Afghanistan: War Of Choice Or Necessity?

President Obama has much to consider with regard to a deeper commitment to Afghanistan. There's the political dimension, the strain on American forces, the financial costs and the toll on human life. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad joins NPR News Analyst Ted Koppel and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, for a discussion of the conflict.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In Afghanistan, U.S. and allied casualties mount, the Taliban and its allies adopted smarter tactics and seize the military initiative. The government is widely perceived as weak, ineffectual and corrupt. The presidential election, supposed to generate legitimacy, appears fraudulent. And unsurprisingly, public and congressional support for the conflict is dwindling.

As President Obama considers the confidential report submitted by the new U.S. commander, he has to consider the political dimension, the strain on American forces and how much a new approach would cost in dollars and in human lives.

But there is also a larger, overarching question: Is Afghanistan a war of choice or a war of necessity? We borrow that frame in part from Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, who will join us in just a moment. We will also speak with Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, later U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And we want to hear from you: A war of choice, or a war of necessity? And if you've served in Afghanistan, is this war winnable?

Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with NPR news analyst Ted Koppel, who joins us from his home in Maryland. Ted, always nice to have you with us.

TED KOPPEL: Well, thank you.

CONAN: And President Obama has been categorical on this point. Not a war of choice, he says, a war of necessity.

KOPPEL: Not only that, but in that soundbite that you played just before the news in which he spoke of this as being a war of necessity, he spoke of the essential nature of eliminating both al-Qaida and the Taliban, not just in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. It is rare that the American president makes any reference - this one, but particularly George Bush - makes any particular reference to Pakistan. I would argue the Pakistani factor here may be far more important than Afghanistan itself.

CONAN: And obviously, the Taliban, under the same commander, Mullah Omar, the former president of Afghanistan, is in - operates on both sides of that border, as does al-Qaida, and Pakistan seems to be tottering. If not at risk, at least it's been challenged militarily by this group.

KOPPEL: And if Pakistan were to fall to the Taliban, consider what is at stake here. You have heard a great deal, as we all have over these past few months and years, about the danger of Iran, which parenthetically is also a neighbor of Afghanistan, receiving or achieving a nuclear-weapons capability. Pakistan, you have to remember, has more than 100 nuclear warheads, and if the Pakistani government were to fall into the hands of those sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaida, it would be a nightmare of almost inconceivable proportion.

CONAN: We also remember what we learned about the Taliban during its control of Afghanistan, before the U.S.-led invasion back in 2001. And this was a place of considerable human rights violations - the soccer stadium scenes we all remember, women being stoned, people being beheaded, music being forbidden, that kind of thing. And of course, they provided sanctuary for al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. This was the place where 9/11 was plotted.

KOPPEL: It is the place where 9/11 was plotted, and the plotters were, to a large extent, supported by military intelligence from Pakistan. And you have to remember that from Pakistan's point of view, they are far more concerned about the danger from their huge neighbor, India, than they are about what's going on in Afghanistan. And the Pakistanis, indeed, have supported al-Qaida and Taliban as people who can be helpful in Kashmir, and they have supported some of the terrorist activities, as long as they are directed against the Indians.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He provided the frame for today's program in an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times: In Afghanistan, the Choice is Ours. And he joins us now from CFR's studios in New York, and it's always good to have you with us, as well.

Mr. RICHARD HAASS (President, Council on Foreign Relations): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Why is Afghanistan less a war of necessity today than it was seven and a half years ago?

Mr. HAASS: Well, after 9/11, one could, indeed one did, make the argument that Afghanistan was a war of necessity. Afghanistan had been the base from which the United States was attacked. The government there facilitated al-Qaida. And for all we knew at the time, what happened on 9/11 was the first of simply several attacks. So it was an act of self-defense on our part to do what we did. But now, continuing the war, much less expanding the war in Afghanistan, is very much a war of choice. In particular, we have fundamental alternatives to what the president is either doing or contemplating. We could simply limit ourselves to training, rather than a large combat role. Or we could stay offshore and essentially do vis-a-vis Afghanistan what we do, say, vis-a-vis a country like Somalia.

So we have a full range of options. To say something's a war of choice, let me just hasten to add, doesn't mean it's a bad choice, doesn't mean it's ill-advised, but it means just that. It's a choice, that usually the interests are less than vital, and the United States has other available options if it chooses to take advantage of them.

KOPPEL: Other than satisfying, Richard, the clear, national feeling here in the United States after 9/11 that something had to be done against the people who had launched those attacks, what was it that made it so essential back then, and what are the factors that have either been eliminated or made less dangerous to our national security over the past eight years? Because as I look at Afghanistan today, I see the Taliban, if anything, in a stronger position than it was seven and a half years ago.

Mr. HAASS: Well, Ted, seven and a half years ago, the Afghan government, as you said, was controlled entirely by the Taliban, who made their territory and their resources available to al-Qaida. Now, even though the Taliban have, indeed, as you say, made some inroads, particularly in the south of the country, in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, the government is still more friendly than not. Most of the country is not controlled by the Taliban.

Also, we've seen a switch in al-Qaida. al-Qaida does not now look to Afghanistan as its principal base. Pakistan is al-Qaida's principal base, plus it has other bases scattered around the world. So the whole relationship of Afghanistan to terrorism, it seems to me, is somewhat more removed than it was. The Taliban hold on Afghanistan is less than it was.

I would suggest that the principal reason now for thinking about escalating what it is we're doing in Afghanistan has less to do with terrorism than it does with something you, Ted, alluded to, which is the security and the future of Pakistan, that essentially we do not want to see Afghanistan become a sanctuary from which the Taliban base attacks to destabilize the far more important and significant country of Pakistan.

KOPPEL: I couldn't agree more.

CONAN: And does not that make the situation in Afghanistan a war of necessity? That situation with Pakistan, I think you said in your piece, was vital.

Mr. HAASS: Pakistan is vital. I would say two things against classifying Afghanistan as a war of necessity in this regard. It's no longer obvious to me that what happens in Afghanistan will be decisive in what happens in Pakistan. And just to be clear, yes, if Afghanistan, say, were to be largely controlled by the Taliban, they would use it as a sanctuary. It would make the situation in Pakistan more difficult, no two ways about it. But the radicalism in Pakistan has now taken root.

It has moved east, away from the Afghanistan border. So the sanctuary aspect of Afghanistan, while a factor in Pakistan's future, it's not clear to me that it is, by any means, decisive. What the Pakistani government is willing and able to do is likely to be far more significant to Pakistan's future than any use of Afghan territory.

KOPPEL: Neal, let me jump in with just one more thought. I would argue, in fact, taking Richard's point one step further, that Pakistan is not only critical to the national interest of the United States and what happens there, and the security of those nuclear warheads is critical, but in point of fact, I think what is being done right now is creating a base in Afghanistan from which we can at least hope to influence events in Pakistan.

There is no way that the Pakistani government would ever allow us to have 50, 60, 70 thousand or more U.S. troops on their territory. Their great fear, their paranoia, is that the United States is going to try and take their nuclear warheads away from them, in which case they would be totally vulnerable to India.

CONAN: Richard?

Mr. HAASS: The great irony in all of this is that Pakistan is, as Ted pointed out correctly, far more significant than Afghanistan, but over the last eight or nine years, the United States has probably spent 10 times or more as much in Afghanistan as in Pakistan. And the reason, quite ironically is, is that we can.

The Pakistanis won't let us put troops in the country. They are often resistant to accepting U.S. aid for the purposes that we believe the aid needs to be used. The Pakistanis are obsessed with India, which is not their real strategic threat. They tend to dismiss the significance of their domestic terrorists and radical threat. So we have gotten heavily involved in Afghanistan. And as I said, I don't believe it's any longer critical to Pakistan's future, though it will have an impact.

More important, just looking at Afghanistan in its own right, it's not at all obvious to me that a greater U.S. investment there will pay off, that the returns, if you will, on our investment in blood and treasure and diplomatic effort will show up. So the danger of doing more is we may have less to show for it. Indeed, we're beginning to see nationalist pushback in Afghanistan. We've got a dysfunctional and, in many ways, corrupt government, which again is why I question the president's use of this phrase war of necessity, as much as I, you know, for personal reasons, don't obviously like these phrases being used in the public debate.

But to suggest that Afghanistan is a war of necessity suggests that the United States would be willing to do whatever it took to turn things around. It's essentially an open-ended commitment. It suggests our interests there are truly vital, and I simply don't believe that's the case. I believe the United States has to look at Afghanistan as a war of choice, and every step of the way, we've really got to ask ourselves: Is it worth it? Is what we are doing having the effect that we believe warrants the investment?

CONAN: Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Also with us, of course, NPR news analyst Ted Koppel. When we come back from a short break, we'll be joined by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the now-counselor at the Center for Strategic International Studies, former ambassador to Kabul, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Is the war in Afghanistan one of choice or necessity, and if you've served there, is it a winnable war? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After 9/11, the war in Afghanistan was widely viewed as necessary. In the years since, though, opinions have shifted somewhat. July and August were the deadliest months for U.S. troops so far, and President Obama now faces major decisions about strategy and troop levels there.

Our focus this hour is on the war, and we want to hear from you. Is it a war of choice or of necessity? If you've served in Afghanistan, is the war winnable? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR news analyst Ted Koppel is with us, also Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the author of "War of Necessary, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars," and the author of an op-ed that ran August 21 in the New York Times: In Afghanistan, the Choice is Ours.

Let's get to a phone call, and we'll go quickly to Zach(ph), Zach with us from Albany, Oregon.

ZACH (Caller): Hi, am I on the air?

CONAN: You are.

ZACH: I served two tours in Afghanistan. And I was there in 2002, shortly after we invaded, and it was actually quite calm during my first tour. Then I went back in 2005, and I noticed that things had gotten more violent almost exponentially. I still feel, however, though, that the war is an absolute necessity. And I think that the determination of our military and the people who support it will prevail and bring a just cause to what happened on - you know, to our country.

CONAN: In the difference between those two tours, Zach, did you see any change in the Afghan people? Did they become more resentful of American presence?

ZACH: You know, I think they did. I was mostly on the base in Kandahar, and I didn't get out much except for flying on the helicopters from time to time as a crew member, but I did see more in the people that would come on the base to do labor. You know, I could see their attitudes, and it was a definite change.

CONAN: Zach, thank you very much, appreciate the phone call.

ZACH: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's introduce a new guest here. Joining us here in Studio 3A is Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, later ambassador to Iraq and then to the United Nations. Ambassador, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. ZALMAY KHALILZAD (Former Ambassador to Afghanistan; Counselor, Center for Strategic International Studies): Well, it's very nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And is Afghanistan a war of choice or a war of necessity, in your view?

Mr. KHALILZAD: I think it's still a war of necessity. The circumstances that made it necessary after 9/11 still prevail. In some ways, it's become more important, because now what happens in Afghanistan is not only important in terms of global terror and in terms of al-Qaida but also in terms of what happens in the region, and particularly vis-a-vis Pakistan.

So I think that the discussion now about choice versus necessity is not because the stakes have changed, in my view, but it is because we are having more difficulty in terms of achieving our goals, and that has led to this debate. And the question should be really: Can this be done more effectively? Can we prevail more effectively at acceptable costs? That's where the focus ought to be.

I think this issue of necessity or choice is rather academic because no one has demonstrated that we have less at stake now than we did when there was a consensus that it was something that we had to do.

CONAN: Part of that discomfort you speak of has to do with the government in Kabul, and many Americans are very uncomfortable with a regime that seems to be ineffectual, that seems to be corrupt, that at least parts of which seem to be deeply engaged in the drug trade and parts of which seem to be in cahoots with the enemy. This is something that people find, well, very troubling.

Mr. KHALILZAD: I think that's a very important issue. We cannot prevail in Afghanistan unless we have a good Afghan partner in the government of Afghanistan. And it is true that while the government has had certain achievements, if you look back since 2001, 2002. But particularly in recent years, it has not done well. It hasn't dealt effectively with the problem of corruption. It has not dealt effectively with the problem of narcotics, although there has been some reduction in the amounts produced.

I think the issue to focus on, one of the issues - I think we have several issues. Do we have the right military strategy? Do we have the right non-military strategy in terms of building Afghan institutions, dealing with the economy? What will it take - can we and how - help the Afghan government or have a government in Afghanistan that can be an effective partner? And if we can't, if a judgment is made that we can't, that will make the achievement of our goals that much more difficult, and then we will have to look at other options.

CONAN: Now, let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Lauren(ph), Lauren with us from Austin in Texas.

LAUREN (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

LAUREN: I was listening to this, and I think that actually, the answer is not necessarily one or the other. I think that we must make a choice to continue what seems to me to be a necessary pursuit. Now, I don't claim to be a military strategist or anything, but I'm thinking about this from a culture perspective, and that is that we choose to continue to advocate for cultural development in a country so that people are able to do so without suffering under oppression and violence. And it's not to Americanize the culture because, especially in Afghanistan, there is a wonderful, rich, cultural heritage that should have an opportunity to continue to develop. And it's the kind of thing that allows them to have a quality of life that we treasure here. We claim, you know, freedoms. We claim, you know, the right to vote, the right to be educated or to pursue religion. I think that we owe that to other people.

CONAN: Do we owe that to other people everywhere, Lauren? North Korea, for example?

LAUREN: Yeah, I believe so, yes.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much, and well, Ambassador Khalilzad, you of course worked for the United States government, but you are Afghan, as well. This is your country.

Mr. KHALILZAD: Right. Well, I was privileged to represent the United States and to help the country of my birth, and I believe that we and the Afghans go a long way in terms of having worked together. We worked together to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then we abandoned Afghanistan. And then the Afghans went through a difficult phase, ultimately ending in Taliban and an al-Qaida-sponsored state in Afghanistan.

Now, we have another opportunity to assist Afghanistan, make it a workable place for Afghans, not to turn it into a mini-United States but to make it work for Afghans. And in that, we serve our own strategic goal, which is to defeat al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan, although that's a global phenomenon. And also help move the region in the right direction because at this point, the future of that region is the defining geopolitical challenge of our time, and the problem of extremism and terror is at the very core of what makes that region dysfunctional.

So I believe that we need to see what we can do. We have to adjust strategy of course, tactics of course, but I think fundamentally, I still see that this is a necessary thing for us to do.

CONAN: And Lauren, thanks very much for the call. But let me put Richard Haass' point to you that we heard just before the break: Is this open-ended? Is this something the United States has to do no matter what?

Mr. KHALILZAD: No. I don't believe that anything is - other than the survival of the United States - is something open-ended. We need an Afghan partner. We need Afghans to do their part. This has to be a partnership, a contract, because this is not your typical war, in which force-on-force resolves the issue. This is an issue of state-building, of nation-building, of counterinsurgency, and therefore, what we need is for us to do it at an acceptable price, always ready to adjust as necessary, but at the same time, it's imperative that this opportunity that the United States has provided for the Afghans, that the Afghans take advantage of and rise to the occasion. And that's also an issue that we need to focus on.

CONAN: Ted?

KOPPEL: Yeah, if I could jump in just for a second, Ambassador. I think we are tiptoeing ever so delicately around the central issue here. Back in 2001, the perception of the Bush administration, which you served, was that the United States faced an absolutely fearsome possibility, and that was that the same kind of terrorism which struck this country on 9/11 could strike again, but this time with nuclear weaponry. There is, in fact, only one country in the world where that threat is greater than it has ever been before, and that is in Pakistan. And yet every part of this conversation focuses on nation-building in Afghanistan and whether or not we can deal with the corruption there, all important issues but none of them existential issues.

The notion that Pakistan and the Pakistani government might fall to Muslim fundamentalists and that they would then get control over 100 nuclear warheads is, after all, a greater problem than any one I can think of anywhere else in the world.

Mr. KHALILZAD: Well, you're absolutely right that the issue of Pakistan, the fall of the government, the issue of nuclear weapons, are vital issues, important issues. I do not disagree with that. But I believe that if the Taliban where to take over Afghanistan and al-Qaida would soon follow - because the movie we have seen before - the prospects of Pakistan having the fate that you just described would be much higher.

KOPPEL: Absolutely. But that's my point exactly, ambassador, that we are talking about Afghanistan as though it existed in a vacuum, rather than talking about the central issue which is Pakistan and its nuclear weapons.

Mr. KHALILZAD: I think it is - my judgment would be that we want to talk about Afghanistan and the region - and Pakistan is very central in that. What is at stake is the future of this region and what happens in Afghanistan has an important critical bearing with regard to the future of that region.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have. This from Scott and - Scott McKenzie(ph) in Wilmington, North Carolina. Can we not learn from modern history that the Brits and the Soviets met their demise in this country? Finally, could we not remove our presence from the country of Afghanistan and monitor the situation and make surgical strikes as necessary? And Richard Haass, that's one of the alternatives you explored.

Mr. HAASS: It is one of the alternatives, and we could do that. Indeed, we may one day be compelled to do something along those lines. We shouldn't kid ourselves. If we do do that, it will be because our presence is either not working in Afghanistan or it's no longer acceptable.

Let me say, Neal, Afghanistan matters, if you will, for three reasons. One is the human rights reasons that the caller mentioned. All I'd say is that it's not vital and we can't go around the world making the world exactly the way we'd like it to be as much as we would like to. It matters because of the terrorism argument. We don't want the terrorisms - terrorists to set up shop there again. But again, they set up shop in Pakistan and they can set up shop worldwide. Afghanistan is no longer the hub that it was after 9/11. So even if we succeed there, terrorism will continue to threaten us.

The real - I believe the real issue is Pakistan. And all, again, I would say is that it's not critical to Pakistan's future. What Pakistanis themselves either will allow us to do or prepare to do for themselves will matter more than any set of developments in Afghanistan. And also, we've got to be realistic, and I think Ambassador Khalilzad would agree here - recent developments in Afghanistan are sobering. The election, rather than making things better, has made them in many ways worse. It's sharpened divisions. It's highlighted the corruption and the dysfunctionality.

To speak of Afghanistan as a partner is something of a reach. We are essentially fighting the Taliban because they cannot very well. And the idea is to buy time for the Afghan government to train up its police and military forces so they can fight the Taliban. And it seems to me that's simply a fundamental question, whether they will ever reach that point - I hope they do. But we've got to be clear-eyed because odds are they probably won't, and then we are going to likely have to consider fallback strategies.

CONAN: Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations. Former ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, is with us. And NPR news analyst Ted Koppel.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Ambassador, I know you wanted to come back on that.

Mr. KHALILZAD: I wanted to make two points. One, if Afghanistan was to fall back to the Taliban with al-Qaida coming back, and if we were to abandon Afghanistan - I'm not saying that that's what Richard is proposing - but if we were, that's what will happen. I do not believe that Pakistan as a state will survive. It will be very difficult for it because what you will have in that case is the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, and the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, if not all of Afghanistan, would be under the influence, largely, under the influence of a fundamentalist Taliban-style issue. The issue of Pashtunistan, which is an issue affecting Pakistan's future and Afghan-Pakistan relations, will take a new dimension run by Islamists.

With regard to the second point on Afghanistan itself, I agree with Richard that things have become more difficult. The government in Afghanistan has not done as well as it should. We have made some mistakes too. I think we should have done more earlier to build a bigger Afghan force. We put limitations on the size of the force because we thought they should only have the force that they can sustain themselves. And I think to - one of the good things that has -that has happened recently is to increase the limit in terms of the size of the Afghan force. Ultimately, increased responsibility has to go to the Afghans themselves.

CONAN: And let's get another caller, and this Robert. Robert with us from Minden in Nevada. Robert, are you there?

ROBERT: Yes. Good afternoon. Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ROBERT: Yeah. The issue for me here is not a war of necessity or a war of choice, although I do believe at this point in time it is a war of choice. But given my own background in the area, three years in Pakistan during my military career, and reading James W. Spain's book "The Way of Pathans" and "Among the Tribes of the Wild Frontier," my take on it - particularly after a conversation with a member of the loya jirga from the Fatah - is that, one, we could have had Osama bin Laden in 2003 but the administration blew it.

And now the points would seem to me to be that we need to get out of the ground war which is going on in Afghanistan, one we cannot win. Alexander the Great didn't, the British didn't, the Russians didn't. And we need to rebuild the relationship with Pakistan, which was damaged during the Nixon administration.

CONAN: And Robert, short around the history and very quickly, please.

ROBERT: Okay. We need to get out of Afghanistan and work harder on improving the relationship with Pakistan that was damaged back in the '70s by Nixon and Kissinger.

CONAN: All right, Robert.

ROBERT: I would appreciate the ambassador's comments on this.

CONAN: Well, we're going to have to wait until after a short break, if you would. But thank you, Robert, for the phone call.

Please stay with us. Richard Haass is with us. He is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the author of an op-ed in the New York Times, "In Afghanistan, The Choice is Ours." Ted Koppel, our NPR news analyst, with us. And Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who's now a counselor at the Center for Strategic International Studies here in Washington, D.C.

If you'd like to get in on the conversation - is Afghanistan a war of choice or one of necessity? If you serve there, is it winnable? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: Right now we're talking about Afghanistan. Is this a war of necessity or a war of choice?

I wanted to read some emails that we've received on the subject. This from Daniel Murtha(ph). The war in Afghanistan is justified. We have to put al-Qaida on the run. Without the war, it will return to power and attack us again. The war in Iraq took our eye off the ball, where it always should've been. But above everything else, we need to keep the pressure on al-Qaida. The war in Afghanistan is the only way to accomplish this.

This from David Layman(ph). Why are we only discussing military options? Rather than spend lives and money on warfare, why not make the priorities diplomacy, supporting the people and forces that oppose the bad guys, cutting off the money and weapons resources for the bad guys, even if we had to legalize opiates? Why not exert our power in more clever rather than more brutal ways?

And this from Waheed Afshar(ph). I would say it's definitely a war of necessity because the world cannot afford the spread of a cancerous phenomenon, al-Qaida. It would be winnable only if the U.S. and the world community does not drop the ball and withdraw prematurely. Elimination of the high corruption in the central government of Afghanistan is the key, so do stay the course but with a better and stronger oversight, not forget to have Pakistan extremist officials stop their behind the scenes support of the militants on both sides of the border.

Well, with us are Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, former ambassador to Kabul, later to Baghdad, and later to the United Nations; with us in New York is Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, author of "War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars." And NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel is with us from his home in Potomac.

And Ted, why don't we turn to you?

KOPPEL: I must say, I'm sitting here with increasing frustration because I can't seem to get anyone to focus on nuclear weapons.

We are unbelievably concerned about what's happening in Iran. They don't have them yet. They may have one or two of them in a couple of years. We are unbelievably concerned about North Korea. And yet somehow the notion that what we are doing in Afghanistan has far more to do with the situation in neighboring Pakistan and the danger that those nuclear weapons - I mean, don't forget for a moment, the father of the nuclear program in Pakistan, A.K. Khan, was responsible for the dissemination of nuclear technology to some of the greatest rogue regimes in the world.

The notion that a Pakistani government controlled by Islamic fundamentalists would be the greatest danger to the United States and its allies that exists anywhere in the world somehow always seems to get swept under the rug in some measure, I suspect, because it is such a delicate issue as far as the Pakistanis are concerned. They are paranoid that the United States is going to try and control their weapons because, as I said before, they want to have some kind of military equity vis-a-vis India. But Pakistan is the issue.

CONAN: Richard Haass.

Mr. HAASS: It is the issue. The problem is that there's a tremendous gap between the level of U.S. interest in Pakistan and the degree of U.S. influence over Pakistan. And it's this disparity between the - our interests and our influence that makes Pakistan so worrisome and so frightening.

One of the things I've learned in my decades of working in and out of government on foreign policy is that it's often harder to deal with your so-called friends than it is with your enemies. And Pakistan - for that matter, Afghanistan, are perfect examples of this. We've tried various kinds of embrace with the Pakistanis to little effect. We've tried various forms of sanctions and distancing with the Pakistanis to little positive effect.

So the reality is we're going to try to work with them. We're going to be conditionally supportive. We're going to hope they do responsible things. Quite honestly, they're going to frustrate us, at least as much as they're ever going to do what it is we want. And if the worst happens, I expect, Ted, before you see weapons get into the hands of terrorists, you would probably see a reentry of Pakistan's military back into the political fray. For most of Pakistan's history as an independent country since the British left, even though it's a democracy on paper, it's been military-run in practice.

So I'm concerned about the control and the security of the nuclear materials as much as anything, and you're right to point it out. But there's not all that much we can do in the short run. And in any event, I believe that we would probably see, again, the Pakistani military reenter politics, which is not a solution, but it may be in the short run a possibility if the civilians prove unable to run their country.

CONAN: Ambassador?

KOPPEL: There's one point I would make with regard to a military takeover. The Pakistani military may be more favorably inclined toward the United States, but their central motivating factor is, as it has always been, India.

CONAN: As we saw - see in the recent stories of reprogramming American missiles to convert them into land attack missiles for strategic purposes against India rather than the anti-ship purposes for which they were sold. But, Ambassador Khalilzad, are we taking our eye off the ball here?

Mr. KHALILZAD: I don't believe we are. It's very important to recognize that in Pakistan, we have three central institutions: the intelligence, the military and the civilian institutions. And the military and the intelligence, there is a lot of suspicion as it is in the Pakistani body politic towards the United States. Even when we discuss what to do to increase the security of Pakistani nuclear weapons, there are not many takers in Pakistan because they don't trust us.

Ted is right. They fundamentally believe that our strategy is to denuclearize them. I think it's very important to recognize that we need to work on the Pakistani body politic with all key institutions. Part of our problems in Afghanistan that affects now Pakistan itself - it's backfired, in a sense, on them as well - is because of the Pakistani support for the Taliban. And…

CONAN: There was the intelligence service while the military keeps its eye on India.

Mr. KHALILZAD: Right. So it's - it is - only you can have success in Afghanistan, in my view, in the short term if you could have the Pakistani intelligence prevent the Taliban from using Pakistani territory as a sanctuary from which attack against the coalition and Afghan forces and Afghan…

CONAN: Do you believe they've been serious in their recent offenses in Waziristan and various other tribal areas on the border?

Mr. KHALILZAD: I think they have been serious about their own Taliban, the Taliban who are focusing on attacking Pakistani targets. But there is nothing that has happened that - of any seriousness with regard to the (foreign language spoken), for example, of the Taliban or the (foreign language spoken), or the (foreign language spoken) network. Those are elements that are focused on Afghanistan.

So, at times, I have said that they have been our friends during the day, but at night they have not been our true friends. Some of the senior Taliban people that are organizing and leading the Afghan Taliban and making things difficult for the coalition are in Pakistan. And, therefore, one of the things that we haven't done well has been to get Pakistan to eliminate that sanctuary, at least to reduce its effect on this dramatically. So Pakistan is important also for reasons of Afghanistan as well as the future of the region.

CONAN: Let's get Lee(ph) on the line, Lee calling from Las Vegas.

LEE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

LEE: I was - I'm in the Air Force and a civil engineer, and I spent about a year on a provincial reconstruction team in Northern Afghanistan. And as far as whether it's winnable or not - I mean, I can tell you. From one small province, it's possible to be successful. We were able - it was, kind of, the hearts and mind mission as far as building schools, helping the government to be able to do those sorts of projects on their own, building their capacity. And we - like I said, we made a lot of progress. The population was very receptive to our presence and appreciated our help. But…

CONAN: Lee, was this - you said - mentioned this was in Northern Afghanistan with this a Tajik area?

LEE: Yes, it was.

CONAN: All right. Different…

LEE: It would…

CONAN: Different from the Pashtuns?

LEE: Yes. And I would - what I was going to say next was that I can't really speak for the rest of the country because it's so tribal in different regions. You could go 100 miles from where we were and, you know, it would be a terrible area. You wouldn't be able to accomplish anything safely or effectively. So, it's very hard to speak for the whole country, but in smaller pockets - like I said, I have seen it personally, it is possible to see some degree of success, anyway.

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

LEE: Yep. Thank you.

CONAN: And the Tajiks are - I think it's probably safe to say, Ambassador Khalilzad, the United States' best friends in Afghanistan, if that's not too broad a generalization. Nevertheless, there has been a growing perception among some in this country that this conflict is unwinnable, some see comparisons to Vietnam, a quagmire where this is essentially a civil war. We're backing one side - the side is corrupt. There are sanctuaries on the other side of the border which we can't cross. There are all kinds of tactics we can't use, bombings halt, if you will, and this all seems too reminiscent.

Mr. KHALILZAD: Yes. Well, first, on Afghanistan itself, I think this is very different - the previous caller has also mentioned British and the Russians and Alexander the Great and so on. But, I believe that the Afghans, by substantial margin, when I was there at least - and I think a recent poll also supports it - fear abandonment by the United State and the international community rather than fearing occupation. Because they do not see in large numbers - although, some Taliban and extremist supporters do see us as occupiers - but the majority of the Afghan population do not.

And they want to live in a normal environment. They have been in the state of war for over 30 years. They're exhausted by it. But as far as the military strategies are concerned, I believe that we haven't explored a whole range of options, how we can accelerate the buildup of the Afghan forces so that they can do more. We haven't seen the kind of effort required to get the Afghan government to do more, to do better. And we haven't used our own capabilities.

We haven't had the counterinsurgency strategy that is the most likely to succeed, which is you have to protect population. And we haven't had the forces there to protect the population necessary, and we have relied too much on air power. And air power is less discriminating, and we have alienated the population. And some of our other tactics have also been counterproductive. So we need to review and adjust to have the necessary forces, to expedite the buildup of the Afghan forces, and to put united pressure and get to a new compact with the Afghan government, whoever wins the election, so that it can do better than it has done.

CONAN: Zalmay Khalilzad, also with us, Richard Haass from the Council on Foreign Relations and NPR senior news analyst, Ted Koppel - is Afghanistan a war of choice or necessity?

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And the way ahead, I'd like to ask all three of you to weigh in, in the few minutes that we have left here. Richard Haass, the president is considering this document presented to him by General McChrystal - new tactics and the way ahead. We're not privy to what it says, but it's believed to, as you alluded to, suggest that the U.S. increase forces there by tens of thousands and presumably try to get its allies, who are reluctant and increasingly reluctant, to do the same.

Mr. HAASS: We will try something like that. I'm skeptical, but I'd be willing to support it with one proviso, which is that we have in our heads some very clear measures of how we're going to judge how well it's working. So we can then decide, if it is working, we can continue with it, but if it's not, then I believe at some point we have to wind down our commitment, commensurate not just with our interest but with our interest everywhere else around the world. This cannot become a bottomless pit. So I think the president will actually have some running room to increase our effort, to try to accelerate the training of the Afghans. And we just, though, need to be very, very clear about how we will judge it, because if it's not working then we have to go to plan B or plan C.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, I'm not sure how much running room the president will have. He is meeting increased resistance in his own party.

Mr. KOPPEL: I'm not sure he will have a great deal, but I'll make you a prediction right now. And the prediction is that we will still have 40 or 50,000 troops in Iraq five years from now, largely on bases rarely to be seen in other parts of Iraq. And I suspect that we will also have bases in Afghanistan.

One of the few disadvantages of radio, Neal, is that we can't show people a map. But I urge all our listeners to go to an atlas, take a look at the map of the region and see how these countries all relate to one another. And if we had some other place to base forces, to be a potential counterbalance in Pakistan, I think we'd put on that, but we don't.

CONAN: One critical moment about looking at that map is if one wishes to intervene in Afghanistan to control forces like al-Qaida after the departure of American forces, you need to overfly either Pakistan or Iran or a whole bunch of territory in Central Asia. And Ambassador Khalilzad, that cannot be ignored either. What do you see is the way ahead here?

Mr. KHALILZAD: Well, I think the future of this region, from Morocco to Pakistan, is the defining challenge of our time, the way the future of Europe was for a long time and then the containment of the Soviet Union. And either we shape it through involvement by putting pressure on the enemies - like, extremists, terrorists - going after them, to eliminate them and support the moderates, which requires a military strategy and capability and presence in the region, as well as other instruments of our power, and us leading a coalition. Because what's at stake here is in the interest - or affects the future of the world. Or we sort of cut and run. I don't believe the second is an option. With regard to Afghanistan, I believe we have to adjust our strategy, have the forces that's necessary to do an effective counterinsurgency strategy...

KOPPEL: That's more forces.

Mr. KHALILZAD: More forces. While we build up the Afghan forces, that they can take on more, and at the same time pay more attention than we have on the sanctuary issue in Pakistan, because that directly affects us. That means incentivizing and pressurizing the security elements in Pakistan to break with the Taliban. And most importantly of all, getting the Afghan government to do its fair share. I think those are the elements necessary for success moving forward.

CONAN: And another disadvantage of radio, as Ted was making his prediction of 40 to 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and U.S. bases still in Afghanistan five years down the road, you were nodding. You agree with him?

Mr. KHALILZAD: I think that's exactly right. I don't think we will be out of Iraq completely in four to five years and neither will be out of Afghanistan completely in that period, because the region is so important.

CONAN: Zalmay Khalilzad, the former Ambassador to Kabul, to Baghdad and to the United Nations, now the counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and president of Khalilzad Associates. He joined us here at Studio 3A. We thank him for his time.

Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. His book is "War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars." And he joined us from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel joined us from his home in Potomac, Maryland.

Gentlemen, all thank you…

Mr. KHALILZAD: Thank you.

CONAN: …for your time.

Mr. KHALILZAD: Thank you very much.

Mr. HAASS: Thank you.

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