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Former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO Describes Military Events In Kabul

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now from a military perspective on the quick turn of events here, we are going to hear from James Stavridis, formerly NATO's supreme allied commander. Welcome to the program.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: Good to be with you on such a tragic day.

CORNISH: You've said in recent days that you are surprised at how the Afghan military has performed in the last couple of days. You said that you, quote, that you had "equipped them with everything they could need" and that there was financial support, equipment and things like that. What do you think happened?

STAVRIDIS: Two things - we underestimated the leadership and the will of the Taliban. You know, the enemy gets a vote in war. And they've been clever. They've been relentless. And they have performed well in combat. Conversely, what we see on the other side is you can buy all the equipment in the world. but you can't purchase leadership or political will or, in particular, battlefield will. And therefore, we see this ghosting of the Afghan army. It's quite heartbreaking.

CORNISH: But can we follow up with the training - right? - which was supposed to come from NATO and come from the U.S.? Where did NATO fail in building up this army?

STAVRIDIS: We failed, I believe, in - and this is in retrospect now - in not creating an Afghan force that looks more like the Taliban. And what I mean by that is lighter, faster, not reliant on the exquisite technology, not reliant on endless air power, quick to move, well-lrf internally. Instead, we created kind of a mini-me army, U.S. Army version. And when we pulled out, the support to it collapsed. And I think that contributed to our challenges. So we failed in our mission.

CORNISH: To that point, we've heard the White House say repeatedly that, on paper, the Afghan has an army of 300,000. I know a 2017 Defense Department study found that there was a force of about 20,000 sort of highly trained commandos who are responsible for 80% of the fighting in the country. When you say we did a - when you say the U.S. and NATO did a mini version of its own armies, is part of that the problem, leaning on these kind of commando-style troops when you have a vast country to protect?

STAVRIDIS: I think that's a fair assessment. And personally, I would say the 300,000 number is too huge. And to say that there were only 20,000 effective fighters is too small. It's probably somewhere in the middle. But the point remains that it was a balanced force in comparison to what the Taliban had in numbers and vastly better-equipped. The difference came down to political will, battlefield, relentless operations.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

If you go with the assumption that this president, President Biden, had and President Trump before him, that eventually the U.S. just has to leave, that this is a 20-year war that needs to end, was this the right way to end it? Are there missteps that happened along the way that mean that the Taliban is at the backdoor?

STAVRIDIS: Yes. And first, to the premise that, hey, all wars have to end. You know, I'll just point out World War II ended a long time ago, and we have 50,000 troops in Europe. We have 35,000 troops in South Korea. We have 15,000 troops in Japan. So the idea that we don't keep troops over a very long period of time for stability is flawed.

Having said that, we wanted to get out of the business of combat operations. And I think the misstep both on the part of the Trump administration and on the Biden administration was simply moving too quickly, too abruptly to pull that last tranche of troops out. I'll close by saying, when I commanded the mission, we had 150,000 troops. That's way more than we needed, in my view. By the time Trump came into office, we were down to only 10,000 troops. Personally, I would have kept those there longer. I think that, in retrospect, will be part of the missteps that we see.

CORNISH: But what's your response to the argument that after 10, 15, 20 years, keeping people there indefinitely without true strategy, without a consistent plan, led the U.S. and led NATO to where this situation is today?

STAVRIDIS: I would argue that we were actually making progress with the Taliban for the first time toward the end of the Trump administration. We had them at the negotiating table. Why were they there? They were there because we still had strong capability in country. We were backing up the Afghan security forces. Once the Taliban saw that we were absolutely determined to leave on date certain, their calculus changed. And I think that led to the cascade of events here.

CORNISH: I want to come back to this point you made about willpower and the will of the Afghan army. Is that a fair assessment, given how that force has struggled for the last even, let's say, decade? And in recent weeks, we've been hearing about the Taliban shooting down Air Force planes, assassinating pilots.

STAVRIDIS: Again, the Taliban has operated very, very well. We underestimated them. And I think we overestimated the capabilities inherent and particularly the will in the Afghan security forces. I'll close by saying corruption played a significant part of this. We tried to create a national army. People weren't defending their home villages. All of these reasons together were part of our failure.

CORNISH: That's retired Admiral James Stavridis. Thank you for speaking with us.

STAVRIDIS: You bet, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.