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Rep. Elissa Slotkin Talks About What Went Wrong In Afghanistan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden is firmly defending his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. After days that brought relentless news of Taliban victories and shocking scenes of chaos at the airport in Kabul, Biden delivered remarks from the White House this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been - preventing another a terrorist attack on American homeland. I've argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency or nation building.

CHANG: All right. For reaction, we will now turn to someone who has thought a lot about U.S. national security interests. Elissa Slotkin is a Democratic representative from Michigan. She serves on the House Armed Services Committee, and she has worked in both the CIA and Department of Defense.

Congresswoman Slotkin, welcome.

ELISSA SLOTKIN: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So Biden's central message this afternoon was that remaining in Afghanistan just wasn't in the national security interest of the U.S. Do you agree with that central premise?

SLOTKIN: Well, listen. I don't think there's actually much disagreement between Democrats, Republicans, between most people that after 20 years, we want to be out of Afghanistan. I think that's a different question than what we're seeing on TV right now. But I think the overall idea that we should be done or ending our conflict there most people agree with. I just don't think we wanted it like this.

CHANG: I'm getting the sense from this response that you have real concerns about how this pullout has played out in the last several days.

SLOTKIN: Well, who doesn't? I mean, I think - look. Anyone who's worked in war zones, anyone who's worked in national security, anyone who's served there in any capacity - I mean, we're gutted watching this, right? We're gutted. And I think it's just an extremely emotional thing to watch on television. And, you know, we're getting a ton of calls into our office, and people want to know what is going on and what's happening. And, you know, for many of us, the focus needs to be right now on life and limb.

You know, we seem to be doing better today. The airport needs to remain open not only to get American citizens out and the Afghans we work with but to allow other Afghans who aren't in our program to take their own transportation on civilian aircraft out of there. We need to make sure we focus on life and limb right now. Later, we can get to the politics and how this all happened.

CHANG: Right. Well, let me ask you about the information that you are receiving. At this point I know that you have been briefed by the secretaries of state and of defense on the situation in Kabul. Did you hear anything that explains why the Afghan government fell so quickly, so much more quickly than expected?

SLOTKIN: You know, I haven't. And I think this is part of just the review that I know is coming - right? - of what we knew, what our intelligence was telling us, what we were doing at the State Department, at the Defense Department. Of course, that will all be reviewed.

But I think - you know, look. I was in Iraq, and when the U.S. military is standing next to you and you're a foreign military, we stiffen your spine. You know, we give you the sense that you can be out there and fighting and that we're with you. And I think, you know, what is hard to imagine, especially for all of us who have trained folks on the ground or been on the ground with Iraqis or Afghans, is that when you leave, that will to fight and that, you know, stiffening of the spine really goes away. And it just went away so fast in this situation that I think it was shocking for everybody.

CHANG: Do you think the military, the U.S. military, should have been better prepared to anticipate that loss of will among the Afghan security forces?

SLOTKIN: Well, I don't think that that was a secret. I mean, I think lots of the estimates that were out there were anywhere from, I think, three months to a year or something like that. So it wasn't that you didn't see that. And frankly, we lived that in Iraq in a big way. I think it was just the speed would have been hard, I think, for anyone to understand - that between Friday and Sunday, you know, the president would flee the country and the military would lay down their weapons and run. I mean, I think that was stunning, even for standards of, you know, the post-9/11 era.

CHANG: I saw a month ago that you told Reuters that you wanted what's called a day after plan from the White House, an idea of how they might detect future al-Qaida plots after this U.S. pullout. That was, of course, before the collapse of the Afghan government. How confident are you in that day after plan now?

SLOTKIN: Well, look. I think we're going to have to reevaluate everything that's going on there. And, again, right now it's life and limb. Right now we've got an airport that needs to stay open. But hopefully if we can hit some equilibrium, then we need to understand how we're going to make sure that groups like al-Qaida, groups like ISIS, groups - you know, other terrorist groups don't once again use that area as a safe haven.

Now, the good news is I think we've learned a lot over the last 20 years about how to protect ourselves, how to protect our allies. But we still need a diplomatic infrastructure and an intelligence infrastructure. That can't be done completely remote. So I think, you know, at this point, we got to figure out what's going on in the next 48 hours. But then I sincerely hope that the administration will come and brief all members of Congress on this.

CHANG: What is your confidence level in this administration at this point? - because President Biden said this afternoon that the U.S. would be able to respond quickly to any threats that emerge in Afghanistan, national security threats. Do you believe that to be true at this point?

SLOTKIN: Well, at this point, I want to have a classified conversation, and I want to be briefed on that, right? I mean, that's not something you have a conversation about on the radio and in public. We want to - we need to know how we can protect ourselves and our allies and our partners.

CHANG: So at this point, the administration has not given you any clear answer on how it would detect emerging threats without a diplomatic or military presence in Afghanistan. You don't have a clear answer at this point.

SLOTKIN: I would like to see more on that. Yes.

CHANG: OK. You signed a letter calling for the president to help evacuate all those Afghans who have helped U.S. troops to evacuate diplomats, other non-governmental organizations. What specifically do you want to see from the administration on that front?

SLOTKIN: I think when we think about the Afghans who so many people served alongside and worked with, we have to think about them and their safety and getting them out, keeping that airport open so that they can get out either through us or through a third party, through charters, through third countries. But we also have to understand that the world is watching us and that the American handshake has to mean something. When we shake someone's hand and we tell them that we're going to work with them, that if they work and they risk their lives for us, we're going to protect them, that has to mean something. And we have to live up to that. And that's my expectation right now.

CHANG: Do you have any sense at this point why visa applications for many of these people were not expedited sooner?

SLOTKIN: Look. I think immigration is a very complicated thing, and there's no doubt about it. You know, making a decision to bring someone to American soil before they've gone through our vetting is not something we're used to doing. So I think it challenged everybody. But that doesn't escape - that doesn't allow us an out. We knew from April that we were going to be pulling out, and we should have been doing it faster.

CHANG: Democrat Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, thank you very much for joining our show today.

SLOTKIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "END CREDITS SUITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.