On The Ground With Troops In Afghanistan

NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, recently spent several weeks in Afghanistan following the last major combat offensive in the region. He and Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security talk about the situation on the ground just two years shy of the withdrawal deadline.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that though the Taliban seems to be better organized in Afghanistan, violence is down compared to previous years. But the big question is whether that trend can continue as U.S. and NATO forces had over combat duties to Afghan government forces.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman just spent several weeks reporting on efforts by U.S. and Afghan troops to clear Ghazni Province in what's seen as the last major combat offensive of the war, and he joins us in just a moment. We want to hear from those of you who served in Afghanistan. What have you seen there that you think might predict the future? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.

Later in the program, two of the people behind the comedy revue "Old Jews Telling Jokes." But first, Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us here in Studio 3A. Tom, welcome home.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And what did you see on this trip that suggests whether the Afghans can provide for their own security or not?

BOWMAN: Well, the Afghan forces are definitely getting better. There's no question about it. Tactically, when you see them on the ground with American forces, they're doing much better at patrolling. You'll see them take a knee and look around a corner as you're, you know, passing a break in the wall, let's say.

But they still have problems with leadership and supplying themselves in the field. Literacy is still a big problem with them, fixing their trucks and so forth. And the Americans will tell you the Afghans are in the lead certain places. But when you're actually out there in the ground with them, it's really the Americans that are leading these patrols and these operations. And they'll push the Afghans, literally push them out in front on the patrol and say you guys have to go check this compound.

And then they'll tell them, well, I don't think you did it correctly. Go back into the compound and check again. See if you find any homemade explosives or any poppy or anything like that. So it's still very much a work in progress. But there's no question. I've been going there now twice a year for month-long trips since 2008. No question that the Afghans are looking a lot better.

CONAN: One of the scenes you described in one of your stories involved a need for gasoline.

BOWMAN: That's right. We were in the Panjwayi area of Afghanistan. The Panjwayi District is just outside of Kandahar, and they have these new American training teams, 12 soldiers that are supposed to be there to help the Afghans do a better job of supplying themselves, filling out request forms for, let's say, diesel fuel and so forth.

And the Americans are having a hard time getting them to just fill out the forms and do the right paperwork. And what the Afghans keep saying is, well, wait a minute. The previous guys who were here just gave us diesel fuel. They actually put it in our generators for us. Why can't you guys do that?

And the Americans said, hey, listen. The party's over, in essence, that it's time for you guys to step up. At least fill out the paperwork. We'll still give you the diesel fuel, but you have to practice doing the right thing, working your chain of command eventually, and getting the diesel fuel from Kabul. That's going to take a while, but they want them to at least start filling out the paperwork.

And we were in this office while an American's telling an Afghan what he has to do, and he suddenly stands up and slams his chair on the ground and stalks out of the meeting.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: There is another place that you said symbolized the question of both the progress that's been made and the questions that remain, and that is a place called Marja, which we remember from a couple of years ago, the site of - well, it was a Taliban stronghold, and many U.S. Marines died retaking it.

BOWMAN: Exactly, two years ago, it was considered a no-go zone for not only the Americans, but Afghans, as well. It was really a nest of Taliban fighters and drug traffickers in Helmand Province in the southwestern part of the country. Today, Marja is a completely different story. It was really the only place I could go in the country out on patrol and take off my, you know, combat helmet and walk around in this marketplace.

And one of the reasons is there are so many government troops there - you know, the government being the U.S. government, Marines, Afghan soldiers, Afghan police, Afghan local police, which are, in essence, sort of an armed community watch. There are thousands of them all over the place. And that's keeping the security. Again, the big question is: As the Americans pull out their troops in large numbers by September and then into next year, can the Afghans pick up and do it on their own? That's still an outstanding question that nobody really will know until they actually see it.

CONAN: Andrew Exum is senior fellow for the Center for a New American Security. He recounts his service in Afghanistan in the book "This Man's Army: A Soldier's Story from the Frontlines of the War on Terror." He's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

ANDREW EXUM: Great to be back.

CONAN: And you served several tours in Afghanistan back in the old days.

BOWMAN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

EXUM: Back when we were winning, right.

CONAN: Was there always an understanding that there had to be a transition to the Afghans?

EXUM: No, not at all. I mean, I served two early deployments in Afghanistan as a young infantry officer. I went back as a civilian advisor in 2009 and 2010, and I think things had really changed over those few years. So by the time - you know, we got to 2009, and I think that the American patience with the war had been ground down. The casualties from Iraq, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had really begun to weigh on the American people, and it dawned on U.S. and allied commanders that we didn't have all the time in the world and that we had to get serious about our exit strategy.

What's the exit strategy? Building up key institutions within the Afghan state to allow us to leave. Those key institutions were primarily the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police. But that's something that we really only got serious about in 2009, when we stood up a three-star command in Afghanistan to take charge of that mission.

CONAN: And as Tom Bowman reports, there has been progress, but obviously a lot left to do.

EXUM: Yeah, I mean, first off, with respect to U.S. Army paperwork, that Afghan general's not the first person to slam down his clipboard and storm out of the room in anger. I think I did that as a company executive officer one or two times. But yeah, there is a lot of work to do.

I mean, to be quite frank, there are regions of Afghanistan, the west, the north, that don't need any more coalition troops. You can start transitioning right now. However, there's still a lot of hard fighting to be done, especially in the east. And I think that successive U.S. or NATO commanders have expected that they were going to have the manpower to actually surge in the east, as well, and really conduct intensive counterinsurgency operations.

The Obama administration has other ideas, and they want a quicker transition, and so there's a realization that we're going to transition out of Afghanistan long before this war is going to be over. And if we do that, then we're going to have to think through ways to fight by, with and through our Afghan allies and to continue to support them as they really carry the fight to the Taliban, and especially the Haqqani Network in eastern Afghanistan.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who've served in Afghanistan. What did you see that might predict how this is going to go? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Jerry, and Jerry's with us from Ehrhardt, in South Carolina.

JERRY: Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi.

JERRY: Yes, sir. I served a tour in '02 and '03 with the Civil Affairs Guard as - near Tora Bora, Bagram and Kabul. Until there is some sense of loyalty toward Kabul and the government, there's - there's not going to be an Afghanistan. It's a tribal area. It's not a country. Mr. Karzai controls only the city of Kabul. The only reason he has any influence anywhere else in the country is because he's incorporated warlords like Ismail Khan from Herat.

Until there's some semblance of feeling of the - especially out of the rural areas in the mountains toward Kabul as their capital, rather than just the tribal area, it's not going to work. We're wasting our time and our money.

CONAN: Tom Bowman, we've been talking about security. He's talking about a much larger political question.

BOWMAN: He raises a very good point. And the United States government really hasn't pushed hard enough on corruption issues over there. They're going after some small fish here and there. And I gathered some string when I was over there - you know, embedded with U.S. forces with certain officials over there, talking about corruption. But they really haven't made this a priority. The issue is...

CONAN: Just want to interrupt and say gathering some string means he hasn't done the piece yet.

BOWMAN: Exactly, yeah - still working the story. But the thing is that the focus has always been, in the U.S. government, how many troops do we send, how many do we not send, how many do we reduce. Going after these hard issues like corruption has not been a priority yet, and that's a clear problem with the way ahead here.

And the caller's absolutely right: If people don't feel loyalty to the government, that's why you have insurgencies. You have insurgencies when the government is predatory, when it's nonexistent, when it's not there to help you. It's going to be a continuing problem in the coming years.

CONAN: And Andrew Exum, it's not just that, there are loyalties to local commanders, local leaders, local warlords.

EXUM: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot to unpack with that caller's question and comments - I mean, first off, the issue of centralization and decentralization. Afghanistan has a centralized government enshrined in the constitution. That's not traditionally the way that Afghanistan's been governed. I think what we, the United States and the rest of our Western coalition want is not necessarily a strong, centralized state, but a state at peace with itself.

That was Afghanistan for the vast majority of the 20th century, when Afghanistan was the exception in Asia and wasn't - didn't get caught up in, you know, global conflicts or violent insurgencies, really, until the Soviet invasion and the Marxist coup that preceded it.

BOWMAN: With respect to legitimacy, you know, it's always a relative thing. We political scientists talk about it in terms of legitimacy being the degree to which existing institutions are thought most appropriate for society in comparison to alternatives. And one of the issues we've had in Afghanistan is that everybody who's currently trying to rule Afghanistan has already tried and failed.

That includes both the Karzai regime and most of the people in government, but that also includes the Taliban. So that's something that we have to keep in mind, that, you know, legitimacy isn't, you know, a thing that you either have or you don't have. It's always relative, and I think we can make some gains there.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call.

JERRY: Are you still - am I still on the air?

CONAN: Yeah. You still are.

JERRY: Oh, I'm sorry. Listen, I have one other comment. And when I was there, we can drive up and down the roads and see the poppy fields. We never made any significant effort on that. They have farmers' markets and produce farmers before the Soviets. We should be paying attention to that, because all we're doing is funding the bad guys, and that's another - that was the other key element, I think.

EXUM: Yeah. That's a great comment. I wish that only the bad guys were making money off of poppy. Unfortunately, you know, a lot of our key allies in Afghanistan and many local powerbrokers also make money off the poppy trade. It's, in many ways, tangled up within the binary conflict between the government and the insurgency, but it's by no means black and white.

BOWMAN: And, Jerry, I was always driving around Marja, and you still see the poppies out there.

CONAN: Let's go next to Spencer. Spencer's with us from Goldsboro, North Carolina.

SPENCER: Hey. How's it going?

CONAN: Good.

SPENCER: You know, I - one of your commentators on there said that the goal would be to have Afghan(ph) be at peace with itself. That makes a lot of sense to me, having served over there. But I would also like to say that it doesn't seem as if there's much emphasis on infrastructure in Afghanistan. And I don't understand how a country could maintain stability without, you know, some good programs, roads and social services and stuff like that. I don't know how...

CONAN: That...

SPENCER: ...the borders could be held and whatnot.

CONAN: Tom Bowman, that's one of the ways a government gets the loyalty, by building roads and providing clean water and electricity and services like that.

BOWMAN: Exactly. But money is coming from the international community, a lot of it from the United States. Some of the military folks over there and USAID and the State Department have been building roads and building, you know, building up marketplaces over there. But the government over there has to do more. They have to provide services, education and teachers for the people over there. There have to be more Afghans actively involved in running their own government, too.

When I was over there last year in Marja, there was a Marine gunnery sergeant running education programs there, and that has to stop. They have to have more educated Afghans taking a vested interest in their government, and not only working as translators for the Americans.

EXUM: I mean, first off, I've learned a lot from Marine gunnery sergeants over the years, but it's probably not the ones you want running your schools. In terms of infrastructure, just a point of interest here, you know, when the Afghans and the Americans talk about transition, they're really talking about two different things. When the Americans are talking about transition - the Americans and our Western allies - we're talking about transfer of lead security responsibility.

We're talking about, OK, we're going to turn this over to the Afghan national army. We're going to turn this over to the Afghan national police. When you hear the Afghans talk about transition, many times what they're talking about is, OK, what are you going to leave us with? How are we going to raise taxes? How are we going to control our borders? What infrastructure do we have to not only raise taxes, but then to disperse income to, you know, to build, you know, everything from schools to roads to sewage treatment plants. That's a - so that's been a disconnect in the dialogue between America and the Western donor nations and the Afghans themselves.

CONAN: Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security, also NPR's Tom Bowman. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's go next to John, John with us from Capron, Oklahoma.

JOHN: Yes, sir. I just came back a few months ago from R.C. East. Your gentleman was speaking earlier about the eastern side needing more troops and a bigger surge, and I completely agree. The area where we were at, multiple times, we were in somewhere where everyone was peaceful with us in their front yard, but when we would hit what we call their backyard, I mean, it was absolute - I mean, it was frontline war. There was no - there's no other word for it. It's not ready for relief on the eastern side of Afghanistan yet. There's no need to pull out yet.

CONAN: And no need to pull out, but it sounds like it's going to happen, anyway.

JOHN: Yes, it is going to happen. However, being over there, seeing the younger generation, honestly, what I see happening when the U.S. does finally, fully pull out and only one or two airfields that they're going to choose to hold onto, I can see the younger generation be coming of age and realize what the Americans brought to their country. And I can see somewhat of, I guess, a civil war, or sons rebelling against their fathers, going, you've been doing it wrong. We need to progress and keep up with the Western Hemisphere.

CONAN: That certainly, on a cultural level, you see some the television programs in Kabul. This is a world away from the Kabul that was ruled by the Taliban.

BOWMAN: That's right. And he raises a point about the east, and he's absolutely right. We were in Ghazni, in the eastern part of the country, and they sent an American brigade there from the 82nd Airborne. Their job - and it's a short time to do it - is to try to pacify this area by September. They have 3,000-plus soldiers. They're going to leave in September. They're going to be replaced by probably a battalion, eight to 900 soldiers, and they're going to continue to push the Afghans into, quote and unquote, "the lead." That's the most dangerous part of the country.

As Andrew Exum mentioned, the Haqqani Network is just a few miles away, over the other side of the border. They have a safe haven in Pakistan, and they just keep coming across the border.

CONAN: And, Andrew Exum, just to follow up on John's point, I never quite understood. We - of course, people get upset and angry at the United States when we bomb wedding parties...

EXUM: Yeah.

CONAN: ...and kill civilians.

EXUM: Yeah.

CONAN: The mass majority of civilians killed in Afghanistan are killed by the Taliban. Don't they have cousins and brothers...

EXUM: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CONAN: ...and outraged mothers?

EXUM: Yeah. Let me - this is actually quite interesting. You know, we see the Taliban as a unitary actor. We see the Taliban as kind of this monolith. So we point out to the fact, hey, you know, look. The United Nations says that 19 percent of civilian deaths are caused by U.S. and allied forces. Eighty-one percent of civilian deaths are caused by the Taliban. What gives? Why are you angry with us? The Afghans don't see it the way. The Afghans see the insurgency like it is, which is bifurcated, which is fractured.

They see the Haqqani Network. They see the Taliban. They see Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group. And so, you know, they look at - you know, when you break it down that way, when maybe 20 percent are done by the Quetta Shura Taliban, 90 percent of causalities are by the Haqqani Network, 20 percent are by NATO-ISAF. Then suddenly, we looked like just one of many armed groups in Afghanistan fighting out and killing civilians. And that's the way that a lot of Afghans see. So there's a disconnect there, because the Afghans are looking at the insurgency differently than the way that we often do.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the phone call.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Andrew Exum, as always, we'd like to thank you for your time.

EXUM: Sure thing.

CONAN: Andrew Exum, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He served with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Also, Tom Bowman, as always, thanks very much for your time.

BOWMAN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Up next, "Old Jews Telling Jokes." We'll talk with one of its creators and one of the stars of the off-Broadway comedy revue. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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