What's The Truth About The War In Afghanistan?

Read Lt. Col. Daniel Davis Armed Forces Journal piece "Truth, Lies, and Afghanistan: How Military Leaders Have Let Us Down"

Lt. Col. Daniel Davis ignited a controversy when he wrote that what he saw in Afghanistan "bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders." U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Ma), defense analyst Tom Donnelly and McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Johnathan Landay discuss the realities of the war in Afghanistan.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis spent the last year in Afghanistan, where he hoped to find conditions matching the cautious optimism he heard from U.S. commanders. But in a recent piece in the Armed Forces Journal, he wrote that what he saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements, and the American people deserve better than what they've gotten from their senior uniformed leaders over the last number of years.

Colonel Davis concludes simply telling the truth would be a good start. We want to hear from those of you who served in Afghanistan. How does what you saw there match with what you've heard since you got home? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the last week of Abraham Lincoln's war, but we begin with Afghanistan. Lieutenant Colonel Davis could not be with us today. We begin instead with Congressman Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, one of four members briefed by Lieutenant Colonel Davis, and he joins us now from his office on the Capitol, and nice to have you with us.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN: Happy to be with you.

CONAN: And did you get significantly more in that briefing than we saw in that Armed Forces Journal piece?

MCGOVERN: Well, I think that Armed Forces Journal piece kind of sums up, you know, the basic concern that Lieutenant Colonel Davis has, and that is, you know, notwithstanding the rosy characterizations by our leading military officials about what's happening in Afghanistan, things are, you know, are much more dire.

And what he's asking for is, you know, more of an honest discussion, and he also, you know, expressed concern about the fact that more and more information about Afghanistan is being considered classified. So the Congress and the American people aren't getting as much access to what's really happening there.

So, you know, what he has done confirms some of the concerns that I've had over the years. And look, I mean, I think we need to wind down our involvement in Afghanistan. We have spent billions and billions of dollars there. We have paid a heavy price. And, you know, we're at a point now where I'm not even quite sure what our mission is anymore.

CONAN: Some of his most scathing comments are reserved for the Afghanistan forces. We had this today from - this is from Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, who said that the lieutenant colonel's view is one person's view and said Afghan forces will be good enough to take over from the American-led coalition as we pull out over the next couple of years.

MCGOVERN: Well, you know, again I think that's a rosy assessment. By the accounts that I've heard when I've been over in Afghanistan and by, you know, from accounts that I've heard from, you know, soldiers who have returned, they don't have a lot of trust in the Afghan armed forces or security forces. And they don't have a lot of trust in the Afghan government.

I mean, they believe that President Karzai is a crook, that the corruption is so deep in that country that, you know, it's not salvageable and that, you know, Americans are putting their lives on the line, you know, basically to defend a government that's not worth defending.

I mean, we went there to go after al-Qaida. We got Osama bin Laden, not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan. Yet we have, you know, tens of thousands of troops there, and, you know, and for what. What is the mission? And to imply that somehow the Afghan security forces, you know, are ready to, you know, take over and have achieved an amount - you know, this professionalism I think is, it's just plain wrong, and I think Lieutenant Colonel Davis points that out.

CONAN: And is it his advice that we should leave as soon as possible?

MCGOVERN: Well, I mean, look, what he's doing is giving us the truth. What he is doing is telling us that we should demand that more be unclassified, that there be a better awareness of what's going on, you know, in order for us to make our decision as to what to do.

The fact of the matter is, you know, things haven't been going well for quite some time. And, you know, look, as somebody who's been here for a little while, you know, since the war in Afghanistan began, I mean, we've been mislead about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan time and time again. And I think a lot of us are getting sick and tired of the whitewash.

We'd rather have the clear, unvarnished truth so that people can make up their minds as to what our policy should be. But I don't think it's worth another American life, you know, to support a corrupt government in Afghanistan or to support a security force of Afghans that quite frankly, you know, there's no trust in them.

CONAN: Let's name names, General David Petraeus, who gets credit for turning things around in Iraq, took over in Afghanistan a little over a year ago. Is this the person responsible? Is this the person to whom we should be asking questions about, well, what the lieutenant colonel calls lies?

MCGOVERN: Well, you know, I absolutely - you know, I obviously think that General Petraeus should be asked questions. He's in a new position right now. But what we also believe is that more information should be declassified. You know, the national intelligence estimate on Afghanistan should be made public. The American ought to see what's in it so they can make up their minds.

You know, these wars, all the information about these wars shouldn't be kept secret. People ought to know what's going on. People ought to know why we're spending billions and billions of dollars over in Afghanistan, nation-building and supporting a corrupt government. People ought to know the facts because their sons and daughters are the ones who are being sent over there, you know, to risk their lives on behalf of this policy.

And, you know, there's this tendency to, you know, every time high military officials are asked, to say everything is going well, we're on track. As if to say anything different somehow undermines, you know, our mission there. The bottom line is, you know, we should demand the truth. And based on the truth and based on the facts, then Congress and the American people can make up their mind as to what our policy should be.

But, you know, in my own opinion, based on what I've seen, based on what I've heard, based on my conversations with Lieutenant Colonel Davis, you know, I think we ought to end this war as soon as humanly possible. I think we ought to stop, you know, throwing billions and billions of dollars every year at this country, which, you know, most of the things that we've done over there aren't even sustainable.

CONAN: One more question, and then we want to get to some callers, and by the way, if you served in Afghanistan, did what you see on the ground when you were there comport with what you've heard since you got back, from senior U.S. commanders.

And Congressman McGovern, it seems clear that Lieutenant Colonel Davis has put his career on the line by issuing such a report, so critical of his superiors. He's been quoted as saying he just about nuked himself.

MCGOVERN: Well, I think he's a patriot. I think people who tell the truth, you know, in the face of consequences that might be difficult, I think we ought to praise them. You know, I've been reading that the Pentagon now wants to launch an investigation into Lieutenant Colonel Davis. You know, I wish instead of doing that, you know, they'd respond to some of the detailed analysis that Lieutenant Colonel Davis has put forward.

You know, we should be talking about this policy. We should be talking about the realities on the ground. But, you know, this kind of knee-jerk reaction that every time somebody within the military stands up and tells the truth that all of a sudden they're subject to an investigation, and their character is questioned, you know, I think is just wrong-headed.

We ought to demand the truth. We ought to expect the truth from, you know, high-ranking officials in the Pentagon. And again, I think over the years we have not been given the truth. And, you know, and by any reasonable measure. You know, I think most people, I think there's a consensus around that.

CONAN: Congressman, thanks very much for your time, appreciate it.

MCGOVERN: Thank you.

CONAN: Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, among those briefed by Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis on his return from Afghanistan. And again, there's a report in Armed Forces Journal. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org if you served.

Joining us here in Studio 3A, Johnathan Landay, national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, who has written on U.S. defense and foreign policy for a number of publications, last in Afghanistan this past summer. John, Nice to have you back with us.

JONATHAN LANDAY: It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And does what you saw on the ground last summer comport with what you hear from those relatively rosy assessments by U.S. commanders?

LANDAY: Not at all. In fact, Lieutenant Colonel Davis' assessment is of no surprise to me or other journalists who have spent a long time on the ground in Afghanistan, and I've been covering Afghanistan since the Soviets were there. Last summer, I went down south to Kandahar, which is one of the two provinces where the U.S. surge went into. And certainly I went places myself, just myself and my translator, I was dressed as an Afghan, that we wouldn't have been able to go to before the surge went in.

However, the surge is coming out, and the Afghans down there know that, and all we heard the entire time we were down there was about how the Taliban have purposely not engaged the United States, they're not fighting face-to-face. Their leaders have gone to Pakistan to wait out the United States, to wait out the clock that President Obama himself set in December, 2009.

And why would they fight face-to-face with the United States when they know U.S. troops are leaving? Tribal elders I met with, who are unable to go back t their villages, told me that - well, they do go back occasionally, and as they drive down the main street, they look out, and they see what they saw are the Taliban dressed - obviously without their weapons.

But one of them said to me, you know, I know that they're Taliban, it's just the Americans don't. So I think that...

CONAN: Why doesn't he just tell the Americans who they are?

LANDAY: Well, because he risks his life to do that. And there's a lot of these tribal elders living in Kandahar who are unable to go back to their villages, and I heard from ordinary people - for instance, I went out, walked out and spent some time with some farmhands out in the villages, out in the fields, in a place called Arghandab, which was one of the most heavily contested areas of Kandahar before the United States went in.

And they were saying oh yeah, well, they're still in the village, but they're just not - they're just waiting for the Americans to leave.

CONAN: And - but that raises another question: If they're just waiting for the American forces to leave, does that not give the Afghan forces, and indeed the Afghan government, as corrupt and as inefficient it might be, time to start becoming less corrupt, less deficient and more trusted by the people of Afghanistan?

LANDAY: Well, that's the other part of this war. This is the non-military part of the war. The government is itself, as you point out, ridden with corruption. You have an army that does not reflect the geographical dispersion of the ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

Yes, it reflects the ethnic proportions, but a lot of the Pashtuns, which is the dominant ethnic group from the south, are not joining the army because they are simply waiting. They know, first of all, that they risk their lives doing that, and they risk the lives of their families, but also they're waiting - sitting on the fence because they know what's coming.

And what's coming, I believe and a lot of people believe, is, in fact, a reversion to the civil war that the United States interrupted in 2001 when it went in. Only this time, as another observer said, on - Somalia on steroids, given the amount of weaponry the United States has poured in there. And it risks turning into a proxy war between Pakistan, which backs the Taliban, and its foe for the last 67 years, India.

That threatens regional instability, and this is something that the Obama administration and the U.S. military refuse to talk about publicly.

CONAN: Johnathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers. If you served in Afghanistan, how does what you saw on the ground comport with what you've heard from U.S. commanders after you got back? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We're also going to hear from Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute in just a moment. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. U.S. troops in Afghanistan will soon begin to shift away from their lead role in combat operations and focus instead on providing training and support for Afghan forces.

By the end of 2014, those Afghan troops are scheduled to take responsibility for securing their own country in full. U.S. commanders often express cautious optimism about the U.S. mission there, an outlook that's called into question by a recent opinion piece in the Armed Forces Journal by Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis.

Over 9,000 miles, 12 months in Afghanistan, he writes, I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level. We want to hear from those of you who have served in Afghanistan: How does what you saw there match with what you heard when you got home? 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.

Our guest is Johnathan Landay, national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. And let's begin with Chris(ph), and Chris is on the line in Monterrey, California.

CHRIS: Good afternoon, sir.

CONAN: Afternoon.

CHRIS: This time last year, I was serving in northern Helmand Province as an infantryman. And during my seven months there, I have to say that I consistently saw the Afghan forces stepping up. I'm not trying to refute what the lieutenant colonel said, in his area, things weren't as rosy after he left, but they're capable, and it's standard doctrine, you know, for fighting a counterinsurgency to stand up the local security forces, and as we potentially step back, they step up.

And I've got to say, I saw that happening in my area.

CONAN: Can you give us an example of what they did that might surprise us?

CHRIS: Absolutely. One of the biggest problems we had was their lack of ability to supply themselves and support themselves, and move troops and equipment and supplies over the distances on the roads. Because, as you know, the roads there are riddled with IEDs and ambush locations.

By the time we were leaving, by the time we left, their supply shop had set up their own convoys and were resupplying their own positions without our assistance and without our supplies making up the shortfalls.

CONAN: Logistical support is one of the crucially weak areas, well, not just of the Afghan forces, but that's a weak area of anybody's force.

CHRIS: Exactly, and by the time we left, we were able to turn over combat outposts that routinely saw contact, not like the easy ones, you know, by the more difficult ones, in order to free up forces for us so that we could push further into enemy-held territory and thus create more of a bubble for the Afghan forces to stand up and take over.

CONAN: So on the basis of what you saw in your area, and again conditions are different everywhere, but from what you saw, those troops gave a good account of themselves.

CHRIS: Yes, sir, and it's - just like in Iraq, if you do everything for them, there's no need for them to step up. But as we step back, they'll rise to the occasion, or at least they did in my experience. I cannot speak for the whole country. I certainly can't speak for where the lieutenant colonel was because, you know, the Army and Marines are in different areas.

But I've got to say I think I've - I would have to say I'm equally cautiously optimistic, cautiously just because at the end of the day, I'm not a fortune-teller, I don't have a crystal ball, but...

CONAN: Well, Chris, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

CHRIS: Not at all, sir.

CONAN: Tom Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He joins us now on the phone from his office here in Washington, and nice to have you back on the program.

TOM DONNELLY: Nice to be with you.

CONAN: And I wonder: There are two levels of which Lieutenant Colonel Davis writes about that are significant, one of which is his assessment that where he went, and that was a lot of different places, the tactical situation was from bad to abysmal. And the other was that we're not getting the truth from U.S. military commanders.

DONNELLY: Yeah, if I can sort of take those in separate bites. There are many different wars going on in Afghanistan, in fact, have been for some time. And the good-things-versus-bad-things ratio often has a lot to do with where Americans are and where Americans aren't - American forces. So that's a complex subject that's probably worth a longer conversation.

But the idea that the senior commanders in Afghanistan are willfully misleading people or sugarcoating things I think is a little bit difficult to sustain. It reminds me a little bit of the, you know, General Petraeus attempts during the Iraq surge to discredit the messenger if you don't like the message.

CONAN: Well, that was an ad by moveon.org in a newspaper. This is an army lieutenant colonel risking his career.

DONNELLY: Well, again, actually I was once the editor of the Armed Forces Journal, published pieces that Danny Davis has written. He's a controversial and calls-them-like-he-sees-them guy, but I would say also in this particular instance, I would debate his judgment.

CONAN: Johnathan Landay, again, on what you've seen, are U.S. commanders sugarcoating what they see?

LANDAY: Look, this is the essence of a debate that's going on with - between the administration on one side with the military and the U.S. intelligence community, which recently published a national intelligence estimate that talked about a stalemate.

In fact, what the intelligence community analyzed was that the situation, the stability and the situation that is in the south, where the surge has gone into, is probably not sustainable once the American troops leave.

I have been embedded with Afghan forces. There are very, very capable Afghan forces. I've been in combat with incredibly capable Afghan forces. But by the U.S. military's own admission, only one percent of the Afghan army is capable of leading - of taking a lead role in its own - in operations and that much of the rest requires U.S. mentorship.

But this is a problem that goes beyond the capability of Afghan forces to the political situation and the willingness of the Afghan forces to fight for political leadership in Kabul. If that political leadership becomes splintered over the idea of negotiating with the Taliban, which is what's happening, splintered among ethnic lines, then the troops that belong to the minorities, which is 60 percent of Afghanistan, are not going to fight for a government that makes - that is going to make - deal with the Taliban along lines that ethnic leaders oppose.

And you have a problem of splintering, potential splintering, of the Afghan army.

CONAN: And we'll get more callers in just a second, but I wanted to give Tom Donnelly a chance to come back on that.

DONNELLY: Actually, I agree with a lot of that because it's so dependent upon the Afghan's read of what we're going to do. This has very much been a problem since the Afghanistan surge was announced. So all the good that the increase in forces and the commitment to counterinsurgency tactics have done, are in many cases, undercut - or at least in the long term undercut - by the announcement that - which began at the start, essentially - that we were going to withdraw.

This was - has made a number of trips to Afghanistan, and the case has always been, and the belief among Afghans and Pakistani, as well, is that we're not there for the long haul. And so people hedge their bets accordingly.

CONAN: Let's get to Roy(ph), and Roy's on the line with us from Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

ROY: How are you doing today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

ROY: Yeah, I just got back from Afghanistan last week, actually, and I think that the arguments being made are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Like, I did see a lot of the security situation, where I was, become better.

CONAN: And where was that?

ROY: I was in northern Kandahar, in (unintelligible) district, and very rural area. And the security forces out there, you know, they were gaining credibility. They were gaining viability out there, as well, and they tamped down the security situation. But I think in terms of the Taliban, a lot of people are just going to wait until our forces withdraw.

Actually, a lot of times, the security forces that we were training, they were ex-Taliban. You could see the tattoos on their hands. And a lot of the family members of these security forces are Taliban. So, you know, that's going to be a big problem, as well.

CONAN: And so would you say that those forces are going to be: A, capable; and B, loyal?

ROY: Capable, but I don't know about loyal because like I say, a lot of them, their family members are Taliban or ex-Taliban or just, you know, strong men in the area. So I can see it kind of fracturing and reverting to, you know, little tribal conflicts.

CONAN: All right, Roy, thanks very much, welcome home.

ROY: All right, thanks a lot.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Nick(ph), and Nick's with us from Virginia Beach.

NATE: It's Nate(ph), but that's all right.

CONAN: Oh, I apologize.

NATE: And I have to kind of echo what that gentleman just said. You know, I worked with Afghan forces in Helmand Province for (unintelligible) down in Marja. I worked with a section called the Afghan National Civil Order Police. And these gentlemen are excellent, excellent fighters and are - you know, were very good at what they do.

And I think sometimes Americans may - or service members may compare Afghan forces to, you know, United States forces, and, obviously, there's a disconnect there. But for the level that they're at and where they are now, I think, they did an excellent job.

CONAN: OK. And so you would have confidence in them. You would go out with them on patrol?

NATE: I have, yeah. I did go out with them on patrol many times.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

NATE: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wanted, Tom Donnelly, to read you - I'm sure you read it - the section of Lieutenant Colonel Davis' report where he describes the Zharay District of Kandahar - not far from where our last caller was - returning from a base on a dismounted patrol, gunshots audible as the Taliban attacked a U.S. checkpoint about a mile away. As I entered the U.S. command post, the commander and his staff were watching a live video feed of the battle. Two ANP, Afghan National Police, vehicles blocking the main road leading to the site of the attack.

The fire coming from behind a haystack. We watched as two Afghan men emerged, mounted a motorcycle, began moving toward the Afghan police and their vehicles. The U.S. commander turned around, told the Afghan radio operator to make sure the policemen halted the men. The radio operator shouted and the radio repeatedly, got no answer. On the screen, we watched as two men slowly motored past the ANP vehicles. The policemen neither got out to stop the two men nor answered the radio (technical difficulties) that area told me they had nothing but contempt for Afghan troops in that area.

Not disputing anything our callers have said, but that's in the report. And all those things can be true.

DONNELLY: I think that's - yes. I think that all those facts could be - they're certainly credible to me.

CONAN: And your experience, Jon Landay?

LANDAY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I have been - I nearly lost my life in September of 2009 when I was embedded with U.S. military trainers who were mentoring and training what was then considered the best battalion in the Afghan military. We went out on an operation. It was a - it was supposed to be a simple meeting - operation, going into a village to meet tribal elders who had already given the word that they're prepared to acknowledge the authority of the Afghan government.

However, someone had given advanced - passed advanced word - excuse me - that we were coming, and we walked into a hellacious ambush. We lost five Americans, nine Afghans. And I was very lucky to get out there with my life. So there was word leaked by the Afghan side to the insurgents. And this happens. But, of course, you know, there are - the Afghan military I was with were incredibly capable and fought incredibly bravely in that battle.

CONAN: Jonathan Landay of the McClatchy Newspapers. Also with us is Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Rob on the air. Rob with us from Salt Lake City.

ROB: Hello, gentlemen. I'm thoroughly enjoying this conversation. I want to make two historical perspectives, and then I'll give my quick experience when I was in Afghanistan. First, Alexander the Great called Afghanistan the land of the unruly. Also in December of '59, President Eisenhower flew into Bagram, did a motorcade down to Kabul, and Afghans lined the route all the way down. It's a route I had done myself. Now, put that in perspective, could you imagine President Obama doing that today? Of course, not.

But what he said was that the Afghan people were the most determined lot he had ever seen. And so I think, historically, we forget what we're dealing with here, and we're dealing with a tribal culture. I think, just as the two men that you have on are talking about the politics being very delicate, which is true - I actually worked for the American Forces Network while I was there, and I was there four years ago about this time. And my experience was that, you know, the Afghan national army and a lot of the volunteers did want to learn English.

They did want to learn how to be capable. They did want to strive for a better life. But in my opinion, the bottom line is: Once we leave, that all goes back out the window. And just as, you know, the two gentlemen you have said there with the Taliban waiting in Pakistan, they're going to come back over the border. And I have to agree that what we've built there the last 10 years will disintegrate, and then the tribalism will take over, and it will fall back into civil war.

CONAN: Civil war, Tom Donnelly? Is that prescription that we're looking forward to in 2014?

DONNELLY: Not immediately. The civil war of the 1990s between the departure of the Soviets and the attacks of 2001 was a bit of a unique beast. It's certainly the case that, of the ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Tajiks and the Uzbek and the Hazara and, actually, a good slice of the Pashtuns - and when we treat the Pashtun as though they're kind of monolith and that's hardly the case - have no interest in Taliban rule and influence from Pakistan et cetera, et cetera. So there is a fairly solid anti-Taliban base that really accounts for the majority of the population and, actually, a majority of the country.

That said, in the southern and southeastern parts of the country, there are unreconstructed Taliban, actually, and, of course, with Pakistani help and with - under the directorship of the Quetta Shura or people like the Hakanis, for example, there are plenty of people who can make life in Afghanistan miserable for Afghans. Their ability to generate a large-scale civil war, I think, one should be somewhat skeptical about, at least in the foreseeable future.

What I would really be worried about is that they will become a fight amongst a whole host of interested parties. Your caller mentioned the Indians. The Iranians will be the same. The Uzbek and the Tajiks across the border would naturally support their brethren. So the potential is there, but one should not think that it will immediately go back to a late-'90s kind of situation where you have shelling of Kabul, for example.

CONAN: Jonathan Landay, we'll give you the last 30 seconds.

LANDAY: I think it depends a great deal on Pakistan and what it wants and to a great deal on the - on what the Americans and the Afghan government are talking to the Taliban about in terms of a political settlement of the war. If that settlement ignores the deep concerns and redlines of the minorities, the formerly - the leaders of the former Northern Alliance, then I think that Afghanistan could see a resumption of that civil war. If there is an agreement among the Americans and the Karzai government to talk to the former Northern Alliance, find out what their concerns are about bringing the reconciliation and address those concerns, then I think the chance for civil war is a great deal diminished. Unfortunately, that is not happening right now.

CONAN: Jonathan Landay, thanks very much for your time. Our thanks as well to Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute's Center for Defense Studies. We were talking about an article called "Truth, Lies and Afghanistan" in the Armed Forces Journal by Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis.

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