In September 2001, Dr. Chris Reynolds was at work at U.S. Special Operations Command when two planes hit the World Trade Center twin towers. A few weeks later, he was one of the first military personnel to deploy to Afghanistan. In this episode, Glynn Cosker talks to him about his experience working in the region, his thoughts on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and how quickly the Taliban was able to seize control of the country. Also learn why it’s more important than ever for the U.S. to expand its intelligence capabilities to detect and prevent another likely terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
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Glynn Cosker: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I’m Glynn Cosker, your host. Joining me today is a frequent guest of mine, and that is because he is a brilliant person, Dr. Christopher Reynolds. Dr. Reynolds is our Dean and Vice President of Academic Outreach and Program Development here at the university. He served our nation in the U.S. Air Force for more than 20 years before retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2014. How are you today, sir?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: I’m doing fine, Glynn. How about yourself?
Glynn Cosker: I can’t complain, which is more than could be said for most of the country these days. Today, why not let’s just jump in with a touchy subject. We’re going to discuss Afghanistan, and specifically the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And Dr. Reynolds knows a thing or two about the region because he was one of the first servicemembers to deploy there in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
So Chris, why don’t you give our listeners a brief lowdown on what you did and what you witnessed when you first arrived in Afghanistan in 2001? And then we’ll move on to what’s happening there some 20 years later.
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Sure, Glynn, I’d be happy to. Like most Americans on that awful day on September 11th, we were living our lives, people in school, everything was normal. And then between 9:00 and noon is when the aircrafts began to strike the World Trade Center that forever changed our country, forever changed what we all would do going forward.
I was at headquarters, United States Special Operations Command, at work when the attacks occurred. And we were immediately called into our commander’s office to watch what was going on when the second plane hit, and we knew that we were going to be involved.
Probably about mid-September, we were mobilized, and I was put in command of an aeromedical evacuation liaison team. My team and I were flown to Qatar, which of course is in the Middle East. And then we were flown to Jacobabad, Pakistan, supporting special operations forces. And we were flying missions into Afghanistan bringing combat casualties out. And our responsibility was the movement of those combat casualties back to definitive medical care. So, that was the mission that my team and I did.
So, much of Afghanistan had not really been occupied or had been invaded yet or there were some special operations forces that were operating in there. Of course, there were some military operations that occurred that were rather large that involved the Army and other joint forces. So, that was what we did, and that’s what I did. I shouldn’t say “I,” that’s what our team did.
And we spent almost 11 months over there in country in Pakistan and Afghanistan, aeromedically evacuating coalition and combat casualties. And because of the efforts of our team, all the members of my team, we were all awarded the “V” device, which we’re all very proud of, for valor. Having had a part, a very small part, in that larger operation meant a lot to all of us.
Glynn Cosker: Of course. And I thank you and your team for your service. It must’ve been a surreal situation 20 years ago. And it sounds like you know a thing or two about evacuating people out of Afghanistan, which is something that we’re going to touch on today. Afghanistan’s actually a topic we could probably spend 10 hours on, but we only have half-an-hour. So, let’s dive right in.
In April, President Biden announced the process of withdrawing the U.S. troops from Afghanistan, announced that that process was beginning. And then if we fast forward, there is absolute chaos after the Taliban reclaimed the country very quickly, much more quickly than most people predicted. So, my question to you is this: What should have been done to avoid the chaotic scenes that we all witnessed in August?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, Glynn, that is a really good question. And I think we really have to frame this discussion in history a little bit and realize that wars in Afghanistan date back over a thousand years, essentially. That it is mainly a disjointed, not in culture, but in terms of government and in terms of tribes in the country. And so, that paints the picture of what folks were facing over there, what our coalition and U.S. combat personnel and military personnel were faced with.
The collapse of the Afghan government, really no one predicted that in terms of, “Wow, this is going to happen this quickly.” I think that you could ask this very same question to a panel of professionals, and you would likely get varied answers. I mean, you would get different opinions, of course. And human beings always bring their own opinion into whatever discussion they’re bringing depending upon what their experiences are on that area.
To definitively say what we could have done better, it’s difficult to say that, because I think there are a number of things that could have perhaps been done better. The timeline that, of course, was announced for the withdrawal of U.S. troops set the cadence on how troops would be demobilized and brought out of the country. But maybe some of the decisions that were made really didn’t consider what would occur with the Taliban taking over as quickly as they did, and for the Afghan Army to essentially collapse. And collapse it did.
And losing Bagram Air Force Base was not good because that was a secure field that had secure areas of fire, that had enough of a border around it where the sentries and guards could keep an eye on people approaching or encroaching on the perimeter wires.
The Hamid Karzai Airport, or the Afghan airport, where folks initially evacuated from or were evacuated from, of course, is right in the middle of the city, much like LaGuardia is in New York City. It’s surrounded by buildings. It’s surrounded by infrastructure. So, security is tenfold. And when you bring 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 people that all have the singular goal of getting out, of course that’s going to create a problem, which it did.
One thing that I don’t necessarily want to do is sit back and pick apart and critique what was done and what could have done better. I think everything could have done better, from the political decisions that were made to the on-ground military and perhaps State Department decisions that were made at the airport.
Glynn Cosker: I agree. And of course, the State Department is being “interrogated” right now on Capitol Hill about what went wrong. And there’s some bipartisan criticism on this, Chris, which is unusual to say the least, that usually it’s one side or the other. But it’s interesting to hear your viewpoint, and I’m sure that our listeners appreciate it.
And let’s talk about the war in Afghanistan for a while here. In late August of this year, President Biden said that, “The war in Afghanistan is now over. I refuse to continue a war that was no longer in the service of the vital national interests of our people.” What’s your analysis of the President’s statement? Was it right to end the war, or should the war on terror even have an end date?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Great question. Well, first I think we have to realize that I believe it was under the previous administration, President Trump, that indicated that there was no value-add to be in Afghanistan. It was time to draw it down. And of course, President Biden then inherited the operation in terms of this is the timeline that was set.
So, I think that the whole way that we went about not just the drawdown of U.S. forces, but the eventual collapse of supporting the Afghan army and what appeared to be a very uncoordinated effort with the State Department to identify American citizens, to get them out. I believe there are still American citizens that are still stranded there. And then, of course, you have the transient country nationals, the TCNs, that helped us, either through interpretation or working on the bases, but were an assistance to U.S. forces that are also left there.
I think President Biden made a, I believe it was a campaign promise to get our troops out, and he wanted to fulfill that promise. And not taking anything necessarily away from President Biden, because that’s what politicians do. They set a goal, and their campaign is we’re going to achieve this goal by this date. But the ramifications of what many consider a hasty retreat, we’re dealing with the ramifications.
And Glynn, as you noted, the Secretary of State’s been on the Hill here this past week essentially being grilled by a bipartisan commission asking questions. And many of these questions are certainly ones that have to be asked. And I think that the secretary, as well as the Biden administration, needs to answer these questions. Because it’s unfortunate that we’re in the aftermath of losing 13 brave Marines and Naval corpsman in that bombing that occurred at the gate.
The thing for me that’s very personal, and I think my colleagues and my wonderful wife would agree with this because they’ve heard me, is that to see any American citizen or any soldier or any service member lose their lives anywhere is sad, but to lose their lives in a country that is essentially wrought with terrorism, and is going to continue now being wrought with terrorism, is just sad. It’s heartbreaking.
Glynn Cosker: I couldn’t agree with you more, Chris. There were some mistakes, of course. And one of the biggest mistakes, in my opinion, and it might be in your opinion as well, is that we left helicopters and other aircraft, Humvees, military-grade weapons in Afghanistan. What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: One of the things that we are taught as military members, to destroy anything that the enemy may find of use. And, in my operation, in the mission that my team did, that mainly concerned what we call COMSEC, or information or communication security, key tapes, our radio equipment, because our radio equipment was all classified. It had the capability of encryption/decryption with the radios.
So, we had to destroy all that, or we would have had, I should say, to destroy all that before we bugged out. Because you don’t want to provide aid and comfort to the enemy. I mean, that’s what we’re trained. All people who are in the military are trained that. And destroying equipment before you leave to leave it behind is one of the basic tenets that one does.
Looking at the sheer volume of equipment we left, not just the weapons, because we left 100,000 weapons, handheld weapons, but we left helicopters, we left vehicles, AMRAAMs [Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles] ammunition. To have been able to destroy all that prior to the collapse would have been a monumental effort. And here is part of the argument why perhaps it may have been better to defend Bagram and have that equipment, which essentially that’s where most of it was, and either destroy it or evacuate U.S. forces and bomb it and destroy it.
Being able to provide this equipment to the Taliban, it’s not going to serve any useful purpose for us because it essentially builds up their offensive capability. And I fear that we’ll likely see some of that equipment in the future. I don’t think we’ll see it here in the United States, but I think we’ll see it in the region, and that’s a concern.
The corollary to what happened in Kabul can be Saigon. I can remember 1975, the fall of the embassy. I mean, I was only 18, 19 years old, but I vividly remember it. And seeing the helicopters flying into the embassy area and lifting the Vietnamese and embassy folks and military people out. And out in the Gulf of Tonkin, they were pushing helicopters and aircraft off the carrier decks so that these helicopters full of people could land.
But we also left equipment in Vietnam. And recall that the North Vietnamese Army was actually invading Saigon as the embassy fell. So, very similar to what happened in Kabul. We leave equipment behind, that’s unfortunate. But again, the planners in their operations plans, they factor in the need to destroy equipment that may be left behind.
Glynn Cosker: They did that when we took out Osama bin Laden, as I recall. There was one of the helicopters that crashed or malfunctioned, and we destroyed it before we left. And like you say, that’s common practice. But I suppose when we’re talking about thousands and thousands of weapons in Afghanistan, it’s a bigger task, but it’s still a task that I feel should have been part of the bigger plan. The announcement came in April that we were withdrawing, and yet we did leave all of those aircraft, Humvees, et cetera, over there.
So Chris, we talked about the problem that might occur in that a terror group could rebuild in the region. The U.S. intel community is actually warning that Al-Qaeda could soon again use Afghan soil to plot attacks on the United States. That’s obviously a scary thought. But do you think that might happen, and what should we do now to prevent history from repeating itself?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Great question. Yes, I am fearful that can happen. The doctrine going forward that the administration has essentially published is what they call the “over-the-horizon” ability or capability. Prior to our withdrawal, we had special forces units and we had regular units deployed throughout the country. And part of that deployment includes the ability to collect and gather intelligence, whether human intelligence, signal intelligence. But there’s always a way to get a boots-on-the-ground perspective on what’s happening with respect to intelligence.
Well, we’ve essentially lost much of that. And so, we’re relying a lot on satellites. We’re relying a lot on signal intelligence. We still may have operatives there that are providing us human intelligence. None of us know that. But the fact is, is that we have to be concerned that now you’ve got an entire country, Afghanistan, prior to 9/11 that’s back to where it was.
Except this time I think it’s more unified in that you’ve got the Taliban throughout the country. And they’re, of course, purging their government of people that were allegiant to the United States. They’re going back to a different sort of society that the Afghan government, prior to the withdrawal and prior to the collapse, was trying to appear more westernized in terms of being inclusive to different classes of folks. And, well, they’re going back to what it was before.
So yeah, I think that Al-Qaeda probably already has camps over there. I think that we are facing another attack in the future. When and where, no one knows. But one thing is for certain, the United States has the very best military in the world. We have the very best intelligence capability in the world. So, I think that we have a good chance of catching it.
Because unlike prior to 9/11, who had ever heard of Al-Qaeda? No one. Who would ever dreamed that there would be people sent to the United States to learn only how to take off and never to land? No red flags were ever raised in that.
So, I think that we’re much more aware of that threat capability. And because of that, we’re going to be looking for that. I think that we risk being attacked, yes, but I think that the hope is that our intelligence and military folks can prevent that from happening.
Glynn Cosker: That’s right. You talked about Afghanistan trying to westernize itself, and it was succeeding to a certain extent, but it was almost like that was obliterated overnight. It was scary to watch, do you agree?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Oh, absolutely. It was terrifying to watch. Many veterans who served there, many active-duty military who were still active duty who served there, watched it in horror. Watched how quickly it fell.
And this brings out a whole other discussion that’s aside from this of our veterans who were severely wounded or injured, veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. And watching the calamity at the airport and watching the people on the ramp and runway chasing a C-17, climbing on the C-17 as it took off, and watching some of those people tumble to their deaths from 1,000 feet, brought out a lot of raw emotions, mine included. I was horrified by it. I was depressed by it. Any veteran, again, who has served there, and I would even say more so those veterans who were carrying a rifle and actually in the firefights, it was horrific to watch, and it’s sad.
Glynn Cosker: I agree. And it was awful to watch that plane taking off. Just a lot of the service men and women must be thinking, “Was it worth it? Everything that I’ve done over here has just crumbled around me.” That is horrifying, isn’t it, to talk about?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Yes, it is. It is. And again, and I would say this to all of our listeners, if you know of a veteran, or if you yourself are a veteran, and you’re having a difficult time coping with what’s happened, talk to your family members, reach out, talk to a friend, go to the VA, talk to a counselor. You don’t bear this on yourself or bear it alone because it’s too much weight to carry.
And the one thing that veterans all recognize, and particularly veterans who have served in a combat zone, is that really only those of us that have served there truly understand or served in that type of environment combat zone of the horrors that come forth. And there’s no shame at all in talking about it.
Glynn Cosker: No shame at all. And you touched on it earlier, but there is a huge question, and that is: Is it a question of if or when there’s another terror attack on the United States?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: I think it’s a question of when. Glynn, we have to recognize that post-9/11, our entire military doctrine has been rewritten. Where before most of our war plans focused on continental battles and wars and deployment of troops into combat zones in the east or in the west someplace, the buildup of forces that we’ve had around the country, around the world rather, was always based on a government attacking us. Really never before or had one considered the impact of a terrorist attacking us.
And if we look at 9/11 again, and the impacts of 9/11, the 9/11 Commission, the standing up of different types of Special Forces operations, the mission and doctrines shift in some of our combat forces, the increase in intelligence gathering, the preparation of the home front, the development of the Department of Homeland Security. Because again, prior to 9/11, we never had a DHS. Well, now we do. Their mission is the protection and security of the homeland. So, we’ve shifted our entire defense capability to be prepared for, in addition to land wars, to be prepared for terrorist attack.
So, perhaps I’m the pessimist, but I think it’s a matter of when. I think it will happen again. And again, I circle back to what I said earlier that we have to put a lot of faith in our intelligence gathering capability, in our CIA, in our FBI, in our DIA, and in our folks that are out there actually looking for the next attack and trying to prevent it.
Glynn Cosker: But should we have stayed in Afghanistan? Do you think we should have stayed put a bit longer? Would that prevent an inevitable attack?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, not necessarily. I don’t believe it necessarily would prevent an attack. I do think that, of course, anytime the United States has an embassy in a country, it’s better serving the United States. Because you’re in the country and you’re dealing with the government that’s there and you’re able to negotiate. Losing that capability puts us at a greater risk.
I think diplomatically I would like to see our embassy reopen at some point in the future. But we have to come back and look inwardly to ourself and say, “Are we ready as a nation to negotiate and to be a party with a terrorist organization?” That’s going to take a lot of soul searching, I think, on a lot of people’s parts to make that decision.
Glynn Cosker: I agree 100%. What do you think the region might look like in three years from now, and then maybe 10 years from now in Afghanistan? Will our service members’ boots be back on the ground in numbers in Afghanistan eventually?
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, here again, that’s a tough question to answer. I think in three years, you’re going to see the Taliban probably solidifying their positions in the regions. I think you’ll see a faction of Afghans perhaps maybe up in the mountainous regions around India, even around China, who knows, that will continue to fight against the Taliban. I think you’ll see that.
I think you’ll see civil war eventually there. You see world condemnation of how they are treating women, and how they’re treating people that necessarily don’t meet what they consider the type of person they’re looking for to reside in their country.
I think in five to 10 years, I think there is a great chance that we will be back in Afghanistan, if for any reason to destroy any capability for them to attack us or in retaliation for a terrorist strike. So yes. And again, I base that essentially on my background. Now I could be a 100% wrong, and I hope I am, but I think that we have to be prepared. There’s just no other way around it.
Glynn Cosker: Today we’ve been talking to Dr. Christopher Reynolds about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the future of that particular region. Chris, it’s always a pleasure to speak to you, and I thank you for joining us today.
Dr. Chris Reynolds: Thank you, Glynn. I enjoyed our time together.
Glynn Cosker: I’m Glynn Cosker, your host. Thank you for joining us today.