Here and Now in Afghanistan

It’s been nearly 20 years of a war that has spanned multiple administrations and the situation remains tense and complicated as time goes on. The costs have been high and the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. troops have been lost; more than 20,000 have been injured and military expenses exceed $2 trillion.

In July, we published The Problem with Afghanistan, based on a conversation with retired three-star U.S. Army General Jeffrey Buchanan.

As a follow up to that conversation, AmeriVet’s Vice President and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Jason Pandak sat down with Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan again to get his thoughts on the events that continue to unfold in Afghanistan.

AmeriVet Securities: My name is Jason Pandak, Vice President at AmeriVet, and once again I’m joined by retired Lt. General Jeffery Buchanan, U.S. Army. He’s here with us today to discuss the recent events and evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, which continue to unfold.

Sir, it’s so important to have this discussion, as so much has happened over the last few weeks. We really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us again.

General Buchanan: Thanks, Jason, it’s my honor.

AmeriVet Securities: I was watching the news just yesterday and I noticed that several civilian airline carriers were called upon by the Pentagon including United, American, Delta and Hawaiian Airlines, just off the top of my head. The last time this industry was called on by the military was the Iraq War. Can you explain why we are reaching out to the airlines for support, as it seems like a short notice ask?

General Buchanan: Sure, so it’s a regular program called CRAF, Civilian Reserve Air Fleet. If I remember correctly, this is the third time it’s been employed. The first time was back in the Gulf War around 1990 – 1991 and the second time was early on in the Iraq War in 2003 – and now for the evacuations from Afghanistan.

Essentially, the military has this voluntary agreement with civilian airlines to bring them forward and use them to help augment the U.S. transportation command when military airlifts may be stretched. In this case, as I understand it, they’re using what we call “gray tails” or military aircraft, to fly in and out of Afghanistan. They have asked for help from these civilian airliners to take refugees from the location they land in, after they have left Afghanistan, onward to a point of settlement in a host country.

Typically, for that part of the world, those airports might be in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Kuwait – I’m not privy to what specific airports they’re using. But the civilian airliners would fly in and out, moving refugees from a certain point onward. They are not flying into Afghanistan, just to be clear. That’s how the system works, overall.

AmeriVet Securities: Thank you for the clarification. In addition, the news has been covering some chaotic scenes lately, with U.S. Marines on the ground in Kabul working to secure the airport. I have some knowledge of this, as one of the missions I used to train for, when I was with the Marine Expeditionary Unit, was non-combatant evacuation operations.

The U.S. military is working on a timeline of August 31 for the removal of personnel, which was negotiated with the Taliban. The Taliban issued a warning just this week stating there will be consequences if the timeline is not followed.

What you can tell us about the standard operations the military might be following on the ground in Kabul? Can you share your thoughts on the timeline and what the risks for U.S. personnel, our coalition allies and some of our Afghan partners may face as the evacuations continue?

General Buchanan: There is so much to unpack here. As you remember, from your experiences in non-combative evacuation operations, or NEO, when that happens – and it does happen pretty frequently throughout the world – it’s when a country is in dire straits and an embassy can ask for help from the military for evacuation of some or all of its personnel.

Typically, there are many stages. First, they bring in a military force to help secure an embarkation airfield or port and they help secure the area. Next, they account for the personnel that are getting evacuated and care for them through the flight and help them land at some point in time, or debark, if they go by ship to a safe port. That’s kind of the basic process.

First and foremost, with the military, it’s not just U.S. Marines right now but also a pretty significant U.S. Army presence. While I don’t have the exact breakdown, I do know that both services are there currently. Their role is to secure the area, process people for evacuation and account for them.

Among that group of people are American citizens, whether they are embassy workers or people who own a business in Afghanistan and those who decided to wait until now to leave. There are also refugees and members of our former coalition, who are from NATO countries and other countries as well. Those could be private citizens or members of their embassies. The military’s job is to go in, secure the area and process those people and move them out.

As far as the timeline, as I’m not there on the ground, I can’t speculate on the amount of work they have left to do and what their pace of operations are – or whether or not they’re in good enough shape to get done by August 31 – so unfortunately, I’m not in a position to comment on that.

From what I remember, President Biden initially announced several months ago that we would be out by September 11. The withdrawal of our military did in fact occur in accordance with his original timeline. What has driven this large evacuation operation is not the military withdrawal – it’s the speed of which the Taliban took over.

Embassies from the U.S. and others were unprepared by this and that has driven an emergency evacuation situation, so it’s a couple of different things. The initial withdrawal was complete or nearly complete before the Taliban took over Kabul and then we reinserted a lot of military forces to assist with the evacuation.

AmeriVet Securities: I think that’s a key point for people to remember, that the Taliban’s speed caught a lot of folks off guard and prompted, as you mentioned, the reinsertion of more forces than we had in-country even a month or two ago.

One of the things I noticed was that last week, the government of Mexico started processing applications for Afghan refugees, with an emphasis on woman and girls, who have put in requests.

You and I have spoken about Mexico at length in the past, based on your expertise in the area. With that in mind, I’d like to ask, is it unusual for Mexico to offer this type of support and how will other countries around the world help those who are leaving Afghanistan?

General Buchanan: From my perspective, it’s not at all unusual that Mexico would offer to help, as they’ve been very helpful in the past when it comes to humanitarian efforts.

If you look at what goes on in Mexico’s part of the world, there are a lot of hurricanes that impact Central and South America, as well as Mexico, but Mexico is very often providing aid to other countries. In fact, you may remember, during hurricane Katrina, the Mexican Army actually sent a number of troops north, to help out the U.S. and its recovery efforts. So, it’s not atypical that Mexico would provide support to other countries now.

Mexico is certainly a regional power and it does have some resources to help settle people. In fact, during the last administration, there was a pretty significant program where people seeking asylum in the U.S. were actually held in Mexico while their requests were processed. In this case, these people were from countries other than Mexico – dominantly Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and places like that. I’m not surprised that Mexico is helping and in fact we’re thankful for the support that they or other countries provide.

AmeriVet Securities: I appreciate your insight and it’s important to highlight how well we work with Mexico, which is something that may be unknown to many.

The last time we spoke about Afghanistan, you shared your insights and personal experiences on the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. In addition, you mentioned everything that Afghanistan would need in order to be self-sustaining country.

Based on this, in your opinion, what does a new government look like right now for Afghanistan? We’re already seeing some towns that previously weren’t held by the Taliban fight back and now there seems to be a struggle for power. I’m curious as to what you think about this as well?

General Buchanan: It’s hard to speculate. I would never call myself an Afghanistan expert, but I think history can be instructive here. If you go back after the Soviet withdrawal in 1988, there was a very significant civil war throughout Afghanistan. The Taliban came to power and they were in charge of the central government, but you may remember that they didn’t actually control all of Afghanistan.

The Taliban source of power has dominantly been in the east and in the south. When you go off to the north you have far more ethnic groups, such as Tajiks or Uzbeks, and the Taliban tends to not be a source of power there. In fact, even when the Taliban was in charge of Afghanistan, there were significant parts of the country they did not control in the north.

You may remember that during the U.S. invasion in 2001, one of the initial groups we lined up with was loosely the northern alliance. It was based on the followers of Ahmad Shah Massoud and tribes in the north, again, Tajiks and Uzbeks, who have never fallen in line with the Taliban’s authority. This leads me to believe, which is always one thing we should remember, Afghanistan is a country that has never had a strong national identity. It has always been a loose grouping of different tribes and ethnic groups.

As far as what their government looks like going forward, that I don’t know. I think the Taliban is in control of Kabul and is likely to be in control of places where their centers of power are, which I believe are the Helmand, Kandahar and Nangahar provinces. They are far less likely to be in control of the north.

We will have to wait and see how they govern. The Taliban has always been very, very fundamentalist in their religious views and their treatment of woman is a prime example. I think it would be very unlikely that they have changed their views over the last 20 years. I think it’s unlikely that they want to share power with anybody, but I also think it’s unlikely for them to control all of Afghanistan.

AmeriVet Securities: I completely agree with you. General Buchanan, as we close, I wanted to ask if you do have any additional thoughts on this important, yet sensitive topic?

General Buchanan: I do. I’ve had a lot of messages from the Veterans Administration and from groups trying to help veterans of the various campaigns in Afghanistan work through everything that has happened, especially over the last few weeks.

My thoughts on this are that if you go back to why we entered Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, it was to stop attacks from impacting the U.S. That is why we went in and given that framework, we were pretty darn successful for 20 years.

Along the way, there were some desires to build a thriving democracy in Afghanistan and we’ve seen the effects of that. Hindsight is always 20/20. I’ve stood in Afghanistan myself and was hopeful about the future but in the end, this was about U.S. interests and our interests stemmed from preventing attacks from Afghanistan on the U.S.

I am not struggling but I am concerned about our interests, as I think there is a high risk that Al Qaeda, in particular, is going to grow, given that they have an unbothered space, if you will, in Afghanistan. Despite what they’ve said, its unlikely that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are going suddenly shift apart, so there is a potential risk there.

I’m confident that our country will deal with that threat, if and when it develops. But that should do nothing to diminish all the efforts over the years by Americans, by NATO soldiers, by other countries such as Australia and Jordan. There were people from 49 different countries when I was there, who contributed to the coalition, and we kept our country safe from attacks that came out of Afghanistan. I don’t think our efforts should be diminished at all based on that.

I feel sad for the people of Afghanistan, because frankly, with the Taliban in control, it’s hard to be hopeful for their future. But this should not diminish our military efforts over the last 20 years.

AmeriVet Securities: Sir, I just want to personally thank you for sharing that and I certainly share many if not all of your sentiments.

I’d also like to thank you on behalf of AmeriVet Securities and let you know we really appreciate your valuable insight and for you taking the time to join us today.

General Buchanan: Thanks, Jason.