General Joseph L. Votel (Ret.) Joined BENS as CEO and President in January 2020 after a 39-year military career where he commanded special operations and conventional forces at every level; last serving as the Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) where he was responsible for U.S. and coalition military operations in the Middle East, Levant, and Central and South Asia. General Votel’s career included fighting in Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq and he led the 79-member coalition that successfully liberated Iraq and Syria from the Islamic State caliphate. General Votel advanced his assignment at CENTCOM with service as the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and the Joint Special Operations Command.
The Combination Conciseness: Have you ever predicted that the United States would leave the Afghan army on its own so quickly or completely without U.S. air support?
General Voice: I didn’t anticipate that during my time – but after the President sets a difficult departure date – then a quick withdrawal is inevitable. No Commander wants to accept unnecessary risk with troops on the ground when you are against a clearly stated departure date.
The Combination Conciseness: Intelligence estimates wildly missed the mark on how quickly Kabul would fall, what factors contributed most directly to that?
General Voice: Certainly, the departure of our own abilities is a big part of this; the lack of direct contact with Afghan leaders is another important factor; and, of course, once it was clear that we were leaving (and took out our Commander) – we lost priority and access with our normal and reliable Afghan intelligence sources.
The Combination Conciseness: U.S. personnel are facing a deteriorating security situation at Kabul airport while U.S. forces are still deploying for the eventual operation, another sign that the administration has underestimated how quickly the Taliban would reach Kabul. The U.S. could choose to curb the Taliban advance using air power, why didn’t that happen, do you think?
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General Voice: I think it is very clear that this was no longer a priority for our Government. The mission now, at least articulated over the weekend, is to support the evacuation of diplomats and help with the departure of those Afghans who helped the United States and meet the criteria for evacuation. Although I don’t know this for sure – I believe that what we were trying to do with across the horizon air support in a rapidly evolving situation was not optimal or too effective. It doesn’t seem to have done much – if anything.
The Combination Conciseness: The United States has allowed U.S.-supplied military hardware, weapons and technology to fall into the hands of the Taliban, a group responsible for the deaths of U.S. personnel and thousands of innocent Afghans. The U.S. government is responsible for private citizens and corporations on much smaller violations of export violations involving dual-use technology or military equipment, and so on. How Americans should think about this situation now where the Taliban will use equipment paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. , to possibly commit violent acts against American interests, and to erode democratic values that the United States has tried to introduce into Afghanistan?
General Voice: Not sure about this. Unfortunately, it’s not the first time we’ve seen this – do you remember ISIS in 2014, in Mosul? I suspect these will be more trophy pieces than they will be hard military capability – with the exception of handguns, mortars and artillery. Most of this will be difficult for the Taliban to maintain – and they probably prefer their own gear, anyway.
The Combination Conciseness: There is a lot of anger among the national security community right now. What would you say to individuals who have suffered because of the U.S. role in Afghanistan who may feel anger and resentment?
General Voice: I can’t really comment on anger in the national security community – I’m sure that exists, but the feeling that seems stronger to me is disappointment. No one wants what we see now. I think most security professionals can accept a decision to leave the Commander-in-Chief – that’s entirely within his authority, and everyone understands this; what is harder to accept is the way it happened, and how it happened. It was hard for me to watch a Taliban sitting at a conference table where I once sat with the Afghan President. In a number of public engagements, I’ve been involved lately – people have asked me if this whole effort was a waste. My response was consistent. U.S. military personnel, members of the IC and the diplomatic troops behaved honorably during this war. They responded when the Nation called and did their best for our Country, each other, and the Afghan people. There will be plenty of time to blame – but the vast, vast majority of Americans who took part in some aspect of the Afghan War did so nobly and to the best of their ability. Let’s not lose sight of this. That this did not turn out as we all hoped – is not their fault … and I would not want anyone (especially the families of our wounded and killed) to think that these efforts were in vain. That’s not how I thought of them at the time, and that’s not how I think of them now. They answered when the Nation called.
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