Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. Following Thursday's deadly terrorist attacks in Kabul, President Joe Biden acknowledged the tragic loss of life amid the withdrawal of US troops, and he delivered a refrain frequently heard from US presidents when talking about foreign terror attacks that claim American lives.
President Joe Biden: I've also ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership, and facilities. We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose, and the moment of our choosing. Here is what you need to know. These ISIS terrorists will not win.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For the moment, the president and his administration are continuing to focus on getting all members of the US military out of Afghanistan by August 31st, limiting America's presence in the country while also responding to the recent deadly attacks might be a complicated balancing act. For more, I'm joined by Nancy Youssef, who is national security reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Thanks for being here, Nancy.
Nancy Youssef: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I know you're reporting from the US but what did you hear from sources on the ground about the aftermath of Thursday's attacks?
Nancy Youssef: They really described a horrific scene of several explosions or gunshots, just a swirl of confusion amongst these huge crowds of people, Afghans, in some cases [unintelligible 00:01:23] trying to get out of the country, and hospitals filling up and numbers that I think can be overwhelming, over 150 wounded, nearly 100 killed, and a scene at the gate where US forces were just shocked at the scale of the attack on US forces and a real sense of, I think, both in the US and there of how much more suffering, how much more trauma must this period be? I think there was almost a feeling particularly in the Pentagon of just shock at just another horrific chapter in the final days of the US presence in Afghanistan.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you're talking about that reaction of the Pentagon, I was absolutely riveted by General Kenneth McKenzie who's leading the US Central Command. He gave a press conference immediately following the attacks. I want to listen to one segment here and have you respond.
General Kenneth McKenzie: Service members dying, nobody feels that more closely, more directly than me and everyone else in the chain of command, and we recognize that we need to continue to evaluate our procedures as we go forward. Same time, there's a tension there. We have to continue to let people on the airfield because that is why we are there. We're not there to defend ourselves. We're there to defend ourselves while we process American citizens first but also the other categories of people that I've mentioned, get them to a place where we can fly them out to a safer, better future.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you help us make sense of those comments?
Nancy Youssef: A couple of things, I think first and foremost, there was almost a sense of shock amongst the leadership about the scale and scope of this. One got the feeling that people were trying to appear stoic and strong in the face of something that really was just beyond their imaginations in terms of what could happen. I think while many believe that there could be an attack because we're asking US service members to essentially screen people at the gate, which meant they had to look and touch them and really take that risk.
Even if you think it could happen once, it did happen, and when we were talking about 13 dead and 18 wounded, I just think there was a sense of shock. I also think that there was an attempt to say that these US service members died not trying to fight someone but to try to give safe passage, try to give freedom and opportunity for Afghans, try to protect fellow Americans leaving.
I think there was an attempt to get at that at a very tough time, and so I think it sounded so stoic that one would wonder how they were processing all this themselves because he was, I think, trying to say we have a mission to do and at the same time trying to mourn a loss and you just got the sense throughout the building Thursday that people were just overwhelmed. I think those comments kind of reflected that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nancy, I so appreciate you helping us to understand some of that tone. Can you also help us to understand a bit the current relationship, strategic relationship between the Taliban and the US forces who are attempting to leave and to remove many of our allies? I think it's a little difficult for folks to understand what that looks like and is right now.
Nancy Youssef: It's such a great question, and it really is the essential question of all of those, because for 20 years, the US has been fighting the Taliban which provided safe haven for Al-Qaeda which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and here in the final days of the US presence in Afghanistan, it is now depending on the Taliban to get out. The reason is the Taliban is now in control of Afghanistan. It's in charge of the government. It's in charge of the security forces and there are hundreds, if not thousands of Taliban forces out on the streets of Kabul in and around the airport area.
There are at least two checkpoints manned by the Taliban that go towards the airport, and they're responsible for determining who goes forward, for checking Afghans and Americans passing through for weapons, for paperwork, and whatnot. The US has said that it cannot leave without cooperation from the Taliban. I can understand for your listeners how jarring that is to hear given that there is a 20-year war that has been waged against the Taliban.
The additional complication is I think we think of the Taliban as monolithic, and it's not, there are factions within the Taliban, some aligned with Al-Qaeda, and so how does the US put so much trust, at least in these final days, into those forces when they themselves are very complicated? The US doesn't have any sort of ability to screen who does those security clearances or who's at the airport, and so for the US to leave, there aren't enough forces to be outside of the airport, and there's an incredible risk for the US to do it themselves. They are leaning on the Taliban to be that outer security perimeter, 5,000 troops that are really surrounded by Taliban forces on that airport compound.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's so helpful to think about how complicated these groups are. Not only the Taliban but also ISIS. What should Americans seek to understand about ISIS-K?
Nancy Youssef: ISIS-K stands for ISIS Khorasan, which refers to a part of Afghanistan, and if you can believe it, it's an organization that is more barbaric in its thinking about what kind of state it wants to see than the Taliban. In fact, a lot of its members are disillusioned Taliban members. The Taliban and ISIS have been at war with each other throughout the coexistence which dates back to roughly 2015 to the point that in some instances, the US was rooting for the Taliban to prevail over the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
There have been attacks against the Islamic State by the Taliban. As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan, it was going through and opening prisons and killing Islamic State fighters that were held including the top leader. The fear had been that the Islamic State would target the airport, not only to go after American forces but to go after Taliban fighters, some of them, the most elite of the forces in the Taliban that are now stationed outside the airport. What remains unclear though is the nature of how the Taliban will go after the Islamic State going forward.
One thing to keep in mind is that with the collapse of the US-backed government, there has been a power vacuum left that does not appear to be fully filled in by the Taliban, and so it creates an opportunity for groups like the Islamic State to come forward. The one last thing I would say is like the Taliban, the Islamic State is not monolithic. There are wings of the Islamic State within Afghanistan. Some of them who have been co-opted by the Haqqani network, which is an Al-Qaeda affiliate that supports the Taliban, and so that is a further complication in the relationship between the Taliban and the Islamic State.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One last question, General McKenzie and President Biden both said they plan to respond with force to Thursday's attacks. What does this mean given that we are working as a nation very hard to leave Afghanistan, we've lost now American service members in that effort, is this just going to pull American military back into this conflict?
Nancy Youssef: Well, I think the challenge even before that is how do you find those ISIS targets? Because when the US military withdrew from Afghanistan, it didn't just withdraw all its forces. It also withdrew its intelligence apparatus, its intelligence officers, its network of intelligence that would allow them to find the best target in retaliation for what happened Thursday, so how does the US then go after the target that needs to be struck from its perspective without the intelligence on the ground to determine that? Is it depending on the Taliban now for intelligence on which strike is appropriate in response to this, it's unclear.
Moreover, the US is considering doing these strikes at a time when it is also at a very delicate part of its mission, which is, it is trying to evacuate the Afghans and Americans that it can and at the same time get its forces out as well. Remember, the US has more than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan. They didn't arrive there in one day. They arrived there over several days, and so it will take several days to get out. Can you conduct a strike and successfully protect them at such a delicate point in the mission? That also remains to be seen.
In addition to how does the US enter in Afghanistan again to conduct this strike, how does it pick its targets? How does it do it in such a way that it doesn't further endanger itself at really a point where it arguably is at one of the greatest risks of the mission?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh my goodness. There is still so much more. Nancy Youssef, national security reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Thank you for joining us.
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