VOA Interview: Defense Secretary Says US Safer Today Than in 2001

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says the United States is safer now than it was 20 years ago. Speaking in an interview with Voice of America’s Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb on the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, Austin said U.S. defense capabilities and strike abilities have evolved and “increased by orders of magnitude.”

Austin said the U.S. will continue to “pay attention” to the threats as they evolve in Afghanistan, but that effort would not prevent the U.S. from focusing on its pacing threat, China.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with the Voice of America today. Today is a very special day. It’s the day that we stop and pause and remember those who died 20 years ago. And reflecting on that, is the United States safer today than it was in 9/11?”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: “Well, if you just look at the capabilities that have evolved since, since 2001, in terms of our ability to collect and to analyze and to track various threats around the globe, our capabilities have increased by orders of magnitude. Our ability to strike has increased by orders of magnitude. What’s most important is that as a government, we operate a lot better with any interagency in terms of our ability to share information, our ability to coordinate and deconflict. So, because of all of those things, I would say, yeah, we are safer.”

VOA: “When you talk about that information, so, let me go back to the withdrawal. In April, the intelligence was showing that the Taliban could likely take over Kabul around December, late December, but by July that timeline had shrunk to late September. So, why were you so surprised when they took over in mid-August?”

Austin: “I think what you’ve heard us say is that there were, the intelligence estimate provided a range of possibilities, and those, they changed over time. We’ll go back and look at all these things in the future as we, as we assess what happened and assess the things that we could possibly, as an interagency, do better. And, but, until we complete that process, I won’t, I won’t hazard to provide any kind of assessment.”

VOA: “Reflecting, do you think you should have paused the withdrawal when you started getting the intelligence in July that the collapse was more imminent?”

Austin: “Well, again, don’t want to get into any hypotheticals or, you know, any, any type of assessments here. I think we owe it to ourselves to do a very deliberate and detailed assessment, not only for the military but across the interagency.”

VOA: “When I was speaking to some of the troops from 10th Mountain Division, they wished they could have gotten to HKIA. They wished they could have gotten to the airport sooner and had a few more people. Do you think that the evacuation should have started sooner?”

Austin: “Again, I think our young men and women that were a part of that operation did a tremendous job. And I think once they arrived, they, and once they secured the airport, they had to defend the airport, they had to evacuate 124,000 people. Of that 124,000, some 6,000 Americans. And we still are, the State Department is still focused on evacuating Americans as we speak. So, you know, I think, I think our young men and women just did a tremendous job. As you heard me say, I think it was historic because of the size of the airlift, and it certainly was heroic in terms of their actions.”

VOA: “But do you wish you would have started sooner?”

Austin: “Again, you know, I, we will go back and assess what we did when we did it, but you know, we made our decisions based upon, you know, the intelligence and the activities that were going on at that time.”

VOA: “We have been tied to Iraq and Afghanistan because of 9/11, and you actually oversaw the withdrawal forces from Iraq only to see U.S. troops return there three years later. Why would you oversee the withdrawal from Afghanistan when there were similar conditions in Afghanistan as there were in Iraq when it comes to terrorists?”

Austin: “I think you’re, actually, two. First of all, we never completely left Iraq. As you know, we kept an element in Iraq that was focused on training the Iraqis. But as you compare the two scenarios, they’re completely different. They’re different people, they’re different, facing different adversaries. So, I don’t think it’s fair to compare them head-to-head.”

VOA: “So, you don’t see the similarities on the ground now that you saw in Iraq?”

Austin: “There will be similarities in every military operation, but there will be clear distinctions in those operations based upon the threat, based upon the forces available, and based upon the allies that you’re working with, you know, the people that you’re supporting.”

VOA: “Let’s talk about where the counterterror war goes now. So, what area of the globe do you believe that terrorists have the greatest desire and capability to attempt to strike the homeland?”

Austin: “Great question. I think what you’ve seen and what you know to be true is that transnational terrorists will look for ungoverned spaces to go to, to operate out of. And so, everywhere on the globe where we see, you know, breakdown in governance or weak governance or areas that are ungoverned, we can expect that, at some point, that there’s a possibility that terrorist activity will take root in those places.”

VOA: “And so, if you had to, you said you’ve mentioned some areas to us in the briefing room. So, if you had to pick one area where the focus seems to be most intent on attacking the U.S. homeland, where, where is that right now?”

Austin: “Well, I certainly don’t want to get into any intelligence assessments here, but, I mean, we see terrorist, transnational terrorist activity in a lot of places. We see, certainly in Africa, we see in Somalia, we see a number of organizations looking to operate freely there.”

VOA: “Are you looking to put troops back into Somalia?”

Austin: “Again, I won’t — I don’t have any troop announcements to make in this forum.”

VOA: “OK, and let’s talk about, because we’re still bogged down in Afghanistan, we don’t have troops there, but we are still bogged down with the counterterror war, so won’t that divert your attention away from China and Russia for at least some time?”

Austin: “We know that we have to maintain a focus, in order to defend this country, which is my top priority, we have to maintain a focus on countering transnational terrorism and preventing terrorists from exporting terror from any place on the globe to our homeland, and we will remain focused on that with a laser focus.”

VOA: “So, yes, they will, they will bog us down for some time?”

Austin: “No, that’s, that’s not bogging us down, that’s making sure that we pay attention to the threats as they evolve, but it won’t prevent us from doing what we need to do to focus on our major elements there, our major challenges there. And you’ve heard me say that China remains a, our pacing challenge going forward here.”

VOA: “And I want to ask you, because you reached out today — it is 9/11 — you reached out to the families who died with your remarks today. What would you like to say to the Afghans who fought beside us, who joined us in this war, post 9/11, those who lost loved ones in this war, those who are still worried about the future?”

Austin: “We’re certainly, we’re grateful for their help in our efforts to help improve the conditions in their country. And, and so, you know, their partnership, that those people who served as interpreters and facilitated our operations, I certainly want to say thank you to them, and remind them that we will remain grateful going forward.”

VOA: “Well, Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with Voice of America.”

Source: Voice of America