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Rise Of The Taliban Is A Catastrophic Failure For The U.S., John Bolton Says

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden said this about Afghanistan a month ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There's going to be no circumstance for you to see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the - of the United States from Afghanistan.

KING: Of course, that is exactly what happened yesterday. What is the way forward from here? We have one perspective now, and we will have others throughout the morning. John Bolton was President Trump's national security adviser and ambassador to the U.N. under President George W. Bush. Good morning, sir.

JOHN BOLTON: Good morning.

KING: It is early, certainly, but how should the United States engage with the Taliban now?

BOLTON: Well, we should not engage with the Taliban. This is a regime we never should have allowed to get back into power. This is a catastrophic failure of American leadership. It was the wrong policy to pursue. Although I will say Biden was simply continuing Trump's policy, which was also the wrong policy. Biden has the dubious distinction of two train wrecks at the same time, following an erroneous policy and bungling it.

KING: You point out that the last administration you served, President Trump, initiated the negotiations with the Taliban. President Biden says that negotiation, those negotiations left him no choice. You were not a fan at the time. You were very public about it. But what kind of scenario was former President Trump striving for?

BOLTON: Well, I don't think he thought coherently about it, and I think if he had been reelected, he would have done essentially the same thing Biden did. Mike Pompeo, who joins in the responsibility for this policy, has tried to distinguish it, but in fact, Trump wanted out. He was going to get out. He didn't care whether the conditions that were included in the peace deal were met. Had he been reelected, I think he would have done the same thing Biden did.

KING: You say that we should not - the U.S. should not engage with the Taliban. Couldn't isolating them, refusing to speak to them, create the exact kind of conditions that allowed for al-Qaida to thrive and allowed for 9/11 to happen?

BOLTON: Do you not understand you're dealing with a medieval religious fanaticism that no more cares about the opinions of posh salons in Georgetown and Manhattan and Paris than they do about the chair you're sitting in? These are people who believed in this when they had power before. They've been in combat for 20 years waiting to come back. And the notion that they'd be dissuaded 'cause they couldn't shop on Fifth Avenue or in Paris...

KING: No, I'm talking about negotiating with them. I'm talking about speaking to them.

BOLTON: It's not - no, no, no, no, no, no, no...

KING: I'm not saying inviting them to shop in New York.

BOLTON: No, you just don't want to hear this. You just don't want to hear this.

KING: (Laughter).

BOLTON: And what you're engaged in is mirror imaging - thinking that they want to be just as reasonable as you are. What they want, they now have, which is control of Afghanistan. And all of the attractions of participating in international conferences on climate change are not high on their priority list.

KING: You recently said on Twitter that U.S. policy should be no aid whatsoever to Afghan - to the Afghan government, to any Afghan government that includes the Taliban. How would cutting aid help the United States now?

BOLTON: Well, I think that's a small thing we can do. The catastrophe is in the policy, the consequences of which we're seeing unfolding now. What we've got to do, I think, is find ways to see if there's not some way to reverse this disaster and get the Taliban out. And I wouldn't do anything that in any way strengthens their position. It may prove to be impossible to do, but we have delivered Afghanistan back to the 15th century. And what's worse, in my view, from a strategic perspective for the U.S., is the likelihood that the Taliban will do exactly what it did before and provide sanctuary to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, like ISIS, perhaps others, that will use that sanctuary to plan attacks against the United States and its partners. It's very likely, I think, certainly my fear, that we're back in a pre-September 11, 2001, environment.

KING: The Taliban say that they are different. They say they are willing to negotiate. They have with Russia and China. Do you not believe that they would negotiate with the U.S.?

BOLTON: I'm sure they would take concessions in foreign aid. I'm sure they would be delighted to. But the fact that they say it, having already violated the deal that they cut with the Trump administration in many respects, doesn't give me confidence. We have reports from parts of Afghanistan they've already taken over - admittedly, not confirmed because Western journalists haven't been in these places - but reports of execution of Afghan soldiers who have surrendered, substantial quantities of rape, selling women into forced marriages. It sounds a lot like the Taliban of the 1990s.

KING: Do you think the U.S. has lost the war in Afghanistan?

BOLTON: We didn't lose it; we walked away from it. But it's still a national humiliation. Our credibility, particularly the Biden administration's credibility in the capitals we worry about most - Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang and Tehran - has been shredded by our actions.

KING: Just briefly, what did you want to happen?

BOLTON: I want to keep America safe from terrorist attacks, and I think a continuing presence there would have been an insurance policy. People say, oh, we've been there so long. Let me ask you a question - how long do you want to keep America safe?

KING: It's very - this is a very unpopular war among the American people. You're aware of that.

BOLTON: Of course I'm aware of it. Thank you. And it's unpopular because our leadership for the last three administrations has not explained why this is valuable to fight there in Afghanistan, to have forward defense there, instead of being relegated to fighting in the streets and skies over America.

KING: Former national security adviser John Bolton. Thanks for your time.

BOLTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.