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Preventing Terrorism Remains the U.S.' Main Goal in Afghanistan, Expert Says

Terrorism expert David Schanzer briefs media on Taliban's rise

Preventing Terrorism Remains the U.S.’s Main Goal in Afghanistan, Expert Says

DURHAM, N.C. -- The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and swift subsequent seizing of power there by the Taliban has many worried that the country will once again be a safe haven for al-Qaida and like-minded terror networks.

But the Taliban likely learned a hard lesson over the last two decades in its decision to give groups like al-Qaida a foothold there and may not want to do so again, a Duke University terrorism and homeland security expert said Monday.

David Schanzer, a professor of the practice at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, discussed that and other topics related to the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in a virtual media briefing.

Watch the briefing on YouTube.

Here are excerpts:

On the failure in Afghanistan

“It’s a tragedy, of course. Many people in Afghanistan invested themselves in attempting to build a better life, a better system of government, and to resist the Taliban, who had governed the country with brutality and horror and a reign of terror when it held power prior to our invasion in 2001. It’s absolutely tragic for those individuals that this project, which we had been at for 20 years, to try to build a sustainable, decent government capable of defending itself from the Taliban and other foreign powers, ultimately failed. It was not successful. It was not sustainable and therefore the Taliban was able to take over.”

“Nobody in the U.S. government wanted this kind of chaotic departure. They charted a timeline. It was working. We were getting the bulk of our infrastructure out in an orderly fashion. But the Afghan army melted away. It collapsed far more quickly than anybody imagined. And that has led to this level of chaos.”

On security concerns on the ground right now

“The United States is focused, principally, on its own personnel as well as those people who cooperate quite closely, who were employees and were issued special visas to leave the country.”

“It looks like we have gotten the U.S. personnel and embassy personnel out but we probably left too many people behind, Afghans, who cooperated with us and that is a result of how quickly things unfolded, the fact that we weren’t able to anticipate things would happen so quickly, resulting in the chaos.”

On why the Afghan army collapsed so quickly

“All of the governments in Afghanistan have been plagued with deep problems since 2001. Of course the Taliban was deeply problematic before then. All of them had been plagued with different levels of incompetence and corruption. If you’re going to withstand an insurgency, the people have to be behind the government. These governments, and especially the one that has been in power these last couple of years, has not had sufficient legitimacy and support from the populace and has been even more corrupt and incompetent. They had not been paying the troops. They have not been sending them with proper equipment despite the American levels of support.”

“What transpired before this episode: With the Trump administration engaging in direct negotiations with the Taliban over the last three or four years – leading to an agreement between not the Taliban and the Afghan government but between the U.S. and the Taliban. We negotiated a withdrawal agreement and left the Afghan government on the side. This sent a very, very clear message that this government was powerless, it was a paper tiger. It didn’t have the support of even its principal patron, the United States.”

“It was a humiliation. We negotiated a withdrawal without any conditions. We said we were leaving no matter what the Taliban did, no matter whether or not they had legitimate peace talks with the actual government of Afghanistan. It was a travesty.”

On whether the withdrawal was a mistake

“I don’t think so. Taliban ruled Afghanistan terribly for many years before 9/11 but they did not represent a direct threat to the United States. The threat they created was by allowing al-Qaida to have a safe haven in Afghanistan and launch attacks – the embassy attacks in 1998 in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole, and of course 9/11 – from this territory. And many are saying that now that the Taliban is back, al-Qaida will inevitably infiltrate and we’ll be back as vulnerable as we were before 9/11. I disagree with that.”

“I don’t think we have a long-term interest in sustaining this government long-term over time. We tried over and over and over again. It’s an absolute tragedy but we have a lot more capability now than we had 20 years ago to assess the threat from al-Qaida. A lot more awareness. A lot more focus.”

“Three successive presidents, 75 percent of the American public – that might dip after we see this chaos – but if there’s no attacks on the homeland spawning from Afghanistan in three, five, 10 years, we might look back on this and say it was the right choice. If we do, people might say it was a mistake.”

On the al-Qaida threat with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan

“Everybody is making predictions. The easy thing to say is that al-Qaida will come back and the Taliban will let them in and they will start aggressively attacking America and American interests. We just don’t know. If you look at what’s in the Taliban’s best interests, I’m not sure why they’d want to re-run the history of 2001/2002. They allowed al-Qaida to launch 9/11. They provided them safe harbor, and when the United States said, ‘Turn them over or we’re going to defeat you militarily,’ they did not and look what happened. This was not good for the Taliban.”

“If you look at a raw calculation of what’s in the Taliban’s interests, it’s really unclear to me why they would have any benefit to let al-Qaida come into Afghanistan and launch attacks from there against the U.S. It will only lead to retribution against the Taliban and the Taliban government. They’ve been fighting for 20 years against foreign occupation, foreign intervention. Why invite more foreign intervention?”

On the future in Afghanistan

“We have to see what the Taliban’s designs are. They are going to try to govern this country. They are great fighters, they’ve shown that. That’s what they do very well. They’re not very good at governing. In 2001 when the United States came in, the gross domestic product in Afghanistan per capital was $114. It ranked 195 out of 195 countries. So the Taliban was doing a rotten job governing the country. They’ve had 20 years to think about that. … They had to be thinking a little bit about what they want to do to actually govern the country. Are they going to start mass executions of non-Sunni Muslims? How are they going to treat women, is it going to be exactly the same as it was 20 years ago? They want to establish some relationships with countries around them. Acting as a totalitarian, brutal reign of terror kind of (way), it’s possible. But I don’t know why you fight for 20 years just to do that.”

On the impact to bordering countries

“Afghanistan is bordered by Iran, China, Russia is just over the horizon. India, Pakistan … what we’ve been doing over the last 20 years is essentially bearing the totality of the burden to provide some stability in this country.”

“It’s time for all of the countries with an interest, including the United States. to diplomatically figure out how to, even under these new circumstances, how to engage in a diplomatic and economic program to try to incentivize some decency and level of governance in Afghanistan. Hopefully maybe some sort of genuine, more inclusive form of government rather than just 100 percent Taliban. We’ll just have to see. But all these countries now have an interest in not having giant instability, a new round of civil war, and extremism.”

“None of these countries want to have a hotbed of instability and civil war on their borders so it’s really time for them to step up and make a contribution.”

On asylum seekers

“The prevailing view in the U.S. Congress and the administration is that we should be quite generous in providing asylum to as many people who assisted us as possible. Now that we’re gone – we don’t even have an embassy in Afghanistan – I don’t know how much were going to be able to do for the people who are there and didn’t get out. My view is we should make extraordinary efforts to help as many people who aided us and risked their lives and their families’ lives as we possibly can.”

On parallels to fall of Saigon

“Certainly the scenes from the airport of chaos and hundreds and maybe thousands of Afghans clinging to airplanes, that does have some reminiscent imagery. But these were different wars at different times. Different interests were being balanced. The imagery is reminiscent, but I think the strategy, the history, the time period are so different that these kinds of comparisons don’t really get you very far.”

On what this withdrawal means for Iraq and Syria

“The Biden administration has made a decision to maintain troop levels. They redefined the mission in Iraq but are committed. They did that at the same time they made the decision to 100 percent withdraw from Afghanistan.”

“I believe it’s just about a balancing of interests.”

“Iraq continues to be in a deeply strategic area. A huge border on Iran, where we have of course a bitter and deep rivalry and fraught relationship. We still rely on the flow of oil in the Middle East despite the climate crisis and despite our decreasing dependence. And we have other allies in the region that border Iraq. So it’s a more strategic area.”

On the U.S.’s responsibility in Afghanistan going forward

“From our security interests, our main objective is to insure Afghanistan is not able to be a safe haven for extremist groups to launch attacks against American interests and interests of our allies. That is our number 1 primary goal. Like all other conflicts in the world … our goal is to work with our allies around the world, work through international institutions, to hopefully bring peace there, peace and stability and help the people of Afghanistan build a better life for themselves. A lot of that is going to depend on the government that’s in place.”

“There are many, many directions it can go. If the Taliban govern horribly like they did before, they will not be able to assert control in the entirety of Afghanistan and it will spiral into another chapter of civil war. Again, our possibilities are trying to influence the shape of that civil war between the Taliban and those they are fighting against. I do believe that since we spent 20 years there, we have a special obligation to provide resources, attention, diplomatic energy, to try to bring about peace and stability there.”

The expert:

David Schanzer is an expert on counterterrorism strategy, counterterrorism law and homeland security. He is also director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Schanzer was the Democratic staff director for the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security from 2003-2005. He previously served as the legislative director for Sen. Jean Carnahan (2001-2002), and counsel to Sens. Joe Biden (1996-98), and William Cohen (1994-96).