than Biden — but we would have done it well, you see. What does Bolton think of this claim?
They had no plan, he says. If Trump had had a plan — if Mike Pompeo had had a plan — they would be laying it out, right now. They would be telling us what they would have done. They would be boasting about it. But no . . .
In the White House, Bolton saw that President Trump wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan for domestic political reasons. “He wanted to say, ‘I ended an endless war, I’ve gotten us out of Afghanistan.’ He no more cared about the details or implications of withdrawal than did the chair he was sitting on.”
We could have kept “a relatively small number of forces” in Afghanistan for counterterrorism, says Bolton. “We would have had intelligence assets as well.” Instead, “we’ve given it all up. We have walked away for no purpose other than to satisfy a bumper-sticker slogan that we ended an endless war.” Hence, “we are less secure now than before the withdrawal.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I ask John Bolton, “Will we have to go back? Go back into Afghanistan, having withdrawn?” Bolton cites the example of Iraq. President Obama and his team were proud to have removed all U.S. forces from Iraq. The administration washed its hands of Iraq, smugly and ignorantly (from my point of view).
ISIS rose, and we had to go back in.
About our present situation, Bolton says this: “There’s no vacuum in international politics. China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran will fill the void that we’ve left, all of it to our detriment.”
Again, my Q&A with John Bolton is here. Many would not like what he has to say — many on left and right — but he says it straight, he makes a lot of sense, and his words are to be reckoned with. I believe he thinks very, very clearly on the subject, as on others.