Highlights of an FT subscriber webinar on Afghanistan
US managing editor Peter Spiegel moderates a debate with General David Petraeus, former CIA director, ex-governor of the Afghan central bank Ajmal Ahmady, the FT's Katrina Manson and Stephanie Findlay. For the full video visit ft.com/afghan-webinar
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The consensus opinion is that Americans don't vote on foreign policy. But the flip side is they like their presidents to be strong. And so the calculation in the White House is, on the domestic, on the political issue, is to what extent does this hit the president himself?
And I think that's one of the reasons you've seen him defend, very robustly, his decision, the reason he's taken it, as a personal decision. Every single time when you hear people brief they brief saying, and the president made this decision. This is his decision. He is owning it.
He doesn't own the consequences. I think that's very clear. They don't frame it that way. But he takes the decision of drawdown. And I think that is about asserting that very strong demeanour because that is what Americans care about when they actually go to the ballot box.
The reaction to what we have done has been really quite substantial. To hear Tom Tugendhat-, a friend of mine, by the way, a member of parliament in the UK... to hear his speech, to hear the minister of defence of the UK very directly criticising the United States, to hear other European leaders wonder whether they don't need to pursue policies on their own.
And, of course, the reality is that they cannot. The reality is that if the US left they had to leave because we were the foundation of the effort to support the Afghan security forces, in this case against the Taliban. And without that they could see that insecurity was going to grow very, very substantially.
So what do we do going forward? I mean, our credibility, really our... this has taken a hit. Our reputation has been bruised by this. I think we have to, you know, the process of rebuilding that has to begin with an acknowledgment that you should listen to what they have said publicly and take that very seriously.
And so, clearly, again, this administration rightly has sought to work with our allies and partners in every which way, with this exception, and it is a very substantial one. Keep in mind that the most important policy of this administration, which I strongly support, is to achieve a coherent, comprehensive whole of governments, with an s on the end of that. All governments, all allied partners together in the relationship with China, which clearly is the most important relationship in the world.
And again, they're very much right about that. They've gone about it very, very skillfully, engaging in East Asia, engaging the G7, the EU, Nato, all of them, with summits and so forth, but focusing, really, on the relationship with China. And this is, again, an aberration in that regard, but one that our European partners have taken very seriously.
You can take a look. And one of the criticisms is that the Afghan leadership wasn't cohesive politically. And so on that front. I think you can criticise that. I think Karzai, some would say, tried to undermine Ghani, even though he was the previous president.
There were some rumours that both the Taliban... or he thought that the Taliban would make him an interim leader. There were some rumours that Khalilzad supported this view or encouraged him to have this view. And I think now... and you could say the same about Abdullah Abdullah, that he tried to undermine the president.
And so now I think both of them are facing the harsh reality that, no, the Taliban did not want them in the government. You see the pictures. I think Karzai was reputed to have forced to leave his house and is now with Abdullah Abdullah.
And I think, yes, the leadership should have come around. I think that's a fair criticism. I think, secondly, I think it was unfair to criticise the Afghan military. The Afghan military has lost 66,000 troops over the past 20 years. That's multiple multiples higher than the international community.
You can... there was an op-ed just published this morning by Mr Sadat in The New York Times, who was a commander of the 215 Corps in Lashkargah. They fought heavy battles and suffered severe losses there. And so I think that's an unfair model, unfair criticism there.
What it was was a political loss, right? There was a loss of political support, both domestically and internationally, that I think caused them to not put up a greater fight.
And then the third criticism is on corruption. And you see this a lot here. Was there corruption in the Afghan government? Absolutely, there was. But I think it's somewhat now this criticism is being used to justify the collapse of the Afghan government. If corruption caused the downfall of governments half the governments around the world would be collapsing at this current time.
Including Louisiana I think, yeah, yeah.
...bringing our backs. And we'd like to put the pressure on the Afghan government. I think... so I think those are the key issues.
And I think I'll highlight something from the central bank, just to give you an idea of what we were trying to do. The central bank, just this year, connected to all 12 domestic banks and all telecom operators digitally, so that now electronic transfers of funds can be sent. So one person could send money from any bank account to any mobile money.
So these are the type of reforms that we were trying. Yes, there was corruption, but that's not to say it was wholesale, blanket corruption where everyone was involved. We were trying to make reforms. There were issues with that, as you have in many countries.
At the same time, and I think Mr Sadat outlined this as well, a lot of people are critical of the peace deal, the Doha peace deal. It removed the Afghan government from the process. It delegitimised them. There is always this statement from Khalizad that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. Well, we found out that's not true. There are four points that should have been agreed to.
And there was always these rumours that there was a personal rivalry between these two persons who had gone to college together. And so, you know, how much of that is true? But these are the type of rumours that go around.
And then when you have the Biden decision to withdraw and take away the helicopter defence system, the real-time intelligence, et cetera, then it plays into this narrative that, yes, there's an agreement that it's through the Afghan government. There was a decision to remove these capabilities. I believe the Afghan defence forces were asked to stand on active defence, not on offensive capabilities, for quite a significant amount of time.
So this plays into the narrative in, I believe, the Ministry of Defence, the soldiers, the Army, that, well, there's something happening here and they want us. This narrative that they're leaving us and they've actually planned for this takeover.
And, you know, I think the most damning analogy that I've read somewhere is that there was a criticism that the Afghan handover from the government to the Taliban went smoother than the US transition. And so there's this kind of narrative that goes around. And I think it's going to play into people's hands for years, years to come.