In this special episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commander of the USS Enterprise on September 11, 2001.
Winnefeld and Morell discuss the moment the crew became aware of the attacks and how the decision was made to turn the massive aircraft carrier around to position it within striking distance of Afghanistan. Winnefeld also describes his message to the crew ahead of its engagement in the first strikes of the war. Morell and Winnefeld exchange views on recent developments related to the U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan.
Ahead of the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Morell is curating a series of conversations with former senior American officials who had notable proximity to the tragic events of the day and its immediate aftermath. Morell, who served as President George W. Bush’s daily intelligence briefer and was traveling with the president on the day the planes hit the towers, will also share personal reflections and new details about the CIA’s race to provide answers and protect the country from further terror attacks. The series will launch the week of August 9 and run for five weeks, with its first episode premiering on August 11, 2021 and its final episode running on September 8, 2021.
- The moment the planes hit: “Just as I was wondering whether it might have been a terrorist act, I saw the second airliner hit the other tower on television. It was a chilling, stunning moment for me, it was immediately clear to me that the world had suddenly changed, and it was only later that I found out that I actually watched someone who was once in a fighter squadron that I commanded, a guy named Brian Sweeney was actually on one of those planes, Flight 175, when it hit the tower. And he had just moments before left a heartbreaking voice message for his wife that things were not going very well. You can find that message on the Internet. So a very, very chilling moment for me and for anybody on the crew who was watching at the time.”
- Words to the crew ahead of first strikes: “I described to them a little bit about what we were doing that night and told them that, you know, who knows how long we’re going to be at this. Don’t think of yourself as a hero. The real heroes are the 17 sailors who died aboard USS Cole. The 42 sailors and Navy civilians and all the other innocent victims at the Pentagon. They were the firefighters and policemen and thousands of other innocent people who died at the World Trade Center. And of course, those who died trying to thwart hijackers in Pennsylvania.”
- U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan: “[A]t some point, we had to make a very painful decision to end this. Now, neither President Trump nor President Biden wanted to see it continue. But I will also say it’s incredibly difficult to watch what’s happening now, given the sacrifice of so many Americans and people from allied nations and even, you know, in Afghanistan have made in the last 20 years. It’s very difficult to watch.”
“Intelligence Matters” presents: Remembering 9/11
Admiral James “Sandy Winnefeld
Producer: Olivia Gazis
MICHAEL MORELL: Sandy, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. You’ve been a guest a couple of times before. You’ve been a guest host several times. You’re a regular, so it’s great to have you back.
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, it’s always great to be with you, Michael. And this is a terrific podcast that I very much enjoy listening to. So it’s a pleasure to be on it.
MICHAEL MORELL: Thanks, Sandy. OK, 9/11, Sandy, you were the commander of the USS Enterprise. First question, can you give us a sense of what the commander of an aircraft carrier does, what a normal day in the life of a commander of an aircraft carrier is? What’s that like?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Sure. Well, the captain of an aircraft carrier has a very busy, very exhilarating life because you have to be trained to do several different things at once. And the first, is you have to manage, in my case, it was eight nuclear propulsion plants; in newer carriers it’s only two. And you have to get that right to make sure that we we operate those very complex devices correctly.
At the same time, you’re navigating a very large ship around on the surface of the ocean and in sea lanes, trying to to do that safely with other traffic that’s out there and the like. And then you’re also flying very high-performance fixed-wing aircraft on and off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, which takes a lot of skill. And you have to understand how that all works. So you’re doing those three things. At the same time, you’re managing an organization of around 5,000 people. So as I said, it’s exhilarating. It’s busy. I wouldn’t have traded that job for anything.
MICHAEL MORELL: And just to be clear, Sandy, on 9/11, you were the commander of the Enterprise itself, not of the entire combat or carrier battle group, correct?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD:That’s correct. Then Rear Admiral John Morgan was my Strike Group commander at the time.
MICHAEL MORELL: Strike Group. OK, got it. So, Sandy, when the sun rose on the morning of 9/11, where was Enterprise? Why were you there? And do you remember how many hours ahead of Washington you were that day?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Yes, Michael, we were at the end of a six-month deployment. The first half of that was in the Mediterranean and the second half was in the Arabian Gulf. We were enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq and interdicting Iraqi oil smugglers. And on 911, we were on our way home. We had just left the Gulf and we were going back to Norfolk, Virginia, because we were transiting via South Africa for the first ever port visit there by a nuclear powered aircraft carrier. We were going really, really fast, six hours ahead of Washington, D.C. time. So when the first aircraft hit the first Trade Center tower, it was 8:45ish East Coast time and six hours later at our time.
MICHAEL MORELL: And when you were on the deployment, did you actually conduct combat operations?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD We did. We conducted a large number of enforcement operations. Essentially, normally taking out Iraqi surface-to-air missile sites that were violating the no fly zone that we had agreed upon after the first Gulf War. Our air crews and our flight deck were very seasoned. We were at the height of our ability and readiness as we were on our way home.
MICHAEL MORELL: And that turn from being on station, being involved in combat to heading home must be a special feeling for sailors.
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD It is. You’re very much looking forward to getting back to your families, maybe with a liberty port visit on the way home. You don’t necessarily let down your guard, but you feel a little bit more relaxed because you are now free and clear of a combat zone heading back after a very successful deployment and looking forward to being reunited with your families.
MICHAEL MORELL: Sandy, was there anything special about that day on 9/11 before you got the news?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD You know, we were just driving as fast as we could down the east coast of Oman on a gorgeous day in the North Arabian Sea. I was in my sea cabin working on something, stepping out on the bridge every now and then. But it seemed like a perfectly normal day, going very fast across the surface of the ocean on an aircraft carrier.
MICHAEL MORELL: So walk us through, Sandy, when you heard, how you heard and what you heard of the attack?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD Sure. A little before three o’clock in the afternoon, which was around nine o’clock on the East Coast, my safety officer called me and he told me to turn on the TV because the World Trade Center was on fire.
I did so, of course, immediately. Couldn’t believe my eyes at a spectacular sight of the top of the first tower being on fire. You may remember there was a lot of confusion among the news media who had just come on the line over what might have happened and whether it was an accident or in some sort of terrorist incident. And just as I was wondering whether it might have been a terrorist act, I saw the second airliner hit the other tower on television. It was a chilling, stunning moment for me, it was immediately clear to me that the world had suddenly changed, and it was only later that I found out that I actually watched someone who was once in a fighter squadron that I commanded, a guy named Brian Sweeney was actually on one of those planes, Flight 175, when it hit the tower. And he had just moments before left a heartbreaking voice message for his wife that things were not going very well. You can you can find that message on the Internet. So a very, very chilling moment for me and for anybody on the crew who was watching at the time.
MICHAEL MORELL: And these were these were live. This was live TV you were watching.
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD This was live TV. A gut punch. We realized that this probably came from a terrorist, came from bin Laden in Afghanistan. And we pretty quickly figured out we weren’t going home any time soon.
MICHAEL MORELL: And Sandy, what was the initial reaction of your sailors and your airmen?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD They were shocked. It was shell shock, I think is a good description for it. Anger that, you know, how could this have happened? Nobody was thinking, you know, how could this have happened, and it’s going to keep me from getting home on time. Nobody was thinking that. They were all angry that our nation had been attacked on our own soil. And to a person, they were ready to do something about it.
MICHAEL MORELL: And I’ve heard you say before that here they were right on the front lines of the wars that the U.S. was fighting at that point. And they’re the ones who usually at risk. And here their families were the ones that were at risk.
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: It was the first time in my life at sea in the Navy that I actually considered my family to be more at risk than myself. You know, at the time, there were all the rumors running around about, oh, they’re going to poison the water or where is the next attack going to come. And here we were out in the middle of the ocean. And to be sure there were there are ways that a terrorist could probably find us and do something. But it was a very eerie feeling to know that our families might be actually in more danger than we were.
MICHAEL MORELL: So what did you do at that point?
ADM SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, we immediately slowed down, realizing we probably were not going to be going to South Africa, after all. There was a lot of discussion among senior people in the theater, including myself, my strike group commander and the fleet commander in Bahrain. And it wasn’t long before we we were essentially directed to turn north towards the coast of Pakistan to be ready for combat operations the next morning, if need be.
MICHAEL MORELL: There’s a common simile, metaphor, Sandy, about the difficulty of turning an aircraft carrier. So how do you do that? How long does it take?
SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, it all depends on how fast you’re going. The faster you’re going, the harder you put the rudder over, the more the ship heels, which can be very dangerous for people on the flight deck and running elevators and the like. So if you’re going, you know, 30 plus knots, it can take a good 15 minutes to turn that carrier around. It takes less time at a slower speed, but it can be a pretty interesting operation getting that big hunk of metal turned around.
MICHAEL MORELL: How long did it take you to get to where you were ordered to go to be on station and and where were you exactly off the coast of Pakistan?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, it’s an interesting question. As I mentioned, we are supposed to be off to Pakistan by the next morning, 9/12. And according to my navigator, getting there meant that we had to steam at least 25 knots to be there on time. But because we needed to run some aircraft elevators to get our airplanes ready for combat, we could only go 20 knots. Because if you, again, if you turn the aircraft carrier at too high of a speed, you can dig one of those aircraft elevators into the water and hurt a lot of people, lose airplanes and the like.
So as a normal place for a leader, people bring you a problem and expect you to solve it. So I told them we’re going to go 30 knots. And what we would do is then when we had the aircraft ready, positioned on elevators, we would slow down to 20 knots, move the elevators very quickly, and then speed back up to 30 knots, which seems like a very simple answer right now. But at the time, it was, you know, sort of two factions on the ship, each of whom needed to get a job done. And we’re bringing the problem to me to solve. And when we got –
MICHAEL MORELL: Your average was 25.
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: And boy, we made it. And when we got there, one of the things I think is touching or patriotic or what have you is, you know, we put aircraft carriers in boxes, usually 50 by 50 miles or so, just to keep keep us in a safe place, keep clear of the shipping lanes, and so everybody knows where we’re going to be, at least on our side. And we named those different boxes in the North Arabian Sea that day for what had happened the previous day. One box was named Pentagon. Another World Trade Center, West, World Trade Center, East New York Police Department, New York Fire Department and Pennsylvania. And we moved among those different boxes that were named for the tragedy that had hit our nation the day prior.
MICHAEL MORELL: Sandy when you got there, Pakistan still had not made a decision of where it was going to put its loyalties in this fight. So how concerning was that?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, it was very concerning. We were watching that and listening to that very carefully, because for one thing, there were two Pakistani submarines underway at the time. And we didn’t know, as you point out, whether they were with us or against us. And if there’s one thing that an aircraft carrier captain hates more than anything else, it’s a submarine. So we were taking great caution to stay clear of those two submarines. We knew where they were, but it was a little strange not knowing what was coming at our country next and and from whom it was coming. And we didn’t know whether Pakistan was part of that or not.
MICHAEL MORELL: When did you, Sandy, learn about the president’s decision to go to war? That diplomacy had failed – and I think we all knew it would fail. And when did you learn that the enterprise would take part in the first combat operations?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, the first combat operations took place on the 7th of October. And we found out about three days before that that diplomacy was not working. The strike planning had proceeded of course, there was a very good plan that was put together and that we were going to be part of it the first evening of the war, probably flying all night long doing strikes into Afghanistan.
So it was about three days prior to the first strikes, which, of course, caused us to shut down our Internet, which we would do randomly anyway, because people on the other end, when they see the Internet go down, think something’s about to happen. So we had already prepared the information space with this, but we had to shut down the Internet once we found out that we were going to be involved in the first strikes of the war.
MICHAEL MORELL: So you see in the movies a lot captains of ships get orders. How do you get orders in real life? How do they come in?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Several different ways. One, you might get a secure phone call, says, ‘Hey, we’re about to send you this order. Here’s what’s going to happen. And here’s the rough contours of what that’s going to be like.’ But in general, it’s message traffic. That is it looks a lot like an email, but it’s sent via a different circuit.
And it will arrive and it will show you sort of an execute order for what you’re supposed to be doing. Some of those details are actually for aircraft are put together in something that’s called an air tasking order that’s produced by a coalition air operations center that is very much an Internet product, a secure Internet product, that is sent over, that literally outlines every single sortie, every single weapon, every single target, all of the times, all of the tankers and everything. The Air Force has created that process. And it’s a very robust process for outlining to an entire air force what exactly is going to happen on a given day.
MICHAEL MORELL: Sandy, what was what was the mood and feeling of the crew as you went to battle that night?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, the crew knew that it was time to go to war. They had prepared for many, many months for this sort of thing, and certainly the previous 30 days to, they felt, exact revenge on an enemy of the United States.
It was important to me to put this all in perspective for these wonderful young men and women, 5,000 of whom were aboard that ship. So I gave them a speech that I had worked on for a day or so. And essentially, I reminded them that last time that America actually went to war to defend against an attack on our homeland was exactly 60 years prior when a treacherous enemy conducted a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
And during that attack, a different Enterprise, the World War II Enterprise was actually at sea on her way home, like we were, and was ultimately the first response to Japanese aggression in the Pacific by attacking the Marshall Islands. And I told them that ever since then that, you know, whenever America has gone to war, it’s been to protect freedom and our vital interests and those of our allies. But we’ve not had to defend our own homeland for a long time.
But on September 11th, our Enterprise was on her way home. And tonight, our Enterprise was going to again be an integral part of our nation’s response. And that just like 1941, this war was a little more personal than merely defending our vital interests. Here, we were defending our families.
And then I described to them a little bit about what we were doing that night and told them that, you know, who knows how long we’re going to be at this. Don’t think of yourself as a hero. The real heroes are the 17 sailors who died aboard USS Cole. The 42 sailors and Navy civilians and all the other innocent victims at the Pentagon. They were the firefighters and policemen and thousands of other innocent people who died at the World Trade Center. And of course, those who died trying to thwart hijackers in Pennsylvania.
And just told them, you know, you’ve done a tremendous job preparing for this. You’re ready. And I asked him to say a prayer for our air crews in our country and and continue to concentrate very hard on what they were doing. And don’t let anything distract you from what’s a very difficult and dangerous business that we have in naval aviation. They responded – they were going to do fine whether I spoke to them or not -but they responded very well. And that may be one of the more important things that I think I’ve ever written in my life.
MICHAEL MORELL: What was the first day of combat ops like?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: It was obviously something we had prepared very hard for. We spent all day long preparing our airplanes. I remember in the mid-afternoon one of our logistics airplanes flew out with the media aboard, news media. There were probably 15 or so of them. Many of whom had were not defense experts who had been pressed into service on short notice to to report on the war. And when they climbed out of the airplane, sort of blinking their eyes in the North Arabian Sea sunlight, what they saw but didn’t really process was that we were loading bombs as fast as we possibly could.
And many people were out there with chalk writing things on those bombs, little messages to Osama bin Laden. And we took them inside, fed them, gave them a tour around the ship. And then later on that evening when we started launching strikes, is when we first told them that this was the first night of the war.
We were south of Pakistan and very light winds and we were concerned about the fuel for our strike aircraft. So we really charged north as close as we could get, reasonably, to Pakistan to launch those airplanes so that we could give them every good opportunity to get home safely. And we flew all night long. Our first strikes were against caves where we thought Osama bin Laden might be hiding; terrorist camps; several different buildings. I remember we had a surface to air missile site, and then the video showed a missile, you know, squirting off in the wrong direction, of course, after it was hit by a bomb. So it was a very busy evening for a first night of the war for our airway.
MICHAEL MORELL: Can you, Sandy, describe a typical combat mission for an aircraft, from mission-planning all the way to the planes returning to the carrier? One of the things that people might not know is that you started your career in the Navy as a fighter pilot.
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Sure. When you get ready to go launch on a strike mission, the first question is, do I have a designated target or are they just sending me out there in case they find a target while I’m there? The first night of the war, we had very clearly designated targets that we were going to hit that first night.
So you see the air tasking order, you see where your targets are. You see where all the tankers are going to be, if you have tankers, and then you so you plan your route, you do all of what we call ‘weaponeering’ to make sure that the bomber’s correctly configured to hit its target and delivered in the proper parameters and the like. And then it’s time to go flying.
The aircraft maintainers who work very hard to get the airplanes ready and load the weapons on them, and you start up your airplane. You get all the systems checked out and ready to go. You taxi to the catapult and at just the right time, you get this wonderful acceleration, zero to 150 in about three seconds.
And in this case, if you go into the pitch black darkness. And you might rendezvous with a wingman, fly inland to the coast, you might meet up with an air refueling tanker, which is a very exciting evolution in the middle of the night, and get some gas to make sure that you can get to the target and back. And then it’s a matter of flying the route that you’ve so carefully planned into the target, delivering your weapon, trying to get a video of of the bomb damage assessment, and then getting yourself back to the ship and then doing one of the most difficult things I think a human can do, and that is landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier in the middle of a pitch black night after you’ve already then fairly tired from this mission that you’ve just completed. So a lot of adrenaline. You’re always very happy to be back on the deck.
MICHAEL MORELL: So so, Sandy, how do you land in the pitch black in the middle of the night on an aircraft carrier?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: So it’s a very scripted pattern that you fly. You set yourself up in a stack, what we call the Marshall Stack, about 20 miles behind the ship. And at a very specified time that you’re told over the radio, you do what they call ‘push’ and you descend towards the aircraft carrier on a prescribed pathway at around 12 miles, you’ll lower your landing gear and your flaps, and you’ll get in the tailhook, of course, and you’ll get your aircraft all configured to land and you drive in at a 100 feet towards the carrier and around three miles behind the ship is when you start your final glide slope descent.
And that’s when you’re really starting to concentrate very hard. It’s a very much a right brain activity in which you have to get your glide slope, your airspeed and the line up left and right on the carrier absolutely perfect, because you’re literally trying to land that airplane on a tennis court in the middle of the dark.
And that last three quarters of a mile, when you have to come off your instruments and actually look outside, you have zero depth perception and you only have what visual cues the ship is able to present to you in order to get yourself onto that flight deck and – it’s just it’s so highly concentrated.
There’s an interesting thing that short term memory is on the right side of your brain. And I always found that when I flew a good landing, I couldn’t remember what I did. It’s actually on the left side of your brain. I couldn’t remember what I did because I was using the right side of my brain so much. It’s a very intense experience.
MICHAEL MORELL: So your airmen are flying through Pakistan to get to Afghanistan and their targets. Did the Pakistanis stay away?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: They absolutely stayed away. I think they were watching us very carefully, but they didn’t want to get anywhere near us. And in the process of any of these flights for years flying into Afghanistan, I think they knew that they needed to cooperate. That message was very, very clearly sent to them.
MICHAEL MORELL: How long did Enterprise stay on station? How long was Enterprise in the fight?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: So we had the manner of four other carriers eventually show up and join us on station, which was was plenty of firepower at that point in the war for what we needed to get done. So we were on station for around 30 days. We used up all of our weapons. And because we were at the very end of our deployment, we were the first ship to come home from that combat situation. And in fact, we were really the first U.S. military unit to come home to the United States after the war started.
MICHAEL MORELL: And how did you come home? What route?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: We actually came back through the Suez, which we were happy not to be doing initially, but we came through the Suez, got back to Norfolk, Virginia, on a late November day. We had 20,000 people on the pier waiting for us. It was incredible. Felt like you were on the field in a college football game.
You know, the nation was looking for something to celebrate at that point. And we were the first people back.
And, you know, so we were treated special. We didn’t feel special, but we were treated special as the first people to come home from combat to a nation that definitely needed some some good news.
And in the first weeks we did GB1 and GB2 in the first couple of weeks. We had a concert by Garth Brooks on our flight deck a couple of weeks after we got back. And he did a fantastic job. Incredible performer. And then a week or so after that, President George Bush came and gave a speech. And this is not the ‘mission accomplished’ speech that people talk about. This was a very, you know, a different speech early in the war where he was rallying the nation and it was a real privilege to be able to host him.
MICHAEL MORELL: And what does that mean to a sailor, to an airman to have the Commander in Chief visit?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: It really means a lot. When the president, as you point out, the Commander in Chief comes to your unit, and even though there’s probably a political purpose there, there’s a national political purpose as well as a personal political purpose, it’s not lost on these young men and women that they must have done something very important if the president was standing on their flight deck talking to the nation about what was going on.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sandy, one more one more question then I want to get to some big picture stuff, but one more question about Enterprise. I understand that Enterprise did some things that no carrier had ever done before. Can you talk about that?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, you know, we were fully committed to this fight and we were in very high intensity flight operations and we didn’t want to take a day off, you know, that sort of thing. But you know, you run out of gas, you run out of weapons, you have to keep the logistics flowing. And it was our understanding that there really had not yet been a carrier that had done alongside underway replenishment in which you’re a hundred and forty feet away from a big tanker taking fuel and groceries and, you know, literally over highlines connected between the two ships. At the same time, we were doing vertical replenishment, using helicopters, moving ammunition back and forth from a different ship to our ship. At the exact same time, we were literally launching and recovering aircraft in combat operations.
And that’s an incredibly complex thing to manage, you know, alongside replenishment, helicopter replenishment and combat flight operations off your deck. And I was just incredibly proud of a very, very accomplished and proficient crew at that point in their deployment that they were able to do that sort of thing.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Sandy, some big picture stuff. So this was this was 20 years ago. So with with 20 years of hindsight, how do you think about 9/11? How do you think about the role that Enterprise played? Can you talk about that a little bit?
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: You know, Michael, I have a lot of emotions and thoughts looking back on this whole thing, pretty far back as well. If you think about it, the sort of flawed message that we gave Saddam Hussein 31 years ago before he invaded Kuwait, you know, that intra-Arab quarrels were not a matter of interest to the United States. You can point to that as a root cause for that whole tragedy. We could have nipped that whole thing in the bud. So that was one thing.
I also think that we may have made an enormous mistake, as noble and well-intentioned as it was, in trying to convert Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy with equal rights for all and everything that goes along with it, under the theory that if we did so, terrorists could never take root there again. And while we had to go after those who perpetrated this horrible, horrible act, I think it was enormous hubris to think that we could do any more than that. And, you know, as the Israelis would label it, you know, mow the lawn.
But for the most part, you know, it was people who had never experienced war that were the ones who committed us to this. And it wasn’t necessarily worth the cost to keep that going as long as we have. And at some point, we had to make a very painful decision to end this.
Now, neither President Trump nor President Biden wanted to see it continue. But I will also say it’s incredibly difficult to watch what’s happening now, given the sacrifice of so many Americans and people from allied nations and even, you know, in Afghanistan have made in the last 20 years, it’s very difficult to watch.
MICHAEL MORELL: I mean, it’s really – you know, you mentioned President Trump and President Biden. President Obama didn’t want to be there either. I mean, he wanted us to tell him that it was time to go. So it’s been three presidents in a row. And, you know, I agree with you. I think it was time.
You know, it’s kind of remarkable that by the end of November of 2001, early December 2001, we basically had accomplished our mission. We had killed or captured or driven out of Afghanistan, pretty much all of al-Qaida. The Taliban was on the run. And, you know, that was what we went there to do. And yet, 20 years later, we find ourselves leaving Afghanistan essentially in defeat. It’s really remarkable. You know, a few months of victory and then 19 years of a real struggle that ends in a not so happy way.
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, you know, I do think it is to our great credit as a nation that we believe in what Colin Powell used to call the Pottery Barn rules, right, where, if you go in there and you break it, you’ve got to fix it. We want countries to succeed. We want countries to have equal rights. We want them to have democracy and those sorts of things. And what we sometimes forget is that there are there are cultures, there are places in the world that just aren’t ready for that.
And, yes, there was a valid interest in not allowing a terrorist to ever attack the United States again from Afghanistan. But there were other ways of accomplishing that objective. But it’s not lost on me that it’s our noble nature as Americans that make us want to make other people better, as well as making ourselves better.
MICHAEL MORELL: Sandy, the Taliban have now taken over the country, as you know. We struggled mightily to get not only Americans out of the country, but many Afghans who worked for the United States the last 20 years. Many of them didn’t get out. And as of this taping, we’ve had one horrendous terrorist attack that killed 13 Americans. I would love your thoughts on on our final days, America’s final days in Afghanistan.
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, Michael, when when this episode airs, those final days will probably be over, so it’s a little tough to predict in advance. But I will say that in spite of this horrendous attack – and by the way, my heart reaches out to the wonderful families of the soldiers, sailor and Marines who we lost.
You know, we’ve got to continue this mission. And I would say, you know, just try to tell a Marine that his or her mission will be curtailed due to an attack like this. I wouldn’t want to hold that conversation. So there’s a lot we have left to do.
First, we have to finish the job of getting the Americans out that we can get out along with eligible Afghans and any other allies and partners. And that’s going to be, you know, people coming to the airport. It’s going to be people being brought to the airport. And our JSOC folks on the ground are very good at that sort of thing. And also, there are other ways out of Afghanistan that we can facilitate.
But that’s job number one. Job number two is keeping this force safe as best we can. And, you know, there are several different potential attack vectors that an ISIS-K could pursue. They may be a cowardly enemy, but they’re also a very clever enemy. So we have to stay ahead of that as best we can. We’re well protected in many ways, but in other ways, we’re vulnerable. It’s just the nature of the beast of leaving a country the way we’re leaving it. And I think we’ll adjust to what happened and hopefully we’ll be able to defend ourselves.
And then we’ve got to go after the people who perpetrated this. Not just out of revenge, but out of the notion of not allowing them to do it again. And that’s going to be very challenging. I know the president’s determined to do that. But you have to have intel to do that. This podcast is named ‘Intelligence Matters,’ and it really matters in this particular situation. And it’s going to be a challenge.
But that’s not to say it can’t be done. And, you know, we will pursue these people until the cows come home. But that is something that we have to do.
And then we have to recognize there are more challenges to come in the near term, and in the long term. In the near term, of course, there could be more attacks, as I just mentioned. But, you know, imagine just those last few hours of getting the last troops off of that airfield safely. Now, we’re hearing today that the Taliban is going to take over the airport tonight. Trust and the Taliban are not words that I like to use in the same sentence. But there’s going to be a certain level of mutual interest there, where the Taliban has got to do their part, if possible, as we do our part to get those last people out of there safely.
And then it’s all about the future of Afghanistan. You know, the Taliban are going to come rapidly to discover that taking over a country may be a lot easier, as hard as it was for them, than actually governing a country. And we’re going to have to see the trajectory of the Taliban to see whether there is total isolation for them or whether there is some way that the international community can do something for that country on the humanitarian side to help these poor Afghan people who are going to have to struggle with the aftermath of this conflict.
MICHAEL MORELL: Sandy, thank you. Thank you very much for your thoughts and thanks for joining us. It’s been a terrific episode.
ADM. SANDY WINNEFELD: It’s always a pleasure to be with you, Michael. Thank you so much.