As Obama Mulls Afghan Decision, A Look Ahead

President Obama is expected to announce his decision on troop levels in Afghanistan this week. When the president takes the podium at West Point on Tuesday, he'll draw not only from America's experience at war in Afghanistan, but from the Soviet Union's as well. Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution talks to guest host Robert Smith about the president's deliberations. Riedel served as a CIA agent in the region under now-Defense Secretary Robert Gates; he also chaired the first Afghan policy review completed this spring

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith, in today for Guy Raz.

After eight years of war, Afghanistan has become a battleground with the potential to make or break an American presidency. On Tuesday, the president in question, Barack Obama, will unveil his much-debated plan to send tens of thousands more troops to fight that war. One man with insight into these kinds of deliberations is Bruce Riedel. He's a former agent for the CIA and a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. He also headed the Obama administration's Afghan policy review this spring.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Thanks. Great to be with you.

SMITH: So a lot has happened in Afghanistan since the spring. What's changed in the months since that first review?

Mr. RIEDEL: Well, I think the situation, which was already dire back in the winter, has deteriorated further. The Taliban have the momentum. They're increasingly taking over large parts of the south and east of the country, moving into the north and west. And we had the fiasco of the Afghan presidential elections, which was supposed to produce a legitimate and credible Afghan government, but instead produced a disaster, an Afghan government, which lacks legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans, in the eyes of our NATO allies and in the eyes of most Americans.

President Obama inherited a disaster from his predecessor, and it's gotten even worse over the last six months.

SMITH: Well, it's one thing to place blame, but this is now in Barack Obama's lap, and so he needs to announce a number, that's what people are looking for, on Tuesday. In your opinion, how many troops does he need to do the job, and have the goals of that job changed?

Mr. RIEDEL: I'm not a military expert, and I don't have all the intelligence that's available to the White House and the Pentagon, but I think General McChrystal probably has it about right. We need somewhere in the realm of 35 to 40,000 more troops, whose principal responsibility will be to protect population centers while we build up the Afghan army and the Afghan police so that they can take over the mission as quickly as possible.

SMITH: You were quoted in the Wall Street Journal with an interesting concept. You said America is in the rare position of fighting the same war twice in one generation from opposite sides. How does that affect how the U.S. fights the war now?

Mr. RIEDEL: Well, it is a fact, rarely do you ever fight the same war from two sides in one generation. Bob Gates and others, including myself, spent a great deal of time in the 1980s trying to make life miserable for the Soviet 40th Red Army. We succeeded beyond all expectations.

Now, we find ourselves in the position of being the army trying to bring an end to an insurgency in Kabul and Kandahar and the other cites of Afghanistan. One thing we know from that is that as long as you have a safe haven next door in Pakistan, it's very, very difficult for the army operating in Afghanistan to succeed.

SMITH: Well, you mentioned Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was a CIA officer in the 1980s, correct?

Mr. RIEDEL: That's correct.

SMITH: Now, of course, he's in the administration. So, what did he learn, and what did this administration learn from the Soviet example? I mean, Mikhail Gorbachev had to grapple with a similar choice in 1985, whether to put in more troops and escalate the war in Afghanistan.

Mr. RIEDEL: Well, one thing that we know that's different between what we face and what the Soviets faced is this: the Soviets faced a genuine nationalist uprising of virtually everybody in Afghanistan. Aside from a very small urban middle-class that supported the communists, 90 percent, 95 percent of the country opposed them.

We face something very different, an uprising by the Pashtun minority in the south and east of the country. The Taliban has always been a movement that appeals only to Pashtuns. The other 60 percent of Afghans are not interested in seeing a return of the Taliban. That's a significant advantage we have that the Soviets did not have.

SMITH: But with the political situation in Afghanistan, does that make a difference on the ground, having 60 percent support?

Mr. RIEDEL: Sure. We have Afghans who very much want to see us succeed. Their anger towards us is that we haven't put the effort into this for the last eight years.

When the president announced in March that he intended to fully resource this effort, most Afghans said, finally, finally, the Americans are getting serious about this. If the president comes out this week and says he's prepared to put the resources, men and money into this, I think he's going to find an Afghan partner that wants to work with us. That's a significant advantage that the Soviets never had.

SMITH: Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution.

Thanks for joining us.

Mr. RIEDEL: Thank you for having me.

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