Life On The Ground In Afghanistan

Guests:

Jonathan Landay, Senior National Security and Intelligence Correspondent for McClatchy
Dexter Filkins, New York Times correspondent and author of The Forever War
Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for Defense Policy for the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Strategic Assessment Group

After a bloody summer for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, President Obama is pondering new tactics, but says, at least for now, no new troops will be sent to the region. Experts just back from Afghanistan offer a close-up look at what troops face in combat, and how new tactics and policies are playing out on the ground.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Last month, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan submitted a confidential report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The Washington Post obtained a copy of that report and posted it on their Web site today. In the report, General Stanley McChrystal calls for more troops in Afghanistan to fight the insurgency there, and if he does not get them, he writes, the war will, quote, "likely result in failure." There is a caveat: While the situation is serious, he writes, success is still achievable.

So what is Afghanistan like today on the ground, and how would sending more troops change the equation there? We'll talk to two reporters who have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan reporting on the conflict, and we'll hear from a member of the team of advisors that helped draft the McChrystal report.

We also want to hear from you. If you've been to Afghanistan, tell us: What do you think the rest of us need to know about the country, about the war there? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. You can send us email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on The Opinion Page, how "The Cosby Show" changed America, but first, Afghanistan.

Joining us now from his home in Washington is Jonathan Landay, senior national security and intelligence correspondent for the McClatchy chain of newspapers. You can find a link to some of his most recent pieces from Afghanistan on our Web site, at npr.org. Jonathan Landay, it's good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. JONATHAN LANDAY (Senior National Security and Intelligence Correspondent, McClatchy Newspapers): My pleasure.

ROBERTS: I want to start by asking you to recap the battle you saw in Afghanistan recently that was the subject of an article you just published, a battle in which four U.S. Marines died. Can you just walk us through what happened that day?

Mr. LANDAY: Yeah, it was actually three U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy corpsmen and nine Afghans, including the translator of the Marine commander who I was with. Basically, I was embedded with trainers, with American Marines and several Army soldiers whose job it is to train the Afghan military. And we were on an operation that was intended, basically, to restore government authority in a village on the Afghan-Pakistan - close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, with the understanding of the tribal elders, who had several days earlier renounced the Taliban publicly on radio and accepted the authority of the local government.

With that in mind, myself and about 100 - it was about 100 Afghan troops and American trainers - began basically walking up a valley at the head of which this village sat, and we basically walked into a trap. The insurgents, and I won't call them the Taliban because it's unclear exactly which group it was that staged this ambush, but they knew we were coming, were ready for us in advance and, as I said, had prepared a three-sided trap. They were on the north and south ridges that frame the valley, as well as inside the village and above the village on the mountains to the east, close to the Pakistani border.

ROBERTS: And in your newspaper account, you say that you had to wait more than hour for air cover, for U.S. helicopters to arrive. What do you think happened?

Mr. LANDAY: Well, I was told that - afterwards that there were a limited number of combat helicopters available, that the ones that were available were actually being used in an operation to the north of us and that several of the pilots had actually been wounded during - providing air cover to the troops to the north of us.

But at the same time, I was also later told that, in fact, air power was available. It's constantly available. It's on standby. And I had been in a briefing with the American officers and Afghan commanders who were involved in this operation, at which they were assured that while there was no dedicated air cover for this operation, air power would be available within five minutes of a call. And at least by my watch, it took 80 minutes between the time the first call went out from the officers on the ground with whom I was attached and the time that the helicopters actually showed up.

ROBERTS: And what is your sense, from your reporting, of what role the new rules to avoid civilian casualties might have had in the schedule of the air power?

Mr. LANDAY: Well, I don't know that it had anything to do with the time it took for air power to get to where we were, but it certainly was cited by people on the other end of the radio, to whom the commanders I was with were talking, when they were asking for high-explosive artillery cover to suppress the fire of the insurgents. That was not forthcoming at all, as far as myself and other people who were there are concerned.

Now, I have been told that the official timeline being produced by the Defense Department says that there were mortars that were provided, mortar fire that was provided by U.S. troops to the people, the contingent I was with, within eight minutes of it being called in. But as far as I'm concerned, as far as the other people I was with are concerned, that mortar fire was nonexistent. It did nothing - if it was, in fact, forthcoming, did nothing to suppress the incredible volume of fire to which we were being subjected in this ambush.

ROBERTS: You know, in a press briefing…

Mr. LANDAY: …machine gun fire…

ROBERTS: …the Pentagon spokesman, Jeff Morrell, said that actually the issue with the air cover, at least, was just about the distances and the terrain that have to be traveled in Afghanistan. He said: My understanding of it - this is a quote - is that it's not quite as it has been reported. I think it did take some time for close air support to arrive in this case, but that is not a result of more restrictive conditions in which it can be used.

Mr. LANDAY: Well, exactly. I mean, that's exactly what I was saying. The fact is, though, that when it comes to just about everything in Afghanistan, whether it be U.S. troops, Afghan troops, resources, time, energy, it's all at a premium in Afghanistan, and it has been for quite a long time. And so the bottom line, it seemed to me, of everything that happened to the people I was with was a result of this lack of resources, the strain on American forces, the strain on Afghan forces, the lack of sufficient air power and the lack of - and these new rules that you've been talking about because, quite frankly, they were imposed as a result of the fact that U.S. and NATO forces were over-relying on air power, were over-relying on the use of heavy artillery because they were short of manpower. And that over-reliance resulted in high civilian casualties, and those high civilian casualties were a boon to Taliban support and recruiting.

ROBERTS: The unit you were embedded with, it was Marines training members of the Afghan army. What can you tell us about how that system is worked, how the Afghan army is doing, how they're equipped?

Mr. LANDAY: Well, there seemed to me to be positive, very positive aspects of it but also negative aspects, as well, the positive aspects being that the Afghan, the rebuilding of the Afghan military is among the most successful efforts that the United States has been overseeing in Afghanistan since the 2001 intervention.

The Afghan military is professional. They are very good fighters. They are effective as a combat force. The problem is that there aren't enough of them, as I said earlier, and that the military itself is plagued by some of the very same corruption problems that the government as a whole is plagued with.

For instance, the Afghan lieutenant who led the Afghan unit that I was with had been a lieutenant for six years. And the evening before the operation, I had sat with him and talked about why this was, and he said well, it was because he didn't have the money to buy a promotion. Well, that is a problem that appears to be across the entire Afghan military.

Then there's the problem of, for instance, the provision of food. Up until about three years ago, the United States had contracted for the provision of food to the Afghan military. And then in an effort to increase the Afghan military's self-reliance, they did away with that effort and basically turned it over to the Afghan military to send money to their units in the field with which to buy food locally. Well, that money, as far as the unit I was with, has been blocked. And one of their senior officers had to go to Kabul, to the ministry of defense, to find out why the money for his troops, to buy their food, was not forthcoming.

And so, you know, there are these problems that affect the Afghan military, that affect morale, and I think the United States at the moment is trying to address all of that, but it's a huge job.

ROBERTS: And assuming that you can't take on the entire enormity of that job at once, and you have to bite off piece by piece, where is the best place to start, in your mind?

Mr. LANDAY: Well, it's hard to say because after all, years have been squandered on Afghanistan. You know, it was treated as the orphan child to the war in Iraq. It was under-resourced, as General McChrystal's plan - leaked plan, talks about, and it is still suffering from that. There's a great deal of time that has been wasted. I think that at least as far as this plan goes, it is the most comprehensive, the first really comprehensive strategy that I've seen coming out of the United States military to address the war in Afghanistan. And it is brutally frank about all of the problems that have occurred over the years and that still must be addressed in Afghanistan. That frankness appears to be a breath of fresh air, quite frankly, after years of what the previous administration - would talk about progress, but quite clearly that progress has not really been forthcoming.

The Afghan army is the exit strategy, the major exit strategy, for the United States, and its allies from Afghanistan. And that's why, in fact, I embedded with the trainers and the Afghan unit I was with because I wanted to get a sense of how well, how far this effort has gone, and as I said, there are some very positive points.

One I left out. The fact is that the Afghan army is probably the most respected of all Afghan government institutions today, but nevertheless, it's too small. The question is - there's a major question as to whether or not General McChrystal can achieve the doubling of the Afghan army that he has called for in his plan because up until now, they've had serious problems recruiting.

ROBERTS: Jonathan Landay is senior national security and intelligence correspondent for the McClatchy newspaper chain. He joined us from his home in Washington. Jonathan Landay, thanks so much.

Mr. LANDAY: My pleasure.

ROBERTS: We are talking about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Coming up, one of the members of General McChrystal's assessment team will join us, along with a foreign correspondent who has spent a lot of time there. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. This summer saw two of the bloodiest months yet for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. More than 60,000 U.S. service members are deployed there. Now, the top U.S. and NATO commander says he needs more. That decision, of course, lies with President Obama, and he's in the middle of a larger review of the war in Afghanistan.

Our focus today is on what it's like for U.S. troops. What will it take to win in Afghanistan? If you've been to Afghanistan in uniform or as a civilian, tell us: What do you think the rest of us need to know about the country or about the war there? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is Dexter Filkins. He's foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He also wrote the book "The Forever War." Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Foreign Correspondent, New York Times; Author, "The Forever War"): Hi, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: And I should mention you are on the phone from Istanbul. You have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. President Obama sent 17,000 additional Marines to southern Afghanistan earlier this year. To what extent did that help?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I just was with a Marine unit in Helmand Province, where most of those new troops went, and it was - it's hard. It was really hard. I mean, the heat was extraordinary. I was in a town called Miram Poshte(ph). The Marines I was with got into firefights every day, every single day. I think they had arrived on about July 2. I was there in late August with them, and I think there have been one or two days when they had not been in fighting. There's a lot - there's IEDs all over the place.

But I think the important thing is, for the purposes of the present debate, the unit that I was with, the Marines, they were in an area where no troops - not British, not American, not Afghan, no one - had been at all for many years, at least four years. And so they were pushing into an area that basically the Taliban owned and controlled. And so I think the trouble with Afghanistan and the real dilemma is there's a lot of places like this. Even now, with now 63,000 American troops and about 30,000 European troops, there's still plenty of places like that.

ROBERTS: I want to take a call. This is Doug(ph) in Utah. Doug, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DOUG (Caller): Thank you.

ROBERTS: Go ahead, Doug, you're on the air.

DOUG: All right. I was an ETT in '06, '07.

ROBERTS: Sorry, ETT?

DOUG: Embedded Training Team, training the Afghan army. I'd just like to say that I agree with what he's saying. When I was there, we had problems with the same, you know, getting air support because there were so few. They were assigned to this mission or that mission, and by the time you went out there, you had to fight for what was left.

Also, you know, I think the biggest misconception about Afghanistan is there's a real big lack of infrastructure. It's not just restoring the peace. It's a lot of rebuilding and getting it back on its feet that people don't understand. I mean, they look at Iraq, where, you know, everything was there except for the peacekeeping mission, and I think it's totally opposite in Afghanistan, where you're actually going to have to rebuild from the ground up.

ROBERTS: Doug, thanks for your call. Dexter Filkins, what's your response to Doug, the comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, he's right on all the counts. The way I think that I try to understand the difference in these two wars, and I've spent almost four years in Iraq, and it's the reason why this war I think in many ways is much harder, is that the insurgency in Iraq was essentially an urban phenomenon. Iraq is basically an urbanized society, and the war took place in the cities. It was Baghdad. It was Mosul. It was Ramadi. It was essentially the river valleys in the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Afghanistan is, the insurgency is basically rural. It's in the countryside. It's much more diffuse. It's a much bigger country. The terrain is much more difficult. So the insurgents are not in Kabul.

I mean, Kabul's a very calm city. For the most part, they're not in Kandahar, the second city there. They're in the countryside. And so that just makes it much, much more difficult because they're in every village, and they're over a much wider area than if they were concentrated in the cities.

And so you could argue - I mean, you know, at the height of the Iraq War, during the surge, you had about 165,000 American troops there. There's only 60,000 there now. I think what - you know, everyone expects General McChrystal to make a request for more troops. And I think the question that I'm going to have is just whether even after he makes his request whether that's going to be enough or whether you could actually put in enough troops that would make a difference because it's just - it's a very big place, and the insurgency is very diffuse.

ROBERTS: Well, I'd like to add to this conversation Stephen Biddle. He's a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council for Foreign Relations. Several months ago, when General Stanley McChrystal assembled a strategic assessment group to examine the situation, Stephen Biddle was part of it. He used their recommendations in part to draft this report that we've been talking about today. Stephen Biddle, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council for Foreign Relations): Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: Now, I know that as of last week, you hadn't seen the McChrystal report. I assume you have seen it today.

Mr. BIDDLE: Yes.

ROBERTS: And can you give us some sense of how it looks in comparison to the draft report you worked on?

Mr. BIDDLE: It's similar to the draft. It's changed in some details. Parts of it were redacted, of course, but the general thrust of it I think is quite similar.

ROBERTS: There's a quotation from the summary at the top of the report that reads: Success is achievable, but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or doubling down on the previous strategy. Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take-away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate. Do you agree with that?

Mr. BIDDLE: Yes I do. For most of the time since 2001, our focus in Afghanistan has been on hunting terrorists: finding the enemy, killing the enemy. Counterinsurgency theorists typically argue that success in the kind of war we're now engaged in Afghanistan requires a focus on protecting the civilian population, not killing the enemy and the insurgents. That's a rather different approach than we've taken for most of the period since 2001.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Alan(ph) in Tucson, Arizona, who says: I'd like to know, for those who have been there in Afghanistan, what are the dynamics that are driving the insurgency? It can't be all guns and fear. What allows the Taliban to gain the trust and loyalty of the locals? Dexter Filkins, let's start with you.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I don't think - you know, if you talk to ordinary Afghans, I mean, even in southern Afghanistan, you know, they've seen the Taliban movie before. I don't think the Taliban have a lot of popular support there, and by the same token, I don't - I've never sensed a kind of level of, you know, anti-American feeling, for example, that I did in Iraq. It's just not there.

But I think what the Taliban is able to do is just go into these villages and basically take over because they're operating in a vacuum, because there's no one there. And so it's basically intimidation. They go into these villages. If there's no American troops there, there's certainly no Afghan government, and I think that's kind of - that's how they operate.

And, you know, the Taliban, they're a rough bunch of guys, and they don't ask, they just take. And so I think the only way you can possibly - the only way you can deal with that kind of threat is to go into these villages, not necessarily, as Mr. Biddle was saying, not necessarily to kill the Taliban but to set up a government and to secure the civilians and to make them feel safe.

ROBERTS: Steve Biddle?

Mr. BIDDLE: I think that's largely right. The only part I would add to it is in addition to a security vacuum, which I think was the primary enabling condition for this insurgency to reach the scale that it's reached, there are also serious problems with gross mis-governance at the local level and especially with lack of rule of law and a very problematic judicial system.

What that did was set up an environment in which, when the Taliban showed up and exerted the kind of coercive pressure that they are so good at exerting on local populations, in too many cases the population was too disaffected with the government alternative to things like local-level dispute resolution to be willing to take the kind of risk that's required even when there's U.S. security present or when there's Afghan security present to let us know who the Taliban were.

I mean, part of the - a central part of the problem in counterinsurgency is providing security to the population so they can tell you who the insurgents are. Also important, however, is making sure that at the end of the day, they prefer you to the insurgents, and thus if you've got the security present, and they can survive the act of telling you who the insurgents are, they're motivated to do so.

ROBERTS: But of course, what you're trading off with that is some security of U.S. forces not being isolated, not being, you know, behind a big fence but actually being in villages and in lives and therefore maybe more at risk of military casualties.

Mr. BIDDLE: That's exactly right. And one of the great political dilemmas of counterinsurgency is that to be successful requires that you accept risk and thus accept higher casualties early in order to be an effective protector of civilian populations in a country where you're operating in the hope that you will then, by succeeding and securing that population, exclude the insurgents and have the casualty level come back down. But in the near term, counterinsurgency often looks darkest before the dawn, and that creates real political problems in maintaining support for it.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Keith(ph) in Oklahoma City. Keith, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KEITH (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: Sure.

KEITH: Yes. I served in Afghanistan in the U.S. Marine Corps in '05. And I can contest to what you're saying. We - I was a part of a small company, where we're in a small FOB. And we were in charge with training an Afghan unit there, teach them patrolling, how to do security. And we were responsible for, I'd say, roughly 200, maybe a little bit more square miles of Afghan terrain, including mountains - mountain, if there is. And we go into these villages and we would clear them out, we'd secure them, we make the people safe, they talk to us and then we'd leave them. We wouldn't be back for a month, two months when we come back. And all this insurgence - the Taliban will come right back into that village, and it's like we were never there.

And on top of that, we became so spread out, we were dependent on external forces such as, you know, air support and artillery. It's just - as a small unit with such a big area to cover, we just - we could not keep up. And as far as casualties go, casualties are a part of the job but we weren't getting rearmed, we weren't getting remanned when we did have casualties. And it just became a bigger and bigger job for us and harder and harder to accomplish.

ROBERTS: Keith, thank you so much for you call. And let's get back to what we were talking about with Jonathan Landay that with fewer soldiers you have more reliance on air power which is a blunter instrument.

Mr. LANDAY: Well, can I just jump in? I just - the Marine units that I was with, that was exactly my experience. We went to a village, a tiny village. We visited the elders. We sat down. They were pretty friendly about a half a mile away the day before there had been an IED strike that had killed a couple of Americans. The lieutenant who led the platoon that went into the village said to me afterwards, maybe we can get to this village another time before we leave here in November, one more time. And, you know, there's dozens and dozens of villages like that in this area.

And so, here you have a company of Marines - this was a big company. It was about 240 guys. And they were hoping that by the time they left - and this is in, you know, by the end of the year - that they would be able to secure an area of just a couple of miles in each direction from their base, a radius of about three kilometers. That's not very much territory. And I think the challenge for President Obama, General McChrystal, is going to be in how to -in explaining how the additional troops are going to be able to secure this country, a country this big and this vast and this forbidding with, say, 100,000 troops.

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

Stephen Biddle, what's the - what's your sense is the answer to that question? Will a troop increase and a change in strategy make enough of a difference from the issues we're hearing from our callers?

Mr. BIDDLE: Well, I think that the resource increase is sufficient. It gives us a decent chance of being successful if in fact we adopt a change in strategy along the lines of what the report talks about, and if we put sufficient emphasis on governance improvement as well as provision of security. And your last caller's point on the security issue, I think, was critical.

The new strategy and current U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine puts a tremendous emphasis on persistent presence being occasionally present, showing up, clearing a village, leaving and then coming back a month or two later - which sometimes called mowing the grass in the theater - actually makes things worse than they were before. The people in the village who are most predisposed to help us come forward when we're present, they try to engage with us and provide us with information, we then leave and those people are killed when the Taliban return.

When we come back to that village the next time, the people in the village who are most favorable to us are now dead, the others are intimidated, the whole situation is far worse than it would have been if we had never showed up at all. Where we put troops, they need to stay. When we take a village, when we take a population center, we need to hold it. We can't afford to leave, go somewhere else, come back later.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Carol(ph) in Nashville who says both of her children, her son and daughter, are U.S. Marines. She says: My biggest worry is that either both of my children or my daughter will be deployed to Afghanistan during such a time of unrest. Dealing with ammunition is a pretty live act of occupation. My almost rhetorical question is what more troops will accomplish in Afghanistan and what has already been accomplished in Afghanistan? Steve Biddle?

Mr. BIDDLE: Well, it's important to point out that there have been positive things in Afghanistan as well as negative. I think the negative have been more prominent in many ways. But the Afghan economy is substantially larger now than it was in 2001. The rate of children in schools in Afghanistan is radically higher now than it was in 2001. The education of women, in particular, is radically better than it was in 2001. The situation is not uniformly black. Now, the security trends, however, have been uniformly negative. And I think if those trends are allowed to continue in this way, almost certainly the result will be failure for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

What U.S. troops have to do, what the U.S. presence has to do, what the allocation resources by Americans request to accomplish in this country is to provide enough security in key areas that the population can afford to give us the information that we need in order to find the insurgents. And it has to create some degree of leverage on the behavior of key Afghan government officials to create a degree of governing legitimacy in Afghanistan that is perceived by the population as being at least preferable to the Taliban.

We do not require Switzerland and the Hindu Kush. We don't require a centralized, westernized, modern Jeffersonian democracy in Kabul. What we do require is that the Afghan population be motivated to prefer the government to the Taliban.

ROBERTS: That's Stephen Biddle, a member of General Stanley McChrystal's strategic assessment group, joining us today from the studio at the Council on Foreign Relations. We're also joined by Dexter Filkins on the phone from Istanbul. He's a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Thank you both so much.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you.

Mr. BIDDLE: Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: Coming up, 25 years after we first met the Huxtables. How did "The Cosby Show" change your views of America or of television? 800-989-8255, or email talk@npr.org. Stay with us, the Opinion Page is next.

I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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