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Military & Veterans' Issues

Former Commander: Afghanistan Mission Is Not A Failure

A general view shows Bagram Air Base, after all US and NATO troops left, on July 2, 2021. (Zakeria Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)
A general view shows Bagram Air Base, after all US and NATO troops left, on July 2, 2021. (Zakeria Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)

NATO’S 20-year mission in Afghanistan is all but over.

As Taliban attacks continue, there’s growing concern about the country’s future. In April, President Biden said he’s ending the United States’ role in the war, but not its commitment.

“Our troops are coming home. But we agree that our diplomatic, economic and humanitarian commitment to the Afghan people and our support for the Afghan national defense and security forces will endure,” Biden said.

Retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis commanded the NATO mission in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2013 as the organization’s supreme allied commander. As the U.S. ends military involvement in Afghanistan, it’s important that Biden continues to fund diplomatic and economic development in the country to avoid a crisis, Stavridis says.

“All of that [is] going to be very important if we’re going to avoid what we all want to avoid, which is Vietnam circa 1975, like helicopters lifting off the roof of the embassy,” he says. “We can still avoid that. It’s going to be challenging.”

Some predict that Afghanistan could collapse into a terrible scenario — chaos or worse, civil war — after the U.S. troops leave. The Taliban is surging across the country at this moment, taking control of territory.

General Scott Miller, the commander of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, told ABC’s Martha Raddatz that the Taliban could at some point take control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

If the Taliban took over Kabul, Afghanistan would be back where it was before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 in many ways, Stavridis says.

“And that would be a tragedy, in my view,” he says. “When you look at all the progress we have made in human rights, women’s rights, education for girls, life expectancy, medical accessibility, global engagement for Afghanistan, a democracy, although not a perfect democracy, there’s been enormous progress. And I think that is highly at risk if the Taliban sweep back in.”

Stavridis predicts that there’s a one in three chance that the U.S. can prevent this outcome and usher in a settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

From a national security perspective, one common concern is that Taliban control could make Afghanistan a place where another terrorist attack against the U.S. is planned. To combat this possibility, Stavridis says the Biden administration is working on a strategy to prevent any attacks on U.S. soil.

As a veteran of the Afghan wars, people often ask Stavridis if he feels like he failed in his mission — to which he answers no.

“For 20 years, there’s been no attack on the United States that came out of a previously ungoverned Afghanistan. I did my mission,” he says. “I hope that going forward we can still say that, and if we’re going to pull the troops out, that we have an over the horizon capability to counter it.”

Interview Highlights

On whether Biden’s push for the U.S. to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal is a good idea

“I don’t think so at this point. What President Biden said on the campaign trail with which I agree is that it would be a longer and stronger deal. That I would agree with if we could extend the time frame, if we could strengthen it to include antiballistic missile sanctions, if we could constrain Iranian bad behavior around the region. If the deal could be longer and stronger, then yes, I would support it. But simply going back to the 2015 deal to me does not solve the problem of preventing the Iranians from marching onward toward culminating with a nuclear weapon.”

On whether the recent airstrikes that targeted Iranian militia groups in Iraq and Syria were justified

“They were 100% justified because there were attacks coming from those bases against U.S. troops in Iraq. Many listeners may not have focused on the fact that we still have several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq, quite importantly, supporting the Iraqi security forces as they combat the remnants of the Islamic State. The Iranians who support these militias were launching UAV attacks against some of our troop concentrations. This was a very justifiable act of self-defense. I support those strikes.”

On the role NATO plays in today’s world

“I think NATO has an ongoing purpose. And to confine the purpose of NATO to defeating the Soviet Union kind of misses the larger point. History doesn’t end despite Francis Fukuyama’s book alleging that history has marched on. And so the U.S. ought to be cultivating our allies, partners and friends in Europe because there are still problems in that region coming from Syria, which is on a NATO border coming across the Mediterranean, in the Arctic, in cyber. There are still many challenges out there. And having good, strong allies is something we should treasure. The Europeans could spend more on defense. They can certainly afford it. I would encourage them to do so. I did so as supreme allied commander. That is an important part of it. But I wouldn’t get rid of NATO. I think it’s still a force for good in the world.”

On serious and significant Russia is as a threat to U.S. national security

“Let’s observe that if Vladimir Putin woke up on Tuesday and decided to end the world by launching a nuclear strike, he could. He’s got thousands of nuclear weapons. So by definition, they are a significant threat when they discuss aggressive military activities. Secondly, we watched Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine, annex Crimea, support a war criminal in Syria, conduct cyberattacks against U.S. corporations, and worst of all, attempt to intrude in our democratic elections. So, yeah, I think Russia’s a quite significant challenge. Although they don’t have a massive GDP, they have nuclear weapons, they have ambition, they have a professional military. And I think they’re going to continue to play the role of kind of a spoiler in international relations going forward.”

On the book “2034,” which Stavridis coauthored with Elliot Ackerman. The novel is about the next world war and includes a naval clash between the United States and China in the South China Sea that year.

“Well, it hit number six on the New York Times bestseller list. And my response when people congratulate me is let’s hope it stays on the fiction side of the list. Yes, I would say it is a possibility that if we are not mindful of the concern of a miscalculation, we could stumble into a war. People have said to me, oh, you’ve written another Cold War kind of cautionary tale. Not exactly. This is more pre World War I. Intertwined economies, royal families related by blood and married. Yet the nations of Europe stumbled into, sleepwalked into a conflagration that ultimately killed 80 million people when you count World War I and World War II. Could that happen with the U.S. and China? Unfortunately. That’s why I’ve written the book, not let us hope, as predictive fiction, but as cautionary fiction.”


Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.