In this Q&A with Kash Patel, former chief of staff at the Pentagon and chief architect of Trump’s plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan, he breaks down how we should have pulled out, and how we got into this mess in the first place.
During the final months of President Trump’s term in office, the world watched our slow march towards the conclusion of America’s longest war. By then, most military personnel had already been withdrawn, and considerable ground had been covered in the administration’s bid to reduce the US presence in Afghanistan.
At the time, Kash Patel was the chief of staff at the Pentagon, having been tasked with preparing the ground for implementation of the final phase of the process. No more than a contingent of military personnel would linger, to ensure that no Americans were stranded. In his previous position as Deputy Assisstant to the President for Counterterrorism, and Senior Director for Counterterrorism on the National Security Council, Mr. Patel had found himself playing a primary role in the elimination of ISIS and al-Qaeda leadership, while engaging in the safe repatriation of dozens of Americans held hostage by adversarial regimes.
When President Trump designated Mr. Patel to oversee the drafting and implementation of the complete departure of American troops and civilians from Afghanistan, his focus was on hostage-taking prevention and advantage-taking preemption. Aside from the results of the 2020 election, everything was going according to plan.
Then, in January 2021 a new administration marched into town, and instead of seeking common ground, the new leadership decided to march to the beat of an entirely different drummer. Deadlines were ditched and plans were shredded. Before long, the situation on the ground was out of control.
As the situation continues to unfold, Mr. Patel shares his thoughts and frustrations on the debacle.
For anyone who knows Americans who’ve been stranded or came close to it, the situation in Afghanistan has to be very personal.
I served in the Department of Defense on multiple tours and over several administrations as a civilian, so it’s hard not to make it a little personal when you’ve spent time in that country and lost friends and colleagues.
You try to set that aside, but when you look at the situation today you can see that it’s one of the biggest failures of this administration. Joe Biden’s national security advisor, secretary of defense and secretary of state came out and said, “We don’t know how many American citizens are in Afghanistan or where they are, and we don’t have a plan to withdraw them.” That’s just a tragic failure of leadership. Biden’s was no plan at all, it was a reactionary evacuation.
I assume that your plan didn’t ignore the existence of civilians.
Quite the opposite. President Trump didn’t shy away from the fact that his plan was always about America First, which meant that American citizens come first. The plan we had in place accounted for the safe withdrawal of US citizens when the conditions on the ground were being met by the Afghans and the Taliban. So not only didn’t we forget about them, we put them at the forefront.
What would you say was the point of no return for the US?
Short answer: We should have never given up Bagram Airfield. That was our command-and-control for the entire theater. Imagine cutting off somebody’s head and expecting the rest of his body to still function. It was our brain center. When we surrendered Bagram, we surrendered our airlift and fixed-wing capabilities, not to mention our biggest caches of weapons and machinery. Bagram also had a detention center for terrorists whom we or our allies had arrested or captured.
So when Joe Biden gave up Bagram, he gave up all those things and flooded Afghanistan with terrorists. That’s why you’ve been seeing a deteriorating security situation in Kabul. Bagram and Kabul are only separated by a 20-minute flight, and our epicenter of operation was gutted. Biden was just playing it by ear and winging it by using Kabul International Airport instead, which was never in the plan.
We’ve seen virtually no response from the administration after the recent attacks on the Kabul airport.
That’s the tragic failure of leadership in America. Our commander in chief and vice president refuse to address the fact that Americans are stranded due to their lack of planning. American citizens are now in a theater of war, and they don’t have a plan to get them out. Their only plan is to have Jen Psaki go to the podium and declare, “How dare you say that we are stranding Americans? We are calling and emailing and texting everyone we can.”
I’ve never been more disgusted at a national security official. We don’t call, text and email Americans in a theater of war, we’re supposed to unleash our Special Forces operators and military experts to get them. When I heard that, I was so angered that I had to take a moment to catch my breath. The vacuum is currently being filled by the brave men and women with whom I served but have since retired. Today, they’re flying airplanes and putting together charter organizations to get American citizens out of Afghanistan. They’re doing the work that the American government is failing to do because they care more about having a plan than deflecting and shifting blame.
As someone who laid the groundwork for getting US civilians out of Afghanistan, do you have any idea how many have been left behind?
A lot of that data is dependent on classified information. Generally speaking, in a country like England [with which we are not at war], there is an endless number of Americans coming and going. But in places like Afghanistan, our embassy—which we also surrendered—has running accounts of all Americans in the country, because it’s a theater of war. And let’s not forget about our NATO allies and the relationships we had with NGOs run by Americans.
If this administration wanted to formulate a plan they could have done so from that intelligence, which still exists. They just refused to take ownership of the situation and laid all the blame at the feet of the Trump administration. Look, the tally will never be 100% accurate because it’s impossible in a place like Afghanistan, but at least we made an effort, and this administration did not.
One component of your plan was a unity government between the Taliban and Afghan government. Break that down for us.
We had come to the realization that the Taliban weren’t going anywhere. With two big factions competing for power, one component of our plan was that after the repudiation of al-Qaeda, ISIS and all other terrorists, the two groups would come together to form an interim peace government, with the agreement that a democratic election would follow.
Whether they decided on a fully democratic system or a parliamentary one would have been up to them to sort out, but that’s what we were aiming for.
So it’s entirely possible that the Taliban would have ended up in control of the government anyway.
What we’re seeing now is the Taliban dictating to America for the first time. Secretary Pompeo met with Abdul Ghani Baradar, the head of the Taliban, and told him in no uncertain terms that if one American or American interest was harmed, the Department of Defense was going to unleash everything it had to destroy them. It was not an empty threat. When he said that, they realized that they had to be serious about negotiating in good faith. The threat continued throughout the negotiations, because they knew President Trump would stay true to his word.
That’s the kind of power you need for a successful negotiation, but when you completely surrender like Joe Biden, the Taliban is now saying, ‘America, we’re gonna run our country our way and you’re out.”
Has anybody from the Biden administration reached out to you or anyone on your team for any kind of advice or guidance?
No, of course not. While the Biden administration spent the transition making personal attacks against me and anyone else who was involved, our instructions were very clear: we were to facilitate the transition without failure. So we provided them with more documents than had ever been provided to a new administration. We also reached out to the secretary of defense’s chief of staff, the undersecretaries and the deputy secretaries to give them our plans, but they refused to speak to us or call us back. I have no idea if they reviewed the millions of documents we sent them. I thought that maybe they were coming in with their own plan, but as we now know, they clearly didn’t have one.
I wish they had taken the opportunity to speak with us, and maybe they would have had a plan in place.
In your opinion, why did the Biden team choose to dismiss your plan without replacing it with anything?
I believe it’s because of their hatred of Trump. I’ve been saying that for a long time and it has been proven true. It’s the reason they refused to meet with us or associate with anything that has President Trump’s fingers on it.
What has the administration been doing from May 1 until now?
The tragedy is that our commander-in-chief has been doing nothing; there is no plan for Afghanistan. I wish there was a plan that you and I could critique and say what’s working and what’s not.
When we transferred power, we made sure the Biden administration had the details of the plan. I don’t think anyone working for President Trump cared about [who gets the credit]. What we cared about is the work and the mission. I’m a career national security guy. Withdrawing from Afghanistan successfully and with a plan is a win for America. I’m always cheering for America’s national security success, and I’m still doing so today.
In an interview our editor-in-chief recently conducted with former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Hugo Llorens, he described the deal reached between the Taliban and the US back in February 2020 as follows: “I’ve been in government for 36 years, and I’ve been in diplomacy for 40 years, and that agreement was probably the worst one I have seen in my life.” What are your thoughts?
It’s shocking how wrong he is.
That agreement was the beginning of peace negotiations with both the Taliban and the Afghan government; they were all at the negotiating table. In Afghanistan you have to be willing to negotiate with all parties who are going to have a say in their country’s future. Like it or not, the Taliban have been in Afghanistan for decades. They are not all good people, but it is their land too. Unless you want the US military to stay forever, you have to be willing to speak with those who control large portions of the population and land of Afghanistan—both the Afghan government and the Taliban. No prior president, other than Trump, was willing to engage. That, in its own right, takes guts, because you are going to get shelled no matter what.
The ambassador didn’t mention the biggest threat Trump made to the Taliban that kept them in check—that we would unleash the entire force of the Department of Defense should harm befall a single American. We lost zero Americans during our conditions-based withdrawal.
We didn’t talk about peace; we took action to achieve it.
There is concern among Americans that we shouldn’t take any Afghan refugees in because they cannot be properly vetted. What kind of balance would your plan have taken in addressing the concerns of our Afghan allies—who did everything they could for the US over the course of 20 years—and their families facing the Taliban treat, as well as the concerns of our own citizens who might feel threatened by the presence of these refugees?
There’s a system in place to vet individuals, whether they’re coming in on an SIV, a visa, for employment at the State Department or some other agency, or on a contract basis. That system wasn’t run by the State Department on its own; it included the intelligence community and the Department of Defense.
However, when you don’t have a plan in place to vet people as they come in, and you surrender your position in Afghanistan, then everybody wants to be vetted at the same time. Our system isn’t built for that. It can’t process that many people securely and safely, and that’s how people slip through the cracks. That’s why you have people who are supposedly our allies getting arrested in Middle Eastern countries after they were revealed to have ties to ISIS.
I don’t think that situation is going to improve, because America does not have a process in place that can safely vet all these thousands of people trying to flee at the last minute; it’s just impossible. That’s what happens when you don’t have a plan.
Would your original deadline of May 1 have provided enough time to adequately vet all of these people?
According to the agreement with the Taliban and the Afghan government, a successful withdrawal would’ve been possible if the conditions were met. We were on track for that. Once President Biden came in and said, “I’m not abiding by any agreement that President Trump made in Afghanistan,” the Taliban’s reaction was, “If you’re going to violate an agreement we made with the former president of the United States, we’re just going to wait you out. You violated the agreement, not us.” And now you see how that’s playing out.
Kash Patel appears weekly on Kash’s Corner on Epoch Times, where he discusses national security and law enforcement issues of the day.