< Distinguished speaker series

Gen. Joseph Votel (ret.)

Former Commander, U.S. Central Command

Afghanistan: Lessons Learned

DATE: November 8, 2022 6:00 pm

Event information

After last year’s chaotic troop withdrawal, there’s been a lot of soul-searching over the US deployment in Afghanistan and the purpose for being there. How is it possible that the same Taliban who opened their doors to Al Qaeda and were thrown out of power by the U.S. invasion in 2001 are now back in charge?

Retired four-star Gen. Joseph Votel, our next speaker, is uniquely positioned to give an overview of the 20-year deployment and the lessons learned from it. He has the view from the ground and from the senior command level.

As a commander in the 75th Army Rangers regiment, then-Colonel Votel led the forces that parachuted onto an airfield in Kandahar in October 2001 and secured what would become a major Marine base. It was called Operation Rhino.

His last post was commander of the U.S. Central Command from 2016 to 2019. There he oversaw the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as well as the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Gen. Votel served in the U.S. Army for 39 years, starting as an Infantry officer fresh out of West Point in 1980, and retiring in 2019 with four-star rank. He did tours in Germany and Italy then went on to serve in Sarajevo with the NATO Peace Implementation Force. Besides Afghanistan, he did front line combat tours in Panama and Iraq and led forces including special forces at every level. He also served with the 82nd Airborne Division.

President Barack Obama nominated Gen. Votel in 2014 to serve as commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command. He then named him commander of the U.S. Central Command.

The Central Command’s area of responsibility is the greater Middle East, an area that stretches from Morocco to Pakistan and includes some of the most unstable places on the planet.

He’s currently the CEO and President of Business Executives for National Security.


Joseph Votel

Background Box

GWOT Memorial Foundation Appoints Votel to Board of Directors:


Votel Skeptical of counterterrorism strategy:


The U.S. military is working to lessen terrorism in Afghanistan however Votel is skeptical if the effort is worth it. 

How the events of 9/11 shaped Votel’s passion for such a filled career:


“…trying to understand the confusion, shock of what was happening—but almost simultaneously, an instant recognition that everything was changing for us. And as we collectively gained this appreciation, not fully knowing where this was going to go, I think all of us in uniform knew that something had changed for all of us and that this would change the direction of our organizations and the direction of our country for the foreseeable future. So a morning of initial confusion, but a moment of clarity afterward that this attack on our nation had changed everything.” Votel goes into further detail on how 9/11 affected the ones in uniform. Actions and efforts following the attack shaped his career and his character. 

Lessons on Afghanistan:


In an interview with The Cipher Brief, Votel discusses the personal and public lessons that he learned when dealing with strategy in Afghanistan. 

Interview with Joseph Votel on relationships with different countries:


Joseph Votel discusses relationships and strategies with different countries and what the US has accomplished with those countries. 

Votel on the defeat of the Islamic State:


The Combating Terrorism Center interviewed Votel about the strategy and lessons he learned while taking down the Islamic State. “A certain amount of flak comes along when you are told, “our partners are talking to ISIS right now.” I was like, “What? What are you doing?” Well, this is what had to be done. So, you must accept it. This is part of the ‘by, with, and through operational approach. When you rely on partners to do things, they’re going to do it in a partner way. We’re not going to like everything they do. It won’t be exactly the way we’d do it, but that was the trade-off. And frankly, even as horrendous as that fight was, I think we probably saved lives allowing them to operate that way.” The interview continues with the key steps that Votel followed to move forward with his military strategy. 

Votel against Trump’s Syria decision:


Votel completely disagreed with Donald Trump’s choice to pull US troops out of the Syrian-Turkish border. Votel mentioned that it “could not come at a worse time.” He felt the decision made the US abandon the Kurdish partners they were working with. 

Votel opinion on Iran’s Qud Force:


Votel is critical of Qasem Soleimani because he believes that he is too aggressive in strategy and is the reason Iran has become unstable.

Votel on Regional Threats:


Votel discusses major issues with the House of Armed Services Committee including Iran, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt, the Sinai, and Pakistan. In the interview, Votel explains, “we are making progress in many areas, but much, much work remains.”

Summary of the military experience in government and on the front lines:


Joseph Votel was born on Valentine’s Day in 1958. He attended the US Military Academy and was commissioned as an Army Infantry Officer in 1980.  He continued his career as a rifle platoon leader, an executive officer, a battalion adjutant, and a rifle company commander. After these positions in Germany, he worked for the Allied Forces Southern Europe in Naples, Italy along with the NATO Peace Implementation Force in Sarajevo. He commanded at Fort Drum, New York, and in the 1st Ranger Battalion. He then commanded the 75th Ranger Regiment during Operation Enduring Freedom. Shortly after, he led 3rd Battalion rangers in Operation Rhino which attacked the Taliban. He served as the Director of the Army and Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Task Force along with the Deputy Director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. He continued to serve as the Deputy Commanding General of Operations, and in the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan. Soon after, he was assigned to Deputy Commanding General of the Joint Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg. After his time on the front lines, he was nominated by former President Barack Obama to be the 10th commander of the United States Special Operations Command. He then became the commander of the United States Central command. In this position, Votel supervised the United States in the war on terrorism in the Middle East. Votel retired in 2019 after witnessing the collapse of the Islamic State in Syria. Though retired, Votel continues to work in the government to serve the United States against terroristic threats. 

Strategy in the Middle East:


Votel participates in a presentation with the Center for American Progress regarding strategies in the Middle East. The discussion includes US administration, challenges, strategies, and security in the Middle East.