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The U.S. lost track of why it was in Afghanistan, former commander says

U.S. Air Force aircrew prepare to load qualified evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghanistan evacuation in August, 2021.
Senior Airman Taylor Crul
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AP
U.S. Air Force aircrew prepare to load qualified evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghanistan evacuation in August, 2021.

Last August, as city after city in Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie was watching from his post in Tampa, Fl.

McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command at the time, was in regular contact with U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan as they evacuated. His position had him overseeing military operations in East Africa, the Middle East and beyond.

Recently retired, McKenzie joined All Things Considered to reflect on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, who bears responsibility for the way it unfolded, and how the U.S. "lost track" of why it was in the country to begin with.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On communication between the U.S. and the Taliban during evacuations

I actually flew to Doha on the 15th of August to talk to the Taliban, to tell them that we were, in fact, going to withdraw. We were going to execute a non-combatant evacuation operation — a NEO in our technical lexicon — and if they interfered with that, we would punish them severely.

They were actually receptive to that message. And let me be very clear: I don't trust the Taliban. I have long experience with them, I don't believe they keep their word. But in this particular case, we shared an interest. We wanted to leave, and they wanted us to leave.

So in that very transactional, momentary period of time, they did not interfere with our withdrawal. And I thought that was very significant and probably allowed us to do it in the manner that we did it.

On the original strategy that was planned for evacuation

The plan was to try to get the Taliban to stop at a perimeter maybe 15 or 20 kilometers outside Kabul. We wanted them to not come any closer until we pulled our forces out.

By the time I got there, they were already in downtown Kabul, so that plan was no longer operative, but they continued to be receptive. I left that meeting with what I needed to have — we were going to be able to execute our plan to get our people out and as many other people as we could.

The Taliban were not going to interfere with us. And we had, in fact, established a modality where my commanders on the ground could talk to them about security issues in the vicinity of the airport. So we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish in that meeting.

Hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 16, 2021.
Shekib Rahmani / AP
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AP
Hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 16, 2021.

On why the vision for an orderly evacuation was not fulfilled, and they were not able to get everybody out in an orderly way.

We were not able to do that. And that's something that haunts me to this day. We had forces that were around the airport on the 15th and 16th. I actually visited the airport on the 17th of August. I was on the ground, walked around a little bit, saw some of the things that were going on. And what you've got is a capacity problem. You've got to process all these people. It took a while, frankly, for our consular officials to get there in the numbers needed to handle the press of people that were outside.

So, no, we did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. We got well over 120,000 people out. And that's the good news story. The bad news story — and I would never try to deny it — is we did not get everybody out that we wanted, particularly a lot of Afghans that had helped us down through the years, that have been partners of ours, often in combat, often in other very demanding times. They had every expectation that we would bring them out. We did not, and we were unable to do that. And that's something that, as I noted earlier, still haunts me to this day.

On what could've been done differently

Well, any time American soldiers, sailors, Marines lose their lives, you spend a lot of time thinking about decisions that you could've made and done differently. So, yes, I think about that quite a bit from the perspective of, right at the end, "What could we have done differently?"

What we should have done was we should have begun to bring people out much earlier, rather than waiting until the very end. Now, the problem with that is — it's an interesting counterfactual, but you've got the government of Afghanistan that's saying, look, the people that you're bringing out are the best people in Afghanistan. If you want us to fight, you can't let these people go out.

On who bears responsibility for the way it all unfolded

Ultimately, the chain of command does. That was a national decision made by the president, and we executed that decision. We had an opportunity to discuss it. We had an opportunity to give input. The president made a decision, and we executed it.

Taliban special force fighters stand guard outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport after the U.S. military's withdrawal, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.
Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi / AP
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AP
Taliban special force fighters stand guard outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport after the U.S. military's withdrawal, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.

On what the U.S. achieved after 20 years in Afghanistan

Well, from my personal perspective, I think we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan [and] why we were there, to prevent al-Qaida from striking our country. Over the course of our engagement over two decades, it grew into something much larger: an attempt to impose a form of government, a state, that would be a state the way that we recognize a state.

I will tell you, I don't believe Afghanistan is ungovernable. I believe Afghanistan is ungovernable with the Western model that will be imposed on it. And so I think that's sort of what draws out to me. We lost track of why we were there, and we did not keep the main thing the main thing.

That being, preventing al-Qaida from being able to gather strength and conduct attacks against us — and ISIS, too, once it began to manifest itself in Afghanistan. Clearly, you need an Afghan military to help you do that. But I think we grew far beyond the original scope and scale of our mission, the original mission.

On what he would want to say to the people of Afghanistan

I think this is now a tough time for the people of Afghanistan. I think that they're not well-served by the Taliban that's in there. The Taliban were never really a particularly popular party in Afghanistan, although they were able to merge religious and other affiliations in a way that the government was never able to do.

I think it's going to be a very tough time. I regret what happened last summer. I regret that we were unable to provide a form of government that would allow for the development of human rights, women's issues, a variety of things, all of which are being, as you know, systematically deconstructed by the Taliban right now. And I fear it's going to get much, much worse before it gets any better.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.