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Spring Fighting Season Looms In Afghanistan

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Spring Fighting Season Looms In Afghanistan

Afghanistan

Spring Fighting Season Looms In Afghanistan

Spring Fighting Season Looms In Afghanistan

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C.J. Chivers, reporter, The New York Times
John Nagl, president, Center for a New American Security
Bing West, former Asst. Sec. of Defense

Fighting typically picks up from its winter lull as the snow melts in Afghanistan. Some analysts say the U.S.-led counterinsurgency is going as planned, but others argue that civilian causalities are undermining those efforts, and may stall the planned drawdown of U.S. troops.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

When spring comes, and the snow melts in Afghanistan, the fighting picks up from its winter lull. That's the traditional rhythm, at any rate, to the cycle of war in Afghanistan.

But as we enter this tense spring fighting season, a lot has changed, not least the addition of tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan to try to change the trajectory of the fight.

Some military leaders and analysts point to signs that the counterinsurgency is going as planned. And the White House maintains that troops will start to head home this July with the goal of Afghan forces taking the lead for security across the country by the end of 2014.

Still, there are also worrying developments: new evidence of corruption within Afghanistan's government and security forces, for example, and there are indications that civilian casualties are impeding the counterinsurgency plan. Just two weeks ago, a NATO attack killed as many as 65 civilians in eastern Kunar province. The incident is being investigated by the U.N.

Well, if you have served in Afghanistan, are you optimistic? Let us know. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're going to begin with C.J. Chivers. He covers the war in Afghanistan for The New York Times, and he's joining us from his home in Providence, Rhode Island, where he's taking a much-needed break from covering the war in Afghanistan.

Chris, nice to have you have you on the program again.

Mr. C.J. CHIVERS (Reporter, The New York Times): Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Well, let me put the question to you first. When you speak to troops on the ground there in Afghanistan, are they optimistic about how it's going?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, I would say that the lower down the ranks you, the less optimism you find. The pragmatic view of the people actually walking the patrol is that, you know, the - a plan has crested. We have all the forces on the ground. And now what? Where do we go from here? Because what they're controlling is actually a fairly small part of the country, which they call key (technical difficulty) districts. And a lot of the country is still very much, even with all these troops on the ground, out of their influence.

KELLY: And when we talk about the spring fighting season, and traditionally that is when violence would pick up again, do you see it following that track this year?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, it's - we should start with a caveat. It's always difficult, and I'm very suspicious of any assessments that are made this time of year. February and March is, you know, the end of what's usually a slowdown in the violence, and we can expect things to pick up several weeks on from now. And then we'll have a more clear picture.

But there - if you look at the last few months, you know, where it typically, the violence does go down quite a bit, there's been a lot of sustained incidents. There's been attacked in Jalalabad. There's been attacks in Kabul. The incidents have managed to keep quite a bit of pressure up, even though all these forces are on the ground. So I would think that this year would follow the past patterns and be quite bloody.

KELLY: And see more violence coming up. Talk to us a little bit about -you're talking about insurgent attacks on U.S. and NATO and Afghan forces there. What about the effect on civilians, civilian casualties always difficult to measure precisely. What is the indication, as you're able to measure it, in terms of whether attacks on civilians are on the rise?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, there certainly have been many attacks on civilians, and a lot of these - the insurgent campaign now that's against the ISAF forces or, you know, the NATO forces and the Afghan forces, relies on improvised explosive devices. And many of these weapons are completely indiscriminate. You know, they operate off of a pressure (technical difficulty) put along the roads, and they cause a great deal of civilian casualties, even if those casualties are an accident.

Now, there also have been attacks directly against civilians, like the recent attack in the supermarket in Kabul. So I think that the civilians have suffered quite heavily, even as more security forces have been deployed out into the field.

KELLY: When we talk about what the violence might look like in the coming months, we have seen reports about possible fissures in the Taliban. One of your colleagues at The New York Times has written about that, Carlotta Gall. What can you tell us about insurgent tactics, insurgent strategy, as they react to obviously a revamped U.S. strategy?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, we know from the pattern how the different insurgent groups typically fight. And there wouldn't be any reason to expect them to deviate much from that pattern.

When the United States sends forces into a new area or an area that they haven't had a whole lot of influence in, there often is a lot of initial small-arms fighting, you know, firefights and ambushes, if you will. With time, this tends to subside, and you see a greater reliance on improvised explosives, you know, on roadside bombs and bombs along the trails.

And I think that when I talk to the various commands that are out there in the field and the soldiers on the ground, that's principally what they're expecting.

Last year saw, and the last (technical difficulty) years have seen, a real sharp increase in the use of these improvised explosives, and I wouldn't think we would see a deviation from that this spring.

KELLY: Well, look ahead, then, to what we're going to see past this spring, when we look ahead to this July withdrawal date, in the summer. What do you expect to see? What should we be looking for in terms of a reduction in force?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, I don't think that you're going to see much of a withdrawal this year. There may be some forces that are sent home, small numbers of forces, in order for the White House to keep its word. But I don't think that that's going to substantially change the footprint on the ground.

KELLY: And when you say small reductions, you're talking a few thousand?

Mr. CHIVERS: I think it would probably be a few thousand.

KELLY: A few thousand. And that would still technically fulfill the July 2011 date as laid out, when the president laid out his revised strategy for the war.

Mr. CHIVERS: For the beginning of the withdrawal. I mean, if you go back and look at those statements over time, it's never been exactly clear what was meant by that. But one thing always has been pretty clear: It was not meant as an off switch.

And so I don't think that you're going to see a substantial draw-down then but just the beginning of what they'll be calling the draw-down.

KELLY: What about - obviously, the key factor in enabling any sort of draw-down is going to be Afghan forces being able to take on more responsibility themselves. How do you rate their progress?

Mr. CHIVERS: I take a pretty dim view of the Afghan forces. I've been out with them on many patrols over the years, dozens and dozens of patrols in multiple provinces, and I haven't really seen much change in their capabilities or in their attitude.

And if - there's always been a pretty strong disconnect between what gets said in Kabul about how the Afghan forces operate and how they perform at the upper levels and their interactions with their senior mentors on the - from NATO and the U.S. and how they actually perform out in the field.

And there's a similar disconnect for how they're trained and how they perform in the field. What you see in the training is that it has gotten better, unsurprisingly, as more people have become involved in the training, and there's more resources have been put into it.

But when you go out into the field, and you walk patrols with these Afghan soldiers and police, or you observe them in their living conditions and on their posts out in the remote provinces, you consistently see the same thing, which is a disinterest, at best, sometimes even a hostility to real hard work.

You see an unwillingness to do independent patrols. You see extensive drug use. And I don't have a lot of faith that this force is capable this year of changing the dynamic on the ground.

KELLY: Not capable this year. Do you see something changing next year, a couple years down the road? We're now hearing a lot of talk about a 2014 - one hates to say deadline, but the 2014 date of when they would be able to take over security.

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, what - the question will be, and it's always has been unanswerable. But the real question is: As the United States starts to draw down, will the Afghan military forces and the Afghan police forces have a sense of responsibility.

One place we can look at that I would say might be a chance for us to project outward, and that'll be in the Pech Valley. Here, in the next couple of months, the United States is pulling its forces, almost all of its forces, out of a valley that was, you know, once sort of central to the American way of fighting this war.

The Afghans are (technical difficulty) there. The Afghan army will be in there, and they'll probably be in there in pretty good numbers. It's a really tough valley. It's got multiple insurgent groups, it's got awful terrain, and it's isolated.

Now, if we look at how they do, the Afghan forces who are left behind this year, maybe that can tell us something about how the Afghans might do going forward. And it'll be more than them just surviving. It's not enough not to be overrun. They need to be able to operate.

They need to be able to demonstrate that they're willing to do independent patrols, plan operations, and if they merely survive, we'll also have to ask ourselves: Have they cut some sort of live-and-let-live arrangement with the insurgent groups there?

And if they do, and if that's what happens this year, then that will be a very worrisome sign because it will raise questions about the value of this whole American project in Afghanistan because that area will be under titular Afghan control but, in fact, a safe haven if that happens.

So I think that this is going to be kind of a high-priority thing to watch, as the fighting season takes shape. How do the Afghans do in the Pech Valley?

KELLY: Well, big picture, Chris Chivers, I know that you're in the reporting business, not the analyst business, but do I hear correctly, you sound somewhat pessimistic that the U.S. is at a major turning point in terms of being able to ramp down forces and commitment in Afghan anytime soon.

Mr. CHIVERS: This will be the key year. I think that we really now have all the forces on the (technical difficulty). The forces that are on the ground are well-equipped. They're now experienced with Afghanistan. It's not enough to just come over from Iraq. It takes a while to learn the ground.

And the forces have been there. The temperatures are about to rise. The vegetation's about to climb. And this year, we should have a sense of how this is going to go.

I don't want to put myself in the pessimist or optimist box. I kind of resist either label, and I very much resist making declarations on the first of March or the end of February about how things are going to look in July. But this is going to be the real year.

KELLY: Last quick question, and it's not a quick one, but if you could be quick about it: Is it clear to you what the administration's benchmarks are for measuring progress, at how they're actually trying to quantify how the effort's going?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, I don't spend much time in the beltway. Almost all of my time is outside of Kabul, out in the rural provinces. So it's very hard for me to know what, even at the general-grade level, (technical difficulty) to measure how this war goes.

I tend to take a ground-level view, and the ground-level view (technical difficulty) that, you know, this year is going to be every bit as difficult as last, and it's going to be a pivotal year. How you're going to measure it, I think it'll be pretty clear to us when the fighting starts.

KELLY: All right. Thanks so much for your time.

Mr. CHIVERS: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Chris Chivers. He writes under the byline C.J. Chivers, as he covers the war in Afghanistan for the New York Times. And he joined us from his home in Rhode Island.

We are, of course, talking about the war in Afghanistan. Up next, retired Colonel John Nagl, who argues the U.S. is right on track. Also, a view from Bing West, who has a new book out warning that the counterinsurgency strategy is not working in Afghanistan.

If you've served in Afghanistan, do you see reason for optimism? You can reach us, we're at 800-989-8255. Or you can email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Neal Conan is away.

Earlier this month, Admiral Eric Olson, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, warned his forces in Afghanistan are, quote, "beginning to show some fraying after nearly 10 years at war." The White House continues to maintain troops will begin to withdraw from Afghanistan later this year, which could offer some relief, but how many troops will leave and how quickly remains unclear.

If you've served in Afghanistan, are you optimistic? Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Or you can send us an email. We're at talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Our website is npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Well, we have two guests with us now to further this conversation. With me here in Studio 3A is John Nagl. He's a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, and he now heads the Center for a New American Security. He recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times title "The Long War May Be Getting Shorter."

John Nagl, nice to have you on the program.

Mr. JOHN NAGL (President, Center for a New American Security): It's nice to be back.

KELLY: So tell me: Why is the long war getting shorter?

Mr. NAGL: I think the single most important reason is that the United States and its NATO allies have displayed a commitment to the fight through the end of 2014. And when you're fighting a war, in particular a war against an insurgent group, you have a good picture of what's happening to your forces.

And you correctly said that the Special Forces are getting frayed. They're on a one-for-one rotation basis, have been for years. We don't have as good a picture of what's happening to the enemy.

And the enemy, I think, misinterpreted President Obama's statement at West Point in December of 2009, thought that we would begin a fairly precipitate withdrawal in the summer of 2011. In fact, that's not the case. The U.S. and NATO have committed through 2014, and I think that that realization is starting to work its way through the Taliban.

The Afghan security forces are building up in numbers, and to some degree in capacity. And so I think we're working toward a situation in which we will be able to gradually withdraw U.S. forces, pull down to an advisory assistance, probably Air Forces and Special Forces, heavy effort in 2014, by 2014.

And the Taliban will have been reduced in strength by that point. I think we'll see some reconciliation and reintegration. Taliban coming in from the cold over the course of this year and the next that I think, on balance, the Afghans, with American advice and support by 2014, will be able to carry the ball.

KELLY: OK, you raise some interesting points there that I want to circle back to, but I want to let our other guest who's with us weigh in now. This is Bing West, who is on the line from member station KQED in San Francisco. And Bing West is a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He has a new book out that tackles a lot of these subjects called "The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan." And Bing West, thank you for being with us, as well.

Mr. BING WEST (Former Assistant Secretary of Defense; Author, "The Wrong War"): Well, thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You heard some of the points that John Nagl just made there. He argues the long war may be getting shorter. He listed some reasons for his optimism. Let me let you respond. Do you agree?

Mr. WEST: Well, Mary Louise, the most important thing, I guess, about my background is that I'm a combat Marine infantryman. This is my third war. I've been on the ground over there for three years.

And I agree entirely with what Chris Chivers said. The lower you go in rank when you're out on the patrols, the less the optimism because our soldiers and Marines are asking: Now what? And that's exactly right because we've been fighting, as I say in my book, the wrong war.

We're trying to build a nation out of Afghanistan by 0 instead we've created a culture of entitlement. So we're doing the fighting. Just like Chivers said, we're not going to know what happens in this war until the Afghan soldiers start to fight, and right now, I'd have to give the edge to the Taliban. The Taliban - the Afghan soldiers are still afraid of the Taliban.

KELLY: Let me - I'm sure you want to jump back at that, John Nagl. But let me bring a caller in because we want to get our listeners involved in this conversation, as well. And I've got John(ph) on the line from Fort Lewis in Washington. John, how are you?

JOHN (Caller): Yes, ma'am. Hi, how are you?

KELLY: Hi, thanks for joining us.

JOHN: Yes, I just wanted to say we got back from southern Afghanistan back in July of 2010. My optimism is low, and the reason I say that is what we found is that you really have two groups of people over in Afghanistan.

You have people that are part of the Taliban. You have the hardcore Taliban insurgents, and then you have the people that are really stuck between the Taliban and the government.

And they really - they only have the alternative of either supporting the government, which they see as wholly corrupt and doesn't support them whatsoever, and they have the Taliban, which at the very least does influence them with some law and order.

You know, in the places the Taliban control, they're very quick about enforcing their justice. They're very quick about resulting disputes with the law. So it's a pretty easy decision for them.

And the analogy that I've always used is that if we fight the Taliban, we're essentially - but we don't solve the problem with the government, then what we're doing is we're mopping up a leak, but we're not fixing the leak itself.

So until we tackle the corruption in the government, I think it's always going to push the people over to the side of the Taliban.

KELLY: John Nagl, what do you make of that analogy?

Mr. NAGL: I think it's a great analogy. The good news, I think, is that we've got one of our best men on this job. Brigadier General H.R. McMaster is running an anti-corruption taskforce in Kabul, trying to help the Afghan government improve the governance it provides, the services it provides, the justice it provides to its people. That's a tough fight.

The good news is - the other good news, I think, is that the Afghan people have lived under Taliban rule, and very, very few of them want to return to that. So the Karzai government, bad as it is, does out-poll the Taliban pretty much everywhere in Afghanistan by large numbers. It's - Karzai is polling 60 percent or so, which is frankly better than the administration is here.

So there's a lot of work to do. We are working on this problem. And this goes to one of the things that I'm most concerned about, which is civilian advisors to the civilian Afghan government, something we're still working on getting better at.

KELLY: Bing West, I want to let you take a whack at this, as well. These issues that our caller, John, is raising in terms of weak government, corruption, what do you think in terms of how you would assess where things are now?

Mr. WEST: Well, I agree with what John from Fort Lewis said. I mean, you're out there, every village you go into, the fact is that wherever we go, we bump into these IEDs, these diabolical mines. And they're set by locals. And the other locals know who is setting them, and they don't say a word because they're waiting to see who's going to win this war.

And we can't win it. McMaster or any other American that we might think is terrific, he can't wander around and solve the corruption, no matter how good he is. In the end, I think the only thing we really can do is give advisors to the Afghans and insist they fight their own war.

KELLY: All right, John, thanks so much for calling. We appreciate it.

JOHN: Thank you, ma'am, I appreciate it.

KELLY: Thank you, and I want to take another call. This is Rob Gratin(ph), and Rob is calling from Connecticut. You're on the air.

ROB (Caller): Yes. I just wanted to say that actually I was deployed over there as a provincial reconstruction team member in 2008.

KELLY: OK.

ROB: And what I saw was actually isolated pockets of success.

We - the foremost ever being that one dam project that we had, that we started on, where the locals actually got behind it. This is their project. And it was really the poster child for success over there, that the locals are behind it, the Taliban started IED'ing the locals. And about two weeks after the locals being attacked by the Taliban, sure enough there's three people hanging by their feet without heads, and the locals had gone after them because what the previous caller said was absolutely right.

The locals know who these people are, and they're waiting to pick a side. And the thing is, in a perfect world, if you can find the right projects that the locals will stand behind, you will see success.

The problem with this approach is that with multiple units deploying over multiple times, you lose the momentum or just outright change direction. So it's just - my question, or my biggest concern for success over there is with the multiple deployments that there is a cohesive strategy that goes basically from one unit to another as they deploy in and out.

And that's really the greatest crutch that we have, their Achilles heel, anyway, of our whole deployment schedule.

KELLY: Bing, let me let you respond to that, this question of continuity among the teams, whether the PRTs the provincial reconstruction teams, or military or diplomatic, et cetera. Is the question of turnover a problem that is holding back U.S. efforts there?

Mr. WEST: Oh, absolutely not. I mean, we have the most experienced combat leaders we've ever had in the war. We're on our third and fourth tours. That's not the issue. The issue is always this us, us, us.

I mean, we have to stop that. It's getting us nowhere, nation-building in Afghanistan, where we do everything, we give everything to them, we hope they like this project, and then they'll get on our side, et cetera. That dog doesn't hunt. We could be doing this for the next 20 years.

In my book, I try to go through chapter after chapter in the north and in the south. The only sensible thing for us to do is to build up the Afghan soldiers and say: You take this war, and you do it, and you do it right.

And if that means eventually that they become the power behind the throne for this feckless President Karzai and also tell him what to do, so be it.

KELLY: John Nagl?

Mr. NAGL: I got to travel around Iraq with Bing in the summer of 2008, and we spent a bunch of time talking about these issues. And I agree with him completely: Our exit strategy is Afghan security forces. We've put a lot of resources into that, really, since Rob left Afghanistan in 2008. And Rob, whose good service with the provincial reconstruction team unfortunately came when Afghanistan was still a supporting effort, not the main effort. We're still focused on Iraq at that point.

I think Rob, over the last couple of years, we figured out that Afghanistan is now the national priority. President Obama's made that clear. He's got units on a recurring rotation basis going back to Afghanistan again and again. That's putting some strain on the troops, but they know what they're getting into. And I think we're just starting to see the fruits of that investment starting - just starting to pay off.

KELLY: Okay. Rob, thanks very much for that call.

And John Nagl, let me push you on this a little bit. I mean, as I hear it, one of the points Bing West is making is this dog don't hunt, as he put it. If you have the Americans fighting the fight, if this is still an American war, things are never going to turn around in any sort of permanent way. How do you change that?

Mr. NAGL: Uh-huh. I think we've seen this story play out in Iraq a little bit. We wanted to hand over responsibility to the Iraqi forces for their own security. They weren't ready, and the insurgency was at such a level that they couldn't handle it on their own, anyway. So I think we've got to follow a dual-track approach of fighting the insurgency ourselves with an increasing amount of Afghan assistance, while simultaneously increasing the capability, the capacity of the Afghan security forces.

We're going to hit a crossover point when the Afghans will be able to handle the remaining Taliban, and I think we're going to be able to see that start to happen.

C.J. mentioned we're going to see it in the Pech Valley this year, already. We'll get some indications. That's a tough place. That isn't where I would have chosen to put them on the line first. But I do think we're going to find out over the next couple years that Afghans with American assistance, American advisers, are going to be able to make this dog hunt.

KELLY: Bing, I just want to clarify your position. Do you disagree with anything you're hearing in the strategy that John Nagl, your old friend, is here in the studio outlining?

Mr. WEST: Well, not that part of what John said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: But the fundamental issue is whether we're there to fight a war and build up the Afghan soldiers to fight it, or whether we're there to take tribes hurdling headlong into the ninth century and build a modern, democratic state. It's with this nation-building that I say the war is wrong.

I think we could do what we're doing with many fewer troops, much less money we're giving to the Afghans, because we spoil them - they have a culture of entitlement now - and many more advisers.

I am very concerned about the Pech, very concerned about this area the people are talking about up in the north, because half of my book is devoted to that area. I know it very, very well, and I was up there with Chivers from The New York Times in the Korengal Valley.

And we said we're in the Korengal Valley as the stopper in the bottle, so that we could protect the people in the Pech. We said that for five years, and now we've walked away from them. And I'm very, very concerned about what our motives really have been in doing this. We have a war on our hands, and as Chivers said, this is going to be a tough fighting season.

KELLY: All right. We're talking with Bing West. He's a former assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration. Also talking with John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, and we're talking to them here on TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's bring another caller in. We've got on the line from Portland, Oregon, Garrett.

How are you doing? And I understand you have some military service under your belt.

GARRETT (Caller): Yes. I was actually in the Pech and the Korengal Valley with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines back in 2006.

KELLY: 2006. Okay.

GARRETT: My comment was what I found to be true was that about one of out of 10 Afghan soldiers was a good soldier, was a worthwhile soldier.

KELLY: One of out of 10?

GARRETT: And I - I'd say we found one out of 10, maybe sometimes one out of a platoon, a very small amount of good soldiering was going on there. And I think that's one of the key problems in the country. I think what they need to do is they need to take that one Afghan and make him a drill instructor and start with the fundamentals and the basics the way we do in our Marine Corps.

KELLY: John Nagl, what do you make of that? One out of 10?

Mr. NAGL: Back when John was serving in the Korengal, I was at Fort Riley, Kansas, training the American advisers who are going over there to work with those Afghan soldiers. And I don't disagree with him that in 2006, that's the ratio. I think we've gotten better since then. I think the improvements we've made - C.J. talked about a little bit about the improvements we made in the Afghan training pipeline.

In the advisory assistance we've given, we've decided to give to the Afghan security forces partnering American units with Afghan units. I think their learning curve is improving and the numbers are getting better.

I still do think we have a long, long way to go. I think Bing and I agree that the advisory effort and enabling and empowering the Afghan security forces is essential to getting out of this war successfully. I think we disagree on how quickly the Afghans are going to be able to take it themselves. I think we're going to have to do a little more of the fighting for them for another year or two before they're going to be able to handle it.

KELLY: Bing West, let me you respond to that, and also, I just want to push you a little bit on this issue. We've talked about the Pech Valley and the rethinking of what that may mean for U.S. strategy there. Do you disagree here with what you're hearing from John Nagl?

Mr. WEST: I believe that we got out of the Pech Valley because we were pushed out. I think the Taliban's winning up there. That's what bothers me. I was in the province above the Pech Valley called Nuristan. We were pushed out of there. Then we were pushed out of the Korengal. Now we're pushed out of the Pech. I mean, if we have many more of these victories, we're going to be fighting in Kabul.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: I mean, I agree with Garrett, if he's still on the phone. Hey, semper fi, Garrett.

GARRETT: Semper fi, bro.

Mr. WEST: He was out there with Colonel Chip Bierman. Right, with 1-3?

GARRETT: Yes.

Mr. WEST: And - yeah. And he's right: about one in 10 men were good. I'd say to John Nagl - I put it now, John, unfortunately - well, no. OK. I'd put it at one in five. I'm in Chris Chivers' camp. Most of them still aren't good. But the big issue here, John Nagl, that I'd like to see us do is get back to joint promotion boards, because we're putting all our treasure into it. Why can't we insists even, at the top, that every promotion to a company commander or a battalion commander on the Afghan side, that there'd Americans as well as Afghans judging who that person should be? I think that'd make a huge difference.

GARRETT: I agree.

Mr. NAGL: I'm not ready to step into the vagaries of Afghan security force promotion boards. Tough enough to get those right for Americans. I do think that there's more we can do to help them come along faster. We're still not where we need to be in terms of providing advisers. We're still asking NATO for more help with that.

But I'm pleased, Bing, that you agree that the trend line is in the right direction. If that line continues, if we get up to three and five, and four and five, I think we're going to be all right.

KELLY: All right. Thanks very much to all of our guests. Thanks very much, Garrett, for your call from Portland. We've been speaking with John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, now president of the Center for a New American Security, also with former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West.

And up next, The Opinion Page. John Cassidy digs into the reasons that economies of the Arab world lag behind the West. His conclusion: Islam is not to blame.

I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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