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Former Secretary Of Defense On The Taliban's Resurgence In Afghanistan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The situation in Afghanistan is continuing to unravel as U.S. troops pull out. According to the Associated Press and other news outlets, the Taliban has taken Afghanistan's third largest city, Herat. That means the Taliban now controls much of the countryside and increasingly the cities. Meanwhile, State Department spokesman Ned Price said today that while the U.S. embassy in Kabul remains open, the civilian footprint will be reduced to, quote, "a core diplomatic presence." And now about 3,000 additional troops will deploy to Karzai Airport in the coming days to help civilians leave the country. Leon Panetta led the CIA and served as secretary of defense under President Obama. He joins us now. Welcome.

LEON PANETTA: Good to be with you.

CHANG: All right. So the Taliban has retaken much of the country a lot more quickly than originally expected. And as we just said, thousands of American troops are on the way to Karzai Airport in the coming days. How do you read the speed by which all of this has happened? I mean, is it a sign that there have already been significant intelligence failures?

PANETTA: Well, there's no question that the situation is deteriorating rapidly. We now have 11 provincial capitals that have been captured. They're 80 miles from Kabul. We're now looking at intelligence estimates that Afghanistan could fall within the next 60 to 90 days. And troops are headed to the airport there to try to help provide security in the evacuation. So there's no question that the situation there has gone from bad to worse. And it's obvious that whether it's intelligence or whether it's military officials or whether it's the people in Afghanistan themselves, that everybody has misjudged this situation terribly.

CHANG: Right. I mean, original assessments were it may be six to 12 months after the full withdrawal of U.S. troops for the Taliban to overtake the country. Are you personally surprised that things have been moving so quickly?

PANETTA: Well, there's no question that I think many assumed that a 300,000 Afghan army with some assistance from United States would be able to put up a fight. But it's also clear that the Taliban prepared itself for this moment, that Doha was really kind of a cover for the Taliban. It gave them the opportunity to be able to preposition weapons in the areas of the north and the west so that they were prepared to move quickly, and they've done exactly that. They've moved very quickly. There's no question the Taliban have preplanned this. They were ready to do this. We simply underestimated their ability to move as quickly as they have.

CHANG: Do you believe the Taliban still poses a serious national security threat to the U.S.?

PANETTA: Absolutely. I have never trusted the Taliban. I think it was a mistake to trust them in the negotiations in Doha, to kind of assume that they would assume some responsibility to abide by the kind of values and standards that we would expect. The Taliban are terrorists, and they're going to support terrorists. If they take control of Afghanistan, there is no question in my mind that they will provide a safe haven for al-Qaida, for ISIS and for terrorism in general. And that constitutes, frankly, a national security threat to the United States.

CHANG: Right. Well, then the question is, what does the U.S. do to contain that national security threat after withdrawing its forces? So let's start with what's immediate - airstrikes. Do you think the U.S. should continue airstrikes beyond August 31?

PANETTA: We're talking about a situation that may be too late to handle. But what one can hope for is that the Afghanistan government and military with U.S. support can make a stand, certainly with regards to Kabul. If we can get some kind of stalemate put in place, then that might give the government and the military there the opportunity to be able to establish at least a presence that can check what the Taliban are doing. That's the best we can hope for. But for that to happen, there is no question that we will have to provide air support. We'll have to provide counterterrorism operations. We'll have to provide intelligence. And frankly, President Biden said when he announced the troop withdrawal that the United States would not stand back and allow the Taliban to succeed in Afghanistan and mentioned a number of strategies in order to prevent that. We've got to implement those strategies.

CHANG: But what about lending meaningful assistance to Afghan security forces at this point? I mean, what does that effort even look like now without U.S. military presence inside the country?

PANETTA: Well, it's difficult to do. And yet, obviously, with some military presence there, I think we can, in fact, provide air support. I think we can provide some counterterrorism capabilities. I think we can provide intelligence. We can provide some help in order to get the Afghan military to put up a stand. That's really what needs to be done here. We can't just wash our hands, pull out all of our people and let Afghanistan go to hell.

CHANG: Former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, thank you very much for joining us today.

PANETTA: Good to talk to you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAN OMARI SONG, "MOVE TOO FAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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