>> A year after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and 21 years since 9/11 this week on "Firing Line."
[ Siren wails ] After the September 11th terrorist attacks... >> The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.
[ Cheering ] >> ...a generation of young men and women were called to serve.
Among them, Elliot Ackerman, who received a purple heart in Iraq, became a Marine Corps special operations team leader, and trained Afghan commandos.
>> They're not just Afghan heroes who fought for their country, they're American heroes.
>> During the United States' chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, Ackerman, by then a civilian, worked hard to get Afghans out.
>> Shouldn't come down to who you have in your cellphone's contact list as to whether or not you and your family are gonna live or die.
>> Ackerman is also a best-selling author who has now turned his attention to what went wrong in Afghanistan, what we could have done better, and what this means for future conflicts.
What does Elliot Ackerman say now?
"Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... >> Elliot Ackerman, welcome to "Firing Line."
>> Thank you for having me.
>> This weekend marks the 21st anniversary of the September 11th attacks against our nation.
You joined the Marine Corps the year after those attacks.
You served five tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, receiving a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, and the Bronze Star for valor.
What is the single most important thing you think Americans ought to know about your generation of Americans who served in these wars?
>> I think, unlike other wars that the United States has fought, these wars were not generationally defining events.
So, my parents' generation was the Vietnam generation.
They call themselves the Vietnam generation.
It defined their generation.
The greatest generation was defined by the Second World War.
And so the question is, well, how come we fought the wars this way?
How come they didn't generationally define us as a nation?
And I would say that goes back to the way the wars were constructed.
You know, every war the United States has fought all the way back to the Revolution has needed a construct to sustain it.
And to sustain it, I mean, broadly speaking, in two terms -- blood and treasure.
Who's gonna fight it?
How are you gonna pay for it?
When September 11th happened 21 years ago and the United States knew that it was going to once again go to war, we also needed to figure out, "Okay.
What is the construct that is going to sustain this war?"
And the way we constructed the war on terror was the blood came from our all-volunteer military, and the treasure came from deficit spending, insomuch as there was never a war tax for these wars.
They were put on our national credit card.
And if you look at our national deficit right now, about a quarter to a third of it is funding to the war on terror.
The result becomes that the American people, by and large, are anesthetized to the cost of these wars.
And the result is a 20-year war that's fought by a slim segment of the American population, and what we're left with is also a very wide civil-military divide that exists in America today.
>> You talk about a construct to sustain the war.
And I wonder about a construct to sustain public opinion in support of the war.
Because the political leadership at the time of 9/11, for the public, it was, "Go to the mall, return to normal life, don't let the terrorists win."
And I wonder if that political narrative undermined the long-term mission of the war on terror.
>> Oh, I agree with that, and I think that what we see is, there are second- and third-order consequences for fighting a war this way.
So, one of the lessons the political class took from Vietnam is that a draft is extremely unpopular.
And so we had this all-volunteer military that we had built that was and remains very competent and capable, so we can rely on our all-volunteer military to fight this war.
And with regards to where we were as a nation, economically speaking, we had the ability to put this into our deficit and not saddle Americans with a war tax.
But what becomes the unintended consequence is that we wind up with an extremely long war because, as it goes on, it just recedes out of our national consciousness.
So, for instance, in 2018, before the midterm elections, the polling firm Rasmussen, they put a poll into the field asking Americans the issues they cared about heading into the midterms.
And when they asked about the war in Afghanistan, 42% of Americans -- it wasn't that the war wasn't a priority for them -- 42% of Americans couldn't even say if the war was still going on.
They just -- they didn't even know at that point.
And for a democracy, that's very dangerous, particularly as the issues of war and peace should be the ones that we consider the most gravely.
>> Let's go back to a year ago.
When the United States pulled our troops from Afghanistan, you worked to help evacuate dozens of Afghans, including the all-girls robotics team, the family of your interpreter, and many others who aided the United States in two decades of war.
You describe your role in the civilian-led effort in your new book, "The Fifth Act: America's End in Afghanistan."
Why did it fall on you and other concerned citizens, veterans, aid workers, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to evacuate Afghans who had been our allies?
>> Because there was no plan in place for a large-scale evacuation of our Afghan allies.
And that is a huge mistake.
There's plenty of blame that can go around for the endgame in Afghanistan.
This is a war that was fought across four presidencies, Republican and Democrat.
But the blame for there not being a contingency plan for a mass evacuation of Afghanistan does fall on the Biden administration.
Do I understand why an evacuation wasn't carried out before our withdraw date in August?
The Biden administration didn't begin evacuating our Afghan allies because they were concerned that that would be a vote of no confidence in the Afghan government and would then precipitate that government's collapse.
That's an understandable position.
But that is a strategy and a position that relies completely on there being what's called the decent interval.
That's a term going back to the Vietnam War, meaning the interval of time between the U.S. withdrawal and whatever the endgame is in the country.
When there was no decent interval and Afghanistan collapsed on our watch, there was no contingency plan in place to get our Afghan allies out.
And that's why you wound up seeing what many have called this digital Dunkirk, a crowdsourced effort to get people out of the airport and all the chaotic scenes pretty much every American saw in the news that summer.
>> Let me ask you, intelligence agencies, including the CIA, all thought it would take months or longer for the Taliban to take over, for that decent interval to occur.
Those predictions were varied, but none of them predicted the Afghan government would fall while the United States was still there.
>> Just because you don't predict it, doesn't mean you shouldn't be smart enough to plan for it.
I mean, we can go back through the war on terror.
Like, for instance, look at the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
I'm only going back to this because this is another time when there was no contingency plan.
The strategic thinking was, "We are going to invade Iraq and be greeted as liberators," and that's great if it happens, it's optimistic thinking, but then when there was an insurgency, what became obvious was that there had been no deep contingency planning for the worst-case scenario.
So when you're a policymaker and you're making these decisions, it's incumbent on anyone who sits in these positions to be always planning for the worst-case scenario.
>> Have we learned nothing?
>> Well, I don't think we've necessarily learned to have the discipline to always be planning for the worst-case scenario.
And we didn't do it last summer.
>> I want to play for you an audio message from a man that you helped, named Aziz.
We'll call him Aziz.
You call him Aziz.
He worked in the U.S. embassy, and his brother had already been killed by the Taliban when he reached out to you for help.
Listen to this.
You were Aziz's family's first and last hope.
He eventually made it with his family to Qatar, and now he's living in California.
How is he doing?
>> Well, you know, he's trying to build a life, like the tens of thousands of Afghans who we did manage to get out.
And I think, you know, as a nation right now, it's critically important, as we're sitting here one year later, remembering the anniversary of the fall of Kabul and also the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, that this not be a moment where we collectively say, "Okay.
And now it's time to turn the page."
There is still a lot of work to be done.
And still, it's incredibly important that we keep faith with our Afghan allies who we brought here.
So, for instance, Aziz and tens of thousands of other Afghans who managed to make it to the United States, they are currently on humanitarian parole.
So it's very difficult for them to work.
They need their immigration status to be adjusted.
So there is legislation that's sort of slowly working its way through Congress right now, the Afghan Adjustment Act, that would allow the Afghans we brought to this country to get green cards and to get on their pathway toward citizenship.
>> What happens to the 76,000 Afghans living inside the United States who are here on that humanitarian parole if the Afghan Adjustment Act isn't passed?
>> Well, they and their families will be facing deportation.
And I think it's important for all of us, for us as a country to recognize, like, you know, many of these individuals, like, they're not just Afghan heroes who fought for their country, they're American heroes.
These are people who fought alongside us, ostensibly for values that we purport to represent in the world.
These are people who will be an enormous credit to this country.
>> Many of the individuals that you write about in "The Fifth Act" were people who had some connection or relationship with individuals like you who had been in Afghanistan, and they were able to get out.
But there are many others who weren't able to get out.
Do you view our treatment of our Afghan allies and the Afghans who are left behind as a moral indictment on our country?
>> I think it is a moral indictment on us and that I think it's one -- I think that it's one that will be felt for years to come.
You know, the world watched and saw how we left, and there's a lot of work we need to do to repair that.
On an individual level, I can tell you that knowing the Afghans that I was able to help, the only reason they were getting help out of Afghanistan wasn't necessarily because of the service that they'd given over years, but it was because they had in their cellphone just the right connections.
So as this evacuation is taking place and my colleagues and I are making lists, almost like a modern-day Schindler's List, you're putting people's names on these lists and you know whether or not they're on the list or off the list means whether or not they're going to live or die, and you know the only reason they're getting on that list is because they've got your phone number in their phone, it leads to the obvious conclusion that there are so many others who don't have that phone number, they have nobody to call, no one's going to help them.
And that's a moral indictment on us as a country, because those aren't our values.
You know, it shouldn't come down to who you have in your cellphone's contact list is whether or not you and your family are going to live or die or have to spend the next however many years living under the yoke of the Taliban.
>> A July report from Amnesty International detailed the state of human rights inside Afghanistan a year into the Taliban's rule after the United States left.
Discriminatory policies are preventing women from working and girls from going to school.
One Afghan woman said that women there are being sentenced to "death in slow motion."
Are you in contact with men and women who are still on the ground in Afghanistan?
And what are the conditions in Afghanistan now?
>> I'm still in contact with a few who are still in Afghanistan and are trying to get out.
Most of them are in hiding and are very afraid.
And candidly, the prospects for them getting out are extremely slim.
We don't have any type of presence in Afghanistan anymore.
I think when it comes particularly to the plight of women in Afghanistan -- I mean, 20 years is a long time to fight a war.
And at any point in our Afghan odyssey, it was often very difficult to narrow down, "Okay.
What is this war about, and what are the conditions that would dictate us winning it?"
I talked a little bit about my children.
They've asked me a few times like, "Dad, what was the war in Afghanistan about?"
And the two things I could sort of say to them that made sense -- and in particular, my daughter -- was, "Well, we were attacked on 9/11, and we had to go get the people who did that."
That makes sense to a child, who usually has a pretty good sense of logic.
>> You know, and, "We're fighting there so girls like you can go to school."
And they understand that.
And we made a generation's worth of promises to Afghan women.
And we have now stepped away from those promises.
And that is something that lingers on our conscience.
And I think we're going to have to figure out how to make that right as a country.
I don't necessarily know how we're gonna do it, but it's definitely something that weighs on our national conscience.
>> After you wrote your book, the United States killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.
He was not hiding in the mountains.
He was not in a neighboring country.
Was his killing in Kabul an indication that we're back to square one, that Afghanistan is once again a safe haven for terrorists who want to plot against the United States?
>> You know, we've never lacked an ability to kill terrorists.
We've actually gotten very, very good at it.
That's a tactical capability.
That's not a strategy.
That's not a strategy for combating Islamic radicalism.
It's not a strategy that's necessarily going to keep America safe.
The challenge we've always had is, we've never been able to connect our tactical capability, being able to kill terrorists, with an overarching strategy that gets rid of the threat of terrorism around the world.
And so the fact that we killed Zawahiri brings us no way closer to having that type of strategic coherence we need so that we can focus on other issues.
>> But given that the impetus for going to Afghanistan in the first place was to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda and others to plot attacks against the United States, and, very recently, the leader of Al Qaeda was found in Afghanistan, was it all for naught?
>> Well, I think that question of was it all for naught is a, to me, a broader question.
But it certainly shows that Afghanistan is again a safe haven for terrorists because the head of Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan.
So that's a strategic fail there.
You know, then the question of whether Afghanistan is all for naught, to me, is sort of a more fraught question.
Because, again, the war wasn't only about killing members of al Qaeda.
It became about all of these other things.
>> Let's just go back to 2020.
In the Doha Agreement, which the Trump administration had negotiated with the Taliban, the U.S. pledged a full withdrawal, and the Taliban promised the country wouldn't become a safe haven for terrorists.
The Biden administration's position all along was that Trump left him no alternatives to an abrupt exit.
I know you have been critical of both the Trump administration and the Biden administration, but do you believe that Biden needed to continue the policies set by the Trump administration which led to such an abrupt and, frankly, disastrous withdrawal?
And to insinuate that President Biden had absolutely no alternative but to honor the Doha Agreement, which was a terrible agreement, frankly, is preposterous and extremely disingenuous.
So, he's the president of the United States, and he showed, across his administration, an ability and a willingness to unwind a host of policies that President Trump had adopted.
The fact of the matter is, the Biden administration continued the Trump policies, and they own those policies.
They had the ability to renegotiate with the Taliban.
They had the ability to change troop levels if they felt that was needed, they had the ability to do a whole host of things.
But Joe Biden and President Trump are aligned on Afghanistan.
They were aligned in their policies.
And I wish the President would just own that.
>> You've said that you were in favor of maintaining some troop presence in Afghanistan.
Would maintaining 2,500 troops there have made the difference?
>> I think, you know, when we look at what was the state of play before President Trump started unilaterally negotiating with the Taliban, U.S. forces had largely withdrawn from Afghanistan.
At the height of the surge, when I was fighting then, there were 150,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Before the negotiations, there were 15,000.
The reason there could be 15,000 there was because the Afghan army was able to begin waging the war on its own.
So would it be worth having 10,000, 7,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan?
I think it absolutely would.
Right now in Iraq, in Syria, in the Horn of Africa, you know, these are all places where we have U.S. troops deployed.
And we didn't bring all the troops home at the end of the Second World War.
You know, they stayed in Europe.
We didn't bring them all home after the Korean War.
We still have troops in the Korean Peninsula.
Indeed, the only time where we bring all the troops home is when we lose the war.
So it kind of begs this question of, why do those troop numbers have to come to zero?
And is there a universe in which we would have a de minimis U.S. troop presence taking, by the way, zero to no casualties as they were in the last years of the war, and we would still retain a foothold in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan would be a country that wasn't ruled by the Taliban?
I think that is a far better strategic position for the United States than the current one in which Afghanistan is, again, a black hole and the leader of Al Qaeda has been able to set up shop there.
>> This week, more than a dozen retired secretaries of defense and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including two of Trump's former defense secretaries, Jim Mattis and Mark Esper, signed a letter stating that we are "in an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment."
They cite... And they also warn that it could get worse before it gets better.
How much of a danger does this pose for 2024 and beyond?
>> I think this poses a massive danger.
One of the costs of the war on terror has been a significant civil-military divide.
As we go from contested election to contested election, it is extremely dangerous for us to sort of navigate our way through this as a nation.
And so we've seen the types of political violence in our street that have necessitated a significant military response, to include active-duty troops, National Guard troops.
And if that type of political violence occurs around an election, by default, you're asking the U.S. military to participate in American domestic politics, and that gets very slippery very quickly.
You know, the U.S. military is not a monolith.
It's composed of citizens who all have their political biases, as they should.
They all vote one way or another.
But there is a culture in the U.S. military which is that, you know, we don't speak about our politics, we don't speak about it openly.
But that culture can change.
And we have seen the politicization of every single U.S. institution.
And, really, the last one left that has not been overtly politicized is the U.S. military.
What happens if that occurs?
And I think, right now, we're seeing from the left and the right, both sides very much trying to politicize the U.S. military for their own benefit.
And as citizens, we should be extremely concerned about that, because people in uniform, if pushed hard enough around the outcome of election, they might choose -- particularly a presidential election, because who the president is when you wear the uniform, you have a very different relationship with that person than if you don't wear a uniform.
If you're a civilian, the president is the leader of the United States.
If you wear the uniform, the president is your commander in chief.
So if you begin calling into question the legitimacy of the president, you're calling into question the legitimacy of the orders every person wearing the uniform is forced to obey.
And some people might interpret that, who wear the uniform, differently.
Some might think their orders are legitimate, some might think they're illegitimate.
You're inviting that type of a crisis, not only around an election but around the very legitimacy of the U.S. military response to an election.
>> You've warned...
So how do we fix it?
>> You only need to crack open a history book and you can see, I mean, from Caesar's Rome to Napoleon's France, when you couple a large standing military, particularly one where there's a civil-military divide, with dysfunctional domestic politics, yes, democracy doesn't last long.
Those are the conditions of the United States right now.
>> I want to play you a clip from the original "Firing Line" with William F. Buckley Jr. with his guest who was then Major H.R.
And they were talking about the Vietnam war and H.R.
McMaster's book, "Dereliction of Duty."
>> The subtitle of Major McMaster's book is "Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam."
That's very tough language.
And the most obvious question to lead off with is, why did every important person in Washington, seemingly, from 1964 to the end, engage in lying?
>> Typically what you hear about Vietnam and certainly what is contained in the historiography of that war is the interpretation that the war in Vietnam was inevitable and that it was brought on by a tidal wave of Cold War ideology.
What this new evidence reveals, in dramatic fashion, is not only was the war not inevitable, but, indeed, that it was only made possible through these lies and deceptions.
>> So you make a different argument about our failures in Afghanistan.
Not that military brass or politicians were lying to Americans.
All the information was out there.
Americans just weren't paying attention.
So what have you learned about sustaining public commitment to a long-term foreign conflict and engagement?
>> When a healthy democracy goes to war, everyone has skin in the game.
The construct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- these were terror wars fought by an all-volunteer military and sustained through deficit spending -- have made it way too easy for us to casually go to war.
And we should stop as a country right now and ask whether or not we want to continue waging wars in which our politicians are given a massively long leash because the war is, in effect, taken off the books and Americans don't feel it and they're not asked to have skin in the game.
So I would tell any American who didn't fight in these wars, be very cautious of any politician who's trying to sell a war but is telling you you don't need to have skin in the game because it's going to end the way Afghanistan did.
>> Elliot Ackerman, thank you for joining me.
Thanks for coming on "Firing Line."
>> Thank you.
"Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... >> You're watching PBS.