Senior Airman Taylor Crul/AP
Last August, as city after city in Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie watched from his post in Tampa, Florida.
McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command at the time, was in regular contact with US forces on the ground in Afghanistan during their evacuation. His position took him to oversee military operations in East Africa, the Middle East and beyond.
Recently retired, McKenzie joined All things Considered to reflect on the pullout from Afghanistan, who bears responsibility for how it happened, and how the US “lost track” of why it was in the country to begin with.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On communication between the United States and the Taliban during evacuations
In fact, I flew to Doha on August 15 to speak to the Taliban, to tell them that we were, in fact, going to withdraw. We were going to execute an evacuation operation of non-combatants – a NEO in our technical lexicon – and if they interfered with it, we would punish them severely.
They were actually receptive to this message. And let me be very clear: I don’t trust the Taliban. I have a long experience with them, I don’t believe they keep their word. But in this particular case, we shared an interest. We wanted to leave and they wanted us to leave.
So in this very transactional and momentary period, they did not interfere with our withdrawal. And I thought that was very important and probably allowed us to do it the way we did.
On the original strategy that was planned for the evacuation
The plan was to try to get the Taliban to stop at a perimeter of maybe 15 or 20 kilometers outside of Kabul. We didn’t want them to come closer until we withdrew our forces.
By the time I arrived they were already in downtown Kabul so this plan was no longer operational, but they continued to be responsive. I left this meeting with what I needed – we were going to be able to execute our plan to get our people out and as many other people out as possible.
The Taliban weren’t going to interfere with us. And we had, in fact, established a modality where my commanders on the ground could talk to them about security issues around the airport. So we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish at this meeting.
Why the vision of an orderly evacuation wasn’t realized, and they weren’t able to get everyone out in an orderly fashion.
We couldn’t do it. And that’s something that still haunts me today. We had forces around the airport on the 15th and 16th. I actually visited the airport on the 17th August. I was on the ground, walked around a bit, saw some of the things that were going on. And what you have is a capacity problem. You have to deal with all these people. It took quite a while, frankly, for our consular officers to arrive in sufficient numbers to deal with the crowds of people outside.
So, no, we didn’t get everyone out that we wanted to get out. We brought out over 120,000 people. And that’s the good news. The bad news — and I’ll never try to deny it — is that we didn’t get everyone we wanted out, especially a lot of Afghans who have helped us over the years, who have been our partners, often in combat, often at other very demanding times. They expected us to realize them. We didn’t and we couldn’t. And that’s something that, as I noted earlier, still haunts me to this day.
On what could have been done differently
Well, every time American soldiers, sailors, Marines lose their lives, you spend a lot of time thinking about decisions you could have made and done differently. So, yeah, I kind of think about it from the point of view, right at the end, “What could we have done differently?”
What we should have done is we should have started getting people out much earlier, rather than waiting until the very end. Now, the problem with that is — it’s an interesting counterfactual, but you have the government of Afghanistan saying, look, the people you’re bringing out are the best in Afghanistan. If you want to fight, you can’t let these people out.
Who bears the responsibility for how it all turned out
Ultimately, the chain of command does. It was a national decision made by the president, and we executed that decision. We had the opportunity to discuss it. We had the opportunity to give our opinion. The president made a decision and we carried it out.
Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/AP
On what the United States has achieved after 20 years in Afghanistan
Well, from my personal perspective, I think we took our eyes off the ball in Afghanistan [and] why we were there, to prevent al-Qaeda from hitting our country. Over the course of our two-decade engagement, this evolved into something much larger: an attempt to impose a form of government, a state, that would be a state in the way we recognize a state.
I’ll tell you, I don’t believe Afghanistan is ungovernable. I think that Afghanistan is ungovernable with the Western model that will be imposed on it. And so I think that’s kind of what draws me to it. We lost track of why we were there, and we didn’t keep the essentials.
That is, to prevent al-Qaeda from gathering forces and carrying out attacks against us – and so does ISIL, once it begins to show up in Afghanistan. Obviously you need an Afghan army to help you do that. But I think we’ve grown way beyond the original scope and scale of our mission, the original mission.
On what he would say to the Afghan people
I think now is a difficult time for the Afghan people. I think they are not well served by the Taliban who are in there. The Taliban have never really been a particularly popular party in Afghanistan, although they have been able to fuse religious and other affiliations in ways the government has never been able to.
I think it’s going to be a very difficult time. I regret what happened last summer. I regret that we have not been able to provide a form of government that would allow for the development of human rights, women’s issues, a variety of things, all of which are, as you know, systematically deconstructed by Taliban right now. And I’m afraid it will get much worse before it gets better.
This story was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo.