Does McKenzie think the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a mistake? Yes – but it wasn’t his decision to make.
“My belief is we should have stayed. I believe that everything that happened flowed from that basic decision,” says McKenzie, who retired from the military on April 1. “My recommendation was that we keep a small presence where we could maintain a level of support for the Afghans. That was not the advice that was taken.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Seligman: It’s the week before Kabul falls. What is happening? What are you thinking? Set the scene for me.
McKenzie: In the last formal intelligence assessment I sent up on the 8th of August, I said, ‘It is my judgment that Kabul is going to fall.’ I did not think it was going to fall that weekend. I thought it might last a little bit longer, 30 days or so. But I felt Kabul would be surrounded in the immediate short term.
On Thursday or Friday, I got the direction to go to Doha to talk to the Taliban. What we wanted was about a 30-kilometer exclusion zone: You guys stay out of there while we do the evacuation. And if you stay out of there, we will not strike you anywhere in Afghanistan.
I got on the airplane on Sunday morning. While I was on the airplane over, I was getting reports that the Taliban is in downtown Kabul, they’ve actually overrun the city. By the time I met with them, they had significant forces inside the city. So I said, ‘Look, we can still have a solution here. We’re going to conduct an evacuation. If you don’t interfere with the evacuation, we won’t strike.’
Mullah Baradar said, off the cuff, ‘Why don’t you come in and secure the city?’ But that was just not feasible. It would have taken me putting in another division to do that. And I believe that was a flippant remark. And now we know in the fullness of time that Mullah Baradar wasn’t actually speaking for the hard-line Taliban. I don’t know if he could have delivered, even if he was serious about it.
I felt in my best judgment that it wasn’t a genuine offer. And it was not a practical military operation. That’s why they pay me, that’s why I’m there.
By and large, the Taliban were helpful in our departure. They did not oppose us. They did do some external security work. There was a downside of that external security work, and it probably prevented some Afghans from getting to Kabul airport as we would have liked. But that was a risk that I was willing to run.
Seligman: So after Kabul fell, the evacuation began. What happened next?
McKenzie: The next day, Aug. 16 it was my plan to fly to Kabul. But the airfield, the runway, was overrun by people coming in from the south. It took us about 16 hours to bring that under control — a combination of us, the Afghan commandos and the Taliban. We had 400 Taliban fighters beating people with sticks. It’s not what you want, but you’re in the land of bad choices now. It let the commander on the ground regain control of the airfield, and we never lost control again after that. But that was certainly intense.
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