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Hindsight Up Front: Ambassador Mark Green in Conversation with Gen. David Petraeus and Sir John Scarlett

This event kicks off Hindsight Up Front, the Wilson Center’s new Afghanistan initiative, featuring a discussion with Gen. David Petraeus and Sir John Scarlett, co-chairs of the Wilson Center’s Global Advisory Council and two of the world’s foremost public intellectuals.

Date & Time

Jul. 28, 2021
10:00am – 11:00am ET


This event kicked off Hindsight Up Front, the Wilson Center’s new Afghanistan initiative, with a discussion between Gen. David Petraeus and Sir John Scarlett, co-chairs of the Wilson Center’s Global Advisory Council and two of the world’s foremost public intellectuals. Their conversation—moderated by Wilson Center President, Director, and CEO Mark Green—focused on the implications of the withdrawal for Afghanistan and the world.

They examined 20 years of U.S.-led war, considered what has and has not been achieved, and assessed President Joe Biden’s withdrawal decision. They discussed the withdrawal’s potential impacts, including for terrorism risks and refugee flows. They weighed in on global reactions to the withdrawal—including from U.S. adversaries like China. They also offered insights on what U.S. policy should be in Afghanistan moving forward, and they detailed what they would tell President Biden if he sought their advice.

Key Takeaways

  • Greater security risks, and especially the increased threat of terrorism, from a post-withdrawal Afghanistan should not be ignored.
  • U.S. policy should focus on how to maintain support for Afghanistan post-withdrawal, especially given the challenges of crafting an effective and sustainable “over the horizon” counterterrorism capacity.
  • European reactions to the withdrawal have been more muted than those in the US, with much less political debate and overall discussion.
  • Withdrawal will have significant implications for how U.S. allies and adversaries perceive the sustainability and reliability of U.S. security commitments.

Selected Quotes

Sir John Scarlett

"This is a U.S. decision. That, of course, is one point straight away, it's not clear to me exactly how much consultation there was with the major allies before the decision was actually taken. Now of course, in a way, it's been expected because it's been the policy to withdraw as part of the negotiated agreement with the Taliban, under the previous administration, but there's clearly, particularly in Afghanistan, but also really across Europe, quite a degree of surprise."


"There is quite a wide understanding…that there is a clear risk that staying in the country after the deal with the Taliban increased the risk that there would be allied deaths and a renewal of deliberate attacks on a significant scale by the Taliban."

"[China] will wonder about U.S. sustainability and commitment over the medium to longer-term. Obviously, an issue about credibility."

"[We should be] looking for every possible way to continue to provide practical, operational support to the Afghan Security Forces."

Gen. Petraeus

"We wouldn't be able to do in Afghanistan what we did in the surge in Iraq, which was to drive violence down by 85 percent, promote reconciliation between Sunni and Shia, bring the country back together, give it an extraordinary new opportunity—that was not going to be possible in Afghanistan. What we could do though, was to continue to achieve the objective that we were staying in Afghanistan to accomplish, which is to prevent al Qaeda, and then more recently, the Islamic State, from reestablishing sanctuaries on Afghan soil under this very Islamist regime, the Taliban, and also to put pressure on them as much as we could, given political and diplomatic challenges in that regard on them in Western Pakistan in particular."


There is a difference between ending our involvement and ending the war.” 

“Al-Qaeda will come back. They will try to establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan. We stayed for a reason, to prevent them from reestablishing that sanctuary.” 

“A superpower has to keep several plates spinning at once…we have to worry about Iran, North Korea, Russia, cyber threats, Islamist extremists…I would have hoped a very modest, sustainable effort in Afghanistan was one of those. I fear this is a decision we will come to regret, and perhaps deeply.” 

Amb. Mark Green

"Again, I think the media has portrayed the decision that was teed up as: Should I stay or should I go? And, really—and I served on the Afghan study group that produced the report—is that there was another path. There is a modest troop presence, has been a modest troop presence, there over the last year, but they weren't actively engaged in fighting—they were actually providing support. And so it isn't necessarily 'Should I stay or should I go?' It's whether or not we were willing to maintain a modest presence there to help continue to build capacity and manage risks."


Scenes from twenty years in Afghanistan

Hindsight Up Front: Lessons & Implications of Withdrawing from Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s future is more uncertain than ever. Implications of the U.S. withdrawal cannot be ignored. The Wilson Center’s new initiative — Hindsight Up Front — will keep you informed about the future of Afghanistan, its people, the region, and why it matters.

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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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