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The Pentagon Plans To Support Afghan Forces After U.S. Troops Withdraw


This afternoon, President Biden will speak from the White House about American troops leaving Afghanistan, and we should get some more information on how the U.S. will end its longest war. Here to offer his thoughts, Admiral Mike Mullen. He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011. Sir, good morning.

MIKE MULLEN: Good morning, Noel. How are you?

KING: Good, thank you. The Pentagon says it will continue to support Afghan forces but from a distance. What should that support look like?

MULLEN: Well, I think, given the fact that we are going to withdraw, that we're going to still need to have a focus on the terrorists who exist in that border, as well as support the Afghan government and the Afghan forces as best we can. But it'll be from a distance. There's no question about that. And it certainly won't be as easily done as if we were still on the ground in Afghanistan.

KING: Do you think that leaving is a mistake?

MULLEN: No, I actually - I personally think it's time to go. It's been 20 years. There was, as best I could tell, you know, continuing - a view that there was no end in sight, per se. I am concerned about the number of terrorist organizations that still reside there, and I am also concerned that, you know, the Taliban will eventually take over the country, and it - you know, it could be a real, real bloodbath. But at the same time, at some point in time, Afghanistan has to figure out how to take care of itself. We've expended blood and treasure over two decades. And so I think it's time to come home.

KING: I wonder what you think the aim of U.S. support to Afghanistan will be. As you just pointed out, the Taliban were not deterred by U.S. forces when they were actually on the ground. Is there a different goal here? Is it time to recalibrate what the U.S. wants to happen in Afghanistan?

MULLEN: Well, I think in a way, we've almost been forced to do that over time. And so there probably will be some recalibration on what we'll do, on what the mission will be. And some of that will be driven just by the lack of, you know, proximity, if you will, or being on the ground to support the Afghan forces and to support the Afghan government, per se.

You know, the intent, as far as I know, is to still have a significant presence at the embassy to try to work with the Afghan government as it gets its feet on the ground for the future. But there's great concern that they can. And whether or not the Taliban will try to do this in a way that makes sense and relatively peacefully is, you know, sort of one option. I just remain concerned that - actually, that they will take over the country by force.

KING: The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Austin S. Miller, was talking to reporters recently, and he said, quote, "civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized." Are you concerned about a civil war in Afghanistan?

MULLEN: I'm certainly concerned that, you know, that would be the path with respect to armed conflict, yeah, as the Taliban and as has been widely reported, that they're taking over district after district right now. And many of the Afghan forces are essentially, you know, putting up their hands and saying, you know, the Taliban is going to run this place. And so how far that goes is obviously yet to be determined. But the scary option is that it turns into a really, really tough fight with a significant loss of life, particularly with respect to the Afghan people.

KING: And then does the United States - if that happened, does the United States then need to rethink whether it gets back involved?

MULLEN: Well, I hope we can continue to think about what we're going to do. I don't find it - at this point, anyway - very likely that, given President Biden's position on this, that it would be likely that we would send forces back in. I mean, I'd say nothing's off the table, but clearly the message is, you know, we've been there, we've worked hard and - you know, and we're coming home and not very likely we're going to go back in.

KING: OK. Admiral Mike Mullen - he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011. Thank you for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

MULLEN: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.