The Long War In Afghanistan
ALISON STEWART, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. It is expected President Obama will announce his long-awaited strategy for the war in Afghanistan on Friday and explain why it's important for the U.S. to continue fighting there.
In his most recent interview on "60 Minutes," Mr. Obama said one thing is for sure: Any plan would include an exit strategy. This comes at a time when some new opinion polls show waning American support for the war in Afghanistan. Today we'll be talking about where things are right now in Afghanistan and what we expect to hear from the president on Friday and how important public support is in fighting this war.
Also later, Bernie Madoff's motives, why he committed to greatest fraud in Wall Street history - that we know of so far. Steven Fishman will join us to talk about his story that he wrote about it called "Monster Mensch."
But first, public support for Afghanistan. Have you changed your mind? Give us a call and tell us why: 800-989-8255. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We're going to start off with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who is here with us in 3A. Hi, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN: Good to be with you.
STEWART: So let's get the basics out. President Obama has announced he is sending an additional 17,000 troops.
BOWMAN: Seventeen thousand troops, that's right.
STEWART: And that's in addition to how many are there now?
BOWMAN: Roughly 38,000 American troops are in Afghanistan now. And also another 34,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan.
STEWART: We'll get to NATO in a minute.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: When are those troops expected to arrive or be sent?
BOWMAN: Well, the first contingent of those troops, the Marines, 8,000 Marines will be arriving there in May.
BOWMAN: And then some soldiers from Fort Lewis, Washington, 4,000 of them will be showing up sometime in the summer. And then we have an additional 5,000 beyond that. They haven't been named yet. We know that roughly 3,500 of those will be trainers, and then the others will be special operations forces. Green Berets, Navy Seals and other commandos will be showing up also throughout the summer.
STEWART: That's what President Obama has said. What about leaders on the ground? Do they think that's a sufficient number? Do they feel like they need more or…
BOWMAN: Well, they do believe they need more, and what we're told is that decision points on additional troops, probably one more brigade, roughly 3,500 troops, a decision on that probably won't come until the end of summer or into the fall. But right now just 17,000 troops.
STEWART: Now, what other ways is the United States committed in Afghanistan?
BOWMAN: Well, they also have what's called provincial reconstruction teams, anywhere from 12 to 20 people who work out in the hinterlands helping rebuild the country. They're people who know about agriculture, road building and the like, and look to expand those reconstruction teams too as we head into the spring and summer. I think that's going to be a big part of what President Obama talks about, is that the military can't do this alone.
As military officers say, you can't kill your way out of this. You have to first provide security; that's what those 17,000 troops will do. And then after that they'll roll in these civilian experts that will actually help rebuild the country, not only American experts but they hope to get a lot of them from Europe as well.
STEWART: Yeah. I was going to ask you to pull out your crystal ball and tell me what are some of your expectations for Friday.
BOWMAN: Well, again, I think a lot more civilian experts; that will be a big push. And President Obama of course is going to the Europe next week to meet with NATO ministers. He'll be talking a lot about that with them, having them send over their former mayors and police chiefs and experts from universities and private organizations that can help rebuild the country.
Also look for him perhaps to talk about more money for Afghanistan. They're already spending billions of dollars there, you know, on the military operation. Look for a lot more money in Afghanistan. And also Pakistan, for…
STEWART: That's what we should point out. Yeah, you make a good point. This is also - he's going to reveal plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan; make sure they are announcing(ph) that now.
BOWMAN: Absolutely. And they call if Af-Pak.
BOWMAN: That's the shorthand now. That it's more than just Afghanistan. They're looking at it in a more holistic way, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They're really seen as, you know, two parts of the puzzle.
STEWART: Explain that Pakistan part of the puzzle.
BOWMAN: Well, the real problem with Pakistan is the Taliban have a lot of safe havens across the border in Pakistan, and then they cross the border, particularly after the snows melt, for attacks into Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass area, and then from the South, up the valleys into the southern city of Kandahar, and over into Helm and Province. There's a real worry that even more Taliban and other insurgents will be heading in this spring.
The sense is, of course, there's been a resurgence in the Taliban, a lot more attacks, particularly in the South. And there's a sense that the Taliban are emboldened, they're much - have many more fighters now, much more coordinated, and they're going to really make a big push starting in the spring.
STEWART: And why is that?
BOWMAN: Well, one reason is they've never really had enough troops there to secure Afghanistan. That's why you're seeing these additional American troops. And so the Taliban have been mounting more attacks. They feel emboldened. And again, the whole point of this is to try to stem those Taliban attacks, retake that turf from them, particularly in the South now, and then start to rebuild.
STEWART: Has the Obama administration articulated why Afghanistan is important?
BOWMAN: You know, I don't think they really have enough. The real concern is making sure this isn't another springboard for terrorism. Of course this is where Osama bin Laden was hiding out before the 9/11 attacks. So there's a real concern that you have to make sure that this country is somewhat stable, so it doesn't return to sort of a breeding ground for terrorists. But it's going to take some time. They're talking about a three to five year bridge of more troops and more development money, more civilians, and also training the Afghan security forces. That's a real big part of that.
They want to double the size of the Afghan army. Roughly now about 75,000, 80,000 troops - they want to double that to get to about 134,000 in the Afghan army. That's going to take us several years. So the hope is that after three to five years, you can get over this bridge, and at that point the Afghan security forces can do a better job of securing their own country and you can start withdrawing American forces at that point.
STEWART: I'm having déjà vu all over again. (Unintelligible) I heard about Iraq?
BOWMAN: That's right.
STEWART: We want to make sure that their army is shored up and their local police, and it sounds familiar.
BOWMAN: It does sound familiar, but the difference, I think, in Iraq was, you know, first obviously you didn't have enough force there from the get-go, and also they thought that they could quickly turn this over to Iraqi forces and quickly pull out U.S. troops.
And after three years they found out they couldn't do that. So there was, of course, a surge in American troops into Iraq, and that surge has ended.
But here's the thing, the difference is: Some people talk about a surge into Afghanistan. This isn't really a short-term surge. Again, three to five years of elevated U.S. forces, 60,000 or more, for really three to five years. So this isn't short term.
STEWART: How did we get to the point where the president of the United States answered very directly the question - are we winning in Afghanistan - and he said no? Considering we've been there since October of 2001?
BOWMAN: Well, again, you never had enough troops to secure the population. You never had enough, you know, civilian experts and money to help rebuild this, and I think they put a lot of faith and effort into Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and he's widely seen as ineffective. His government is viewed as corrupt. He's not getting out into the hinterlands in providing services to people, providing security.
So they're pulling back a bit from Hamid Karzai, and what they want to do now is continue to work with Karzai's government but make it more of an effort to deal with local officials and local tribal leaders to find out what their needs are, what they want, and to sort of work both ends there, both the top and also at the bottom level, at the local level.
STEWART: From your reporting, what you've heard from the Pentagon of now, what is different from their approach, the Bush administration's approach, if anything?
BOWMAN: Well, I think, you know, again, a lot more troops, and I think a real effort, again, what they call a whole-of-government approach.
BOWMAN: Whole-of-government. The other agencies have to help out here. These civilians, you know, coming from let's say the FBI and the DEA, they're going to help with the drug problem in Afghanistan, going after the traffickers and the drug labs.
And again, experts, we may hear more experts coming from the agriculture department that can help rebuild the farming in Afghanistan and other government leaders.
But people I talk with say, listen, America's done a lot already. We really want to hit up NATO to have them provide their civilian experts as well. Again, that's a real push you're going to hear from President Obama next week, when he sits down with NATO.
STEWART: Yeah, NATO has said that their role is to, quote, "assist the Afghan government in exercising and extending its authority and influence across the country, paving the way for reconstruction and effective governance." That's from their Web site.
BOWMAN: Reconstruction and effective government. That's when President Obama and others, Vice President Joe Biden, they're going to say, okay, that sounds good; now let's see some of the people that are going to make this happen.
STEWART: So that's what they're going to push for, more people?
BOWMAN: Absolutely, and more money, by the way.
STEWART: Resources, people, and then I think there's a third part of this is are they going to lower expectations? Are they going to make - I mean, we've never really had benchmarks necessarily.
BOWMAN: There's no question they are lowering expectations. When President Karzai met with President Bush at the White House just back in December, the - President Bush talked about a flourishing democracy in Afghanistan.
You're not hearing terms like that anymore. And it was only less than two months later that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who of course worked under President Bush and now is President Obama's defense secretary, said maybe our rhetoric was a little too lofty. Maybe we were setting our sights too high.
Now he's talking about concrete goals we can achieve in the short term, rebuilding the Afghan security forces, helping with development, getting those civilians in there to help rebuild the government, building blocks for a state.
No one now is talking about a flourishing democracy, and privately they'll say that may be decades away.
STEWART: Let's go to one quick question. I'm pretty sure you don't have the answer to this, although you're a fine reporter. Joe is calling us from Kirkwood, Missouri. Joe, what's your question?
JOE (Caller): Right. Well, it sounds like what's being described is a little bit of nation-building. So I'm a little confused on semantics here. We're told that this is no longer really a war on terror. Nation-building was criticized under the Bush administration. So what exactly is going on in Afghanistan?
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: It's not a war on terrorism. What is it? Joe, good question, thanks.
BOWMAN: No, there's no question. It is nation-building, and I think that's what - I think the Bush administration realized that when they got into Iraq, that they couldn't just go in, topple Saddam and then have the exiles, Iraqi exiles, take over and have the oil money pay for reconstruction.
They found pretty fast that it would take more troops, a lot more money and a lot more effort to stand up a government. And I think you're seeing some of that in Afghanistan. But again, this administration is setting its sights pretty low on what they can achieve - again, in the short term.
STEWART: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. You set us up very nicely for the rest of our hour. We're talking about public opinion and the war in Afghanistan. How important is it to overall strategy? Have your views changed since 2001? Tell us why at 1-800-989-8255. Email email@example.com, and stay with us. Tom, thank you so much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
STEWART: I'm Alison Stewart. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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STEWART: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington. Public support for wars can be difficult to hold onto. Vietnam, of course, is the big example.
Now, President Obama may face a similar problem with Afghanistan. A recent poll shows that the public is losing patience and even optimism for U.S. involvement there.
How much does that really matter, and what does it mean for strategy on the ground? We're going to talk to Peter Feaver, co-author of the book "Paying the Human Costs of War: American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflicts."
And also, Michael O'Hanlon is senior fellow on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He wrote an op-ed in today's Washington Times about Obama's strategy for the war in Afghanistan.
But of course we do want to hear from you as well. Give us a call. Tell us why or why not your support has stayed or is flagging for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The number is 1-800-989 - the email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And I'll just throw out an email real quickly before we get into our conversation. This is from Scott in California. He says I've been a life-long Republican who became disgusted with the fact that most of our energy over the past six years was diverted away from precisely the people who attacked us on 9/11.
Will it take some time? No doubt. Are we finally focused in the right place? Yes.
That's one person's opinion. We do want to hear yours as well. We'll check in now with Peter Feaver, professor of political science at Duke University. Peter is joining us from our Duke studios in Durham, North Carolina. Hi, Peter.
Professor PETER FEAVER (Duke University): Hello.
STEWART: So you have a piece in Foreign Policy and it's titled "Is Obama Losing Public Support for Afghanistan?" I'm going to let you answer that question. What do you think?
Prof. FEAVER: Not yet, but I'm worried about it. You were talking about a sense of déjà vu with Iraq. It really does feel like 2006 in Iraq. The Afghanistan situation today feels that way; that is, that the war is going poorly and the danger - you are in danger of losing public support, potentially losing it for a long time unless you can turn around the situation on the ground in Iraq.
It's partly a matter of mobilizing the public. It's primarily a matter of finding a strategy that will work in Afghanistan.
STEWART: You wrote that support for a war, for any war, is the function of two attitudes, the retrospective attitude of whether the war was the right thing in the first place and the perspective attitude of whether the war will be won. Could you explain each a bit?
Prof. FEAVER: Well, if you thought the war was the right thing, and you think you're going to win, then you have great support for the war. And obviously if you think the war was a mistake to get involved in the first place, you think we're going to lose, you will have very little support for continuing the operation.
The two intermediate attitudes, if you thought the war was the right thing but we're going to lose, you're - what we would - in our book we call the noble failure crowd - that's distinguishable from someone who says, well, I didn't support it initially, but I think we can win and we should win. We call that the Pottery Barn crowd. You broke it, now - we broke it, we now have to fix it.
And those two groups of people have very different attitudes or very different stomachs for continuing the war. The noble failure crowd, they don't want to continue the war, and the Pottery Barn crowd, they're willing to continue the war.
Now, this - we developed this argument with extensive polling based on Iraq, but I think we have tapped into a more general way or a general truth about the way the public responds to any war, and I think it applies directly to Afghanistan and what the Obama administration's wrestling with right now.
STEWART: We have a caller who seems to agree with you on one of those fronts. Cynthia is joining us from Kirkwood, New York. Hi, Cynthia.
CYNTHIA (Caller): Hello. Hello, everyone. My idea is this, that the Afghani people, I don't think we could ever win a war there. The Afghani people have been there for thousands of years in their mountainous country, and we're not going to go and give them democracy in a few years.
I think that we should spend money, like on Alzheimer's, water, food, peaceful things rather than - we're not going to be winning any war. They've had seven years with our wonderful army to find - what was his name, Osama bin Laden? And he's still there. I don't know where he is.
STEWART: Now, Cynthia, did you support, initially, U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan?
CYNTHIA: Well, I thought in 2001 that was - that they came from there, so we - if we're attacked, we could be defended. But then I found out the truth about the war and all the lies. So how could you not help but change your opinion?
STEWART: Cynthia, thank you so much. Karen is calling us from San Francisco, California. Hi, Karen.
KAREN (Caller): Hi, how are you?
STEWART: Good, thanks.
KAREN: I also was - I continue to support the troops just by letter-writing and such. However, one of the things I have learned very recently by meeting authors, Afghan authors and Afghan community people here in the Bay Area, is the difference in cultures, the difference in sense of time, and what things are important to them.
Democracy is different to them. They have more of a theocracy in the region. And I've learned what they appreciate more, and it's just what the previous caller said. It's the fundamentals that will win the hearts and minds, the water, the infrastructure, being able to educate the children.
It's the simple things. It's not necessarily what we value as far as how we define democracy and freedom, but it's something that we have to be able to appreciate how they want it and how they want to live their lives.
And so while we might want to bring technology and television and Internet in, they first want to have books and have schools and bricks and mortar where their children can go to school safely and where they have safe drinking water and basic medical care that will enable their children to live into adulthood.
STEWART: Karen, thanks for your call. Peter, one of the things I heard from both of those callers is that as they learned more or they sought out more information, that their opinion changed. So can you tell me some other factors that might affect public support?
Prof. FEAVER: Well, partisan attitudes certainly affect public support, and so for - that's one of the most interesting changes with the change in administration. Before, Iraq and Afghanistan were both Republican wars, and Democrats opposed the Iraq war and said they opposed the Afghan - they supported, sorry, the Afghanistan war.
However, if you looked at the folks who said they opposed the Afghanistan war, a significant number of them were Democrats. And so to the extent that there was opposition to Afghanistan, it largely came from the Democratic respondents, not Republicans.
Prof. FEAVER: Well, now the Democrats have the White House, have the Congress. It's a Democratic war. They own both of those wars, and so the influence of partisan attitudes will be very interesting. That's one of the big differences between Iraq and Afghanistan.
When the Bush administration was trying to mobilize public support for the Iraq war in 2006, 2007, they were working against the out-party, which was running for election on an anti-war platform.
Right now that's not the way the Republicans are approaching Afghanistan. So that's one advantage that President Obama has over the previous team.
So partisanship matters. The other thing that matters is elite debate, whether the elite largely are in consensus and in agreement for the strategy that the president is advocating or whether they're arguing against it. It'll be very interesting to see how the elites respond to President Obama's announcements on Friday.
Whatever he says, there's going to be a tremendous amount of debate. I suspect that the strongest critiques he will get may in fact come from his left flank - that is, from his own party, from his own base - rather than from Republicans.
STEWART: Let's go to Noel in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Noel.
NOEL (Caller): Hi, how are you?
STEWART: I'm doing well. So where do you stand on this?
NOEL: Well, I'm just going to make my comment, assuming that combat is the solution, and I just think that by doing what we're doing now, we're just adding a branch to the Bush blunder bush. We've come to the party too late. If we had sympathy - at least it seemed we have sympathy worldwide in 2001. We had a defined target, and yet things just got completely out of hand with Iraq and other issues.
So I think by going in now, we're just going to be spending money. We've tried with clandestine and overt attempts to find Osama bin Laden and that group, and we made comments like - well, our actions say we're going to destroy your countryside or we're going to do this kind of damage, but then, of course, we'll come in and rebuild it.
So, I just - I think we're - I don't see a win-win here for anybody, and I just think we're too late.
STEWART: Noel from Portland, thank you so much.
One more question for you, Peter. You also said that President Obama is living on borrowed time with Afghanistan. What do you mean?
Prof. FEAVER: Well, I mean that there's still a majority supporting the Afghanistan mission, both retrospectively - if you say, do you think we did the right thing going in, you still have a slender majority saying yes - and prospectively. Do you think we will win? Depending on the way the question is worded, you can get almost 50 percent or a little bit more saying yes.
So, that - there's still a reservoir of public support for the Afghanistan, and you do not need a majority to continue. So President Bush stuck it out in Iraq and reversed the situation - in fact, did the surge over and against public opposition.
So you can - if a president's determined, you can, in fact, do what is necessary to prevail in a war, even if public support is weak. But you have to expend a lot of political capital.
And that's really my big question for the Obama team, is are they willing to spend the political capital to mobilize public support, to explain to the public why we're there, to explain to your three or four callers who've already expressed they're fed up with this war, to explain to them why they should stick it out and why they should stay the course with this war? That requires a tremendous focus and a tremendous expenditure of political capital.
And President Obama has his plate full with other issues, and he has not really done much in a focused way of explaining his national security priorities in Iraq and Afghanistan to the American people. He just hasn't done that yet, and he'll have to if he's going to keep public support for these wars.
STEWART: We're speaking with Peter Feaver, who's a professor of political science at Duke University.
I want to bring in Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
And Michael, what's your reaction to Peter Feaver's claim that President Obama has done not enough to get his message out and that he's going to have to decide whether or not to spend political capital to keep people on board with United States being active in Afghanistan?
Dr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution): Hi, Alison. Hi, Peter. Nice to be on with you both.
I think that Peter's certainly right up until this point. Of course, we're only 65 days into the presidency, and this Friday will apparently be the big unveiling of the new strategy. And so that, arguably, is the moment when the clock starts ticking.
And I think President Obama will have to work on this one additional challenge, in addition to all the other ones that callers and Peter have already pointed out, is that I believe that even if the strategy in Afghanistan is successful - and I'm a relative optimist, partly because I set the bar fairly low myself. It's going to take time.
You know, the surge in Iraq began from a base of 135,000 U.S. troops, and we went up by another 30,000 within six months of - actually, within about five months of President Bush's decision to do so in his speech to the nation.
In Afghanistan, we've been hearing about an increase already, even going back to the latter months of the Bush presidency. Now Mr. Obama's going to announce it. As Tom Bowman said, the 17,000 additional troop installment's not even going to be complete until August, and at that point we'll have about 50 to 55,000 troops, with more expected perhaps later in the fall.
So the timeframe over which the Afghanistan increase is being announced and actually implemented is a full 12-month-long period, which is twice as slow, twice as long as in Iraq, starting from a lower base of capability for NATO and for indigenous security forces in the first place. In other words, we're not going to see progress even if the strategy works, in my opinion, until 2010 at the soonest.
STEWART: Let's get a couple of callers in here for you, Michael.
Dave is calling us from Oregon. Hi, Dave.
DAVE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say I think we should stay the course and finish the job we started in Afghanistan.
STEWART: And why is that?
DAVE: Well, as the previous caller had stated, I mean, these are the folks that attacked us, so we need to go finish the job.
STEWART: All right. Thank you for calling in.
Let's go to John in Jacksonville, Florida.
John, you have a different opinion.
JOHN (Caller): Yes. I do not believe we will ever see democracy in Afghanistan because our view of democracy is way different than theirs. They don't treat their women as equals and - but I will say that once we sent one American boy to die, now we got a job to do, or we don't send them to begin with.
STEWART: John, thanks for your call.
John brings up an interesting point. I'm going to get to it sideways from John's call, Michael. We shouldn't forget to talk about the Afghan people in this discussion. I'm assuming that they want to know what our strategy is as well.
Dr. O'HANLON: Right. Well, let me say something about my interpretation. We've heard various views, and I think there are certainly important themes and kernels of truth or important points of reality in all the callers' previous comments.
But I do want to say my understanding of the Afghan people, from having talked with a number of them and watched their political system, they are not interested in staying locked in the 16th century or the seventh century in some old-fashioned caliphate where sharia law is applied, there's no contact with the outside world, and no economic or social progress. That's not the Afghan people I know.
Yes, they are a bit more conservative in some ways, especially in the south and east of the country, but they're angry about the Taliban. They despise the Taliban, if you look at any kind of public opinion polling.
I was in Kandahar City in December, just after the population essentially revolted when acid had been thrown to those two schoolgirls' faces that some callers may recall. And the Kandahar City population in the heart of Taliban country was extremely angry about that action by the conservatives or by the, you know, conservative extremist Taliban sympathizers that opposed girls going to school.
I think Afghans actually want a relatively forward-looking country. Just how they define that is their choice, and it will be different from some Western mores. But I don't accept the view that they are inherently against any kind of effort to bring them or help bring them into the 21st century, and that's one of the other reasons why I'm a guarded optimist here.
STEWART: Robert from Sacramento, you have an interesting point.
ROBERT (Caller): Yes. My name's Robert. And I think that we ought to stay there and finish. Main reason because we didn't, in the first place, when we were - when we supported them against the Russians and then we backed out, the Taliban came to fruition and grew. And if we do not stay and complete the job, I'm willing to stay there until we're asked to leave by the Afghan government because - for the long haul. If we don't, then we've proven that we can go into a country, demolish it, back out and say, oh, we don't support it. Thank you very much.
STEWART: Robert from Sacramento, thanks so much.
Hey, Peter, I want to give you one last question. What does President Obama need to say to turn public opinion around?
Prof. FEAVER: Well, first of all, he has to develop a coherent strategy that will work.
Prof. FEAVER: This is not a matter of spin or messaging alone. The facts on the ground matter and the facts on the ground will turn with a coherent strategy. So that's what I'll be looking for first on Friday.
But secondly, he has to demonstrate his commitment to that strategy, the sort of presidential resolve, the I'm-going-to-stick-with-this-no-matter-what fire that President Bush demonstrated - the stubbornness that some people called it. But that was - that resolve actually served to bolster public support, that, okay - and bolster support from the Iraqis or the Afghanis in their current situation, that they're willing to stick with us because we're going to stick with them.
And then the third thing he has to do is he has to expend the political capital to persuade the people that this strategy is going to work. And he's got to engage with the Michael O'Hanlons. Michael plays a very important role in evaluating these things.
STEWART: Peter Feaver, professor of political science at Duke University, joining us from Duke Studios in Durham, Carolina. Thanks to you.
Prof. FEAVER: Thank you.
STEWART: And Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the foreign policy - of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Thank you for joining us as well.
Dr. O'HANLON: Thanks, Alison and Peter.
STEWART: Coming up: Most of us know Bernie Madoff as the guy in the baseball cap trying to avoid photographers after his arrest. What do you really know? We'll find out more.
I'm Alison Stewart. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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