SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — In the last week, the world has seen an escalation of the situation in Afghanistan. On August 26, two suicide bombers killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 90 Afghans at the Kabul airport. 18 other U.S. service members were injured.
Three days later, on August 29, a U.S. drone strike was carried out on a car carrying Islamic State suicide bombers. Reports have now come in that 10 Afghan civilians, including children, were mistakenly killed in the attack. These casualties are being investigated by the Pentagon, who at this time says it cannot deny the possibility of civilian casualties.
Two weeks ago, KELOLAND News spoke with Senator John Thune about the situation in Afghanistan. One day before the official withdrawal deadline, we sit down with Senator Mike Rounds to hear his thoughts on the way the situation has developed.
“First of all, I don’t think we can start any conversation without recognizing the loss of life on the part of our men and women that serve in the United States Marines, Navy and the Army,” began Rounds when asked about his view on the events of the past four days. “Our thanks to them for their dedication and to their families — our sincerest condolences.”
Rounds says that the loss of life over the past few days was unnecessary.
“I don’t think this had to happen this way,” Round said.
President Joe Biden has pointed to a deal made with the Taliban by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, in February 2020. While the deal did include a clause that would allow the U.S. to withdraw from the accord if Afghan peace talks failed, the Biden administration opted to stay the course, though the withdrawal date was pushed back from Trump’s initial publicized date of May 2021.
Rounds says he views the Biden administration’s initial decision to announce a specific date for troops to leave the country as a mistake.
“I don’t believe members of the State Department or his leaders in the Pentagon thought this was the right thing to do,” Rounds continued.
Those officials, he says, however, are bound by the Constitution to follow the direction of the President. He says this withdrawal is a mistake, and one that will make Americans at home and in the service abroad less safe.
When discussing what could have been done, Rounds said that he would have preferred to see a withdrawal based upon the meeting of certain conditions, rather than a date-based one. However, when asked what conditions would need to be met to justify a full withdrawal, Rounds took a different approach.
“I’m not even sure that we necessarily should have even said that we were going to remove every single service member,” Rounds said.
In support of this argument, Rounds points to a handful of other countries around the globe in which the United States has maintained a military presence.
“South Korea is a good example,” he said. “We still have some young men and women that are serving in Syria; we still have men and women that are in Germany today.”
Rounds said he believes that a small U.S. troop presence over an extended period of time would have at the very least forced the Taliban to negotiate with the existing Afghan government. Beyond this, Rounds said a small U.S. presence would have provided the Afghan forces with the resources they needed to keep the Taliban at bay.
“We would have provided them with on the ground [intelligence]. We would have provided them with the ability to actually surveil [the Taliban] using equipment that was based in Afghanistan,” he said.
Rounds says long-term troop levels in other regions have been ‘appropriate.’
“We have been successful at keeping Russia at bay, to a certain degree, in Europe — in Syria, we’ve been able to keep a handle on ISIS, and we’ve been able to work with our allies in Syria right now to keep them at bay,” Rounds said.
Rounds highlighted the toll that will be felt by Afghan forces who are left behind in the country following the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Asked how this may compare to the impact on Kurdish forces of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria under the Trump administration, Rounds described what he sees as the fate of U.S. allies left in Afghanistan.
The Taliban will go door-to-door. They have a list. They will go looking for not just individuals that fought on behalf of the United States and on behalf of the national government — they’ll also look for their families. They will make an example of them. They will torture them; they will execute them.Sen. Mike Rounds
Rounds said the same fate will befall women who attempt to get an education or participate in government.
“They will make an example of those women as well,” he said, “just as they did this singer just outside of Kabul where they executed him because he sings songs about their mountains and the beauty of their country.”
Asked what such a quick fall to Taliban forces said about the United States’ 20-year-long efforts in Afghanistan, Rounds framed it as preventative.
“What it says is that you’ve trained [the Afghan forces] to fight with Americans providing a lot of the technical expertise,” he said. “For the last 20 years, our presence there has stopped ISIS from being able to originate an attack on our homeland — for 20 years, we have not had a terrorist attack emanate from Afghanistan that occurred in our homeland.”
When it comes to dealing with the Taliban, Rounds cautions that the future is uncertain.
“It’s going to be a really good question, and we don’t have the answer to that right now,” he said. “We don’t know if the Taliban will become a national government, or if they will be extremely weak but still be a terrorist organization.”
Discussing the quickly approaching withdrawal deadline of August 31, Rounds described the situation in stark terms.
“We have 300 Americans that are not out yet. That’s in addition to the service men that are not out yet. The service men have been given a direct order by the President of the United States. They will follow the President’s directive and they will get out of Afghanistan,” Rounds said.
Beyond that however, Rounds points to the thousands of Afghans who qualify for a special immigrant visa, who will also not be evacuated in time.
“We’re going to continue to try to work through organizations that may still have a presence there to try to find a way to get them out through ground transport into other countries,” Rounds said.