Leon Panetta: The Afghanistan war lessons that we cannot forget

Leon Panetta: The Afghanistan war lessons that we cannot forget

Posted: Jul 14, 2021 4:11 AM
Updated: Jul 14, 2021 4:11 AM

I was on Capitol Hill on September 11, 2001, when I first learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center. As I was driving away from the Capitol, I saw the smoke from the plane that struck the Pentagon. With air traffic halted, my flight home was canceled, I struggled to get a rental car to drive across the country to get home to my family in California. As I drove on I-80 through our nation, I witnessed the American spirit -- homemade signs of God bless America, flags on display, and the strength and determination of the American people to never allow such an attack to happen again.

And for the past 20 years, America fought back -- with its troops, diplomats, intelligence and development professionals working tirelessly to ensure that Afghanistan would never again be used as a safe haven to attack our homeland. The US has had successes in Afghanistan, including the establishment of a democratic government, expanded rights for women, improved education, and successful operations to decimate core Al Qaeda and bring Osama Bin Laden to justice. And America has suffered losses, with more than 2,200 of its war fighters killed in action, seven CIA officers killed by a suicide bomber in 2010, and countless civilian deaths in a long and frustrating war.

President Joe Biden decided to bring America's troops home by the end of August. At the same time, the President has also made clear that we will not take our eye off the terrorist threat. The problem, however, is that the situation is deteriorating rapidly: our country's military commander in Afghanistan has warned of an imminent civil war; the latest intelligence assessment makes clear that once US troops leave, the Taliban could take control of Afghanistan in six to 12 months; and the Taliban is moving quickly to capture a number of rural districts and threaten the capital Kabul.

The Taliban cannot be trusted when it comes to terrorism. It is up to the United States to make sure that Afghanistan does not collapse and become a base of operations for terrorists again. Already in recent weeks we have seen senseless deaths at the hands of the Taliban, with the killing of 22 members of an Afghan Special Forces unit.

The fact is that the President has a wide array of military, diplomatic and intelligence resources that can be deployed to support Afghanistan at this critical time:

1. Meaningful assistance to Afghan Security Forces

The US and its NATO Allies should continue to fund and train the Afghan security forces. Yes, this has been an ongoing -- and often frustrating -- effort for many years, but ultimately, developing an effective military requires sustained educational, financial and security support.

Every time I went to Afghanistan, military commanders expressed confidence that the Afghan military could do the job -- the consensus was clear: "These guys are fighting and fighting tough." But absent US support, the military will struggle against a motivated Taliban.

2. Continue Counter Terrorism Operations

There will be times when the US military may need to be more directly involved with the over-the-horizon strike capabilities -- including the ability to hit targets with air-to-ground munitions, sea-based surface-to-surface missiles, and if necessary, a raid on particular terrorist targets by US Special Operations Forces.

While some US forces will remain in the region after drawing down in Afghanistan, its diplomats should work to establish new or expanded basing agreements with regional partners. These bases could host remotely-piloted MQ-9 Predator UAVs and other reliable surveillance assets to provide situational awareness and to enable quick reaction forces to deploy when US interests are at imminent risk. US commanders will need the ability to call in strikes from these UAVs and other nearby air and sea-based assets, like F-16s, F-18s, and Tomahawk missiles, to take out terrorist infrastructure as well. As with elsewhere around the globe, America's cyber forces will also remain a valuable tool to collect intelligence and disrupt enemy command-and-control.

3. Maintain Intelligence Networks

The ability of US national security professionals to understand the situation in Kabul and beyond will continue to rely on long-established human intelligence networks. The US will have to seek creative ways to maintain and grow those relationships as US government posture on the ground evolves. America's intelligence professionals were the first into Afghanistan after 9/11, and they will have to remain long after our troops depart.

4. A Strong Diplomatic Presence

Underlying this work will be an important element of the Biden administration's national security team, the diplomatic corps. As Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has made clear, the US will remain invested in Afghanistan to help support peace and reconciliation, as well as to provide economic and humanitarian assistance to help the Afghan people. It is also important that the US continues to help strengthen Afghanistan's civilian government capacity, not just its military. Core to this needs to be training its law enforcement and judicial officials to make them more effective and ensure they have proper training on rule of law.

5. Protect Those Who Fought With Our Forces

Finally, we must not forget the thousands of brave Afghans who risked their lives to help US security forces and diplomats over the past two decades. Much as with those who helped the US after we withdrew troops from Vietnam in the 1970s, and Kosovo and Iraq in the 1990s, the Afghans who served side by side with Americans deserve expedited visa consideration and other settlement assistance as they seek refuge from possible Taliban retribution. It's not only the right thing to do morally, but it also sends partners around the world the message that if you're there for America, America will be there for you.

I spent four years of my career as Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA, working intensely on elements of the war in Afghanistan, ranging from operations, to personnel, to policy. I commanded the operation to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice. I understand the reasons Biden made his decision -- the goal of stopping terrorist threats against the American homeland remains the critical objective, and we can achieve that objective with a combination of the on-the-ground and over-the-horizon capabilities to prevent Al Qaeda from reestablishing a safe haven there.

But there are lessons from this war that cannot be forgotten. The President understands the importance of maintaining our support for the Afghan people, so they can live in a pluralistic, democratic society that respects the rights of all its citizens, especially women. And he also understands that it was the Taliban that provided a safe haven for Al Qaeda to plan and execute the 9/11 attack. Surely, we owe it to the victims and families of that attack and all those who fought and died in the wars that followed to make sure that another 9/11 attack never happens again.

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