Former FBI Agent Ali Soufan “We Lost the War in Afghanistan in 2002”

The war on terror has failed, former FBI intelligence officer Ali Soufan argues in an interview. He believes that the hasty U.S. withdrawal will unleash a wave of fear and strengthen extremists around the world.
Interview Conducted by Britta Sandberg
American soldiers in Kandahar in 2003: "We would have needed a policy based on the culture of the place, not based on the culture of Washington."

American soldiers in Kandahar in 2003: "We would have needed a policy based on the culture of the place, not based on the culture of Washington."

Foto: Eugene Hoshiko / AP

DER SPIEGEL: Taliban fighters can be seen driving through Kabul in pickup trucks, and they are posing with weapons in their hands in TV studios. Are you having a lot of déjà-vu experiences right now?

Soufan: That’s true, we went back full circle. After 20 years, the Taliban are again in control of Afghanistan. And we have to be aware that the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan and the way it happened is inspiring for people in the world. It is a massive victory for not only the global jihadist movement but also for all the militants who are operating against the U.S. And this will have consequences for the national security of the United States.

DER SPIEGEL: Because all these terrorist groups will now be able to regroup in Afghanistan unhindered?

Soufan: Not only. What happened is also inspiring for people who are not even Sunni extremists, groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen and a lot of other anti-American groups in the Middle East. It could also provide a window of opportunity for al-Qaida to regroup. They now have their headquarters back, even though they have a lot of affiliates in different places around the Middle East. They have people in Somalia, Yemen and Syria. I think it's going to be very difficult to contain the jihadi threat in Afghanistan.

DER SPIEGEL: Isn’t the Afghan branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) far more dangerous by now?

Soufan: Well, I think ISIS Khorasan is a newcomer on the ground in Afghanistan. But yes, they are dangerous and they are dangerous not only against us and our interests. They are also dangerous for the Taliban and al-Qaida. The group attracts all those fighters who broke away from al-Qaida and the Taliban believing that the Taliban are not religiously kosher enough. And it is interesting: Even many factions inside the Taliban have been joining them, believing that there is the promised caliphate they want to fight for.

Aus: DER SPIEGEL 36/2021

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 36/2021 (September 4th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

DER SPIEGEL: President Joe Biden declared in his speech last week that there was no alternative to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Do you agree with that?

Soufan: Let's be clear: We lost the war in Afghanistan, in my opinion, in the fall of 2002. That's when the administration of George W. Bush started shifting a lot of important resources to prepare for the Iraq war at a time when al-Qaida and the Taliban were regrouping in Afghanistan. And that was a significant blow to any constructive efforts. And then we did not deal with a lot of the other issues that have to do with corruption, that have to do with basically respecting the way Afghanistan is. Several U.S. administrations had an idea of how Afghanistan ought to be, but did not understand how Afghanistan is. I think this was one of our biggest problems.

DER SPIEGEL: So, the U.S. failed because they didn’t make a strong enough effort to get to know their enemy better?

Soufan: Absolutely. Afghanistan is a tribal country in so many different regions, with different ethnic groups. Most Afghanis didn’t trust the government because of corruption. When they had a problem, they didn't go to the government. They went to the jirga and they went to the elders to solve a lot of these issues. That is an opportunity that we missed. We would have needed a policy based on the culture of the place, based on the culture in Kabul and the culture in Herat, the culture in Mazar-e-Sharif, but not based on the culture of Washington. I think this was one of the biggest problems.

DER SPIEGEL: The Afghanistan mission spanned four U.S. presidencies. Do they all bear equal responsibility for what happened?

Soufan: I think we can talk of a national failure, a national loss. This loss is because of two Democratic administrations and two Republican administrations. Every administration made a lot of mistakes in this. The Bush administration made a lot of mistakes in moving much-needed resources to focus on Iraq and then focusing on Iraq. The Obama administration even sent more troops in and, for eight years, was hoping that something miraculous would happen. The Trump administration is responsible for not understanding the situation at all and opening negotiations only with the Taliban and disregarding the Afghan government and releasing 5,000 Taliban fighters without asking the Taliban for anything in exchange. Unbelievable.

DER SPIEGEL: And Joe Biden has always been against this never-ending mission, anyway.

Soufan: Yes, and we cannot declare him responsible for all that happened before. Trump handed him a bad deal, but he didn't have to take it. They had a long time to focus not only on how to push for an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban through the negotiations in Doha. He also could have planned the withdrawal to avoid the chaotic exit that we’ve seen. I am not at all against a withdrawal. I think we should have left the country already in 2003. At that time, it was clear that we had lost this war.

DER SPIEGEL: Biden says the chaos in the end could not have been avoided. And his security advisers stated that no one could have known that the Afghan government and army would have collapsed within 11 days.

Soufan: I don't believe so, that’s nonsense. If Biden knew that he would be leaving Afghanistan why didn’t he carry out his policies from Day One, planning for the exit? At least that would have been a more honorable exit. But we pulled out in the middle of the night, without coordinating with the Brits, with NATO, without even coordinating with the Afghan government. You know, people wake up and they see that the U.S. has left its bases, closed its embassy – that creates a fear factor that is basically going to be impossible to contain.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you expect things to proceed now?

Soufan: I think the Taliban is not going to act the way they acted before. I think they're going to have a different style of doing things because they learned a lot in 20 years. They have learned a lot about how to be more pragmatic. They know how to be more political. And they want to be part of this big geopolitical game – the power competition between the U.S. and between China. The Taliban are now working with the Pakistanis, they have opened channels to the Iranians, they are meeting with the Chinese regarding investments and infrastructure programs for the country. But this is only the facade. They haven't changed in substance. Their goals still continue to be the same.

Terrorism expert Ali Soufan in New York in 2018: "We are just giving the terrorists new ammunition."

Terrorism expert Ali Soufan in New York in 2018: "We are just giving the terrorists new ammunition."


DER SPIEGEL: What does that mean for the West?

Soufan: We urgently need a Plan B now, a new strategy to prevent al-Qaida or jihadis or even the Taliban from planning and plotting attacks against the West. And we need to find operational space where we can contain these terror groups. I think the only place where we can engage politically, diplomatically and, if needed, militarily is in Doha because we have the biggest military base there.

DER SPIEGEL: So, is that where the U.S. will plan its new drone attacks in the coming years to keep al-Qaida and ISIS in Afghanistan at bay?

Soufan: I am not a big fan of these attacks, especially after the recent one in Kabul. From the moment where civilians are killed by these drones, we are just giving the terrorists new ammunition. By the way, the U.S. led countless drone attacks during recent years and we lost the war nevertheless.

"That is catastrophic. That's not a win."

DER SPIEGEL: But Biden emphasized that the U.S. fulfilled its actual mission to fight terrorism in Afghanistan. He said the fight against terrorism had been extremely successful.

Soufan: You could see it like that, but I do not. In September 2001, we had 400 to 500 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan (who were loyal to Osama bin Laden). Plus you had the "foreign fighters” and sleeper cells in different places in the Middle East. If you look at it today, al-Qaida has armies of thousands in places like the Sahel, in Yemen and in Syria. The Islamic State emerged out of that group. So, who’s winning just by the mere numbers and the facts on the ground? We spent four or five trillion dollars on the war on terrorism and two invasions of two countries.

DER SPIEGEL: Coming 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, that’s a very bleak assessment.

Soufan: I cannot come to any other conclusion. Before 9/11, we still had diplomatic representations in the region – in Libya, in Syria, in Yemen. Our embassy in Sanaa in Yemen was one of the major embassies in the Arabian Peninsula. We had some kind of working relationship with several actors in the region. All of these embassies don’t exist anymore. That is catastrophic. That’s not a win. Meanwhile, the Chinese are negotiating with the Taliban in Kabul about pipeline projects.

DER SPIEGEL: You were one of the first people to witness the new interrogation techniques and torture methods the Pentagon authorized for use after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. What damage have those methods done?

Soufan: We lost our credibility – not only in the Arab world, but worldwide. The U.S. was always saying, we’re here for human rights, we’re here for liberty. We want people to have self-determination. And then we basically started to do the same thing that people in the world see in the Chinese government or the North Korean government – we tortured our detainees. The U.S. administration even lied about it for years – they didn’t even tell the truth to their own citizens. So, after 9/11, we not only failed in trying to know our enemy better. We also forgot about who we are.

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