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Sarah Chayes: Afghanistan Was an “Afterthought” for U.S. as Bush Was “Hellbent” on Invading Iraq

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As the U.S. proceeds with evacuating people from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover of the country, we speak with author and former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes, who covered the fall of the Taliban in 2001, then lived in Kandahar until 2009, where she ran a soap factory, and went on to become a special adviser to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mike Mullen in Kabul. She says it was apparent shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that the country was an “afterthought” for the Bush administration, which was “hellbent” on invading Iraq. “Well into 2002, there was basically no one home at the U.S. Embassy,” says Chayes. “It wasn’t until later that I realized that by early 2002, personnel were all pivoting already to Iraq.”

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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. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue our coverage of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the desperate efforts by many Afghans to flee Taliban rule.

We’re joined now by author and former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes. She covered the fall of the Taliban in 2001. She went on to live in Kandahar, Afghanistan, from 2002 to 2009, where she ran a soap factory there. She also worked for two commanders of the international forces in Kabul. She served as special adviser for Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from 2009 to 2011, under the Obama administration. Her most recent book, On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake.

Sarah Chayes, welcome to Democracy Now! Thank you for joining us from Paris. Can you respond to what’s unfolding in Afghanistan right now, what you think it’s most important for people to understand?

SARAH CHAYES: Well, the shock and shame of it, I don’t think I need to really elaborate on that. And when I hear people saying, “Oh, it was going to be messy,” I just think, “Wow! Messy, hmm,” and then to say that it matters not just what you decide, but how you do what you’ve decided to do. And that goes both for how the United States chose to engage in Afghanistan, going all the way back to two thousand and, let’s say, two, and to how the Biden administration has handled its decision for a pretty arbitrary total withdrawal at the current moment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sarah, you mentioned the way that the U.S. initially — you know, following right after the invasion in October 2001, the way that the U.S. conducted itself there. And also, if you could elaborate on the fact that the U.S. reportedly turned down possible negotiations with the Taliban, who at the time were, of course, wholly defeated and were seeking amnesty? Why did the U.S. decline? And what do you think the effects of that were?

SARAH CHAYES: I have no personal corroboration of that information, so I really can’t discuss it, because I honestly do not know that that was in fact true, and so I really would rather not speculate.

But what I would say is that, number one, the United States never really — sorry, the United States government at the time was not at all interested in Afghanistan. It was an afterthought. The Bush administration was hellbent to invade Iraq. And it was really only because there was absolutely no intelligence connecting the 9/11 terrorist attack to Iraq that sort of forced the administration to, almost reluctantly, conduct the operation that it did in Afghanistan.

And I was on the ground, you know, starting about — I was in Kandahar maybe a day or two after the city fell, meaning the Taliban regime at the time fell. And well into 2002, there was basically no one home at the U.S. Embassy. There just was nobody there. People would rotate in on two-week deployments. No one spoke a local language. We couldn’t figure out what was going on. And it wasn’t until later that I realized that, by early 2002, personnel were all pivoting already to Iraq. So, I think that’s the first thing you have to understand.

And secondly, that, therefore, the U.S. personnel that it was — that Afghanistan matters were largely left to were members of the CIA. And they had a history in the region which really involved a very close partnership with the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI. And what I came to understand is that the Taliban did not emerge spontaneously in Kandahar, as we often hear. And this is work that I did over the course of years, interviewing both ordinary people who lived in Kandahar and lived across the border in Quetta, Pakistan, as well as some of the main actors in that drama, who became friends of mine. The Taliban were concocted across the border by the Pakistani military intelligence agency and sent across the border. There was a negotiation process — and we’re talking 1994 now, 1993 and 1994 — with the local mujahideen commanders. And that process was, in fact, led by none other than Hamid Karzai. So, when I learned that in the early 2000s, I was pretty gobsmacked, because I realized that sort of the individual that the United States government had chosen to lead a post-Taliban Afghanistan was the very person who had brought the Taliban into Afghanistan in the first place and who had served as their ambassador-designate to the United Nations, as late as 1996.

And so, I would — you know, I would just raise some questions with what Obaidullah was telling you, because his family retained very close links with the Pakistani military intelligence agency throughout. And I found myself almost smiling when he said, “How do I reconcile the two me’s? And maybe that’s a way that Afghanistan can reconcile its own internal divisions.” And I want to say, “Boy, I’m sorry, but that’s called being a double agent.” And I really think that that family, in particular now — I can’t speak to him, because I don’t know him personally, but the family right now is playing precisely the role that he was playing on your air, which is to present a kind of moderate and acceptable facade in order to get the international community to reengage and open the money spigots once again.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: If you could just clarify, what do you think the alternative is? What do you think the international community should be doing?

SARAH CHAYES: Reserving judgment. And I certainly do agree that the money spigot is the only leverage that the international community has left. But I also think that the role of the Pakistani military government in all of this really needs to be taken into account. And it’s one of — I mean, I have, and have had, a number of very consistent criticisms of the way the United States has handled this from the start, the first being this absolutely inexplicable, I want to say, persistent relationship with Pakistan, when the Pakistani government, as I say, organized the Taliban in the first place, organized the Taliban resurgence, harbored Osama bin Laden, and, you know, in the midst of all this, provided nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea. I mean, it’s just difficult to quite understand why that country continues to be considered an ally.

And then, secondly, of course, was the behavior of those Afghan leaders that we, the United States, kind of put forward toward their own citizens, and the role of U.S. officials and U.S. development organizations in reinforcing and protecting and enabling, I mean, just an unbelievably corrupt and abusive governmental system, so that, you know, my Afghan friends, who were not in university — they were ordinary villagers in and around Kandahar — they just didn’t know what to make of it. It was like, “Look, the Taliban shake us down at night, but the government shakes us down in the daytime.” And so, I would say that, in my experience, even among very conservative Kandaharis, it was not so much an ideological issue. It was not so much that the United States was an invading country, at least certainly not in the first years. My neighbors were saying, you know, that they were sick of being abused by their own government, and they were sick of the international or Western role in propping up that government, and they wanted a government that was acting in their interests. And that was where their frustration with the Western engagement came from.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sarah, you worked for Admiral Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Obama. I watched you debate a member of the Obama administration. You’re very critical of Obama, and what should have happened at that time. Can you elaborate on this and what you think needs to happen now, as well? I mean, of course, Biden was part of the Obama administration: He was vice president.

SARAH CHAYES: That’s right. And so, I have — I’m just a little bit distressed when the Biden team makes out that their involvement with this began sort of now. These are the same people who really were involved in the decisions not to address, as I said, either of the questions that matter, which were Afghan government corruption, and our role enabling it, and the behavior of the government of Pakistan.

And I was in those interagency debates, and I was doing whatever I could to try to change the vector there, try to change the orientation. Admiral Mullen very quickly came around on the issue of corruption, and he was making that argument in the Cabinet. But he’s the guy with a uniform on, right? The problem is, he doesn’t own the agencies that could have addressed the problem. That was the State Department, which was, at the time, of course, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and in particular, on her staff, Mr. Sullivan, who is now, you know, the national security adviser.

To be fair, Vice President Biden, of the whole senior leadership of the Obama administration, was the one who really raised the issue of corruption very early. I guess I would just say, once again, that it doesn’t just matter what you do; it matters how you do it. And I fear that President Biden has kind of constantly had a sort of on/off-switch approach to Afghanistan: It’s all or nothing. And I just think that situations like this require a much more tailored engagement. You know, again, let’s just remember, there were two wars going on, and there was an economic meltdown that was about to sort of crater the world economy. One country and one presidential administration cannot handle that many complex problems. And the result makes that clear.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being on, and we’re going to ask you to come back soon. We hope you’ll agree. Sarah Chayes covered the fall of the Taliban 20 years ago as an NPR reporter, went on to run a soap factory in Kandahar for years, later became a special adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Admiral Mike Mullen. Her latest book, On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake.

Next up, we go to Greece to speak with the former British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, one of the leading critics of the Afghan War from the beginning in Britain. Stay with us.

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“An Inquiry Needs to Take Place”: Jeremy Corbyn on Afghanistan & Preventing the Next War

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