“It’s not like we deleted all that intelligence when we transitioned,” says Kash Patel, who previously served as chief of staff to then-acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller.
In the premiere of Season 2 of Kash’s Corner, Patel unveils, in detail, the original conditions-based withdrawal strategy that he was tasked with implementing.
“The fact that we have [10,000] to 15,000 American citizens still scattered throughout the country, leaves open the fact that Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS are going to kidnap American citizens and hold them hostage,” Patel says.
Kash Patel: Hey everybody and welcome back to season two of “Kash’s Corner.”
Jan Jekielek: So Kash, we’re gonna have to talk about Afghanistan. Frankly, I think every media in the world right now is talking about Afghanistan. You actually played a really important role in the original withdrawal plan under the Trump administration. You were actually tasked with implementing it among other things.
Before we go there, this wasn’t your first rodeo in dealing with Afghanistan actually. You did quite a bit of work with respect to Afghanistan previously under the Obama administration.
Mr. Patel: Yeah, unfortunately we are here talking about Afghanistan ’cause it’s not going well. But at my time at the Department of Justice, I was a terrorism prosecutor working a lot of prosecutions both in Afghanistan, related to Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and then during the Obama administration, as a career official.
I went to the military to a place called Joint Special Operations Command, where we worked with our special forces elements heavily in Afghanistan to find targets or what we would call high-value targets, HVTs. They would need to meet a certain legal threshold based on intelligence before we can make a decision as to what we called end-state.
End-state being a kinetic strike via drone, a capture operation by our partner forces or our special forces and or prosecution in America or abroad in some other country where we knew they would sufficiently face justice. So we did a lot of work in what we call the general targeting space and to find an end-state that we did. We spent a lot of time with a lot of Army Special Forces, Navy special forces and a number of other folks who assisted in that mission.
Mr. Jekielek: So, this is at least one of these high-value targets as you’re describing that was actually… There were five of them that were released, I think in 2014, as part of this hostage swap.
Mr. Patel: If you recall Bowe Bergdahl, a former Army soldier serving in Afghanistan, deserted his platoon and after desertion, was captured by the enemy—the Taliban and others. He was in custody for some time. I was still at DOJ in the National Security Division when that case came up and any hostage situation of an American automatically goes to the military and the Department of Justice, if there’s an available prosecution.
And during the Obama administration, the president then made the determination to release five terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in return or exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army soldier who had deserted.
For a lot of us back then, [we] didn’t agree with that because that was essentially negotiating with Taliban and probably Al-Qaeda at that point, but mostly because we were letting five known terrorists who were sitting in Guantanamo Bay back out, even though there were assurances that they would never fight again. Fast forward and now you have one of those individuals who is leading the Taliban effort against the American interest today.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s interesting. You’re talking about taking issue with negotiating with terrorists—negotiating with Taliban. The Trump administration has been getting a bit of flack for actually doing that as part of this withdrawal plan that you played a role in crafting.
Mr. Patel: No, and I think it’s a good distinction to play. Look, Afghanistan and the Taliban are not mutually exclusive. The Taliban has been in Afghanistan for decades. They’re not going anywhere. So when I say we should not negotiate with the Taliban, I don’t mean writ large. I mean, certain elements of the Taliban cannot be negotiated with and certain exchanges cannot occur—like five terrorists from Guantanamo Bay.
But in reality, a president has to deal with and negotiate with certain elements in the Taliban if you want to negotiate a peace in Afghanistan that doesn’t involve a permanent U.S. troop presence. President Trump and President Obama took different approaches on how to do that and I think that’s what you’re getting at.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, sure. So you played a pretty central role in crafting the Trump administration plan. You were actually tasked with implementing it when you were part of DOD.
Mr. Patel: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: So, there’s been a lot of information or varied information and messaging around what that was; whether it was a problem. Why don’t we actually get it from the horse’s mouth? What is it that you created? When did it start and was any of it implemented before January 20th?
Mr. Patel: No, great question. So, as the Chief of Staff for the Department of Defense, I report directly to the Secretary of Defense and the president of the United States. Our main mission for the president at that time and it’s no surprise to anybody, he campaigned upon it five, six years ago, was to end the forever wars. One of those wars was Afghanistan. So we were charged with the task of withdrawing from Afghanistan safely and securely and that became known as a conditions-based withdrawal.
So we had to implement a plan where the Taliban and the Afghan government met conditions along the way to receive benefits from America and secure the peaceful withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan. So, first and foremost, if you’re in Afghanistan, the thing you have to do right off the bat is reject Al-Qaeda, full stop.
President Trump minced no words when he said there has to be a full and complete repudiation of Al-Qaeda by the Taliban. They can’t affiliate with them. That was a big condition of our plan. Another big condition of our plan was in order to have peace in Afghanistan, you have to have the Afghan government and the Taliban come together because those two parties have been in control of Afghanistan for the last three decades.
So we wanted to negotiate a peaceful interim government with both of those parties sitting at the table and President Trump had that occurring with the Taliban and the Afghans meeting in places like Doha repeatedly to work towards a negotiated peace settlement.
Three, we told them we would assist with counter-terrorism operations in-country with our special forces operators to combat terrorist threats that we knew would arise during this process ’cause it wasn’t gonna go from zero to 100 overnight. We had to leave a special mission force in-country to take care of that problem set.
And four, I think one of the biggest conditions or security threats that we had to instill in the Afghan and Taliban was that if an American interest was harmed or an American person was killed, President Trump himself told the leader of the Taliban that he would unleash the full fury of the Department of Defense in Afghanistan. When he said that, they knew it had meaning.
They knew he couldn’t be crossed on that one specific condition because then everything else would go by the wayside. So that was the basic structure of the plan and then of course we have nodes in places like Bagram Airfield and things like that that were critical to executing that plan. And we did, as you mentioned, we actually implemented that plan.
Come January 20th, we had successfully drawn down to 2,500 troops in-country and under that plan, not one American casualty occurred during that time period. So we were securely and safely withdrawing from Afghanistan and I would highlight for our viewers, 2,500 troops in-country in Afghanistan is the lowest since the war and terror began.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and then what happened? So you were also a big part heading up the transition, right?
Mr. Patel: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: With the DOD, especially. So, presumably you are sharing all this information. I think you’ve been on other shows. You’ve talked a little bit about the fact that you were doing this. You’re at least attempting to share this information and the details of what your plan was.
Mr. Patel: Sure. So, I appreciate you bringing that up because transition is a huge part of this. The election had occurred and President Biden had won. So a transition of power was what we were instructed to do by the White House, full stop. Not partial, a total and complete transition of power because we are talking about transitioning the Department of Defense.
Our head of national security apparatus must seamlessly transition from one administration to the next. It can’t be political. So the regulations at DOD placed the Chief of Staff in charge of that. But who actually runs it day-to-day are entire career officers. About 50 of them that work for me ran the day-to-day operations to successfully transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration and if I could break it down for you.
So what does that entail? How do you get the incoming administration ready to continue some important mission like Afghanistan’s withdrawal? You have to provide them with documentation and not just any documentation. Very classified elements and materials, our planning, our strategy, what we were doing day in and day out to successfully and conditionally withdraw from Afghanistan.
So how do you do that? You collect all the materials from the Department of Defense. And let me just remind our viewers, you’re talking about three some million people here who one way or another could have touched Afghanistan, writ large, and you document it. You take all the materials, all the writings, all the memos, all the recommendations and all the intelligence and you make it available to them.
And we prided ourselves in the transition. If you look at it, and I wrote an op-ed on this some time ago, we provided the Biden transition team with the largest quantitative transition in U.S. presidential history. That is, we gave them more documents from the Department of Defense than had ever been turned over in the history of the U.S. presidential transition.
Another key component to transitioning is not just documentation, but people and personnel. So the Department of Defense, as you know is almost entirely career professionals as it should be—civilian and military. We gave access to Biden’s incoming national security team from the Department of Defense and the White House to myself, to the Secretary of Defense, to all of our undersecretaries.
We didn’t preclude them from having access to anyone because there are so many moving pieces to a conditions-based withdrawal in Afghanistan. We’re just using this one example. We could flip to anything else and it’s the same, but in order to successfully execute that plan, you have to give them, the incoming administration, access to the careers and the political officers in that administration.
We did that more so than any other time in presidential history transition. So we did the documentation and we did the personnel. And then Afghan was a specific plan that we tried to get over to them, but unfortunately, this incoming administration refused to meet with us or talk with us on that. I’d like to remind your viewers, we did all of this during the height of COVID. So it was just twice as hard to normally do it in this environment than it was to normally do it.
Mr. Jekielek: So wait, so you’re saying that you didn’t have the opportunity to meet with anybody about this transition plan that was already being enacted?
Mr. Patel: When I say me, I mean myself, the Secretary of Defense and the other few political officers who are appointed to run the Defense Department. We engage with our counterparts directly, that is, the Secretary of Defense engage with the incoming Secretary of Defense, myself as Chief of Staff engaged with both.
The incoming Chief of Staff and the incoming Deputy Secretary of Defense and President Biden had named someone to be the head of their transition for DOD. So we engaged with them directly and this was early on. As soon as the election was over and we were instructed to transition, we did that.
Those individuals refused to meet with us. Those individuals barely engaged with us and we said, “Okay, the mission matters more to us.” So if you don’t wanna come in and engage with us, we made sure our career officers underneath us had our plans, had our procedures, had our strategies in place—what had worked and what we were doing in the lead up to January 20th and what we thought should happen throughout.
Because if you remember, the conditions-based withdrawal plan that President Trump had executed and put in place through the Department of Defense was that by 1-May of 2021, we were going to be near zero, depending on if all the conditions had been met. That was our recommendation to the incoming administration
But unfortunately, I believe they let politics interfere with the most important mission—that is the national security of the United States. Afghanistan is just unfortunately one example. Now, you see that failure every day on TV, on social media and in reporting by journalists.
Mr. Jekielek: So, you’ve said that one of the challenges this administration has was kind of a mistaken focus, at least I believe that’s what you said. Instead of focusing on things like Afghanistan, it was focused on things like white supremacy.
Mr. Patel: Yeah. That’s one of the starkest examples I can give in terms of when we relinquished power on January 20th and handed it over to President Biden. So if I can just review a little bit before we get to your direct question, Jan.
So under President Trump, we continuously briefed the president. We being the Secretary of Defense, myself, the Director of National Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These weren’t one-off briefings with President Trump. These were weekly daily briefings, but they were buttressed by the intelligence that we had on the ground and the intelligence we had coming in from our Intelligence Community, our allies and our Department of Defense.
Now, President Trump had made it his priority to securely withdraw from Afghanistan. So our Intelligence Community through the Director of National Intelligence was able to focus the intelligence collection on that mission on securely doing so because the Intelligence Community, like anything else, has only so much bandwidth. Same with the DOD.
If your focus is on Afghanistan and your intelligence collection is on Afghanistan, then you can brief the commander in chief on that mission set successfully. If you change that focus, the collection posture as we call it and that can only happen from the president and the Director of National Intelligence, then everyone that was collecting on Afghanistan is no longer the priority. It’s something else.
So what the Biden administration did is they came in and if you recall, the Secretary of Defense, Austin, issued a 90-day standout order at the Department of Defense because they publicly said the biggest national security threat to the Department of Defense was white supremacy.
Now, whether you agree with that statement or not, I hope our viewers realized the drastic change in national security posture that caused. One, I don’t believe it at all. Having served in multiple administrations at the operations policy and then ultimately running the Department of Defense, I don’t believe that white supremacy is rampant throughout DOD and I do think that anyone who takes on those views is tracked down and removed appropriately. It is a very, very, very small number.
What happens is when under the Biden administration, they come in and say, “Okay, DOD, okay, Intelligence Community, focus on that. Focus on rooting out white supremacy.” They shift their attention. It’s a tectonic shift. An Intelligence Community that was focused on the security situation in Afghanistan and our collection on the ground and from our allies and from the air and from basic social media feed shifts.
And you say, “Okay, we’re not collecting here anymore. That’s not our focus. Our focus is white supremacy.” So what happens is you have an intelligence gap. The priority is rooting out this white supremacy.
I’ll give you an example of its failure. When they issued this 90-day standout order, they being Lloyd Austin, the Secretary of Defense, they said we would receive a report shortly thereafter showing the results of this investigation. Well, that report was never issued because white supremacy is not the rampant problem and the number one national security threat.
But this is another example of the politicization of the national security apparatus of the United States and when you have, for the most part, a willing mainstream media to help run those narratives and those headlines, and you have a White House willing to take national security apparatus direction from the mainstream media, you hurt the American people.
When you don’t collect on Afghanistan for eight months, of course, they’re gonna say, “We were surprised that it fell,” but we had a different understanding and I’m happy to get into that about our meetings with the president and how and why we briefed him on the security situation.
Mr. Jekielek: So, Kash, so insofar as you can talk about the intelligence you were looking at, we’ve been hearing that there was basically no way that the IC could have known that the Afghan military will dissolve so quickly and that Kabul could fall so quickly.
Mr. Patel: Yeah, I could not disagree more with what Chairman Milley is currently putting out there with Secretary Austin, the Head of DOD, that they could not have known that the Taliban would take over in such a quick manner.
Rewinding the calendar back to when we were running President Trump’s withdrawal plan, as I said, it was a conditions-based withdrawal plan. Those conditions were based on the intelligence we were collecting on the ground in Afghanistan, day in and day out for a long period of time. Because Afghanistan had been a priority national security interest, thus a priority collection interest for the U.S. government writ large under President Trump.
So we, and this will be a combination of the Secretary of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, the Secretary of State, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and myself would go in and brief President Trump and his national security team on the situation—we didn’t just do it one-off. We did it constantly to bring him the latest intelligence, not just through the presidential daily briefing, but operationally as well from the DOD perspective, so he as the commander in chief could make an intelligence-based decision on our withdrawal process.
And we told him based on the intelligence without getting into the details of it, that our assessment was that if we surrendered in Afghanistan, that is if we just up and left, the Taliban would take over almost immediately. He came to his own assessment that it would likely happen in a couple of days. That was the commander in chief’s assessment based on information intelligence. He was being briefed by his national security team and he was correct.
We agreed with that, which is why we said we could not just up and leave. It would implode catastrophically if we just surrendered our position in Afghanistan, which is what you see now. But President Trump knew that and that’s why he issued his conditions-based withdrawal. And that’s why I disagree wholeheartedly with people like Milley, who was the chairman then and is still the chairman. And I also disagree with Secretary Lloyd Austin for taking the same position because he has access to that intelligence.
It’s not like we deleted all that intelligence when we transitioned. We provided them with all those briefings, all that material. It’s still there. They just didn’t bother to look at it and what they wanted to do when they came in, as President Biden immediately came in and said, “I am not going to abide by the 1-May withdrawal date that President Trump had put in.”
And what did that do? That caused the Taliban to immediately say, “We’ve been negotiating in good faith with the Afghan government and the U.S. and you, the new commander in chief are saying, ‘I’m breaking those good faith negotiations.'” So the Taliban said, “We’re done negotiating and we’re not gonna abide by anything we agree to as well.”
And unfortunately, the Taliban, once we surrendered under Biden in Afghanistan, immediately came to power in days. So, this was one of those situations where I wish President Trump was wrong because if President Biden was right and it would have taken the Taliban years to retake Afghanistan, we would not be in this tragic situation with thousands of Americans stranded in Afghanistan. We can get to that.
But President Trump was right and Afghanistan imploded. It only took a matter of days. This national security team under President Biden knew that and is not being honest with the American people when they say they have no idea that it could have happened so quickly.
Mr. Jekielek: So you said something earlier that I just wanna touch on briefly and it sounds like you said that you feel like the administration may be taking policy points from the media. Did I understand that correctly? What do you mean by that?
Mr. Patel: Well, it’s no surprise that the mainstream media would attack President Trump for any national security action he took. I remember when I was running counter-terrorism forum and we eliminated Baghdadi and later Soleimani. There were actually headlines in the mainstream media that criticized us for doing it. President Biden came out publicly and said he was against the Baghdadi raid that killed the number one terrorist on planet earth.
So, no matter what President Trump did, bringing home the highest number of hostages and detainees in U.S. history, 50 some, it didn’t matter what we did from a national security perspective. The media was always taking the opposite position and I think that carried over into this administration, the Biden administration.
They convinced President Biden and his national security team that the right move was to do the opposite of whatever President Trump did because they didn’t want any affiliation with it because the mainstream media was taking that position day in and day out for four plus years.
So Afghanistan is a prime example. You have a successful conditions-based withdrawal plan from Afghanistan that’s working under President Trump. President Biden rejected it in its entirety. His incoming transition team refused to meet with us and review that plan that was working. Now you have a media who agreed with them and told them and ran headlines repeatedly to say President Trump’s plan in Afghanistan was failing when that was a false headline.
The combination of those two things, the national security leadership of this country and a mainstream media willing to ignore the facts, leads to deadly situations like we have in Afghanistan today. So I do believe that they had a piece to play in this and there’s still individuals in the mainstream media that are praising Joe Biden’s leadership in Afghanistan to this day. I don’t know how they can do that when 10,000 Americans are stranded in Afghanistan.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, me looking at the media right now is actually… I follow a cross section of media regularly ’cause I wanna see what they’re saying. There’s many media that I gave up on because I could predict what the coverage would be. I could predict what their narrative interests were.
But when it comes to this withdrawal from Afghanistan, a number of these media to my eye at least, started doing what kind of looked to me like what I would call normal reporting. Like something that I would hope and expect and frankly, I appreciated it. But I found myself also scratching my head a little bit because it seemed to be… Are you saying this? You were just saying something a bit different from what I’m saying here.
Mr. Patel: I think we’re saying somewhat the same thing. I’m saying, for the last eight months, ’cause that’s how long they’ve been in power, this was not the media’s position—that Afghanistan was going disastrously. They kept lopping praise on President Biden and his team for “their handling of Afghanistan,” but there was no plan. There was nothing in place. There were no negotiations.
And I’ll give you some unfortunate, tragic examples. So the National Security Advisor for President Biden admitted last week that there was no plan to rescue American citizens in Afghanistan. The Secretary of Defense said the same thing just this week. They also together said they don’t know how many American citizens are in Afghanistan. It could be 10,000. It could be 15,000.
What’s worse or at least as worse is that President Biden comes to the podium just this past week and says, “Al-Qaeda is not a problem in Afghanistan.” Within an hour of that statement, his Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, goes to Capitol Hill and briefs the Senate and says, “Al-Qaeda is a problem in Afghanistan.”
So you have two completely contradictory statements, one from the president and one from the Secretary of Defense. Why is this problematic? Because the law, the national command authority, goes from the president to the Secretary of Defense. If they are not on the same page in implementing a policy to withdraw, then we cannot expect them to successfully do so.
And what I’m saying is this is an example of the media, the mainstream media, not calling them out on their in opposite positions when it comes to Afghanistan and the fact that we, America, do not know the number of American citizens in Afghanistan and don’t have a plan for getting them is one of the most offensive things I’ve heard in my 16 years of service.
The fact that you have a National Security Advisor, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State and the president who aren’t on the same page of a playbook for withdrawal is shocking. The National Security Advisor literally went out on stage and said, “Not only do we not have a plan to rescue the 10 to 15,000 American citizens in Afghanistan. We have sent them a phone number to call and hopefully, they can make it to Kabul.”
You know, I’m sorry Jan, but hope in a war-torn nation in a theater of war is not a strategy that we implemented under President Trump. We, as the Department of Defense under President Trump, had plans to go get our American citizens in Afghanistan or elsewhere. We did not ask them to call a telephone number and hope that they could make it through a war-torn nation and maybe get on a flight. And the other problem with all of that is Bagram but we can get to that later.
Mr. Jekielek: There was a plan that was being effected prior to January 20th. Is any of this plan at this point as you described, the Taliban having basically left the discussion and now basically having taken power, is there any element of this plan that would remain useful to this administration?
Mr. Patel: Well, sure. If they were willing to reimplement positions of that plan, that is to focus the national security apparatus of this country back on Afghanistan. One, to say, this is the national security priority of America because it harms our national security interests and our allies.
We can talk about how our European allies have been criticizing this leadership. Of all people, folks like Angela Merkel and others in Europe who propped up President Biden have even called out his failure here.
But it’s not a complicated plan that President Trump came up with based on the intelligence. But you have to instill fear in the Taliban that any loss of life for an American citizen or loss of interest for allies or partners will result in a reprisal that is enormous. That threat is just not being received by the Taliban because it’s not being conveyed by this administration.
They keep coming to the podiums at the White House day in and day out and say, “We hope we can get all our people out.” Hope is not a strategy in a theater of war. The American people deserve better from their commander in chief. We don’t have a plan and we could take that piece of the plan and put it back in.
He could call the Taliban leadership or send his emissaries over to speak to the Taliban and say, “At least allow the safe passage of Americans throughout Afghanistan to the airports so they can be withdrawn safely.” He could do that. He has chosen not to do that. And so his Secretary of Defense and his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State go to the podium and give mixed messages.
That’s also not helpful. They should be on the same page assuring America and our partners that we are not just going to up and leave Afghanistan. But their approach was to completely surrender, which is not a conditions-based approach. Their complete and unconditional surrender of places like Bagram Airfield and other keynotes throughout Afghanistan is causing their… Well, they never had a plan, but it is causing the implosion of Afghanistan and that’s the opposite of what we did under Trump.
Mr. Jekielek: Explain the issue with Bagram ’cause I understand it was completely closed basically and withdrawn from.
Mr. Patel: Yeah, and so one of the things I didn’t cover was what we call overhead support. That is support from the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community in the skies of Afghanistan. It’s no secret that we have a drone, a predator program, that was very expansive and very integral to our national security interests, especially in a place like Afghanistan as we’re talking about today.
President Trump placed a heavy priority on the continued use of that program because what that program allows you to do without putting U.S. manning in positions of danger is to surveil the scene, look at different situations in Afghanistan as they fold, take kinetic action if necessary and also safeguard the interests of our allies without jeopardizing more U.S. military people on the ground. That priority was always in place during President Trump’s conditions-based withdrawal plan.
A large portion of that priority ran out of a place called Bagram Airfield. So Bagram Airfield is 20, 30 minute helicopter ride from Kabul in Eastern Afghanistan and it was to juxtaposition two different things. Everyone’s talking about HKIA, Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul versus Bagram. That HKIA in Kabul has one runway and it’s the civilian entry point for all of Afghanistan. So you have an entire civilian airport there.
The U.S. military over time built up a structure on the opposite side of the airport that I’ve been to a few times where we would allow our partners and allies to use that when the security situation permitted, but it wasn’t our main ingress and egress point.
Bagram Airfield, just north of there or west of there, was our brain. It’s what we would call a command and control element, a C2 node. It had multiple runways. No one else owned it but America and the only people allowed on that base were Americans and American allies. When you have two runways that you can continuously operate flights from, be it for overhead purposes or just be military transport planes, the big ones that you see on TV now, the C-17s as we call them, the C-130s, the Hercules and even the C-5s. These are planes that literally hold the equivalent of four Greyhound buses in their underbellies and that is how we move manning and equipment out securely.
President Trump’s plan was not surrender Bagram Airfield upfront. It was one of the last places we would give back because one of the things we haven’t talked about, Jan is not just a successful withdrawal of American citizens, but you need a place like Bagram, the brain of our Afghan operation, to remove 20 years worth of machinery and weaponry that we have in-country in Afghanistan.
The third component of Bagram is also it’s detention capability. We had a detention center set up at Bagram for suspected terrorists that were captured by allies ourselves and we were working through a process to prosecute those individuals or hand them over to our allies for prosecution because they had likely committed acts of terrorism or acts of violence or murder.
When President Biden surrendered Bagram, he gave up those three capabilities immediately. He literally turn-keyed the jail and allowed these criminals, these terrorists, to go back into the community. He also allowed an airfield that we had had for years and our brain center to be overtaken by militants and the Taliban.
So what does that do? That stops American citizens from being rescued safely. It removes a secure location where the United States military, our conventional forces and special forces could operate from and get airlift out by rotary wing or fixed wing aircraft. People who are in outlying regions of Afghanistan that are American citizens, they need to be securely withdrawn. That’s the most important thing always. President Trump always put that up front—the safety of Americans.
But now unfortunately, you also have the third component of the surrender of Bagram Airfield, which is weapons and machinery. You see on video every day Taliban and terrorists taking American weapons, American rifles, American tanks, American helicopters and they are using it against Americans.
We were going to remove that machinery methodically through Bagram Airfield. That was another component of this conditions-based plan and unfortunately, right now they gave it up under President Biden. It’s basically overrun. We do not have a brain center for operations in Afghanistan and the enemy, for lack of a better word, has taken over 20 years worth of machinery and weapons in-country.
Mr. Jekielek: This plan, is it like a manual?
Mr. Patel: Well, these plans are… I would say when you get the inner agency together because any plan to withdraw from a war requires not just DOD, it requires a state department, it requires the Intelligence Community. There is the CIA and the NSA and there are so many other components. It requires the White House, obviously leading that plan.
So there are teams of people putting together memorandums. There are teams of people putting together intelligence reporting and all of that gets fed into the Office of Director of National Intelligence for IC purposes, to the Office of Secretary of Defense for military purposes and to the White House under the National Security Advisor for White House purposes. Those three apparatus have come together to lay out a plan that’s continuously changing.
And I’d like to add the one thing that under my service to President Trump was that if the information changed, if the intelligence changed, President Trump was always willing to change course. He knew that just because we had decided on one avenue, we would try to stick to that avenue successfully, like Afghan withdrawal.
But if the conditions changed, if someone was harmed or if Al-Qaeda re-emerged as a big threat, then we would change. That was the kind of daily reporting that was going into this planning. So all these different agencies have different memorandum that come together at the White House and that was presented to President Trump and all of those memos were handed over during the transition process be it for DOD, be it for CIA, be it for NSA. So they exist and a lot of them are classified, but that doesn’t mean the incoming administration didn’t have access to them.
Mr. Jekielek: So why do you think the media coverage here has been basically kind of straight up—let’s say in comparison to the coverage of the riots in the summertime of 2020?
Mr. Patel: Sure, it’s a good question, but I think the answer is pretty simple. A situation like a catastrophic implosion of Afghanistan by a total surrender under the Biden administration is something that is being shown and read across the world. That is, every piece of social media is covering it. Every piece of print media is covering it. Every piece of the TV media is covering it and the images speak for themselves.
You have people, literally Afghan citizens falling from U.S. military transport planes, plunging to their deaths from 1,000 feet in the air. You have constant reporting about American citizens who cannot get through to Kabul to securely get out of Afghanistan. You have more reporting that our allies, the UK and others are doing more to regain their citizens safe retrieval out of Afghanistan than America is. You have constant reporting that American aircraft that are trying to leave Afghanistan with American citizens are being told they cannot do so.
So the media has to cover it in the only way possible and that is a total and utter failure of this administration of how they have handled Afghanistan. But I’ll juxtapose that with something else that they failed to do in Afghanistan.
If you recall the Russia bounty scandal from Afghanistan, also took place in Afghanistan. During President Trump’s tenure about a year, a year and a half ago, there was classified leaks of information in these same components of the media who reported that the United States under President Trump had knowingly paid Putin and his emissaries to then in turn would pay the Taliban to kill American soldiers, which is outrageous on its face.
And at the time, I was the Deputy Director of National Intelligence under Rick Grenell and we were briefing the president constantly on that and other things. Now, we didn’t respond by leaking classified information ourselves. We responded by putting the mission first and making sure we knew the reality of what the intelligence said. We knew what they were putting out in the media was false and the media probably knew it too, but it was another dark stain that they could put on President Trump’s administration.
Fast forward a year and what happens now? President Biden comes to office and they say, “Oh, actually the reporting about Russia bounties in Afghanistan was false.” So that’s an anecdotal example of where the media chose intentionally to misreport information that hurt the United States and Afghanistan and with our allies and then this situation, which is so much bigger in Afghanistan, is something they can’t get away from. They can’t have selective leaks of classified information to fit their political narratives and that’s why even most of them are correctly reporting it.
Mr. Jekielek: So, another big topic that’s been on a lot of people’s minds is how to work with the Afghans who are directly helping the U.S. and because they may have something like a bounty on their heads and so forth, right? So what was the plan?
Mr. Patel: So, in a place like Afghanistan, you can’t operate a military operation. You can’t operate an intelligence operation because of first of all, a linguistic barrier, but also just the cultural and geographic barrier. So we relied on vetted Afghan allies to be our interpreters, to be our assistants in day-to-day operations. We relied on our relationship with the Afghan security forces that we had built up over time.
Afghanistan is not the only place that we have these types of relationships, but everywhere that we have them, our Intelligence Community or Department of Defense has them identified and is always constantly looking at threat analysis to see if those individuals who were helping us are in danger or if their family is threatened and if so, there are, without getting into specifics, always plans in place to locate and remove those that have assisted us if they are facing imminent death.
I’ve been a part of those plans. I’ve been a part of those operations in the past and we knew how to do that and as long as you had an administration and the commander in chief willing to make that a piece of a greater plan, which President Trump always did, then we had a way to find those individuals and securely remove them. It was a part of the bigger conditions-based withdrawal plan which we knew would take time.
So we, under President Trump, knew we had time to progress through these conditions and safeguard not just us Americans, but those that had helped us. We were working towards that, but when you surrender your position in a country, then unfortunately, you have the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS placing targets on people who they know helped us: our interpreters, our assistants in the field and our employees that had a contract with us and helped run our day-to-day operations. It’s tragic that that has happened and we can’t identify, find and plan to remove all those individuals.
Mr. Jekielek: So, what can be done for them now?
Mr. Patel: Well, it’s very hard now because this administration spent eight months not having a plan. Zero, and now they’re playing catch up in the last week to try to get Americans out. We haven’t even talked about hostages. We still have an American hostage in the region and we’re unfortunately likely going to have more hostages taken if this situation continues to deteriorate.
But the same goes for, as you were talking about Afghan nationals who were assisting us. They could have been repatriated to third countries. We could have pulled them out to our partners and allies. We could have placed them in different bases, but there was no plan in place by this administration to do that. You can’t remove tens of thousands of people overnight. It takes time. It takes a plan and this administration is shooting from the hip and there is no plan.
So they don’t even have a plan to locate Americans, let alone Afghans who helped us. So I don’t have any faith that this will be a successful venture, but maybe I’ll be proven wrong.
Mr. Jekielek: So, as I understand it, this conditions-based withdrawal was based on the Afghan government and the Taliban coming together and making some kind of a cooperative government structure. So, how realistic was this in your mind?
Mr. Patel: Sure. That’s probably the best question for the entire Afghan debate because as President Trump had said, we’re not staying there forever. So if the U.S. military isn’t going to be in-country forever in a large format, how do we secure Afghanistan? Well, the people that live there, the Afghans and the Taliban who number tens of thousands, live there and control large regions of the country have to come together and negotiate a peace settlement, an interim government and then a structure for the government to continue.
So we based our belief in the success of that plan in our conditions-based approach and we thought it had a good chance. That’s why it was a stepped approach, not one that was zero to 100 right away. It was a slow stepped approach. And of course we knew who we were dealing with. We were dealing with the Taliban who have not always been our allies in the past. But if you want to negotiate a peace, you have to be willing to engage with them because they are not going anywhere in Afghanistan.
So that was a path that President Trump selected and as long as you instill enough, and fear is not the right word, but strength that if the two sides don’t negotiate successfully, then America is going to intervene and it’s going to cost them dearly. That’s what allows a plan like that to take hold and take place.
Look, I was on the ground in Afghanistan with the Secretary of Defense this past December meeting President Ghani, meeting our commanding generals on the ground, talking about this plan’s implementation with the Taliban while our state department officials met with Taliban leadership in Doha to secure this plan; to secure this peace settlement and it was working. It was working slowly and we were getting there and we were trying to do everything we could to ensure that it would not fail. We always knew that it could fail ’cause it was Afghanistan, but we had enough belief in it that it was going to work had we stayed the course.
Mr. Jekielek: So you were saying that May 1st was your originally planned time for complete withdrawal, right?
Mr. Patel: That was part of the agreement that the United States had made with the Afghan government and the Taliban, because from their perspective, what the Afghans and the Taliban want, a removal of U. S. forces from within their country so they could govern.
So that was one of the negotiating points that President Trump came up with to say, “Okay, we’ll agree if all the…” It wasn’t just a hard date. President Trump said, “If the conditions have been met, 1-May is an appropriate trait to remove our forces from Afghanistan with the caveat that they would know that we’d always leave in a special forces operation to counter terrorist threats throughout the country.”
And so that was what we were working towards and that’s what the Taliban had agreed to in negotiations as well. That’s why I think they were so ticked off when the Biden administration said, “Oh, 1-May? We’re not abiding by any of that.” So they broke one of the fundamental precepts of our negotiations with the Afghans and the Taliban under Trump. That’s why that led to a precipitous fall in the Taliban’s belief that we could actually continue a conditions-based withdrawal that would leave a government in place between the Taliban and the Afghan nationals.
Mr. Jekielek: In your mind, what do you think could happen now to make the best of the existing very difficult situation?
Mr. Patel: Well, having served in the Defense Department as a civilian and in the Intelligence Community and in the executive branch and then ultimately being privileged to lead some of these departments, our ethos has always been you plan for the worst and prepare for the best.
So that mindset, unfortunately, doesn’t lead to an optimistic outlook for Afghanistan, if you’re asking me. I think with the fact that we have 10 to 15,000 American citizens still scattered throughout the country leaves open the fact that Taliban, Al-Qaeda, ISIS are going to kidnap American citizens and hold them hostage; we may see a rise in hostage takings like never before. That is problematic.
The fact that we no longer have a presence and not just Bagram Airfield but our massive embassy, which we spent a billion dollars building in Kabul in which I’ve been to is no longer occupied. So we have no more diplomatic hub in-country in Afghanistan. No more diplomatic hub, no more military hub leaves no one for our Afghan national partners. The Afghans that helped us along the way over the last 20 years and American citizens to reach out to make sure they’re okay, make sure they get out of the country.
And so when you have a vacuum of leadership in diplomacy and military and in security in the region in a war-torn nation, then I’m just not optimistic that this situation is going to end well anytime soon. My biggest fear outside of the hostages that could be taken is the rise of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in-country, which President Trump had made a priority of eliminating. But when you don’t have a presence or a plan with your allies in-country, then they are going to quickly, I think, retake territory and reestablish themselves in-country against the interests of Americans and I believe our allies in Europe are saying the same thing.
Mr. Jekielek: Kash, this is a pretty somber place to end, but I think this is where we have to finish up.
Mr. Patel: Yeah, for now and I think you and I will find ourselves talking about Afghanistan for some time to come, but for now, yeah, we’ll end here and we’ll look to our shout out of the week. I think as we talk about all things of Afghanistan, I think the shout out and the dedication has to be to all the men and women that have served in Afghanistan that I’ve been fortunate to serve with and continue to serve and especially those folks that have left government service after putting so much blood and treasure into Afghanistan. I know that your service was the ultimate and we thank you for it and we thank those currently serving.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.