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The Taliban's Gains In Afghanistan Have National Security Implications For The U.S.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Taliban are now in control of two-thirds of Afghanistan, and they are still on the move. U.S. defense officials reportedly think Kabul could fall within the next 90 days. In response to this lightning advance, we are seeing and hearing words like shock, astonishing and stunning. So did the U.S. and Afghans underestimate the Taliban? Retired General Joseph Votel is with us now. He served as the commander of U.S. CENTCOM until 2019. Good morning, General.

JOSEPH VOTEL: Good morning. Good morning.

KING: When I started preparing for the show just this morning, the Taliban controlled nine provincial capitals. And then, in the last few hours, it went up to 10. Are you surprised by how fast this is happening?

VOTEL: I'm not surprised by the pressure that the Taliban has been putting on the government of Afghanistan and their forces. But I am surprised, I think like others have noted, with the speed with which they are doing this. So yeah, I am a little bit surprised that this is moving as fast as it is.

KING: Do you think the U.S. and Afghans and our allies underestimated the Taliban?

VOTEL: No, I don't think we underestimated the Taliban. I think we have always known the Taliban is going to be the Taliban. They were very recalcitrant throughout the negotiations that have been going on, never agreeing to much, and have always kept the pressure on the Afghans and the Afghan forces. And I think we all expected that they would do this to improve their own negotiation position.

KING: OK. The Biden administration says that Afghan forces have what they need to stop the Taliban. The administration has been fairly direct in these statements. What is going so wrong then?

VOTEL: Well, I think there's a variety of factors that you have to look at with the Afghan force. You have to look at things like leadership. You have to look at things like command and control. You have to look at the operational concept that they are applying here. One of the challenges, I think, of the Afghan forces is that they are fairly far-flung. They're deployed in a lot of small positions that are difficult to mutually support and difficult to get out and provide the necessary coverage for. And I think this makes it easier for the Taliban to isolate these positions and then overrun them.

KING: With the U.S. leaving, is there an Afghan fix to those problems that you just outlined?

VOTEL: Well, there certainly could be. You know, in my experience, I had the opportunity to work very closely with the Afghan forces. There are good leaders at multiple levels. Their special operations forces are quite good. As you noted earlier, they do have some capabilities. The A-29s, for example, that fly with the Afghan Air Force are quite capable and have provided good support to them. So they do have the wherewithal. The key aspect of this will be making sure we can sustain it and they have the leadership that can apply it.

KING: We talked to a reporter in Kabul earlier this morning. She said people are flooding into the city from outside provinces. The Taliban are essentially circling Kabul from a distance. Do you think, based on what you're seeing, that Kabul will fall?

VOTEL: Well, I don't know if Kabul will fall or not. I - it's my belief that I think, you know, a fight around Kabul will be one that will be protracted. And it won't - it'll be - it'll affect the people of Afghanistan, the people of Kabul the most. But this is the area where, frankly, the central government is the strongest. And so I would expect that this will be - there will be more resistance in and around Kabul than there perhaps have been in a lot of the far-flung provinces.

KING: OK. And if the worst happens and the Afghan government collapses and the Taliban take over, what does that mean for security in the region? And, of course, given your expertise, what does that mean for U.S. national security?

VOTEL: Well, I think what it means from the region is, you know, this could lead to, I think, broader humanitarian issues throughout the region - refugees, again, flooding across the borders of Afghanistan to Pakistan, to the countries in the north, to Iran. And so it will mean the potential for a humanitarian disaster. For the United States, what it will mean is that some of our very important interests, particularly the - our interests around preventing Afghanistan from being used as a platform for terrorist organizations, I think will be severely compromised. And as we've seen, the Taliban has never rejected the - al-Qaida. And, of course, there are a variety of other organizations there as well. So we will have to be very, very concerned about that. And it will make it more difficult for us to keep a tab on those types of threats.

KING: OK. Joseph Votel is a retired four-star general and the former commander of U.S. CENTCOM. He's also a senior fellow on national security at the Middle East Institute here in Washington.

Thank you for your time.

VOTEL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.