Hopes, Fears For Obama's Afghanistan Decision

On Tuesday, President Obama is scheduled to tell the American people and the world what the U.S. will do in Afghanistan. Reports and speculations abound about what he will say, but the president will probably not be accused of making the decision in haste, as the announcement follows months of meetings and reports. Host Scott Simon speaks with Tom Ricks, senior fellow at the Center for the New American Security.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

On Tuesday, President Obama's scheduled to appear at West Point to tell the American people - and the world - what the United States will do in Afghanistan. Reports and speculations abound about what he'll say, but the president will probably not be accused of making the decision in haste. It follows months of meetings and reports.

Joined now in our studios by Tom Ricks. He's covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. He's now senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. Tom, thanks very much for being with us.

TOM RICKS: You're welcome.

SIMON: And you're looking to hear or not hear a phrase in the president's speech, or something like it. Tell us what that phrase or its absence would mean.

RICKS: I was talking to a friend about this the other day. He said watch for the phrase exit strategy. If Obama uses it, you'll know he's a one-term president. That would be the Jimmy Carter way of approaching it - the focus on getting out rather than being effective.

SIMON: Thirty thousand, somewhat in excess of 30,000 troops is the number that's been thrown around, and who knows, of course, what it will be on Tuesday. But what's the significance of that figure?

RICKS: It's significant because it's almost the minimum that General McChrystal said he needed. The worry will be: Is it enough to cause trouble but not enough to get out of trouble? The question will be: Will American troops be more effective with a new strategy?

But it really is not about military operations. There's no question that the military can defeat the Taliban in some form of one-on-one fighting. The problem is everything else in Afghanistan that creates more enemies faster than you can kill or capture them, and that problem is the Afghan government. And that's probably the key problem in Afghanistan now. The bigger enemy is our ally, not the Taliban. And the bigger enemy is the Kabul government.

SIMON: And that's corruption at the local level that...

RICKS: Corruption at the local level, across the government, abuses by policemen. I was looking at an interview on Al Jazeera where an Afghan is saying the police are very corrupt and they come and rob us at night. In the middle of the interview, he gets thwacked on the side of the head by a policeman who walks up behind him.

SIMON: But is the United States, NATO, the Western world, willing to live with an Afghanistan that is once again ruled by the Taliban or large parts of the Taliban?

RICKS: I think that was the question that Obama really was grappling with: So what - what happens when the Taliban takes over there? And this was the argument. Will al-Qaida return to power and things like that? In order to prevent that, though, the thing I'm looking for in President Obama's speech at West Point on Tuesday night is: How much does he speak to how we're going to change the behavior of the Kabul government? To me that's the number question, not what are we going to about the Taliban.

SIMON: There were reports on Friday that NATO may contribute up to 6,000 troops. With respect to the troops of other nations, is there a difference between U.S. troops, maybe British troops, and other NATO states?

RICKS: There's a huge difference. But it's not the quality of the troops so much, it's the political will behind them. The NATO troops are really window dressing. What you're going to see, I think, is more NATO troops added, but we're not going to really ask them to do any heavy lifting. I think what you're going to see is the quiet insertion of American special operators into areas supposedly patrolled by our NATO allies.

And if anybody needs to go out and do some kill and capture missions, that'll be American special operators quietly going in while the Germans or the Dutch or the French or whatever sit back at their base and have a nice dinner.

SIMON: Are you looking to hear if the president's heart is in whatever policy he enunciates on Tuesday?

RICKS: I really am. I think that's the third of the big questions I have, is: will he be able to bring the nation along in some form? His base especially. And I think if people sense that his heart is not in it, that they'd be very wary of following him. That's one of the major tasks he's going to have to do, is in some way persuade the American people that this is not just possibly an effective policy but is the right thing to do.

SIMON: Tom Ricks, senior fellow at the Center for New American Security. His national security blog on Foreign Policy's Web site is The Best Defense. Thanks very much.

RICKS: You're welcome.

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