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Republican Texas Congressman Michael McCaul Criticizes Troop Withdrawal

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As the situation unravels in Afghanistan, questions for the president and his decision to withdraw U.S. troops. And one of the most outspoken critics of the withdrawal is Michael McCaul of Texas. He's the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He joins us now. Congressman, welcome.

MICHAEL MCCAUL: Thanks, Audie. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Now, we've been hearing from White House officials this week that they are delivering on a withdrawal deadline set essentially by President Trump. How do you hear that?

MCCAUL: You know, look, this is the commander in chief. The president has every right to make his own decisions. The buck stops here, as Harry Truman said. And this - I think President Biden owns this. They will try to blame...

CORNISH: Did you support the peace accord agreement with the Taliban? I mean, I just want to understand your background here in that process.

MCCAUL: Sure. And I've always been very skeptical that we could negotiate the Taliban, just like with the ayatollah. I think they were trying to - knowing that a transitional government would necessarily have to include the Taliban, they did reach out and have these talks. But, Audie, what's very important - if you look at the February agreement, it does say it's conditions based. And as I've talked to former national security adviser Robert O'Brien, they were going to make those conditions based on the ground. They would not allow the Taliban to violate that. They violated this agreement in two fundamental ways - one, never cutting their ties with al-Qaida and, No. 2, attacking the provincial capitals. So...

CORNISH: Follow up on some of those conditions. The Taliban agreed to not, quote, "allow individuals or groups, including al-Qaida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the U.S. The accord did not bar the Taliban from fighting the elected Afghan government or from capturing Afghan provinces on its own." Did the peace accord ever have the ability to make this withdrawal anything but a vehicle for the U.S.' safe exit?

MCCAUL: I think it was a bit of a fantasy that this could somehow change the Taliban's strategy. You know, they've often said you have the watches, but we have the time. And what I have always argued is a light footprint of 2,500 soldiers is a very small price to pay for stability. Now we're seeing this nightmare unfold of unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. And what I really worry about, Audie, the most are the women left behind and what's going to happen to them. And my office, my committee, we've had so many calls from desperate people trying to get their family out of there because they know, particularly the interpreters, what's going to happen if they're left behind.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Congressman, this is Tamara Keith. I wanted to jump in and ask you a question. The Biden administration is arguing that the U.S. long ago met its mission in Afghanistan, which was to prevent terrorists from attacking the United States, to get Osama bin Laden and that, you know, mission accomplished on the goal. What in your mind is the the purpose of or has been the purpose of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan? And...

MCCAUL: Well - and we will be studying this and the war college has as well. I personally think it should have been a counterterrorism mission from the beginning to take out bin Laden. I don't think occupying a country that has been occupied for thousands of years really made a whole lot of sense. I don't think centralizing power in Kabul was a very good idea when you're talking about a tribal nation. But here's where I fault the administration is that - look - and the commander in chief has every right to make this decision. It's just once he made the decision, we had to be prepared and had a plan and a strategy to deal with what was going to happen. When I got the intelligence community briefs - and the administration got these as well - the IC was very grim in their assessment. They predicted exactly what is happening today, whereas everybody else seems so surprised. And what they...

CORNISH: But can you talk about how a Trump administration withdrawal would be different, especially in the context, say, of watching what happened with Syria in October 2019, leaving Kurdish allies behind?

MCCAUL: Well, first I think it's important - I think it's important to listen to your intelligence community and not flatly disregard them in making your assessments. We could have got the interpreters out; now they're not. We could have had ISR capability in your nation; now we don't have that. We're going dark in Afghanistan; long-term consequences of Russia, China and Iran. I know we like to go back to the prior administration. I don't think the president would have sat - President Trump would've sat back and watched the Taliban take over. I talked to Robert O'Brien, the former national security adviser, just yesterday, who said that the - President Trump said, I will not allow a Saigon on my watch, Saigon situation.

CORNISH: There's little political appetite in the Republican Party or Democratic Party in the last few years to spend more time in Afghanistan. There's been a lot of calls to, quote, "bring the troops home." What are you going to be listening for now from your fellow lawmakers? What is the conversation you hope to have?

MCCAUL: Well, I think a couple of things. We need to look at what's going to be the growing threat from within, particularly as we have absolutely zero intelligence on the ground now. What (unintelligible) could we have - we're going to pre-9/11 conditions now. And what is going to be the threat to the homeland? That's the No. 1 vital interest now of the United States from the commander in chief. And I think we need look - you know, China hosted the Taliban. They're going to be in Afghanistan. I personally think - you know, we withdrew out of Iraq and ISIS reared its ugly head. I persuaded President Trump at that time to keep a residual in Syria. I think 2,500 troops is not a whole lot. It's a light footprint that would provide stability.

CORNISH: So it sounds like you're eyeing a residual troop presence in Afghanistan.

MCCAUL: This is - and it's not an occupation. It's nothing like that. And you can have a withdraw down conditions based. But it's a very small insurance chip to prevent what's going to be a mass killing. It's going to be a nightmare unfolding before our very eyes...

CORNISH: Representative...

MCCAUL: ...The Taliban's flag is going to fly over the embassy.

CORNISH: Representative Michael McCaul, thank you for this. We'll be pressing some of these questions going forward in the program. Michael McCaul is a Republican from Texas. Thank you for your time.

MCCAUL: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.