Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta compared the reconquest of Afghanistan by the Taliban to the abortive CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba from the early 1960s Monday, adding that the collapse of the Western-backed government in Kabul had harmed America’s credibility.
“This is a situation that deteriorated rapidly, beyond anyone’s imagination,” Panetta, a former CIA director under Barack Obama and a former White House chief of staff to Bill Clinton, told CNN. “No one expected what happened. No one expected the Taliban to move as quickly as they did. They obviously had a strategy to do this … and we were not aware of just how rapidly that would happen.”
The Taliban entered the Afghan capital Sunday, leading to scenes of chaos at the city’s international airport as those desperate to escape the return of the Islamic fundamentalist regime flooded the tarmac in hopes of making their way onto a flight out. Some of them clung to the outside of departing US military planes, falling to their deaths as the aircraft climbed in the sky.
As recently as last week, US intelligence officials were leaking to the media that the collapse of the government led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani could come within 60 or 90 days. In fact, the four largest cities in the country fell to the Taliban over a 96-hour period, completing a cataclysmic collapse a little more than two weeks before the official deadline for US combat forces to leave the country.
On Monday, Panetta admitted that when it came to the precarious nature of Afghan security forces and the strength of the Taliban offensive, the American intelligence community “missed it.”
“They missed what was going on. They missed the fact that the Taliban obviously were preparing for this strategy. Once the United States pulled their forces out, they knew they could take advantage of it, and I think the intelligence community understood that, but they did not understand how prepared the Taliban was to conduct the kind of campaign they did over these last few days,” he added. “They captured 12 provincial capitals within a matter of a few days. That’s incredible.”
In remarks from the East Room of the White House Monday afternoon, Biden cast most of the blame for the fall of Afghanistan on his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, and Afghan military and political leaders. The president also acknowledged the collapse had happened “more quickly than we had anticipated” and riffed on the catchphrase of another Democratic president, Harry Truman, by saying: “I am President of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me.”
“In many ways, I think of John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, you know?” said Panetta, who was interviewed hours before Biden’s statement. “It unfolded quickly and the president thought that everything would be fine and that was not the case. But President Kennedy took responsibility for what took place, and I strongly recommend to President Biden that he take responsibility [and] admit the mistakes that were made.”
“He’s got to make clear to the American people that as commander in chief, he is going to continue to protect our national security and that we are going to go after terrorists wherever the hell they are at,” Panetta went on. “He’s just got to ensure that the United States of America remains a strong world leader that can work with our allies to try to protect peace and prosperity. That’s the message he’s got to give the American people and the world, because our credibility right now is in question.”