Withdrawal Plans Have Troops Looking Toward Home

Guest

Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent, NPR

President Barack Obama recently announced that 10,000 American troops will be pulling out of Afghanistan by year's end, and after years spent overseas, many in the military are thinking ahead to what they can expect when they get home.

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NEAL CONAN, host: The drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan begins this month, and Afghan forces are supposed to take over all combat operations by 2014. Whether they and the Kabul government will be ready is anybody's guess. But after almost 10 years, the American public is weary of the casualties and the cost. Last month, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman spoke with Sergeant Jon Moulder on his fourth combat deployment - two in Iraq and two now in Afghanistan. He says he's slipping away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

Sergeant JON MOULDER: Every time you come over here on a deployment like this, it's like you lose a little bit of piece of yourself. Every time you come over here, a little bit of piece of humanity every time. And I don't want to hit that breaking point to where I have no respect for humanity left.

CONAN: If you've served in the military in Afghanistan, did you make a difference? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tom Bowman just returned from a month-long trip to Afghanistan. He's here with us in Studio 3A. Welcome home, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN: Neal, good to be with you.

CONAN: And did the soldiers and Marines you spent time with think they made a difference?

BOWMAN: I think some of them have believed they've made a difference. We were with the Marines in Helmand Province in the southwestern part of the country, and also with soldiers in the eastern part of the country right next to the Pakistan border. And we were around an area called Marja, which is kind of a district in Helmand Province that a little over a year ago was sort of a no-go zone. It was full of Taliban and drug traffickers, and the Marines needed a lot more troops before they could go in and clear it out.

They have cleared it out, and the Taliban - you know, those who were not killed or captured - kind of scooted off to the outskirts of Marja. We were out there at some combat outposts trying to wrap them up. But there's still a fight over there. But I think the Marines clearly think they're making a difference. And the soldiers, it was the same. There are more soldiers now in the east. They think they've pushed out the Taliban, but they're still a pretty, you know, determined enemy.

CONAN: And Marja was an area that, well, it was thought that was going to be a strong push early on in the surge, and it turned out to be a tougher battle than people thought.

BOWMAN: It did. There were a lot of IEDs there, those roadside bombs that are the biggest killer of American soldiers and Marines. And also there was a lack of government there for a long time. They promised - they called it government in a box. And one general told me, be wary if someone offers you a government in a box. A lot of times that box is empty.

CONAN: Or a coffin.

BOWMAN: Exactly, right. So they had some problems with governance. They still have problems with Afghan forces. The police are getting a little better. The Army is doing much better. But it's a mixed bag. I mean, some Afghan forces really did a pretty good job. They could do their own patrols. But others were just sort of young and inexperienced and just kind of wandering around, I mean, and letting the Americans do all the work.

CONAN: And that raises the question, after the Marines leave Marja, is it going to be a government that springs up and local troops that are going to be able to maintain the kind of security gains that the Marines won at such a difficult and terrible price, or is this going to go back to Taliban control?

BOWMAN: Nobody knows, and that's the key question. Will the Afghans step up like they have to to take control of their own country, both the governance and security part of it? We ran around with General Dave Rodriguez, the number two general who's going to be leaving soon. And he basically told the Marines, the real important thing is you have to make sure the Afghans do a lot more for their own security.

CONAN: And we seem to hear a disconnect sometimes between senior officers who come back and say, there are important gains that have been made, and troops in the field, the guys you spent time with who say, wait a minute, you know, it's a little less clear.

BOWMAN: Right. I mean, some of these guys who are in their fourth combat tour, for example, they see a little difference sometimes. Sometimes they don't see really much of a difference at all. So some of them are kind of frustrated, and they basically say, why am I here? What am I doing? I'm not achieving as much as I thought I would. So it's clearly a problem with some troops.

CONAN: You profiled a teacher, Darryl Richard St. George. He enlisted when he saw former students headed to Iraq. He became a Navy corpsman - a squid, as they're known among the Marines. And he said that people in the states were really coming to ignore Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

DARRYL RICHARD ST. GEORGE: That didn't sit very well with me. And I had known a number of people who had served, and some students as well, one student who was a Marine and died on Iraq. All of those things kind of rolling around in my head, I wanted to - how can I put this? I wanted to directly contribute in some way.

CONAN: Directly contribute in some way. So many of the men you've profiled have lost good friends...

GEORGE: Mm-hmm. That's right.

CONAN: ...sometimes best friends. I remember you talking about somebody who wore a wristband with his friend's name on it.

BOWMAN: And also had two tattoos, the letter A on his chest...

CONAN: For Alabama...

BOWMAN: ...for Alabama, right.

CONAN: ...the state that his friend came from. And those kinds of sacrifices, you really want to think your contribution made a difference.

BOWMAN: Absolutely. I mean, if you're seeing your friends die or get wounded or have, you know, PTSD, post-traumatic stress, you'd like to say: Was it worth it? Did we achieve anything? And I think that question is still very much an open one.

CONAN: We're talking with Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, back after a month in Afghanistan. We want to hear from those of you who've been there, as well. Did you make a difference? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Todd's on the line, calling from Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

TODD: Yes. Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

TODD: Yes. Hi. Yes. I'm in the military, in the Army, and I've served two tours in Afghanistan as an aviator. I've flown probably, like, over 1,000 combat hours. So I've gotten the chance to see what things are like from the air and from the ground and talked to a lot of people. But I will say that, definitely, the troops over there are definitely making an impact helping the local populace. Whether to say that if, you know, how things are going to be after our eventual pullout, I can't speculate on that.

But I will say that, yes, we're doing a lot to help them. I've been in the Helmand Province. I've done, like, rotations out there doing Medevac missions, chasing Medevac aircraft. And we've picked up, you know, just numerous local nationals, people been injured, just helping them for whatever - yeah, just doing whatever we can do to help them, so...

CONAN: I wonder, Todd, when you come back and then read stories of dysfunction in the government in Kabul, people throwing shoes at each other on the floor of parliament, does that make you frustrated?

TODD: I would say - I'm not really - I don't get too frustrated by, you know, ups and downs, what happens. But, you know, it's - things are gonna happen, things I can't control or, you know, just have to go with the flow sometimes. But I'll say that it's - yeah, it's questionable what's gonna happen there, but I definitely have some positive feeling anyhow, so...

CONAN: Tom?

BOWMAN: Yeah. You know, it's funny you mentioned that because we had lunch with Admiral Mike Mullen today, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs. And he actually offered the fact that he's concerned about the lack of governance in the country, the corruption that is still a problem and also the safe havens in Afghanistan. He said, listen, you know, the United States military can do so much to provide security, but it really is up to the Afghans to deal with those issues as well.

CONAN: Giving them a breathing space but they need to step into it.

BOWMAN: Exactly.

CONAN: Todd, thanks very much for the call.

TODD: You're welcome.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Eric. Eric's with us from Fort Walton Beach in Florida.

ERIC: Hi, guys.

CONAN: Hi.

ERIC: Hi, Neal, thanks for putting this on. I was an adviser to the Afghan air force in 2010. And you know, it's a long year to spend with them, and you build a lot of those friendships. And I think, you know, Admiral Mullen probably has it right. There's only so much we can do. I saw a lot of progress on the security side. I spent time in Kabul as well as Kandahar. And the security piece is coming together. They're capable. They can do it.

But it's all that political stuff, all that upper level of governance kind of stuff that really the Afghans are just going to have to figure it out for themselves. I think it was a good investment. I'm glad I spent the year there. But at some point we've got to give it to the Afghans.

CONAN: You're talking about training the Afghan air force. Obviously, command of the air is one the great advantages, militarily, that the NATO forces and the United States and its Afghan allies enjoy. Do you think that the Afghan air force is going to be able to take over in any meaningful way by 2014?

ERIC: It really just depends on what tasks we're going to ask of them. You know, it's doing basic Medevac, moving troops around the country, they're going to get that. They've got it. But, you know what, I think what frustrated a lot of us in that mission was sometimes there's a little political interference that made that particular part a little less effective. I mean, they're not going to be doing all the things that we can do, and I certainly think that we're going to, like we always have is to provide a little more air cover even after the ground troops are gone.

We're gonna be providing air cover in(ph) intel collection kind of stuff. But, you know, basic things that extend the reach of the government out from Kabul and get the troops where they need to be and get them out if they need to be, the Afghans can do that for themselves. They've got that.

CONAN: When you say political interference, what do you mean?

ERIC: You know, a phone call from somebody who's got connections in the government who sets a higher priority for what helicopter's going to go that day or where one of the transports was going to go that day. You know, just little things like that that we would never stand for, but the Afghans, just because of the positions that they're in, owing a little bit of loyalty to political forces. The military guys go in there - a little bit of loyalty to the political forces. You know, they - it's an unenviable position for them.

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Welcome home.

ERIC: Thank you. Thanks.

CONAN: We're talking about Afghanistan. Did you make a difference while you were serving over there? We're talking with Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon correspondent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Jessie. Jessie with us from Gainesville.

JESSIE: Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

JESSIE: Yeah. I was in Afghanistan in 2002, was at the, actually, at the intel school when 9/11 happened. And I'm very disappointed with the way things turned out in Afghanistan, the whole operation, how we handled it. In the very beginning we should have flooded those mountains up in - close to the border of Pakistan with troops, and it should have been all about beans and bullets and having boots on the ground. And unfortunately, what ended up happening is we're staying in places like Kabul and we're getting - we're going out into small towns and getting shot at, and it's not accomplishing anything.

Now, we would have taken heavy casualties early on, but we would have been successful if we would have put guys out there, regular patrols, have them back in, check in a week, send them back out.

CONAN: Tom Bowman...

JESSIE: Unfortunately...

CONAN: ...Jessie is not alone. A lot of people thought if we put troops on the ground - the overthrow the Taliban was achieved through, well, remarkably, economy of forces. But at that point the investment was skimped upon.

BOWMAN: Exactly. Because, of course, a lot of the troops went to Iraq at that time. We were just starting the Iraq war. And a lot of people argue to this day, not enough resources were put into Afghanistan, not only soldiers, but economic aid, and as he said, spreading out into the countryside, protecting the population, working to build up the local elders and the tribal leaders and maybe missed four or five or six years because the focus was Iraq.

CONAN: And now because of a, well, among other problems, a war-weary U.S. population concerned about the costs in blood and treasure, there is little time left.

BOWMAN: Exactly. You know, you have two years, you're going to transition to the Afghan government in two years. But I think one of the callers is right that you clearly have to provide some air cover, some other intelligence information to the Afghans even after that time. Now, just like we're talking in Iraq, that maybe, you know, 10,000 more troops might be needed after the end of this year when all U.S. troops is supposed to be out of Iraq.

CONAN: Jessie, thanks very much for the call.

JESSIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Jeremy. Jeremy with us from Linden in Michigan.

JEREMY: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

JEREMY: Good. I just wanted to call and say I appreciate some of the comments some of the callers made. I think I'm going to come from another perspective. I was a junior officer with the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan during (unintelligible) eight. So that would have been around the end 2007 timeframe. And maybe that was about the endpoint when Afghanistan was still in the shadow of Iraq and then transitioned more towards focusing on Afghanistan as we started to draw down and the surge was successful in Iraq.

But I just wanted to say that from a junior officer perspective, someone that was at the lower level, I don't necessarily feel, long term, that our efforts there really did a lot of good. We did good things. And we always try to do good things every day. But things like building bazaars and adding solar lights, but - and with the loss of security as we leave, it's all going to go away.

CONAN: And Tom, a lot of people think that advances - Jeremy, thanks very much for the call - advances, for example, in the issues involving women, those could regress quickly after U.S. and NATO forces leave.

BOWMAN: Right. And there's also a concern about maybe a civil war between the Northern Alliance types, the Uzbeks and the Tajiks, against the Pashtuns in the country, the majority. And there's a lot of worry about, you know, first of all, can the Afghans provide for their own security, and will there be some type of civil war once most of the U.S. and British troops leave.

CONAN: And there's also the argument, yes, solar panels were put in schools. We built - a lot of projects were completed started. An awful lot of Afghan civilians were killed too.

ERIC: Absolutely. In some of the, you know, the raids from the NATO aircraft and, you know, some civilians have been killed. But clearly, most of the civilian deaths in the - according to the U.N. report, come from the hands of the Taliban.

CONAN: And finally, Tom, what do you get - what information do you have about the pace of the withdrawal? We know it's supposed to start this month. And 10,000 the first year, is that going to be earlier or later?

BOWMAN: Well, they're saying that maybe some National Guard troops will come out during the summer months. A Marine battalion, roughly 800 or so Marines, will probably come out toward the end of the fall in Helmand Province, where we were. But they hope that the bulk of the 10,000 are going to be support troops, construction battalions, military police, combat engineers, for example, not what they would call trigger-pullers, so they can provide security well into this year. And hopefully, again, it's a big hope, can the Afghans take over?

CONAN: Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon correspondent. There's a link to his series, Who Serves, at our website. Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY is in San Antonio. Ira Flatow is looking at rock art along the Rio Grande. We'll be back on Monday. Enjoy your weekends, everybody. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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