How The U.S. Can Exit Afghanistan

Guests

Quil Lawrence, Kabul bureau chief, NPR
Seth Jones, senior political strategist, Rand Corporation
Bing West, author, The Wrong War

President Obama could soon announce a plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Public support has withered for the war, there are disagreements within the White House, and members of both parties in Congress are calling for a quick end to the 10-year-old conflict.

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. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. When President Barack Obama announced his Afghan troop surge in December 2009, he promised that those troops would start to come home next month. He's expected to announce how many and what kind as soon as this week. He may also give us a timeline on the shutdown of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan.

After almost 10 years, public support for the war is withering. Members of both parties in Congress cite the cost of lives lost, the expense and the death of Osama bin Laden as reasons to speed up the withdrawal, but some argue we need to retain U.S. combat troops to consolidate the hard-won gains of the surge and give the Afghans time to train up.

What's the responsible way to leave Afghanistan? We especially want to hear from those of you who have been there. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, on The Opinion Page, the link between the death of basketball star Len Bias 25 years ago and the war on drugs. But first, the way out of Afghanistan. Seth Jones joins us from the Rand Corporation in Arlington, Virginia, where he is a senior political scientist. He spent much of the last two years advising military leaders in Afghanistan. And Seth Jones, nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION. Seth Jones, are you there?

We're trying to get in touch with - we're trying to get - we're trying to get in touch with Seth Jones at the Rand Corporation in Afghanistan to begin our conversation on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. As mentioned, 33,000 troops were sent by President Obama back in 2009, after a long and tortured decision.

The outgoing secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, says the current decision-making process has been considerably less tortured. The president is expected to make the announcement of how many troops he will withdraw in July and what kind of forces they will be.

Should they be combat troops, like those that were sent as part of the surge, or support troops, those who are, of course, important to provide the logistical train for the men who are in combat, but they're not the ones who are the trigger-pullers, as the Marines and the U.S. Army like to call them, those that are in the front line in the combat against the Taliban mostly at this point in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

If you've got a thought on the responsible way out of Afghanistan, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And this is all in the context of a plan, as far as we understand it, that all U.S. combat troops would be out of Afghanistan by 2014.

Let's turn now to Quil Lawrence, NPR's bureau chief in Kabul, and Quil Lawrence, nice of you to stay with us.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, there's been, over the past few days, an extraordinary exchange between the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and Karl Eikenberry, the outgoing U.S. ambassador in Kabul. This is all in the context of the planned announcement by the president, but start, if you would, with what President Hamid Karzai had to say.

LAWRENCE: Well, Saturday he made a couple of speeches, and it has to be said that they were at the end of months and months of similar digs at coalition forces. It's been over a year now since the first time President Karzai, in a public speech, actually threatened to join the Taliban.

And oftentimes he'll be making these criticisms after a mistaken U.S. airstrike that killed perhaps a dozen civilians, and his criticism is very harsh. He'll get an apology later from the Americans, but the - sometimes, for example on Saturday, this happened almost at the same time that three suicide bombers attacked a police checkpoint in the center of Kabul and killed 11 people, most of them civilians.

This is the sort of thing that has had American officials here shaking their heads for quite some time. Eikenberry has been here for two years. Before that, he was here twice as a military man. And it's not clear whether this was just a personal - when Eikenberry made his remarks yesterday, he said he was speaking from the heart and responding, without naming the president, to the remarks that President Karzai had made.

CONAN: Yet the embassy was quick with copies of those remarks. These were - well, had they been cleared with Washington?

LAWRENCE: Well, they weren't as quick as we would've liked. It was quite a while before they sent out what they called an amended speech. They said he had gone off of his prepared remarks, but I'm not sure if that's plausible deniability because there was some warning to some journalists that he might be saying something.

Now, we don't know where Eikenberry's next assignment is. His relationship here was off to a bad start very early on, when Bob Woodward's book released a cable where Eikenberry was talking about President Hamid Karzai as being someone who's possibly mentally ill. The quote that everyone might remember was he's on his meds, he's off his meds. And that poisoned the relationship between the U.S. ambassador and the president of Afghanistan from the start.

After that, there were more WikiLeaks, again giving frank assessments of Karzai's weakness as a leader, all under Eikenberry's name. So it wasn't that he had much of a relationship to destroy with the president.

CONAN: And at this point, have the Afghans, so far as anybody knows, been told of the U.S. plans that the president may announce as soon as this week?

LAWRENCE: No, everyone's waiting to hear what the number will be. We don't know that they have any advance warning on that. Everybody's been speculating about it for quite some time, and it's happening at the same time as seven areas in the country will be transitioning to Afghan control.

Most of them are not a huge challenge. They're places in the country where in fact Afghan security forces, police and soldiers, have been in control for some time. But it's sort of a pilot project, hopefully a confidence-building measure where Afghan forces will be in the lead, and American forces will step back, and this is supposed to build people's trust in their armed forces, et cetera.

CONAN: And as this transition happens, are Afghans - let me put it this way: Is President Karzai cognizant of the need for continued U.S. presence, combat presence, to bolster his regime, or is he thinking about, as he said, joining the Taliban?

LAWRENCE: It's almost without a doubt that President Karzai knows that his regime is really being held up by the 130,000 foreign troops in country; 100,000 of those are American. And most Afghan analysts say he's just playing a double game. One the one hand, he knows he has to keep the American troops here; on the other hand, there's a growing anti-American sentiment after 10 years and many mistakes by the Americans here, and he's certainly playing to the gallery and perhaps to the Taliban with whom he'd like to strike a deal.

And on the third hand, he knows that the Americans can't really pull out that fast. The Americans need a stable Afghanistan, and Hamid Karzai is probably their only option, at least until the next election cycle in 2014, when the U.S. is supposed to be leaving anyhow.

CONAN: And finally, President Karzai said the Americans are in negotiations with the Taliban. The secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, said on TV over the weekend only very preliminary feeling-out kinds of discussions have happened so far, and he doesn't expect anything to bear any fruit at all until maybe next winter.

LAWRENCE: We've been trying to parse this for months here. It's been kind of a discussion of how many high-level Taliban commanders can dance on the head of a pin. There's been attempts to get in contact with the Taliban. It's been very clear that NATO here on the ground, especially the British, have been reaching out to people who, in one case at least, an imposter who they thought was a high-ranking Taliban member.

But we've had nothing confirmed on the ground here. The Taliban are constantly denying they're in talks. We've had several reports of meetings in Germany or in Britain, and really when President Karzai said this on Saturday, it was in the middle of one of his typically I guess contradictory speeches. He was contradicting things he had said in the past and even sometimes things he'd said in his own speech. And so it was difficult to say really how seriously you should take it when he said the Americans are in negotiations, but he was implying that the Afghan government isn't.

And then what was even more surprising was when Secretary of Defense Gates came out on the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday and confirmed that there were preliminary contacts. Still, the Taliban deny any contact at all.

CONAN: Quil Lawrence, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

LAWRENCE: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Quil Lawrence, NPR Kabul bureau chief, joined us from the bureau there in Kabul. And now Seth Jones joins us from the Rand Corporation in Arlington, where he's a senior political scientist who spent much of the last two years advising military leaders in Afghanistan. Nice to have you with us today.

SETH JONES: Thanks, it's great to be on, Neal.

CONAN: And speaking of the president's options, you've said in fact he has three.

JONES: Yeah, I've testified recently in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and laid out three options. One would be the sort of classic counterterrorism strategy that many people, including some in the White House, have advocated, which is reducing most U.S. forces to a bare minimum, perhaps several hundred Special Operations forces who do primarily targeted actions against al-Qaida and other foreign fights and potentially some senior Taliban in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.

The second would be something along the lines of the status quo right now, which is a fairly robust conventional and Special Operations footprint, which would do both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, still probably several divisions in Afghanistan, maybe 60,000 forces by something along the lines of 2012, '13 and then slowly decreasing by 2014.

And then a third option, which is where I came down with really something in the middle, downsizing especially the conventional presence over time by 2014 pretty significantly and focusing on the use of Special Operations forces both for targeting action but also for training Afghanistan national and local security forces.

So there are a whole range of options not just in terms of the force presence but I think also in terms of the strategy that's used.

CONAN: And how would the president signal that by withdrawing, say, 5,000 support troops, he might signal that he wants to keep a lot of combat forces there for as long as possible.

JONES: I think, you know, the way this has happened over the last several years, and I've been - I was involved in last year's review for the president, is this often happens year by year. So the decision on decreasing the number of forces this year still leaves a fair amount of options open for next year and the year after.

So even if the president decides to decrease the force presence say by 5,000 to 10,000 forces this year, presumably downsizing them when the fighting season ends, after the fall, that that still leaves a lot of questions for 2012, '13, '14 and beyond that have not been resolved yet.

CONAN: Seth Jones, thanks for being with us. We're going to try to improve the quality of that telephone line, for which we apologize. He's going to return after a short break. We're also going to talk to Bing West and to you. What's the responsible way out of Afghanistan? It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In early December 2009, President Obama spoke with military cadets at West Point and announced he would send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, he said, our troops will begin to come home. That deadline arrives next month.

We're talking today about how to get out of Afghanistan. We especially want to hear from those of you who've been there. What's the responsible way to leave? Our phone number, 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.

Our guest is Seth Jones, who's spent much of the last two years in Afghanistan advising the U.S. military. He's a senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation and wrote the book "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan." And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. We'll start with Steve, and Steve's on the line with us from Denver.

STEVE: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

STEVE: Before - I just got back from Afghanistan in February. I was deployed with an Army Reserve unit, and we were building infrastructure, basically building FOBs. Before I deployed over there, I would have said we need to stay until, you know, until the job's finished, whatever that entails, you know, until the Afghans can stand on their own feet.

But after spending a year over there, I think that the way forward would be to draw down as much as possible, get as many - get our forces out of there and go with that small footprint just to support the Afghans in countering al-Qaida mainly because I don't see spending another year or spending another five years making any difference.

CONAN: You talk about constructing FOBs, forward operating bases. Is that right?

STEVE: Yes, yes, for the surge troops that came in.

CONAN: And so you were there in the provinces that have been on the front lines.

STEVE: Oh, yeah. We were in Kandahar Province, right on the - wherever the Taliban was born, across the street from where the Taliban was born.

CONAN: And if there was one thing you could point to as changing your mind, what would it be?

STEVE: Well, I was also deployed to Iraq, and there was a distinct feeling the entire time we were in Iraq that even though there were people fighting us, there was also - there were also a lot of people who desired to move forward into the modern world, and there absolutely is no sense of that in the part of Afghanistan I was in.

There was absolutely no sense that the people desire any kind of modern country, any modern state. It really feels like there's not going to be any difference a year from now or five years from now in the lives of the people in those provinces.

And I'll tell you something else. My son is a Marine stationed in Afghanistan right now, in southern Helmand Province, and you know, he says the same thing. And the only thing they're doing down there is searching for IEDs that are set for the Marines.

CONAN: Those improvised...

STEVE: If they left, the people would go right back to their lifestyle that they've been living for hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, and the only difference in their lives in that province would be that there would be no more reason to set IEDs.

CONAN: Those improvised explosive devices that they use against the...

STEVE: Yes.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call. Welcome home. We wish your son the best of luck.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now from his home in Newport, Rhode Island, is Bing West, who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He has since published several books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Bing West, good to have you back on the program.

BING WEST: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Your most recent book is called "The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan." With that title, we should assume you would support a faster withdrawal.

WEST: Yes, I would. What Steve just said is the essence of the problem, that there we are down in Helmand and these other places, and we're doing all the fighting, and it's not clear, you know, how this change anything to a large extent. We have to get the Afghans more into the fight.

I'm pretty much in the same camp as Seth Jones is: get a better advisor outfit and fewer of our own forces doing the fighting.

CONAN: And that means a quick, some might say a quick withdrawal of U.S. combat forces puts the gains of the surge at risk.

WEST: Well, you can be subtle about it. I mean, you don't have to rush for any exit. You can simply gradually change who's in the lead in these patrols. And the key to doing that is this new team that's coming in.

I'm absolutely convinced, by the way, Neal, this is going to happen. I mean, you know, I really am, because you have an entirely new military team coming in in October, and if you look at them, you have General Allen who's going to be in charge in Afghanistan; General Madison, Central Command; General Dempsey as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs; General Odierno in charge of the Army and General Dunford as the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.

What those five gentlemen have in common is they all went through the transition experience in Iraq in Anbar Province in 2006-2007, and I am absolutely convinced they're going to take that playbook and quietly apply it in Afghanistan, which will lead to fewer forces being there but in a very quiet manner.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Aaron(ph) in San Antonio: Today, June 20th, marks the third anniversary of the death of a fellow Marine from San Antonio in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. His name is Sergeant Matthew E. Mendoza(ph). The mission is an important one, but the cost is great. Looking forward to having all Marines and servicemen home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Thank you and semper fidelis.

Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tim, and Tim's with us from Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

TIM: Hi. You know, I just got back, and I'll tell you, what your caller, the person you were just talking to on the air said is wrong because I had a 200-man company of ANA, Afghan National Army, working with us on missions, and we'd get the same 22 people each and every time. They don't want to take the lead.

We had to kick (bleep) - pardon my language, but...

CONAN: I understand, and I apologize for excising the word in question, but I understand your anger at the loss of your buddy's life. And I have to ask you not to use that kind of language.

WEST: If I could, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, Bing West.

WEST: Hey, skipper, look, Tim, I understand exactly what you're saying. The dilemma we have is if we don't have them do it, we don't want to be doing it for them forever. I believe it's going to end up a mess. I understand from being out with all the advisor teams that it's really hit or miss with the Afghan soldiers. And I don't know more than anybody else how to infuse the Afghans with a sense of their own patriotism and to take responsibility for themselves.

But I do know that it is wrong, after 10 years, for us to continue to give them all the money we're giving them, and we've spoiled them, and we've inculcated into them this sense of entitlement so we have this semi-nutcake as a president over there, Karzai, feeling he can say whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

If we don't start becoming firm and saying, look, you have to do this, we're not going to do it all for you forever, we're going to be stuck there. Now, the other thing that I believe is I do believe in a straight-up fight today, the Taliban would beat the Afghan army because the Taliban have more ferocity. But at the same time, we're negotiating with the Taliban.

Now, that tells us that our top leaders do not believe the Taliban is the same as al-Qaida. That is, they don't see the Taliban as our mortal threat because if they did, and it was our critical interest, we wouldn't be trying to negotiate with them.

So I think we can end up with a pretty messy situation but one that doesn't require so many of our soldiers, so many of your troops, so many of the Marines down in Helmand having to carry the burden for them.

CONAN: Tim, we're sorry for your loss.

TIM: And thank you, but - and I agree with him. I'm just saying, you know, everyone says how are we going to get a clean or a good pullout, and let's get it through our minds now, it's not going to be clean, it's not going to be a good pullout. If we just pull out, it's going to collapse anyway. So it's like ripping a Band-Aid off. Let's just rip it off and see where we go. 'Cause that's...

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much for the call. Welcome home. And Seth Jones, let's bring you back into the conversation. Some people say there is no amount of time that is going to get the Afghan forces up and ready for this challenge. So let's face the facts now.

JONES: Well, I think there are two challenges for that line of argument. One, is we've already seen, in southern Afghanistan in particular, locals rise up against the Taliban in multiple provinces... Well, I think there are two challenges with that line of argument. One is we've already seen, in southern Afghanistan, in particular, locals rise up against the Taliban in multiple provinces. One of the best examples, I think, is virtually every single district in Oruzgan province, just north of Kandahar, a range of Ghilzai Pashtuns and some Hazaras have risen up against the Taliban with support from U.S. and Afghan special forces. It's not been a large Afghan national army or police push, but it's mostly locals.

So, I think we're seeing - and public opinion polls in Afghanistan continue to indicate very low levels of support for the Taliban, so I think there is a sustainable element. The problem is, most people want to do this using only the central government in Afghanistan. The reality, in a Pashtun society, is that tribes, subtribes, clans and communities end up being quite significant.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rich, and Rich is another caller from Fort Campbell.

RICH: Yes. Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

RICH: I just returned from Afghanistan about two months ago. I was in the Kunar province. I was in the Pesh River Valley. If you guys know the movie "Restrepo" about the Korengal Valley...

CONAN: Yes, indeed.

RICH: ...yeah, we were just a couple of miles down the road from them. I, actually, got in firefights in the Korengal Valley. Air assaulted in the north of the Korengal Valley. Anyway, I'll give you my opinion real quick, and that's all I'll say. I think if we stay there another 15 years in full force, we might be able to make a difference. But when I left the Pesh River Valley, that was it. We handed our base over to the Afghanis. The other bases, we shut down the Pesh River Valley. We shut down completely, and they're now overrun by the Taliban.

The fact is we'd be on missions and we'd be puling security, we'd be, you know, five minutes away from a vicious firefight, the ANA would be smoking hash, playing grab-ass or whatever you may want to call it, and sticking flowers into their gun barrels and behind their ears and laying around doing nothing. There's a few good ANA, but they are definitely not as disciplined, well-trained or as in the battle as the Taliban are. And I lost many more friends than I did lose ANA counterparts. They're letting us die for them. That's my opinion.

CONAN: Fighting...

WEST: See - Neal, if I could, but...

CONAN: Bing West, go ahead.

WEST: ...I was out there in the Korengal and in the Pesh, and I was surprised (unintelligible) that we did finally just pull out a Blessing and all the other places up there after so many years. But I know - I mean, I get you, you know, in a fair fight, there's - the Taliban will push out the Afghan soldiers time, after time, after time. You know, though, what I think for our interests, American interests, the only reason we went into Afghanistan was to prevent Afghanistan being a sanctuary for al-Qaida kinds of attacks against us in the West.

I think we can accomplish that because, as you know as well as I, our air is really incredible at finding targets, so I could imagine a situation in which the Taliban end up being like Hezbollah in Lebanon where they have an awful lot of control over different areas, and they have their own weapons, but they'd be damn careful not to go over certain lines so that they cause us to come down on them like a ton of bricks. And that certain line would be allowing al-Qaida to come back in en masse, and I could imagine us having a mess...

RICH: I'm sorry...

WEST: ...but a mess we can tolerate.

RICH: I think...

CONAN: Rich, quickly.

RICH: I'm sorry - Mr. West, I just want to make one point.

WEST: Sure.

RICH: Our air may be great, and you're right our air is phenomenal. My brother is actually a helicopter pilot. The fact is I was in several firefights where the - our birds came in, or our air came in, couldn't locate the enemy, left, and the enemy continued to fight with us all day. I mean...

WEST: Right.

RICH: ...as good as the air is, we're never going to dominate the mountain regions. It's just impossible. I mean, you know, for us. Sure, can we get control of the population centers? Can we minimize their effectiveness? Absolutely. I just - you know, I met a bunch of Marines.

CONAN: Rich...

RICH: They had lost. They had 13 double amputations due to IEDs and all this stuff. To me, it just isn't a worthwhile battle to fight. Afghani lives are not worth American lives, and I will never feel differently.

CONAN: Rich...

WEST: (Unintelligible).

CONAN: ...thank you very much for the call. We're talking about the way out of Afghanistan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let me reintroduce our guests. You just heard from Bing West, former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, author of "The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan." Also with us is Seth Jones, senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation, his book "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan."

And interesting email from Lydia in Fort Bragg. My husband is over there now working 36-hour shifts with four hours off, supplying the combat troops with water, food and gear. I can't imagine how we could continue this pace with a drawdown of support troops. And, Seth Jones, she's got a point.

JONES: She does have a point, and I think it's it'll certainly require, I think, as Bing West noted, pushing a lot more responsibility into the hands of both central government and local individuals. I've served multiple tours for U.S. Special Operations command in Afghanistan, most recently left in February of this year. But I would say one other issue in response to a range of individuals, and that is, one: I don't think the United States - it would be in its interests for a large Taliban reconquest, backed by the Pakistan government, of Afghanistan, for two reasons.

One is we saw these human rights violations committed by that government in the 1980s and its treatment of women; but, second, as Bing noted, and more importantly, the Taliban and most of the Afghan insurgent groups, including the Haqqani network, have a very close relationship, not just to al-Qaida but to a range of foreign fighters - the Tariqi Taliban in Pakistan, for example, that have targeted the United States homeland. For us to cede large amounts of territory to groups targeting the U.S. homeland, in my view, would be a serious, serious national security risk. That is the risk, I think, of pulling out too quickly.

CONAN: Bing West, we'll give you the last 30 seconds.

WEST: I just like to make a different kind of observation, Neal. Notice that every one who has called in today and Seth and I have a - if not pessimistic, a very, very distant feeling about how this could turn out, et cetera. And I must I really am amazed that at the top, you hear, consistently, talk about all the progress we've made and how things are going better and better, and I'm very surprised where that information is coming from.

CONAN: Bing West, thanks very much for your time today. Our thanks as well to Seth Jones, who joined us from the Rand Corporation. Bing West was joining us from his home in Newport in Rhode Island. Coming up, on The Opinion Page, the shocking death of basketball phenomenon Len Bias, 25 years ago this week, and the law it inspired, which has put hundreds of thousands of people behind bars. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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