CNN anchor depicts Kabul airport attack as a reason for the US to stay in Afghanistan

Jim Sciutto also provided a platform for H.R. McMaster’s outlier theory that the Taliban used other terror groups as front operations in attack

In the immediate wake of a reported terror attack at the Kabul airport by an Islamic State-affiliated group targeting the ongoing evacuation of Americans and allied Afghans, CNN anchor Jim Sciutto’s coverage presented a case for a continued U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and any other terror groups.

The attack reportedly killed at least 12 U.S. troops and 60 Afghans. The alleged culprit group, ISIS-Khorasan, is reportedly an offshoot of the Islamic State that sees itself as an enemy of the Taliban. The potential for an attack by ISIS-K had been monitored by the U.S., having been publicly acknowledged last week and up through yesterday.

The Taliban and ISIS-K also have a history of fighting each other — but according to one of Sciutto’s guests, retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, it was possible that ISIS-K was just a front for the Taliban to commit the attack. And thus, according to McMaster, the withdrawal should be canceled and the U.S. presence extended.

McMaster served early in former President Donald Trump’s term as national security adviser, and has been a vocal opponent of the Afghanistan withdrawal, characterizing it as a “surrender agreement” on the part of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“As you know, it was President Trump who negotiated with the Taliban, frankly, but also agreed to a withdrawal date of May 1 this year,” Sciutto told McMaster. “Were President Biden's hands tied by that agreement, or could he simply have reversed it?”

“No,” McMaster replied. “OK, now, it goes back to that. I’m telling you, that was the — that was not the original sin, that was one of the many sins here, was the capitulation of February 2020. … The Biden administration reversed a lot of Trump policies; they could’ve reversed this. Their hands — I don't believe that the president's hands were tied, and you know, they're not tied now.”

Sciutto then discussed the U.S. intelligence warning of ISIS-K possibly targeting the Kabul airport and questioned whether it could have been any number of other groups. Sciutto also posited that the U.S. withdrawal would only lead to more groups plotting attacks on U.S. soil such as in the environment leading up to 9/11.

McMaster, in response, argued that ISIS-K could simply have been “used as a cutout for the Taliban, so they can humiliate us on the way out and still continue to play us.”

Other security experts have since charactizered McMaster’s theory as “dumb” and “pure misinformation.” But Sciutto did not ask McMaster to back up a contention that goes against other mainline thinking.

Video file

Citation From the August 26, 2021, edition of CNN Newsroom with Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto

JIM SCIUTTO (ANCHOR): We should also note that in the moments and days leading up to [the Kabul airport attack], that the U.S. had warned it had intelligence — credible, specific intelligence — about a threat to the airport. 

H.R. McMaster, that particular warning was about ISIS-K, Islamic State Khorasan, as being the one targeting the airport. But the fact is, there are many terror groups operating inside Afghanistan today, the Taliban among them, Al Qaeda, and many thousands of fighters, according to the U.N., now flocking to Afghanistan, to join these groups, to train with these groups, to make it what it was before 9/11, a terror haven. 

What does that mean for the security of the United States, to have a terror haven like that in Afghanistan, and does it put us at risk again of what we saw 20 years ago — a group like Al Qaeda, plotting attack on the U.S. homeland?

H.R. MCMASTER (FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER): Absolutely, and it puts us at risk of what we saw just six years ago, when ISIS took over large swaths of Syria and Iraq, and then became the most destructive terrorist organization in history, conducting, you now, nearly 200 attacks internationally, many of them in Europe, shooting down a Russian airliner. So this is what we're facing. And this is what happens when you surrender to jihadist terrorists.

And I think, Jim, what’s important about this, you may hear this is ISIS-K or whatever, but these terrorist organizations exist in an ecosystem along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and now all across Afghanistan, in which they share people and resources. You know, Siraj Haqqani is the military commander of the Taliban, and he’s a central figure in Al Qaeda. This is a myth, right, that the Taliban is separate from Al Qaeda and these other groups. I would not be surprised in any way if ISIS-K was used -- this Kabul attack network, was used as a cutout for the Taliban, so they can humiliate us on the way out and still continue to play us, because I don't think they think we're serious people, Jim.

McMaster concluded the discussion with a call to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, in support of the now-collapsed Afghan government.

“So now what I would just ask — was it worth it, really? What would be a better outcome?” McMaster asked. “You know, a sustained commitment of a few thousand U.S. troops who are continuing to enable the Afghans to bear the brunt of this fight, or this catastrophe that we’re seeing now, right? We had this ‘end the endless wars’ narrative, Jim, but hey, guess what? This is an endless jihad that the enemies of all civilized people are waging against us. And if we don't acknowledge that, we’re putting ourselves at an extraordinarily high risk.”

Sciutto ended the segment in seeming agreement with McMaster: “And one lesson of recent years with terrorism is that victory equals recruiting. When ISIS took over portions of Iraq and Syria, it was a massive magnet for recruits. The Taliban taking over territory and others in Afghanistan, already leading to a magnet for terrorists from around the world.”

Shortly before McMaster’s appearance, Sciutto had spoken to CNN senior international correspondent Sam Kiley, who explained the case for why ISIS-K was seen as the major suspect: “They want the publicity. They want the attention, they want to humiliate both the Taliban and the United States, and that’s what they're trying to achieve with this sort of atrocity of this nature.” But even having been informed, Sciutto failed to give that simple argument for McMaster to answer.

Others who addressed McMaster’s theory noted that the situation is far more complicated than he made it out to be. Later in the broadcast, for example, CNN senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh noted that there was in fact “a very complex series of extremists,” such as factions of Al Qaeda that had also been “subsumed” into the Taliban, and that an attack like this “has potentially many different suspects.”

McMaster made appearances on other networks, as well, with more in-depth responses delivered later in the day. On MSNBC, former CIA counterterrorism official Douglas London noted that the attack undermined the Taliban’s need for control, and that the attack was “rather embarrassing” for that goal, and that it was “most likely” an ISIS-K attack.

And on Fox News, anchor John Roberts followed up on McMaster’s appearance earlier in the day by bringing it up with Fox News national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin, who called it “highly speculative” on McMaster’s part. Noting the various factions at play in Afghanistan, Griffin said it was “extremely unlikely that they are going to know for certain in any real time at this moment who is responsible for this attack,” and that the U.S. was in a “terrible, terrible situation” to have to rely on the Taliban for security around the airport perimeter.

Last week, Sciutto hosted John Bolton, another former Trump-era national security adviser who has opposed the Afghanistan withdrawal. Sciutto endorsed Bolton’s comparison to the U.S. military having stayed in Germany and Japan for decades after World War II, in order to oppose Russia, with Sciutto adding that “America can make a case to do the same in Afghanistan.”

The key difference, however, is that the U.S. has stationed troops in Germany, Japan, and South Korea to deter a potential attack by an enemy power. By contrast, U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan have been engaged in an ongoing civil war for nearly 20 years — and indeed, attacks like the one today were still happening in recent years.