FULL EPISODE: 9/12/21 Fmr. Defense Secy. Leon Panetta on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 & the future of Afghanistan

Also featured: Krish Vignarajah, CEO, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Published: Sep. 12, 2021 at 12:53 AM EDT
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Washington, D.C. – Greta Van Susteren interviewed Leon Panetta, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama, for Gray Television’s “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren” airing Sunday, September 12, 2021. The program will also feature a conversation with Krish Vignarajah, CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a group helping to resettle Afghan refugees in the United States.

On the future of Afghanistan under Taliban leadership, and the impact on the United States, Secretary Panetta told Van Susteren: “I don’t see a good story here with regards to Afghanistan. I think that the Taliban taking over Afghanistan is pretty much the same Taliban that controlled Afghanistan on 9/11.” Panetta said that recent events in Afghanistan indicate “this is a Taliban that will indeed continue to provide a safe haven for terrorists, and that spells trouble for the United States.”

Panetta cited recent comments by a Taliban spokesman saying there was no evidence that Osama bin Laden had played a role in the 9/11 attacks. “If that is the case, then it’s clear to me that they’re going to continue to support Al-Qaeda, and allow Al-Qaeda to basically continue to develop and expand,” he said. “And I think they will plan additional attacks on our country, as well as elsewhere.”

When asked whether the U.S. had accomplished anything in Afghanistan over the last 20 years given that the Taliban is now in control, Panetta answered: “We were successful at making sure that the United States did not suffer another 9/11 attack … We were able to go after bin Laden and get someone who was in charge of the attack on our country, and send a message to the world that nobody attacks us and gets away with it.”

Krish Vignarajah, whose organization is helping provide necessities and housing to refugees, said of the White House: “The most important task for them is to figure out a system to resettle these refugees” because most U.S. monetary assistance expires after the first 90 days.

In terms of refugees finding jobs, Vignarajah suggested the situation could be beneficial for U.S. employers facing worker shortages, saying “Many [Afghan refugees] have worked with the U.S. military or the U.S. Embassy before. They became electricians and engineers, doctors, teachers, other frontline workers. So candidly, at a time when we are dealing with a tight job market, this could be an opportunity.”

Panetta and Vignarajah interview highlights are below.

Leon Panetta Highlights

On the future of Afghanistan under Taliban leadership and the impact on the U.S.

Greta Van Susteren

Mr. Secretary, I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but give me your observations on what you think is going to be the future for Afghanistan.

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

I don’t see a good story here with regards to Afghanistan. I think that the Taliban taking over Afghanistan is pretty much the same Taliban that controlled Afghanistan on 9/11. And that was pretty much confirmed recently, when they appointed hardliners to their government, people who were in power on 9/11, and in addition, appointed Haqqani as interior minister, a global terrorist, really, to be interior secretary and in charge of internal security. I am reading, and those actions and the other actions that are being taken to shut down protests and really inhibit women’s rights there, that this is a Taliban that will indeed continue to provide a safe haven for terrorists, and that spells trouble for the United States.

Greta Van Susteren

Does the US have any leverage there? … We don’t have our military there. Is money the only possible leverage because they need money?

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

Well, I assume that money provides some leverage here, but you’re dealing with an Islamic state whose first principle is based on religion and Sharia law. And I just do not anticipate that they’re going to be prepared to make a lot of changes that are necessary really if they are to become part of the international community and be recognized as a nation. I think their fundamental dedication is to the Islamic state, and that means that they are going to continue to allow Al-Qaeda to exist within Afghanistan and be able to develop and expand. It means that ISIS, some 2000 ISIS terrorists are going to continue to be there. And add to that the Haqqanis who are terrorists from Pakistan, who also will find a home in Afghanistan as well. So I just see terrorism becoming a renewed threat to the United States, and I’m not sure that you can get a lot done when you’re dealing essentially with an adversary whose primary interest, the primary interest of terrorists, is to attack Americans and kill Americans. And that’s a concern.

Greta Van Susteren

I take it then that there’s nothing that the Taliban has said, or anything in history, recent history or past history, that gives you any sort of hope that the Taliban is different than the pre-2001 Taliban that we’re so familiar with.

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

No, I didn’t trust the Taliban over these last 20 years, particularly when I was director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense. The Taliban were interested in killing Americans. We saw that firsthand, and what they were doing was essentially playing for power and trying to restore power and control of Afghanistan. They now have the opportunity to take control of Afghanistan again, but I think the bottom line is that it would be wise for the United States and the rest of the world not to trust the Taliban in terms of their work.

Greta Van Susteren

Although they’ve said that they’re not going to give a safe haven to Al-Qaeda, do you expect them to do that and foster a growth of Al-Qaeda?

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

I don’t think there’s any question. There was a recent interview by one of the spokesman for the Taliban, where he was asked about bin Laden’s role in 9/11, and he had the gall to say that he has not seen any evidence that bin Laden was involved in the 9/11 attack. And if that is the case, then it’s clear to me that they’re going to continue to support Al-Qaeda, and allow Al-Qaeda to basically continue to develop and expand. And I think they will plan additional attacks on our country, as well as elsewhere.

On the killing of Osama bin Laden

Greta Van Susteren

When Osama bin Laden was killed, you were director of the CIA ...

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

It was without question a risky operation. Very proud of the CIA, the work the CIA did in locating bin Laden using the couriers to be able to ultimately locate where bin Laden was. I give tremendous credit to the SEALs for developing the operation that brought them there. But at the time we discussed this in the National Security Council, there was no question that there were a lot of concerns about the risks involved, and understandable concerns. But the president, to his credit, made a gutsy decision to go ahead with this mission, and we were able to go ahead.

On whether the U.S. achieved anything in Afghanistan and the impact on military families

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

I think that they should know that we are proud of the sacrifice that was made. And a lot of sacrifices were made by the men and women in uniform, by our intelligence people, by diplomats. And over that 20 years, we were successful at making sure that the United States did not suffer another 9/11 attack, which was one of our goals. And because of the sacrifices made by our military, we were able to protect this country. We were able to go after bin Laden and get someone who was in charge of the attack on our country, and send a message to the world that nobody attacks us and gets away with it.

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

And in addition to that, even though the Taliban continued to prod in different areas, the reality is for 20 years, we kept the Taliban from taking over in Afghanistan and not making it a safe haven. So that was an accomplishment. That was the right thing to do, and I think we need to be proud of what we were able to accomplish. The reality is that obviously we’re disappointed about what’s happened now, but that doesn’t mean that we did not achieve some success in Afghanistan in going after Al-Qaeda.

Greta Van Susteren

Aren’t we back to having that same risk we had before?

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

Well, Greta, I think the most important thing is whether we’ve learned the lessons over the last 20 years. And the reality is that we’re much better at dealing with terrorists since 9/11, because we understand the enemy we’re confronting. And the ability of our intelligence people to be able to identify those targets, particularly the leadership of Al-Qaeda, as well as others, and the ability of special forces to work with intelligence to conduct counterterrorism operations, has been a successful way to go after terrorists. And we did it in Iraq, we did it in Afghanistan, we’re doing it elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, and it is proving successful.

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

So it is important to be able to learn the lessons from these last 20 years as we face terrorism in the future. And I think the president understands we’re going to have to continue to deploy our intelligence capabilities into Afghanistan. We’ve got a lot of different ways to gather intelligence, but we’re going to need strong intelligence on the ground to keep track of these terrorists. And secondly, we’re going to have to be willing to do counterterrorism operations against those targets. The bottom line is we still need to protect our national security.

On women in Afghanistan

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

I think the United States has to continue to be dedicated to advancing human rights. We can’t just back away from that responsibility. And we did that in Afghanistan. We gave people the opportunity to vote, to try to develop some kind of self-government there. We developed better education for women. We gave them more opportunity, more rights. They were involved in the governing structure in Afghanistan. I don’t think we can just stand back and let all of that go to hell.

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

I think the United States has to continue to bring pressure on the Taliban to recognize those rights. We have that responsibility to the people that we fought and that fought along us in Afghanistan.

Greta Van Susteren

But how do we do that?

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

Look, I think that the Taliban hasn’t changed, but I really do think that Afghanistan has changed. I think they have tasted freedom, and I think they’ve tasted what human rights are all about, and I think they themselves are going to be much more active within Afghanistan to try to advance those rights. It won’t be easy. And I think the United States, if we’re smart, we’ll find ways to be helpful to those groups that are trying to pursue those rights. We can do this. We don’t have to march in with 150,000 troops. We can do this through our intelligence capabilities. We can do this through our diplomatic capabilities. We can do this working with the NGOs who are still in Afghanistan.

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

There are ways to support these efforts to try to advance human rights there. It’s not going to be easy. I’m not saying it’s easy, and it’s not going to happen very quickly. It’s going to happen over time though, because in the end, the Taliban is the Taliban, and trying to impose some kind of Islamic state on the people that doesn’t respect human rights is going to backlash against the Taliban. And that is something we ought to be involved in making happen.

On whether the Taliban is mirroring Iran

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

Well, there’s no question that it certainly has the same flavor when you’re looking at a supreme leader and when you’re looking at the kind of religious imposition that they put on their people. At the same time, Iran also is a military power. They’ve developed military capabilities. They’ve developed missile systems. They’re enriching nuclear fuel. And so I do think that Iran, because of the hardliners, they are trying to continue to undermine stability in the Middle East, and they’re going to continue to support terrorists as well.

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

Now, whether the Taliban can develop those same capabilities, particularly on the military side, is something I think we better watch very closely. Because if they do, they move in that direction, and we face the same kind of threats from Afghanistan militarily that we face from Iran, then we have serious problems with regards to security in that region.

Greta Van Susteren

Why wouldn’t Iran be the first one to respond and essentially adopt Afghanistan, give them money, support them, foster their government and terrorism? Wouldn’t that be sort of predictable?

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

Well, one thing I’ve learned in that part of the world is that those you would consider to be friendly to one another aren’t necessarily friendly. Those tribal differences, those national differences, those differences that go back throughout history are still there. And the Iranians are suspicious of the Afghans, just like the Pakistanis, who actually helped support the Taliban, are now suspicious of what the Taliban will do in Afghanistan.

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

So because of those differences, I think there’s going to be a lot of competitiveness between them as to what will or will not happen. I mean, if Iran sees Afghanistan becoming a military power, they will consider that a threat, not something that benefits Iran. So for that reason, I think we have a lot working for us in terms of just the history that, frankly, drove us out of Afghanistan, is the same history that’s going to continue to undermine future governments in Afghanistan.

On future diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and the United States

Greta Van Susteren

Do you foresee any diplomatic relationship between Afghanistan and the United States in the very near future?

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

Well, I just think we have to be very careful about that. I think Doha was a disaster in terms of the negotiations there. I think the Taliban took us for a ride. They basically got everything they wanted with very little in return. We didn’t even push them with regards to really developing some kind of government partnership with the Afghans. We didn’t even have the Afghan government at the table, for goodness’ sakes. So I would just be very careful about trying to engage the Taliban directly in terms of things. Now, look, there are some things that we’ll try to get them to be helpful on.

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

I mean, these evacuees that are still there, we’re trying to still work with the Taliban to try to help us in some of those efforts. But I do not see some kind of long-term relationship ever being developed between the United States and the Taliban. Why? Because the Taliban is our enemy, because they support terrorism, because they are an Islamic state that views United States as an enemy, as evil. And therefore, I don’t see that ever being able to develop in the future.

Greta Van Susteren

How could we have missed that the government of Afghanistan was going to fall so quickly, that the military which we’d spent so much money equipping and training would fold so very quickly? How could we not have known that it was a weak military and it was going to fail?

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

I kind of look at this from the point of view that I think our intelligence and our military knew pretty well what the hell they were dealing with there, and that the military, if we backed away from supporting the military, that they would be vulnerable, but we already saw the Taliban gathering power in certainly the rural areas of Afghanistan. And in addition to that, we knew that the Afghan government with Ghani did not enjoy strong support from the Afghan people. So what I saw happen there was that everything we saw as vulnerable in Afghanistan, what lit that fire was the fact that we immediately went in to pull out our forces rapidly. I mean, look what we did in Bagram. We took out our forces out of Bagram, and we left in the middle of the night.

Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

We didn’t even have any transition to a new commander. We just got the hell out of there. And that rapid-fire withdrawal sent a signal that the United States was getting the hell out, which even further undermined the Afghan military. And then add to that the Taliban saw what was happening, and they too began to take advantage of that. And before you knew it, Ghani jumped on a plane and got the hell out of there. So I think intelligence had it right. What we missed was understanding the kind of consequences that developed and protecting ourselves from those consequences. That’s where the mistake was made.

Krish Vignarajah Highlights

On what the White House is doing to help Afghan refugees

Krish Vignarajah, CEO, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

I think the most important task for them is to figure out a system to resettle these refugees. Some of that is just figuring out how to resource this, because right now, the humanitarian parole list, the vast majority of Afghans will come under that system. That means they only get 90 days of support. So imagine as you described, they come with literally nothing in some cases, and they need to figure out affordable housing during our highest housing crisis. Medical care is not covered. So think about the mothers who gave birth on EC17s. They have no way of getting medical care for their child or for them.

Krish Vignarajah, CEO, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

So what I think The White House has focused on is one, making sure that we have a strong system, we are rebuilding the refugee resettlement system, and then two, obviously many of us, including The White House are focused on how do we still make sure that the American citizens who are still stranded in Afghanistan get out? Many of our Afghan allies, a majority of them are still in Afghanistan. So trying to create those safe crossings in order to get out people who still face Taliban retribution is going to be critical.

On what she is hearing from Afghan refugees

Krish Vignarajah, CEO, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

For so many, there is a sense of hope and relief on their faces for their own personal safety, but for so many, they’re leaving brothers, sisters, parents behind. Many of the Afghan women journalists that I met with this week were talking about their fear for their parents who can’t access money because the banks have closed. The Taliban know that their children have been lucky enough to flee. So they’re staying inside. They’re running out of money, they’re running out of food, and they don’t know where to go.

On the desperation Afghans are feeling to be able to leave their lives behind

Krish Vignarajah, CEO, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

People have to understand that no one wants to leave their home and the only place they’ve ever known, but it is the desperation of circumstances that lead them to leave.

On resettling refugees in the U.S.

Krish Vignarajah, CEO, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

So that first few months, there’s going to be some meager assistance. Basically, there’s a total of $2,000. About a thousand dollars goes to supporting the infrastructure and a thousand dollars... About $1,200 goes as house assistance. And that’s got to cover the first 90 days. So it is a heightened dependence compared to what they will actually need, and this is where communities like those in Wisconsin are stepping up in an incredible way. So Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has had 45,000 volunteers step up and want to help. We’ve had donations of diapers to toothbrushes, to rent-free houses, and of course, employers who know that these are individuals who they’re resilient, they’re industrious. Many have worked with the U.S. military or on the U.S. Embassy before. They become electricians and engineers, doctors, teachers, other frontline workers. So candidly, at a time when we are dealing with a tight job market, this could be an opportunity.

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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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