Scrutiny Of U.S.-Afghanistan Relations Grows As Fatalities Rise

October has been the bloodiest month for U.S. troops since the war in Afghanistan began. Fifty-five troops have been killed and, just Wednesday, five United Nations election workers were killed when a UN guest house was attacked in the capital of Kabul. Host Michel Martin gets the latest updates on Afghanistan from Rick Nelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Navy officer who has served in Afghanistan, as well as Bob Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a new American Security and a writer for the Atlantic Monthly.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, more than one in five of all public school students are Latino. We'll hear what Education Secretary Arne Duncan has to say about how best to ensure that these students succeed. And we'll also hear what advocacy groups have to say about that. That conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, Afghanistan. Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency saying the war in Afghanistan deserved more attention than it was receiving from the Bush administration. That attention is now inevitable. October has been the bloodiest month for U.S. troops since the war began, 55 troops have been killed so far.

Just yesterday a U.N. guest house was attacked in the capital of Kabul killing five United Nations election workers. For the past few months, the Obama administration has been publicly debating the future course of American involvement there. While top military commanders say that they need more troops, others are saying a more limited approach is needed. And one of those critics caused a stir recently in Washington.

Matthew Hoh is a former Marine who went to work for the State Department in Afghanistan and came to the conclusion that the U.S. mission there is fundamentally misguided and resigned. As he put it in his resignation letter, I fail to see the value or worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is truly a 35-year-old civil war.

We decided to call two individuals who've spent a great deal of time thinking about and writing about Afghanistan to talk about U.S. strategy there. Rick Nelson is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's a former Navy helicopter pilot who has served in Afghanistan. He also formerly worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the Bush administration. Also with us, Robert Kaplan, he's a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a writer for the Atlantic Monthly. He's also written extensively about Afghanistan. Welcome to you both. Thank you both for stopping in.

Mr. RICK NELSON (Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Thank you.

Mr. ROBERT KAPLAN (Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security): Thank you.

MARTIN: Rick, let me start with you. Is Michael Hoh right? Is it time to get out?

Mr. NELSON: Well, I don't think it's necessarily time to get out. What I do think we need to do is ensure that we fully understand our strategic purpose for being there. We have to recall that we went to Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaida. And al-Qaida, right now, its senior leadership is in Pakistan. So, we have to make sure that any actions we take in Afghanistan vis-a-vis the increase in troops doesn't have a negative effect on Pakistan. To defeat al-Qaida, it's going to require a very strong relationship with the Pakistan military and the Pakistan intelligence services. Both of whom have voiced great concern about increased U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: What does that mean, though? I mean how do you stop a moving train? The troops are already there, they already are engaged in missions. What do they do? They can't stand down and stop, can they? What do they do while we rethink the exact, re-tailor the mission or refocus the mission?

Mr. NELSON: That's a great question. I mean one of the things in recent meetings with Senator Kerry and General Petraeus, Prime Minister Gilani said, whatever you guys do, United States and NATO, please don't drive any militants into Western Pakistan while we're conducting this large 30,000 troop offensive down there. That offensive that Pakistan has undertaken is going after the militants. It's been long sought by U.S. policy makers. So, again, what they're saying is just don't take any actions that's going to drive more militants into that area.

MARTIN: Bob Kaplan, is it time to get out?

Mr. KAPLAN: No, I don't think it is. I think that it's not just Afghanistan that's at stake but the whole region: Pakistan, the big prize, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other areas. Will Afghanistan will have a future of energy pipeline nexus connecting Central Asia with the Indian Ocean and beyond? Or will it be the, you know, the big hole in Central Asia, where, you know, it becomes the new focus and new moral victory for radical Islam? I think, though the president is right to reassess and recalibrate. The way it's been done so publicly, and a few months after he said it's the necessary war and we're going to add more troops, you know, presents a degree of awkwardness to it.

That's , you know, that makes it really difficult. That's hard on morale, you know, that may compromise the morale of our troops on the ground. And it's also a morale booster for al-Qaida and the Taliban. But the key thing to remember is if the president gets this right, we'll know it because there won't be calls for more troops, six months or a year down the road.

MARTIN: Well…

Mr. KAPLAN: That's the real danger that after this is all over, and he said, all right, we're going to add 30,000 more troops, you know, you suddenly get leaked news stories eight months later saying, well, we actually need 20,000 more. You want to avoid that because, you know, the president has, through this review, has really taken control of the policy. So he wants to get it right this time.

MARTIN: Well, I mean as for the public nature of the debate, that genie is out of the bottle, isn't it? What is to be done now about that?

Mr. KAPLAN: I'm not so sure it's out of the bottle because, you know, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln replaced generals several times. In this modern, you know, media, you know, fishbowl media age, you just can't keep doing that. They replaced their generals several months down the road. They fired a general who wasn't doing a bad job, he wasn't just the best man for the job, one can argue. So, they got a new general, a real star, a new face on the policy and now they are reassessing. That's awkward. But, you know, you wanted like now merge this new policy with the face of this new general for the long haul.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Rick Nelson and Robert Kaplan, and we're talking about the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. What should the future course of that involvement be? Mr. Kaplan, I'm still not sure what exactly is your - what is the nature of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan? What should it be in your view? I say that's not - you say it's not time to go but what is the time to do?

Mr. KAPLAN: All right, what…

MARTIN: And does it concern you that so many people who've served time there seem to say that they don't know what their mission is right now?

Mr. KAPLAN: Sure, sure, it does. One can even argue that, you know, that what we are doing now is mission creep on steroids compared to the invasion in October 2001 which was to punish a regime after that regime refused to handover the perpetrators of 9/11. Now this is clearly a nation building exercise, you know, however you may define it or describe it, that's what it is.

MARTIN: Rick Nelson, can you, you are saying it's time to redefine the mission. Do you have an opinion about what the mission should be? I mean, is it nation building?

Mr. NELSON: Well, certainly it's not nation building. And one of the things, I think we need to have to point out before I go directly to the question is that General McChrystal's plan is the military strategy aspect of this. The other (unintelligible) of the piece that's critical to success in the region is the political peace and what Ambassador Holbrooke is trying to undertake. So, I think it's going to be important for the administration as they move forward to clearly define what that political piece is and how we're going to have a stable regional dynamic there.

As far as redefining, again, I go back to the reason. You can put as many troops in Afghanistan as you want. But at the end of the day, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, the senior leadership remains in Western Pakistan. In fact, even the senior leadership of the Taliban remains in Western Pakistan. So, you have to have a policy that enables Pakistan to help you eradicate that threat. That's ultimately why we're there, and I think that's something that resonates with the soldiers in the field and it resonates with the American people.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. I mean, how critical is the support of the American people in this? I mean, clearly, casualties are always a cause of concern, as one would expect. But then again, Americans are willing to sustain casualties when they see that there is a purpose to it. I mean, so how critical is American support and how should that be, I mean, what should the administration do to articulate that in a way to sustain American support?

Mr. NELSON: You are exactly right, Michel. And the president in his speech in (unintelligible) was very clear that we are there to disrupt and defeat and dismantle al-Qaida. Again, that resonates with the American people. When you start possibly wandering off on other more ambiguous missions that maybe not have a well-defined end stage such as nation building, building a stable and credible government - those are all very difficult goals to achieve. And they're much broader than our initial reason for being there.

And obviously, as our history has determined, you know, if we are going to expend national treasure in the form of, you know, our national resources and most importantly our young men and women that we send over there, I think we have an obligation that we have very clear and very well-defined achievable goals in any military conflict.

MARTIN: Bob Kaplan, is there a deadline here by which you feel the administration has to make itself clear?

Mr. KAPLAN: There's a deadline in getting Afghanistan off the front pages. That's the real deadline. Remember, we still have troops in Bosnia. We still have troops in the Sinai, I believe, but nobody debates it and nobody cares about it because there are no casualties and they're off the front pages. We still have, what is it, 100,000 troops in Iraq and that's drifted - on recent days we've had a massive car bombing - but on the whole, it's drifted somewhat off the front pages.

And if Iraq were to continue to drift off the front pages, we could probably leave a residual force there of 40 or 50,000 and it wouldn't be a debating topic. So I think the White House is under this kind of deadline. It's got to show real results. And we'll know real results when Afghanistan becomes a page three story rather than a page one story. And it's got to show those results in a reasonable period of time - a year, 18 months, something like that.

MARTIN: Rick Nelson, what do you think about that?

Mr. NELSON: Certainly, we have to have quick results and we have to have results clear. And that's one of the reasons, again, why we need to focus on our primary reason for being there. It's relatively easy to measure, you know, our success against al-Qaida and the senior Taliban leadership. I think it's much, much more difficult to measure the success of nation building - to assess, okay, we now have security.

And those are very, very amorphous goals. And again, what I'm advocating and what a lot of folks are advocating is that we just have more well-defined, narrower goals so that we can measure that progress. Because if we can't measure, we can never go back to the American people or to Congress and say we're winning, we're losing or otherwise.

MARTIN: Can I just push you on one point which is really beyond the scope of our conversation today, but what about the women? I mean, one of the issues that seem to resonate with the American people is the status of women there. And there are those who fear that if the U.S. withdraws, that women will be consigned to essentially medieval circumstances and essentially that's just intolerable to them. This is an issue that was particularly of interest to former First Lady Laura Bush. Is that a legitimate goal, protecting the status of women there, very briefly, if you would?

Mr. NELSON: I think, again, what it goes back to is the threat of Islamist terrorism. And Islamist organizations certainly have a terrible record of treatment of women. So, again, we need to make sure that our policy is going against those that perpetrate that kind of radical ideology that is inconsistent with cultural norms, global norms. So, again, it goes back to the, you know, going against al-Qaida, going against the Islamist terrorists not only in Western Pakistan but also in Yemen, and Somalia, and they're actually even bringing that even further into United States.

MARTIN: I wasn't able to get an answer from Robert Kaplan. I just will have to have you back to take up that part of the conversation. Robert Kaplan is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. He's a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security. Rick Ozzie Nelson is a former Navy pilot. He recently served in Afghanistan. He's now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They were both here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Gentlemen, I thank you both.

Mr. KAPLAN: Thank you.

Mr. NELSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: And a top law enforcement official moves on to another line of work, but not before he talks about what cops should do to be successful on the job and in the community.

Mr. WILLIAM BRATTON (Chief, Los Angeles Police Department): They have the police constitutionally. I break the law to enforce it because then you become like them. You have the police compassionately. You have to police consistently.

MARTIN: Los Angeles Police chief, William Bratton, talks to NPR's Mandalit del Barco. That's just ahead.

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