Afghanistan Future Uncertain As US Drawdown Looms

Guests

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent, The Washington Post
Jonathan Landay, national security & intelligence correspondent, McClatchy newspapers

The first phase of withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan began in July, in preparation for a full transition of power to Afghan forces in 2014. While some welcome the beginning of the end of the war, others worry that hard-fought progress will be lost as troops leave.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. We were told that this summer would be crucial in Afghanistan. Fully surged U.S. forces did score important gains against the Taliban, but the price was high. August proved to be the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the war began, including 30 killed when their helicopter was shot down.

We were also told that this summer would mark the beginning of the end. President Obama announced a phased withdrawal to conclude by 2014. As the summer draws to an end and some troops prepare to leave, we want to hear from people who have served in Afghanistan, especially those of you who've been there recently.

How will we measure success or failure? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: 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 aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Based on what happened where you live, did the damage justify the hype? You can email us on that now. Again, the address is talk@npr.org.

But first, Afghanistan. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent for the Washington Post, currently a visiting public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he's working on a book about Afghanistan. He's here with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Also with us here in Studio 3A is Jonathan Landay, national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy newspapers, just back, recently back from Afghanistan. Nice to have you with us, as well.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Nice to be back.

CONAN: And Rajiv, when we had you on the program in April, we were looking ahead to fighting season just as the snow was beginning to melt, after the troop surge in the fall. Hopes were there'd be a lot of significant progress. How'd it go?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think with everything related to Afghanistan of late, it's been a very mixed bag. There have been pockets of relative progress, and I underscore the word relative. There have been places where U.S. surge forces have now been operating for a couple of years, where things are reasonably quiet.

You see Afghan security forces starting to take a bigger role in trying to protect areas. You start to see a few more Afghan government officials out and about, trying to do the work of governing the country. But these are isolated pockets of progress amid a sea of some pretty great instability.

A lot of the hoped-for gains in connecting these places and then starting to see essentially critical momentum develop across southern Afghanistan, which was where the bulk of the surge forces were applied, that still hasn't yet happened to a very large degree.

And then you look across the country. In eastern Afghanistan, things are still incredibly violent and chaotic, and other parts of the country that, in years past have been far more quiet, are now once again seeing upticks in violence, including in the capital, Kabul, which, you know, over the past couple months, has had some pretty spectacular attacks.

So, you know, several months ago, when we were sitting here talking, Neal, there was a lot of optimism on the part of U.S. commanders and American diplomats that this would be a markedly different fighting season this summer.

I think what we've seen, however, is that it's proved to be ever more violent, and with an incredible cost not just for U.S. military forces, but for - also for Afghan security forces and Afghan civilians. And so as we start to look toward troop drawdowns, we're looking toward a very uncertain future for the country.

CONAN: And Jonathan Landay, let me ask you: As you traveled through parts of the country in the east, in the capital, and in the south, as well, you were traveling mostly amid the people, then talking to them and to politicians rather than to U.S. military officials. And what's been their response to what's been going on?

CHANDRASEKARAN: That's correct. I did not embed. I try not to embed on many of my trips to Afghanistan. I dress as an Afghan. I go with my translator and a driver, and I try and get to places that most Western journalists are unable to get to or haven't gotten to.

One of the places I went this time was a place called Arghandab, which is one of the focal points of the surge. It's in the south. It's a district in Kandahar Province. And indeed, it was a place that was really bad in terms of confrontation, open confrontation between U.S. forces and the Taliban. There was the surge into - part of the surge into Arghandab, and indeed there's been a diminution of regular combat.

Nevertheless, there's still the asymmetrical attacks, as they're known as, IEDs against American forces and Afghan forces.

CONAN: Improvised explosive devices.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Absolutely. But even more so, when you talk to - and the fact is, I was able to move around in Arghandab. That, in and of itself, was significant. However, sitting and talking in the fields with farmers and going to talk even with the district governor, you come to learn that the Taliban hasn't gone away. The Taliban are guerrillas. Guerrillas do what guerrillas do, which is when they can't confront directly, they adopt guerrilla tactics.

They also continue to do things like attack local officials affiliated with the government. There's been a lot of that. There's been a huge amount of that. And the locals feel trapped. They're trapped between the Taliban, trapped between the United States and its allies and their forces, and the fact is that there - I found this unanimity of feeling among Afghans at that level, you know, in the fields all the way up to the national level, the politicians, that the American withdrawal, the withdrawal of - the drawdown of U.S. combat forces, allied combat forces, is creating a vacuum, a very seriously destabilizing vacuum that could very well plunge the country back into the civil war - which was largely fought along ethnic lines - that was stopped by the U.S. invasion in 2001.

And there - never was there an effort to try and reconcile the combatants who were involved, even among those who have joined the government side, and we're talking largely about the minority, the ethnic minorities versus the Pashtuns, who are the predominate ethnic group. And indeed, the minorities, the leaders of the minorities, the former Northern Alliance, are extremely nervous and suspicious about the so-called negotiations going on between - or those that were going on between the United States and the Taliban, such that they were, and they were fairly limited.

Nevertheless, they are opposed to any kind of deal that they are not a party to. But beyond that, they are really un-reconciled to reconciling with the Taliban, simply because of all of the blood and also because there doesn't seem to be any political space in which to make a political compromise between the ideology of the Taliban and sort of this quasi-democratic system that the United States has helped husband in Afghanistan.

And there are rumors of preparations for civil war, of re-arming by the minorities. It's a very, very dangerous, uncertain time in Afghanistan.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who've been in Afghanistan, especially those who have been there recently. How do we measure success and failure? Call 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And Mike's on the line, calling from Jacksonville.

MIKE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MIKE: I'm active duty military, and I just got back from Afghanistan a couple months ago. I was in Paktika Province, which is in the southeast part of the country. And I think some of the biggest issues that we saw were corruption at the provincial and the local government levels. And this would be kind of equivalent to like the state and the county level in the U.S.

We were working very closely with government officials, giving a lot of money to these guys. And a lot of times, they weren't held 100 percent accountable, and we, you know, we were very aware that there was a lot of corruption going on. So it was a very difficult situation to be in to try to help them, but at the same time realizing OK, you know, they're going to take a lot of money that there was a lot of corruption going on.

So it was a very difficult situation to be in, trying to help them, but at the same time realizing, OK, you know, they're going to take a lot of this money that we're giving them.

CONAN: And did it feel like you were spinning your wheels?

MIKE: Right, right, right, right. You know, we did see some improvements, I feel like, when we were there. But the big thing is getting them to work within their means. And as we were leaving, you know, the one thing we tried to impress upon them was, hey, that the money spigot is shutting off. We're leaving. We're going to be out of here in a couple years. It's going to be up to you guys to work within your own means to build up your country.

CONAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, I know you were writing about the transition of emphasis from the Afghan military to police and exactly these kinds of officials.

CHANDRASEKARAN: But one of the things that happens when local officials here, just that message that we're leaving, and it's time to get your act together and start to find sustainable solutions, it's also interpreted a different way. It is: Let's get while the getting's good.

And so there is now, you know, an even greater effort to line one's pockets. And we are still in that phase of injecting billions upon billions of dollars into the country for the training of security forces, still continuing to build up bases, to build roads.

And, you know, these things have a very double-edged quality to it. For every road that's built, yes, it helps people get some goods to market, moves people around. But in many cases - as has been now documented by congressional committees and independent watchdogs and journalists - a portion of that money in many cases goes indirectly to the Taliban: paying bribes, paying off local commanders to allow the contractors to finish their jobs on schedule.

You know, for the past couple of years, the U.S. government, the military and the State Department, have been trying to clamp down on this corruption at all levels, from the very top down to that - to the local level. And unfortunately, despite the efforts of a lot of smart military officers and civilians, teams from the Justice Department and the FBI and other federal agencies, there just hasn't been a whole lot of traction there. And part of it is just because there's just so much money coming in, that despite taking cracks at it here and there, it is just too overwhelming to really put an end to. And unfortunately, you know, a large proportion of that goes to continue to sustain the insurgency.

CONAN: Jonathan Landay, is that your experience?

LANDAY: Oh, absolutely. It's a function of a number of things. One - and Rajiv is absolutely right. This idea that we're leaving is stimulating not - is stimulating corruption in terms of officials, even at the very local level, looking to get as much as they can of the pie before the pie dries up.

I spent some time in a very strategic small town that controls the highway between Pakistan and Kabul. It actually controls the entrance to Kabul, and there are two different groups of tribal elders claiming to be the district council there simply because it gives them - whoever is the district council 0 control of whatever funds they can get a hold of for local development.

And this is a problem that goes all the way to the top.

CONAN: We're talking with Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers and Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center working on a book about Afghanistan.

We want to hear from those of you who've been there, especially those of you who have come back recently. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. How are we going to measure success or failure? 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. I'm Neal Conan. And the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan says he's boosting efforts to get Taliban fighters to give up their guns, return to their villages. Marine General John Allen told USA Today that intelligence suggests morale is plunging among many Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan. Now is the moment, he said, to entice militants with jobs and other incentives.

It's similar to a model he used in Iraq to help spur the so-called Sunni awakening there. Nearly 10 years after the U.S. launched the first military strikes in Afghanistan, control of security in the country is set to return to Afghan forces in 2014. As the summer draws to an end, and some troops prepare to leave, we want to hear from people who have served in Afghanistan, especially those of you who have been there recently.

How are we going to 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 Chandrasekaran is with us, covering Afghanistan as a senior correspondent for the Washington Post, also a serious one. He also wrote the book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." Jonathan Landay is with us also here in Studio 3A, national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy, just back from Afghanistan. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Willy(ph), Willy with us from Boca Raton.

WILLY: Hey, I think our success or failure is going to be judged by if we're able to hand this off to the world, you know, kind of like the way we handled Libya, because if we want to continue to put in resources, the men and the money, we could do that forever. And - but we can't win over there.

I think all your guests understand that. So you can talk about different solutions. I think that's good. But I think basically getting the world involved in these problems is really the long-term solution. You know the history of Afghanistan, we all do. So, you know...

CONAN: I'm afraid all of us don't, but in any case, there are some 50 nations over there right now, Rajiv.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Indeed. It's an impressive, very large coalition. It's hard to imagine that we're going to be able to get more international support. Our European NATO allies have all indicated that they intend to reduce their troop presence. They are facing the same economic pressures we're facing. So it's hard to imagine that they're going to be able to contribute a greater share to Afghanistan's continued reconstruction needs into the future.

So unfortunately, the only viable long-term path here is for the Afghans to take more responsibility for their security, for their governance, and that's the real challenge. You know, are these security forces that we're trying to build up, are they going to be ready?

You know, in many cases, you look at them operating in the field today, and you say, well, these guys aren't ready for primetime. We're pumping in billions upon billions of dollars.

And there's the associated question that many in Washington ask, that is, you know, at the cost of $9 billion this year and an ongoing sustainment cost of somewhere in the range of $6 to $8 billion, is this even sustainable? Are we, the United States, going to be able to pay five years from now or 10 years from now billions of dollars a year to fund Afghanistan's army and its police forces?

And so as we look forward, I think the solution can't be to create an Afghanistan that will forever be a ward of the international community. It needs to be focused on what are sustainable approaches where the Afghans can start to take greater ownership and greater responsibility for their own affairs.

CONAN: And Jonathan Landay, in the neighborhoods, in the villages where you visited, we hear about degrading the morale of the Taliban and removing middle commanders in the Taliban. At the same time, the Taliban is degrading those Afghan police and army units that we're depending on.

LANDAY: In fact, in some places where you talk to people about the - the word degrading is a terrible word. It's a U.S. military word. It means killing people. Indeed there has been a great deal of capturing and killing of mid-level Taliban commanders and officials, (unintelligible) officials, in these so-called night raids by U.S. Special Forces.

But there has also been a deleterious effect, and that is that these - that you have veteran, if you would, Taliban commanders and officials being replaced by younger, more radicalized Taliban officials and commanders who have been educated in the radical madrassas in Pakistan, and that's a factor that we also need to talk about when you talk about the long-term prospects for Afghanistan, who come back into Afghanistan and assume the positions of the people who have been captured and killed.

And these are young men who are, as I said, far more radicalized than sort of the more nationalistic, old - if you would - school Taliban, who have been inculcated in international jihadism, in bin Ladenism, if you would, who are looking beyond Afghanistan in terms of, quote-unquote, "the jihad" and are looking to bolster this - and win this international recognition as members of this international jihad.

And it's had - as I said, these night raids are having a deleterious effect, in some ways. Now also, I think we also really need, when you talk about long-term prospects, you've got to talk about Pakistan. I mean, there is no - as far as I can see or anyone else I know who watches this situation closely, there is no cogent, coherent, U.S. or Western or international strategy for dealing with Pakistan and the fact that elements of Pakistan's security apparatus are backing, supporting and advising the Taliban and related groups.

And until - and providing sanctuaries for these groups on the Pakistani side of the border. And as long as that goes on, there's very little prospect that the United States or the Afghan government is going to be able to improve security in Afghanistan. Of course, the situation also goes beyond that. It's a question of governance. The government barely works at any level.

There's no - there's no functioning justice system. It's a crisis upon crisis, a multi-leveled problem that can't be addressed simply but surging troops in to a single part of Afghanistan.

CONAN: This email from Jack(ph): I've been there 40 times over the last eight years. Most soldiers I knew in AFG complained about mowing the grass, i.e., patrolling an a read for a while, then turning it over to a corrupt Afghan force only to have to return again in a few months to clear the ground again.

I did that in Vietnam and saw it in Afghanistan many times. The recent return to eastern Afghanistan by U.S. forces is another example. Did anyone watch the movie "Restrepo," or read Sebastian Unger's(ph) account of his experiences? Latest revelation is that $60 billion has gone missing, that's the tip of the iceberg. Much of the money invested in reconstruction is unsustainable. The equipment for the Afghanistan forces is too complex for them and will be so much rusted junk in five years.

And even if everything went perfectly in Afghanistan, what about Pakistan? It's in even worse shape; it has nukes. We must face that we are despised in both countries, and we provide fuel for the insurgents. We are described as infidels who are there to steal their resources, rape their women and destroy Islam. Get out now is the only solution. Rajiv?

CHANDRASEKARAN: There is a lot there in that email. But let me just take the last part of it: how Americans are viewed there. And yes, Taliban propaganda frames Americans as infidels who are there to occupy.

In a lot of my conversations with Afghans, they actually don't hate the Americans as much as we may think. They don't love the Taliban. They don't want a return to Taliban rule. But they don't trust their government. They feel their government's corrupt, that the government doesn't serve them, and they don't quite trust us because they're not sure how long we're going to stay.

And so they're in this position. You know, they're sitting on the fence, and how can you blame them? They've lived in a country with 30-plus years of warfare. The only reason any of these guys are alive is because a lot of them have been sitting on the fence. They've been keeping their head down. And so they're reverting to their natural survival instincts.

And so we're trying to tell them: Look, cast your lot with the government of Afghanistan, with the good people. Stand up against the insurgency. They look at us and say well, how can we be sure you're going to be in my village, in my district, a year from now or two years from now because the messages that are coming from Washington are ones that are focused on drawdown, on bringing costs down.

CONAN: And everybody hears that, yet you are now here in this country for a while, and you hear the American people say enough already, let's go out.

CHANDRASEKARAN: It's incredibly expensive. We're spending upwards of $100 billion to sustain the war this year. And so when you frame it in terms of the broader set of national security challenges the United States has and the broader fiscal challenges we face, it puts it in a very different context. But, you know, the Afghan villager doesn't quite see it that way. He's been living with 30 years of warfare.

CONAN: Jonathan?

LANDAY: I think also there's a problem of American messaging. The Obama administration essentially perpetuated the Bush administration's justification for being in Afghanistan, and that is going after al-Qaida. Al-Qaida hasn't been a factor in Afghanistan for a very long time.

The real problem here is the security of that region, and as the email just referred to, we're really talking about the stability of Pakistan and its nuclear weapons, and Afghanistan has a direct bearing on that. The course of the war, the course of Afghanistan has a direct bearing on the stability of Pakistan, and that is really what - the way this issue should be framed and hasn't been.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jessica, Jessica with us from Fort Walton Beach in Florida.

JESSICA: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Hi, good, thanks.

JESSICA: I wanted to get back to where you guys were talking about how we define success versus failure. The ultimate goal, like you guys were just talking about, was to ensure that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorists. And just like you said, al-Qaida hasn't been there. It hasn't been an issue now. It has transformed into a counterinsurgency. And we've figured out how to fight that. We're doing the right things. It took a few years to get into that. But what people don't understand and what the American people will not support is a true counterinsurgency to win that will take hundreds and hundreds and billions of millions of dollars and years to do.

If we want to define ourselves as successful in Afghanistan, we need to move away from the counterinsurgency and bring it to: Is this a place that harbors terrorists? No. Then we've accomplished our mission. We don't need to do that with hundreds of thousands of troops. That's a, you know, a limited, sustainable option. And the truth is, Afghanistan is not the only place in the world where terrorist groups are going to pop up. So we can't afford to fight a counterinsurgency across the world. It has to stay limited, small. And have we eliminated the current threat, and is a safe haven anymore?

CONAN: And when was the last time you were there, Jessica?

JESSICA: Oh, I just got back from my fourth trip last month.

CONAN: Last month. Welcome home.

JESSICA: Oh, it's good to be home.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I bet it is. Well, even cooler - Fort Walton Beach is, I'm assuming, not cool yet, but a lot cooler than Afghanistan.

JESSICA: It is. It's a little more humid, though.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I bet. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, she points out, as Jonathan pointed out, al-Qaida, well, we keep being told al-Qaida's on the brink of being defeated, at least the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden.

CHANDRASEKARAN: We still have a disconnect between strategy and goals here. If the goal is, as the president articulated, to defeat, dismantle, disrupt al-Qaida, and as John Brennan and others have noted that al-Qaida's on the ropes, we're still pursuing the very big counterinsurgency strategy over there that's aimed at a much sort of different outcome. And, you know, this debate was had in the White House in late 2009. The problem we're in today is that the - we're not doing full-on counterinsurgency.

If you wanted to do full-on counterinsurgency, you'd have more troops there, and you'd have a national commitment to do this for years upon years. And there just isn't the political will to do that. At the same time, we're not - we haven't scaled back to a more meaningful or - how should I put it - a more modest counterterrorism campaign. You know, there's some who argue that, look, if you just kept 15, 20,000 Americans there...

CONAN: This is Vice President Biden's idea.

CHANDRASEKARAN: ...Biden, among others - say, look, if you keep a small presence there, largely of Special Forces, you increase the marginal cost of doing business for al-Qaida in terms of leaving their sanctuaries in Pakistan and returning to Afghanistan. So you could - you keep terrorists from re-emerging in Afghanistan, messy as it may turn out to be, with a smaller footprint. Now, a lot of people argue, yes, you could. The problem is you'd wind up with a pretty messy situation in Afghanistan, and people would raise the question, well, what...

CONAN: What was it all...

CHANDRASEKARAN: ...have we been spending all of that money on, all those lives, all those limbs? You know, if girls can't go back to school, if the government teeters in places, if the flag of the insurgency is flying over many districts of the country, it certainly will look bad for the United States, too.

CONAN: Jessica, thanks very much for the call.

JESSICA: All right. You guys have a good one.

CONAN: We're talking about the way ahead in Afghanistan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's turn to Steve, Steve with us from Anchorage.

STEVE: Hi. I just got back in July. I was in the northeast part of Afghanistan for eight months, and I saw a lot of money go out the door. And, you know, there might be short-term progress, but basically, as soon as we leave an area, it goes right back to the way it was. And, you know, my - and I hear a lot of people saying, well, if we leave and all of this has been for naught and, you know, all these people have died for no reason, but do we sit there and allow more and more Americans to continue to be killed?

There a lot of hotspots in the world, and a lot of bad things are happening. And we don't intervene in every single affair, everywhere around the world, but yet we're stuck here for 10 years now. And, you know, we see people say, well, we killed number two. We killed number three. We killed this warlord. And they just get replaced. I mean, I must have heard number two, number three Taliban leader was killed five times in the last five years. So I just think that, you know, it's time to pack up and go.

I think if there was a draft, that the American people would have ended this war several years ago, but most people are not affected by this war. They just sit back. Nobody is really paying taxes for this war. Unless you know somebody in the military, you're really not affected by this war. And I think it was - if more people were affected, then this war would have been over years ago.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Steve. And welcome home to you, too.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: This from Bob: I returned four months ago as a Department of Defense inspector. Every village and province is a Taliban shadow government mayor or governor. They collect taxes, too. If your house is robbed and you call the police, the perpetrator can pay a bribe to get off. If you call the Taliban mayor, the perp has his hand cut off. The Taliban only promise security and immediate justice. The people do not like the Taliban. They love to fly kites and play music forbidden by the Taliban.

The good things we're doing: building schools, including girl schools. First, we build grade schools. Now we're building high schools and colleges. We insisted three dozen women serve in the Senate. That costs us millions. We installed hand-pumped wells - no electricity in every village and town we occupied. It is corrupt. The police disappear before trouble starts. There are no stop signs, traffic lights or speed limits. You must pay a bribe to get through a traffic circle. Jonathan Landay, does that describe things that you saw?

LANDAY: Yeah. I would say that driving on Afghan highways, such as they are, is about as hazardous to your health as embedding with U.S. forces. It's quite something to experience. But I have to say that, look, I've been going to Afghanistan. I made my first trip to Afghanistan in 1986, while the Soviets were still there, and started going legally the following year. There has been enormous, enormous progress in Afghanistan in terms of education, in terms of delivery of health services in cities, in terms of the development of some infrastructure.

But the bulk of the population lives in the countryside, and the countryside is not seeing the benefits of all of this money that's pouring in. And that helps the Taliban. But I also think that, you know, I understand why people want to get out - 10 years, lots of people killed, and apparently no real apparent success. And that's because I think we're looking at this situation with - from the wrong direction. We're looking at it - again, I can't emphasize this more - from the idea that we have to prevent al-Qaida from coming back and re-establishing sanctuary.

This is about the security, the stability of a region of billions of people that has nuclear weapons, nations that have been enemies for decades, and ensuring that that doesn't - that Afghanistan doesn't trigger all that again. And that, unfortunately, maybe where this place is headed again.

CONAN: Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, now the Woodrow Wilson Center, thanks to you both. We appreciate your time today. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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