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Transcript: Michael Vickers talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - MICHAEL VICKERS
CORRESPONDENT MICHAEL MORELL
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL:
Mike, it's great to have you back on the show.
MICHAEL VICKERS:
It's a pleasure to be here.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So our listeners may not know this but we do here at Intelligence Matters pay attention to the feedback we get. And a number of folks have told us recently that they would love to have us spend an episode talking about Afghanistan. And given where we are today in Afghanistan with the peace talks and the continuing attacks by Taliban, this seems like a great time to do that.

And you are the perfect person I think to do that because you've spent so much time thinking about this country from a variety of different perspectives. And so, Mike, I'm gonna spend most of our time talking about Afghanistan. But I do want to ask you up front about two other issues that are in the news.

The first is the DNI. Dan Coats, the former DNI, and Sue Gordon, the former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, have both stepped down. Joe Maguire, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, is now the acting DNI. The president is looking for a permanent replacement for Dan and for Sue. What stands out to you in all of this? How do you think about this?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Well, I think this is an unusual selection because of the circumstances we find ourselves in. I think I've known Joe for a lot of years. And he'll do a really good job as the acting director. He's a real straight shooter, a military officer Navy SEAL. But it seems to me the credibility of the DNI is very important. Dan Coats had that. And Sue Gordon had that, trusted on the Hill, trusted by the American people to tell it straight. And I think that's critically important.

You know, given that the Russians intervened in our election last time and they continue to do that and will do that in 2020, having a DNI that really will tell it straight to the congress, to the American people and then therefore has bipartisan support I think is really critical. You know, that's always important in an intelligence officer. It's even more important now. So I hope they pick an intelligence professional essentially that has that credibility and non-partisan nature.
MICHAEL MORELL:
The second issue, Mike, is the rebound of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There's now been multiple statements from U.S. and foreign officials about that. People are talking about 14 to 18,000 ISIS guys along the Iraq/ Syria border. How do you think about this?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Sure. Well, you know, the physical caliphate was liberated and destroyed. But ISIS fighters haven't gone away. They just scattered. And so ISIS is far from defeated in that region. And the pressure on them has reduced. And so as you know from our experience in counterterrorism, the longer you let terrorist groups reconstitute, the more dangerous they become if they have some form of sanctuary and can plan.

And so it's very important to keep pressure on. If you look at what the emergence of ISIS as it morphed from Al Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS last time, they had a very systematic campaign in the Sunni areas targeting tribal leaders who had risen up against them. And by 2014, you know, they were able to take big chunks of Iraq.

And so the danger is still there very much. This relates in some way to the Afghanistan topic. But like it or not, we face global jihadi threats in four areas of the near east and north Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan being one, Syria, Iraq another, sort of Yemen, Somalia and then north Africa sort of centered on Libya but into the Sahel. And we have to continue to keep pressure on those groups so they don't pose a threat to the American homeland.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Okay. Mike, Afghanistan. Perhaps a little history first. Can you walk us through kind of a rough arc of the war in Afghanistan from 9/11 to today, kind of the cliff notes version of that?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Sure. So after the horrendous 9/11 attacks, the U.S. mounted a very successful campaign to depose the Taliban and the Al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan. That basically took a few months to accomplish. But Al Qaeda and the Taliban didn't go away. Most of them, certainly all the key leadership, fled to Pakistan. Some went to Iran where they reconstituted a threat.

The Taliban beginning in about 2003 started insurgency up again in Afghanistan. We had battles in 2002. But there were more people still trying to get out of Afghanistan. And until roughly 2008 the war was mostly concentrated in the south or the Pashtun heartland around Kandahar.

And then it became more lethal both in the east and south. As the situation deteriorated in Afghanistan, U.S. forces built up, concluding with President Obama's decision to essentially triple the force between 2009 and 2010 to almost 100,000 troops for a couple years. That force was able to really push the Taliban back to essentially 2006 levels or so. But after we drew down, they came back as we transitioned in 2014 to a train, advise and assist or supporting mission. And the Taliban now control more territory in Afghanistan than they did, certainly a decade ago. And attacks are just as numerous.
MICHAEL MORELL:
And what's been the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda during that period?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
So the Taliban had never really renounced Al Qaeda. But the core Taliban leadership had been centered in the south of Pakistan. One of their arms, the Haqqani Network, centered in north Waziristan, has provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda for decades and has planned with them and done attacks as has a related group, the Pakistani Taliban, that have the same philosophy but have different leadership and are on the Pakistan side. And so there's been a very close relationship between insurgents and global jihadists.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So Mike, I want to talk just for a second about ISIS in Afghanistan which you mentioned before. What's the relationship between the Taliban and ISIS? It's a bit different than it is between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Correct?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
It is. So ISIS in Afghanistan, Pakistan is what ISIS calls a province of its central command, or ISIS Khorasan, an ancient region that spans part of Iran, part of China, central Asia and Afghanistan. And ISIS Afghanistan was formed -- or Khorasan -- in 2014, 2015 from defectors from the Taliban and also defectors from the Pakistan Taliban or the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. A number of those leaders have been killed. But they've developed a fairly lethal force rising to about 3,000 fighters or so. Now they may be down to under a couple thousand. They've been battered pretty heavily by U.S. air power and Afghan Special Operations forces. But they're still a formidable threat as witnessed by the attack in Kabul on this Hazara wedding ceremony last few days.
MICHAEL MORELL:
There was a New York Times piece, Mike, I don't know about a week ago, a week and a half ago that talked about a bit of a debate between the U.S. military and the U.S. intelligence community about whether ISIS in Afghanistan is a threat to the homeland. And the article said the military sees a bigger threat than the IC sees. What's your sense?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Yeah. I'm more on the IC side of this, that, for now, they're really a regional threat. Most global jihadist groups only have the capabilities to do regional attacks. And that tends to be their priority anyway. That doesn't mean they don't have the ambition to do global attacks. They share the same ideology. But ISIS Afghanistan at this point doesn't have the same extra regional capabilities that ISIS in Syria, for example, had until they were really battered and being able to attack in Europe and threaten the United States.

If you look at Al Qaeda, you see the same kind of pattern. Core Al Qaeda had that for the longest time. Al Qaeda in Yemen and Al Qaeda in Syria developed it to a bit. Other groups, Somalia, north Africa really have been regional, or Al Qaeda and the Indian subcontinent. So this falls in that pattern. But they certainly have the ambition to do it.
MICHAEL MORELL:
And then maybe kind of one more kind of setting the stage question here. And I understand this is not in what you do every day. But what's your sense of what the level of political support there is in the United States to maintain our involvement in Afghanistan?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Well, that's certainly one of the challenges that we face is, you know, certainly President Trump but also several prominent Democrats running for president have pledged to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. And I think, one, national security is really not a front burner issue in our politics right now, despite the fact that the threats to the United States from a rising China and a resurgent Russia and regional powers and global jihadist is greater than it's been since the Cold War.

There's just this disconnect there. And I think too many of our senior political leaders tend to view Afghanistan through a prism of Vietnam, as a local war that you can just exit rather than a fight with global jihadists that will go on for a long time -- and really just look at it as a source of funds, you know, that they would rather redeploy those funds to the United States but at some risk. So that's certainly a challenge for national security professionals to try to shape that debate in some way about the danger if we tend to view this war with the global jihadist through the wrong prism.

You know, the comparison I like to draw is that the Columbian insurgency has been going on for 55 years. So Afghanistan may be America's longest war. And it's a small war, at this point more of an intelligence war. But Columbia's been going on three times as long as that. And they've had kind of on and off peace agreements. But it took strong U.S. support through the last decade and a half to really get them to that point.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Mike, let's kind of move forward to where we are today. And militarily where would you say we are between the Taliban and the Afghan Security Forces. Where's that balance?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
So the Afghan government, you know, controls the major population centers and certainly most of the lines of communications between them. But the insurgency has been getting stronger. And so if you look at the number of attacks, they've ramped up after 2014. And they've been maintained at a fairly high level despite some changes in U.S. strategy. As the long as the U.S. is engaged in providing material but also psychological support to the Afghan Security Forces and provides air power and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the Taliban can't win.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Can't get to those populations.
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Yeah. And so in fact what you see is a lot of the Taliban attacks, they'll do their high profile attacks occasionally, or other groups like ISIS recently in Kabul will do spectacular attacks in Kabul. But most are now attacks on outposts. Or as a couple years ago, the Taliban were able to overrun district centers because we had more restrictions on air power. So the U.S. is a pretty critical variable in this balance of power. You know, if you look at it on paper, Afghan National Security Forces are about high 300,000. Of course not everybody is manning their positions at all times.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Not everybody shows up for work. (LAUGH)
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Not everybody shows up for work. You know, Taliban and all insurgents are, you know, a tenth of that or so.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Yeah. And what's your sense of the quality of Afghan Security Forces?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
It varies. It's one of the reasons for a shift in strategy is that we now use Afghan Special Forces as the primary offensive force.
MICHAEL MORELL:
And they're pretty good.
MICHAEL VICKERS:
And they're pretty good. They're very well trained. And then the large cores in Afghanistan, the conventional forces are there to follow up and then try to hold. The Afghan police have taken the brunt of a lot of these attacks particularly in small outposts.

You know, for the last several years, Afghan Security Forces have been losing and killed in action what the United States lost in the totality of the Iraq War every year, five to 10,000 troops essentially every year. So they've paid quite a high cost.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Okay. Mike, the peace talks. Can you describe the status of those? I know the deal that's being discussed is not public. But some pieces of it have leaked out. Can you give us a sense of what that might look like as a starter to the discussion on that?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Sure. There's really two key elements to this. The first is that these are talks between the United States and the Taliban not as you'd expect between the Afghan government. The Taliban have refused to do that thus far. So talks that have been going on, there are several rounds.

I think we're in our ninth round now over the past year, thereabouts, in Doha, Qatar have been between the Taliban and our special envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. There's four pillars to the peace talks: troop withdrawal -- the Taliban want all U.S. troops out of the country.

Counterterrorism guarantees -- From the U.S. perspective want the Taliban to affirm that they've broken with Al Qaeda and that they will not provide sanctuary, not let the territory of Afghanistan be used for these terrorist groups that could mount attacks on the U.S. homeland. And then direct negotiation or peace talks with the Afghan government, intra-Afghan talks, and then, finally, a ceasefire.

And so there was quick agreement on the basic framework for a troop withdrawal and these counterterrorism guarantees early in the year. And the talks have been essentially stalemated since on these last two. And that really is the rub. The U.S. has made essentially concessions to the Taliban without getting the intra-Afghan dialogue. The Taliban consider the Afghan government illegitimate and if they talk to them, they say they'll only talk to them in a personal capacity, not as a government, but just as Afghans.

And then the cease fire, it should give Americans pause that the Taliban offensive for 2019 is named Operation Victory. They're continuing the fighting. The leader of the Taliban has said, "We're gonna fight till we achieve our objectives." And so a cease fire is a long way off.
MICHAEL MORELL:
I guess this is the fundamental question. Do you think the Taliban is willing to live up to the commitments that it makes?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
I don't think their commitments mean much on the counterterrorism side because, number one, if you look at some of their attitudes where they've recently said the U.S. deserved 9/11 for its intervention, its policies, and its intention to continue fighting until it achieves its objectives. Second, the Taliban is not a monolithic movement.

It splinters off groups. ISIS in Afghanistan is one of them. So even if they had the intention of controlling and they could really only do that if they were the government rather than power sharing in a government which they just see as a step toward what they really want.

But then also there's significant Taliban elements linked with the global jihadists that are in Pakistan. The Haqqani Network for example. And so it really seems to me their counterterrorism guarantees can be on paper. But it's hard to see how they would have the capability to really police them even if they wanted to, just given the dispersity of the threat, the fragmentation of the threat and their limited control. You know, what we have in Afghanistan right now is a friendly government with large security forces supported by the United States, advisors and air power. The Taliban with the best of intentions would be orders of magnitude below that.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So, Mike, paint us a picture of what you think would happen in Afghanistan if we pulled out?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
So I think it would very much look like what it looked like in Iraq, which is, U.S. withdrawals don't mean the end of the conflict. They just mean in a lot of cases the U.S. pulls out its forces. And so, you know, we maintained an embassy in Iraq after 2011.

We had robust intelligence forces. But we essentially had disengaged from our military campaign in terms of advisors and others. And we were providing security assistance much as we do with many countries around the world. Three years later, you know, or in the subsequent three years, ISIS did a systematic campaign, first through assassination and other things, to coerce Sunni areas. And then our big investment in the Iraqi security forces essentially almost collapsed as ISIS was on the gates of Baghdad.

And so I think within a matter of years if the U.S. reduced aid, and essentially if it went to the Iraq model, and then, even worse, reduced aid because Afghanistan is more dependent on international aid for defense than Iraq ever was, that you would see something like that.
MICHAEL MORELL:
And then how long before the extremist groups that would be surviving in that environment, how long before they would, in your mind, become a threat to the homeland?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
So it usually takes a couple years, if they're left unmolested. But that would occur during that period. You know, from the time that the U.S. essentially withdraws, those groups would be unmolested, whether they're aligned with the Taliban or not. And nobody would be policing that.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So Mike, here's maybe a tough question, in some ways impossible to answer. But I'm gonna ask it anyway.

You're not the only one who thinks the way you just said. Most national security officials believe what you just said about Afghanistan. So with that in mind, do the diplomats who are negotiating with the Taliban understand this? Or are they deluding themselves into believing that the Taliban is actually going to do what they say? What do you think?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Well, as Secretary Pompeo made clear the other day, they have their marching orders from the president. And I think they're trying to do the best they can, given the circumstances. Unfortunately, you know, as you said, most national security professionals would be very skeptical of this.

And I think, as our former ambassador to Afghanistan twice, and five other countries, Ryan Crocker, said, that this isn't a peace deal. This is surrender. And it's hard to see how it becomes less than that. You know, the Pentagon just released a report that, while some of the global jihadist threat has been beaten down significantly in the Afghanistan/Pakistan theater, it still is the greatest concentration of global jihadists on the planet. And that's when they've been pounded for 18 years. You know, imagine after they have a couple years where no one's pounding really.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So Mike, there's a parallel here. And you actually mentioned it already, Vietnam. There's a parallel here I think between Afghanistan and Vietnam. Paris peace talks, North Vietnamese agree that they're not going to send troops south. Two years later, Saigon falls. People often make this comparison. I've heard Bob Gates make it. I've heard others make it. One of the things that stands out to me, though, is the consequences of it happening in Afghanistan are so much greater than the consequences of what happened in Vietnam, because of the ability of these extremist groups to reach out and touch us. Is that your sense too?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
That is. Because, again, the aims of the global jihadist movement is to start this global war with the United States as its main enemy, and then local enemies also on the list from time to time. You know, if the global jihadists played by Las Vegas rules, that what happened in Las Vegas stayed in Las Vegas, it would be like Vietnam or Lebanon, for example.

We withdrew from Lebanon after Hezbollah bombings in the 1980s. Hezbollah didn't really follow us home. They remained a very serious threat. But they're different from the global jihadists. Our experience with the jihadists, certainly before and after 9/11, in the two decades, is that, when you give them a respite, or they have a safe haven, they exploit it for their aims. And that's just the reality of the world that we live in.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Yeah. So, you know, you and I worked together for a long time on counterterrorism. And I think, for me, you know, one of the fundamental lessons learned is: If you do not keep pressure on these guys, they bounce back and they bounce back pretty quickly.
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Yes, I agree.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So here's another tough question. I've asked you a whole bunch of tough questions. Here's another one. So what should we do? You know, if you were advising the president about what he should do in Afghanistan, what would you tell him?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
So I think he has to reframe the narrative, you know, and our aims. Our aims are not to turn Afghanistan into some central Asian Valhalla, as my old boss, Bob Gates, said, but to ensure that we don't get hit from that region again, like we did on 9/11.

Now that's not that American values don't matter. Afghanistan has been an area where American national security interests and values have coincided to a degree. You know, in 2001 there were only several hundred thousand children in school in Afghanistan. None of them were girls.

Today there's eight million. And 40% of them are girls. And women occupy positions of power in politics and commerce. And that's all to the good. But there is a significant cost with Afghanistan. There's been a cost in American lives.

There's a tremendous financial cost. We supply $4 billion or so to fund the Afghan national security forces. The government of Afghanistan provides about 1/10 of that. They're just not able to stand on their own two feet in that regard.

And the cost of our deployment is several billion more. But it's cheap compared to the cost of another 9/11. And that's the challenge for national security policy and our political leaders. Again, I look at, you know, the Colombia example, where we're better off with Colombia today than we would've been with the FARC. They were relatively modest investments, certainly in U.S. dollars, to produce that result. But it took a lot of time. It took a lot more than 18 years to get that result.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So you would maintain our presence there?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Yeah, I think you can reduce the presence by up to half. President Trump inherited, you know, 8,000-plus troops, you know, added another 5,000-6,000 in his own little mini-surge. There's talk in the first stage of a withdrawal of going back, essentially reversing the mini-surge.

I think we can carry out our intelligence mission and our counterterrorism mission with that reduced footprint. But that's about the best I think we can do. If we went strictly to the Iraq model, after 2011, where we pulled out all our forces and our forward intelligence presence, I think you'd see a lot of Taliban gains. If we really cut off aid, I think you'd see a government collapse.
MICHAEL MORELL:
But you don't hear anybody talking about this $4 billion in aid, right, what happens to that, as part of this deal?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Right.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Right? It's interesting. 

You've been in the sit room many times. Let's say the president decided to do what you recommended, right, and to keep troops there indefinitely, until there are conditions, right, that ensure that we are protected in our homeland, which, by the way, is what he decided in 2017, right?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Right.
MICHAEL MORELL:
How would you sell that to the American people who are so tired of this war?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
So, again, I think that's the task of political leadership, to reframe the question of the conflict we find ourselves in with global jihadists. And, you know, the same applies to Syria and Iraq or Yemen and Somalia or North Africa.

You know, if you can safely pull out of Syria and Iraq and, you know, we seem to be in the midway phase of that, and you can do it Afghanistan, well, why not the other theaters as well? And then over time your risk gets magnified, as this global jihadist threat has multiple theaters from which to operate.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Mike, one last question. You've spent more time, from a policy perspective and an operational perspective, looking at Afghanistan, maybe more than anybody else. And I'm just wondering, looking back, if you see lost opportunities, in terms of how the U.S. has approached Afghanistan?

You know, after the Russians left, were there lost opportunities? After the Taliban was pushed from power, and Al Qaeda was pushed into Pakistan, were there lost opportunities? Did we overreach with our goals? Was Vice President Biden right at the end of the day, in saying our policies should be counterterrorism, not counter-insurgency? How do you think about that?
MICHAEL VICKERS:
I think all of those are good points. So certainly, you know, in the '90s, by viewing Afghanistan as a local problem, and then doing a missile strike after embassy bombings in 1998, that was a path that led us to 9/11. And we certainly don't want to repeat that experience.

Now, you know, Afghanistan had a horrible civil war after the Soviets were driven out, that eventually brought the Taliban to power. We had broken relations essentially with Pakistan, not formal diplomatic relations, but it cut off all military aid and had very strained relationship.

And so, you know, it was not an easy situation, I think. CIA I thought was quite prescient in identifying the danger of the Afghan sanctuary in the late '90s. And we didn't do enough about it. After 9/11 I think Iraq diverted us, to some degree, from Afghanistan.

But I think also our aims, and what could be accomplished, I do agree with the point that I think we overreached, and that our long-term strategy in Afghanistan has to be counterterrorism with reasonable nation building. Because it's gotta be sustained a long time.

We never really solved the problem of the Pakistan sanctuary, which prolongs the war dramatically. And so there have been a number of things I think we could've done better over time. But given where we are now, if the aim of America's intelligence and defense establishments is really to prevent a big attack on the United States, whether through deterrence or through limited action, Afghanistan and all of our counterterrorism efforts are really a small fraction of our national security investment. And, you know, the return is reasonably good, in terms of security for the American people.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So if I was going to sum up our conversation, it would be Afghanistan remains an extremely important national security issue. And we're at a critical inflection point here. And we can do the right thing. But we can make another mistake.
MICHAEL VICKERS:
Yes. I think that's right.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Mike, it's been great to have you on the show.
MICHAEL VICKERS:
It's great to be here.
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