Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, welcome back to Meet the Press, sir.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks for having me on, Chuck.
QUESTION: So what is happening right now in Kabul? We have reports that the Taliban and the Afghan Government are in negotiations for a – what they – what the Taliban is referring to as a potentially peaceful surrender. There are reports that we’re going to close the American embassy perhaps as early as Monday. What can you tell us?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, it’s a very fluid situation, but here’s what I can tell you, Chuck We are focused and the President’s focused, first and foremost, on the safety and security of our personnel. And so we are moving personnel to the airport, to a facility there. We’ve been focused all along on making sure that they’re safe and secure. The President, as you know, has sent in a significant force to make sure that we can proceed with an orderly move and getting down to a core diplomatic presence in Kabul. And we’re working that very, very assiduously right now.
At the same time, yes, we’ve seen these reports of the Afghans and – the Afghan Government and the Taliban talking about the way forward. We’re going to work to support those efforts. We have a team in Doha to do that, working with the United Nations, working with other interested countries, including Qatar, to see if there can be a peaceful resolution going forward, a peaceful settlement, a peaceful transfer of power. That would be good for the people of Afghanistan, to avoid further bloodshed.
QUESTION: Have you sought assurances from the Taliban for safe passage of Americans out of Kabul?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Not a question of assurances. We’ve been very clear with the Taliban that any effort on their part to interrupt our operations, to attack our forces, to attack our personnel, would be met with a very strong, decisive response. And that’s exactly why the President sent 5,000 forces in to assure that we can proceed in a safe and orderly manner. And so far, that’s what’s happened.
QUESTION: The fall of Kabul seems inevitable now. Do you concur with that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, what we’re focused on now is making sure that we can get our people to a safe and secure place, that we can do right by the people who stood with us in Afghanistan all these years, including Afghans who worked for the embassy, worked for our military. We have a massive effort underway to bring Afghans at risk out of the country if that’s what they – that’s what they so desire. And ultimately, it’s up to the Afghans themselves. It’s up to the Afghan Government, it’s up to the Taliban to decide the way forward for the country, including Kabul.
QUESTION: I want to play something you said in June about the withdrawal and get you to respond to it on the other side. Here it is.
“I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday. So I wouldn’t necessarily equate the departure of our forces in July and August or by early September with some kind of immediate deterioration in the situation.”
QUESTION: How did that assessment end up so wrong? Is that an intelligence assessment that went wrong? Is that a Pentagon assessment that went wrong? Your own? How – that did not age well.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Two things, Chuck. First, we’ve known all along that the Taliban was at its strongest position in terms of its strength since 2001, when we came to office. That was the fact. And we’ve said all along, including back then, that there was a real chance that the Taliban would make significant gains throughout Afghanistan. But, on the other hand, I have to tell you that the inability of Afghan Security Forces to defend their country has played a very powerful role in what we’ve seen over the last the last few weeks. The fact is we invested, the international community invested, over 20 years, billions of dollars in these forces, 300,000 of them, with an air force, something the Taliban didn’t have, with the most modern, sophisticated equipment. And, unfortunately, tragically, they have not been able to defend the country, and I think that explains why this has moved as quickly as it’s moved.
QUESTION: Let me get you to respond to what retired General Douglas Lute is quoted in the Times today. He said this, quote, “The puzzle for me is the absence of contingency planning. If everyone knew we were headed for the exits, why did we not have a plan over the past two years for making this work?”
That – we can debate staying or going, and I know that that is something we’re going to relitigate perhaps for a decade. But we had two presidents that were pretty insistent we were going to get out. It does look like we were – this looks like a chaotic withdrawal for something that politically seemed inevitable to the American people. What happened there?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’ve been working on this – this departure, this draw-down, for months. We actually began an ordered departure from our embassy back at the end of April. And as facts have changed, we have – we’ve adjusted to that. It’s exactly why the President sent in forces that we had at our disposal to make sure that we could do this in the safest, most orderly way possible. So all of those plans have been in place. It’s also true that in terms of refugees, in terms of bringing people out, the system that we inherited had been decimated. And so we’ve been working hard to rebuild that, as you know. We’ve been doing that in real time.
But Chuck, stepping back – and that’s really important, because I think it’s vital that we put all of this in context – here are the facts. The President said we went into Afghanistan 20 years ago for one mission, and that was to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11, to bring them to justice, and to make sure to the best of our ability that they would not be able to do that again from Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was brought to justice a decade ago. Al-Qaida, the force that attacked us, has been vastly diminished. Its current capacity to attack us from Afghanistan is negligible. We have the capacity going forward to make sure that we have forces in the region and in place to deal with any re-emergence of terrorism. That’s why we went. We succeeded in achieving those fundamental objectives. And the idea that we would sign up for remaining there in the midst of a civil war for another five, ten, or twenty years was simply not in the national interest. That is the hard decision the President made.
QUESTION: I guess the question isn’t about whether five or ten years. There are – look, there’s a lot of backseat driving on this. Why do this in the summer? Fighting in Afghanistan is seasonal. Why not delay the withdrawal to the winter and give the Afghan Security Forces a chance, when we know the Taliban retreats in the winter? Was there any – the idea that you accept this Trump – this bad deal by Trump, but you’ll turn back other bad deals by Trump – I mean, what was wrong with delaying six months?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Because we inherited the deadline negotiated by the previous administration. That deadline was May 1st. And the idea that we could have maintained the status quo beyond May 1st, that the President had decided to stay, I think is a – is a fiction. Here’s what is likely to have happened had we – had the President decided to do that. During the time from when the agreement was reached to May 1st, the Taliban had stopped attacking our forces, stopped attacking NATO forces. They did not sought to take over the country, the entire country, by going at these major provincial capitals.
Come May 2nd, if the President had decided to stay, all gloves would have been off. We would have been back at war with the Taliban attacking our forces. The offensive you’ve seen throughout the country almost certainly would have proceeded. We would have had about 2,500 forces in country with air power that would not have been sufficient to deal with the situation, and I would be on your show right now explaining why we were sending tens of thousands of forces back into Afghanistan to restart a war that we need to end.
QUESTION: Why are you convinced that we’re not going to see, in the words of – reportedly of Secretary Austin, in a report this morning, that he was making the case for staying a little bit longer by noting what happened after we withdrew from Iraq and the rise of ISIS? Why are you convinced we’re not going to see a replay of that movie?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So a few things, Chuck. First, we have and will maintain significant capacity to deal with any re-emergence of a terrorist threat from Afghanistan. We do this, by the way, around the world in places where we don’t have forces on the ground – in Yemen, in parts of Africa, in parts of Syria. And our capacity to do that is far different and far better than it was after – before 9/11, for example.
At the same time, the Taliban have a certain self-interest in this. They know what happened the last time they harbored a terrorist group that attacked the United States. It’s not in their self-interest to allow a repeat of that.
QUESTION: Well, I – there seems to be a lot of – some people might say that’s a bit of wishful thinking. I mean, the propaganda opportunities that they may have, particularly coming up with the 20th anniversary of 9/11, that has got to scare some folks. I mean, ISIS, when they made their expanse, it ended up inspiring acolytes to do attacks on the West, attacks in this country. Are you at all concerned about the propaganda victory these extremists are about to have on the 20th anniversary of 9/11?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Chuck, what we are is extremely vigilant. And the President has instructed all of us, starting with the Intelligence Community, starting with the Pentagon, to make sure we’re maintaining the vigilance and the capacity to see the re-emergence of any terrorist threat and to be able to deal with it effectively and in real time. And we have confidence that we can do that.
QUESTION: Are we definitely closing the embassy?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’re moving people out of the embassy to a location at the airport. That’s happening right now. My job, my number one priority, is the safety and security of our people, and we’ve adjusted along the way. As I said, we started the ordered departure from our embassy way back at the end of April, and we’ve done that systematically, progressively, and we’ve adjusted depending on what was actually happening on the ground. And that’s exactly what we’re doing now.
QUESTION: So if no American is in the embassy, we’ve essentially closed the embassy, (inaudible) say the —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No, we’re going to have a —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’re going to have our core diplomatic presence and, in effect, an embassy at a location at the airport.
QUESTION: So the physical embassy is what’s moving, but there will be American diplomatic presence that will continue?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s correct.
QUESTION: What do you say to the many U.S. troops, veterans of the Afghanistan war who are Afghanistan themselves this morning – I mean, you saw the Washington Post story: “Why did my friend get blown up? For what?” One former Army Ranger: “It makes me angry, really angry.” Another Army veteran: “All the people who went and served are like, ‘Why did my friend die?’” And now one medic is quoted: “There’s just nothing really to show for it…why were we even there?”
I understand that we were safe for 20 years. But they also thought they were trying to fight for something that would keep us safe for another 20 years. What do you say to them?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The first thing I say to them is: God bless you. God bless you for your service. God bless you for your sacrifice, for everything you’ve done for this country and for other people around the world. And the other thing I’d say to them is: you succeeded in accomplishing the mission that was set out for you way back on 9/11 – after 9/11 – and that is getting the folks who attacked us then, bringing – helping to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, and making sure, to the best of our ability, that al-Qaida would not be in a position to attack us again from Afghanistan. And they largely succeeded in that – in meeting those objectives. And so that’s a very, very important, a very powerful thing, and I think they can take tremendous pride in what they’ve accomplished.
QUESTION: Is America safer today with the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: In terms of the threat posed to us before 9/11 that brought us into Afghanistan in the first place, we are in a much different and much better place than we were right before 9/11. The group that attacked us has been dramatically diminished. Its capacity to attack us again from Afghanistan, dramatically diminished. Our ability to see if it re-emerges and our capacity to do something about that is very strong. And so in that sense, I think we’re in a much better place than we were 20 years ago.
But I want to emphasize one point, Chuck. You said I said 20 years. Twenty years, one trillion dollars, 2,300 Americans who lost their lives, a massive investment, and the President concluded that it was time to end this war. You know, in the 19th century, the British were there. We’ve now been there far longer than they have. In the 20th century, the Russians were there. We’ve now been there twice as long as they have. As a strategic matter, there is nothing that our strategic competitors would like more than to see us bogged down and mired in Afghanistan for another five, ten, twenty years. That is not in the national interest.
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, I know it’s been a long week, long weekend, and it may be a long week ahead. Thank you for spending a few minutes with us and sharing your perspective.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks for having me, Chuck. Appreciate it.
QUESTION: You got it.