[FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW] “Bagram Air Base had prisons there that were filled with thousands of ISIS-K fighters, as well as dozens of members of al-Qaeda, and thousands of Taliban fighters as well. And the United States abandoned Bagram on July 21.”
In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that in five months, on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. troops would completely withdraw from Afghanistan. By the end of August, the Taliban was back in charge.
“What happened in Afghanistan did not stay in Afghanistan, and the world became a more dangerous place,” says investigative journalist Jerry Dunleavy. He is co-author of the new book “Kabul: The Untold Story of Biden’s Fiasco and the American Warriors Who Fought to the End.”
“You heard President Biden and many people around him continually saying throughout 2021 that the Afghan military was 300,000 strong, and that they could obviously therefore fight off a smaller Taliban force,” says Mr. Dunleavy. “This 300,000 figure was a complete fiction and was well known to be a fiction at the time.
Mr. Dunleavy and I discuss President Biden’s decision-making process with regard to the Afghanistan withdrawal, the other players involved, and why the media has, for the most part, lost interest in the story.
“The Biden administration is not going to hold themselves accountable, obviously. Most of the mainstream media has no interest in holding Biden accountable. And so, the book is an effort at doing that—at holding Biden accountable for this disaster,” says Mr. Dunleavy.
Jan Jekielek: Jerry Dunleavy, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Jerry Dunleavy: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Mr. Jekielek: I'm familiar with you from years ago around 2017 when there were very few people reporting on what's now known as Russiagate. Some of us called it Spygate back in the day, and you were one of them. I just want to tip my hat to someone who saw some very strange things going on and wasn't believing the mainstream narrative at the time around the so-called Trump-Russia collusion.
Mr. Dunleavy: I spent a few years as a reporter at The Washington Examiner where I was writing about this ridiculous, and now obviously completely discredited Steele dossier, the Clinton campaign's role in funding it, and the FBI's use of it. For a while, that was a lonely place to be.
Mr. Jekielek: Everybody was very aware of the people that were counter-narrative back then, and you could count them on your hand. However, let's jump to the issue at hand. You've co-authored the book, Kabul: The Untold Story of Biden's Fiasco and the American Warriors Who Fought to the End. This is the story of the Afghanistan withdrawal. We know terrible things happened and we know it wasn't handled well. But curiously, it's something that has completely fallen out of the public perception. You have really dug deep here. You've spoken to Congress as an investigator around this issue, even though today you're here in your personal capacity. Congratulations on that.
Mr. Dunleavy: Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: Let's start here. Why are we not thinking about this Afghanistan withdrawal?
Mr. Dunleavy: As the debacle was unfolding in August 2021, for a very brief moment the media was covering this as the Taliban took over Kabul and we saw those desperate scenes of crowds at the airport, and we saw Afghans falling from planes. Then we almost saw on live television an ISIS-K terrorist blow himself up and kill those 13 American heroes and wound dozens more. Some people were willing to give President Biden a chance, but this blew up two big things that Biden had been touting in the 2020 election—that he would be experienced and competent and that he would be an empathetic leader.
The way that this withdrawal was handled with tons of Americans left behind, tens of thousands of Afghan allies left behind, and those 13 Americans killed in that suicide bombing blew up that narrative. It blew up the idea that President Biden was competent and it blew up the idea that he was empathetic, because this was the opposite of competence and the opposite of empathy.
The media was happy to very quickly move on, because this event did permanent damage to President Biden's approval rating. You can see it in the numbers that this is something that he never fully recovered from with the American people. Rightly so, because this was a decision of his own making and based on his own lack of planning.
Of course, there were 20 years of mistakes and 20 years of tragic American deaths, but ultimately, this was President Biden's decision and it's on him. He has played a small political price, but there has been no real accountability. Nobody has been fired, and no one has resigned. Some people have been promoted. Once Republicans took over starting in 2023, they've just been stonewalling Congress, because they want to turn the page.
My co-author James Hasson and I wrote this book because the Biden administration is obviously not going to hold themselves accountable. Most of the mainstream media has no interest in holding Biden accountable. The book is an effort at holding Biden accountable for this disaster.
Mr. Jekielek: You pay a lot of attention to a few key issues. You've done some forensic work around the Abbey Gate bombing. At the same time you looked at the people left behind, and also the 100,000 Afghans brought over to America. I want to find out who they are. You also talk about a shift in the global dynamic as a result of everything that has happened. You have a whole chapter on the Chinese Communist Party’s designs on Afghanistan, and its use as a propaganda tool. Let’s start with that.
Mr. Dunleavy: Obviously this was a disaster for Afghanistan. Some members of the Taliban government are also considered to be essentially dual-headed members of Al-Qaeda, and you can see the terrorist threat growing in Afghanistan. It's a problem for Afghanistan, but what happened in Afghanistan did not stay in Afghanistan, and the world has become a more dangerous place.
One chapter in our book relates to Russia's response to this disaster in Afghanistan. We make a very strong case that Vladimir Putin's decision to go into Ukraine was likely prompted, at least in part, by the way that NATO and the U.S. were in complete shambles. We also have an entire chapter devoted to China's response to this disaster in Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover. The name of that chapter is, “The CCP and the Kabul moment.”
Mr. Jekielek: Which they keep touting.
Mr. Dunleavy: Which they absolutely keep touting. The Kabul moment is what the Chinese Communist Party decided to label this whole event as part of their propaganda effort to undermine the United States and to undermine and threaten Taiwan. The Taliban was clearly on the verge of taking over Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, and prior to this, the CCP had been getting closer to the Taliban for a number of years.
They got really close to them in 2021, because the Chinese saw the writing on the wall, and the United States government apparently didn't. This is what the Kabul moment means to the CCP. They looked at Taiwan and said, “Look, this is what happened after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, and this is how it ends. The Taliban is now in charge. Look at how the United States treated its Afghan allies, with tens of thousands of them being left behind.”
The CCP basically said to Taiwan, “This is the fate that awaits you, especially if you think that you can count on the United States, and especially if you try to fight back in the event of an invasion. Don't even try, because this is what the United States does to its allies.” This is the CCP’s propaganda.
When we titled that chapter, “The CCP and the Kabul moment,” I was wondering if China was going to continue doing this, or if this chapter is somehow going to be stale by the time the book comes out. But sure enough, when the book came out right around the second anniversary of the Taliban takeover, the Chinese foreign ministry immediately returned to this, bringing up the Kabul moment again as an opportunity to undermine the United States and threaten Taiwan.
Mr. Jekielek: This is propaganda warfare gold for the CCP, and the CCP will use this to elevate itself. There are numerous propaganda narratives that have been around since time immemorial, and this one will also be around for a long time. This is on top of decades of information warfare against Taiwan, with the goal being to take it over without firing a single shot.
Mr. Dunleavy: Exactly. We just gave the CCP another tool to put in their propaganda toolkit when it comes to undermining Taiwan.
Mr. Jekielek: What about the CCP’s actual designs on Bagram and Afghanistan, how is that playing out? The CCP has been showing itself as a supporter of the Taliban, and it has been fighting for the Taliban at the UN. The money of the previous government has been frozen. They're advocating to get that money unfrozen, which will then benefit them. Please tell me about this.
Mr. Dunleavy: The CCP is probably the most powerful voice on the world stage right now that is advocating for the Taliban's interests. A big piece of that is there are currently billions of dollars of former Afghan government funds that have been frozen by the United States. The CCP has been pushing the United States relentlessly for two years to free that money and hand it over to the Taliban.
This is what the CCP wants. This is obviously what the Taliban wants as well, so their interests are aligned there. Since the United States exited Afghanistan and the Taliban took over, the CCP has been working to increase its economic presence there, and also slowly but surely working to increase its military and intelligence interests there as well.
On the economic front, China is very interested in Afghanistan's natural resources and its rare earth minerals. Afghanistan has a wealth of natural resources and rare earth minerals that they haven't been able to tap into for many years, largely because of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda attacks that have made day-to-day business very difficult.
China is very interested in partnering with the Taliban to gain access to those natural resources, not just to enrich the Chinese economy, but also to help build up the Chinese military. This connection between the Chinese economy and the Chinese military buildup is very strong.
So far, the Chinese have had some success with entering into some pretty lucrative deals with the Taliban, and that will likely continue. There are also indications that Huawei will be entering the Afghanistan space in a much more significant way. There is also evidence that Chinese intelligence has been helping the Taliban to track down certain people that would be of interest to both the CCP and the Taliban.
It does not look like China has gained access to Bagram Air Base yet, which China is certainly very interested in. There were many reasons why it was a very foolish idea for the United States and the Biden administration to give up Bagram Air Base.
Bagram was a very strategic air base for the U.S. for projecting our air power throughout Afghanistan, which was incredibly helpful and key for striking the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, ISIS-K and keeping the Taliban at bay. It was also strategic because it could monitor U.S. foes and U.S. frenemies. Pakistan is probably more of a foe than a frenemy, but certainly it is in that category.
It was helpful for monitoring a foe like China because Bagram Air Base is fairly close to the Chinese border. Giving it up was bad for that strategic reason. If you're going to do an evacuation from Afghanistan from Kabul airport, a tiny airport in the middle of a dense urban environment in a city full of millions of people that ended up being controlled by the Taliban, it was not a smart place to do an evacuation from.
On top of that, Bagram Air Base had prisons there that were filled with thousands of ISIS-K fighters, dozens of members of Al-Qaeda, and thousands of Taliban fighters as well. The United States abandoned Bagram on July 21st. That was giving up our final big strategic footprint in Afghanistan, and our final real base to project power in Afghanistan. It also meant that we were leaving behind these thousands of prisoners.
The first thing that the Taliban did when they took over Bagram on August 15th was to open the doors to those prisons and free thousands of prisoners, including thousands of ISIS-K prisoners. One of those prisoners was the man who would go on to kill 13 Americans and nearly 200 Afghans at Abbey Gate just about a week-and-a-half later.
Mr. Jekielek: Why would you abandon this base? It just doesn't make any sense.
Mr. Dunleavy: President Biden was maniacal about a full U.S. troop withdrawal, except for 600 or fewer to protect the embassy in Kabul. To maintain Bagram you need a few more troops than that. You don't need 10,000 troops, but you do need more than 600 if you're going to maintain Bagram Air Base, maintain the U.S. embassy, and hold on to Kabul airport.
But President Biden was obsessed with getting the troop levels vastly below that, so that he could say that the U.S. military was essentially gone from Afghanistan, outside of the presence that guards our embassy. This just shows how befuddling the entire episode was. He set the full U.S. troop withdrawal date for September 11th, 2021, which is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
When most Americans looked at that, everybody was confused. Many of them probably felt like that was a punch in the gut, because it made no sense to pick the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks at 9/11 that killed 3000 people on American soil. It wasn't a strategic decision, it was a political one. Perhaps he wanted some sort of victory lap on the 20th anniversary, but it remains a confusing decision to this day.
But the other problem was that the U.S. was leaving Afghanistan right in the middle of the Afghan fighting season. After 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan, everybody knows that spring is when fighting ramps up again as the snow melts and the weather gets better. The mountain passes clear, and then the Taliban can move a lot of people from Pakistan into Afghanistan across the AfPak border. The fighting ramps up in the spring, and then it's at its heaviest in the summer and on into the fall.
Biden's announcement meant that we were pulling U.S. troops through the spring and the summer, right as the Taliban was ramping up its fighting. It was not just pulling our troops, but also pulling our logistics, our ISR, our advisors, and our contractors. Those were all things that had been supporting the Afghan military, already a very shaky military.
We knew that if we pulled out all of those things in rapid fashion with no plan about how to continue to assist the Afghan military and Afghan Air Force in any significant way, we knew that the Afghan military would not be able to function. Biden's announcement about a spring to summer withdrawal means that the Taliban is taking over in spring to summer, and it means that on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Taliban would be back in charge.
Mr. Jekielek: If you talked to people on ground they would tell you these Afghani forces were not going to be able to hold anything. But there was other intelligence which told a different story than the one being used in the decision-making. Can you clarify that? You seem convinced that people knew that the Afghani forces would not be able to hold anything.
Mr. Dunleavy: There were classified studies that were conducted by think tanks for the Pentagon ahead of 2021 that made it very clear that the Afghan military just would not be able to function without U.S. military assistance, unless the United States came up with a real plan about how to assist them in some other way, which the Biden administration never did. We just pulled out the U.S. troops and that was that.
There were also warnings from the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan well ahead of this debacle in August, saying that the U.S. military pulling out meant that the Afghan military would not be able to function. As the Taliban advanced, there were some Afghan units that fought and fought bravely. There were hundreds and likely thousands of Afghan troops who died in 2021 fighting the Taliban, but a lot of them didn't. A lot of them dissolved and just fell apart. Some of them surrendered and some of them fled. Some of them were limited because they weren't getting food, they weren't getting ammunition, and they weren't getting the basic resources that they needed.
Unfortunately, they weren't getting much in the way of U.S. air support anymore, which was something that had been critical in their fight against the Taliban. The Biden administration throughout all of this was continuously misleading the American people and the world about the size and strength of the Afghan military. You heard President Biden and many people around him continually saying throughout 2021 that the Afghan military was 300,000 strong and that they could therefore fight off a smaller Taliban force.
This 300,000 figure was a complete fiction, and it was well known to be fiction at the time. On paper, the Biden administration was combining the size of the Afghan military and the Afghan police. On paper, those two combined got you to around 300,000. But no other military in the world measures its size by combining its military and its police. The United States doesn't do that, and nobody really does that, so it was misleading in that regard.
Another known problem was that there were things called basically Afghan ghost soldiers or Afghan ghost units, which were soldiers or units that just existed on paper but weren't really there. It was likely someone in the Afghan military collecting a check in some way, but these units did not really exist.
We knew that throughout 2021 the Afghan military was falling apart without our support. This 300,000 figure that the Biden administration continued to tout was a total fiction. But they continued to tout it, and it misled the American people. It also misled the Americans who were in Afghanistan, because it was painting a very misleading picture about what the Afghan military was going to be able to do. Obviously, it ended in disaster with the Taliban taking over and Americans and Afghan allies getting left behind.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you think was the guiding principle behind this whole debacle? You have a theory.
Mr. Dunleavy: Yes, I do. We try to get into President Biden's head a little bit in the book. The way that we do that is by looking at his history. One vignette that we tell is going back to the Vietnam War. President Biden was elected senator when he was 30-years-old, and he got into the Senate near the tail end of the Vietnam War. He was there too late to make his name as a big anti-Vietnam war advocate.
He decided to make a name for himself by being the most vocal voice in the country fighting against the efforts by then President Gerald Ford, Republicans, and also many Democrats to bring out our South Vietnamese allies as the North Vietnamese marched south towards Saigon.
President Ford wanted to bring out a lot of these South Vietnamese allies. President Biden tried to make his mark by standing against that. There's one quote that I dug up from the congressional archives where he essentially says, “We don't have a moral obligation to 100, 001, or even one South Vietnamese. That was his mentality during the war in Vietnam. That mentality and that feeling towards the current United States local allies carried over.
You could see a little bit of that when he was President Obama's vice president. When he was Obama's vice president he got a big chip on his shoulder related to the U.S. military and the U.S. military generals in particular, because while he was Obama's vice president, pretty much nobody was listening to Vice President Biden. The military generals were quite annoyed with him.
One thing to note was that President Biden, then vice president, was pretty much the only voice who opposed the U.S. raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden. This was a combination of things like not really caring very much about our allies and having a big chip on his shoulder related to military advice. It was also feeling like he wanted to make his mark on the war in Afghanistan, because no one had really listened to him while he was vice president.
He had missed his chance to make his mark by opposing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. As president he wanted to make his mark, and he wanted to get out. We lay out in the book how this was a singular focus of his early presidency. He just wasn't open to anyone who told him, “Look, this will be a disaster.” He really didn't care.
Mr. Jekielek: At the same time though, the U.S. has brought over 100,000 Afghans. Maybe that stands in juxtaposition to what you just said. There seems to have been a big interest in getting people out.
Mr. Dunleavy: By August 2021, the U.S. military is essentially gone from Afghanistan. We have given up Bagram. The Taliban is on the march, and the Taliban is taking over provincial capitals. The Taliban takes over Kabul, and the United States is in control of a small airport and nothing else. The Taliban at that point pretty much controlled all of Afghanistan.
U.S. military leaders decided that the only option was to cooperate with the Taliban in order to get Americans and our Afghan allies out. This put the U.S. military in the position where we were relying on the Taliban to provide “security” outside the Kabul airport.
Many of the people that we were trying to get out would have to make it through that Taliban gauntlet to get to the airport, because so many Americans and Afghan allies were now stranded behind Taliban lines. There was no real plan in place from the Biden administration about how to get all of those Americans out and about how to get all of those tens of thousands of Afghan allies out.
Mr. Jekielek: That strains credulity. There must have been some type of plan.
Mr. Dunleavy: There was no real plan to get Americans and Afghan allies out in a large number in a rapid fashion. Such a thing didn't really exist. The state department's planning for an evacuation was paltry, to say the least. In fact, the State Department didn't officially request a non-combatant evacuation [NEO] until after the Taliban had taken over Kabul. Essentially, there was no plan in place about how to get all these Americans and Afghan allies out, because there was no planning for a situation where we would have to do it with the Taliban controlling the entire country.
Very early on from August 15th, it became very clear that the United States was not going to get all of the Americans out. The United States certainly was not going to get all of those tens of thousands of Afghan allies out, many of whom we had made promises to, and many of whom had worked and fought alongside the United States for years or even decades.
Biden was pushing them very hard to get those numbers up, because there was no way that the U.S. was going to successfully complete what many Americans thought the mission should be, which was to get all Americans out and to get all of our Afghan allies out. There was no way that that was going to happen because of the situation that Biden had put us in.
The Biden administration's measurement of success instead turned into getting a really big number of people out. That is still the level of success that the Biden administration points to today. When they called this a success, they pointed to that large figure of over 100,000 people evacuated from August 15th until we left at the end of August. But many Americans, well over a thousand, and tens of thousands of Afghan allies were left behind.
You can look at that 100,000-plus figure and start to break it down. You will see that a relatively small number of those who got out were actually Afghan allies and Afghan special immigrant visa holders and applicants. Potentially, all of the Afghans that got out felt like if they stayed in Afghanistan it would be a terrible time for them, as it is for everyone in Afghanistan. Many of them felt that they would be at some risk from the Taliban. But many of them didn't have a specific connection to assisting the United States and NATO in fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from 2001 to 2021.
We can get into this a bit further. There was chaos at the airport as the Taliban turned Americans and Afghan allies away, sometimes beating Americans, and sometimes killing Afghans in full view of us. There was this general chaos with crowds storming into the airport and eventually sometimes making it onto the planes.
Because of this chaos and because of the U.S. reliance on the Taliban, some of the people that were evacuated didn't really have any particular connection to the United States. Some of them were not vetted properly before they made it over here. Dozens were essentially considered to be national security risks, and they turned up because of biometrics with their fingerprints on IEDs that the United States had distributed.
A small number of them seemed to have connections to the Taliban, whether being liberated by the Taliban or having other connections to the Taliban. Some of the unvetted Afghan refugees that made their way to the United States had committed various crimes. In terms of the whole number of people that we got out, it was a relatively small number of people. But when you're talking about dozens of people being deemed national security risks, and you're talking about serious, heinous crimes, this is a problem.
It all went back to the fact that the Biden administration knew very early on that Americans and Afghan allies were going to get left behind. Their measurement of success had to be something different than getting all Americans and Afghan allies out. The measurement of success became trying to get a large number of people out instead.
Mr. Jekielek: What happened with all these people that would be of concern at the moment? 100,000 people is a substantial number.
Mr. Dunleavy: Some of the people that were identified to be national security risks were either imprisoned or deported. But according to the government records, some of them were not identified and were not located, and some of them likely still haven't been identified.
Mr. Jekielek: What about everybody else? Are they living in cities or in small town America? Do you have any sense of that?
Mr. Dunleavy: There are Afghan refugee populations that are somewhat scattered around the United States. A decent number of them actually live in the Washington DC, Virginia, and Maryland area. They were brought without a real plan from the Biden administration about what was going to happen next for them, because the Biden administration didn't plan on bringing tens of thousands of people over in a rapid fashion.
You could see that with