FULL EPISODE: 8/22/21 Rep. Auchincloss, first Afghan female air force pilot Niloofar Rahmani and Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock on Afghanistan

Published: Aug. 22, 2021 at 12:14 AM EDT
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Washington, D.C. – Greta Van Susteren interviewed Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.), a former Marine who served in Afghanistan; Niloofar Rahmani, the first female fixed-wing pilot in the Afghan Air Force; and Craig Whitlock, an investigative reporter at the Washington Post and author of the new book “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” for Gray Television’s “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren” airing Sunday, August 22, 2021.

Rep. Auchincloss, who commanded a platoon in Afghanistan, told Van Susteren that corruption in the country was “staggering.” Of why the U.S. mission there failed, he said: “To end a counter-insurgency you need a political endgame. You need a partner who can provide better services, confidence in the rule of law, and a flourishing civil society. Americans never had a strong political partner in Afghanistan.”

Auchincloss defended the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops, saying that for years officials have been privately declaring the war was unwinnable, and that “President Biden was the first commander in chief with the integrity to tell that hard truth to the American people.” When asked whether there should be consequences for politicians and military officials who gave deceitful accounts of U.S. progress during the mission, Auchincloss said: “I think accountability is painful. Nobody likes it in politics, but it’s necessary.”

Niloofar Rahmani, the first female Afghan Air Force pilot, who fled Afghanistan because of death threats, told Van Susteren that the country’s citizens, particularly women, are terrified of what the new regime will bring. “[I] have seen my mother get beat up by the Taliban and it’s the worst thing a child can see,” said Rahmani of her experience growing under Taliban rule. On what will happen to fellow Afghans left behind: “It just hurts my heart even to think about it and not be able to do anything, and looking at the world and how everybody gave up on Afghanistan. Where’s the humanity?”

Craig Whitlock, Washington Post investigative reporter and author of “The Afghanistan Papers,” which is set to be released on August 31, said it was “shocking” to uncover communication during the Afghan war in which U.S. “generals and ambassadors admit very bluntly that they didn’t know what they were doing in Afghanistan, that they didn’t have a plan.”

“They would say one thing in public to reassure them that the war was going well,” continued Whitlock. “And then in private, whether it was diplomatic cables or memos or meetings, they would say the complete opposite.”

Auchincloss, Rahami, and Whitlock interview excerpts are below.

Rep. Jake Auchincloss Highlights

On why to leave Afghanistan now

Greta Van Susteren

Would there have been any harm just to leave some soldiers there and not risk the lives of so many Afghans?

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

The status quo of 2,500 was not an option. And let me just be clear about why. The reason there had been no combat casualties, the reason that there was an intermission and fighting over the last year is that Donald Trump and his administration were negotiating with the Taliban and Doha. And the Taliban were resisting combat because the Trump administration promised them unilateral withdrawal, no conditions by May 1st. So when President Biden took office, it was not like, okay, 2,500, kind of keep along for another year or two. No, no, it was “go big or go home.”

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

So the president was either going to double down on a third decade of conflict, or he was going to finally wrap up a counterinsurgency that had not been successful.

On what it was like to serve in Afghanistan

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

I commanded a platoon that was patrolling three Taliban contested villages along the Helmand River at the tail end of the Obama surge. And as we were patrolling these villages, there was a maxim amongst the Taliban. They would say, “You have the watches. We have the time.” What that meant is that they knew Americans could outfight them, but they could outlast us. They could outlast us because to successfully end a counter-insurgency you need a political endgame. You need a partner who can provide better services, confidence in the rule of law, and a flourishing civil society. Americans never had a strong political partner in Afghanistan.

On fighting alongside the Afghan military

Greta Van Susteren

Did you find that the Afghan people that you worked alongside with, did they have the will, did they want the United States there? What was their sort of feeling about all this?

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

I patrolled alongside the Afghan unit police and they were tactically sound. They cared about their homelands.

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

What we saw in the rapid Taliban advance is less a story about Taliban horsepower and more a story about Afghan willpower, and specifically, Afghan central government and senior command and control. They had $80-plus billion of American support for their military and their Air Force, and they couldn’t even get bullets and rations to their front lines. If I were an Afghan security trooper on the front lines and I knew that, my morale would crater too.

On his feelings about the mission in Afghanistan

Greta Van Susteren

You also wrote an op-ed in January of 2020. Let me quote part of it. You said, “That invasion,” meaning of Afghanistan, “achieve nothing of strategic significance, not then, not since … that suggests to me that you thought that this was a failure back in 2012 and a failure in 2020?

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

That’s right. This mission in Afghanistan began as a counter-terrorism mission after 9/11, and hearing President Bush’s speeches in the months afterward are actually quite remarkable because he articulates a narrowly-scoped appropriate mission, counter-terrorism to deny a base of operations, to those who would strike the US homeland from Afghanistan, and to bring to justice the architects of 9/11. That’s been a successful mission, but under Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney, they allowed it to mutate into this boondoggle of a counterinsurgency. And in situation room after situation room from Bush all the way through Joe Biden, smarter people than me said we can’t win it. We don’t have a political end game for what is fundamentally a political initiative. And yet President Biden was the first commander in chief with the integrity to tell that hard truth to the American people.

On corruption in Afghanistan

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

It’s an excellent point. I recently said that if I had to sum up the U.S. failure in Afghanistan, it would be sunk cost bias. If I had to sum up the Afghan side of the failure, it would be corruption. The corruption is at a staggering scale. This is not sort of lubricating the wheels of government. This is a rot within the bureaucracy that really handcuffed their ability to provide basic services. And it’s a huge disappointment because when the Taliban fell in 2001, there were people like Hamid Karzai who were well-positioned to become national leaders who could do what was best for their people as opposed to themselves, and unfortunately, we just didn’t see that unfold.

On whether the mission was all in vain

Greta Van Susteren

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says, “As it seems right now, it was all in vain.” Do you feel that way? And do you feel your service there was in vain?

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

The legacy of a 20-year war in Afghanistan is more complicated than a yes or no, or a win or a loss. And I know that’s an unsatisfying answer, but it’s the truth. The literacy rate in Afghanistan has doubled. The infant mortality rate has halved. Access to electricity has quadrupled. There’s 10 times as many kids in school as there were 20 years ago, including 40% of them girls. The Taliban are taking over a country that is fundamentally different than the one that they withdrew from two decades ago and that has to be part of the legacy as well.

On whether there should be congressional oversight of the withdrawal

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

Right now, the focus should be on these evacuations because we’re in the middle of a fluid situation. But congressional oversight is fully appropriate both on the execution of the withdrawal, yes.

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

But actually, and this is, I think even more critical to me, there needs to be a presumptive declassification of all national security decision-making over the last two decades as it relates to Afghanistan. The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers is a landmark piece of journalistic research on just the sheer amount of dissembling and lies that came from the US national security establishment. We need to build on that work, build on the work of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, and really hold people to account who knew things that they did not share with the American public.

Greta Van Susteren

What do you say to me, like why should I believe that we do this post-mortem and we find out who was deceitful, who got things wrong, who predicted things wrong, and that things will get better?

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

I share your skepticism. That’s why I am fully prepared as a millennial veteran in Congress, the next time a Bush-like president tries to blunder and bluster his way into a war of choice, I will be there. I will be saying no, not on my watch.

Greta Van Susteren

You mentioned Republicans … We had a Democratic administration in there, President Obama, he had a surge, he had the same opportunities as President Biden has now. Do you hold him accountable for any of this?

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

Every administration from Bush through this one owns to a certain extent, the Operation Enduring Freedom and the war in Afghanistan. And that’s why a clear-eyed assessment of national security decision-making over the last 20 years, non-partisan and objective is so critical to ensure that in the future, we do a better job.

Greta Van Susteren

I take it that you would be willing to serve on a committee or a commission to investigate this and that you would bring your wealth of experience to questioning. Fair enough? You’d do that?

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

It’d be an honor and indeed a responsibility.

Greta Van Susteren

Okay. If you had a choice, who would be some of the main people you would call off the top of your head, and what questions would you like to ask?

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

Well, I think the CENTCOM commanders, I think the national security advisors, the secretaries of defense, the people who were in the situation room time after time when sunk cost bias guided their decisions as opposed to a clear-eyed assessment of the national interest.

Greta Van Susteren

What if you discovered in your questioning that there were people who were deliberately deceitful or sugarcoating, and for whatever reason? I mean, are there any consequences to this?

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.)

There really haven’t been to date, and that’s frustrating to me. It’s one of the reasons I appreciate the report the Washington Post has done, is that it’s probably gone as far as anybody else has in putting people’s names next to their assessments that are dissonant with what they were saying publicly at the time. So I think accountability is painful. Nobody likes it in politics, but it’s necessary. And if you know something, if you have a privileged position that allows you to know things that the American public doesn’t know, then you have a higher responsibility to tell the truth.

Niloofar Rahmani Highlights

On growing up under Taliban rule

Greta Van Susteren

What was the impact on your life in 2001 when the Taliban ruled the country? Before the United States came in, what was it like?

Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s First Female Air Force Pilot

It was very scary. I lived under that life. My family lived that life. As a little girl, I would see my brother go to school and I would just cry myself “why I cannot go to school”?

Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s First Female Air Force Pilot

We [I] have seen my mother get beat up by the Taliban and it’s the worst thing a child can see. And that’s what we have seen. We have seen a woman get stoned in Kabul, we have seen people get hanged in the middle of the city. How [has] the world already forgotten all of that? It really surprised me.

On the Taliban and women’s rights

Greta Van Susteren

What do you expect the Taliban’s going to do about women from this day forward?

Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s First Female Air Force Pilot

I would love to stay positive and think that whatever rights as a human being a female and a woman can have, they will give it to them.

Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s First Female Air Force Pilot

I really hope that the women still have a right to go to school, be educated, to learn how to do math.

Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s First Female Air Force Pilot

As an Afghan woman and a Muslim woman, if I mentioned that for me in a whole religion it does say is that a woman is allowed to be educated, is allowed to be [a] doctor, is allowed to be [a] nurse, is allowed to be active in the society.

On relatives and others trapped in Afghanistan

Greta Van Susteren

When you’d call back to Afghanistan, I take it you can now, you have some communication the last couple of weeks, maybe days back to Afghanistan, what’s sort of the mood of your family and friends? Are they terrified about this?

Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s First Female Air Force Pilot

Everybody’s terrified. Everybody’s scared. Nowadays you can see that every Afghan, every story about Afghanistan is the headline of entire world. People in Afghanistan are terrified. The way that they all run away to the airport, the way they were ready to just die that way and just get an airplane, get out.

Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s First Female Air Force Pilot

They’re afraid for their life. Women are scared. Women don’t know what their future is going to hold. A 10 years old little girl doesn’t know if she’s going to be a slave for [the] Taliban, or she’s going to be allowed to go to school. The future for Afghan people are unknown, and this is the scariest part. And of course I’m afraid for the family I have left behind and it just hurts my heart even to think about it and not be able to do anything and looking at the world and how everybody gave up on Afghanistan. Where’s the humanity? Can we stop two seconds and just say, we need to save Afghan lives, women’s lives not to think those are Afghans they have to take care of themselves. But it’s too late right now.

On why Afghan national security fell so quickly to the Taliban

Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s First Female Air Force Pilot

Well, that is heartbreaking. That’s definitely heartbreaking to see and hear. I, for a few seconds, I thought of, okay, Afghan government abandoned me seven years ago, now they abandoned the country and it broke my heart to even see it. It’s hard for me to hear when people say Afghan soldiers, army, they had to defend themselves. If our president abandoned the country, with our president dead, what do you think the soldiers, there’s no motivation, there’s no support, there’s nothing for them. They don’t know if anybody have their back. They are just going to go fight in the ground and they have no support. They have no air support. They’re running out of logistics, no food, how long they can continue like that?

Craig Whitlock Highlights

On writing the book

Greta Van Susteren

Let me ask you about writing the Afghanistan Papers. Tell me the breadth of the research.

Craig Whitlock, Author, “The Afghanistan Papers” and Washington Post Investigative Reporter

So this took several years. We had to sue a government agency called the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan to obtain hundreds of pages of interview notes and transcripts they had done with senior UD officials in three presidential administrations to find out what went wrong with the war.

Craig Whitlock, Author, “The Afghanistan Papers” and Washington Post Investigative Reporter

It was shocking to hear generals and ambassadors admit very bluntly that they didn’t know what they were doing in Afghanistan, that they didn’t have a plan, they didn’t have a strategy, and that they thought the war was unwinnable.

Greta Van Susteren

Well, you take all those papers that ... you cite in your book, but you also then show what these people were saying publicly. At the same time, you’ve got generals saying, “We’re winning. We’re on the right path.”

Craig Whitlock, Author, “The Afghanistan Papers” and Washington Post Investigative Reporter

Yeah, it was almost in real-time, Greta. They would say one thing in public to reassure them that the war was going well. And then in private, whether it was diplomatic cables or memos or meetings, they would say the complete opposite. There was one case even as far back as 2007 on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. war commander at the time, Karl Eikenberry, gave an interview on TV saying, “We’re winning, we’re winning,” even though the Taliban was clearly making progress. And yet days earlier, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan sent a secret cable back to Washington, including to the general saying, “We’re not winning. We could lose.” When you see this time and again, year after year, where they tell the public one thing, but it was either deceptive or in many cases, just a flat-out lie.

On President Biden

Greta Van Susteren

Is President Biden any different than Vice President Biden in terms of his thoughts and approach to this war in Afghanistan?

Craig Whitlock, Author, “The Afghanistan Papers” and Washington Post Investigative Reporter

That’s a good question, Greta, because Biden’s views, I think, have changed over time, perhaps more than most people realize. During the Bush Administration, when he was in the Senate and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was pretty supportive of the Bush administration’s approach in Afghanistan. It was only toward about 2007, 2008 he started to sour a bit on the Afghan government and he started to feel that it was corrupt, and maybe we need to be careful about what we are trying to accomplish. By the time he became vice president in 2009, he certainly did disagree with Obama and some of the generals about how many troops we should send. And he really didn’t trust Afghan President Hamid Karzai too much. He kept pretty quiet about it. He was vice president. But I do think that since 2009, he’s had a lot of skepticism about what we could accomplish there. And in that regard, I think he’s correct. What were we able to accomplish? What could we hope to accomplish? But those were voices that, frankly, didn’t carry the day for a long, long time.

Greta Van Susteren

Was this just a bad case of mission creep? … How did it get to be 20 years? All these lives, all this money and now we flee?

Craig Whitlock, Author, “The Afghanistan Papers” and Washington Post Investigative Reporter

Well, mission creep is exactly the right phrase. In the beginning, the idea was get Al-Qaeda. That was it. It wasn’t even necessarily to remove the Taliban from power, although that’s what happened. But then there was mission creep. Then it was, well, what do we do with that Afghanistan? To be fair, this country was just in horrible shape in 2001, had been at war for more than 20 years, civil war, the Soviets had occupied it. You can’t just leave it like that. The country needed a lot of help, but what do you do? And at that point, we were responsible, but we never really spelled out in clear terms, well, how much nation-building should we do? To what degree do we need to build up the government? What are we trying to achieve politically? We just let things drift, and I think that’s what got us in trouble. We never really refocused on exactly what we were trying to accomplish.

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About Greta Van Susteren:

Greta Van Susteren is the Chief Political Analyst for Gray Media and host of Full Court Press. Ms. Van Susteren is a veteran of Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and CNN. Her prime-time Fox News Channel Show, “On the Record,” was number 1 in its time slot for 14 1⁄2 years. Before joining Fox News, she hosted CNN’s prime-time news and analysis program, “The Point with Greta Van Susteren,” and co-hosted the network’s daily legal analysis show, “Burden of Proof.” Her legal analysis for CNN’s coverage of Election 2000 earned her the American Bar Association’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Journalism. She continues to host the weekly 30-minute program “Plugged In with Greta Van Susteren” on Voice of America, which broadcasts exclusively outside of the United States.

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