How The Fall Troop Surge Changed Afghanistan

Guests

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, associate editor and senior correspondent, Washington Post
Andrew Exum, fellow, Center for a New American Security

President Obama ordered 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan in 2010 in a surge to help NATO forces drive the Taliban out of strategic areas. The strategy: Put intense pressure on the Taliban during the winter months in an effort to see significant progress by spring, when the fighting season resumes.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Last fall, President Obama sent tens of thousands of new troops to turn around the war in Afghanistan. Over the winter, the quiet season, General David Petraeus used those troops to put intense pressure on the Taliban with hopes of significant progress by this spring.

Well, the snow's melting now in Afghanistan. As we prepare for the resumption of the fighting season, we continue a series of conversations about what everyone believes will be a critical year in Afghanistan. On a visit to bases in the south last month, General Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates insisted that insurgents will have a hard time regaining their influence in that area.

We want to hear from people who have been to Afghanistan, especially those who have been there recently. How will you measure success or failure? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the struggle for power in Ivory Coast is over, but violence there continues. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton will join us.

But first, the Afghan spring. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is associate editor for the Washington Post, who frequently reports on Afghanistan. He's just back and joins us here in Studio 3A.

Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN (Associate Editor, Senior Correspondent, Washington Post): Good to be here with you, Neal.

CONAN: And what's changed over these past few months? Is the situation, particularly in the east and the south of Afghanistan, significantly better than it was?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, it's a mixed bag. In the east, I think things are worse than they were last year. The east was long viewed as a part of the country that was sort of holding steady. It was where U.S. troops had been for the longest.

And there was an assumption, I think, on the part of senior U.S. commanders that it would just sort of hold as it was. It wouldn't get much worse. But what we've seen over the past several months is actually, I think, a worsening of the conflict, in part because of increased infiltration from Pakistan, strengthened activities from one of the principal insurgent groups there, the Hakani Network.

But it's a very different picture, Neal, in the south, where the bulk of Obama's surge forces were deployed, both in Helmand province and in Kandahar province, the two biggest parts of southern Afghanistan.

CONAN: And the heartland of the Taliban.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Indeed. There has been, in my view, a pretty significant turnaround over the past several months. As you'll recall there was some pretty stiff fighting there that occurred over the fall months of last year. And that continued in through the winter.

And now, just having come back from two weeks both in Helmand and Kandahar, I was just surprised by the degree to which, in some of the - some of what had once been some of the worst, most violent places, the ability to move around, that the life sort of resuming back to normal, the commercial activity.

I spent four days up in Sangin, which is in northern Helmand province, which -you know, it's been the killing fields of Afghanistan. More than 100 British troops were killed there from 2005 to 2010. And since last summer, more than three dozen U.S. Marines have lost their lives up there.

Now up in Sangin, Marines can actually travel down roads that they once never could before. Some schools are starting to reopen. The main bazaar there is, you know, more crowded than it's been in years.

Now admittedly, these are still early-level indicators. And I want to underscore that I didn't come away feeling like all of this was irreversible. In fact, you know, it feels very fragile, it feels very tenuous, and there are real questions to be raised that we can talk about today about the sustainability of this.

Will Afghan security forces be able to take advantage of some of these gains? Will the Afghan government step in to provide the necessary services to the population that will help to cement some of these gains? Or to what degree will we sort of be in a position of doing this all over again this summer?

CONAN: One of the things - we'll get to those, but one of the things we've kept hearing from commanders was the Taliban has been significantly degraded. We have been effective at attacking mid-level commanders, finding caches of weapons that we never found before, in much larger numbers than before.

Yes, they're going to get new recruits in Pakistan. Yes, they're going to be coming across the border. But they're not going to be as well-led nor as well-equipped.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Indeed. And certainly that's what, you know, I heard and to some degree saw across my travels over these past couple of weeks. An awful lot of - a lot of fighters have been killed over the past several months. So the ranks of those trying to resume the fight will be thinned out.

A lot of their, yes, weapons caches have been unearthed and destroyed. A lot of bunkers - and these are bunkers that date back to the Soviet occupation, in places outside of Kandahar City, in some cases concrete bunkers reinforced with steel beams that literally were impervious to U.S. bombs that soldiers then had to go and blow up from inside with explosives. A lot of those things have been removed.

A lot of IED belts, these are improvised explosive devices, the homemade bombs that they make out of fertilizer, in many cases the Taliban had laid belts and belts of these things to prevent forces from essentially encroaching upon their safe havens.

CONAN: The modern version of minefields.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Indeed. And a lot of these have been removed. So what commanders say is even if large numbers of Taliban take up weapons again, commanders come across the border from Pakistan, which they will, and recruit disaffected young Afghan men to pick up weapons and to plant bombs, that the battlefield has effectively changed because a lot of their safe havens, a lot of their fighting positions have now been removed.

And in many cases, what troops have done has been to further change that by doing things like trying to build big sand berms and putting up concrete walls to prevent movement of people.

So they say: Look, there's going to be a fundamental difference this year because they have so reshaped the field of battle out there.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, Andrew Exum, also with us here in Studio 3A, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, formerly an Army Ranger, also formerly a civilian advisor to General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan.

It's nice to have you back, as well.

Mr. ANDREW EXUM (Fellow, Center for a New American Security): Thanks a lot.

CONAN: And in February, we spoke with your colleague, John Nagl, who was pretty optimistic about how things were going, while Bing West, a former assistant secretary in the Reagan administration, said at that time he'd have to give the upper hand to the Taliban.

As you listen to Rajiv Chandrasekaran's description, how are things going to go? Are those tactical successes going to translate to political success?

Mr. EXUM: Well, you know, first off, I think my own analysis largely matches up with Rajiv's observations. I think that where you can establish some degree of correlation between where we've had a high troop-to-population ratio, such as in the south and R.C. Southwest. And you can see gains in security, where we have had a lower troop-to-population ratio, such as in R.C. East - that's Regional Command East - we have seen the conflict worsen.

You know, in comparison to both John's assessment, as well as Bing West, and I respect both men tremendously, I think I'm going to be a little more cautious on passing judgment on the success or failure of the current strategy until the summer, and I'll tell you why.

We often make the mistake in America of thinking of the fighting season in Afghanistan like the baseball season, you know, it starts in early spring, and it winds up sometime around October or November, earlier if you're a Nationals fan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EXUM: But the reality is is that the fighting in Afghanistan never really ceases at any point, especially not in southern Afghanistan. And although the conflict is more kinetic, that is to say there's a lot more shooting going on in the summer, a campaign of fear and intimidation still rules the roost in the winter.

That having been said, the conflict is cyclical to a degree. It heats up in the summer. And so for a civilian analyst like myself, looking at the conflict, I have to look at the data of, say, one district in one month of a year.

So I look at the Arghandab River Valley, where we've seen, where we think we've seen, tremendous security gains over the past 12 months, but I'm going to wait and reserve judgment until around June, July, August so I can look and see: Okay, how does security incidents in June, July, August of 2010 match up against security incidents of June, July, August 2011.

That's different from, say, for example, the conflict in Iraq, where we surged in, and you saw a pretty precipitous drop of ethno-sectarian violence almost immediately after the surge.

CONAN: It's going to be interesting because there's another schedule that we have to bear in mind, and that's the president's schedule. He wants to start withdrawing troops by July. In fact, he's promised to start withdrawing troops by July. And we'll get to those questions, as well.

But in any case, we want to hear from those of you who have been to Afghanistan, served there, particularly those who have been recently, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And we'll start with John(ph), and John's with us from Laramie in Wyoming.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, thank you. Exactly six months ago today, my nephew was killed in Afghanistan. He was part of the 3-5 Marine Unit over there. And what I've been hearing on the news lately is that the critical factor in this war is the Afghan people rising up and fighting for their own country and that if we do pull our troops out, when we do pull our troops out, that their country may fall again and be ruled totally by Taliban.

What is the truth that we see now on that situation? What is happening with the Afghanistan people who do not want to be ruled by the Taliban? Are they fighting? Are they prepared? Are they willing to fight?

CONAN: John, condolences on your loss. That must have been tough.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Andrew Exum?

Mr. EXUM: Yeah, first off, let me just echo that. A lot of families have sacrificed very - a lot in this campaign, in this war. And I have several friends who did not make it back.

Populations in civil wars in general are just trying to survive, and they'll survive by hedging, by swinging back and forth, by trying to stay on the sidelines. And the goal for both the Taliban as well as the government of Afghanistan and its NATO and U.S. allies, is to try to get them to choose sides.

What we see in Afghanistan and elsewhere is where we are able to establish a presence, where we are able to really control the population, you start to see collaboration. You start to see the population picking a side, and that's certainly been the case in the east and in the north.

In the south, meanwhile, that is actually where we're still waiting on a degree of - I want to say collaboration or cooperation from the population. One of the big problems we have with the Afghan National Army, which so far has been a success story over the past 18 months or so, is that we've still not seen the participation from Pashtun southerners and its officer corps. And there's a real danger that it's going to become, you know, a military thats dominated by presence from the north.

CONAN: By Tajiks, another ethnic group.

Mr. EXUM: Right, so unfortunately - or from, you know, Pashtun from other areas. So unfortunately, the jury is still out on this. But the caller has hit on the exact right question to be asking right now.

CONAN: And John we'll get a response from Rajiv Chandrasekaran to this absolutely vital question when we come back after a short break, but thanks very much for the phone call.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: And stay with us. If you've been to Afghanistan, especially recently, how are you going to measure success or failure there once the fighting season resumes in full force? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan.

We're talking about spring in Afghanistan. Last fall, with a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops in place, NATO commanders claimed progress against the Taliban, especially in the southern part of the county, areas around Kandahar. And they say the real proof, though, would come, well, about now, during the annual start of the spring fighting season.

Are there real signs of progress in Afghanistan? Rajiv Chandrasekaran, associate editor and senior correspondent with the Washington Post, just back from Afghanistan; Andrew Exum, who led an infantry platoon in Afghanistan in 2002, now a fellow with the Center for a New American Security, he last visited the country in December.

We want to hear from those of you who have been to the country, especially those who have been to Afghanistan recently. How will you measure success or failure? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Rajiv, just before the break, John from Laramie called to ask the question of: To what degree are the Afghans ready to defend themselves?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: And that is the key question. When you look at places like Sangin district, where John's nephew lost his life, I was a member of a U.S. Marine battalion that has suffered more casualties than any other in this war thus far and paid an enormous price but I believe has also achieved an awful lot in terms of trying to improve security in that one very violent district.

But while, as I noted earlier, people can transit on the roads, there's more activity in the bazaars, schools are starting to reopen, Afghan civilians in that district and in many other parts of southern Afghanistan still remain very apprehensive.

They see some of these changes, but they're really uncertain about the future. They dont fully understand to what degree U.S. forces will continue to stay in those areas, to what degree Afghan security forces will be able to step up and provide the necessary protection. So in many cases, people are just sort of hunkering down. They're hanging back. They're staying on the fence.

And unfortunately, that's a real problem when you're trying to mount a counterinsurgency campaign because ultimately, you need those people to step up and start to report: Hey, my neighbor is building bombs. Or: Hey, I just saw three Taliban fighters, you know, going over there.

If you don't have that ground-level intelligence from ordinary residents, you'll never fully be able to deliver security in these places.

Mr. EXUM: Absolutely right.

CONAN: And do you share Andrew Exum's appreciation that the Afghan army is much improved, and the police forces - he did not mention this, I don't mean to put words in his mouth - but police forces somewhat less?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, yeah, the police forces are still very rough around the edges. There have been great improvements but still a long way to go.

And to his point about southern ethnic Pashtuns joining the security forces, I was in one district near Kandahar where a 500-strong battalion of Afghan soldiers, of those 500, just one of them was from Kandahar.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Shah(ph), Shah with us from Sacramento.

SHAH (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to make a comment and say that about five, six years, my family traveled back - out from Afghanistan. My family traveled back home, and they thought it was okay whether they needed to attend a wedding or a funeral, whatnot.

And today, if you ask my family, they won't go back because of communication with back home that they don't come. The basic thing is don't come.

CONAN: Where is home in Afghanistan?

SHAH: We're from Kabul.

CONAN: So that capital, which is supposed to be one of the safer places.

SHAH: Yeah, it's one of the safer places. Our family is from Kabul, but we have family in Paktia province. So...

CONAN: That's in the eastern part of the country, yes.

SHAH: Yes.

CONAN: Okay, and so they say at this point, they wouldn't go back for a wedding or a funeral?

SHAH: Right now, the description that they give, they say that the country is on fire.

CONAN: On fire. All right, Shah, thank you very much for the call, appreciate it.

SHAH: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jeff(ph), Jeff with us from Madison.

JEFF (Caller): Yes, hello, thanks.

CONAN: Hi.

JEFF: I was in Afghanistan in December, in Kabul and then up in Faizabad in Badakhshan province, doing training for a humanitarian relief organization that's doing some very good work there.

And on the way back to Kabul from Faizabad, our U.N. flight blew two tires and was forced to spend the night in Maymana in Faryab province, where the next morning, when we had the plane finally fixed and were ready to head back to Kabul, there were a couple of hundred U.S. soldiers being deployed, I think from Fort Drum they said, to parts unknown to me, anyway.

CONAN: That would have been the 10th Mountain Division, yes.

JEFF: I happened to talk to one soldier who was not from Fort Drum. I said: Oh, you're not from Fort Drum. He says: No, I come down from Germany every once in a while to look around. I don't know what that meant. But then he told me, and I quote pretty much, he said he had done two tours in Iraq and had seen demonstrable, substantive gain in that country.

He said he'd last been to Afghanistan four or five years before. He was down there then in December, and he said: I haven't seen a damned bit of change.

Now, I can't - I'm not an expert. I was there two weeks. That's what he told me. I can say that everyone I talked to there, very educated people, I said to them, I asked them continually: What is the difference, substantive difference, if the troops pull out tomorrow or five years from tomorrow? What happens the day after tomorrow or the day after five years from tomorrow?

And no one, no one had any kind of response. And I'm talking about from Fulbright scholars on down to the people I was training.

CONAN: All right, Jeff. Andrew Exum?

Mr. EXUM: Yeah, I mean, today, actually, I was looking at my watch on the way down here on the Metro, today is the ninth anniversary of the first time I left Afghanistan on the first of my two military deployments there.

And so I'm deeply conscious of how long we have been in Afghanistan. But the comment on Iraq I think is deeply telling. Really starting around the time I first left Afghanistan in 2002, we redirected the vast majority of our available military and intelligence resources away from Afghanistan to Iraq, which is why Afghanistan has languished so much, really until about 18, 24 months ago.

Whether or not this new commitment of resources to Afghanistan makes a difference remains to be seen. In this type of counterinsurgency campaign, the best you can hope for, really victory, is setting the security conditions for some sort of peaceful political process to go forward.

And really, I think that the type of reconciliation, the type of negotiations that would lead to long-term security in Afghanistan, for understandable reasons, U.S. and Afghan officials are mum about the status of such negotiations with the Taliban or with Pakistan.

But those really are the key, and they're - I would say that unless you get some sort of political reconciliation, the most you can hope to do is keep security conditions in place ad infinitum.

CONAN: Jeff...

JEFF: One quick follow-up?

CONAN: Sure.

JEFF: As your guest just said, the people to whom I spoke are keenly aware that we took the eyes - our eyes off the prize years ago, when we redirected. And they're very keenly aware of that and feel that if we hadn't, things would be -could be very different today. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jeff, for the phone call.

Mr. EXUM: Thanks, Jeff.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Hamira(ph), I hope I'm getting that right, in San Francisco.

HAMIRA (Caller): Yes, this is Hamira. I was actually in Afghanistan for two weeks. I returned last Tuesday and very happy to be back in the U.S.

I was actually in the second-most-dangerous province of Afghanistan, called Ghazni I was in the Gozni PRT FOB.

CONAN: That's also in the eastern part of the country, yes.

HAMIRA: And - well, it's actually central Afghanistan. Ghazni is to the west of Kabul.

CONAN: Oh, excuse me.

HAMIRA: And one of the things that I noticed drastically since my last trip five years ago is that security is definitely a lot worse. And there's a lot of work being done by the NATO forces in Ghazni, but no one seems to know about it.

The Afghans don't know about the work that they are doing both as far as development, and of course they don't know anything about the military effort, and neither do Americans.

And I feel that it's very important that the kind of work that's being put into education, agriculture and such are communicated out to the community, so then there is some sense of security from the Afghan people.

CONAN: Just follow up on that, Hamira, there - we were talking about military gains. Hand in hand with that go the kind of civilian projects that she's talking about in Ghazni, which is to the east of Kabul. But is that - do you see evidence of that, Rajiv?

HAMIRA: Yes...

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: If you don't have security, all of those development efforts will come to naught for the long term.

Mr. EXUM: Absolutely.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: The bottom line is that the Afghan people want security more than anything else. And so we can build all the schools we want and all the clinics we want, and that's a good thing, and in many cases these things are much needed by the Afghans. But ultimately, it won't change the center of gravity there because security remains the paramount concern for Afghan people.

And I think one of the reasons there's been this backsliding in places like Ghazni and across Regional Command East and in other parts of the country, including up north in places like Faryab, is that there simply haven't been enough troops there to address this.

And so why did I see the changes I saw in parts of the south? Because in the districts I was in, we did a full-court press with surge forces and, you know, in many cases, thousands of U.S. forces in relatively small districts.

Now, you can do that in some places, but you can't do that across the country. And so the big challenge for General David Petraeus and his other commanders is going to be, well, how do you then take some of these forces and apply them elsewhere and try to sort of keep the Taliban at bay in those other places and - but how do you avoid playing this sort of game of sort whack-a-mole? Like push them there, they pop up over here.

And the big concern is while security seems to improved in some of the worst parts of the south, they still don't feel like they can pull those forces out and apply them to the Ghaznis or the Paktikas...

Mr. EXUM: That's right.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: ...or the coast provinces in the east. And so they're now facing this very complicated challenge. Overlaying all of this is the president's stated promise to begin withdrawing forces this July. And so you're left in a world where, all right, we're making progress here but much of the rest of the country seems to be foundering.

Mr. EXUM: That's right. And what the ISAF command wants to do, what General Petraeus wants to do is by the summer, he's going to want to start moving a lot of those troops that we have in the south and repositioning them in the east, in kind of the greater Paktia region where Shah's( family lives - is from.

You know, Rajiv is a hundred percent correct that you have to establish security. You have to establish a degree of control over the environment. And with all due respect to the caller, the idea that we can do good works, that we can build roads, that we can build schools, and that - this is going to somehow address drivers of conflict, that's unfortunately proven to be incorrect.

As a matter of fact, a lot of the money that we're putting into Afghanistan is distorting the conflict in Afghanistan and creating perverse incentives to where none of the actors - the insurgents, the government - has an interest in the United States leaving. What we have to do is establish some degree of security which then allows us to build up local Afghan forces, and that then sets the conditions for some sort of political settlement.

But Rajiv is correct where we have not been able to surge troops, where we are still fighting an economy of force mission, that is where the Taliban is winning. And the same way that when we had the vast majority of our resources devoted to Iraq, Afghanistan worsened, and that's to be expected.

I know what General Petraeus and what the other commanders at ISAF want to do. They want to gradually shift our resources from the south into the east whether they're allowed or able to do that in light of the expectations in Washington that we're going to begin a drawdown in July very much remains to be seen.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: But it's not just Washington expectations. I think it's also the...

CONAN: (Unintelligible).

Mr. EXUM: That's also true.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: ...reality on the ground out there. And while they've made these improve - achieved these improvements, it just does not seem like the Afghan forces are going to be able to take over from them any time soon. So you're left in this world where, all right, we can hold onto this ground...

Mr. EXUM: That's right.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: ...if we keep the troops there. But if we try to move them to the east to address the problems there, are we in a position of fundamentally backsliding in places where...

Mr. EXUM: Right.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: ...we sacrificed an awful lot of American blood and treasure?

CONAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security. We're talking about the Afghan spring. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we've been talking about this in the Afghan context. That's not the only context. There's also the Pakistan context.

The winter, the Taliban is able to retreat across the border, reequip, rearm, rest, get ready, plan for the new season of fighting to some degree. Obviously, some people remain in Afghanistan. There has been a lot of fighting there over the winter.

Nevertheless, we see new tensions between the United States and Pakistan over intelligence activities and continued drone attacks. We see there are reports that the CIA may have been, to some degree, effective in interfering with some of the Taliban, higher-level Taliban commanders in Quetta, places they have not been able to attack with drones. What's the situation with Pakistan?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, there's considerable unease among American military commanders in Afghanistan because of the Pakistan situation. The worry that drone attacks, which there is a broad consensus in the U.S. security establishment that they have been particularly effective of late, that those will have to be curtailed, that other CIA activities there will also be, in some ways, attenuated because of Pakistani demands that certain, you know, contractors that help to enable CIA operatives working in that country be sent home or their visas not renewed.

And more broadly, just the general tension between the two intelligence services which, again, is fundamentally counterproductive to trying to clamp down both on the issue of Taliban infiltration into Afghanistan but also the very bad actors who are seeking to destabilize the government in Islamabad.

CONAN: And, Andrew Exum, there's some suspicion that the Pakistanis are most upset, at the moment, because the CIA has been particularly effective against an organization which they did a great deal to establish and fund and organize, the Taliban, and in which they still have an interest.

Mr. EXUM: Look, the Pakistanis have been pursuing a pretty logical hygiene strategy since about 2005. As soon as we started to divert resources away from Afghanistan, the Pakistanis began to quite logically plan for a post-American, post-Western Afghanistan, and that meant reconstituting a lot of the proxy groups that would represent Pakistan's interests in a post-Western Afghanistan.

The - now, at the time or right at this moment, Pakistan is very frustrated with the United States. There's - you see Pakistani officials...

CONAN: That cuts both ways.

Mr. EXUM: Absolutely. You see Pakistani officials quoted in the press saying that you have to either trust the ISI or not trust them because the Pakistani security service has been very helpful, quite honestly, in helping the United States and its allies target al-Qaida and those insurgent groups which threaten Pakistan.

But the reason the United States can't be fully trustful of the Pakistanis is because we know that they have been arming, training, supporting those insurgent groups which threaten the state in Afghanistan.

CONAN: And sending essentially people across the border to kill American soldiers.

Mr. EXUM: General Petraeus says he has two strategic Achilles' heels right now. One is Afghan governance. We've never figured out how to make the Afghan government more responsive to the needs of its people. The second is sanctuaries in Pakistan. We have not figured out in all these nine and a half years of conflict a way to address those sanctuaries.

CONAN: We're talking with Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, just back from Afghanistan last December; Rajiv Chandrasekaran, associate editor and senior correspondent for the Washington Post, just back from Afghanistan last week. He's got a big article coming out this week in the Washington Post, so take a look for that.

Can you guys stay over, take a couple more calls?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Sure.

Mr. EXUM: Sure.

CONAN: All right. We'll take a couple more calls. We also hope to connect with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, our correspondent in West Africa, to hear about the endgame in Abidjan. So stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: In a couple of minutes, we hope to connect with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, our west Africa correspondent in Abidjan, but let's continue our conversation on the Afghan spring with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, associate editor and senior correspondent for the Washington Post, just back from Afghanistan last week; and Andrew Exum, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security, a former platoon commander in Afghanistan and just back from that country in December.

800-989-8255. If you've been there recently, give us a - send us email to -that's talk@npr.org.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Peter(ph). Peter with us from Basalt in Colorado - or is it Basalt?

PETER (Caller): Basalt.

CONAN: Basalt. Go ahead.

PETER: Yeah. I've not been in Afghanistan, but I do have a question. Recently -well, your guests are saying that a key to our being successful in Afghanistan is to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, and keep winning the hearts and minds is to provide security.

So I wonder if either of your guests would like to comment on the story that recently appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in rather graphic detail of incidents involving the Stryker Brigade and kill teams of American troops who were offing Afghan civilians just for the heck of it.

CONAN: For trophies, for sport, in some cases.

PETER: Exactly.

CONAN: Andrew Exum?

Mr. EXUM: Well, I mean, first off, the atrocities that were detailed in not just the article in Rolling Stone but also in the official investigations are horrific. They point to an ineffective noncommissioned and commissioned officer corps, not just ineffective noncommissioned officer corps but a maligned noncommissioned, you know, officer corps in that particular unit.

And, you know, the caller is implying that those types of atrocities actually have a strategic effect, and the answer to that is they absolutely do. We've seen that in Iraq, for example, the actions of, you know, a couple junior enlisted soldiers in a prison detail in Abu Ghraib had a horrific strategic effect on not just the war in Iraq but also on U.S. interests all over the Middle East.

We've seen in Afghanistan that a lone, you know, I hesitate to use the word pastor who burns a Quran in Florida has a strategic effect on northern Afghanistan, you know, which had been relatively peaceful until the horrific events outside the U.N. compound in Balkh province.

And the reality is, again, that the incidents in the Kandahar province with the Stryker Brigade are unforgivable, and they do have a strategic effect.

The good news is that the vast majority - I mean, it really is the exception to the rule. We have an incredibly competent and moral commissioned and noncommissioned officer corps in Afghanistan.

And the fact that the all-volunteer force has been able to maintain such a high level of discipline even after a decade of combat is really a testament to our men and women in our armed services.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the call.

I'd like to ask both of you the question that we stated at the beginning of the program. How are you going to measure success or failure? Andrew Exum, you said you wanted to wait till June or July. Those are traditionally the months with the highest American causalities.

Mr. EXUM: That's right, yeah. I'm going to look at - again, I think you have to measure security by district - that's one useful metric - and to look at, you know, again, how does the violence in the Arghandab River Valley look from July 2010 to July 2011. That's one useful thing to look at.

In terms of the Afghan national security forces, I wouldn't focus on quantity, you know, how many kandaks we're rolling out, how many officers are we producing. But I would look at, you know, there are some other key metrics to look at.

How many noncommissioned officers report for duty every day within the Afghan national security forces? What percentage of the officer corps serving in southern Afghanistan are Pashtun from southern Afghanistan. These are things that don't necessarily point to quantity but point towards more quality or the performance of these units under fire.

It's very difficult to put a quantitative assessment on the performance of a, you know, unit under fire, but I think we can make a pretty good qualitative assessment of how well the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are doing on the ground.

CONAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the same question. of these units under fire. It's very difficult to put a quantitative assessment on the performance of a, you know, unit under fire. But I think we can make pretty good qualitative assessments of how well the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are doing on the ground.

CONAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the same question.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Yeah. I mean, I wouldn't focus as much on the number of troops that are getting killed. I know that's an important metric for the home front. But I'd look at things like tips from Afghan civilians or in some of these places where U.S. forces have now pushed into do people feel comfortable enough to start reporting what they believe to be insurgent activity.

Do people feel comfortable enough to send their children to school? That's a huge indicator. You know, people will go to the market because they need food. But will they send their kids to school? And in a number of these southern provinces, the people are still very reluctant to do that.

Can the Afghan army operate on its own? And will the Afghan government step up and take advantage of some of the security improvements to actually send the necessary personnel out to these districts to provide basic government services? Thus far, the government has been incredibly sclerotic at this. They need to be a lot better and that's an important indicator as well.

CONAN: Quick last word from Andrew.

Mr. EXUM: Yeah. Let me just say, Rajiv is right not to look at violence in one sense. We said don't worry about the violence in southern Afghanistan last year because we're contesting that area. In eastern Afghanistan, if we start to move there, expect violence to go up.

The problem is, after we surge into an area, if the violence doesn't eventually plateau and then go back down, at that point we've got a problem because we don't have any sustainable security.

CONAN: All right. Andrew Exum of the Center for New American Security, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, thanks for your time.

Stay with us. We're going to be talking with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in just a moment.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.