Pentagon's former top intel official says smaller footprint in Afghanistan is best way forward

By Olivia Gazis

/ CBS News

A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan could damage the country's long-term security prospects and cause it to follow an "Iraq model" – characterized by the descent into violent conflict that followed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country in 2011 – according to the Pentagon's former top intelligence official, Michael Vickers.

"U.S. withdrawals don't mean the end of the conflict," said Vickers, who was under secretary of defense for intelligence from 2011 to 2015. Though the U.S. maintained an embassy and provided intelligence and security assistance in Iraq after ending its military campaign there, the Islamic State soon gained power, seized territory, and plunged the country into civil war – and the region into crisis.

"[I]n the subsequent three years, ISIS did a systemic campaign," Vickers said. "And then our big investment in the Iraqi security forces essentially almost collapsed as ISIS was on the gates of Baghdad."

"I think in a matter of years, if the U.S. reduced aid and…went to the Iraq model…that you would see something like that [in Afghanistan]," Vickers said.

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In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Vickers, who also served in the U.S. Army as a Special Forces officer and in the CIA as an operations officer, expressed doubt that the ongoing peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban – which entered their ninth round this month – could lead to meaningful and long-term security commitments.

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Vickers pointed to the Taliban's refusal to date to engage in dialogue with the Afghan government and its recently expressed view that the 9/11 attacks were a direct result of U.S. policies as indications that any eventual commitments the Taliban makes as part of a peace deal might be tenuous. He also said the Taliban's ability to maintain control of extremist groups operating in its territory was limited at best.

"[T]he Taliban is not a monolithic movement," Vickers told Morell. "[I]t's hard to see how they would have the capability to really police [extremist groups] even if they wanted to, just given the [dispersion] of the threat, the fragmentation of the threat and their limited control."

"What we have in Afghanistan right now is a friendly government with large security forces supported by the United States, advisers and air power," he said. "The Taliban with the best of intentions would be orders of magnitude below that."

He also warned that extremist groups still operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan – whether or not they were aligned with the Taliban – could gain strength and pose a renewed threat to the United States.

"Our experience with the jihadists, certainly before and after 9/11…is that, when you give them a respite, or they have a safe haven, they exploit it for their aims," Vickers said. "And that's just the reality of the world that we live in."

Rather than a significant or wholesale troop withdrawal – versions of which President Trump campaigned on as a candidate and for which he has pressed aides repeatedly while in office – Vickers said a "reduced footprint" of up to half of the 14,000 currently deployed troops would help ensure the U.S.' counterterrorism and intelligence missions remained successful.

"But that's about the best I think we can do," he said. "If we went strictly to the Iraq model after 2011, where we pulled out all our forces and our forward intelligence presence, I think you'd see a lot of Taliban gains. If we really cut off aid, I think you'd see a government collapse," he told Morell.

"[O]ur long-term strategy in Afghanistan has to be counterterrorism with reasonable nation-building," he said. "Because it's got to be sustained a long time."

For much more from Michael Morell's conversation with Michael Vickers, you can read the transcript here and subscribe to "Intelligence Matters" here.

First published on August 28, 2019 / 6:19 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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