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Steve Coll on How the U.S. Pursued Withdrawal Over Peace in Afghanistan & Let the Taliban Take Over

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As Afghanistan spirals into a humanitarian crisis after the abrupt U.S. withdrawal earlier this summer, we look at years of failed U.S. diplomacy that allowed the Taliban to seize power and leave the small nation in a state of disrepair. A New Yorker magazine investigation shows how the U.S. repeatedly undermined the Kabul-based government in a rush to leave the country. “I’ve been reporting in general and around Afghanistan for a long time. I was still shocked by the degree of cynicism that the United States often brought to this endeavor to seek peace, particularly during the Trump years,” says New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who has covered Afghanistan for decades.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We turn now to look at the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, and we begin by looking at how we got here. A damning new report in The New Yorker magazine looks at the failures in U.S. diplomacy that led to the Taliban’s seizure of power in August. The report includes interviews with high-level Afghan and American officials who took part in negotiations during both the Trump and Biden administrations. It’s headlined “The Secret History of the U.S. Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan: A trove of unreleased documents reveals a dispiriting record of misjudgment, hubris, and delusion that led to the fall of the Western-backed government.”

For more, we’re joined by one of its co-authors, Steve Coll. He’s a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and dean of the Columbia Journalism School. He’s also author of many books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.

Steve Coll, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Why don’t you lay out your most significant findings that surprised you most? And let’s be clear with these negotiations: This wasn’t negotiations that included the Afghan government; it was negotiations between the United States and the Taliban.

STEVE COLL: Yeah. Thanks, Amy. Thanks for having me back.

Let’s start with the big picture. The United States during the Trump administration entered into direct talks with the Taliban, and the stated purpose of the talks was twofold: one, to find a way for the United States to withdraw from the war, but, secondly, to end the war, in which Afghans were primarily suffering.

And what we have discovered, I think, by taking a really close look at this record, is that, in the end, the peace talks weren’t about peace. They were about America leaving. And at every intersection where the United States faced a choice between prioritizing a reduction in violence, a ceasefire or some kind of political settlement among Afghans, between the Taliban and the Kabul government, rather than insisting upon that, it instead built an exit ramp to leave itself. And we all saw the result last August.

The record is full of detailed conversations, both within the negotiating room and between the White House and the Kabul government led by Ashraf Ghani, President Ghani. And there’s a lot of shocking kind of conversation and detail. The essence of it, I found — you know, I’ve been reporting in general and around Afghanistan for a long time. I was still kind of shocked by the degree of cynicism that the United States often brought to this endeavor to seek peace, particularly during the Trump years.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Steve Coll, you mentioned that, of course, at the time, Afghans were the ones who were primarily suffering. And just to specify, what you write in the piece is that since 2015, fewer than 12 American soldiers died every year, while at the same time 8,000 Afghan security personnel were dying annually. And, of course, according to the U.N., several thousand Afghan civilians were being killed every year. So, could you explain what you understand about who was pushing for prioritizing the U.S.? And, in particular, talk about the role of Zalmay Khalilzad. What was his role, his background? And what was — what eventually happened as a result of the negotiations that he was leading?

STEVE COLL: So, the first part of the question is, I think, you know, the record suggests that President Trump wasn’t closely involved in these negotiations, as we’ve often seen about his presidency. He didn’t really understand Afghanistan. He said some things, that we were able to document, in important meetings that indicated that he had, at best, a cursory understanding even of the leadership of Afghanistan. He designated this to Secretary Pompeo, Mike Pompeo. And the best indications that I think our evidence provides are that he was probably making the most important high-level decisions in Washington.

You ask about the special envoy who Pompeo appointed to carry out these negotiations with the Taliban. That’s Zalmay Khalilzad. He is an Afghan-born American who earned a doctoral degree at the University of Chicago in political science and served in several Republican administrations prior to the Trump years. He was the United States ambassador to Afghanistan in the early 2000s, after the fall of the Taliban government. He’s deeply experienced in the region, but he had been out of government for quite some time when he came back into this role. And he’s a very complicated figure. We try to give you all of him in this piece.

You know, I think he started out believing that he could negotiate peace, and was ambitious about that. But at important intersections, he faced all these choices as an envoy of the Trump administration: What are we going to do? Are we going to prioritize the United States’s interests and its withdrawal, or are we going to slow this process down or take a different approach in order to prioritize peace among Afghans? And I’m afraid what the record shows is that, perhaps under pressure from Secretary Pompeo, but in full complicity, Ambassador Khalilzad prioritized the U.S. withdrawal and ignored Taliban violations of the agreement that they had reached, and put pressure on the government in Kabul to do things it didn’t want to do.

As you pointed out in the intro, and I think it’s important for listeners to understand, you know, there were three parties to this war, broadly speaking, when the peace negotiations began: the United States, the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which is the formal name of the Kabul government, constitutional government. The Islamic Republic was never at the table in these negotiations. The U.S. negotiated, in effect, on its behalf. And we can see that the result didn’t exactly secure the republic’s interests.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Steve Coll, explain why the Kabul government was not involved in these negotiations. That was something on which the Taliban insisted. And Ashraf Ghani, according to your piece, and generally reported, Ashraf Ghani felt sidelined in these negotiations, and it seemed, in some instances, again, as you document, that the U.S. appeared to be more insistent in getting his government to compromise rather than putting comparable pressure on the Taliban.

STEVE COLL: I think that’s a very fair statement of what the record shows. And to this point about the Kabul government being sidelined, you’re right. The reason it was was because the Taliban insisted on it. They just absolutely refused to sit at the table with representatives of their opposition in Afghanistan, as they saw it. They refused to even speak the name of the Islamic Republic in the documents that they signed with the United States. And the United States went along with this, on the theory that if the U.S. could reach its own agreement with the Taliban about withdrawal and then the Taliban providing counterterrorism guarantees to the United States, that little two-way conversation and agreement would be the basis for then opening up negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Now, was that theory plausible? Should anyone have ever tested it? Of course they should have tested the theory. But what happened was that the Taliban made clear, pretty quickly, that they were not interested, in fact, in having those negotiations with Ashraf Ghani’s government, that they didn’t want to sit at the table with them, that they didn’t want to share power. And, you know, you can read the record.

The question you might ask is: Like, if you were negotiating this, at what point would you have recognized that the Taliban simply weren’t going to compromise, and then come to terms with that reality? The answer is that there were many points along the way where I think many of your listeners, if they were bargaining in this setting, would have said, “OK, that’s enough. Clearly, this other side doesn’t want to come along.” And then you have to go down a different path. You know, none of those choices are great, either, but at least you’re dealing with reality. And that’s the kind of — one of the dispiriting parts of this history, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to an interview with the Associated Press earlier this week. It’s former Afghan President Hamid Karzai saying Kabul had not fallen to the Taliban in August; he had invited them in.

HAMID KARZAI: It was a request to come in and protect the population so that the country — the city doesn’t fall into chaos, and the unwanted elements who would probably loot the country, loot shops. So it was an automatic process subsequent to that and an inevitability.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Hamid Karzai. And people should understand that the Taliban were inside the palace, and Hamid Karzai’s compound is essentially attached to the palace. They are right next door, adjacent to each other. When the Taliban walked out of a conversation in the palace — I mean, his point is well taken. They did not — every time we keep repeating — seized power. They entered a power vacuum. But can you talk about Hamid Karzai’s position right now?

STEVE COLL: Well, I mean, it’s complicated, and I don’t know enough about it to really be, you know, trying to describe exactly his circumstances. But he did not leave the country, and he has not left the country since the Taliban formed their interim government. I don’t know whether he wants to leave or not, but he hasn’t left.

And, you know, as to his comments yesterday to the Associated Press, I mean, let’s bear in mind, he says he invited the Taliban in. He had no authority. He was a former president. And he had been appointed — what happened in the last 24 hours is really interesting and complicated, and I think — you know, I don’t feel like I sorted it out entirely. I can describe some things with confidence, and then other things look a bit muddy. But what was happening was that the United States, Khalilzad, Ashraf Ghani and former and current politicians who were not part of Ghani’s government but who were in Kabul, such as Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and others, they were trying to figure out, under enormous time pressure, whether there was some way to hand over the city — and the country, in effect — to the Taliban in a more orderly way than would occur without an agreement. And Hamid Karzai was involved in those discussions. He was supposed to fly out of Kabul, down to Qatar, to talk to the Taliban about this question. He had been appointed to do so, along with 12 other people, by President Ghani. He never got off the ground, because the Taliban essentially swept into the capital and took over before those talks could even begin. So, it’s a somewhat confused situation. I do think that President Karzai today, former President Karzai, is in a complicated position, which is hard to evaluate from the outside.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Steve, you mentioned earlier the many points during these negotiations at which the Taliban seemed to prevail when it was not a good idea to allow them to prevail. And one of those points, as you write about, is their insistence on the release of 5,000 political prisoners. Could you explain when that happened, how the Ashraf Ghani government was forced to concede this, and what its effects were, immediate effects?

STEVE COLL: Yeah. Well, it’s perhaps — at least in my experience of the work on this history, it was perhaps the most dispiriting of a series of dispiriting episodes. It just is very hard to look back on it with anything other than a sense of being appalled about it.

But the short story is that the United States and the Taliban, after conducting these negotiations, signed an agreement in February of 2020. The Trump administration and the Taliban signed this agreement. And the agreement contemplated that as soon as this agreement was signed — by the way, its basic provisions were the U.S. said it would withdraw by May 2021, and the Taliban said it would protect the United States against terrorism. So they sign this agreement, but there were other provisions. And the other — the most important was that the Taliban would begin negotiating seriously a peace agreement with Ashraf Ghani’s government within 10 days. There was a specific schedule. The Taliban said, “Nah, we’re not really ready to get started. You need to release 5,000 prisoners of ours before we will talk to the Afghan government.”

Well, the United States signed up to say — the United States didn’t hold these prisoners. They belonged to the government of Ashraf Ghani. So the United States said, “Well, we can’t release them, but we will work to facilitate their release.” At that point, the Trump administration embarked on a pressure campaign on Ashraf Ghani’s government to release all 5,000 of these prisoners. Now, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was the envoy, was the main negotiator for the U.S. And what he said to Ghani, as our investigation shows — we did kind of meeting by meeting and blow by blow — what he said to Ghani was, “Look, you’re not going to have to release all 5,000. Find 1,000 or 2,000, release those low-risk risk prisoners, and I’ll get the Taliban to come along.” So, Ghani says, you know, “I don’t really like this, but I’ll do the work.” He identifies a thousand prisoners. He releases a thousand. Taliban say, “Sorry, we mean 5,000. And by the way, here’s a list of the specific 5,000 that we want, and we don’t want any other 5,000 other than these.” And back and forth they go. The Taliban never yielded. The Trump administration increased its pressure, month after month, on the Ghani administration.

The list of the 5,000 included, you know, a couple of dozen who had committed basically murders of American and Australian and French and U.N. personnel, who had been imprisoned. It included hundreds of people that the Afghan government had convicted of very serious crimes. And Ghani didn’t want to let them — certainly didn’t want to let that last 500 or so go. But the Americans kept telling him, “If you’ll just do this, let all 5,000 on the Taliban list go, then those negotiations, those peace negotiations that we’re all here to advance, they really will begin, and there will be a reduction of violence, maybe even a full ceasefire.”

Well, you know, the Afghan people have been suffering from continual war. As you pointed out, they’re taking more than 10,000 civilian and military and police casualties every year. Those are killed in action, not just wounded. You know, so suffering. And here’s this promise: If you’ll just release these 5,000, we’ll get those peace negotiations going, and a reduction in violence will follow.

So, Ashraf Ghani finally capitulated. He released all 5,000, using a traditional assembly to endorse the decision. And what happened? There was no reduction in violence. The talks sort of began in that a delegation arrived to negotiate, but nothing happened. The Taliban refused to negotiate about anything. And they just sat there for months doing nothing. And meanwhile, the war intensified. The violence got worse.

So, you know, people blame the Afghans for their contributions to this disaster. And we all know that this Islamic Republic government was deeply flawed in many respects. But when you look at the pressure that the United States put on its junior partner, its supposed ally, to undertake this prisoner release, on the basis of promises that turned out to be completely false, you know, it’s hard not to sympathize with the anger that Afghans feel about that episode.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to talk about the humanitarian crisis in a minute. Steve Coll, we want to thank you for being with us, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, also dean of the Colombia Journalism School. We’ll link to your new piece with Adam Entous headlined “The Secret History of the U.S. Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan.” Steve Coll is author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 and, most recently, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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