David Petraeus sharply criticized President Joe Biden’s decision to remove U.S. troops there, saying he worries that the “endless war” will only worsen.
“I’m really afraid that we’re going to look back two years from now and regret the decision,” said Petraeus, former commanding general of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan and former CIA director.
He spoke on a conference video call originally intended to promote a new book from retired admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the 2011 mission to find Osama bin Laden.
On the call, McRaven and other leaders of that mission, including then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, were split in their support for Biden’s decision to reposition U.S. troops to support counterterrorism missions from elsewhere in the region. But Petraeus delivered a sharper rebuke.
“I understand the frustrations very much that have led to the decision,” said Petraeus. “Nobody wants to see a war ended more than those who have actually fought it, and been privileged to command it and also write the letters of condolence home every night to America’s mothers and fathers. But I think we need to be really careful with our rhetoric, because ending U.S. involvement in an endless war doesn’t end the endless war. It just ends our involvement. And I fear that this war is going to get worse.”
Petraeus said he worries the Taliban will go on the offensive, ungoverned spaces will grow, and the terrorist organizations that use them will flourish. “I don’t see how you withdraw and maintain the capabilities that one would like to have there still.”
“Frankly, we’re also going to lose that platform that Afghanistan provides for the kind of regional counterterrorism campaign,” he said. “I’m really afraid that we’re going to look back two years from now and regret the decision and just wonder if whether we might not have sought to manage it with a modest, sustainable, sustained commitment that could have ensured that al Qaeda and the Islamic State would not re-establish sanctuaries from which they undoubtedly will try to figure out over time how to conduct operations that go after us, our allies, and our partners.”
McRaven said any decision incurs risks. He added that if the U.S. military is still tasked to respond to terrorism inside Afghanistan, he hopes the U.S. will retain the necessary capabilities in the country and the region.
“If you gave me the resources, I could figure out how to do this,” McRaven said, adding that he has spoken to key players close to the president about it.
“I will tell you from all my conversations with folks that are kind of in the inner circle, they have considered all of those problems,” he said. “All of the warts have been exposed to the president. He understands the risk that he’s taken.”
“Now, are we going to need some people on the ground? Yeah, we are,” he said. “We’re going to need at least some small footprint at a Bagram [Air Base]. We’re going to need a small footprint, obviously, in the capital. We’re going to need intelligence resources. I think the administration will figure out how to manage theat.”
Other Obama-era officials weighed in with support. James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, said, “I do have a lot of confidence in the growing capabilities that we have — that we didn’t have 10 or 20 years ago.”
“We are at a different level of capability” with intelligence and have “a lot of over-the-horizon” capability now, said Tom Donilon, former national security advisor. Meanwhile, the Taliban is not the same problem it once was, and if it grows anew, the U.S. can handle it, he said. “The Taliban is not an international threat to the United States.” And he noted that the White House is facing new global needs and changing priorities.
Petraeus warned that the pullout would create potentially destabilizing refugee flows.
“We are going to see an exodus out of this country of anybody who has an option to leave,” he said. And of those who lack that option? “I would not, certainly, want to be part of the 50 percent of Afghans that are female.”
Expect a new Taliban offensive and more extensive safe havens for other terror groups, he said.
“They are not international extremists, but they are going to enable or allow international extremists to reestablish bases in areas that they control. They have done that already. We’ve seen that repeatedly, and supposedly right now a double-digit number of provinces actually have an al Qaeda presence in areas that are controlled by the Taliban. So I’m pretty worried about this.”
Petraeus also said he felt Biden overestimated the public’s desire to leave. “It’s an unforced error,” he said, arguing that the public cares mostly about high battlefield casualties, of which there have been none in more than a year.
“It’s not just a phrase,” said Donilon. “Endless wars without specific goals in mind is not…healthy for the United States.”
“If we don’t get out now, we’ll never get out,” said Jane Harman, president emerita of the Wilson Center and former ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee. She said the country hates “this endless war thing” and that Biden’s decision does play well, in part because Congress, which is supposed to speak for the people, has been absent from the conversation. “We are taking the high ground.”
Said John Brennan, former CIA director: “I do think we are going to have some challenging times ahead…but I do think that Joe Biden, at the end of the day, felt that 20 years was enough.”
In a separate event with CQ Roll Call on Wednesday, former Afghanistan War commander Stanley McChrystal said that he spent a decade in or around Afghanistan and while its security remains important to the United States, he sounded resigned to the end of the war era.
“I won’t opine on President Biden’s decision, and in reality I don’t think we know if it’s a great decision or a bad one, and we won’t know for a while because I think it depends how things play out,” he said. He said that Americans should still know that “Afghanistan does matter” still to the United States for many reasons, including because of China’s Belt-and-Road initiative that seeks to expand Beijing’s influence in the region.
McChrystal, who was fired from his command by Obama in 2010, said he keeps mounted on wall an old British musket given to him in Afghanistan, leftover from “one of their failed efforts to control Afghanistan.” He pointed it out because, he said, “it’s possible for nations, to include our own, to have a certain amount of hubris on what we can and are willing to accomplish.”
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