A former top Pentagon official under President Barack Obama warns that the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan — now slated for the end of next month — is “not going to be a pretty picture” and that the Afghan government is unlikely “to hold its own” against the Taliban.
“Now we have to be realistic,” Jeh Johnson said during an interview on the Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast. “This is not going to be a pretty picture after we leave. It’s already not a pretty picture.”
Johnson’s comments are significant because he served as chief counsel at the Pentagon during a period in 2009 when Obama decided — against the advice of his vice president, Joe Biden — to double down on the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and agree to a limited troop surge urged by U.S. military commanders on the ground and backed by senior Defense officials. (Johnson later served as Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017.)
Johnson says he’s pessimistic about the Afghan government’s ability to survive once all U.S. troops are withdrawn by Aug. 31.
“I've heard reports that the Taliban is already in control of 80 percent of the country,” Johnson said. “The Taliban had the attitude for the last 20 years: You have the watches, but we have the time. We're gonna wait you out, and they did, and here we are.”
“So, this is not going to be an optimal situation,” Johnson added. “We should not expect — and here I'm probably veering from the White House talking points — that the Afghan government on its own can hold its own against the Taliban. Those two factions need to come to some agreement at some point, and right now the Taliban has little incentive to do that.”
Johnson said that if he was still serving in the U.S. government he would have recommended to President Biden that he retain a U.S military presence in the country.
“I don't know what the magic number is — 2,500, 1,000 — in place on the ground in Afghanistan for counterterrorism purposes only. The mission for the United States in Afghanistan was, is and should be preventing another terrorist organization from establishing a caliphate in Afghanistan, given the nature of Afghanistan.”
On Monday, the Biden administration transferred its first Guantánamo Bay detainee, Abdul Latif Nasser, to his home country of Morocco, where he was taken into police custody. The move signaled a policy break with the Trump administration, which had stalled prisoner transfers from the military base.
Johnson also acknowledged during the “Skullduggery” interview that, with the benefit of hindsight, he should not have pushed for reformed military commissions to try terror suspects at the U.S. naval base in Afghanistan. Legislation to do that, with the backing of Obama officials, was enacted in 2009.
But efforts to bring the perpetrators of 9/11, including mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to justice have been bogged down in endless legal wrangling, much of it driven by disputes over the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” — including waterboarding — against some of the suspects.
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The longtime chief prosecutor at the military commissions, Maj. Gen. Mark Martins, recently resigned. There is also no chief judge and still no trial date for the 9/11 trial even as the country prepares for the 20th anniversary of the attacks in September.
Johnson said that at this point he would even be open to the idea of trying to cut a plea deal with the 9/11 defendants that would take the death penalty off the table if they acknowledged their crimes — a course that he said “should be pursued.”
“If I were the Secretary of Defense, I would say, ‘Interesting. I want to hear more,’” he said.
Asked what he would say at this point to the families of the 9/11 victims about the failure of the military commissions, Johnson replied: “You know, every 9/11, I think about them in this context.” He added: “There's not much I could say to the families of those killed on 9/11 at this point, in the year 2021, about how well the criminal justice system has served them.”
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