This week, Luke Coffey, an Afghanistan war veteran and director of Heritage’s Alison Center for Foreign Policy, answers questions about what’s happening in Afghanistan and what could come next.
Michelle Cordero: Just a quick note before we get started, today's episode was recorded before any concrete details were known about the terror attack in Kabul.
Cordero: From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Michelle Cordero and this is Heritage Explains. Thousands in Afghanistan are still waiting and hoping to escape the country now controlled by the Taliban. Recent terror attacks right outside Kabul's international airport have made it even more difficult to evacuate.
Vice President Harris: It is risky for them to be there. It is a dangerous and difficult mission.
Reporter: Vice President Harris in Vietnam this morning is in lockstep with the message from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
Anthony Blinken: There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave to do so, along with the many Afghans who have stood by us over these many years.
Cordero: The message that there is no deadline conflicts with President Biden's announcement of an August 31st deadline. So how did we get here? Would this have happened under President Trump? What happens after we hit Biden's deadline? And what could we have done to avoid this chaos? Our guest today is a veteran of the Afghanistan war. Luke Coffey directs Heritage's Allison Center for Foreign Policy. And today, he explains.
Cordero: Luke, thank you so much for talking with us today.
Luke Coffey: Yeah. Thanks for having me on.
Cordero: So Afghanistan is now under control of the Taliban. How did that happen?
Coffey: Well, it was a combination of incompetence, aloofness, indecision coming from the Biden White House that ultimately got us to where we are today. President Biden decided to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan and by, I mean, only about 2,500 that were remaining there. And he also decided to withdraw all of the civilian contractors that were there to support the Afghan military, to provide maintenance to their planes and helicopters and logistics for their vehicles and supply chains. And we stopped providing our close air support, our airstrikes that the Afghans would call in to when they were fighting the Taliban. And in some cases, we withdrew these capabilities and these forces overnight with very little, if any, notification to the Afghans. So the Afghans being demoralized by this, by seeing their best partner abandoning them, this created the conditions which ultimately led to the collapse of the Afghan government and now with the Taliban in control of almost the whole country.
Cordero: So how is this different from what the Trump Administration had said they were going to do?
Coffey: Well, a lot of people are asking this and there's been a lot of finger pointing back and forth on who's really to blame here. Now, the original Trump administration plan had US withdrawing forces at May 1st. So actually earlier than what President Biden was ended up doing. However, one thing we will never know is how a second Trump administration might or might not have acted because of the conditions on the ground, because it was clear that Taliban was not living up to their side of the agreement. Would a second Trump administration stick to that deadline? Could they have kept forces in Afghanistan longer? We'll never know this and there's plenty of speculation going around. However, what we do know is that President Biden is in the White House and now the Taliban control almost the whole country. These are facts. So while the speculation about what Trump would or would not have done might be a convenient talking point for the left, it really doesn't get us to where we need to be. And that is an acknowledgement of what is now a failed US policy in Afghanistan.
Cordero: So now with the Taliban in control, thousands upon thousands have rushed to the airport in hopes of escaping them, what do we know about how they plan to rule the country? Are they any different now than they were previously when they ruled?
Coffey: The Taliban are not fit to govern Afghanistan. They have been fighting an insurgency against the government for about 20 years now. In the last two decades, they've developed a very slick PR and use of social media. They say all the right things. The Taliban elite, the upper echelons of the Taliban, they say all the right things to Western journalists and Western commentators, but what we're actually seeing on the ground in other places, especially outside of the capital of Kabul is the same brutal tactics that we saw in the 1990s with the Taliban, preventing women from going to school, telling them to stay home from work. Cases of young girls being married off to Taliban fighters as sort of war trophies. A ban on music and this sort of thing. So right now the Taliban that we are seeing today in Afghanistan is very similar to the Taliban of the 1990s.
Coffey: Now, the challenge that Taliban is going to have going forward is that the Afghan society has changed. The African people have changed over the past two decades. There a higher tolerance for women rights and minority rights, and women in the workplace and women being educated, and the Taliban are not going to be able to govern the whole country without acknowledging at least then the societal attitudes have changed. Also, just because the Taliban has captured a city doesn't mean that it necessarily controls the city. A lot of local deals were made between Taliban commanders and local warlords and leaders that saw these local leaders and warlords flip from the Afghan government side to the Taliban side. And they're going to be expecting something in return. And so far, it's been over a week now and the Taliban hasn't established a transitional government and it's relative chaos in most places in Afghanistan because of this. So the situation is not looking bright for Afghans and the Taliban will actually have many, many problems lying ahead of them.
Cordero: Chaos sounds about right based on what I've seen. We sort of now seem to be having this situation with everyone trying to leave and how quickly they can get it done. Who's being allowed to leave the country?
Coffey: Well, it depends who you ask. If you ask the White House, pretty much anyone who wants to leave apparently can leave. This is a nonsense. That's not the case at all, nor does it reflect the reality on the ground. The reality on the ground is much different. If you're an American or let's say European passport holder, after maneuvering through a number of very dangerous Taliban controlled checkpoints, if you were lucky, you will get to the airport and get out. If you're an Afghan who let's say is a special immigrant visa, SIV, this is the visa category that we're giving to Afghans who helped us over the past 20 years. If you're one of these Afghans, it's highly unlikely at this point that you will get out of the country. And it's very clear that the Biden administration never planned for this level of evacuation.
Coffey: They're choosing to use Kabul International Airport besides using [inaudible 00:09:08] is an indication of this. [inaudible 00:09:10] is a big airfield just north of Kabul with two runways. It can be easily secured. It can house thousands of refugees and people before they are able to eventually fly out. And the fact that this evacuation has started at the last minute is a clear sign that the Biden administration did not plan at all for this contingency. And now you have this tragic situation where the administration is determined to get all US forces out of Afghanistan by August 31st, regardless if they're Americans or Afghan SIV applicants who are left behind. And it's extraordinary to think. So in practical terms, the evacuation is winding up right now because it will take several days to get the six or 7,000 or so US troops out of that airport and onto planes and back home. So it's a tragic situation all around.
Cordero: Is that a tight deadline? I don't know how long it takes to get people out of a country, that many people in that amount of time. And do you think there'll be able to do it by then? And if they can't, is that going to reflect poorly on the United States?
Coffey: This whole episode has reflected poorly on America's honor and reputation and prestige. Our adversaries will now be pushing the envelope just that much more to see how much further they can test this administration. Our allies and partners are wondering what in the world is going on. We just had a G7 meeting yesterday where all of the other six countries in the G7 were telling the United States, we need to extend this deadline beyond August 31st. Biden basically sides with the Taliban and says no, because it's called a retrograde, the removal of military forces from a location to another location. Because this retrograde will take so long, in practical terms, evacuation will stop in the next day or two if the US is going to meet that August 31st deadline and the Biden administration is committed to this deadline. So it will definitely leave American citizens and Afghans behind that should be out of that country.
Cordero: I assume that's pretty devastating. Do we know where they're going?
Coffey: It depends. Everyone will be screened before they enter the United States, all the Afghan SIV applicants. There is a rigorous system in place, and most of the screening will be done in a third country. So Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, I believe some Central Asian countries have all volunteered to temporarily house these refugees before they come to the United States.
Coffey: The United States also has a lot of biometric data. So ways to confirm someone's identity using fingerprints or eye scan or the like facial recognition. This is how these Afghans were allowed to access US military bases during the war. So it's not as if the US is starting from scratch in terms of vetting these people, that that process should actually go relatively easily, especially when compared to the other traditional refugee processes that the United States undertakes.
Coffey: So they are going to remain in third countries before they're vetted, but some have already made it back to the United States. And I highly recommend the listeners to do a quick Google search, to see where they're living and to see if there are any local organizations and churches and mosques that are raising funds or accepting donations to help house some of these Afghans, because these are Afghans who put their lives on the line for more than two decades to help us over there. And they've earned this right to come here to the United States for a better life, and we should do everything we can to help them.
Cordero: I agree. Yeah. So what could have been done to make this process smoother?
Coffey: Well, firstly, the Biden administration should have kept this very small force in the country. This started under President Trump with this talk of ending forever wars. And this narrative about forever wars was continued under the Biden administration. And when people hear about America being in a war for 20 years, they reasonably start asking questions and they want to get out. But the problem with this narrative is that people were believing that we were in a war and people wanted to leave a war that we weren't in.
Coffey: When Biden entered office earlier this year, there was 2,500 troops on the ground conducting a training and advising mission for the Afghan military. We had airplanes there providing closer support and we help with civilian contractors help the logistics and maintenance of the Afghan military. While this was never considered enough for the African government to win the war outright, it was certainly enough to make sure that the Taliban didn't win. And for the sake of keeping 2,500 troops and some airplanes in the country, we now have this terrible irony in geopolitics where the Taliban will control more of Afghanistan on September 11th, 2021 than they did on September 11th, 2001.
Coffey: And nobody can argue in my opinion that this is in America's interests, especially when we look at what the alternative was, keeping the small military force in the country to ensure that the Afghans were supported and propped up and keeping really the region and us safe by fighting themselves against the Taliban. We've heard a lot of talk, especially from President Biden and his Twitter account and the White House Twitter account about why should Americans fight in a war where the Afghans won't even fight. This is so disrespectful to the Afghans who have fought and died for their freedom. Since 2015, 70,000 Afghan soldiers have been killed, tens of thousands of more have been wounded. And the last US combat deaths in Afghanistan was almost two years ago. So the Afghans have been carrying the burden here. They have been leading combat operations and it was highly disrespectful to suggest otherwise.
Cordero: Luke, in conclusion, if you were advising the Biden administration, what would you tell them to do next?
Coffey: Well, I think there should at least be some sort of honorable resignation by some senior officials, because there has to be consequences. In the olden days, it seems like honorable officials would resign if they mess up this badly, but these days that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. In practical terms, I would advise the administration to stay at Kabul International Airport beyond the August 31st deadline. I believe that there's very little the Taliban could have or would have done about this against the United States and stay there until every US citizen and SIV applicant is brought safely out of the country. We're the United States of American. We're a superpower. And we're basically being bullied around by this Taliban terrorist organization.
Coffey: And then in the longer term, because we don't have boots on the ground, we don't have that situational awareness in Afghanistan, this region of the world is still one that will be important for the United States. So we have to double down on our relationship with regional countries like India, like some of the Central Asian states, like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and Tajikistan because these countries are now on the front lines of what's happening in Afghanistan. And then, this is also a region of the world where Iran and Russia and China are also very active. So we need to work on improving our relationships with friendly countries in the region.
Coffey: And then finally, I would advise the administration to keep a very open mind about the emerging resistance that is starting to gather in some parts of Afghanistan. It's very early days. We don't know if this will transpire in the same way it did in the 1990s when the Taliban first took over the country. And we don't know what sort of level of trust there is between these resistance fighters and the United States right now. My guess is a very low level of trust considering how Biden abandoned the Afghans. But this administration is not going to be in the White House forever. So at least on the officials level, we need to start getting more information about what is actually happening in terms of the newly established Afghan resistance.
Cordero: Luke, thank you so much for bringing us up to speed on this issue and thank you for your service.
Coffey: Oh, thank you. That's very kind of you to say and thanks for having me on the podcast again.
Cordero: And that's it for today's episode. Thank you so much for listening. If you liked what you heard today, we would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. It really helps our rankings, which helps other conservatives find our show, which is ultimately what we want. So thanks again. Stay well. And Tim is up next week.