Afghan General Says Army Will Survive U.S. Troop Withdrawal | WAMC

Afghan General Says Army Will Survive U.S. Troop Withdrawal

Originally published on April 29, 2021 10:51 am

Earlier this month, President Biden announced that the U.S. would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, effectively bringing an end to a "forever war" spurred by the terrorist attacks 20 years earlier on Sept. 11, 2001. His promise has been met with backlash from both Republicans and moderate Democrats in Congress.

Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming called it "fundamentally dangerous," while progressive Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren praised the plan, saying "our continued presence there does not make the U.S. or the world safer."

The announcement also raised a lot of questions: Will the Afghan government hold once the U.S. leaves? What is the Taliban's next move? What about women's rights? And will this lead to more war?

The Afghan Air Force is 100% reliant on contractors to maintain their Blackhawk helicopters and C-130 cargo planes, and Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, has warned that the Afghan military will collapse without continued U.S. support. But in an interview on NPR's All Things Considered, Gen. Sami Sadat, commanding general of the Afghan army, was more optimistic.

"The Afghan military is one of the more advanced militaries that learned from the best, from the U.S. forces," he says. "To be honest, for the past one year, the Afghan forces have held their ground pretty good, I'd say."

Sadat spoke with NPR about what life looks like for him and his men in one of the most dangerous parts of the country — the Helmand province, what's at stake for them once the U.S. has withdrawn its troops and whether the U.S. won the war in Afghanistan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On typical military operations in Helmand and contact with the Taliban

Usually, we start our day with digging out a lot of IEDs laid on the roads, and then [we engage in firefight] contacts with Taliban. The Taliban trying to establish illegal checkpoints and charge traders and passengers as they pass along. We are also conducting major offensive operations against the Taliban as the peace talks have, unfortunately, failed. I am one of the commanders who never believed in the talks and I still don't. And I was prepared for this day, so I pushed all my units — around 11,000 Afghan soldiers — and every 24 hours in my region of operation conduct about 170 military operations. You know, patrols, raids, night raids, day raids. It's pretty busy here.

On Gen. Frank McKenzie's warning that the Afghan military will collapse without U.S. backing

I mean, I understand the American context. The worry is correct. We in Afghanistan are grateful for what the United States did for us. They came to our aid in one of the most darkest days of our history. But throughout the last 20 years together, the Americans and Afghans established the profound foundation for a system that is lasting. So I'm not worried about any kind of a collapse scenario. However, you know, people have their own minds and opinions. The Afghan Air Force is a modern air force, but it's mostly the U.S. technology, so we will continue to depend on technical and financial support of the U.S. military, especially with the Afghan Air Force. ... I think UH-60s and C-130s are the two big transport fleets used by the Afghan Air Force that will require continuous contract support, but it will all depend on the U.S. rules of engagement and how politicians play and earmark the money from Congress when it's sent for helping us.

On whether U.S. money is enough to help the Afghan military remain stable

Let me give you an example. Last week we conducted the night raid into Musa Qala. Musa Qala is the Taliban's center of operational gravity in Afghanistan after Quetta, Pakistan, which is their strategic center of gravity, Musa Qala is the second. I went there for eight hours, conducted the night raid, freed up to 50 prisoners, killed a bunch of Taliban. We occupied the Musa Qala bazaar for seven hours and it was all Afghan plan, Afghan intelligence, Afghan Air Force and one of our special forces units. So such is the capability of the Afghan forces. For the past one year it's been a challenge, but also an experience for us. Because now suddenly we saw the U.S. forces are not on our table every morning, it was on our own. To be honest, for the past one year, the Afghan forces have held their ground pretty good, I'd say.

Gen. Sami Sadat addresses Afghani troops in April 2021.
Gen. Sami Sadat

On his training with Americans

One of the things I'm grateful for the U.S. as they leave — there is two reasons. One is for a selfish reason: I will miss them because I have some of my best friends in there. Also, you know, together working as a team between different countries in a complex environment, such as Afghanistan in the middle of the firefight, in the middle of the blood and the sorrow, it actually gives you a new perspective — how to adapt, how to build a team, how to lead a team, and how to win basically. So I'm grateful. I feel very honored and privileged.

On whether the U.S. won the war in Afghanistan

Winning the war? No. Did the U.S. help create an environment that can diminish the war and win over the terrorists? Yes. You and I will be talking probably next year...and we will beat the odds. We always did. And this is the legacy of the United States, especially the United States military, leaving behind a system that is democratic, that's open-minded, a society that is transforming, and hopefully, it will last and become an example in our region. Now, call me an optimist, but this is what I am. This is why I serve. This is why I chose the worst place in Afghanistan to take command and to lead my men.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are so many questions about what the next chapter looks like for Afghanistan. It's hard to know where to start. Will the government hold once the U.S. leaves, as President Biden has promised to do by September 11? What is the Taliban's next move? What about women's rights? And hanging over all of it, the possibility, the prospect of yet more war.

Well, our next guest is right in the middle of it on the front lines. Sami Sadat is a commanding general in the Afghan army. We called him today at his post in Helmand Province, long one of the most dangerous parts of the country.

General Sadat, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SAMI SADAT: Thank you, Mary Louise. Glad to be here.

KELLY: Start by describing, General, the situation where you are. How secure is it? How stable is it? What is a typical day like in terms of fighting?

SADAT: I am located in southwestern Afghanistan, basically one of the most contested areas between the government and the Taliban. Typical days in southwestern Afghanistan is usually we start our day with digging out a lot of IEDs laid on the roads and then contacts with Taliban, the Taliban trying to establish illegal checkpoints and charge traders and passengers as they pass along.

KELLY: When you say contact with Taliban, be specific. What kind of contact?

SADAT: I mean, the firefight contact in terms of the military basically attacks. We are also conducting major offensive operations against the Taliban as the peace talks have unfortunately failed. I am one of the commanders who never believed on the talks, and I still don't. And I was prepared for this day, so I pushed all my units, around 11,000 Afghan soldiers. And every 24 hours in my region of operation conduct about 170 military operations - you know, patrols, raids, night raids, day raids. It's pretty busy here.

KELLY: I want to ask about some of the questions that are swirling here in Washington, and I'm sure must be for you as well. You will have seen the head of U.S. Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, is warning that the Afghan military will collapse without U.S. support. He testified here in Washington last week. He's worried the Afghan air force won't be able to fly without American help. Is he right to be worried?

SADAT: I think we - I mean, I understand the American context. The worry is correct. We in Afghanistan are grateful for what the United States did for us. They came into our aid in one of the most darkest days of our history. But throughout the last 20 years, together, the Americans and Afghans established the profound foundation for a system that is lasting. So I am not worried about any kind of a collapse scenario. However, you know, people have their own minds and opinions. The Afghan Air Force is a modern air force, but it's mostly the U.S. technology. So we will continue to depend on technical and financial support of the U.S. military, especially with the Afghan air force.

KELLY: I want to push you on this, General, because it's not a matter of opinion that the Afghan air force is 100% reliant on contractors to maintain their Blackhawks, maintain their C-130s, maintain their planes. And it's not just planes, as you know. It's armored vehicles. It's other things that the U.S. says they'll provide money for. But if they're not going to actually be there helping, how big a challenge does that pose when you are already engaged in active firefights?

SADAT: I think you are correct to say that. I wouldn't say 100%. I think UH-60s and C-130s are the two big transport fleet used by the Afghan air force that will require continuous contract support. But it will all depend on the U.S. rule of engagement and how politicians play and earmark the money from Congress when it's sent for helping us.

KELLY: I suppose my question, though, is, is the money enough? Money can buy certain things, but it can't buy U.S. and foreign forces fighting at your side or providing air support, which it sounds like is still an important factor for you.

SADAT: So let me give you an example.

KELLY: Please.

SADAT: Last week, we conducted a night right into Musa Qala. Musa Qala is the Taliban's center of operational gravity in Afghanistan. After Quetta, Pakistan, which is their strategic center of gravity, Musa Qala is the second. I went there for eight hours, conducted the night raid, freed up to 50 prisoners, killed a bunch of Taliban. We occupied the Musa Qala bazaar for seven hours, and it was all Afghan planned, Afghan intelligence, Afghan air force and one of our special forces units. So such is the capability of the Afghan forces. And now, for the past one year, it's been a challenge, but also an experience for us because now suddenly we saw the U.S. forces are not on our table every morning. It was on our own. And to be honest, Mary Louise, for the past one year, the Afghan forces have held their ground pretty good, I'd say.

KELLY: You were trained by Americans. Would you tell us a little bit about that, whether there's a particular lesson that stays with you?

SADAT: Absolutely. You know, I'm - one of the things I'm grateful for the U.S. as they leave, you know - there is two reasons. One is, like, for a selfish reason. I will miss them because I have some of my best friends in there. Also, you know, together working as a team between different countries in a complex environment such as Afghanistan in the middle of the firefight, in the middle of, you know, the blood and the sorrow, it actually gives you a new perspective. You know, how to adapt, how to build a team, how to lead a team and how to win basically. So I'm grateful, you know. I feel very honored and privileged.

KELLY: Last question, General - from where you sit, did the U.S. win the war in Afghanistan? Did the U.S. lose, a little bit of both? What do you think?

SADAT: I think winning the war, no. Did the U.S. help create an environment that can diminish the war and win over the terrorists? Yes. I think the very system is like - you will see. You and I will be talking probably next year, hopefully, you know, in six months again. And we will beat the odds. We always did, you know? And this is the legacy of the United States, especially the United States military, leaving behind a system that is democratic, that's open-minded, a society that is transforming. And hopefully it will last and become an example in our region. Now, call me an optimist, but this is what I am, you know? This is why I serve. This is why I chose the worst place in Afghanistan to take command and to lead my men.

KELLY: That is General Sami Sadat, commanding general of the Afghan army, speaking to us from his post in Helmand, southwestern Afghanistan.

General, thank you.

SADAT: Thank you, Mary Louise. Have a good day.

KELLY: And you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.