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Fareed Zakaria GPS

The Fall of Kabul, One Year Later; Interview With Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani; Interview With Author Elliot Ackerman. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired August 14, 2022 - 10:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is a special edition of GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. "The Fall of Kabul, One Year Later."

Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria coming to you from New York.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: The Taliban has taken over Afghanistan. Seizing control of Kabul with hardly a shot fired.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): On the program --

JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: The entire U.S. Military effort is collapsing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The embassy has been completely evacuated.

ZAKARIA: It has been a year since the fall of Kabul.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Afghans trying desperately to board outgoing flights.

ZAKARIA: A year since then-President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: The president of Afghanistan flees the country.

ZAKARIA: For a year he has been virtually invisible.

WARD: What a difference 24 hours made.

ZAKARIA: Today, we will hear from him directly. Why he left so hastily.


ZAKARIA: Whether he took tens of millions of dollars with him.

GHANI: This is part of a disinformation campaign.

ZAKARIA: And why he wants to go back to his country.

GHANI: The place that every cell of my body belongs.

ZAKARIA: It's an exclusive that you will not want to miss.


ZAKARIA: But first, here's "My Take." On August 16th, 2021, the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction released a report. "What We Need to Learn: Lessons from 20 Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction." It got overtaken by the news as just the day before the Afghan government had collapsed and the Taliban rapidly sieged power. But one year later, it is a document based on 13 years of work, mountains of data, and over 760 interviews worth returning to and studying carefully.

The U.S. government has now spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, it began. It added up all the other costs, including $837 billion war fighting, 3,587 U.S. and allied troops dead, and no fewer than 66,000 Afghan troops dead. But it notes, if the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture is bleak.

Why? What explains how so much energy, effort, blood, and treasure yielded so little? The report lists many reasons -- incoherent strategy, lack of patience, unrealistic expectations, insufficient monitoring. All of which shine a light on specific failures. One of the report's conclusions, for example, is that U.S. goals were often contradictory. It pumped billions of dollars into the economy while at the same time trying to end corruption.

It wanted to weaken warlords and militias yet would also rely on them when it wanted to establish security quickly. It wanted to end opium production but not take away farmers' incomes.

But these do not feel like they get at the core of the problem. After their defeat in 2001, the Taliban regrouped and steadily gained ground from approximately 2005 onwards. The report documents that enemy initiated attacks rose from about 2,300 in 2005 to almost 23,000 in 2009, and never dropped below 21,000 since then despite various changes in U.S. strategies and tactics and troop levels.

A civilian adviser to the military on Iraq and Afghanistan Carter Malkasian wrote a book, which I believe comes closest to providing an overarching explanation. The Taliban exemplified something that inspired, something that made them powerful in battle, something closely tied to what it meant to be Afghan, he wrote.


In simple terms, they fought for Islam and resistance to occupation. Values enshrined in Afghan identity, aligned with foreign occupiers, the government mustered no similar inspiration. America was the outsider in the middle of a complex civil war in

Afghanistan, and the new Afghan government was never able to gain the legitimacy it needed. It was seen as massively corrupt and utterly reliant on America. And both charges were true. When a government has internal legitimacy, think of Ukraine today, foreigners can help it effectively. But when it lacks internal strength and support, outside help often weakens its credibility.

To that, one can add all kinds of other important reasons. The Taliban had sanctuary in Pakistan. Historically, it has been virtually impossible to defeat a well-armed insurgency that has a safe haven in a neighboring country. Americans don't understand foreign countries and cultures. The Iraq war was a massive distraction. U.S. agencies sometimes worked at cross purposes with one other and so on.

But there is another important lesson for America, the danger of not looking at reality carefully and succumbing to group think. For a long time, Washington's elites saw Afghanistan as the good war. Morally justified. Sanctioned by the United Nations. People were invested in believing that it was working, and many blinded themselves to evidence that it wasn't.

The military is often very clear-eyed about a conflict, but once given a task, it will provide a stream of reports that prove it is succeeding. In Vietnam, it was body counts of the enemy dead. In Afghanistan, it was the growing numbers of the Afghan National Army, which turned out to be massively inflated.

For all the flaws in the withdrawal, Joe Biden was one of the people who was willing to ask uncomfortable questions and a look beyond the happy talk. In an intelligent essay in the "Atlantic," General David Petraeus takes stock of the war and argues that America's foundational mistake in Afghanistan was a lack of commitment. He was surely right at one level. There was clearly an ebb and flow in America's support, but it is worth noting that America stayed fighting in Afghanistan longer than the British did in all three Anglo-Afghan wars combined. It stayed twice as long as the Soviet Union did in the late '70s and '80s.

In Elliot Ackerman's new book, "The Fifth Act: America's End in Afghanistan," he notes that everything America built in Afghanistan was made of plywood, a metaphor for our hesitation about the mission. Contrast that with the British who would arrive in a country and quickly build stone monuments to symbolize their enduring empire.

While I suspect that America will always be ambivalent, we'll always be the plywood imperialists.

Go to for a link to my "Washington Post" column this week, and let's get started.

On August 11 of last year, the Pentagon was telling reporters that Kabul might fall in 90 days. Four days later, the city fell. The sudden collapse of the Afghan capital, and thus the whole country stunned the world. A U.S. government report tells us that as the Taliban was taking control of the city on the afternoon of the 15th, helicopters prepared to carry President Ashraf Ghani's wife and senior staff to safety but fearing Ghani would be executed if he didn't depart with them, officials convinced the president to get on a helicopter, too.

They had no idea where they were going but ended up making an unauthorized landing in Uzbekistan where security agents met them with weapons drawn and asked them to leave. The next day they took a charter flight to the United Arab Emirates. Rumors have swirled about Ghani and his escape.

Today we will get answers in an exclusive interview. Ghani spoke to me from the UAE. I was in New York.


ZAKARIA: President Ghani, pleasure to have you on the show.

GHANI: Thank you for having me.


ZAKARIA: People around the world are wondering why you decided to leave. In May 2021, just months earlier, you gave an interview to "Der Spiegel" in which you said, and I'm now going to quote you, "No power in the world could persuade me to get on a plane and leave this country. It is a country I love, and I will die defending it." But you did get on a plane and leave the country. Why?

GHANI: I did get on a plane because it became impossible to defend it. From the presidential ground, all the presidential protection force melted and put on civilian clothes. The minister of Defense had left. I was ready to go to the Ministry of Defense because he had called me that Kabul could not be defended, and I said, I'm going to come to the ministry. The ministry was empty. He was on a plane.

I was the last to leave. And the reason I left was because I did not want to give the Taliban and their supporters the pleasure of yet again humiliating an Afghan president and making him sign over the legitimacy of the government. I have never been afraid.

You've seen repeatedly rockets have come, landed around me, and I have not moved. But to surrender and be humiliated, and it was a split second decision, because they had entered Kabul, and the embassy, the U.S. embassy had already evacuated the embassy at 9:00.

ZAKARIA: One of the things in the report says that you and your national security adviser, and (INAUDIBLE) your national security adviser, began to worry that the presidential guard itself would assassinate you. Were you not sure of the loyalties even of your own personal presidential guard?

GHANI: There was firing in the morning when I was in a meeting. I don't know who started firing, but it was very close. So they asked me to go inside. Cooks in the presidency were found with instruction. I think one was being offered $100,000 to poison me. So it is an environment that one needs to understand. ZAKARIA: You get into a helicopter, and when you take off, where do

you think you're going?

GHANI: I thought I was going to the airport. They took off northwards, so after 15 or 20 minutes, I realized that we're not going to the airport. So I asked the national security adviser, and he said the airport was not safe. And on the plane, a decision was made then on the helicopter to go to Uzbekistan. There are no preparation had been made anywhere else as all the documentation shows because I had no plans of leaving.

ZAKARIA: You didn't have your passport with you?


ZAKARIA: You didn't have your personal belongings with you?

GHANI: Nothing. I was wearing Afghan clothes with a waistcoat and a pair of shoes and that was it. I didn't even have a book. People who know me, I practically never fly without a book because that's when I concentrate and read, and nothing else.

ZAKARIA: Now, you know there are these rumors that you left with $169 million of cash. What is your response?

GHANI: Well, SIGAR has categorically proven that I did not leave with any money. This is part of a disinformation campaign. You have among others investigated my past. And also if you look at Ambassador Bolton's memoirs, President Trump used to confuse me with President Karzai and had alleged that I owned property outside, and they investigated and found nothing. I've lived an honorable life. I've been a self-made man, and did not

need, I declared all my assets in SIGAR now and its detailed report has shown that there was no money on the helicopter.

ZAKARIA: For viewers, let me clarify it. This is the Special Inspector General's Report. It does say that it would have been physically impossible for you to have taken the money. There were no -- all eyewitness accounts say you did not. So my question to you is the Russian embassy put out this number and this allegation. Why?

GHANI: You'll have to ask them.

ZAKARIA: Why do you think this rumor got going? It's been so widespread, this sense that, you know, you took this money. What do you think accounts for it?

GHANI: A blame game. A fall guy. And if you cannot kill the man, you attempt to kill his character.


My integrity has been known. I lived a very simple life. Money shows, leaves signs. There have been massive investigations by journalists of other countries and leaders and they've been able to. I challenge the entire investigative journalist community to come with any evidence of any wrongdoing or any interest on my part and accumulation of money. That is not what I went back to Afghanistan for.

That's not why I put 16 hour days, and that's not why I represented my country with honor and dignity. So it was enormous anger and trauma in our country. We're a traumatized people, and trauma produces fear, and fear is directed in order to prevent our national unity in coming together.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, many say that President Ghani of Afghanistan should have been more like President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. They say Ghani should have stayed, not fled. I ask him about that directly when we come back.



ZAKARIA: And we are back here with a special edition of GPS marking tomorrow, the one year anniversary of the fall of Kabul. More of my exclusive interview with Afghanistan's former president Ashraf Ghani.


ZAKARIA: You know many people make the analogy between you and President Zelenskyy, and they say Zelenskyy stayed and rallied his country and you left. What do you think of that comparison?

GHANI: Well, the comparison should be made between 2014 when I became president and not 2021. We have been fighting for 42 years. Our trauma was deep. Our people were tired of killing, and our people wanted an end to the bloodshed. Second, President Zelenskyy was informed in detail by the CIA of the forthcoming Russian invasion. We were not offered a single piece of paper by our allies.

The other comparison again is Europe stood, the whole NATO, United States, Australia, other countries, rallied to Ukraine, but that is similar to the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. Then again, a lot of people stood with us and appreciated the (INAUDIBLE), but this is a time in 2021 when support for staying in Afghanistan after President Biden's decision had gone. It was an irreversible decision, and people fundamentally are asking if we are going to fight another round of civil war, what's the end? What's the conclusion?

ZAKARIA: Do you feel betrayed by the Americans?

GHANI: I don't use those types of words because our trauma, our pain, needs not to go to the direction of betrayal or blame. We need to focus on what is now in front of us. We need to draw lessons from the past and deal with the present. Our country is in dire condition. I do not have the luxury to engage in blaming or sense of betrayal. Superpowers, big powers decide on the base of their national interest. What I hope is that they've considered the implications of those.

ZAKARIA: You think that Trump accord with the Taliban was a disaster? GHANI: It was. Everybody in agreement. We had an Afghan-owned and

Afghan-led peace process. We created the first real cease-fire, and if you look at the December valuation of the DOD report, it says in the last 18 years, there's never been as big an opportunity for a political settlement as now. And then in turn, Afghan owned and led process was hijacked. We were excluded from the peace table, and the peace process was incredibly flawed.

It's the assumption that Taliban had changed. What delusion. The process violates everything that from Hutchinson and Marshall to Kissinger and Baker regarding preparation, regarding organization. We never got to discussions. It was all foreplay. Yet, in 2017, you interviewed me right after that when President Trump announced his Afghanistan and South Asia strategy, president announced that it be a condition-based agreement they are never going to repeat the mistakes of a time bound.


Yet, in 2019, Secretary Pompeo was seeking a time bound agreement and then signed it on February -- had signed, in his presence it was signed. A time bound agreement. This agreement was supposed to be conditional. But none of the core conditions was not only observed. The government, our partner, the government of the United States became the enforcer of the Taliban agreement on us, threatening us with cut-off of aid, with every conceivable form of pressure to release 5,000 of the most hardened criminals, et cetera.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, I will ask Ashraf Ghani to look at the future. What does it hold for him and for his nation under the Taliban.



ZAKARIA: We are back here with a special edition of GPS. More of my interview with Ashraf Ghani who left Afghanistan almost exactly one year ago as the Taliban took control of the capital Kabul.


ZAKARIA: So let's look forward. As you say, the country is in dire straits. Should the Biden administration provide funds to the Taliban?

As you know, this is a very, very complicated or a very fraught issue because it will be portrayed as providing money to a Taliban government, which has violated all kinds of human rights norms. On the other hand, the Afghan people are starving. What should -- what should the United States do?

GHANI: Internally, the Taliban are divided. There are dual centers of power minimally. The younger generation has a lot of capability, but they have not been brought to the forefront. There has to be discussion of the direction of Afghanistan. This is a serious challenge to the Muslim world, to the region, to the neighbors, to Europe in terms of the refugee flows and others and, of course, to the world at large. The United States needs to make a decision.

I do not advocate violence, but internal legitimacy, a process, not persons, not again a collection of warlords, but a process where the Afghan people for once are empowered to chart their way to their liberation is key to international legitimacy. In terms of money, I have ideas on market-based solutions that could create jobs and opportunities for Afghans in general and for Afghan women and the families of martyrs.

The United States does not have implementation capacity anymore. It is so taken by contractors. All the money, at least 80 percent or 90 percent of the money that came to Afghanistan went to large contractors, and they take a cut of -- from 40 percent to 80 percent. This money did not reach Afghanistan, and humanitarian aid, now they want to take the money that I saved.

I left $9 billion of reserve. I increased it almost by a third during my tenure. That's money that we had secured through incredibly hard work with IMF and others. You do it this year as humanitarian aid, where will the money come for next year or the year after that?

We have to focus back on the possibilities. Afghanistan is a roundabout. It's the heart of Asia, if the region can come. Unfortunately, as you know, extraordinary will. The competitions now between big powers, the atmosphere is so difficult that we need to think outside the box to seeing how can we bring the region, the Islamic voices and the global voices together to help the Afghan people?

ZAKARIA: And what will you do personally? What is the personal future for Ashraf Ghani?

GHANI: When I'm writing, I've dived deeply into the past 20 years. I'm now assessing it and distilling it in a series of articles and books. Two, I learned to deal with uncertainty. And uncertainty -- I'm working on a book called "The Age of Global Uncertainty". Uncertainty surrounds us.

ZAKARIA: Do you imagine you will be back in Afghanistan?

GHANI: I hope so very much. It's my home. I come -- I belong to a family that has stayed in one village between 500 and 600 years.


And in the last 300 years, almost every generation, we have lost everything. So exile is not foreign to us. But my heart beats with all Afghans.

There are 28 strata that have been really devastated by the Taliban regime. The three majorities, women, youth, and the poor, are collapsing. Hope is gone. A sense of belonging is not there. The world needs to think in terms of its own interest. Do you want millions more of refugees to knock on your doors, or can you think about ways of stabilizing?

Those who are saying that the Taliban have changed, the Taliban needed healing. They needed the embrace of a society to be able to integrate them. And don't forget, they are highly traumatized. And now unfortunately their sense of revenge, their sense of repression, and reciprocating some of the repression that they have experienced and exclusion is being repeated on a scale.

I want to be able to help my country heal. And I hope to be able to do that from the place that every cell of my body belongs. And without it I always feel alien.

ZAKARIA: Ashraf Ghani, always a pleasure to have you on. Thank you, sir.

GHANI: Thank you again for the opportunity. And thank you for your continuous focus on Afghanistan.


ZAKARIA: Next, from the top down to the bottom up, you will hear from an American who arrived in Afghanistan as a marine in 2008. He's now a journalist and a writer with fascinating thoughts about America's war effort in Afghanistan and the lessons for this nation. Back in a moment.



ZAKARIA: A Little over a month after September 11, 2001, U.S. special operators started arriving on the ground in Afghanistan as the American bombing campaign there continued. Nearly 20 years later, this man, U.S. army major general Chris Donahue was the last American service member to depart. So what did and didn't the United States accomplish in the interim? What did it get wrong and right?

Joining me now is Elliot Ackerman who served in the marines in Afghanistan and Iraq then turned to writing and journalism. His new book is "The Fifth Act: America's End in Afghanistan."


ZAKARIA: Elliot, describe to me when you first got to Afghanistan, what did you think as a young marine, you were doing there? What was the mission as you saw it?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN, AUTHOR, "THE FIFTH ACT": An experience I had, Fareed, both in Iraq and Afghanistan is that every war I've ever arrived at, I have assumed that I was arriving at the end of the war only to later recognize that I had arrived right at the beginning. So I had arrived in Afghanistan in 2008, that's seven years into this war. You would assume you were at the end. But if you look now in retrospect 2008 seems like relatively early days particularly in light of the resurgent al Qaeda -- resurgent Taliban insurgency inside of Afghanistan. So we knew that we were there both in light of the counterterrorism mission that existed in Afghanistan but also to deal with this resurgent Taliban insurgency.

ZAKARIA: You talk about how you can tell America's ambivalence about being in Afghanistan, about maintaining a kind of occupation there by one thing, the material we used to build everything. Describe what you mean.

ACKERMAN: Well, if you ever travel to Afghanistan, one of the things that you would note if you went to many of the American headquarters in places like Kabul or Kandahar, these large bases, was the amount of the structures that were built in plywood, and that is the material. And you could see the leftovers of the Russian occupation, and they built in concrete and in steel. But we built in plywood as though at any moment we would be leaving Afghanistan, heading out the door.

And so that sort of expeditionary mindset, that mindset of having one foot out the door extended throughout the 20 years of the war. So, yes, 20 years is a very long time to fight a war, but anywhere on that 20-year time line, the United States was between 18 and 24 months from a major troop withdrawal. So the psychology of a very long-term war is in fact a very short-term psychology.

ZAKARIA: When you were in Afghanistan, did you feel like you were fighting for the entire Afghan nation? Or did you feel like you were in the middle of a civil war?

ACKERMAN: I felt like we were fighting for a vision of what Afghanistan could be as a more -- you know, a modern country. You know, one that was turning away from sort of the fundamentalist tendencies of the Taliban. And I also felt as though I was fighting for my own country.


I mean, the September 11th attacks were visceral for me. I could remember them and there was this overarching mission -- it was a counterterrorism mission. But one of the great challenges of the Afghan war was the mission itself became so broad that at any moment in this 20-year conflict it was very difficult for anyone to actually agree what the war was being fought about. And because we couldn't agree on what it was being fought about we couldn't agree on how to end it, and we ultimately lost the war.

ZAKARIA: What was your sense of the psychology of the Taliban when you would face them? Did you wonder sometimes what motivates these guys? They were not particularly well-trained, not compared to the American army, certainly not particularly well-equipped, but they seemed to fight.

ACKERMAN: There was a truism of the war in Afghanistan, which was that the Americans might have the watches, but the Taliban have the time. And what I mean by that is, you know, the Taliban seemed to demonstrate a sense of not only tactical but also operational patience that worked to their advantage. And I would say it was the single greatest determinant of their ability to win this war.

And it was something that -- when I arrived in Afghanistan, I had been in Iraq before, and I immediately recognized the difference between the Iraqi members of al Qaeda who I fought against and the Taliban. Specifically if you were ambushed by the Taliban, there was a discipline that they had to only stay on site for 30 minutes because they knew that our aircraft would show up after 30 minutes. This spoke to that type of operational patience, that type of pragmatism that was a real strategic asset for them in the war.

ZAKARIA: You fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. You met all these people. Do you think that -- did you think you were fighting for good guys? Did these people, your Afghan allies, your Iraqi allies, seem like people who understood the ideas, the ideals that America thought it was fighting for?

ACKERMAN: The ideas of sort of good guys and bad guys, at least in my experience of war, they kind of vanish. You know, wars aren't typically waged in terms of black and white, and the reality of war as I've experienced is it's in shades of gray. So I have served along people who I consider absolute heroes. And I've come across people in war who have behaved in ways that I felt were compromised.

You know, war, at least for me, really kind of throttles open the aperture of what you see as a human being. And on the one extreme, you know, you could see the absolute greatest depravity that human beings are capable of on the battlefield. And you can also see the highest embodiments of human virtue on the battlefield. And I would say in my experience fighting both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and covering wars to the journalist sense, I've certainly seen both embodied in a whole cast of characters.

ZAKARIA: Elliot Ackerman, thank you so much.

ACKERMAN: Thank you.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, something completely different. I will give you a preview of my latest documentary, part of a new series called "EXTRAORDINARY." This one on the man who made "The Godfather," legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola.



ZAKARIA: I want to tell you about something I am really excited about. This coming Saturday, August 20th at 9:00 p.m. right here on CNN, you'll be able to watch the CNN cable premier of my new special series called "EXTRAORDINARY." In it I sit down with extraordinary people to find out how they got that way, to understand their creative process.

The two people I will profile next Saturday are Billy Joel and Francis Ford Coppola. I want you to watch a clip of my hour with the great film director. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: When you did it, you thought this is it, no sequel.

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA, LEGENDARY FILM DIRECTOR: Oh, no. When they said sequel, Charlie says, you got the formula of Coca-Cola. You're going to tell me you're not going to make more Coca-Cola? I said, no. I'm not going to make any more Coca-Cola.

I thought it was over. I thought it was one movie. I had enough of it.

You know, when I chose to do the second film, the deal I made was I would write it, I would produce it, I would pick a director who would direct it. And when -- finally when I told them I'm ready, I have a script, and everything, they said, well, who do you want to direct it? I said he's very talented. He can do it just as well as me. His name is Martin Scorsese. And they said, absolutely not. They turned me town.

ZAKARIA: And so you --

COPPOLA: No. I then got a phone call from Charlie Bluhdorn and he said, Francis. Let's talk. This is Charlie. You got the formula of Coca-Cola. You really are not going to do it? This is incredible. I'll give you anything you want.

So I said, all right, Charlie, I'll do it. I want a million dollars. I want total control without double checking anyone, not to show them the script, not to get their notes, and I want to call it "The Godfather Part II."

So I get an answer. They called me back and says, Francis, whatever you want. You're going to get a million dollars.


Bob Evans will have nothing to do with it. You'll be in absolute control. But marketing does not feel that "The Godfather Part II" makes sense because everyone is going to think it's the second half of the movie they already saw.

And I said, well, in that case, I guess, I'm not going to do it. And I held out. And it was the smoothest movie I ever worked on. It was the most complicated one but it went -- it went really well.

It was all over the place. It had Cuba in it. I showed it to Fidel. Fidel said it was very accurate depiction of the -- of what happened -- that night. He was a big movie fan.

MICHAEL CORLEONE, FICTIONAL CHARACTER: Fredo! Come on, come with me. It's the only way out of here tonight. Roth is dead. Fredo!

ZAKARIA: You must have met a number of people over the years who turned out to be great fans of "The Godfather."

COPPOLA: All the bad people on earth. You know, all the -- Saddam Hussein, number one fan. Gaddafi. All of those kind of guys love "The Godfather."


ZAKARIA: Don't miss "EXTRAORDINARY" with Billy Joel at 9:00 p.m. and Francis Ford Coppola at 10:00 p.m., this coming Saturday, August 20th, right here on CNN.

Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.