The United States is not safer following the pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and President Donald Trump’s and President Joe Biden’s determination to withdraw all U.S. forces from there led to Kabul’s fall, according to the last commanders to oversee a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Retired General Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) from 2019-2022, and retired General Joseph Votel, the head of CENTCOM from 2016-2019, spoke exclusively to VOA on Monday about the U.S. and NATO’s nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan.

“I do not believe we are safer as a result of our withdrawal from Afghanistan,” McKenzie, who advised American presidents to keep a minimum of 2,500 U.S. troops in the country, told VOA.

“There’s a lot that we don’t know about the organizations, the terrorist organizations that are left on the ground,” Votel added. “I don’t think we’re more stable or more safe. I think Afghanistan is more unstable, and as a result, that this region is more unstable.”

McKenzie has repeatedly said U.S. intelligence gathering in Afghanistan has been reduced to a tiny fraction of what it was before the pullout, and Votel told VOA that while the recent U.S. strike against al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri shows the U.S. has maintained some intelligence capabilities, the fact that this month’s strike was the first of its kind since the U.S. departed last year reveals the U.S. still has work to do.

Both generals say the decision to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan ultimately led to Kabul’s fall, a decision that spanned two presidencies. Presidents serve as commanders-in-chief of the military while in office, and senior military officers offer options to their civilian leaders and execute the decisions of those civilians.

Biden has defended his decision as “designed to save American lives,” saying on the last day of the withdrawal last year that he was “not going to extend this forever war” and would not extend “a forever exit” from Afghanistan.

But Votel told VOA on Monday he feared the “forever war” political narrative “overtook smart, strategic decision making” in Washington.

“I just don’t buy the idea that we had to pull everybody out,” Votel told VOA, calling the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan a necessary “insurance policy” to ensure the U.S. could “support the Afghans” and “continue to look after our national security interests that are present in that country.”

“What we wanted was an elegant solution that was not attainable. We wanted to go to zero militarily yet retain a small diplomatic platform in Afghanistan that would be protected,” McKenzie said.

Instead, American diplomats evacuated the embassy via helicopter, a visual many would compare to the U.S. evacuation from Saigon, Vietnam, in 1975. The U.S. appeared caught by surprise as the Taliban overran Kabul, with desperate Afghans clinging to the outside of American evacuation planes before the U.S. was able to completely secure Kabul’s airport.

McKenzie pinpointed the Doha agreement, negotiated between the U.S. and the Taliban during the Trump administration, as the “defeat mechanism” for the military campaign and a “deflating experience” for the Afghan government.

But the Afghan government clearly shared the blame by its inability to stop corruption and its reluctance to bring this war to a political conclusion once Trump and Biden had settled on leaving, Votel added.

Biden has said the negotiations that the Trump administration made with the Taliban left him with just two choices: either leave or escalate the conflict by “committing tens of thousands more troops back to war.”d

But McKenzie told VOA he did not believe that large a number of American troops were necessary, and had the president chosen to leave 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he believed the U.S. could have become a smaller, more difficult target for the Taliban while retaining the ability to advise and assist the Afghan military.

“At 2,500 we would have kept aircraft at Bagram and at HKIA [Hamid Karzai International Airport], and we have kept a contractor base to support that,” along with American contractors overseeing “the daily humdrum [of] things that make a large military operation work” such as making sure ammunition and supplies get to “units that need it, not to the bazar or the Taliban.”

During last year’s evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in which the U.S. airlifted more than 120,000 people to safety, the Islamic State’s ultimate goal was to try to get a bomb on an airplane, according to McKenzie. He said the U.S. bravely thwarted several attack schemas under way, including rocket attacks and vehicle improvised explosive devices (IEDs,) but they were ultimately unable to thwart the suicide bomb attack that killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 others.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity:

On what went wrong in Afghanistan: 

MCKENZIE: So, I’ve spent a year, I’ve had an opportunity to give a lot of thought to this subject. And my belief is that the core decision that caused the tragic events of last August was our decision to leave Afghanistan completely. And that decision was a decision that really spanned two presidencies. President Trump and President Biden, they both are probably as un-alike as any presidents in American history, but they both shared a desire to go completely out of Afghanistan.

And I think the decision and the implementation of that decision led inevitably to what happened last August. That was a key decision and all the other findings that followed came as a result of that. And we can go more in depth on these decisions. But I think that the idea that we could leave, and that Afghanistan would still be able to defend itself without on-the-ground support, even if it was indirect support. I didn’t agree with that at the time. I don’t agree with it now. And I think that’s been borne out the truth of that, of that hypothesis.

VOTEL: You’ve asked an important question and one that, I think, takes a lot of lateral reflection. And I think Frank really hit the big idea there. You know, I think it’s important to recognize that departure would have been difficult under almost any circumstance that we could have could have created. But I do think that we failed to appreciate the impact of a political narrative, I think that emphasized our departure over a long period of time and the effect that had on the psyche of, of not only Afghan forces, but the Afghan people and certainly the Afghan government.

And I think contributed to a large degree to the challenge of trying to depart this country, which as I mentioned, was going to be hard under any, any circumstances that we could imagine. I also think, frankly, that there was probably some different assumptions, some different expectations, certainly with the Afghans, certainly with our NATO partners, and then probably certainly within our own government here as we orchestrated this departure.

On what a U.S. military presence of 2,500 in Afghanistan would have looked like:

MCKENZIE: So, 2,500 troops would have given us a small, very hard platform in a series of bases in Afghanistan that would have included Bagram Air Base. It would have given us the ability to continue to support the Afghan logistics system, would have given us the ability to continue to support the Afghan Air Force on the ground, would not have given us tactical advise and assist, which we weren’t doing anyway at that time. But I believe it would have given us the opportunity, along with the 4,000 or so NATO troops that would have stayed with us, the ability to continue to influence Afghan operations on the ground. And Carla, remember the ultimate aim was to go after the counterterrorist targets … which is why we wanted to support the Afghan military on the ground.

VOA: Secretary Lloyd Austin said in testimony on September 28 of last year that he believed as many as 5,000 troops were needed to operate and defend Bagram. Are you disagreeing with him? 

MCKENZIE: No, here’s the distinction. At 2,500 the assumption would be you would have the Afghans to help you defend Bagram. And that’s the difference. And also NATO, although we did most of the work (in Bagram). There was some NATO assistance up in Bagram.

But here’s the theory: At 2,500, the Afghans will still stand and fight. Therefore, you’re going to have Afghans defending the perimeter at Bagram. It would not have required 5,000. His number is probably not a bad number if we had to go in and defend Bagram by ourselves. I would agree with the secretary on that, but I’m talking about a different case. I’m talking about a case where we still are maintaining a relationship with the Afghan military on the ground. They’re still standing beside us, and we believe at 2,500 that would, in fact, ensue and that would be the way forward.

On the turnover of Bagram and why the Afghans weren’t prepared to take over the base: 

MCKENZIE: The commander on the ground July 2 was General Scott Miller. He did an exhaustive turnover of that airfield with the entire chain of command of the Afghan military on the ministerial and the tactical level. Now, you can find people on the ground that aren’t going to know about it. You know, in any organization you are always going to be able to find somebody, but I would tell you that was actually a pretty well-planned turnover.

At the same time though, you want to maintain an element of tactical surprise about when we are actually departing. So not every Afghan soldier at Bagram knew what was happening. That’s true, but the chain of command knew what was happening. And I am not probably the best person to comment about failures from the Afghan chain of command, you know, to get the word down to their forces, and I regret that, but I would challenge the assertion that we did not fully coordinate that movement out of Bagram. That was a key priority for Scott Miller and his forces, and I’m confident they did everything they could to give the Afghans as good a chance as we could to maintain control of that base …

Look, I think we know what happened to the Afghans writ large in the month of July. They collapsed and lost the will to fight. That happened in other places. We shouldn’t be surprised it happened at Bagram as well.

On Afghanistan’s corruption problem: 

VOTEL: Well, I think actually, Carla, we were doing a lot of things. So I know General Nicholson who was the commander on the ground during my time prior to General Miller, and I knew General Miller when he was in charge there, we put a huge focus on this, and this was a constant point of discussion with them.

There certainly are some cultural aspects to the Afghan military, to the Afghan government that lended itself to corruption, and that certainly was a problem. But there were efforts, I think, that were made to account for the resources that we were giving to them, to try to implement best practices, and to try to make sure we looked after, you know, the U.S. and NATO tax dollars that were being invested into this country. So I think there were. But again, it is Afghanistan, and this is an endemic problem that existed before we arrived, and unfortunately existed throughout our time there. And it was a problem that would take time to address, and I think that’s how we were trying to address it.

On what was missing from the U.S. approach as it withdrew from Afghanistan: 

VOTEL: Well, I think the problem was that we had made this determination that we couldn’t be on the ground. We couldn’t be on the ground at any numbers and do it safely. And I really challenged that. I don’t think that was the case … We had several thousand on the ground for a period of time and we weren’t absorbing a lot of casualties. We were bolstering the Afghan government, the Afghan forces. We were doing important work to keep them in the game. And so I just don’t buy the idea that we had to pull everybody out. And that I think was a challenge. And we did leave a large security cooperation element in place in Iraq when we left in 2011. That helped bridge us until we unfortunately had to come back in there in the 2014 timeframe. So it gave us a platform. In this case, we largely pulled out everything.

I think the way I look at this, Carla, frankly, and I look at Afghanistan and I think about it now is, our presence on the ground, I think we have to think of it like an insurance policy. That’s what it was doing, a small, sustainable number of troops on the ground —and you’ve heard the numbers 2,500, 4,500, somewhere in that ballpark, that really ensures that we can support the Afghans and we can continue to look after our national interests that are present in that country.

On whether the attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport was preventable: 

MCKENZIE: We did everything we could to prevent those types of attacks from occurring. We prevented a number of those attacks largely planned by ISIS, delivered either by a human being walking with a bomb or a vehicle-borne IED. Their goal ultimately was to try to get a bomb on an airplane. And we were there to process people onto the airfield, get people in to get on the airplanes to fly away. If we’re going to do that, you have to have contact with people. That means brave young American men or women are standing out there with the breath of the person you’re searching in your face. There’s no other way to do that. You can’t do that remotely. You can’t contract that out. It just takes the enormous courage of American servicemen and women there on the ground doing it.

Why we were there was to bring people out. To bring people out, you got to bring people through the gates. We already net down the number of gates. We had done everything within our power to try to minimize the chances of that, but you’re in a dynamic environment against a tough murderous opponent, and sometimes the luck turns in their favor as it did in this case. That’s not going to make it any easier for those families that lost family members. But if we were going to continue to process people, I don’t know that that attack was preventable.

They wanted to cause mass casualties any way they could. They fired rockets at us, maneuvered vehicles around to try to get them up to a gate. And then you know, so they had a variety of attack schema that were under way. We were able to thwart the vast majority of those. We were not able to thwart this particular one.

VOTEL: I don’t know that I have much more to add to what General McKenzie said so very well, and I think it represents certainly my experience, not only in Afghanistan, but in a lot of the places where the enemy has a vote. They’re always trying to gain an advantage, and sometimes despite the very best efforts to try to prevent these things, to mitigate risks, things do happen. And that is that is the very unfortunate nature of war. And it’s unfortunate nature of this operation right here.

On where the blame lies for Kabul’s fall:

MCKENZIE: At the beginning, we talked about the Doha agreement. It remains my opinion that in our language, the defeat mechanism is what you call something that brings final defeat to an organization or an entity. The Doha agreement and the negotiations associated with that were the defeat mechanism for this campaign. I believe that since the Afghan government was largely excluded from those negotiations, and the fact that we ultimately did not proceed along those negotiations on a path of conditionality, where both the Taliban actually had to deliver as well as the Afghan government and the United States. I think that was a deflating experience for the Afghan government.

So, when I look at the problem, I don’t see it completely as a failure of the Afghan military. I see it as a collapse of the government writ whole. And so just as you evaluate our support for them, I think it is wrong to say this was purely a military failure in Afghanistan. I think there’s plenty of blame to go around for other elements of the United States government as well. Even as the Afghan government collapsed, so did our plan. Our plan to support their whole of government collapsed. For me at least, what drove it home was the Doha agreement, and our inability to successfully negotiate genuine conditional concessions from the Taliban.

VOTEL: I mean, the fact of the matter is that the Afghan government didn’t feel as engaged in this as perhaps they should have. Maybe that’s part of our problem. But I would share that that’s also part of their problem. These are compromises, and they have to come along, and I think they showed some reluctance in terms of trying to bring this war to a political conclusion. I think certainly the American leaders, both presidents … President Trump and President Biden, you know, expressed the desire for a political solution to this and that required the Afghans to come along, Afghan government come along as well. And so, some reluctance on that I think does point some responsibility on the Afghan side as well.

Ultimately, the failure of the Afghan troops was largely a result of a lack of trust in their own leadership, not necessarily American or NATO leadership. And again, I think that highlights some of the responsibility that does belong on the Afghan government side with respect to this whole situation, unfortunate situation.

On keeping troops in Afghanistan as the U.S. has done in other countries:

MCKENZIE: Two thousand, five hundred. That was a number that we proposed to stay would have been much more than just there to protect the embassy. You had to get out and advise at the ministerial level in Afghanistan to be effective, and you had to be able to move around, and maybe advise at the corps level, the regional level, and provide advice there. Nobody’s fighting but you’re providing advice to those Afghan commanders who are actually directing combat operations. So you were able to do that in a focused manner at 2,500.

Additionally, we felt at 2,500 we had reduced our platforms to the size where it would have been a hard target for the Taliban to go after. Additionally, we had vast resources from over the horizon in terms of fire support that we could have applied. Finally, we have felt the Taliban over the last year and a half had gotten somewhat flabby and lost a lot of their operational practices, so that they would have been very vulnerable to us had we chosen to take them out. So that was my recommendation. Look, I know there are people who say you can’t actually do it at 2,500 … would that have been successful? I don’t know the answer to that. I do know what the answer was for going to zero. That’s clear as always.

VOTEL: I think there is an irreducible minimum number that we could have left on the ground there that would have continued to provide the necessary support to the Afghan government, to the Afghan forces and would have helped protect the interests for which we were in Afghanistan, and whether that number fell between 2,500 to 4,500 or somewhere in between, the fact of the matter is, I think there could have been a sustainable number that we could have maintained on the ground for a long period of time that would have looked out for our interests and would have prevented the situation that we’ve seen play out over the last year.

I really do fear that unfortunately some political narratives, this so-called forever war, we had to end this, we had to get people out, I think this overtook smart strategic decision making in terms of what we were doing, and we just we just left. I’m with General McKenzie here. I think there is a number that we could have sustained on the ground for a long period of time, that would have taken care of the Afghans, would have looked out for our own interests here, and we should have pursued that with more vigor.

MCKENZIE: At 2,500 we would have kept aircraft at Bagram and at HKIA, and we have kept a contractor base to support that and to reduce what we still had contractors there to do the sort of daily humdrum things that make a large military operation work: making sure when ammunition gets in, it comes into the country and it goes to units that need it, not to the bazar or not to the Taliban.

On why the U.S. did not wait until winter instead of withdrawing in the middle of the fighting season:

MCKENZIE: We proposed … 2,500. That course of action was considered and taken a look at. We thought though that if you were going to get out and you had not done anything to prepare the Taliban for staying, you know, not indefinitely but over a period of time, the longer you stay, the greater the risk of them attacking you would be. So we didn’t see any particular gain for staying into the winter. We’d look at a variety of alternatives until … the president settled on the end of August as the time when we would actually leave. But as you get into winter, the other thing that begins to affect you, Carla, if you’re going to bring people out, the weather’s a factor now, particularly in Afghanistan, so you don’t really want to be doing large scale air movements in the winter out of the Kabul bowl or Bagram for that matter, because you’re going to have weather become a factor in a way that frankly, it wasn’t in May, June, July, August.

On why evacuations didn’t start earlier:

MCKENZIE: The first operation was a military withdrawal from Afghanistan. And that was complete largely by the middle of July. Most of our combat forces were out, the equipment that we were going to bring out was out. What was left as you went into the second half of July really was the force that we had agreed to leave that would be protecting the U.S. diplomatic platform.

Now, it is my belief that what we wanted was an elegant solution that was not attainable. We wanted to go to zero militarily, yet retain a small diplomatic platform in Afghanistan that would be protected. And that simply was not a feasible course of action. It was not defendable. It was not safe. And so when the alternative to that would have been to withdraw the diplomatic platform as you executed the military withdrawal, beginning back in the May timeframe. That would have [permitted] committed an orderly withdrawal…

But now, here’s the other thing, Carla, that we need to consider. We’re also planning to bring out a lot of Afghans — we talked about the Afghan elite forces — had we begun to bring them out back in April, May, June, July, you can see that would have had a pernicious effect on the Afghans’ ability to defend themselves. So if you consider bringing out a lot of Afghans earlier, you have to think about what would that have done to the Afghan will to resist, which was already crumbling, would it have made it collapse even faster? … But I think we waited too long to begin the noncombatant evacuation operation, beginning in the middle of August was far too late.

On the international goal of doubling the number of Afghan special forces:

VOTEL: I’m not sure I recall whether we achieved the full goal of doubling up, but we certainly came close to it. We expanded the number of command organizations, gave them more and more aircraft into their special mission wing. We made better use of a variety of different Afghan special operations organizations that were out in the provinces that were doing very, very good work. So I think we did pretty well in terms of doubling the size of all of that. Whether we actually achieved that actual number of doubling or not, I’m not I’m not certain and I won’t hazard a guess.

I guess we’ve kind of been talking a little bit about, it. I think it is the will to fight, frankly. And as we continued to talk in our strategic communications about departing Afghanistan, certainly as we made announcements in Doha that we’re going to, this, I think, played a significant impact in undermining, not only the will of the Afghan government and the conventional forces, but really the special operations forces as well. And I do think perhaps we did not fully appreciate how much that had been undermined. Again, I was not in the position. I was not on the ground. So this is my own personal view here. But certainly, I think that that caused a lot of problems. I would have expected that the Afghan special operations forces would have fought much harder, much more to the end, but as we saw that was not the case. We saw a completely different situation play out and I think it all gets down to the will to fight. And the fact of the matter is that they had to take, they chose to protect themselves and protect their families as opposed to trying to save a government that was ultimately not going to succeed.

On whether Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley advocated for General McKenzie’s advice as strongly as he wanted:

MCKENZIE: I think our advice was heard at the very highest levels of government. The president makes that decision. The president gets to make that decision. I’m not going to speak for them. I’d ask you to talk to them about that. But I felt my views were heard and were heard thoughtfully. For a commander, there’s not much more you can ask. I get to give advice. They can take it or not. And then I’m going to follow the order the president gives.

On whether the U.S. is safer now, and whether terror groups have grown in Afghanistan:

MCKENZIE: I see nothing to change the CENTCOM assessment that if we leave, eventually al-Qaida and ISIS in particular are going to go into open space in Afghanistan, and the threat the United States is going to rise. Actually I do not believe we are safer as a result of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. But I also would say … it’s too soon to tell. It’s been a while for this to manifest. I didn’t expect it to happen overnight, but I do not feel that we’re in a safer place because we executed that action.”

VOTEL: Yeah, I would agree with that assessment. I think that we’re not in a safer place. There’s a lot that we don’t know about the terrorist organizations that are left on the ground. I certainly was pleased to see the strike we conducted a couple weeks ago against Zawahri. That certainly was an indicator that we maintain some capabilities. That was good, but I think everyone should just reflect on the fact that’s the first time we’ve done that since our departure, to my knowledge. So you know, we’ve got work to do here, and I don’t think we’re more stable or more safe. I think Afghanistan is more unstable, and as a result that this region is more unstable. And that could cause problems for us down the line.

On why the Afghan Air force was so reliant on U.S. contractors, leaving most Afghan aircraft grounded following their departure:

MCKENZIE: So the fact that the Afghan Air Force relied on U.S. contractors is not unique to Afghanistan. Many countries across the world are reliant on contractor support to make those airplanes fly. So that’s not unique. What was understandable and predictable was, if you pull the contractors out, it’s going to be very difficult for a largely untrained force to support those aircraft. And we tried to do a variety of things. I would call them heroic things, to try to provide support to the Afghan Air Force.

One of them involves breaking airplanes down and flying them over the horizon to do maintenance on them and bringing them back in. Others using telecommunications to assist the Afghans in doing maintenance. None of those things work particularly well, but again, we didn’t have a lot of time to really see how it would work over the long haul. I thought it was going to be a significant uphill battle to keep the Afghan Air Force in the fight once we removed the contractor support on the ground. And that was a fact that was well known to everyone who looked at the problem.

VOTEL: I think it takes time to build professional maintenance forces that can stand up on their own. And I think that’s what we were attempting to do over a long period of time. But, you know, I think you have to look at the talent base in Afghanistan and the people that had the requisite skills, to include speaking English and other things that go along with this. And this, I think, highlights the challenge of what we were trying to do on the ground with all of that. So I think there certainly was an effort to try to train, as there is in many countries, to try to transfer the skills over to the host nation and make them self-reliant and take care of themselves. But again, this takes time. And there’s a lot of factors that go into this. It isn’t just showing up and giving them stuff. You have to train people. You have to develop leaders. You have to develop expertise, long-term expertise, and you know, we look at what it takes to build a to build a mechanic in our own country. People don’t just show up and start working on airplanes. They go through a whole path of professionalism, and that’s what we had to do in this situation. So it’s a much more difficult proposition then, I think, just providing equipment and showing up with showing up and stuff.

On whether the U.S. military will need to reenter Afghanistan:

VOTEL: I think that’s a real concern here. And what we have seen with these terrorist organizations that we’ve been fighting now for several decades is that they morph, they change, they evolve, they modify their practices, they grow in different ways than we might expect, and that we have to keep constant pressure on them. And I think when we do take pressure off with these organizations, we give them the ability to grow into a ball. And so I am very, very concerned about that. Whether we find ourselves back in Afghanistan, again, like we found ourselves back in Iraq, just literally three-plus years after we left, I don’t know. I hope not. But I think we have to be prepared for that. And we have to recognize that keeping pressure on these terrorist organizations is an important interest for our country, not only is it important for the country of Afghanistan, it’s important for the safety of our own nation and our own citizens.

On what will happen to Afghan partners left in the country:

MCKENZIE: I think the Department of State is doing everything they can to get those people out of Afghanistan. I think it’s going to be a long, hard slog to do that. And I also recognize in August, we brought out a lot of people who were not our primary target. It’s just a fact based on who was at the airfield, the amount of time we had and the direction that we were given. I wish it would have been different, but it wasn’t. We left a lot of friends behind, a lot of people who shed blood with us. I feel that very keenly. I know everybody that served in Afghanistan feels that very keenly, and I believe we’re going to try very hard to get those people out.

On whether evacuating some Afghan forces contributed to the Afghan military’s collapse:

MCKENZIE: Well, as Joe Votel, I think, he’s already talked about that very eloquently. I think that was a factor. But it is in fact their country, and they got to believe in it if they’re going to actually stand and fight on the ground. Yes, I think the fact that we evacuated people was a factor, but I don’t think it was a principal factor involved in the collapse of the Afghan military.