A Critical Assessment Of The Afghan War Review

NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, about the Obama administration's Afghanistan and Pakistan annual review. This week, Gelb wrote a column in The Daily Beast charging that the review doesn't look hard enough at U.S. interests in the war in Afghanistan, and doesn't adequately weigh needs on the home front.


Well, now to a critic of the Obama Afghan policy who says the White House should have revisited some basic questions. Leslie Gelb is president emeritus of the Council of Foreign Relations. Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. LESLIE GELB (President Emeritus, Council of Foreign Relations): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And what are some of the questions that you think a thorough review of Afghanistan policy should be addressing?

Mr. GELB: There are two other broader sets of questions that have to precede any serious review of a foreign policy question. One is, sure, we face threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but are those threats as serious today as they were 10 years ago? Or have those threats morphed? Are they now all over the place and Afghanistan and Pakistan are no longer vital interests to the United States? That's the first question.

And the second question is to look at ourselves. We have to ask, are these hundreds of billions of dollars we will spend on AfPak, as it's called, Afghanistan and Pakistan, over the next years worth it, given the terrible deteriorating economic situation in the United States? Can we afford to spend billions building roads and fixing schools in Afghanistan when the roads and schools are falling apart in America?

SIEGEL: Let me ask you, though, an observation made in the assessment that was put out by the White House today. They say, al-Qaida's senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker - and I'm reading now - and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001. You're saying yes, and that's one of the reasons why we should perhaps think differently about Afghanistan. But isn't that simply because there are more drone attacks, better intelligence and they're pursuing al-Qaida more effectively now than they were before?

Mr. GELB: Yes. That's true. Whenever you put the U.S. military into a situation like that, they will punish the enemy. Our military is that good. But, you know, they can stay there forever. And as soon as they walk away, the situation can totally deteriorate.

SIEGEL: What do you think of the feasibility of a U.S. handoff of combat responsibility to the Afghans sometime in 2014?

Mr. GELB: Well, I think it depends on the thing we have least influence and control over, namely the effectiveness of the Afghan government. That will determine whether or not the Afghan army and Afghan police are really going to stand up and fight. They have to have something to fight for.

SIEGEL: I remember once hearing many years ago, John Kenneth Galbraith, the one-time ambassador to India, economist, who said that in discussions in Washington about Vietnam policy, if you said, I think we should get out, if you said, I think we've had enough, we should leave Vietnam, you were no longer taken seriously in the discussion.

Do you think that the administration is at a point now when in order to be taken seriously in the discussion of what to do, you have to buy into the notion that we should be there big time with a big escalated force? Or is there still a voice within these discussions, as you know it, that might take a more dissenting view of the policy?

Mr. GELB: Well, that's an awfully good question and the answer is damning. I was a young man, director of policy planning in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War and I was a supporter of the war. And as I began to change and ask questions, I was very careful about how I put all this because right away you're ruled out of the discussion. And today, it's better than it was then, but it's still a problem.

It's hard particularly inside the administration to ask the kind of fundamental questions that I'm suggesting must be asked in order to have a serious foreign policy.

SIEGEL: A dissenting view from Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. Les Gelb, thanks for talking with us once again.

Mr. GELB: Always a pleasure, Robert.

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