CLAY: Afghanistan, roughly 95% of our troops are out. You were there. What is your read on what’s going on on the ground, and how soon might it be the case that it’s like we were never there at all?
BUCK: I was in Afghanistan 10 years ago, and it’s as if the nightmare that we all expected then is unfolding now in terms of the Taliban. Now, by the way, I don’t change my position on this based on the administration. I was for Trump’s drawdown in Afghanistan; I remain for Biden’s draw down.
But that also means we have to be very clearheaded about what’s going on right now and how rapidly this is deteriorating. Here’s what I’m hearing from people that are watching this very closely on the ground and have deep knowledge of what’s the Taliban is up to specifically, Clay, and leveraging some of my government contacts and people I know who have been working this issue for, in some cases now, 20 years.
BUCK: The Taliban has decided that instead of what has been the expectation, which was in the Pashtun heartlands of the south and east of the Taliban is a Pashtun tribal organization — they’re going after what they feel would be the Northern Alliance part two, or the area of the country where greater stability, more pro-U.S. presence.
So they’re going after the harder-to-get areas already, knowing in their minds that they’ll be able to consolidate what they already have in the Pashtun heartland in the south and east of the country, places like Kandahar, places like Jalalabad and Nangar province.
So these are things that are happening that were not expected by those who were preparing for this. And it does look also, Clay, like the Taliban is executing on a war plan here that south clearly had a lot of time to think about. That has caught people in the Afghan security apparatus, the Afghan national government side, off guard, and it’s looking really bad.
CLAY: And we’re gonna talk about this some tomorrow, but for people out there who might say, “Ah, I’m not really concerned about what happens in Afghanistan,” the fear would be, Buck, that we’re going to return to a pre-9/11 Afghanistan where terrorists are going to have free rein to potentially be able to use that area as plotting ground as they did with the 9/11 attacks and that we’re going to be leaving ourselves open to the same kind of issues that led to 9/11.
BUCK: We’re hoping that that thinking reflects the vision of the world with Al-Qaeda 20 years ago and won’t be what it is now, where you have Al-Qaeda elements or Islamic State elements — very similar but different organizations, different organizational structure — in Yemen, operating in concert with Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, with Al-Shabaab in Somalia, these different offshoots of what are effectively global jihadist franchises.
We’ve been existing with them — or we’ve been in a world where they exist — for many years now. So even if you have extremism with the Taliban on the rise and in control in Afghanistan, we may think of this now, Clay, as a manageable problem, is the idea; we’ll send some air strikes or some special operations support, perhaps, to an embattled Afghan government.
But we’re looking, I think… I think this is heading to a place we’re gonna end up telling the Taliban, if you make us come back — if you make us regret leaving in a way that people in America are mobilized the way we were after 9/11 — they will never have seen anything like what the U.S. response is at that point. I think that’s a conversation that is effectively gonna happen, although I don’t know if the Biden administration is willing to have that conversation.
CLAY: And also, whether the Taliban is gonna be afraid of any sort of American issues, because basically their plan for a long time has been, “We’re here for generations. Eventually the Americans are gonna leave just like the Russians did.”
BUCK: Yeah. The one thing that we know historically, militants in Afghanistan have been really good at is waiting out great powers who have come through and tried to seize control. That is, effectively, the history of Afghanistan as we’ve talked about. Not just stretching back to the Soviet mujahideen era, but also two major British invasions toward the end of the nineteenth century, going back into invasions by Alexander the Great and other conquerors.