A media consensus has quickly emerged around the Biden administration’s Afghanistan withdrawal, and it goes like this: Whatever its merits in the abstract, the whole thing has been a chaotic debacle in its execution. On this week’s Deconstructed, Ryan Grim talks to journalist and author Anand Gopal and to politician and former U.S. Army Maj. Richard Ojeda. They discuss what the media are missing and why the Afghanistan exit was long overdue.
Brian Williams: The Biden administration racing to put out the firestorm ignited by the debacle of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Tonight …
Ryan Grim: Across the cable news spectrum, talking heads have relentlessly bashed the Biden Administration for the chaotic evacuation of Kabul last weekend.
Anderson Cooper: We begin with the final fiasco. The images we’ve been getting all day tell the chaotic story.
Rachel Maddow: The U.S. continues its chaotic exodus out of Afghanistan.
Sean Hannity: The withdrawal from Afghanistan is a poorly planned debacle.
Laura Ingraham: The collapse of Afghanistan represents another catastrophic failure of our political establishment.
Greg Gutfeld: President Biden is apparently delusional about the disaster in Afghanistan.
RG: But at the heart of the criticism is a contradiction that nobody in the American media or foreign policy “Blob” wants to grapple with, and it’s this: the only way for there to have been an orderly transfer of power in the wake of the U.S. departure was for the process to have been negotiated as a transfer of power. And to negotiate a transfer of power required acknowledging — and here’s the hard part for the U.S. — that power was actually transferring.
Therein lies the contradiction: An orderly exit required admitting defeat and negotiating the unthinkable: surrender to the Taliban.
Instead, the U.S. preferred to maintain the fiction that it was handing over power to the Afghan government, whatever that was, and to former President Ashraf Ghani. We would rather risk the chaos we witnessed than admit defeat. After all, it’s mostly not our lives on the line anymore, but rather the lives of Afghans who helped us over the past 20 years.
And focusing on the chaotic scenes at Hamid Karzai Airport also lets commentators avoid asking the bigger questions: How is it that 20 straight years of U.S. lies about progress in Afghanistan could be so starkly exposed in a single weekend, and there be so little interrogation of that failure?
Biden has been criticized for letting weapons fall into Taliban hands, and also criticized for not evacuating Americans and their allies sooner. But he was turning supplies and weapons over to the Afghan National Army, and was pretending to turn power over to the Afghan government. Had he instead shipped all the people and weapons home, the army would have cried foul, and that would have sent a signal that things were falling apart. The same with the refugee evacuation situation: Shipping out refugees in droves would signal that the U.S. had lost complete confidence in the government, which would then hasten its downfall. Maintaining the fiction that the Afghan government was a real and going concern required treating it like one. Like any confidence game, it lasts only as long as people believe in it.
Criticizing the way this unfolded would be kind of like wondering why Bernie Madoff’s pyramid scheme collapsed in such a spectacular fashion, rather than an orderly liquidation.
Now, none of this excuses the brutal lag time in processing visa applications. The Trump administration deliberately slowed that process down, because Trump and Stephen Miller didn’t want Afghan refugees coming to our shores, according to Olivia Troye, a former Trump White House national security official who was in the meetings. And the Biden administration hasn’t done enough to cut the red tape.
But the broader point is that to avoid the scenes we’re now seeing, the U.S. would have had to negotiate the terms of a surrender to the Taliban. Nobody in the national security establishment was recommending any such thing, and if they weren’t, then they have no grounds to speak after the fact. They were too interested in protecting their careers to recommend what was logical.
Instead, they shouldn’t be doing anything other right now than explaining how they got it so wrong for so long.
RG: To understand the extent and roots of the failure, we’re going to talk to two people today with different perspectives who came to similar conclusions.
First, we’ll speak with Anand Gopal, author of the tremendous book on the war, “No Good Men Amongst the Living.” Last month, he was embedded with a Taliban unit as the fighters marched toward their final victory.
We’ll also talk with retired U.S. army major Richard Ojeda, who served in Afghanistan. He’s a former West Virginia state senator who ran a high-profile, but unsuccessful, bid for Congress in 2018.
But first, we’re joined by Anand Gopal. Anand Gopal, thank you so much for joining us on Deconstructed.
Anand Gopal: Thanks for having me.
RG: And so we’ve had a bunch of authors on this program in the past and, I think I can fairly say that the book that you wrote and that you published in 2014, “No Good Men Amongst the Living,” has to be, I would say, the best book that I have ever read. It’s quite an achievement. And it came out at a time that we were now 13 years into the into the military occupation of Afghanistan or whatever we would call that ongoing project; another seven eight years awaited up until last week. But anybody who read your book could see where this was headed.
And I want to start with it in the very beginning, as the U.S. comes into Afghanistan after 9/11, and the Taliban just begins to fade away off of the battlefield. How much of a fight to date did they put up?
AG: Yeah, they didn’t really put up much of a fight. You know, they were completely outmatched militarily, of course, because one side had the most advanced military technology on Earth. And they were fighting from caves and fields. But also they didn’t put up much of a fight because they weren’t all that popular, their rule in the 90s provided law and order, but it didn’t really provide anything else at all. I mean, there were barely any social services, there was barely any other form of governance. So people didn’t really rally to the Taliban’s cause. And so what you saw was the invasion, I think, was in early October, and within two months, they had collapsed entirely.
RG: And so you write about two different things I wanted to touch on here. One is a meeting where Mullah Omar essentially says, you know, This is over. And the Taliban decides that they want to reach out, they recognize Karzai, and they want to surrender effectively to the U.S., and they also explored finding a way to turn over Osama bin Laden to the United States. What happened at that meeting? And what ended up happening with those overtures?
AG: Well, the first overtures actually started even before the invasion when there was back-channel diplomacy trying to find a way to turn bin Laden over to perhaps a third country. So what Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership were dealing with was trying to maintain, from their point of view, some sort of Islamic legitimacy by not turning somebody over to non-Sharia courts, in other words. Of course, that was a non-starter for the U.S., so that started maybe a month or even earlier before the invasion.
And then if we fast forward to December of 2001, this is now two months into the war and the Taliban has more or less crumbled around the country, and they were just clinging to Kandahar Province, which is their homeland. And there was a meeting that took place — actually a couple of meetings that took place — between Hamid Karzai who, at that point, had just been flown in to be the new leader of the country, and the Taliban leadership, some of the top ministers. And this was taking place almost within this vicinity of U.S. forces, they were very close by.
And in that first meeting, the Taliban leaders essentially agreed to surrender and more or less hand over keys to the city to Karzai and to some other local tribal elders. And Karzai accepted that at that first time. And then, a few days later, there was a second meeting where the terms were worked out, like how many guns would be handed over, how many vehicles would be handed over. So by the end of that week, I think we’re now in the second week of December 2001, the Taliban had essentially just completely ceded control of the country to Karzai.
RG: And what were the conditions that the Taliban were looking for in this surrender?
AG: They were looking for amnesty. They were looking to hand over the country and then be allowed to basically quit or retire. And if you look at the context of Afghan history, that’s actually not that unusual.
When the Taliban took over in the mid-90s, they emerged from a civil war in which there were warlords around the country and they offered the same terms to a lot of these warlords, essentially saying that if you put your weapons down, and if you go home, and if you disavow any political activity, then we’ll just give you amnesty. And that’s what they did. So there were very few reprisal killings, in fact, after the Taliban took over. So some of the warlords just fled, and others just kind of quit, a few even joined the Taliban. And I think that’s what they were hoping for, was to be allowed to go home.
And then in the next two months, actually, a number of those Taliban tried to, in fact, join the new government outright. A group of ex-Taliban tried to create a political party to support the new government. There’s a militant group called the Haqqani network, which operates out of the east of Afghanistan, and one of the leaders of the Haqqani network was actually given the position of mayor of the town of Gardez, so he actually officially joined the Afghan government. There’s many other examples like this.
RG: And so what was the U.S. response to this deal?
AG: So almost immediately the U.S. balked at this. The story is that Karzai tried to push this up the chain. He went out to the media and said, I accept and surrender. And he also told his handlers that he did the same. And it was Rumsfeld, in fact, who was the most livid at this and said there should be no surrender, no amnesty, and it has to be unconditional surrender, there cannot be any conditional surrender. And so almost immediately the messaging from the Afghan government and from Karzai had to change and they kind of walked it back and said, Oh, it wasn’t really conditional surrender, there was no terms, these are all terrorists, and we need to focus on finding al Qaeda.
And so very quickly, some of these leaders recognized that the winds had shifted, and they didn’t do anything at that point. They just stayed at home. But very quickly, it started to change. And we can talk about how that changed. But this is now in, like, January 2002.
RG: Right. So what about the Osama bin Laden effort? Where did that go?
AG: So bin Laden and his crew had mostly fled the country. So by mid-January 2002, there was no al Qaeda in Afghanistan anymore. You may remember the bombings of Tora Bora, which is the cave complex in the Eastern part of the country. So some of the fighters had been in there, and they worked their way into Pakistan, and some of them had fled into Iran. But there was no more al Qaeda in Afghanistan by 2002.
RG: What stories did you hear while you were there, for how bin Laden slipped the net?
AG: I heard different stories. There was one story that related to a local Afghan warlord, pro-U.S. warlord, who essentially was paid off by al Qaeda and bin Laden to be allowed to cross. There was another story that al Qaeda paid off the local shepherds and others to be allowed to cross. Maybe both of them are true simultaneously. But what’s clear is that it would have been very hard for him at that point with the intense military scrutiny on the border for bin Laden to just slip the border without having some kind of help from somebody on the other side. So I think it’s very likely that probably somebody in the Afghan government, some of the pro-U.S. warlords had a hand in this.
RG: And so the Taliban have gone back home. They now realize that their attempt at amnesty is probably not going to get through, but they don’t reemerge for a while. In the book, you focus on one former fighter who becomes a cell phone repairman. And I love the story of how he gets his business off the ground. He has no idea what he’s doing, and someone brings him a broken phone — tell me if I’m remembering this correctly — he drives it into the nearest town, and basically just swaps it out for a new one.
AG: [Chuckles.] Yeah.
RG: And so he takes a huge loss on that job, and continues to take these huge losses — and this is not anybody who has a whole lot of cash to spare — but gradually kind of learns the skill of fixing these cell phones. And so what becomes over the next several months of a lot of these Taliban figures?
AG: Yeah, so in his case, he sets up this cell phone shop after he eventually learns how to work them. And he very quickly realizes he needs to pay protection money to the various, more or less, gangs in police uniform that are operating in his area. And they come and they rough him up, they shake him down. And in his stories, it was typical of the fate of many of these former Taliban who had tried to blend back into life. I mean, when they quit the movement, they became school teachers, they became bus drivers.
I was just in Afghanistan last month, and I was speaking to a one-time Taliban commander. And his story, I think, is pretty typical, because he was a school teacher before the war started in the 70s, and then joined the fight against the Soviets, and then joined the Taliban, then quit after 2001 and retired to his home. But then the U.S. forces and their allies kept raiding his home. And he was rolled up and sent to Kandahar airfield, where U.S. soldiers tortured him pretty severely: He was electrocuted; he was stripped naked.
And this happened 20 years ago. And I was talking to him last month, and he told me every time he closes his eyes, this is what he remembers, and he broke down crying in front of me — now. So you can imagine this was the story for so many people who had tried to leave the movement.
RG: And so what is it that then brings them back onto the battlefield?
AG: Well, there was a problem that the U.S. forces were facing, actually, which is that they had this mandate to fight a War on Terror, but, as I said, because the Taliban had ceased to exist as a movement and al Qaeda had fled the country, they basically had thousands of Special Forces on the ground looking for terrorists, and there were no terrorists to capture. So they begin to incentivize local Afghans to produce terrorists, basically, for them. So, for example, if you have a plot of land, and I’ve been eyeing that land, and maybe you and I had a history in the civil war where you hurt my family or whatnot, I would go to the Americans if I happened to have, let’s say, a son who spoke English, I could send him to the Americans and he could tell them that you are a member of al Qaeda or the Taliban. And the U.S. would just go raid the place, they would arrest the person, sometimes kill them, sometimes send them to Guantanamo, and so you had not just Taliban who were being targeted in this way, but all sorts of innocent people.
And between 2001 and 2004, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say it was really a one-sided war waged by the U.S. and its proxies against Afghan villagers. And so people felt the need to get protection. I mean, the level of insecurity was extraordinary. And so they began to go back into the arms of the Taliban and the Taliban kind of was revived. So a lot of these old commanders fled to Pakistan, where they reconnected with their old comrades, and started to raise money and returned to Afghanistan to, in their views, how they conceived of it, is to protect their village against the rapaciousness of the Afghan Security Forces and the Americans.
RG: Yeah, I mean, one thing that’s universal across time and across cultures is that nobody hates anybody more than their neighbor.
RG: And I’m just trying to imagine a scenario where you could resolve a dispute with your neighbor over a fence, or a tree hanging over, or whatever, by reporting them to somebody as Taliban, and then getting a foreign power to come in and just pick them up. And you write about this one event in, I think, January of 2002 where these two rival factions, neither of them Taliban, turned each other in as terrorists. And talk a little bit about how that one ended.
AG: Yeah, and just first to give a little bit of the background, too, in 2002, this is a country that had been at civil war for, at that point, already 20 years. So you can imagine the various wrongs that had been committed by all sides in the civil war, all the grievances that were just left to fester, right? And now you have this foreign power coming in and basically providing the muscle for anybody who has a long-standing grievance. And that’s essentially what happened here in this case.
So this is a town in southern Afghanistan, where there were two competing factions that were claiming to be representing the Karzai government in this town, the mayor and the police chief, etc. So there’s two different groups of people saying that they were the mayor or they were the police chief. Each of them independently reached out to the U.S. to accuse the other one of being Taliban. And extraordinarily, the U.S. ended up raiding and killing people on both sides and sending people to Kandahar airfield again, where there was horrific torture. So, in doing that, you had basically a group of people who were all anti-Taliban, who all wanted to play a role in the Afghan government, and were more or less wiped out overnight in this district.
RG: And so what about the cell-phone repairman? What was it that brought him back to the Taliban?
AG: Well, he was being abused by the police. His cell phone stand was trashed, and he had no job prospects whatsoever. He had friends who had been killed or tortured by the pro-government forces. And so at some point, it just became, I think, for him and for many people like him, just kind of a logical conclusion that, well, if you’re not going to let me live in peace in the new political order, then I’m going to completely reject it and I’m going to pick up guns and turn against you and that’s what he did. So that was probably 2006, if I recall correctly, 2005 or 2006.
So it was around that time, actually, that this the same story that was happening to him was happening across the countryside. And the U.S., in my opinion, more or less lost the war by 2005 or 2006. Once the Taliban became rooted in the villages and in the countryside, it became very hard to uproot them. Because when I first visited Afghanistan in 2008, and I was staying in villages, what struck me was that every single person I met, even if they themselves weren’t in the Taliban, they had relatives who were. Every single person in the village had some family member who had joined the movement. So it was thoroughly integrated into rural life. And it’s for that reason that the U.S. was not able to defeat them. And so if the U.S. had pulled out in 2006 or 2007, I think we would have seen something very similar to what we saw in the last month.
RG: Hmm. And you talked about how this new dynamic ended up producing a situation that further empowered the Taliban, in that as violence increased, the U.S. would rely more on its proxies to try to reduce violence, to try to make roadways safe. And a lot of times, the way that they would do that is to simply to just pay the Taliban not to attack at particular times. And so effectively, if — let me see if I’m getting this right — effectively, the United States was just paying the Taliban by that point.
AG: There were a few mechanisms. One is that sometimes they were paying the Taliban directly. And the way that worked was that often they would give contracts to defense companies who would then subcontract out to some local Afghan company and that company would just pay off the Taliban, basically, to not attack them. That was one way in which that happened.
Another way in which this happened is sometimes the U.S. would contract directly with a local actor to protect their convoys, for example. There’s a road between two cities in southern Afghanistan, it’s about 100 miles between the two cities, and there’s an American base on either side. And so, every day, there’ll be hundreds of trucks that are passing from one end to the other. And the U.S. forces found this cab driver [and] they started to pay him to protect the trucks. They paid him lots of money, and he hired gunmen, he basically created a private army that would protect these trucks. And he would then go and raid the villages on the side of the road, kill people, arrest people, and then those people would turn to support the Taliban and would attack the very road he was protecting, and then he would go to the Americans and say, “Look, see the Taliban’s attacking this road, so you need to pay me more money to get more men.”
So it’s a vicious, vicious circle. This is another way in which money went and then he would also be paying off the Taliban. So a lot of this money went either directly to the Taliban or to warlords who benefited from insecurity.
RG: And you also talk a lot about the kind of institutionalization of corruption in what was called the Afghan government, it’s hard to even think of it as a government, but called the Afghan government. What did that look like on a daily basis for regular people?
AG: Well, when we talk about corruption, I mean, sometimes we think about bribes or having to pay off an official, and that was actually the least of most Afghans’ problems, because there’s a lot of countries out there that are corrupt. They don’t all have wars and insurgencies, right? I mean, when we’re talking about corruption in Afghanistan, we’re talking about if you don’t pay off somebody, maybe they’ll break into your house and shoot you or take away your loved ones, for example, or they’ll call in an airstrike. So when we say corruption, we’re talking about actually violence, like extreme forms of violence. And I think that’s something that’s lost, especially in the coverage today, where people will say: The U.S. troop presence was sustainable, we could have stayed there because it was a very low cost. And that’s true if you’re looking at it from the American perspective, because it’s very few soldiers that are dying. But if you’re looking at it from the African perspective, it was unsustainable. There was an extraordinary daily costs in the violence, and a lot of that violence in the last few years was meted out by the Afghan government as an extreme form of corruption, basically, extortion rackets killing people for not paying off — these aren’t taxes, these are protection money to warlords and other such things. This is a daily occurrence in the countryside.
RG: I want to linger on that for one second, because I think it exposes a kind of banality of evil in what is becoming a talking point among talking heads on cable news. In the U.S. you keep hearing this. Stanley McChrystal, it was a leaked audio where he advised Pompeo that the best thing to do is just muddle along: Look, there’s 2,500 troops in there, that’s not so many, a few will die a month, maybe, but, it’ll allow us to just stay there indefinitely, and then we can see what happens in the future. It’s only 2,500 troops. You keep seeing that kind of talking point kicked around.
But I think it’s so important what you just said that, OK, that’s true that it may only be 2,500 American troops, but there are hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people who are then roped into this project, and are the ones who are actually executing it, and the way that it’s executed, is horrifically violent to people on both sides.
AG: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, there’s different ways of counting it up, but I would say at least 100,000 men under arms that are what I would call American proxies that are really fighting this war. And that’s been the case since 2014.
And every single day in places like Helmand and Kandahar, so I was in Helmand Province about a month ago, a month and a half ago, and the level of violence was extraordinary. And we’re talking about people dying in the ones and twos, but really adding up, like somebody being shot by a sniper or somebody running over a roadside bomb, but then also larger massacres, a lot of which just don’t get reported, mostly being committed by the Afghan security forces.
So there’s a reason why the Afghan security forces collapsed so rapidly, and the Taliban were able to take over. It’s not because the Taliban are nationally a popular national liberation force; it’s rather that the other side is so hated for what they’ve done that people kind of have resigned themselves to a lesser of two evils.
RG: Right. Right. And, in some ways, U.S. commentators are talking about a lesser of two evils approach, but entirely discounting 99 percent of the evil —
RG: — that’s being in the name of the project. So talk a little bit about how you reported this unique book.
AG: So I actually switched careers to do journalism — I was doing something else before — and so I just landed in Afghanistan without a background either in journalism, but also I wasn’t part of a bureau or anything, I just kind of moved there on my own. And so when I got there, I didn’t have money for a translator or fixer or anything else, and so that just forced me to hang out with a different crew than I think I would have if I had gone the traditional route. And so I ended up just meeting Afghans from all walks of life.
And very quickly I left the capital city, Kabul, and went to the countryside. And, I mean, the most important thing to know about Afghanistan is that it’s a rural country — it’s 70-75 percent rural. But you wouldn’t know that from the coverage, because most of the reporting is based in Kabul, and the world looks very different in Kabul versus the countryside. I mean in the last few years, you could have gone to Kabul, it was extremely safe, it was probably safer than most American cities. There were cafes, there were fancy hotels; there was a thriving civil society. But the moment you left the city gates and you went out into the rural hinterlands it’s a very different reality.
It’s one of the poorest places on earth; it’s one of the most violent places on earth, because of the 100,000 people under arms and airstrikes, et cetera. And so people there have a very different understanding of the War on Terror and of this war. And so I, by being in the countryside and befriending people there, had a lot of my own preconceived notions of what the war is overturned by that.
RG: And so when it comes to the lived experiences of women under both the 20 years of the U.S. project and the Taliban, what kind of differences did they see from the 90s through the 2000s in the rural areas? And what kind of differences will they see going forward?
AG: Well, in the rural areas under the Taliban in the 90s, women were kept in their homes, they were kept away from access to health care and education. Post-2001 in the rural areas, they were still kept in their homes, and still away from access to health care and education, and they’re also being bombed, and they’re also going to sleep at night wondering if somebody’s going to kick down their door and take away their loved ones, or wondering if they can go to a wedding party or a funeral and not be attacked.
So, in other words, from the perspective of many rural women in the war zones, life got worse, actually, under the Americans. And we don’t get that perspective, often, again, because it goes back to this rural-urban divide. In Kabul, it’s the other way around. Life has gotten a lot better for women in Kabul, because there is no violence. There’s no war there. And so they made tremendous gains. And it’s, I think, one of the deeper tragedies of this war and occupation that the U.S. wasn’t able to bring women’s rights for most women; instead it concentrated those rights among a minority of women, at the expense of a large number of women for whom all they know in the last 20 years is heartbreak and violence.
RG: And so what’s your sense of how things will change in Kabul. The Taliban is making a big show of presenting itself as a softer, gentler Taliban, for lack of a better word. How much of that is reality and how much of that is PR, do you think?
AG: Yeah, I think we should be very skeptical about all of that. I think a lot of that is PR. I think what’s happening is there is certainly a current within the Taliban leadership, especially in the political leadership, that I think recognizes that the success of their state is going to depend on continued Western aid. Just to give an example, the Afghan state, up to 80 percent of its funds come from foreign aid.
So if the U.S. or the foreign countries decide to stop funding the health care system tomorrow, it’ll collapse, which would be a major disaster, right? And so there are elements within the Taliban that recognize that and recognize the need to be part of the international system. And, therefore, I think they’re genuine in their desire to want to moderate some of their worst impulses, but there are other parts of the Taliban that, especially on the military side, reject that totally.
And I was just interviewing with somebody from the military side the other day, and he was saying: Look, we fought and sacrificed for 20 years, most of our family members have died, we’re not going to share power, we have no intention in moderating the type of government. They want exactly a return to the 1990s.
And, in most cases, military wings win out over political wings. So I’m not too optimistic that the Taliban today is going to be kinder and gentler than the one in the past.
RG: So it’s your sense that the more militant wing is going to soon have the upper hand within the Taliban?
AG: Yeah, because they’re the ones who have a closer connection to the rank-and-file. I mean, they are the ones who’ve suffered on the frontlines. They’ve led their men in the trenches. And the more, let’s say, polished political wing, they’ve been living outside the country. They have nice, large homes in Pakistan, or now in Qatar, and they don’t really have this social base on the ground in the way that the military wing does.
RG: What about you? Do you have any plans to go back soon? Working on any Afghanistan-related projects?
AG: Yeah, I have a piece coming out about women’s rights in Afghanistan, actually, for The New Yorker, hopefully in a couple of weeks. And then I am hoping to go back soon not for reporting, but we have a lot of friends who are stuck in Kabul who are desperate to get out. And I’m trying to go back so I can help some of my friends get evacuated. So that’s the plan, maybe this week or next week, if I can get a flight, and I’m going to go.
RG: And as you’ve watched this evacuation unfold, if you were going to armchair quarterback, what would you have suggested they do differently?
AG: They should have made an arrangement with the Taliban beforehand. I mean, I understand that they didn’t expect the country to fall in the way it did. But there should have been contingency planning, first of all. This should have been part of what was discussed in Doha when the U.S. team was going to meet the Taliban negotiators.
Even today, I think there should be a much more intensive effort. So the scene right now at the airport is that there have been people waiting outside the airport for one, or two, or three days, trying to get in. And the airport is being guarded by these young Talibs, some of them 16,17 years old from the village who’ve probably never seen a crowd of the size in their life. And they have no training or background in crowd control, they don’t understand how to process, people are showing them documents saying they can get into the airport, some of these Talibs can’t even read the documents. So it’s a complete mess.
I mean, probably as the U.S. was withdrawing, they should have tried to secure the perimeter of the airport as well, and not give the perimeter to the Taliban. It’s too late now. So it’s just a fiasco.
RG: Mhmm. What do you think prevented them from having those talks?
AG: It really seems like they were completely caught unawares. I think they drank their own Kool Aid. They believed that the Afghan security forces had legitimacy, they believed that they would stand and fight for the next two or three years. I don’t think they expected that this would collapse like a house of cards in the way it did. And nor did the Taliban, by the way. Speaking to Taliban members, none of them really expected this. And that’s another reason why the airport is so chaotic, because they didn’t, on their side, have a chance to plan to put like more experienced units at the airport.
RG: What do you make of these reports that the Taliban basically paid their way in? That they basically bought off the Afghan Army leadership to stand down?
AG: Yeah, I’m not convinced by those reports. I mean, they may have happened here or there, I wouldn’t put it past them to do that. But I mean, I was on the ground in Helmand Province as the Afghan Army was collapsing in various cities. I saw it for myself; I mean, they did fight. They were fighting.
But what happened was — well, a couple of things happened. One is that as they were fighting, the Taliban had them surrounded in multiple cases. But two is they didn’t really have the recourse to air power. And you have to understand the way that we, as in the U.S. military, had weaned the Afghan Army is to be completely reliant on air power. This is not like the Soviets. And of course, the Soviets use a lot of air power, but their proxies were also pretty adept at digging in and fighting without air power. But the Afghan Army was trained in the doctrines of the U.S. military, which is that these are basically air wars, more or less, and the troops are on the ground to call in airstrikes. And so when they didn’t have the air power, they lost all morale and there was chaos in the ranks. I saw people fleeing, people running in every direction, some surrendering, some trying to kill themselves.
RG: I was thinking about this earlier this week, that does seem like this incredible failure of just logic on the part of the entire project that they were training the Afghan Army to wage war like the U.S. does, and the U.S. relies 100 percent on air power to win its different altercations. How did they not see the flaw in that plan that they were going to take away the airplanes? And so the entire way that they were training them to fight would be mooted the second that the planes were gone.
So how did you get out of Helmand Province? Was it possible to just kind of zip out on a motorcycle as things were collapsing?
AG: Well, I was in Taliban territory. So I was on the other side. I was watching the collapse from the Taliban position.
AG: So for me it was fine, because I just happened to be on the winning side there. So it was OK.
RG: Right. Right.
AG: Just to your question about: How did they not know this? I think there’s a deeper point here that runs through the last 20 years, which is the entire approach to the war, which really comes out of the Rumsfeld doctrine, which is to have a really small military force, and rely on air power, and then outsource everything else to local actors. It’s kind of like an extension of neoliberalism to the military, right?
So they privatized most of this war. This is the most privatized war in recent memory, with mercenaries, warlords, and heavily reliant on air power. And that’s where the house of Cards fell apart, I think, at the end of the day, and they couldn’t see that because it was so central to the way they’ve been operating for 20 years and longer that when the writing was on the wall, they just couldn’t see it.
RG: Right. And what was the reaction of the Taliban in Helmand Province, as they saw the army just melting away in front of them?
AG: I mean, they couldn’t believe it themselves. I was with a Taliban unit, and they invited me to go see the takeover of a city, and I declined, because I didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire, so I stayed back. And he told me: OK, well, I’m gonna be back after three or four days. Hopefully, you’ll still be here and you can have your interview with me then.
He left and he came back in an hour because the city had fallen.
RG: Oh wow. They just walked in and then walked back.
RG: Anand Gopal, thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.
AG: Great to be here. Thanks.
RG: That was Anand Gopal.
Army Major Richard Ojeda, a former state senator, is perhaps best known for helping lead West Virginia’s wildcat teacher strikes. He served more than 20 years in the military, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Richard Ojeda, welcome to Deconstructed.
Army Major Richard Ojeda: Thank you for having me.
RG: First, can you walk us through a little bit of your military career and what got you to Afghanistan?
RO: Well, I did 24 years in the military. Most of it was spent at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I served as a light airborne sapper. And, of course, I was enlisted in the beginning and then I switched over and became an officer, and did another 17 years as an officer.
I did a few deployments to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom. And then I was in the 82nd Airborne Division and we had just come back from Haiti, the earthquake in 2010, and basically, we [had] come down on orders for another Iraq. And I was at the point where I was like I’m just so tired of Iraq, and it was that Operation New Dawn —
Newscaster: They’re helping to bring an end to a nearly nine-year war in Iraq, called to serve in Operation New Dawn.
RO: — which was basically just removing all the equipment and getting everybody out of Iraq. So I kind of thought to myself: I’m a combat soldier, I really don’t want to go over and count vehicles. So I contacted my branch, and I said: Do you have anything going to Afghanistan? And they said: Yeah, we have an opportunity to go with the 10th Mountain Division and we need Security Forces assistant team chiefs, which was basically like the combat advisor during the Vietnam era. And now that’s what they’re called, they’re called combat advisors. I volunteered; I went down to Fort Polk, Louisiana, and went through the training, and then flew to Afghanistan.
RG: Now, yeah, this was an unusual time in Afghanistan, because this was around the time that that Obama had decided that he was going to withdraw from Afghanistan but first, he was going to surge a bunch of troops to Afghanistan — one of the more unusual decisions strategically that we saw throughout the course of the war, other than the one to just stay there for 20 years. And so which part were you on? Were you on the surge in or the halting move out?
RO: I believe I was on the surge in. I mean, I went in with the 10th Mountain Division, the 4th Brigade out of Fort Polk, Louisiana. And we went straight to work. I mean, as soon as we hit the ground in Afghanistan, the small teams, the SFAT teams, we hopped on helicopters, and we flew out to the small combat outposts. And that’s how it was.
Now, I will tell you, I was in Afghanistan when Osama bin Laden was killed.
Newscaster: The operation began when two Blackhawk helicopters carried about 25 Navy SEALs into the compound. Inside, bin Laden and his men engaged in a firefight. Bin Laden was killed by a shot to the head, another to the chest.
RO: And I can remember when a person said: “Hey, we got him.” And the first thing that comes to my mind, and the first thing that I said was: “Well, when are we leaving?”
RO: Because my thought was: Mission Accomplished. I’ve always been angered at the fact that we had Osama bin Laden held up in the Tora Bora mountains in 2001 and our troops were listening to him on the radio, that’s how close they were to him, and all the sudden pull back? And that’s exactly what happened. Pull back.
And I now believe, without a doubt, that that was all about trying to make sure that we could extend this because contracting companies: Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, Boeing, that’s what this has always been about. And I think that we see that now.
But we ended up staying for the end of the year-long deployment, and then we left. And to be honest with you, from the time I’ve left Afghanistan, I’ve been working to try to get my Afghan interpreters here in America. And I’ve written letters for the past 11 years, and I’ve been able to get five of my interpreters to America; one of my interpreters is still in Afghanistan. He’s in Kabul. He’s trying to get out now. I’ve been speaking to the New Zealand reporters and things like that, to try to get him safe passage that way.
I’ve got another interpreter in Arizona who has a wife and a child in Afghanistan, and for four years we’ve denied them a visa? You know, a guy served side by side with me in combat and you won’t even let his wife and child come here? There’s a lot of things that really bother me right now.
RG: Right. It does seem like the country that has the most pull right now with the current government of Afghanistan, which is the Taliban, is the Government of Qatar. They seem to have extremely close ties. It helps, probably, that their leadership was in Doha for so long negotiating with the U.S. What I’ve seen is that the most effective way to get through there is through Qatar.
RO: I’ve been to Qatar. My biggest fear there is that they’re going to put these people out in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the desert where there is nothing. And that’s where they’re going to stay. And I’m telling you right now, it’s no different than the third country nationals that are in Qatar that were there in 2004 and 2005, they had an agreement with us that they would try to take every combat soldier off of the battlefield for a four-day weekend to go, basically [to] decompress from the combat zone. So I’ve been there, and I saw how the third-country nationals were way out there in the middle of nowhere.
RG: 100 to 120-degree heat? Like, yeah.
RO: Exactly. Exactly. They’d send buses, and pick up the workers, and bring them into the main cities of Qatar, and let them clean things and stuff like that. But, I mean, what are they going to do with all these refugees? And that’s [why] I worry.
RG: So when you got there in 2010, what did they describe to you as your mission? What were you doing out in these little hamlets?
RO: My job was to basically go out and work with the Afghan police to try and help them find out what they needed, and then be able to try to give them the equipment to be able to fight and win when the Taliban come around.
RO: I had eight police stations. And I will tell you, it was quite a dangerous mission because I didn’t have a company, I didn’t have a platoon, I didn’t have a squad. It was me, my NCO, who was my Sergeant with me, and we had a mechanic, and then we had an interpreter with us. And we would go out, and we would spend sometimes days out there, sometimes over 100 miles away from the nearest American. And we could never tell anybody what we was doing or where we were going because we would always have to worry about the corrupt and crooked folks in these police stations letting the Taliban know that we were on the way there and they would ambush us.
They have no education system in Afghanistan. So sometimes it was like they don’t get it, they can’t grasp it. The first police chief that I dealt with had about a third grade education. You give him 25 weapons, and you come back a week and a half later, and there’s only 12. And when you ask him, “Where’d they go?” They looked at you like, “Huh?” You know, that’s the problem that they have over there.
RG: How much of that was lack of education? How much was that this was just all being sold?
RO: A lot of it was corruption.
RO: But once again, when the leaders have no education, and that’s what I ran into, I had one police chief that I knew was educated and he was a really good police chief. And he stood his ground, he fought the Taliban. But it was just hard. You know, I ordered 146 Toyota Hi-Lux TK pickup trucks to be delivered to me so that I could disperse amongst eight police stations plus the main headquarters in the. I got about 40. I made a call and said, “Hey, I’m missing over 100 vehicles.” The only thing that was said to me on the other end of the line was: “Just reorder them again.”
Just reorder them again? Because nobody cared. Nobody cared about about that type of loss. That was the mentality over there: Eh, just throw some money at it. Let’s hire all these civilians that we say are contractors. And then let’s pay them money to build things for us. I can remember going out to a site one time to look at a construction site and my Sergeant had to teach them how to lay block. They were building walls; they didn’t know how to lay block. You know, that’s a problem that we have.
You know, look, there’s all kinds of problems in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is very frustrating. It’s hard to teach people that, number one, are not educated, and number two, are on drugs. I couldn’t tell you how many times I found myself dealing with police and military troops from Afghanistan, and their teeth are covered in this green stuff that’s called cot TK. And that’s drugs.
RG: Cot TK is more like caffeine, isn’t it? Or is it a little bit? It’s a little stronger?
RO: Let me tell you something, they get high. They get high on that.
RG: Ever try cot while you were over there? TK
RO: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Never.
RG: Any American soldiers ever try it that you talk to?
RO: No. Not that I know of. Not that I know of. I mean, this was something that we all worried about. When you’re going out on missions — in the beginning, I was actually moving with the sniper team — you’re always worried about finding yourself in a tough situation. I mean, Afghanistan is dangerous. It’s very dangerous. I mean, the terrain is brutal. It’s a scary place to travel. I mean, we traveled by ourselves, four-man team, counting our interpreter, and there was many times when I just said, “Look, man, I hope to god we make it.”
RG: And the story you tell about the trucks is so revealing, because it seems like all along the way there’s nobody along that chain who has any incentive to do anything about what you’re talking about. And if you just go and buy more trucks, if it’s cost-plus contracting, then everybody actually wins. Because then now you’ve spent twice as much money and there’s twice as much profit.
RO: Right? The fraud, waste, and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan was easy for everybody to see.
When I was in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, there was 163,000 troops in Iraq. Basically Halliburton and brown and root TK were getting paid $200 per day, per troop, to feed us.
I don’t know of anybody who ate $200 a day.
RO: If ate $10 a day, I was lucky. I was outside the wire before the sun come up and sometimes I would eat when I was outside the wire, I would stop into a place in TK Ramadi, and I would get a get a styrofoam plate with a piece of lettuce with no dressing, a dried piece of chicken, and a Capri Sun-like drink. And that’s it. That’s not $200. But that’s how it was. And we all knew: Wow, what a racket. This is crazy.
And the same thing was in Afghanistan. I can remember being on TK Bagram Air Base, and there was a civilian contractor that had been basically going through the system to jack up his civilian vehicle that he drove every day from his office to the chow hall to eat. And that was it. The tires on it were four feet tall TK. I mean, he was just using the government to jack up his cool ride. Anybody was like, “That’s garbage.” But nobody said anything. Nobody got onto them. There was a lot of fraud, waste, and abuse in Afghanistan that was absolutely sickening.
RG: The Taliban really used to that fraud and abuse as its rationale for why it ought to come back, like why [the] Afghan public oughta support them. How effective of an argument do you think that was for the Taliban?
RO: I don’t know if that was a great argument for them in Afghanistan. It’s a good argument for anybody. War is a racket. It’s money. And I’ll tell you right now: OK, so we leave Afghanistan. Let’s pull everybody out of everywhere. But make no mistake about it, set your clock for about the next two years, and I can assure you, by the end of the two-year mark, there’s going to be somebody out there in this world that’s going to need to be busted up by the U.S. military, because at the end of the day, you know, that’s how these companies, Lockheed Martin, and all these organizations make their money. War is a racket.
Everybody wants to throw stones at President Biden because President Biden made the call.
President Joseph R. Biden: I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference. Nor will I shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today and how we must move forward from here. I am President of the United States of America. And the buck stops with me.
RO: We could stay in Afghanistan for another five years, and lose another 2,000 soldiers and spend another $1 trillion, and send another million troops back home with missing arms, and legs, and with PTSD and needing heavily to rely on the VA system. And oh, by the way, our tax dollars can pay the VA system to take care of all of us, when what what should really happen is we should make Raytheon, we should make Lockheed Martin, we should make brown and root TK, Halliburton, and Boeing — let them be the ones to pay the VA bill. They’re the ones that are sending us over.
RG: That’s a great idea.
RO: It’s the truth! We’re going over there fighting, and dying, and being broken, so that they can make money hand-over-fist. And that’s exactly what all this is. The fraud, waste, and abuse that I see sickened me, and I’ve been speaking about it for quite some time.
And then all of a sudden, we got a president that says, look: Let’s go ahead and give the give some credit to Donald Trump. Donald Trump was the one that said: I want everybody out by May 1.
The double standard that we have in this country is sickening. The Republicans want to scream and throw stones at President Joe Biden, and they want to throw stones at President Obama for for trading five Taliban fighters for one American prisoner of war. But nobody wants to say anything about Trump releasing 5,000 Taliban and getting nothing in return. Or, 2018, releasing the Taliban co-founder who’s now getting ready to become the president. Just, the double standard — everybody just wants to fight. Everybody wants to play politics.
But those of us that are in the military that went through this stuff, we don’t look at it like that. I look at this as an opportunity for us to get the hell out of a country that is absolutely chewing us up. And there’s no victory, you’re not gonna win. As much as I hate to say it, you’re not going to win.
RG: That may be how a lot of the people who serve there are thinking about this. But if all you did is watch cable news, you would assume that Biden is essentially a traitor to the United States. Every talking head has been lashing out at him.
You ran for Congress in 2018, you served more than 20 years. You’re a strong anti-war voice with a lot of experience. Have you had any success in getting onto any network programs? What’s been the reaction as you’ve tried that?
RO: In terms of what’s going on with Afghanistan, I mean, I have had some podcasts and stuff like that reached out to me.
Look, the people in Washington D.C. — Tom Cotton, the other day, was was talking, of course, he was throwing stones at President Biden. And Tom Cotton pretty much basically listed that it was about the contractors. That’s one of the reasons why they do not want to have transparency and dark money, because our elected officials in Washington, D.C. will all be exposed and it’s on both sides of the aisle for accepting money from these companies so that we can continue pushing our people in areas like that to keep the money flowing: $2 trillion to train the Afghan military and their police, and they caved in a week. Nobody could have ever known that they were just going to lay down their weapons.
RO: But once again, like they say, it’s never a good time to end an unwinnable war. I mean, we’ve been over there building roads — roads — you know? And look, I’m not trying to throw stones at the Afghan people, but the majority of these people, their mode of transportation is a donkey. That’s a fact. Most of these people will live their entire lives within a two-mile radius of where they live. That’s a fact.
If you watch documentaries like “Restrepo,” TK you’re looking at the people that live on the sides of the mountains that are absolutely brutal, brutal, and our troops over there walking up and down those mountains — I climbed many of those mountains when I was with the sniper team. They don’t want four-lane roads. Most of them can’t even afford to have a car. Most of the cars that you see over there were cars that we sent over there. Everybody wants to throw stones. Everybody wants to act like Joe Biden is the villain here. But I’m gonna say no, I’m gonna say somebody had to make that call. President Biden was recorded not even a month ago saying, “I’ve started this. So there’s nothing that Joe Biden can do to stop it.” But nobody wants to go back and blame Donald Trump.
RG: Do you think that there’s any way that you could leave under these circumstances, and it’d be smooth, the way that would make cable talking heads happy. So what could have been done?
RO: Well, what should have happened is — and we make mistakes. We’ve made all kinds of mistakes we made mistakes in Iraq when we fired their military after we beat them, which turned everybody in the Iraqi military —
RG: And all of their bureaucrats.
RO: — against us. That’s right. We fired everybody. We got rid of all of them.
Well, what we did here, the biggest mistake is instead of us saying we’re out, we should have said, “Six months. Our military is going to stand fast where we are. And we’re going to start pulling out all of our interpreters and their families. And then we’re going to start focusing on getting everybody that wants to get out of the country out of the country.”
A big mistake that took place was over the past 10 years, the issues with the visa problem — and I will blame a lot of that on President Trump, because they didn’t want nobody coming to this country.
TK: The Trump administration appears to have put the brakes on visas for those who help the troops. In Iraq, there are more than 100,000 people stuck in the program’s backlog. Last year, less than 200 were cleared.
RO: You got Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson and them talking about how they supported going into Afghanistan. But yet now when you’re talking about bringing refugees out, well, why do we need them? Why should we take them?
LI: Is it really our responsibility to welcome thousands of potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan? All day, we’ve heard phrases like: We promised them! Well, who did? Did you?
RO: And the reason why is because their skin isn’t pasty white like theirs. They’ve done this to make it almost impossible for people to get visas. How else can you explain an interpreter in America, and he can’t get his wife and baby over here to join him?
Somebody has went in and really thrown a monkey wrench in the system to halt these people that are trying to get out of Afghanistan. We should have at least said, “We’re going to take six months. And we’re going to work with every single country across the globe. And ask them how many people are you willing to take, and then let’s work operations to get as many Afghanis out as possible.”
If we got everybody out, if we had all of our interpreters out, and nobody was screaming that there’s people out there on the tarmac that are scared to death because they’re going to be killed by the Taliban, this could have ended and it could have ended with just a quiet, “We’re out of here, folks,” and we’re done. That’s what should have happened
RG: To me. That’s clearly the way that that could have been done. And my take, and I’m curious for yours, is that the reason that they didn’t do that is because if you start to say, “Who can take these people? We’re moving out. We’re moving our equipment out, you troops out, then what you’re doing is you’re acknowledging to the world and to the Afghan people, that you’ve lost this war, and the Taliban are going to take over, it’s not going to be some fictional power-sharing arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. It’s going to be the Taliban. And we would rather deny that reality and rather say, “No, no, no, we’ve got this Afghan Government, it’s going to be OK. And so we’re out of here, Afghans. They’ve got this covered.” And that way, they don’t have to plan for anything. They’d rather have the chaos than admit defeat, is my read of it.
RO: Look, you’re right. But I mean there were all kinds of these talks with the Taliban and stuff like that. But at the end of the day, once again, when we pulled out, it was supposed to be handed over to the Afghan military, the Afghan government, the Afghan police, we had no idea that the president of Afghanistan was going to load four cars up full of cash and a helicopter and flee out of the country. You know, that’s not what leaders do.
TK: Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani has gone — he’s left the country — as Taliban leaders push for what they say is a peaceful transfer of power in Kabul.
RO: You’re watching your president run away. How does that make all the leaders in the country feel? How does it make the leaders of the military feel? And then, we were expecting that the Afghan military and the Afghan police would hold things together! Would fight the Taliban! Would allow opportunities for people to get out of the country. We had no idea that everyone would go: Oh, well, let’s just go ahead and lay down our weapons, folks. Let’s not even put up a fight.
RG: What was the numerical advantage that the Afghan Army and police had over the Taliban? Is it higher than 10 to 1?
RO: I mean, goodness gracious, you’re talking about 450,000 people that are armed, and equipped, and trained, and have the best equipment. Let me tell you something: night-vision capabilities? Our night-vision capabilities are second to none. It’s almost unfair if you’re in a fight at night, because we can see you.
I can remember when I first joined the military, we had PDS5s TK. It was a big brick you put on your face, and you can barely see anything, but you can see a little bit in the night time. Let me tell you something: When I retired from the military, before I got out as a paratrooper at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I could jump out of an airplane at two o’clock in the morning, hit the ground, turn my PVS14s TK over my eyes, and I could run across the drop zone. I didn’t worry about stepping in holes, because I can see everything. You know? I mean, that’s the capability that we had. We gave that capability to them. And they caved.
RG: Taliban numbers were in the low tens of thousands. Right?
RO: There’s no excuse. There’s no excuse. I mean, we armed these people. We equipped them with everything.
RG: The only rationale would be that it was never there. It wasn’t an actual army. It wasn’t a real force. It was box-checking, it was pencil whipped, it was everybody telling their superior that: We’ve completed this training, and we’ve got these these numbers of people — and nobody wanting to hear that things weren’t going very well. What did you hear back, when you would say: Look, I’m not sure that these people I trained up are going to be ready to fight on their own? What would the response be from superiors?
RO: Well, see, that’s the thing: Most of us never did any training with these people. A lot of the people that were doing the training were contractors. I had people from other countries that were training the Afghan police where I was at. I was actually dealing with the real Afghan police when I was out there. I mean, that’s how it was.
And then you had people out there that obviously: Hey, we’re getting paid a lot of money, and we want to make sure everybody likes what we’re doing, so we’re going to go ahead and write up that these people are highly trained, and we’ve taught them this, this, and this, as long as that money keeps flowing.
RO: That’s one of the things that always bothered us is because these contractors would come into the countries. And we’re sitting here, we’re going outside the wire, we’re risking our lives every day in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we’re making nothing! An e4 to e6 TK in the United States military out there every day driving up and down the roads in Baghdad and going through Fallujah, and Taji TK, and then in Kandahar, and and in places like that, I mean, they’re risking their lives for chump change. And then we got these civilians over there, walking around with their coffee mug in their hands, and “We’re going to work on some training today,” and they’re making $250,000 to $300,000. And they’re not even leaving the damn wire. They’re going back there, and they’re doing their training, and they’re writing back, “Oh, we’re doing really good. Our people learnt this today.”
RG: Right. And so that makes a lot of sense that contractors are told to train these people up. The contractors say, “Yep. Yep. They’re trained. All good. Make sure they check clears.”
RG: Was there a moment for you that turned you against the entire enterprise? Where you were like: You know what — this is a doomed project and needs to end? Or was it a gradual realization?
RO: To me is it was the call telling me to reorder another 100 vehicles. But it was also me when I was in Iraq, and I found out that everybody we were paying Borwn and Route TK $200 a day per troop. I mean, you know, it was a complete racket.
RG: Richard Ojeda, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
RO: Ryan, man, I appreciate it, man. One of my best interviews that I did when I was running for Congress was with you.
RG: That was a fun one.
RO: Yeah, it was. And when they told me, “Hey, it’s Ryan Grim!” I was like, “Yeah. Let’s do it, man.”
RO: So anytime, brother. Anytime you need my perspective, you let me know.
RG: I really appreciate it.
RG: That was Richard Ojeda, and that’s our show.
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