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Transcript: “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War” with Ryan Crocker, Lt. General Douglas Lute & Craig Whitlock

MR. IGNATIUS: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m David Ignatius, a columnist for The Post. America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan ended last night with the last American C-17 leaving Kabul Airport at 11:59. This is a painful story and one that we’ll be struggling to understand for decades. But here with us today are three special experts to help us make a first assessment of what happened in Afghanistan, what went wrong, and why.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker has been the U.S. ambassador to six different countries, including Afghanistan. He and I first met in Lebanon 40 years ago. Douglas Lute is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former U.S. ambassador to NATO who helped lead President Bush's and Obama's coordination of the war in Afghanistan. And my colleague Craig Whitlock is a prize-winning investigative reporter here at The Post, who has authored this Washington Post book, "The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War." Gentlemen, welcome to Washington Post Live. Thank you for coming to join us today.

Before we get into the details of our look backward on lessons learned, I want to ask each of you briefly in a minute to take the measure of where we are today and to describe your own personal feelings as you watched the video of that last plane leaving, of our last commander in Afghanistan boarding the plane in eerie green-yellow night vision. Ambassador Crocker, let me ask you to start.

MR. CROCKER: David, for me it was a sense of deep relief. I hadn't realized until the suicide attack that our Marines and soldiers were the first line of screening. There was nobody out there in front of them screening anybody. So to see that last plane lift off, that was a moment of relief. We're all scarred by our own histories. And mine, as you know, Beirut in the early '80s, the time of the embassy and the Marine bombing, I was just glad to see them get out without any more losses.

The indelible image for me, though, wasn't that flight. It was the 16th of August, the fall of Kabul, when we saw another C-17 mobbed by desperate Afghans clinging to the fuselages as it taxied and then we saw the horror of several individuals who managed to get up in the wheel wells, I guess, falling off the undercarriage to their deaths. That one--that one's going to stay with me for quite a while.

MR. IGNATIUS: Ambassador Lute, let me ask you the same question. Just give us a sense of your own personal feelings, having been involved in this war so long, as you saw it end last night.

LT. GEN. LUTE: So, David, my first response, my first reaction is much like Ryan's. It's a relief. We can imagine the commander of the 82nd Airborne aboard that last C-17. His final walk towards the C-17 I think will become an iconic image of the last American to get on the plane. But imagine the relief of those soldiers after being for two weeks in such a vulnerable position in literally an island surrounded by uncertainty, surrounded by the potential attack from the Islamic State branch in Afghanistan, and surrounded by the human desperation and the chaos that they found when they first got there. I think that we can be proud, if not obviously of the whole 20-year venture in Afghanistan, we can be proud and should be proud of what we delivered in these last several weeks. So a sense of relief, but also looking forward, a sense of uncertainty, of anxiety. What's the next chapter hold? And this is largely yet to be written, but there's a significant cause for concern.

MR. IGNATIUS: And, Craig, finally, let me ask you, you've spent an enormous effort trying to uncover the truth about this war. You've talked to many people who as they look backwards are angry. I'm curious what your feelings as a journalist were as you watched these same images that Ambassador Crocker and Lute have described.

MR. WHITLOCK: Well, certainly relief. I agree with that. You know, I think despite this tragic loss of life by U.S. servicemembers last week and Afghans as well, ever since the Taliban came into Kabul, this was just such a fraught and risky evacuation operation. You know, we're just so fortunate there wasn't any sort of open warfare in Kabul over the last few weeks, that there wasn't more bombings by Islamic State. You know, there were so many things that could have gone wrong, and it is remarkable what the military was able to accomplish with the evacuation mission.

The other feeling I had in seeing U.S. troops leave and the Taliban enter the airport in Kabul was why were we fighting the Taliban for the last 20 years? The original purpose of the war was to go after al-Qaeda. That was largely accomplished within the first few months to eliminate their presence in Afghanistan. And I think this is something we wrestled with over the last few decades but never really clearly answered is why were we fighting this war against the Taliban and other insurgents for the last 20 years. Were they the enemy? If so, why? There were other points in the war where U.S. officials said the Taliban wasn't the enemy. And in recent weeks, we were actually cooperating with them on some level. So, you know, this really gets to the question of who was the enemy and why were we fighting as long as we did.

MR. IGNATIUS: Craig, that's a good point to turn now to your book, The Afghanistan Papers. The title obviously is evocative of the Pentagon Papers, which helped us to see the truths that had been hidden in the story of that war. You write in your book, "U.S. officials had no need to lie or spin to justify the war. Yet, leaders at the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department soon began to make false assurances and to paper over setbacks on the battlefield as the months and years passed, the dissembling became more entrenched. Tell us about how you think that culture of--your description--misrepresentation, dissembling developed and who we should see as responsible for that.

MR. WHITLOCK: Yeah, and I don't say that lightly. I think one reason for it is, this was a war that the American people have overwhelmingly supported at the start. It was a war of self-defense because of the September 11th attacks. It was seen as a just cause. The Bush administration really had a lot of popular goodwill for its operations in Afghanistan. And I think one--in the first six months it appeared that the United States had won this war. Al-Qaeda was--its leaders were killed, captured, or had fled Afghanistan. The Taliban was removed from power.

And I think though starting in 2002 when, you know, things started to drift, we shifted our focus to Iraq. But from that point on, whenever there were setbacks or things started to go downhill, there was a real reluctance to admit this honestly in public, because, you know, what American president or senior officials want to admit that they're slowly losing a war that Americans once thought they had won and that was a just cause? But we see this really from the beginning.

We--in April of 2002, President Bush gave a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, and he reassured the audience that the United States would not get stuck in Afghanistan. It would not be a quagmire like Vietnam. And Bush specifically cited lessons learned from the British experience in Afghanistan and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. He said, you know, we're not going to let that happen where we get stuck and founder around for year after year in this unwinnable war. On that very same day, Donald Rumsfeld, his defense secretary, wrote a memo to several top aides and generals in which he was very worried that the U.S. wouldn't get out of Afghanistan. He said we need a plan to stabilize Afghanistan. Otherwise, we're never going to be able to withdraw U.S. troops. And he ended this memo with a single word. It said: "Help!" And from that point forward, you can point to example after example where Bush administration officials, Obama administration officials, and Trump administration officials would often say one thing in public, reassuring the public that we would win this war, that we were making progress, and yet in private there's contemporaneous documents or interviews which show that they believe the complete opposite.

MR. IGNATIUS: Ambassador Lute, you were the White House Afghanistan coordinator for both Presidents Bush and Obama. You've praised Craig's book in what I've seen. But I gather that you take exception to the idea that this was a willful deception on the part of leaders both in the White House and in the military. Maybe you could speak to that question, of the difference between willful deception and overly optimistic expectations.

LT. GEN. LUTE: Right. We do part ways on this point, David. My sense is that if public pronouncements were anything, they were perhaps overly ambitious, overly optimistic. They were also, however, I think founded on--at least outside the White House--founded on another short-term view of progress, a short-term assessment. This goes back to the fact that even our diplomatic leaders but our intelligence leaders and our military officials on the ground tended to have very short-term perspectives, roughly about a year or so. Now there are exceptions. Ryan Crocker was there as ambassador for longer than a year and on more than one occasion. But overall, I think we've had a relatively myopic view of the fight. And you know, we tend to put people in very difficult situations like Afghanistan, who have a can-do, optimistic, break down every door approach in order to get very difficult things done. So by nature, they tend to be optimists.

MR. IGNATIUS: Ambassador Crocker, I can remember being with you in Kabul when one of those can-do generals, General David Petraeus, was trying to think how this war could be won, new strategies, new commitments. I want to ask you as such an experienced ambassador whether you had along the way concerns that this just wasn't going to work. And I know from reading your commentary that Craig collected for the book that you did. And what, as an ambassador, as part of this government, this effort to win the war, you did with those concerns? How did you express them and share them with others?

MR. CROCKER: Well, first, I would take issue with the terms that we keep repeating here--win, victory. I think if you go back over my public comments, you're not going to see a lot of that from me. You know, we really haven't been in the business of winning wars since World War II. We don't have that total war capability anymore. We have the capability but we're certainly not going to use it.

So for me, Afghanistan was a national security threat that had to be managed. And the critical nexus, of course, was the Taliban and its links to al-Qaeda. They went into exile rather than accept our ultimatum from 2001 that said hand over al-Qaeda and we'll leave you alone. Now they chose exile over that. And for me, that's why we were there, and that is why we were taking on the Taliban. If the Taliban came back, we would have every reason to believe that al-Qaeda would come back with them. And again, the chilling news of the last several days, we've now heard from al-Qaeda's chief of security for Osama bin Laden a hero's welcome in Nangarhar. So the band's getting back together. And I fear--I fear that this is going to be a problem for our children and our grandchildren.

MR. IGNATIUS: Craig, your research for this book showed a consistent pattern of predictions and hopes that turned out to be unrealistic. Your key source material was the government's own effort internally to look at lessons learned from this story. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that effort, how you were able to obtain it, and why it is that the government's own conclusions didn't seem to be taken into the policy process adequately and to frame what we were doing going forward.

MR. WHITLOCK: Yeah, so the core documents that we relied on for the book were interviews conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan. It's an agency chartered by Congress to investigate fraud, waste, and abuse in Afghanistan. And they started what they called the "Lessons Learned" program around 2015 when people fought the war was winding down at that time during the latter part of the Obama administration. The Inspector General's staff was going to compile public reports about things like corruption in Afghanistan, building the Afghan Army, strategy, and things like this. So they interviewed more than 400 people who had played a role in the war from White House staff to generals, mid-level officers, aid workers, you name it.

And I would like to compliment in particular Ambassador Crocker and General Lute, because they both gave lengthy interviews to the Inspector General and were both very frank. And I made great use of their forthright comments in my book. In fact, I still remember reading the transcript of Ambassador Crocker's interview with the Inspector General, where the staffers asked him do you want this to be on the record, and he said, "Well, of course. What would be the point of doing a Lessons Learned program if the interviews weren't on the record?"

Unfortunately, the Inspector General got cold feet over this. When we asked to see the interview notes and transcripts that they had compiled with these hundreds of people--because we wanted to know what they had said--the inspector general refused. And we--The Washington Post had to take them to court twice with federal lawsuits under the Freedom Information Act, and it took us three years to obtain these notes and transcripts. But what they showed, really, was examples--were the interviews with General Lute and Ambassador Crocker. They were extremely frank and forthright about a lot of mistakes that were made. They didn't hold back. And these comments really help enlighten what went wrong in Afghanistan.

You know, I do wish other individuals involved in this project had spoken on the record with their names attached like they had, because I think then the public would have a better idea of what went wrong, and we could really have a better public debate and understanding of what happened over the last 20 years. There's still a real reluctance on the part of people who--other people who were involved in the war to sort of grapple with the mistakes made and who's responsible and whether things could have turned out differently.

MR. CROCKER: Let me jump in on that. I think that's a critical point. I would hope that one of the lessons learned of the Afghanistan issue is that we need a--maybe a bifurcated system for lessons learned, where the Inspector General would offer, indeed encourage on-the-record interviews and then follow through to be sure they were on the record, but also for younger, more junior personnel who could really fear retribution, to give them the option of doing it on a more confidential basis. But getting this--if it's on the record, it's on the record. And I would hope we could carry that lesson forward.

MR. IGNATIUS: Ambassador Lute, in the interviews that Craig just mentioned that you did with this Lessons Learned project, you were quoted at one point as saying, "We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan. We didn't know what we were doing." And I remember conversations with you back in 2009 at the time that President Obama was debating whether to add additional forces in Afghanistan, and your skepticism at that time about whether we would be able to achieve the kinds of goals the military was talking about. It's now well known that back then one of the few people who was arguing for more a more limited mission than the one that President Obama chose was his vice president, Joe Biden, who saw this as a counterterrorism mission, not a broader counterinsurgency. I want to ask you as you look backward, knowing the principles and this history as few people do, was then-Vice President Biden right at the time in the way he made his assessment?

LT. GEN. LUTE: David, what I was referring to with regard to we didn't know what we were doing, went on, in [audio distortion] to describe the underlying conditions in Afghanistan, sort of the preexisting conditions, the poverty, the landlocked geography, very difficult regional neighborhood, endemic corruption, the deep, fractious divides inside the body politic, which made, in my view, Afghanistan not a good candidate for state building and the counterinsurgency method that we were applying to state building. I think that many of those underlying conditions also were the foundation for then-Vice President Biden's and now President Biden's skepticism about the state building project.

MR. IGNATIUS: I want to ask Ambassador Crocker about the issue that Ambassador Lute just raised about our ability to achieve goals in this--in this very different country. Presidents never like to describe Afghanistan as nation building, but the counterinsurgency strategy that we adopted, the provincial reconstruction teams across the country, the projects to build roads and schools and make a more modern Afghanistan, had that effect. As you look at American foreign policy and that strain that we see in so many instances--Iraq, Afghanistan are the most recent--do you think we have to get out of the nation building idea entirely, or is that appropriately part of what America should do abroad?

MR. CROCKER: Well, look, rather than--rather than think about nation building or not, let's talk about ends and ways and means. Why are you in a given country? Again, for me it was clear in 2002 when I opened the embassy, it was clear a decade later when I was there as an ambassador that our purpose in that country was to ensure no 9/11 ever came to us again from Afghans as well.

On my first stint there six months after 9/11, March 11, 2002, we dedicated the interment of a piece of the World Trade Center at the base of the embassy flagpole, never again. So that's the easy part. Then you talk about what are the means to that end. And I was part of those early discussions in early '02. Education, particularly female education. Then Senator Biden was my first congressional visitor. I took him to a girls' school, first grade class. Little girls age 6, not so little girls age 12, because the 12-year-olds had turned school age when the Taliban took over the country and shut all of that down. We talked about not nation building but looking back to the history of Afghanistan economically and how it was an agrarian state, and I had those conversations with the USAID director Andrew Natsios. Yeah, that's great. But if you're going to have a cash crop system, you've got to have a means of reaching markets. That means roads. If you're going to build roads, you've got to maintain them. So you've got to have an operational budget, as well as a construction budget, and so forth. So again, I don't think it's the right debate to nation build or not to nation build. The right debate is why are we wherever it is we are, what is our goal, how then best to achieve it.

LT. GEN. LUTE: You know, David, if I could [audio distortion] on this point.

MR. IGNATIUS: Sure.

LT. GEN. LUTE: If the goal is security of the homeland, then it seems to me we have profited. We've taken advantage of the last 20 years. I mean, we have counterterrorism capabilities today that had no parallel on September 12th, 2001. We can literally strike anywhere in the world nearly overnight with precision based on a global network of counterterrorism partners. Our homeland is a much harder counterterrorism target today than it was on September 11th. So we've, I think, taken advantage. While we did not create or build the Afghan state that we at times in the last 20 years imagined--to Ryan's point, setting very high goals for ourselves, the ends--what we did accomplish fundamentally was secure the homeland.

MR. IGNATIUS: That's a powerful summary of the positive achievements of this period, and thank you for that.

Craig, you have a quote in your book from a USAID worker talking about all these projects that we embarked on. This USAID person said that 90 percent of what the U.S. spent on Afghanistan during his time there was overkill. I want to ask about the question of oversight. We were spending a lot of money. We usually added up over a trillion dollars. What was the oversight of that spending like? And what's the lesson for the future on that issue of making sure we're spending money sensibly and not wasting it?

MR. WHITLOCK: Right. Well, so that quote came from a USAID person who was there during the surge time during the Obama administration when we sent 100,000 troops to Afghanistan, and there was also intended to be a surge in capacity for building schools, clinics, roads, things like this. There was another interview with someone, an aid worker who said--recalled a visiting congressman on a delegation coming in, and he was actually blaming Congress for this pressure to spend, spend, spend to build up Afghanistan very quickly. And this aid worker complained to the member of Congress that, Congressman, you expect me--you expect me to spend $3 million a day in this Afghan district. This is a place where people live in mud huts with no windows. How can I possibly do this? You know, we were--we were spending too much because there was a rush to get results within a couple years' time before the Obama administration could start drawing down troops.

You know, the best description of this, actually, I think came from General Lute's Lessons Learned interview. And I'm paraphrasing here, but he said, you know, we're a rich country. Sometimes we can--you know, we can spend an enormous amount, but do we really have to break the bank here? What were we really trying to accomplish? That we were just kind of throwing money at the problem in an attempt to fix things at a very rapid timeframe. And what's what I think largely happened when Obama was president. The irony with nation building is this phrase kind of has a pejorative meaning and both Bush and Obama and also President Trump, they all promised in public that--they said we're not nation building in Afghanistan, even though each of them knew to differing degrees that in fact we were trying to build up the Afghan state and Afghan institutions, Afghan Army. That's exactly what we were doing. So politically, I think this became a hard sell to the American people that we were engaged in this quote-unquote nation-building campaign, even though, as Ambassador Crocker said, you know, to some degree that was necessary.

MR. IGNATIUS: Ambassador Crocker, I want to go back to another of the comments you made in your Lessons Learned interview that struck me as I read the transcript. You say at one point the ultimate point of failure for our efforts wasn't an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption. Corruption has been a part of Afghan society for centuries, but we were pouring, opening a spigot of money that enabled it on a scale that Afghanistan had never known. Talk a little bit about that issue of corruption, both as you encountered it when you first were there as chargé in 2002 and then later as ambassador in 2011-2012.

MR. CROCKER: The issue of corruption, of course, is huge, and it's not limited to Afghanistan. The same problem in Iraq, arguably a lot bigger, because there was a lot more money and resources out there to be corrupt with. This was a very contentious issue with Karzai. When I would talk to him about particularly egregious scandals like Kabul Bank, his response would be, well, look, you're the ones who poured the gasoline on those embers, sending in, you know, millions and millions of dollars in security and economic assistance without proper controls. And I think this is really crucial because it's going to happen any time we do anything like an Iraq or an Afghanistan. And however horrific the thought to all of us, we will do something like that again. We have got to be cognizant that without stable and respected institutions, without respected rule of law, with very uncertain prospects for the future, you are guaranteed to get corruption. So it is not that a few bad people grabbed some sacks of money. It's that, inadvertently, the flow of assistance into an uncontrolled climate, if you will--again, no institutions and so forth--that is what you're going to get.

MR. IGNATIUS: Ambassador Lute, you're a former 3-star general. You know the military as well as anybody. I want to ask you a couple of questions about military command and how it worked. You made an interesting comment that perhaps that shorter tours of duty--a year, typically, sometimes more, but a year was often the tour that ISAF commanders had in Kabul--they had been part of the problem, that you have new people coming in having to reinvent the wheel, announce a new strategy, et cetera, et cetera. I want to ask you about that. And then I'd also ask you for your assessment of the military advice that our military leadership has given in this last period after President Biden decided he wanted out. There's been some criticism of the military that they shouldn't have exceeded pulling out of Bagram, that that's a mistake that's really on them. I'd be interested in your judgment about both aspects of this.

LT. GEN. LUTE: Well, David, the second part of that is easier, because I simply don't know. I don't know what the deciding advice was as they sat at the big table in the largest conference room in the Situation Room. It's hard for me to imagine, however, knowing Mark Milley and Lloyd Austin--Lloyd Austin's a West Point classmate of mine; I've known him for 50 years--that they didn't give unvarnished candid advice in the course of the policy deliberation. And I think I'll just leave that there.

With regard to the short-term tour lengths and its contribution to the outcome, look, it seemed to me, having watched this consistently for more than 10 years, that even at that point, in my own personal education about Afghanistan, I was constantly learning things that were new and illuminating and should have been important to the policy debate. But I only learned them late in the game. So as I reflect on short tour lengths, we were often fighting this war with the sort of 101 level understanding of the problem, when what we needed were graduate degrees in the problem. And it's that sort of absence of deep understanding that I think is one of the things that we should take away from this Lessons Learned project.

MR. IGNATIUS: Craig, I want to ask you a question that doesn't come up in your book, but I think it's one that we all need to examine, and that's how you think Congress and the press--the two ways that we try to hold policymakers accountable for their actions--did over the long 20-year course of this--of this war. Give us briefly your thoughts about how the stewards of accountability fared.

MR. WHITLOCK: You know, that's a very good question, David. I think on both counts, both institutions could and should have done better. But Congress, without a doubt, their attention span to what was going on in Afghanistan tended to be very sporadic. At the very beginning of course, they were paying close attention, although at that point the war seemed to be going well in 2001, 2002. But immediately after that, all this attention shifted to Iraq and remained there really till President Obama took office, and now it's a couple of new strategy reviews in Afghanistan. And then people started paying attention again, lawmakers did in Afghanistan. There were lots of hearings held in the Senate and House about how the war was going from 2009 to 2011. A lot of commanding generals would come in. But once U.S. troops started to draw down in Afghanistan in 2012, from them on that attention from Congress really kind of dried up.

Certainly, you could say similar things about the news media and its coverage of Afghanistan. I will say, I don't want to knock reporters too much because, you know, you had so many reporters on the ground in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, many of whom at great risk were reporting what was going on there. You know, The Washington Post has had a bureau there all along. Other news organizations have too. Certainly, journalists got distracted by Iraq as well. I still remember when President Karzai met Donald Rumsfeld in Afghanistan, in Kabul, in May of 2003. Karzai and Rumsfeld had a press conference. And Karzai smiled when a number of reporters showed up and said, oh, you're still here. I thought all you international journalists had gone to Baghdad. So there were periods of time when we were still covering Afghanistan, but it certainly didn't get on the front page or didn't get on the evening broadcast as much as it should have at times when it needed the most scrutiny.

MR. IGNATIUS: I'll repeat here as moderator something that I've written, looking back at my own coverage of these nearly 20 years, often I think commentators in the press expressed skepticism about the broader goals, but we kept being, in effect, suspended in the bubbles of optimism of the commanders whose efforts we would report and their views about what we can achieve. You know, next month in Helmand, next month in Kandahar, kept being repeated, and we conveyed that hope to the public, sometimes without saying, wait a minute, this isn't working.

I want to ask Ambassador Crocker to look forward for a minute. You've served as few others have in the Middle East, the Arab world. You were quoted recently as saying you think the Taliban takeover in Kabul has emboldened violent Islamic radicals. And I want to ask you what your sense is about how threatening that could prove to be over the next several years. Would you expect people to see the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and then redouble their own efforts to restart jihadist campaigns in the countries where jihadist movements have been--have been turned back?

MR. CROCKER: Well, we're certainly going to find out. And I think the first test case is right next door in Pakistan. The Pakistanis had probably a couple of hours of high fiving it around the quarters of power in Islamabad and Rawalpindi because they had said all along--I was there as ambassador for three years--that were they hedging their bets by not turning the Taliban into their mortal enemy? Yeah, you bet they were. Because I remember what happened the last time we got tired and went home after the anti-Soviet jihad. We pulled out. We didn't have deployed troops, obviously, but major agency presence, and Pakistan was left with this horrendous Afghan civil war. So they could celebrate that. They got it right. And then I think they took a look around them, at what this narrative the Taliban now had of actively telling the world that we soldiers of God clad only in the armor of the one true faith have vanquished the heavily armed infidels.

Well, we've already seen stuff coming out now. The Pakistani Taliban, which aims at the overthrow of the Pakistani government, is talking real tough. Pakistan is going to have to worry about that. They're going to have to worry about the effect on the Kashmiri militants. Yes, they created it, but they've now lost control. And I think they're going to see in this period ahead some real threats to Pakistan's internal order and stability, already shaky. So unlike Vietnam, what happens in Afghanistan is not going to stay in Afghanistan, as we've seen. This is being portrayed as a huge victory for the--for Islamic militants, and that is transnational by definition. So we are--we are entering a brave new world, a very dangerous phase. And I'm afraid we're going to find out, you know what, the war isn't over.

MR. IGNATIUS: Ambassador Lute, I want to ask you to follow on Ambassador Crocker's comment about the perhaps resurgent threat in the aftermath of what will be seen by jihadist movements as victory. You've talked about how much we learned about counterterrorism. Do you think that the assets we have in place, in the case of Afghanistan, over the horizon in the case of Pakistan--our counterterrorism liaison is much less than it used to be--do you think that we're really in a position to fight what could be a resurgent movement adequately?

LT. GEN. LUTE: So I think this is a big question mark. The president of course has said we will have this over horizon capability. Over the last week, we've seen at least two examples of strikes which were obviously cued by precision intelligence inside Afghanistan, but the strike itself--the strike mechanism itself came from outside the country.

So we've sort of demonstrated this over the horizon potential twice. I suspect that we can sustain that. It will not be as good as a presence on the ground because of the inability or increased difficulty to [unclear] human intelligence targets and so forth, and the reduced response or the reduced ability to respond quickly over the horizon, really because of the physics, the geography--right?--flight times and so forth. The question will be, is it sufficient to continue to suppress terrorists who can strike us.

I do want to quickly add to that, though, David, Ryan's point and underline it. Look, the vital national interests in this region are really two. One was--and this dates almost all the way back through the 20-year history. One was the ability to safeguard the homeland, so to counter terrorists who could strike us. But the second was the stability of the Pakistani state, because now 200 million people, an existential conflict with its neighbor India, and about 200 nuclear weapons. So it's important here that we keep our eye on Pakistan, because what happens there is likely to have the most significant regional and global impacts.

MR. IGNATIUS: We have only two minutes left, and I want to ask Craig Whitlock, my colleague who's written this extraordinary book, if he would sum up in his own personal terms what he thinks the lessons learned are for him and should be for the country on this day where the war in Afghanistan is ended, finally, after 20 years. Craig, what are your lessons learned?

MR. WHITLOCK: Well, I think the lesson we haven't quite learned yet is what sort of counterterrorism strategy should we have. You know, here we talk about the threats emanating from Afghanistan, whether it's Islamic State, or al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or all these other foreign jihadis. But you know, a big part of the reason that Afghanistan became a magnet to so many of these fighters is because we had a presence there. They saw us as the foreign occupiers, the infidels who had come into Afghanistan, and their goal was to force us to leave, which they've now accomplished.

I don't want to minimize the continuing threats some of these groups pose to U.S. interests overseas or even to the United States back here. But it kind of feels in some ways like we're fighting the last war over and over again after September 11th. You know, that was something former Defense Secretary Bob Gates always used to say, that in America we're always guilty of focusing on the last war and not looking ahead to the new threats or to see how things change. I think in some ways after 2001, al-Qaeda moved on. They moved on to other countries. They metastasized. And there's clearly still a threat to U.S. national security from jihadist groups around the world. But I think the way in which we go about combatting that hasn't really been very productive, necessarily.

Maybe this is a good time for us to really think about those lessons and experiences from the last 20 years. And you know, what--how are we going to deal with these threats for the next generation? And it's just using military power or airstrikes or drone strikes? You know, that can be effective in the short term. But in the long term, it's questionable what it's really accomplishing.

MR. IGNATIUS: So we've come to the end of our 45 minutes. I just want to thank on behalf, I'm sure, of all of our viewers our three panelists--Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Ambassador Doug Lute, and my colleague Washington Post journalist Craig Whitlock--for an extraordinary discussion. These are three people who have thought deeply about this war and every aspect of it. I want to thank all three of you for joining us today and sharing insights on the day when we're thinking what did this mean and where do we go next. So for Washington Post Live, thank you for joining us.

To see what we’ve got coming up, please check out WashingtonPostLive.com. Register for our future programs. Thank you for joining us today for this special look at Afghanistan.

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