30 Aug 2021

Taliban ‘empowered’ by American cooperation, says former US Assistant Secretary of Defence


Mary Beth Long, who served as US Assistant Secretary of Defence under George W Bush, spoke with Cathy Newman about the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. 

She was first asked for her reaction to reports that a US drone strike targeting a suicide bomber in Kabul had allegedly killed up to 10 civilians, including seven children. 

MBL: What goes through my mind is that, thus begins the cycle that we tried to avoid by having sufficient troops on the ground where the US is forced to take long-distance precision strikes that will result in innocent casualties and therefore not only contribute to civilian deaths, but exacerbate the feelings of locals that turn them toward our enemy because they’re frustrated with our behaviour.

CN: So, do you think that President Biden had no choice but to carry out the policy that had been set in train by Donald Trump? Or could this withdrawal have been executed in such a way as to eliminate this risk of civilian and indeed U.S. military deaths?

MBL: The policy of withdrawal when conditions were suitable for it has been the policy of many presidents, including President Trump. The policy that is causing the problems here is the policy of the Biden administration in the manner in which it is conducting the withdrawal. This is a fiasco, frankly, particularly those Americans on the ground that are still left behind in danger.

CN: But given that Donald Trump has set that course, he really had no choice but to act now and act in as speedy a manner as possible, didn’t he?

MBL: Oh, absolutely not. President Biden has overturned just about every other policy of Donald Trump’s, and the Trump administration was very clear their timeline was based on an assessment of a secure withdrawal and particularly one that would be conditions based. This was in no way a conditions based withdrawal. In fact, if anything, it has been a ‘run for the hills’, and American citizens on the ground are going to pay the price.

CN: Well, what are the implications, then, of the last few days and weeks in terms of the terror threat to the U.S. and the U.K.?

MBL: I think we’re in a lot of trouble. I think it’s been very clear that two things have happened. To the extent that we use the Taliban, and I’m referring to the United States, as our go-between, particularly between the U.S. government and its citizens, we have elevated that organisation in the eyes of the world and empowered them. The second thing that is probably the most worrisome for your security and ours, is the fact that there is now a struggle going on between the Taliban and ISIS-K, the Islamic State Khorasan, and very likely al-Qaeda. And you will see one-upmanship and more violence that will threaten our citizens and our interests in the region.

CN: And Boris Johnson has talked about recognising the Taliban as a legitimate government if they keep their promises. Isn’t that just realpolitik?

MBL: Absolutely realpolitik recognises a government to the extent that they can provide certain basics, but I think if anything, and while I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Johnson, the Taliban has shown us that they cannot keep their promises and will not keep their promises. And I don’t think we’ve seen really much indication that they’re even interested in securing and facilitating the exit of our citizens. So no.