Administration Examines Afghan War Strategy

Over the next few weeks, the Obama administration will be completing a review of its war strategy in Afghanistan. The review will look at key measures of progress in the war — for example: the effectiveness of operations against the Taliban and the readiness of Afghan troops to defend their own country.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne, good morning.

The Obama administration will complete a formal review of its war strategy for Afghanistan this coming month. The idea is to judge whether after sending 30,000 more troops, progress is being made.

Two NPR correspondents are just back from Afghanistan, and they were looking at the same measures of success the military is studying.

NPR's Tom Bowman and Rachel Martin join us now to talk about that.

Good morning.

RACHEL MARTIN: Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So let's begin with the top commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus. He has said there is progress being made. Both of you reported from places where the fighting is the toughest.

What about it? From what you've seen, is the general right?

Tom, let's just begin with you.

BOWMAN: Well, I was in the southern part of the country in June and July. And then I returned to some of these same areas in October and November. Now, around Kandahar, most of the so-called surge went around Kandahar - and they're pushing out the Taliban from their safe havens. And there's definitely progress there, I think.

Next door in Helmand Province, there's also some progress. I saw a lot more markets and bazaars opened and there's more freedom of movement for the average Afghan - so they're actually getting out and about more. But there's still heavy fighting in some parts of Helmand Province, as well.

MARTIN: And, Renee, I was actually in the eastern part of the country, along the Afghan-Pakistani border. And that's where U.S. forces have really been in some heavy fighting. And they have been able to get a foothold in places that they haven't been before. But the situation is still very tentative.

Insurgents are still able to cross the border into safe havens in Pakistan; this remains a critical problem. They can regroup there. Then they cross back into Afghanistan. And this is something U.S. officials are still very, very concerned about. Again, saying that any success they're experiencing right now is still very tenuous.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about that. You just mentioned security. Some of the measures the military is using in its review will be how safe it's able to make the Afghan people, even though there's a lot of fighting going on.

What's the progress there?

BOWMAN: They flooded the zone, basically, with thousands of Marines and Army soldiers, and they have pushed out the Taliban. But the key is whether or not this is a success or not - we won't know for another seven months or so, and that's according to the man who recently was a top NATO commander in the south, Major General Nick Carter from Great Britain.

Let's listen to what he had to say.

Major General NICK CARTER (Former Commander, NATO Forces, Afghanistan): And I think what will be really important in terms of how we judge progress in Kandahar will be what things look like on the first of June next year, which is traditionally when the insurgency comes back and fights again.

BOWMAN: So what he's saying is we don't know yet. Will the Taliban come back and fight? That's an open question.

Now, we're already seeing stepped-up fighting in Kandahar City. There were reports that the Taliban outside the city have either dropped their weapons, melted into the community, once the American troops came. And now they're finding refuge in the city itself and there are indications of stepped-up attacks in Kandahar City.

MONTAGNE: And, Rachel, you were also in Kandahar City recently. What about the civilian side of things?

MARTIN: Well, as Tom mentions, there have been stepped-up attacks in the city itself. There's an increased threat of IEDs, improvised explosive devices. Nevertheless, the provincial governor there is really trying to send a message that things are getting a little better; there have been incremental successes.

I went on a walk with the provincial governor. He took us on a stroll through the main bazaar in Kandahar City to do just that, to demonstrate how safe things are there - that normal life is going on for most people.

But it's worth noting that this was a highly orchestrated affair. There was an awful lot of security; snipers on the roof, dozens of Afghan paramilitary troops accompanied us. So an indication that things there are still very up in the air. It is far from a completely secure situation.

MONTAGNE: Tom Bowman, I want to ask about another part of the strategy that the administration is reviewing: The quality of Afghanistan's own security forces.

What do you see at this moment in time, about how well the army and the police have been trained?

BOWMAN: Well, it's really a mixed bag, Renee. Now, I was with the Army's 101st Airborne in Kandahar area. And they were partnering with Afghan forces there. But clearly the troops I saw were very green. Many of them were just sitting around doing nothing, and there's also a high desertion rate among these troops.

Now, listen to the company commander I was with outside Kandahar, Captain Brent Augie.

Captain BRENT AUGIE (Commander, 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army): We seem to have issues with guys leaving out - with deserting.

BOWMAN: How many? What's the percentage that you're seeing?

Capt. AUGIE: They were sitting at about 120. Then they lost 80. I would say this year, they gained 20.

BOWMAN: So listen to that. He lost two-thirds of the Afghan soldiers he had with him.

But next door in Helmand Province, I saw a different story. The Afghan troops there appear to be much better. The Marines there had a small team working with the Afghan troops. And the ones I saw at a small combat outpost were pretty good. They were eager to patrol. They didn't want a lot of help from the Americans and they seemed pretty squared away, according to the Marines I spoke with.

MONTAGNE: And, Rachel, a related part of the strategy review is governance. Now, you barely ever hear anything good about the Afghan government. Is there anything good to say?

MARTIN: Well, I have to tell you, it looks pretty pessimistic from the ground. Governors I spoke with in Herat province and Kandahar both identified governance as a critical issue, their top priority right now. And that's because in many districts there's only one person running things, one official representative of the Afghan government in these places.

So, how does that one person convince the local population there that they alone are a good alternative to the Taliban? They need support. The problem is they can't incentivize professional civil servants to go to these places, especially provinces that have suffered from so much violence. Instead, qualified young people, especially with college degrees, are going off to be translators for the U.S. military or different international organizations because they pay better.

MONTAGNE: Better governance, better performance by Afghan security forces -these things must work if the U.S. is to hand off responsibility to Afghanistan, end its combat role there, all by 2014. That's the administration's deadline. What do you think?

BOWMAN: Well, listen, even though it's four years off, there are some very steep hurdles here. The country's 80 to 90 percent illiterate, so it makes it very difficult to build a competent army or police force. There are also serious drug problems, particularly within the security forces; corruption problems.

And even after 2014 - we keep hearing that date - Pentagon officials are already saying that some number of American troops will be needed to train Afghans and supply them in the field.

MARTIN: And it's worth noting, Renee, I was in Herat, which is a province in the western part of Afghanistan right near the border with Iran. This is, as you know, historically one of the safest places in the country - and it's been talked about as one of the first provinces that could likely transition over to Afghan control next year - that's when they want to start this transition process - but there's been a spike of insurgent activity there, rampant crime.

And when I asked the governor if he's ready to assume full control, he said, not yet. So, even the most stable of places aren't yet to the point they need to be to start making that transition.

MONTAGNE: And just finally: a negotiated settlement is key to ending this war. This week, we learned that a man thought to be a high-level Taliban negotiator, who actually took part in secret talks, was in fact a fraud. What does that say about these talks?

MARTIN: Well, Renee, as you say, we know from reports that the Afghan government had been in negotiations with someone who alleged to be a top leader of the Taliban. He was engaged in so-called high-level negotiations that could lay the groundwork for some kind of peace deal down the road.

But this really illustrates how complicated this whole effort is. U.S. officials say this is going to end with some kind of negotiated settlement. The problem is it's really tough to know who you're dealing with. Besides the top commanders of the Taliban, nobody really knows what these mid-level commanders look like. It's a dispersed network with several chains of command. It's hard to know if you're talking with someone who has real power, a low-level grunt, or in this case, perhaps, a complete fraud.

MONTAGNE: Rachel, Tom, thanks much to both of you.

MARTIN: Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Tom Bowman and Rachel Martin.

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