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Volker: Troop withdrawal 'risks Taliban return'

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Former US ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker reacts to the announcement that all US and Nato troops will leave Afghanista

Video Transcript

- We can speak now to Kurt Volker, who's a former US ambassador to NATO. He's also served as the US special representative for negotiations on Ukraine. Now, Mr. Volker, a very good evening to you. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us.

If we could start by talking about Afghanistan-- of course, just listening to President Biden there inheriting the pledge from President Trump for full withdrawal of troops. He's now committed to that taking place by September the 11th. Pretty clear, though, from what he's saying, the underlying message is Afghanistan is no longer a key foreign policy priority.

KURT VOLKER: Well, I think he's facing the same domestic pressures to pull US troops out that President Trump faced, and even President Obama faced before him. If you remember, President Obama in 2009 already articulated the first effort to have a withdrawal deadline.

The problem with withdrawal deadlines, whether it's the May 1 deadline that President Trump tried to set or this new September one, is you're really putting the cards in the hands of the Taliban to wait it out and then take over the country. And we do risk a return to Taliban rule, the brutality of that rule, a possible partnership with terrorists or other extremists as well. So this is going to be a challenge for some time to come.

I think it's great that Tony Blinken was in NATO today. I'm sure he had a chance to talk about this with our allies. I'm sure they would have liked to have had more notice to think about what it means for their own deployments in Afghanistan with the US pulling out all the way. I expect there will be a lot of discussion now at NATO after this one how everybody gets out.

- Yeah, I mean, we were hearing from the president that he couldn't just keep waiting for the conditions to be right to get US troops home. If that's the case, should US troops have been home years ago?

KURT VOLKER: Well, it does beg that question. And it also makes you wonder, what was the point of all that life and treasure that was expended in Afghanistan? We went into Afghanistan in 2001-2002 after the attacks of September 11 to prevent the territory from being used by terrorists again, and then after doing so, trying to leave something sustainable behind.

That sustainability has been elusive. We have not been able to have an Afghan government strong enough and competent enough on security to survive without international support. And the risk now is that with the US pulling out, it will again be a toppling of that government, a toppling of the Constitution, and a restoration of Taliban rule.

- Let's move on, if we can, to talk about the situation with Russia and Ukraine. As a former US special representative for Ukraine negotiations, in your view, what is Mr. Putin up to?

KURT VOLKER: I think he's trying to demonstrate that he is still the undisputed dominant player in the region. He's the one with the capability and the willingness to use force, whereas the West will not be willing to do so. And in doing so, he's trying to both show to the Russian people that he is going to defend Russian interests against perceived threats from outside-- made-up threats, frankly. But that's how he portrays them through disinformation.

He's trying to show to the Ukrainians that, as much as they want to be a part of Europe, that they can't really count on Europe or the United States to come to their aid. And he's also trying to poke a little bit of a hole in the Biden administration after the use of the word "killer" by George Stephanopoulos in interviewing President Biden about Putin, I think he's trying to show that the US words and US policies are hollow, whereas Putin himself is the one who is willing to actually use force.

- Well, I suppose if President Putin wanted was come hither to President Biden, then it looks quite successful, doesn't it? Because President Biden picked up the phone to him yesterday, and he has suggested a meeting in a third country.

KURT VOLKER: Yeah, it's rather remarkable when you consider the number of things that Russia has done to harm US and Western interests-- whether it is in Ukraine, whether it's cyber attacks, whether it's election meddling, whether it's killing people or attempting to kill people on our soil, poisoning of Navalny, airspace violations, flying over warships, and on and on-- that the outreach would be made to say, OK, let's have a meeting.

I suppose one of the upsides of making such an offer to have a summit is it may cause Putin to ratchet down a little bit on Ukraine or on some other issues in advance of such a meeting. But on the other hand, it's clear that Putin will have expectations from the US and from the West of what he wants. I hope that the US and the West are very clear about changes in Russian behavior that will be needed for any kind of normalization of the relationship.

- Mr. Volker, you referred to perceived hollow posturing from Western powers. Perhaps that's how President Putin sees it. Do you think he could be forgiven for thinking that no Western power would go to war over Ukraine?

KURT VOLKER: I think that he is accurate in thinking that. I don't believe that the United States or Europe, Britain would go to war with Russia in general, and in particular over Ukraine. That being said, I think we should be willing to take some very strong measures now, even to ward off, to deter such an invasion.

And a couple of things we could do is accelerate security assistance to Ukraine so that they are better capable of defending themselves. We could be talking about the additional sanctions we would put in place if Russia were to launch a new offensive. We could take several additional diplomatic steps, including some senior visitors going to Ukraine, naming a US ambassador, naming a special representative for engaging in international diplomacy. There's a lot more that we could be ramping up right now to convince Putin that we are serious about Ukraine, even if we are not willing to go to war over Ukraine.

- Two of the things that seem to be most effective instead of hitting President Putin where it hurts is either a show of sheer force-- and you're saying that you don't think any of the powers are going to go to war over Ukraine, albeit those US warships going to the Black Sea at the moment. The other thing is economic sanctions, of course, which we've had. It's hurt Putin in the past.

We're starting to see coordinated use of the Magnitsky Act. What could be the next stage? Could it be going for higher-level targets, people who are closer to Putin? Could it be, for example, boycotting Russian sovereign debt in the markets?

KURT VOLKER: Yes. The idea of boycotting Russian sovereign debt is one I've heard, and I think is being actively looked at. I think it could have an impact.

Also, going after people who are very close to Putin for personal sanctions, both on wealth and on travel, I think that would be something. We've seen the UK already take some steps concerning the harboring of money in the UK and going after some oligarchs. I think that could be strengthened as well. So there are a number of steps on the economic sanctions side.

I think that Europe should be looking very carefully at suspending the Nord Stream 2 project. This is something that is very beneficial to Russia and creates a constituency in Germany to maintain a close relationship with Russia. If that were to be put on hold, I think that would also be a positive step.

On the military side, I want to come back and say that Ukraine has spent the last five to six years strengthening its military capabilities. The US and others, including the UK, have contributed to that. We've provided anti-tank weapons and provided anti-sniper systems. We've given them better intelligence capabilities.

There are more things, however, that we could still do to help Ukraine defend itself and to make any Russian new offensive much more difficult for Russia. These would include helping them in the areas of air defense, in electronic warfare, counter electronic warfare, maritime domain awareness, and some help even with the development of Ukraine, the redevelopment of Ukraine's navy.

- Mr. Volker, we don't often get the opportunity to talk to you, so I just want to step back a little bit. President Obama's first defense secretary, Robert Gates, said of Joe Biden he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades. I'm wondering, do you agree with that? And if so, has he learned from his mistakes?

KURT VOLKER: Well, I think that's a bit harsh. I understand why Secretary Gates said that, but I think it's a bit harsh. And I think Joe Biden has been around in politics and foreign policy and national security policy for close to 40 years, so he's bound to have been wrong on some issues. He's bound to have been right on some other issues.

On some of these, though, I think there is a danger of mistaking the strong words and the strong rhetoric from the determination to take action. And just to give you an illustration of the way Putin would look at something, he sees this tough talk from the United States about himself or about China, but then he also sees the announcement on the defense budget, where in real terms it's going to be a decrease. And that's going to result in cancellation of some programs.

And so I think Putin will read that as, well, you're talking a big game, but on the action side it's coming up short. I hope that what we are able to do in the months ahead is to start laying down actions that will leave an impression on Putin, on Xi, on Iran, and so forth-- actions such as sanctions or increased military and security assistance, forward deployment, such as we have these destroyers in the Black Sea, things like that that would actually cause Putin to change his calculus. I haven't seen enough of that yet, but we have early days in the administration and some months that had to go.

- All right. Fascinating to talk to. Kurt Volker, thank you very much for your time.