Author Tracks Afghanistan's Descent Into War

As the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan continues, Renee Montagne talks with political scientist Seth Jones about some of the challenges facing both military and civilian efforts there. He's written a book called, In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan. Montagne also previews her reporting trip to Afghanistan. She'll be there in the run-up to next month's elections.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The increase in American troops in Afghanistan this summer is in some sense an effort to make good on a promise that the international community made back in 2001: to bring peace and a measure of prosperity to a country that's been at war for decades. The challenges could not be greater. A resurgent Taliban continues to carry out attacks and destabilize the country. The Afghan government is weak. There's rampant corruption and Afghans are tired of waiting for change.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One political scientist who's been tracking Afghanistan's descent back into war is Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation. His new book is called "In The Graveyard of Empires" and he joined us to talk about it.

Seth Jones, welcome to the program.

Mr. SETH JONES: Thank you for having me, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, you take the title of your book from something that Afghanistan is often called, the Graveyard of Empires. What does that mean to you?

Mr. JONES: Well, it means historically that major powers that have fought in Afghanistan have run into very serious challenges, from Alexander the Great to multiple British wars in Afghanistan in the 18- and 1900s, up through the Soviet invasion beginning in 1979.

MONTAGNE: And you quote a 19th century British commander, Sir Frederick Roberts, saying the less the Afghans sees us, the less they will dislike us, which you would well know, the Bush administration took to heart, seemed to learn from history: When in Afghanistan keep a light footprint. Why didn't that work?

Mr. JONES: Well, it worked initially. The problem, though, was there was no serious Afghan government that took over. There was (unintelligible) administration led by Hamid Karzai, but it had no serious national security forces, and there were far too few American and other coalition forces to help stabilize the country once the regime was overthrown.

MONTAGNE: Although there's something else to that, because when one looks back, the Soviet invasion had what I think you would call a scorched earth policy. They killed hundreds of thousands of civilians intentionally. It was not just that the Soviets had a heavy footprint.

Mr. JONES: Right. Probably the biggest challenge that the Soviet Army, the Red Army faced in Afghanistan was their decision to really treat this as a conventional war. And what becomes clear when you look at counter-insurgency operations is the focus should be on protecting the local population, not in killing it.

MONTAGNE: Which is now the catchphrase, if you will, of the U.S. military. General Stanley McCrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, that's precisely what he says U.S. troops and NATO troops are there to do now.

Mr. JONES: The focus since General McCrystal has taken over in Afghanistan has shifted to try and protect the local population. But I would also suggest that when one looks historically at Afghanistan, the periods where it was most stable, a lot of that stability took place from local Afghans at the village level. And there's been a lot of focus over the past several years on building a government from the top down, not a lot from the bottom up - that is, finding local tribes and sub-tribes in southern and western and eastern Afghanistan and leveraging them.

MONTAGNE: And you would say, what - a force that could be partnered with under the right circumstances?

Mr. JONES: Well, we know, for example, at the sub-tribe and clan level that there are a range of entities that have been anti-Taliban. They tend not to be necessarily really strongly pro-government or pro-coalition, but as one tribal elder said to me recently, one of the things that I don't like about the Taliban is they try to tell me what to do. Nobody tells me how long to grow my beard. If I want to grow it long, I'll grow it long. If I want to grow it short, I'll grow it short. So I think there are sentiments at that local level that can be used as a window of opportunity.

MONTAGNE: There's a parallel search that needs to happen in Afghanistan, a civilian search. International development groups, aid groups, NGOs, and this is something else the Obama administration is talking about, but it does seem like we've been hearing about that since 2001.

Mr. JONES: Well, there have been some development efforts in rural Afghanistan, but I think this is where the civilian efforts in Afghanistan have become challenging. It's one thing to provide development assistance to build schools or health clinics in areas that are relatively peaceful, but to send in civilians into areas where schools are being burned down, teachers are being assassinated, and NGO workers are being assassinated as well, that's where it's become problematic on the U.S. side, is getting that kind of assistance into violent areas.

MONTAGNE: Well, is it a realistic goal then?

Mr. JONES: Well, there has to be a close partnership with the U.S. military, and that lash-up is important because the military has to provide a secure environment. And that, I think, has been actually quite weak over the past several years.

MONTAGNE: You have just returned from Kabul. Since a fair number of U.S. troops have arrived there and we are now in the run-up to the August election, was there anything you saw in particular that gave you hope for Afghanistan?

Mr. JONES: Well, one of the things that I found most interesting was the primary area that the Taliban has been operating is in southern Afghanistan, and over the past several months, since about January or February of 2009, they've done a fundamental restructuring of the insurgency. They've taken a guy name Mullah Zakir, who spent several years in Guantanamo Bay and was released in 2008, and he has removed a range of shadow governors and military commanders. So…

MONTAGNE: Now, shadow governors put in place by the Taliban.

Mr. JONES: By the Taliban, that's exactly right.

MONTAGNE: So you're talking about internal strikes within the Taliban.

Mr. JONES: I'm saying at the moment, with the Taliban there is some internal strife. Interestingly, we've heard this from elements of the Taliban's inner shura, located at Baluchistan, to try and move away from civilian casualties and to reach out towards the local Afghan population, actually in recognition almost at what the United States is trying to do is the best approach.

MONTAGNE: Seth Jones's new book is "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan." Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. JONES: Thank you, Renee.

INSKEEP: And after listening to Seth Jones about Afghanistan, Renee is packing her bags to travel to Afghanistan. We will be hearing from her on MORNING EDITION over the coming weeks. And Renee, I guess you decided that July and August were the perfect time to go to a desert country.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, a lovely time. Actually, I asked Seth Jones about the weather there. It turns out it is very hot, but in other ways, of course, it's also very hot. As we know, the resurgence of the Taliban has let to thousands of U.S. troops pouring in this summer. The goal there is to create a space for governance as we get near the August 20th presidential election. And that's part of what I'll be looking at.

INSKEEP: Many of our listeners will know that you've been to Afghanistan a number of times before. Each trip has been into a different environment, different circumstances. I'm wondering what the feeling is that you get as you research this and prepare to go.

MONTAGNE: I think the environment that I'm going into now is the least hopeful of any of my three previous trips, but at the same time there is this: for the first time in many years the world is once again watching Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: And we'll be listening for your reports. Renee, safe travels.

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