31 Aug 2021

Taliban victory increases risk terrorists will seize Pakistan and its nuclear weapons, John Bolton says

John Bolton was a military advisor to President George W Bush when the decision to invade Afghanistan was taken. 

As National Security Advisor two years ago  he clashed with then President Donald Trump over his decision to strike a deal with the Taliban.

Mr Bolton spoke to Jon Snow about the impact of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and why the 20-year campaign in the region ended in defeat for the American-led coalition.    

JB: Well, I think a couple of things have gone wrong. Number one, I think we lost sight of the fact that the main reason for being in Afghanistan was forward defence of the United States and its allies to make sure the Taliban didn’t resume control and once again offer sanctuary to al-Qaeda or similar terrorist groups. In my mind, it was never a mission to nation-build in Afghanistan, to bring democracy, to centralise the government or anything like that, although I think that’s what it became and we became a part of an Afghan civil war. But that was never our strategic mission. And I think loss of that and an unwillingness of America’s leadership to explain what the real strategic reason was left people with the feeling this was a long and futile struggle that we’ve now abandoned.

JS: If this was a long and futile struggle simply because America failed to explain what it was doing, that really does seem to be the most extraordinary situation.

JB: I think there were successive American presidents, I think three in a row, Obama, Trump and Biden, who didn’t understand that we weren’t engaged in a charity exercise in Afghanistan. I don’t wish anything but the best for the Afghan people, and they’re not going to get it now, but we were there defending our strategic interests and we’ve now given that up. We’ve potentially put ourselves back to where we were before 9/11. And that’s just the consequence in Afghanistan. I think the larger global consequences of how adversaries like China and Russia read this withdrawal are going to be even worse.

JS: How long should America have stayed? How long?

JB: How long do we want to be safe from terrorist attacks? How long were we prepared to stand the watch in Europe and the Far East against communism? For 45 years we stood the watch in Europe and we prevailed. This was 20 years. You need to have patience to do that. You need to have leaders who explain the reasons for it. And we did not have that here.

JS: In those 45 years, you could see real progress year-by-year. In the 20 years, you have never seen year-by-year progress in Afghanistan. There has been trouble from the outset and a failure, surely, to understand how this thing could play.

JB: I think there were mistakes made. I have alluded to a few of them. But the key point was not the security of Afghanistan. The key point was the security of America. And we were totally victorious there for 20 years.

JS: How serious is this defeat for America?

JB: Well, I think the global implications are very serious. I think Russia and China make the mistake of seeing a continuum between Trump and Biden. I think they’re actually two very different things, each mistaken in their own way, but they don’t reflect where the American people are. I think Moscow and Beijing will draw the wrong conclusions. They will see a weak and retreating America, and I think we will all suffer the consequences. The most immediate in Afghanistan would be a return of Taliban or ISIS.

JS: Meantime, we are left with Pakistan and Pakistan has been radicalised by this war. And it’s very difficult to see how that too is going to be challenged.

JB: Pakistan was not radicalised by this war. Pakistan radicalised Afghanistan by arming Mujahideen in the struggle against the Soviet Union and by backing the Taliban, their notion of giving them strategic depth against India. But your conclusion is correct in the sense that ISI, the intelligence services in Pakistan, and others throughout the military are increasingly radicalised. And Taliban control in Afghanistan, I think, increases the risk that Pakistan itself will fall to terrorists and put that nuclear arsenal in terrorist hands. That to me was one of the key reasons not to withdraw American forces.

JS: Finally, how do you see Afghanistan unfolding?

JB: Well, I think you have to look at history as the experience, you have to look right now at the people who know the situation best, and that’s the people of Afghanistan. They’re scared to death about the prospects of Taliban rule. We should be worried about al-Qaeda and ISIS, (and) other terrorist groups taking root there and threatening us. I think we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.