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Former Army Commander Weighs In On Biden's Decision To Pull Troops Out Of Afghanistan


Let's get reaction to the president's plan from someone who has commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Chris Kolenda led troops in combat against the Taliban and then later participated in diplomatic talks with them.

Colonel Kolenda, welcome back to the program.

CHRIS KOLENDA: It's really nice to be here. Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I know you have been saying for a while now it's time; let's bring the troops home. Do you agree with the timeline that the president laid out today?

KOLENDA: Well, I think what his decision reflects is the basic principle in which you make all decisions, which is the grapefruit principle. And that is, is the juice worth the squeeze? Is keeping American troops there in Afghanistan worth the - you know, worth the price and worth the downside risk? And his calculation was, no, it's not anymore. It may have been at one time, but it's not anymore. We've done all we could.

KELLY: I noticed David Petraeus, the former commanding general of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan - he weighed in today, very critical of this decision and specifically warning the Taliban is going to go on the offensive, ungoverned spaces are going to get bigger and terrorist organizations are going to flourish. Is he wrong?

KOLENDA: Well, I think you've got to bear in mind three things about Afghanistan. I mean, the first one is that the United States can't give the Afghan government legitimacy. The Afghan government has to earn it, and it has to earn it in the eyes of the people. And they haven't done that yet. Second is, you know, the Taliban live there, and we don't, so they're always going to be able to wait us out because they live there. And then third is geography matters. We can't wish away the geography. Afghanistan is surrounded by states that are hostile to our presence there. They also live there. And so, you know, you've got this situation where a conditions-based approach - I mean, it briefs well. People say, oh, yes, conditions-based makes sense. But you'll never get there from here. And we've shown that the last 20 years because of some of these problems.

KELLY: I don't actually hear you saying Petraeus is wrong. It's more like you're arguing there is no perfect outcome. There's no perfect ending here.

KOLENDA: I wish there was an easy ending. It would've been nice. I spent a lot of quality time in Afghanistan. I've had soldiers killed and wounded in Afghanistan. I'd love to see a - you know, an easy solution. But at the - where we were right now, with 2,500 to 3,500 troops there, it's just encouraging the worst behavior on the part of all actors - the Afghan government slow-rolling a peace process, the Taliban waiting to see if we'll actually leave and regional actors, you know, fomenting further conflict in Afghanistan through their proxies.

KELLY: So let me ask you, in the minute or so we have left, a basic question. Was it worth it? Twenty years, so much money spent, so many lives lost - was it worth it?

KOLENDA: Well, my new book, which is called "Zero-Sum Victory: What We're Getting Wrong About War," is, you know, we - talks about the chronic errors that we keep making in these conflicts. We've made them in Afghanistan. We've made them in Iraq. We've made them in Vietnam. And there needs to be some reckoning about why these interventions continue turning into quagmires. And the extent to which things are worth it, as you asked, is going to be measured, I think, by the accountability and by the reforms that we make to how we wage war and how we engage in these sort of conflicts in the future.

KELLY: That is retired U.S. Army Colonel Chris Kolenda. He's a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and founder of the Strategic Leadership Academy (ph).

Colonel Kolenda, glad to speak with you.

KOLENDA: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
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Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.