Former US secretary of defence Bob Gates said on Thursday that the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban was the result of major miscalculations by Washington, including overestimating Afghan security forces and engaging in nation-building.
Speaking at the Aspen Institute, Mr Gates traced America’s mistakes through its 20-year war, starting with the period immediately following the 2001 invasion.
“Hubris came into the picture subsequent to the ouster of the Taliban,” explained Mr Gates, who managed the war as secretary of defence under two administrations from 2006-2011.
He said it was a “mistake” for the US to believe it could “remake other countries and frankly, do so at the point of a gun".
Another error, he argued, was in trying to build “an Afghan military essentially modelled on our own”.
Mr Gates claimed that a much leaner and lighter force that did not require air support and sophisticated logistical backing from Washington would have been more effective in stopping the Taliban advance.
Because of these mistakes, Mr Gates, who was also a former director of the CIA, did not appear surprised by the collapse of Afghan forces as the US withdrew from Afghanistan.
“They saw no hope because the support structure was lost,” he said. “The rug was pulled out from under them.”
But Mr Gates defended the decision to go into Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.
“The decision to go into Afghanistan was absolutely the right decision … to rout out Al Qaeda and make sure they couldn’t attack us again.”
The problem was the expansion of US goals beyond defeating Al Qaeda, he argued.
“I felt our ambitions were too great in Afghanistan,” Mr Gates said.
The former intelligence chief defended President Joe Biden’s pivot to Asia and focus on China while also saying that it should not come at the expense of American presence in other regions, including the Middle East.
“We need to articulate that, as part of that strategy, we recognise the continuing strategic importance of the Middle East,” he said.
He also advocated continued engagement with America’s partners in the region. “We need strategic communication that says [the Middle East] is of strategic consequence to the US and we intend to stay engaged with our allies in the [region]."
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is concluding a visit to the Gulf that took him to Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain.
Asked about Iran, Mr Gates cautioned the Biden administration against re-entering the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 because of the time limitations, technological progress and Tehran's breaches of the deal.
Instead, he called for a new agreement that would primarily focus on “anytime, anyplace” inspections and rolling back recent gains.
The Biden team is seeking to return to the nuclear deal that the administration of former president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 but has said recently that the window is narrowing for such a goal due to Iran's breaches of the agreement.