In this episode of Intelligence Matters, CBS News intelligence and national security reporter Olivia Gazis interviews three top former intelligence officials about the past, present and future of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. Panelists Michael Morell, former CIA deputy director and Intelligence Matters host, Michael Vickers, former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and CIA operations officer, and Philip Reilly, former Chief of Operations at CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and Kabul station chief, each weigh in on the implications of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the future of the counterterrorism mission in the region. This episode was produced in partnership with the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
- Psychological collapse of Afghan military (Michael Morell): “[W]hen the president made the decision in April, it was the moment when the Taliban knew that it was going to win, and it was the moment when the Afghan government knew that it was going to lose. And if you looked at what happened right in in the immediate aftermath of that announcement, the Taliban accelerated the extent to which they were surrounding provincial capitals. You know, nobody should be surprised with what they intended to do when they were surrounding those provincial capitals. The number of desertions among Afghan security forces skyrocketed after the announcement. They either went home or they flipped to the Taliban. And it should be no surprise to anybody that the Afghan senior Afghan government leaders would start thinking about saving their own necks.”
- Challenges of “over-the-horizon” strategy (Michael Vickers): “No counterterrorism strategist that I know would choose an over the horizon capability over closer in or in-country capability. That’s why I think this was such a strategically fraught decision to not have a small counterterrorism presence left in country, mostly special operators and intelligence personnel. And the reason for that is, as Michael outlined, this is mostly an intelligence war. Your intelligence degrades the further away you get. Also the further away you get in flight time, particularly for instruments like drones, which are slow flying aircraft, you spend an awful lot of time in transit rather than in target.”
- Was the war a “strategic failure”? (Philip Reilly): “I would characterize it…as a strategic failure of significant proportions. Yes, the logistical efforts to pull people out were absolutely heroic; stories to be written and told eventually in the fullness of time. Those were official efforts by U.S. military and other government agencies to pull out many, many thousands. And there was an absolutely remarkable sort of gray effort of former SOF operators and other government officials, formers who got together and helped pull out hundreds, if not thousands, of other people. So this is a story that’s tremendous, but that’s not a victory. It is a strategic failure today. Tonight, the Minister of Interior in Afghanistan, Siraj Haqqani, who has more American blood on his hands to anybody but Usama bin Laden – we killed Osama bin Laden – so the guy who has the most blood on his hands is the Siraj Haqqani. He’s the minister of Interior. It’s an abject failure.”
Intelligence and the war in Afghanistan — transcript
Virtual panel featuring Michael Morell, Michael Vickers and Philip Reilly at the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government
OLIVIA GAZIS: Gentlemen, thank you so much for being here and welcome. Let’s spend just a few minutes again on the past, starting at the final stages of the Cold War.
Mike Vickers, I will start with you. You were an integral part of the CIA covert action program that supported the mujahedeen and the anti-Communist resistance movement, which ultimately drove the Soviets from Afghanistan. At the time, a very meaningful victory, but it had some tragic consequences for Afghanistan, which descended into civil war, and for the United States, which ultimately witnessed the horrors of 9/11. So can you start us off with just a little bit of context by explaining who the groups were that we were supporting at the time, what happened when we withdrew that support, and how we arrived, as a consequence, at the birth of both the Taliban and Al Qaida?
MICHAEL VICKERS: Sure, happy to and good evening, Olivia everyone else. I became the Afghanistan covert action program officer and chief strategist in summer of 1984, so I go back a long ways with Afghanistan. And some of the people who were my resistance commanders, prominent commanders actually leading fighting forces in Afghanistan, ended up having very prominent positions in the Afghan government that I worked with when I became an assistant secretary and under secretary, so I had a lot of continuity over four decades.
What happened after we won this great historic victory that helped contribute to the demise of the Soviet empire was that we essentially turned our backs on Afghanistan and focused on consolidating the gains in Europe, the primary theater of the Cold War, with the reunification of Germany and liberation of Eastern Europe. And then a thing called the Pressler Amendment caused us to essentially break relations with Pakistan when their nuclear program got too far along for President Bush to be able to certify that they weren’t heading toward a nuclear weapon.
And so that led to the time of troubles that, as you mentioned, civil war occurred among mujahideen fighters. The Pakistanis had their favorite a fellow named Gulbiddin Hekmatyar, and then in 1996, the Taliban took over. A lot of the Afghan population was just hoping for an end to decades of war at that point. They didn’t get it.
And then in 1996, as Michael can talk about better than I, bin Laden went from Sudan to Afghanistan. And then those events led to 9/11. I would argue that 9/11 was as much or more a policy failure as it was an intelligence failure. We had opportunities to deal with that sanctuary. One of the big lessons we learned from that experience was not allow sanctuaries like that. And so with that, I’ll stop.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Thank you. And Mike, we’ll revisit a version of this question later. But while we’re on you, I just want to ask, you’ve long said that the U.S. committed an error in at the end of the war, the Cold War, by disengaging from the region. And I wanted to ask if you still think now that continued U.S. engagement then might have prevented the Taliban from coming to power? Or do the developments today make you reconsider that view?
MICHAEL VICKERS: Yes, I think it’s possible it would have, you know, the circumstances were quite difficult; the U.S. had a lot on its plate at the end of the Cold War, 1989 to 1992, before Afghanistan really descended into hell. And so it might have made a real difference to stay engaged. The challenge would have been how to do that with an estranged U.S. relationship with Pakistan because of their nuclear weapons program. And so that’s what would have reduced a lot of our leverage and complicated it. But we would have been far better off.
I mean, my old boss, Bob Gates, says that it was one of the biggest mistakes we made after the Cold War to disengage. And I agree with him. Also, you know, the Afghans really played a major role in helping us win the end game of the Cold War. A million of them died. A third of the population was put into exile. So to pack up and leave was maybe not the right moral as well as strategic decision. And today I think we made a mistake as well by by leaving completely.
OLIVIA GAZIS: We’ll definitely dive into that shortly.
Michael, just as a little bit more historic context – Michael Morrell, I’ll call you Michael and Mike Vickers, Mike. So let’s have you pick up the thread where Michael left off, you know, in the early ’90s, the CIA is, of course, watching al Qaeda gain potency. It’s tracking the rise to prominence of who was first cast as a terror financier, later cast as the terrorist, Osama bin Laden, of course.
It wasn’t until the late ’90s that the U.S.’s focus on al Qaeda really expanded beyond the agency and got more resources dedicated to tracking it. Can you talk a little bit, just a little bit, about what the conditions at that time were that allowed al Qaeda to grow, to organize and become capable of carrying out these really complex attacks – that culminated, of course, in 9/11?
MICHAEL MORELL: Sure. First of all, it’s great to be with everybody tonight. And Olivia, thank you for moderating. You know, Mike said it earlier and I’ll say it maybe a little more directly: There is nothing, there is nothing as important as safe haven to a terrorist group. It allows them to operate, to plan, to train without worry, without consequence of of somebody coming after them. And that’s what the Taliban in Afghanistan pre-9/11 gave to al Qaeda. And I don’t believe the 9/11 attacks would have been possible without the Taliban providing that safe haven.
Interestingly, the Taliban was not supportive of al Qaeda conducting attacks around the world, but they didn’t do anything in response to the attacks against our embassies in East Africa. They didn’t do anything in response to the many threats around the time of the millennium that were pinned back on bin Laden, and they didn’t do anything in response to the USS Cole. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, they had an opportunity. The United States gave the Taliban an opportunity to avoid war by turning bin Laden over or by taking action against him themselves. And they chose not to do that. So, you know, that takes us from from where Mike left off to to to the days after 9/11.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Which is where we’ll have, Phil, you jump in because we are having this conversation almost to the day when you and nine other men who made up the JAWBREAKER team traveled to Afghanistan to meet up with the Northern Alliance; that was September 26, 2001. And it was a liaison mission, not a military operation, right? So can you give us just a little bit of background on what the mission was and how cultivating that relationship with the Northern Alliance factored in the US military effort that followed? And maybe a little bit about how it might factor today?
PHILIP REILLY: Sure. Thank you very much, Olivia, and General Hayden, thank you for your continued leadership. The CIA had a relationship with the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance controlled a small sliver of eastern Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. It was the only unoccupied – unoccupied being the rest of the country held by the Taliban. And so it enabled CIA, which had assets in the region and the capability to put people on the ground, as you said, 26 September 2001.
Our mission was to bring the Northern Alliance to our side completely to pave the way for the introduction of what we assumed correctly to be a large U.S. military entry and to also commence the hunt for al Qaeda and UBL and those responsible for the attacks on 9/11. I should say that on the 9th of September, Ahmed Shah Masood, the head of the Northern Alliance, was assassinated by al Qaeda, and that was a galvanizing event that brought the Northern Alliance firmly, firmly into the U.S. fold. And that enabled us to to bring in the US Army special forces.
And let me say that, I was once a Green Beret many years ago, but it was the absolute perfect tool for the US military to select and working jointly with CIA teams and U.S. military special forces, Green Berets, about 300 people were able to ultimately defeat the Taliban, along with superior U.S. air power within a period of about two months.
OLIVIA GAZIS: So we’re leaving a gap, but we’ll revisit some of what happened in the intervening 20 years in the conversation to follow. But that was a helpful encapsulation of, I think, roughly 50 years in 10 minutes. So thank you very much.
Let’s talk a little bit about today current developments, starting with the decision to leave Afghanistan. I think each of you has previously publicly articulated a view that some U.S. presence would be necessary to keep the Taliban at bay. This week, we heard top generals testify that that was their personal view as well. We assume that was their recommendation to the president as well, to retain at least 2,500 troops on the ground in Afghanistan while pursuing a negotiated agreement.
So maybe we can just do a round robin and ask all three of you: I am curious when this sense of inevitability arose. At what point did it become clear to you that a Taliban takeover was unavoidable, absent a U.S. presence? Was there a particular moment or turning point when that became apparent? Why don’t we start with Mike Vickers?
MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, there was some hope that the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces that we had invested a lot in would be able to hold together, but we should have learned from our experiences about the rapid collapse of Iraqi security forces in 2015 in northern Iraq against ISIS and then Yemeni security forces that we’d also invested a lot in that same year against the Houthis, who took over Yemen.
Militaries can collapse really rapidly. And General McKenzie has testified that the Afghan government and much of Afghan security forces essentially saw the writing on the wall with the decision for the U.S. to actually withdraw beyond the peace agreement, or, as H.R. McMaster has called it, the surrender agreement negotiated by the previous administration.
And so then they started making deals with the Taliban and the Taliban first took over districts and provincial areas, but then it really sped up rapidly. And I think, you know, the end game still went faster than people thought. But timelines kept moving up about how fast the government might collapse.
OLIVIA GAZIS: So indications as far back as 2015. Michael Morrell, what’s your view on this?
MICHAEL MORELL: To answer your question, Olivia, when did I believe that absent U.S. forces on the ground, the Taliban would take over, when did I first realize that, you know, I have to tell you it goes way back to the surge, to the Obama surge when 130,000 U.S. troops were not able to win the war, when the Taliban fought 130,000 U.S. troops essentially to a stalemate. That told me that this war wasn’t winnable, number one, and number two, if we left, the Taliban would take over. So that goes way back for me.
You know, I agree with Mike on kind of the timeline this year, but the realization to me that the Taliban would take over absent U.S. forces goes way back, which is why we kept them there for so long.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Phil, how do you see it?
PHILIP REILLY: Yeah, I would have to agree with both of my colleagues. I thought without U.S. troop presence and U.S. air power to support the Afghans, they would collapse. I did not think in the short period of time that they did, but I thought it was, in fact, inevitable. And so when we made the decision, ultimately Trump made and then President Biden then sort of doubled down on we are leaving zero U.S. troop presence. I thought it would just be a matter of time. But again, I, like everyone else, did not predict it as short as it was. But it was inevitable.
OLIVIA GAZIS: This is a little bit more of a policy question, but let’s do a quick round robin on this one, too. And that’s the Biden administration’s rationale for leaving now. They’ve argued that they were bound by the deal struck by the Trump administration and that they risked an escalation with the Taliban if that withdrawal didn’t happen by the end of August. Did you find that rationale coherent? Did you find it persuasive? Let’s do it in the same order with Mike Vickers first.
MICHAEL VICKERS: No, I don’t. I mean, there aren’t too many policy continuities between the Trump administration and Biden administration, as there weren’t between the Obama administration and the Trump administration. The Trump administration pulled out of the Iran deal. Biden administration wants to go back in. So why this is some special case, I don’t know.
Phil really hit the nail on the head in the sense the things that kept Afghanistan together were really U.S. assistance and engagement and then air power. And as long as we maintained U.S. air power, the Taliban couldn’t win. So Michael correctly raised the point that even with the surge, we couldn’t defeat the Taliban. We actually pushed them back in terms of area they controlled back to about 2006 levels. But we couldn’t defeat them because of the Pakistan sanctuary.
But the paradox of this is neither could the Taliban when we had 7,500 or fewer troops in country from 2015 to 2021. It was only when we pulled out of air power and signaled we were leaving that the state collapsed.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Michael.
MICHAEL MORELL: You know, I hardly ever, ever, ever, ever disagree with my really good friend Mike Vickers, but I’m going to disagree just a little bit here. I don’t think the choice for President Biden was leave or stay with 2,500. I think the choice was leave or plus up. And I don’t know exactly what the number was, but I think a plus up would have been required 7,500, 10,000. I don’t know what the right number is, but we needed, if we were going to stay, we would need to add more troops in order to provide force protection for those 2,500 and for all the civilians in the country, 2,500 simply wasn’t enough.
And I think that President Biden judged correctly that that was not politically possible, that the American people were done with this war. And could he have persuaded the American people that we needed to stay and to actually plus up our troops? I don’t know. I doubt it. Clearly, his heart wasn’t in such a public relations campaign, so I think he did face an extraordinarily difficult decision. And yet, you know, for my money, I think he probably made the right one given the choices he faced.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Phil, you can choose a panelist to agree or disagree with.
PHILIP REILLY: I’m going to agree with Mike Vickers. Sorry, Michael. I know what I think this could be, 2,500. And that’s based on conversations with some of the most senior generals involved in this. Bear in mind, 2,500 would be our figure. We have allies who were still there, still putting up a fight, and there were other elements of the US government actively working the target sets. I think it could have could have held had the decision been made to maybe delay a bit. You probably could’ve negotiated that with the Taliban. And I’ve seen other people say, had they just pushed the departure into the winter months, it could have enabled some time gap separation between our departure potentially and the collapse that ensued.
But to do it at the height of the fighting season, with the Taliban in full vigor, especially when that was being telegraphed to us with the collapse of all the provinces, I think just was – this was a bad decision.
MICHAEL MORELL: You know, Olivia, the other thing I would say here, which my co-panelist probably won’t agree with either, is I don’t think it’s appropriate for a president of the United States to send young men and young women into harm’s way with so much of the public opposed to the war. I don’t think that’s fair to those soldiers to do that. And we’re not talking about, you know, 60/40, 55/45, 60/40 here. We’re talking about a very large percentage of the American public that was just done with this thing.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Mike Vickers, do you want to engage on that question?
MICHAEL VICKERS: I agree. I mean, you make a good point, Michael. I mean, the vast majority of the American public wanted out. Even after what happened, the majority now also think it was done probably poorly or handled poorly, the departure, but they’re still overwhelmingly supportive of being gone.
So to your point, that’s right, the president had that going for him and was responding to the problems of the American public. So I agree with those points.
I find it hard to believe, knowing what has happened, that people don’t wish they could revise this decision a little bit, given the cost to America and the world. We’ll just have to see over time.
OLIVIA GAZIS: So let’s talk a little bit about the intelligence that would have informed the policy decision to leave and in what timeframe that all should have been done. Both Phil and Mike have said that it happened faster than foreseen. We’ve heard that repeatedly from the administration and the Pentagon, including this week in testimony, that there was no intelligence indicating Kabul would fall in 11 days. Secretary Austin said it was a ‘surprise’ and it would be ‘dishonest to claim otherwise.’ Weeks ago, the DNI also put out a statement saying that the Taliban takeover happened more quickly than anticipated, presumably within the IC.
So does that suggest – and this is to you, Michael Morell -does that suggest that there was a shortcoming in the intelligence? Assuming that level of precision wasn’t there should it have been offered by the IC?
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, so this is a tough question, right, because I haven’t seen the intelligence, I haven’t seen the intelligence analysis, I haven’t seen what was both provided to the president before he made his decision on whether the Taliban would take over, and if so, how long would that take. That’s a very important judgment. And I haven’t seen the evolution of that judgment, post-announcement in April through early August. So I don’t know what the intelligence community said.
I find it hard to believe that the intelligence community got this as wrong, as some people have said. I’d be shocked at that. In fact, I’ve – while I haven’t seen it, I’ve heard people say, people who know, say that at least the CIA still feels pretty good about the judgments that it made in terms of the judgment that was made prior to the president’s decision.
I think one of the things you have to think about is, let’s say they said a year, right? Let’s say they said six months. I don’t know what they said, but let’s just say for the sake of argument, they said a year. The question becomes, when does the clock start ticking? Right? When does that year start? Is it when the last boot leaves the ground? No. Is it when the first boot leaves the ground? No. I think it’s when the president made the decision, because that’s when the psychology changed for everybody in Afghanistan. It was the moment – when the president made the decision in April, it was the moment when the Taliban knew that it was going to win, and it was the moment when the Afghan government knew that it was going to lose. And if you looked at what happened right in in the immediate aftermath of that announcement, the Taliban accelerated the extent to which they were surrounding provincial capitals. Nobody should be surprised with what they intended to do when they were surrounding those provincial capitals. The number of desertions among Afghan security forces skyrocketed after the announcement. They either went home or they flipped to the Taliban. And it should be no surprise to anybody that the Afghan senior Afghan government leaders would start thinking about saving their own necks. Right. And I saw the first two things publicly, so that was no secret, and I’d be shocked if the intelligence community didn’t see the third one as well.
So I think there’s a little blame game going on here. People are always very quick to throw the intelligence community under the bus.
Last point I would make is, throughout the history of the 20 years, CIA was by far, by far, the most pessimistic agency about how the war was going. We did two annual reports. We did an annual report called the District Assessments, where we looked at who controlled which district and whether the Taliban controlled it, whether the government controlled it, or whether it was contested. And we also did an annual report on the Afghan security forces and their capabilities and will to fight. And we were always pessimistic in every single case. And in every case that I was involved in as a senior leader, both as the head of analysis at CIA and then as the deputy director, the United States military pushed back really hard on these assessments, saying, “You’re wrong, your analysts aren’t on the ground. They don’t understand the progress we’re making.” So, intelligence is being the whipping boy here, I’m almost certain.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Mike, let me get your take on that. Do you think it’s fairly described as an intelligence failure? And then can you address a little bit of what Michael was just laying out, which is, there was a fair amount of public messaging about this, that there was a divergence between what the CIA was saying, what the DIA assessments were, about the resiliency of Afghan forces. The fact that the CIA’s were routinely pessimistic by comparison. How much would that or should that divergence of views have affected the choices that policymakers were making?
MICHAEL VICKERS: So my friend Jim Clapper likes to say there’s only two conditions in life: policy success and intelligence failure. And I don’t see how one could call this an intelligence failure. You know, you start with the knowledge that we’re concerned about the durability, how the country might devolve into civil war. That was certainly a plausible scenario.
But again, you have the examples of 2014 in both Iraq and Yemen about how quickly militaries we had invested in a lot could collapse. And it’s not because of force ratios or anything else, but psychology is what really drives this. And often how our militaries break up. And then, as Michael said, as you walk from April to August, we’re on policy autopilot, but the world is not standing still for us. You have a bunch of events that are showing you that things may be much worse than you think and you ought to be able to adapt to that.
And then third, it’s not possible for intelligence to tell you that Kabul is going to fall in 10 days. So if you start escalating, what could happen from, say, six months to 30 days? That’s a big red light blinking for policymakers. And policymakers live in a world of imperfect intelligence and they have to make decisions. So to lay the blame on intelligence or, for that matter, on the Afghans, I think, is honestly disingenuous.
MICHAEL MORELL: Olivia, can I just add one point. This whole, ‘Nobody told me that Kabul was going to fall in 11 days’ line is a total red herring, right? It didn’t fall in 11 days. It literally started falling after we reduced our forces after the surge. And it took a big upward tick in falling after President Trump made his deal with the Taliban and then took a bigger leap forward in falling after President Biden made his announcement. So this didn’t happen in 11 days. And people shouldn’t be using that line, right? It’s catchy, but it’s just not accurate.
PHILIP REILLY: Olivia, if I could just say – as a former chief of station in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, Michael, you made a very good point. When those district assessments and those Afghan security assessments from CIA came out, I would be the face of it to the military and you would take a lot of heat because – oftentimes in a good-natured way – but they were diametrically opposed in terms of their thoughts on the readiness of the Afghan security forces.
I’ll tell you the SIGAR reports – the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction reports – 51 of them were issued on a quarterly basis. And I didn’t read all of them, but I perused quite a few of them and [they were] very, very negative assessments, scathing at times, on the readiness levels of the Afghan security forces. And that’s over time. You’d be hard pressed to find a SIGAR report that’s positive. And that may be the nature of inspector generals. But people saw this coming and knew this was happening and it was being reported in many channels.
MICHAEL MORELL: Can I just say one more thing, Olivia, – I’m probably screwing up your time here – but just as importantly, I think the intelligence community is being blamed here because I think there was a real policy failure, not necessarily in the decision to leave, but in effectuating that decision, right, in the implementation of that decision – maybe we can talk about that next.
But what I wanted to say was back in 2012, when President Obama was trying to figure out what his stay-behind force number was going to be after the drawdown from the surge. And Mike you know how many deputy’s meetings and principals meetings and NSC meetings we had with the president on that. It seemed to go on forever. I prepped for every one of those, and in one of those prep sessions, I actually asked everybody in my office, all of the experts, the analysts and the operations officers: If we left, how long would it take for Kabul to fall?
And you know, various people thought a little bit longer – year, year and a half, some people had caveats on it. But the two people at CIA who had spent more time in Afghanistan than anybody else, two chiefs of station who had both served twice as chief of station, and Phil and Mike might know who they are, they both said without hesitation, “Kabul will fall in less than six months.” And I remember taking that to the White House and putting that on the table way back in 2012.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Well you’re right, we need to abbreviate a little bit of what we were going to discuss, but I think this is important context and so why don’t we do another quick round robin of how you would characterize all that happened?
General Milley called the withdrawal from Afghanistan a “logistical success” and the war a “strategic failure.” Of course, the administration, to include the president, have cast it more positively, calling the withdrawal an “extraordinary success.” So why don’t we have each of you describe – how would each of you describe this process?
MICHAEL VICKERS: So it is a strategic failure, I think. General Milley is not always very precise with his words, but in this case, I think he was. And you know, it’s hard to call it anything but when your enemy for 20 years has taken over the country and is sitting in the capital. And so I think that that is an accurate statement. And it’s a heroic logistical act. You could call it extraordinary, whatever you want. You know, all the brilliant tactics and operations and logistics in the world don’t make up for strategic failure. The consequences lie in what happens strategically.
So then the question is, what happens? Certainly, for me, it was very personal in seeing something I’d spent off and on 40 years of my life in, but besides my own personal feelings, this is the first defeat America suffered in war since Vietnam. It also a gut punch to our country and then there are strategic consequences, both for counterterrorism and what our other adversaries think about this display. Rest assured, the Chinese and the Russians aren’t calling this a great American success.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Why don’t we go to Phil and then we’ll go to Michael.
PHILIP REILLY: Sure, I would characterize it as Mike did, as a strategic failure of significant proportions. Yes, the logistical efforts to pull people out were absolutely heroic, stories to be written and told eventually in the fullness of time. Those were official efforts by U.S. military and other government agencies to pull out many, many thousands. And there was an absolutely remarkable sort of gray effort of former SOF operators and other government officials, formers who got together and helped pull out hundreds, if not thousands, of other people. So this is a story that’s tremendous, but that’s not a victory. It is a strategic failure today. Tonight, the Minister of Interior in Afghanistan, Siraj Haqqani, who has more American blood on his hands to anybody but Usama bin Laden – we killed Osama bin Laden – so the guy who has the most blood on his hands is the Siraj Haqqani. He’s the minister of Interior. It’s an abject failure.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Michael.
MICHAEL MORELL: So I’m going to focus – I agree that that the war was a strategic failure. And we can talk forever about why that is the case. But for me, the implementation of the decision to leave was not an extraordinary success. You know, once it was obvious that we had taken way too long to begin to leave, it was a logistical success in terms of getting getting most folks out. But not all, right. Let’s not forget that. And it should have been – the withdrawal should have started much, much sooner than it did. I don’t know what happened, but this took way too long. It got too crunched at the end. Thirteen Americans are dead. I find that very difficult to call an extraordinary success.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Those are pretty candid and harsh assessments. I agree that we could spend a lot of time talking about this. I do want to shift a little bit into what is ahead, both in terms of the overall threat picture and what the architecture of the counterterrorism mission will or should like overall.
I was going to start with Phil. I am going to assume, given what you just said, that you don’t believe that we are dealing with a Taliban 2.0 or changed Taliban. I’m going to assume that you think that, as General Milley put it, the enemy is in Kabul. There is some consideration being given to recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate government. What effect would that have?
PHILIP REILLY: Yeah, I don’t believe they’ve changed. And you’re correct in assuming that would be my position. No indications thus far. Again, with the placement into official positions of some of the people, including Haqqani, that I just mentioned, it’s a deliberate poke at us and an indication that they’re not serious. Haqqani is al Qaeda related, affiliated and they’re now in positions of power. I think al Qaeda, ISIS and other elements, it’ll be too great of an opportunity to great of a PR capability to not want something from Afghanistan against us. And so I think that’s going to be in the works.
Yes, the Taliban wants recognition. Yes, they want foreign aid. They’re going to have to change. It seems to me mightily. I get texts by the hour from former colleagues and military colleagues, with some graphic atrocities being committed in Afghanistan as we speak. So they haven’t changed.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Mike Vickers, maybe you can weigh in a little bit, too, and I wonder if it’s clear to you that the Taliban is even going to be able to consolidate and maintain power even at this early stage? I mean, even if we take at face value their commitment not to allow terror groups to reconstitute – which I’m not sure how many people do- will they, this group of 70,000, different tribal factions, be able to control their own territory and 40 million people who are residing on it to prevent that from happening?
MICHAEL VICKERS: I know they’re going to have great difficulty. Not only will they have to worry about a civil war breaking out at some point, if the repression is too strong, particularly in the non-Pashtun areas of the north and west, but they also, you know, Taliban strength has varied from 30,000 or so and maybe surging for brief periods of time to 60,000. They’re not going to be able to pacify Afghanistan any more than we could with 150,000 troops and a lot better technology.
And so groups like the Pakistani Taliban that use Afghanistan for sanctuary, were talking about doing the same thing in Pakistan, and I would expect to see an uptick in violence there. Groups like ISIS K that the Taliban is opposed to, ISIS Khorasan, the branch of ISIS that’s on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, they will enjoy some autonomy. The Taliban may go after them, but with some effect.
But Phil hit on an important point, the big winner here is really al Qaeda, that we had largely defeated in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and they will not. There will be more foreign fighters going to Afghanistan and al Qaeda with its strong ties to Saraj Haqqani and others.
Pakistani Taliban, among others, will be able to reconstitute. It may take two years, typically does, or more. But you know, our lessons again from 9/11, after we defeated al Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001, they were able to regroup in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region starting about 2004. So by 2006, we had the transatlantic airline plot that was on the scale of 9/11, and fortunately broken up by very good intelligence.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Right, Michael. So Mike laid out just a lot of what are very real concerns. I mean, Pentagon leadership this week said that they’re not confident that the U.S. is going to be able to deny either ISIS or al Qaeda the ability to use Afghanistan as a launchpad for terror attacks.
Milley, I think, said that it could happen in as few as six months. So can you just talk us through a little bit, what are the key determinants of whether that happens and how fast that happens?
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, I just want to very quickly say that I agree that we’re not dealing with a new Taliban, and I agree that they’re going to provide safe haven to terrorist groups. Most importantly, al Qaeda, and al Qaeda is intent on rebuilding its capability to attack the homeland. No doubt about it, and I agree 100 percent with Mike that if they are allowed to do it, it will happen very quickly.
One of the things we’ve learned, as Mike said, is that terrorist groups are able to reconstitute very quickly when you take the pressure off of them. So, you know, I’d say six months to a year before they’re in a position to attack us. And that’s pretty quick, right?
So how do we prevent that? We would have to do two things. We would have to have two capabilities and we would have to have one political factor. The two capabilities are, number one, a significant intelligence capability. And I’d break that into two pieces. The first piece is to collect intelligence on the plans, intentions and capabilities of al Qaeda so that we know when they’re getting to the point where they’re posing, again, a significant threat to the U.S. And then the second type of intelligence is when they’ve reached that point. And when the president has made a decision that we need to degrade them, we need to provide the precision intelligence that the military is going to need to do their over the horizon attacks.
Let’s take drones, for example. Drones don’t know where to go unless a specific piece of intelligence tells them where to go and look. These are not broad search tools, right? So you need that kind of intelligence capability, right? Both kinds. And then secondly, you need a military capability to reach in and touch al Qaeda and degrade them. And when you have to do that, you know, Mike is in a much better position to talk about what those capabilities are than I am.
And the third point I make is, is this political thing, which is even if the intelligence communities identify that al Qaeda is reconstituting and again posing a significant threat, and even if the military has the capability, whoever the president is has to have the political will in order to order that degradation. Right. So those are the three things you need.
I’m not worried about our ability to figure out how to do the first two. I’m a little worried about where the resources are going to come from to do that because we want to shift resources to our strategic peer competitors, China and Russia. And we are going to take them from CT. Well, I don’t know if that’s going to work anymore.
So if we spend the resources and have the focus, I think we can do one and two. Three worries me a little bit, given that that I think most politicians want to forget about Afghanistan. So I worry that that a future president might be in a position where they’re not willing to take action when they have to.
OLIVIA GAZIS: So, Mike Vickers, I want to hear from you in the waning minutes that we have left because details are really, really sparse on how the administration’s over the horizon strategy is going to work in Afghanistan. One thing we did learn from congressional testimony this week is that the US still doesn’t have any basing agreements with any neighboring countries. We also now see the Taliban warning of unspecified consequences if the U.S. continues to fly drones over its territory there, citing the Doha agreement that the U.S. says is binding, being in violation of that. China is endorsing that view.
So if you were advising the administration on how this would work, what would you say are the requirements for a successful predominantly, if not exclusively over the horizon counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan?
MICHAEL VICKERS: No counterterrorism strategist that I know would choose an over the horizon capability over closer in or in-country capability. That’s why I think this was such a strategically fraught decision to not have a small counterterrorism presence left in country, mostly special operators and intelligence personnel. And the reason for that is, as Michael outlined, this is mostly an intelligence war. Your intelligence degrades the further away you get. Also the further away you get in flight time, particularly for instruments like drones, which are slow flying aircraft, you spend an awful lot of time in transit rather than in target.
So if we had to fly from the Persian Gulf, for example, which we have the capability of doing, it’s hardly desirable from a time on target point of view. So we won’t be as effective as we otherwise would be by a long shot.
That said, if we maintain an over the horizon capability – all our other over the horizon capabilities, again, which are really not by choice or dictated by circumstance, are much closer to their target areas than likely will be in Afghanistan.
If we maintain one, we’ll still be better off than we were pre-9/11 and under the conditions that Michael talked about – if we have the will to use it and everything else. It’s still better than nothing, but it’s hardly as good as an in-country presence.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Phil I’d welcome your view on this, too. How is it done with no human network whatsoever, assuming there’s none? Or would the CIA have been able to construct something like a leave-behind network of human assets that could function in a Taliban-run Afghanistan? If so, would such a network have been able to survive the upheaval of these final weeks? Talk to us a little bit about what possibilities exist there.
PHILIP REILLY: Sure. The HUMINT capability won’t deteriorate immediately. It will deteriorate over time. But yes, there were capabilities left in place that will be brought to bear. But again, they will attrit and eventually deteriorate over time. So without the boots on the ground – we got, I say we, the U.S. intelligence community and U.S. military got very, very good at prosecuting operations against senior Taliban and AQ figures because of the basing and boots on the ground. That’s all gone. So that’s not going to be there.
Some point that Michael made, I think, is a very good one. Will future administrations have the stomach to utilize these capabilities and pull the trigger when necessary. Not only pull the trigger but realize mistakes are going to be made like they were tragically several weeks ago in Kabul. This could happen again, and they have to be prepared for that. That’s one of the penalties or risks with over the horizon. You’re not going to have the granularity that we had with human sources on the ground.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Yeah, let’s briefly just talk about that strike. How does what the Pentagon said about how it was carried out sit with you? I mean, General McKenzie said it was a self-defense strike based on an imminent threat that precluded the opportunity to develop pattern of life. To what extent are those factors or non-factors when you’re talking overall about over the horizon? Phil, feel free to jump in and Mike thereafter.
PHILIP REILLY: Well, I remember something, in fact, General Hayden said back when he was the director: “You want it bad, you get it bad.” I think this was rushed. There was a real strong, understandable desire for for retribution and unfortunately the wrong dots were connected. There was dissenting views, I understand, from the press, in the community, perhaps on this.
But again, they were up against a clock and decided to move. And tragically, things like this can happen. But I would say in my experience, it is extremely rare. When any element of the USG does one of these kinetic operations. The military has made mistakes. It did so in this case. But that is very much a minority of these operations.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Mike, if you’d like to add your view.
MIKE VICKERS: Yeah. Is the strike was tragic, but it was also under very unusual circumstances for counterterrorism, a real in extremis case. Normally you develop targets over time and in fact, what gives these operations their greatest precision is that, you know, you really have time usually to make sure that you’re right. And so if you see that children go in the area or something, you wait till they leave; you may wait a month, in some cases, before you do a strike. And that’s the benefit of having real persistent presence, that you can get that kind of precision and wage a strategic campaign.
You know, I would say our most successful counterterrorism campaign against al Qaeda, – because ISIS was like 2001, it was a mixture of Taliban and al Qaeda, but was really in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. And that’s where we went over the horizon. And that’s where we were close then and we developed intelligence over years, you know, as Phil and Michael both know, and we were able to bring everything to bear.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Let’s talk a little bit about Pakistan in just the few minutes that we have left. I am assuming that each of you will have some thoughts about about Pakistan, its relationship with the Taliban going forward. So Michael Morell, why don’t we start with you: How do you see Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban? How do you see the relationship between our intelligence services and the ISI going forward? Let’s just keep it broad there, and then we can drill down if we can salvage the time.
MICHAEL MORELL: Sure. I think Pakistan is about ready to pay the price for their 20-year support of the Afghan Taliban. And the reason I say that is because the Pakistani Taliban, which wants to overthrow the Pakistani state and routinely conducts attacks in Pakistan, used to be in Pakistan when there were a large number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where the Pakistani military could get out. Now guess where they are? Now they’re in there, they’re in Afghanistan, and now they’re coming across the border into Pakistan to conduct attacks. They just did one a few weeks ago in Karachi.
So the Pakistanis now face an enemy that they can’t get at. So I do think there’s some mutual interest here. You know, I think it would make sense for the United States – maybe we’ve done this already, I don’t know – but for the United States to go to the Pakistanis and not ask for basing rights, right, that’s a little too quick. They’re not politically able to do that at the moment, but say to them, “Let’s work together on intelligence collection in Afghanistan. We need to collect intelligence on on al Qaeda and ISIS. You need to collect intelligence on the Pakistani Taliban. So let’s work together.” I think there’s a mutual interest. And you know, it could be kept secret. I think we should make the pitch.
OLIVIA GAZIS: Mike, I see you’re raring to go.
MICHAEL VICKERS: So it’s interesting. One of the -probably the most unusual thing about our Afghan war since 2001 is not its duration, even though it’s America’s longest war. It’s the fact that an ally of ours was really aiding our enemy for 20 years. And so we had both an ally and someone aiding an enemy at the same time. And that’s why we call them a frenemy, I suppose, you know the word we made up.
And I think Michael’s right about potentially some common interests. I would add that Pakistani-U.S. cooperation was best right after 9/11, and it lasted until about 2010. And then it really deteriorated and it deteriorated actually before bin Laden. And we offered them all kinds of intelligence support in the border region when, as Michael said, the Pakistani Taliban were in Pakistan and killing lots of Pakistanis and they wouldn’t take it. They didn’t want us to see their support for the Taliban, waving them through the border and other things, which we saw anyway, etc.
So they wouldn’t take that cooperation. I’d like to believe that they would take it now, but ‘m pretty skeptical. Since 2010 and 11, they’ve been really thinking they’re going to drive the US out of Afghanistan and then they’re turning to China, and that’s what they’ve been increasingly been doing.
MICHAEL MORELL: Mike, I’m just looking for any way to get close to Afghanistan with our intelligence assets.
MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, me too.
PHILIP REILLY: Olivia there was always a crazy, from my perspective, duality to the relationship with the Pakistanis and my colleagues touched upon it. They house the Haqqani network. They house the Quetta Shura. Yet they lost that thousands of troops in the FATA, fighting different Taliban elements and at times prosecuting or assisting us in prosecuting very, very sensitive operations, only to then publicly complain about them in the press. So it always was a real duality.
But to the point that they may have bitten off a lot more than they can swallow here, you know, just last week in the Red Mosque in Islamabad was flying the Taliban flag. Now they ultimately had to take it down. But they may have uncorked something now that they may have a hard time controlling.