PBS NewsHour


Bipartisan report urges Biden to commit to Afghanistan

One of the Biden administration's primary foreign policy challenges is how to end the United States' longest war. A new bipartisan report urges the administration to remain committed to Afghanistan and ongoing peace talks. Nick Schifrin reports.

AIRED: February 04, 2021 | 0:08:13

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the Biden administration's primary foreign policy challenges is how to

end the U.S.' longest war.

Nick Schifrin is back with a look at a new bipartisan report that urges the administration

to remain committed to Afghanistan and peace talks.

NICK SCHIFRIN: A thousand miles from peace talks, Kabul is haunted by despair and death,

by a campaign of assassinations, by violence aimed at stealing Afghanistan's future, like

this attack on Kabul University that killed dozens of students, including Ali.

His father shows a reporter his son's diplomas.

MOOSA, Father (through translator): I cannot see any benefits brought by the foreign troops.

Every day, there are suicide attacks, explosions, kidnappings, and robberies.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The country's on edge. Last December, residents in Eastern Afghanistan

ran after a roadside bomb explosion. The violence is unrelenting. The U.S. military says attacks

are up over last year.

Shraduffin Azmi is a psychologist.

SHRADUFFIN AZMI, Psychologist (through translator): Many of our loved ones, the youth, women,

men and children, are terrified. They feel they might die at any time.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Last February, there was some cautious hope. The Taliban and U.S. agreed

to fully withdraw American troops by May the 1st if the Taliban prevented al-Qaida from

harboring in Afghanistan and discussed a cease-fire with the Afghan government.

But, today, those talks are stalled, and, instead, Taliban leaders are on a diplomatic

blitz, including a visit to Tehran. The Biden administration acknowledges the Taliban haven't

attacked U.S. troops, but says the Taliban have not broken with al-Qaida.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby:

JOHN KIRBY, Pentagon Press Secretary: As long as they are not meeting their commitments,

it's going to be difficult for anybody at that negotiating table to meet their commitments.

In fact, it wouldn't be the wise course.

It is under discussion with our partners and allies to make the best decisions going forward.

NANCY LINDBORG, Former President, U.S. Institute of Peace: This is a new opportunity and a

new approach to more fully align our messages and our practices and our policies.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Nancy Lindborg is the former president and CEO of the United States Institute

of Peace. I spoke to her, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, and former chairman of the Joint

Chiefs General Joe Dunford about their new bipartisan report that recommended abandoning

the May 1 exit deadline, withdrawing only as conditions improve, and renewing diplomacy

with the region and the Taliban.

NANCY LINDBORG: As a part of our regional diplomacy, being very clear of our commitment

to the peace process as envisioned with the conditions, and our long-term commitment to

both the state of Afghanistan, but also, very importantly, to the people of Afghanistan.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The report also calls to reinforce U.S. conditions on all parties, including

the fragile and factionalized Afghan government.

FMR. SEN. KELLY AYOTTE (R-NH): It's important to support the Afghan government, but also

that we were going to have conditionality in terms of their importance of them rooting

out corruption and the things that they need to do to govern properly for Afghanistan,

as well as conditionality for the Taliban in terms of its -- their behavior in reducing


NICK SCHIFRIN: Dunford was Joint Chiefs chairman until 2019. From 2013 to 2014, he commanded

all troops in Afghanistan.

The report finds that the Taliban have not met its obligations under last year's peace

agreement. And you write that the U.S. military presence is undergirding those peace negotiations,

helping the Afghan government.

Does that mean that the U.S. service members currently in Afghanistan need to stay there

past the May 1 deadline?

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman: Nick, what it means is, specifically,

that we believe that the U.S. should take a conditions-based a approach.

And so we don't associate the departure of U.S. forces with any date. We specifically

associate the departure of U.S. forces to the conditions that were outlined in the agreement

in February 2020 being met.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The Taliban, as you know, have threatened the U.S. to once again start attacking

U.S. troops if, in fact, the U.S. stays past the May 1 deadline.

Is it worth the risk of the deaths of U.S. service members in order to keep them in Afghanistan?

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD: We have not had the time to implement that agreement fully.

All of the parties, to include the Taliban, would be well-served if the agreement was

implemented as it was written in February of 2020. So, in my view, it's not about the

life of U.S. service members and their association with the peace agreement. It's about U.S.

national interests in the region and about the resources that are necessary to preserve

our interests, until the conditions in the region change.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And what is the risk to U.S. national security and to Afghanistan if the

U.S. withdraws too quickly?

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD: We made it very clear in our report, Nick, that there's a high probability

of a civil war in Afghanistan in the event of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal.

And we also talk about the Taliban's relationship with al-Qaida, the opportunity that al-Qaida

would have to reconstitute, whether there would be precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces,

the potential of mass migration, terrorist attacks associated with that Al-Qaida presence

in the region. And then, clearly, the cost to the Afghan people as well is addressed

in the report.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The Trump administration recently reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan

down to 2,500. Do you believe that number is sufficient right now for the changes that

you're calling for?

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD: We know that, in the course of our deliberations back in the fall,

it was identified that about 4,500 U.S. forces were optimal under the conditions we found

ourselves in, in the fall.

There's clearly issues associated with risk to the mission and risk to the force at various

levels of troop levels. But I think the folks that are actually engaged right now in implementing

policy are better able to judge the specific level of forces that are necessary.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Do you believe that there is political support and willingness from the

U.S., from the West, from NATO to commit to the government of Afghanistan and the country

that you're suggesting?

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD: Yes, Nick, what I would say is that we have interests in South Asia.

And pursuing those interests is going to require long-term diplomatic action, some security

action, some economic action.

But the form of that support is going to change over time as the conditions change. And we're

not suggesting a long-term presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In fact, we assert

that the administration should commit to the agreement in February 2020, and that U.S.

forces would eventually leave Afghanistan when the conditions are being met.

NICK SCHIFRIN: There has been great concern about the impact of the Trump administration,

especially some of the hires and announcements inside the Pentagon in the last few weeks

before inauguration.

Are you concerned today about any lasting impact of what some believe was a bit of chaos

over the last few months?

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD: You know, Nick, I'm very confident that, in the weeks and the months

ahead, we will have proper civilian-military relations within the department, and, more

importantly and necessarily, a proper focus on taking care of the mission, while we take

care of the people inside the Department of Defense.

And, again, knowing the people both in uniform and not in uniform, I know that those are

the two things that they will be focused on in the months ahead, and not relitigating

what might have happened in the past, but looking forward and saying, what is it that

needs to be done in order to secure the interests of our country?

NICK SCHIFRIN: Chairman Dunford, thank you very much.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD: Hey, thanks so much, Nick.


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