General Joseph L. Votel (retired) joined BENS as CEO and President in January 2020 after a 39-year military career where he commanded special operations and conventional forces at all levels; for the last time as Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) where he was responsible for US military and coalition operations in the Middle East, Levant and Central and South Asia. General Votel’s career has included fighting in Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and he led the 79-member coalition that successfully liberated Iraq and Syria from the Islamic State’s caliphate. General Votel preceded his posting to CENTCOM with service as the Commander of the United States Special Operations Command and the Joint Special Operations Command.
The encryption brief: Did you ever imagine that the United States would withdraw so quickly or leave the Afghan army completely without American air support?
General vote: I hadn’t foreseen this during my tenure – but once the president sets a firm departure date – a quick withdrawal is inevitable. No commander wants to accept unnecessary risk with troops on the ground when faced with a clearly defined departure date.
The encryption brief: Intelligence assessments largely missed the target of how fast Kabul would fall, what factors contributed most directly?
General vote: Certainly, the departure of our own capacities is a big part of it; the lack of direct contact with Afghan leaders is another important factor; and, of course, once it was clear that we were leaving (and removing our commander), we lost priority and access to our normal and reliable Afghan intelligence sources.
The encryption brief: US personnel face deterioration in security at Kabul airport as US forces continue to deploy for the emergency operation, another sign that the administration has underestimated the speed at which the Taliban would reach Kabul. The United States could have chosen to slow the advance of the Taliban by using air power, why didn’t that happen, do you think?
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General vote: I think it is very clear that this was no longer a priority for our government. The mission right now, at least articulated over the weekend, is to support the evacuation of diplomats and to assist with the departure of Afghans who have assisted the United States and meet evacuation criteria. While I don’t know for sure, I think what we were trying to do with air support on the horizon in a rapidly changing situation was not optimal or too effective. He doesn’t seem to have done much – if anything.
The encryption brief: The United States has let the military materiel, weapons and technology supplied by the United States fall into the hands of the Taliban, a group responsible for the deaths of American personnel and thousands of innocent Afghans. The US government holds private citizens and businesses accountable for far lesser violations of export violations involving dual-use technology or military equipment, etc. How should Americans think about this situation now, where the Taliban will use equipment paid for by the American taxpayer, to potentially perpetrate acts of violence against American interests and to erode the democratic values that the United States has attempted to to introduce in Afghanistan?
General vote: Not sure about this. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this – do you remember ISIS in 2014, in Mosul? I suspect it will be more trophies than hard military capabilities – with the exception of small arms, mortars, and artillery. Most of that will be difficult for the Taliban to maintain – and they probably prefer their own gear, anyway.
The encryption brief: There is a lot of anger among the national security community right now. What would you say to people who have suffered because of the US role in Afghanistan, who may feel anger and rage?
General vote: I can’t really comment on the anger in the national security community – I’m sure it exists, but the feeling that strikes me the strongest is disappointment. No one wants what we are seeing now. I think most security professionals can accept a decision to leave from the Commander-in-Chief – that is well within his authority, and everyone understands that; what is more difficult to accept is how it happened and how it unfolded. It was difficult for me to watch the Taliban sitting at a conference table that I once sat at with the Afghan president. In a number of public engagements I’ve been on recently – people have asked me if all this effort was a waste. My response has been consistent. American military personnel, members of the CI, and the diplomatic corps behaved honorably throughout this war. They answered the nation’s call and did their best for our country, for each other and for the Afghan people. There will be plenty of time to blame – but the vast, vast majority of Americans who participated in some aspect of the war in Afghanistan did so nobly and to the best of their ability. We must not lose sight of this. That it didn’t turn out the way we all hoped – it’s not their fault… and I wouldn’t want anyone (especially the families of our injured and killed) to think that these efforts were in vain. That’s not how I saw them then, and that’s not how I think of them now. They have responded to the nation’s call.
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