What To Expect From Obama's Afghanistan Address
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Tomorrow night, President Obama outlines his strategy for Afghanistan in a nationally broadcast address from the United States Military Academy at West Point. He's already briefed key Cabinet officers and his top military commanders. He's on the phone today and tomorrow with the president of France, the British prime minister, the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan and other key allies. He sent national security advisor James Jones to Pakistan with a pledge of support and cooperation and reportedly a blunt warning that support of several specified organizations by Pakistan's intelligence and military will not be tolerated.
Members of Congress will be listening closely, of course, and he will be speaking to the young men and women who can expect to serve in this conflict as junior officers in the next few years.
But the key audience is an increasingly skeptical American public. Opinion surveys consistently report increased doubts about the cost and purpose of the conflict many now believe cannot be won, and our partners in an Afghan government widely regarded as corrupt, illegitimate and incompetent.
Senior news analyst Ted Koppel joins us in just a moment. So what do you want to hear the president say tomorrow night? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Tiger Woods' car crash is on The Opinion Page this week. Is this a private matter?
But first, Afghanistan. Ted Koppel joins us from his home in Maryland. Nice to have you back with us, Ted.
TED KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal, always a pleasure.
CONAN: And what do you want to hear from President Obama tomorrow night?
KOPPEL: I want to hear why it is so essential that we: A, be in Afghanistan; and B, worry so much about Pakistan. I think the first thing that any president needs to do is to establish, for the American public, the reasons why a war is essential. I don't think President Obama has done that; I don't think President Bush did that before him.
CONAN: It is something that he has described earlier as a war of necessity, not a war of choice. As mentioned, he's expected to send more troops and invest more money in this conflict, and that's going to be a difficult sell to his own party.
KOPPEL: I think it's going to be a difficult sell but only because, for reasons that you and I are going to get into, I'm sure, it is all but impossible for any American president to really spell out why things are so dangerous in that part of the world for U.S. interests. And in a nutshell, the reason is that Pakistan has somewhere between 60 and 100 nuclear weapons, and the great fear -the existential nightmare, as people in the Bush administration used to refer to it - is that some terrorist group, some Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group, will get a hold of one or more of those nuclear weapons or possibly even control of the Pakistani government with all of those weapons at its disposal. And the consequences of that are all but unthinkable.
CONAN: And that because the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that lives on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, well, they form the majority of the Taliban.
KOPPEL: And, you know, you have a situation here, where if you look at a map, and you and I have talked about this before, Neal, in the past. Sometimes it's problematic on a radio program that we can't just lay out a big map there and show people. Afghanistan lies right between Iran and Pakistan: Iran on one border, Pakistan on the other border. Iran is now controlled by Shiite Muslims. Pakistan - I mean, Pakistan is largely a Sunni Muslim country, and the danger of these two nations, each of the -one already armed with nuclear weapons and the other on the verge of being armed with nuclear weapons - is a pretty frightening prospects.
CONAN: You misspoke. You said - Iran is, of course, dominated by Shiite Muslims.
KOPPEL: Shiite Muslim. What did I say, Sunni? I'm sorry.
CONAN: You went the other way. But in any case, why can't the president tell the truth? Why can't he say look, we're really worried about this, and the blowback from Afghanistan would have serious consequences for our allies, such as they are, in Pakistan. They may not be the greatest people in the world, but we've got to keep them in power, much better them than the alternative.
KOPPEL: The latest public opinion polls in Pakistan show that 68 percent of the Pakistani people already have a negative view of the United States. The great fear that the Pakistani people, but the even greater fear that the Pakistani military has, is that the United States, in its own national interest, might at some point step in and try to seize control of those nuclear weapons.
That's why every Pakistani government has been extremely coy about handing over real information to the U.S. government and to U.S. intelligence about how those nuclear weapons are, in fact, controlled and safeguarded. Their great fear is that the United States is going to try and seize those weapons, which would leave them with their existential nightmare, and that is completely exposed to what they regard as their biggest enemy, India, also a nuclear power.
CONAN: And of course, the United States was hosting the Indian prime minister at a state dinner at the White House last week.
KOPPEL: That probably didn't help the mood in Pakistan, either.
CONAN: So in terms of exit strategy, that's another thing that's going to be problematical for the president. How do you declare that we are here to win this fight, and we will stay until we leave, and I'm going to give you the date?
KOPPEL: Well, I must tell you, I think that's where this president, like the one before him, is trapped between the domestic political needs that he has, and the domestic political need is that you give the American public the impression that there is an end to this, that there is light at the end of that long tunnel, and the real strategic need, which may be that the United States remain in Afghanistan, certainly in that part of the world, for possibly one, two or more generations.
We're talking about a danger that will continue to exist not just three years down the road, not just 10 years down the road, but 20, 30, 40 years down the road.
CONAN: And are you talking in numbers that would allow the opponents in Afghanistan to claim that this is an occupation, tens of thousands of - 68,000 there now and apparently 35,000 or so more going?
KOPPEL: I'm not sure, Neal, that when I talk about the need for a generational U.S. presence in that part of the world, that it has to be in those numbers. It could be a significantly smaller number, just as you and I have talked about this, too, about in Iraq, it's been my contention all along that we'll still have 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 troops in Iraq three to five years from now.
We don't talk about that very much. All we hear is that all U.S. combat forces will be out of Iraq by - what, is it supposed to be next summer now? I lose track.
CONAN: Next summer now, yes.
KOPPEL: Next summer. You know, you'll have the same kind of thing happening in Afghanistan, that the large numbers, the over-100,000 troops that will likely be there after the president sends this next increase out there - and parenthetically, that's going to take many, many months before they're all there - you know, I don't see us having 100,000 troops in Afghanistan five years from now, but I do see us having several tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan possibly 10, 15, 20 years from now.
CONAN: What do you want to hear from the president tomorrow night? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. We'll start with Gina(ph), Gina with us from Minneapolis.
GINA (Caller) Yes, can you hear me?
CONAN: Yes, you're on the air, go ahead please.
GINA: Yes. I'm calling because my husband is currently deployed to Afghanistan on his second tour, and I also have served in the U.S. Army on active duty. And I realize it's not realistic, tomorrow night, to have the president say that we're going to leave anytime soon, but I would like to have a clear, defined exit strategy because this is certainly something that we will be involved with for a long time, and we need to have a clear, defined strategy.
CONAN: Would something like we'll leave when the government of Afghanistan is stable and secure and has forces enough of its own to carry on the conflict by itself?
GINA: No, I think that's going to be way too long. I mean, I don't think that region of the world wants us there, and I think it continues to fuel al-Qaida's fire.
CONAN: Let me ask you, also, about the locale, Gina. He's going to be speaking to an audience of young men and women who can expect to be there as junior officers in the not-very-distant future.
GINA: Right, I think - I mean, he's probably talking to an audience that is going to support his efforts. I mean, while - I was an officer, as well, and you know, you're young and idealistic, and you're ready to join the fight. So I think he's going to encounter a friendly audience.
CONAN: Do you think those young men and women are being properly trained to engage in this fight, that they're confident about the future there?
GINA: I think our training with the military is excellent. We have the best training in the world, but I think, you know, we need to have more linguists and more capabilities outside of that region of the world to fight the fight, not necessarily do we have to fight it in Afghanistan.
CONAN: Gina, we wish your husband very well and hope everything goes well for him. When is he due back?
GINA: He's due back next September.
CONAN: Next September.
CONAN: That's a long wait. People can begin to understand - and this is his second tour.
GINA: It is, but we're not alone. There's a lot of people that are in our boat, deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.
CONAN: And as long as he's in the Army, he could, after a year back home, go back.
GINA: Absolutely, yeah.
CONAN: Yeah, all right. Well, good luck again.
GINA: Thank you very much for your time.
CONAN: Bye, Gina, bye-bye, and that's a military family saying we want to hear an exit strategy. We want to hear: When is this going to be over?
KOPPEL: You know, your heart aches when you hear Gina, and you think about her husband, and I have a friend who has now just completed his fourth tour in Afghanistan, and you just want to be able to say, from a human point of view, let it be over soon.
But that's why I say the issue that has to be determined is - all right, we are there, why are we there? Why are U.S. interests threatened? What is it about what's going on, not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan, that threatens the very survival of the United States? And if the survival of the United States is threatened by the takeover of the Pakistani government and their 60-to-100 nuclear weapons, by Islamic fundamentalists - if that is the danger, if that is the reason that we're over there - then how can you be talking about an exit strategy until that danger has been, in some fashion or another, ameliorated or removed?
CONAN: We'll be talking about how the president can possibly sell that message without quite delivering it that explicitly in just a moment. Stay with us, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. What do you want to hear from President Obama when he speaks to the nation tomorrow night on Afghanistan? I'm Neal Conan. Ted Koppel will be back. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. President Obama issued orders, yesterday, to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The White House would not say how many or what they may do.
We expect details on that tomorrow, when the president tries to sell his new strategy to the American people. NPR will bring you that address live from West Point tomorrow night.
So what do you want to hear the president say? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel is with us, and let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Perry, Perry with us from Rockingham in North Carolina.
PERRY (Caller): Good afternoon. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thanks.
PERRY: I'm having a hard time hearing you, but I was in Iran when the shah was overthrown in 1979. I was teaching Iranian military students to fly helicopters, and so I had quite an interest in the Middle East (unintelligible). And I actually, Neal, when you were in (unintelligible) the Hubble Space Telescope show, I asked you about Norman Schwarzkopf - if you remember.
CONAN: Yes, you did.
PERRY: But Norman Schwarzkopf's father was the one who led the CIA into Iran to overthrow the government of Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953. He was a West Point graduate. But having learned that about the Middle East, whenever this current war started, I knew that some things the government was saying were absolutely false. I did not know how much. But I became very active in the anti-war movement after that because I'm a 29-year military vet. My life is chronicled in a documentary shown - Bill Moyers; November sixth, called �The Good Soldier.� I won't go into that, but it gives you kind of my background.
PERRY: We can stay in the Middle East as long as we like, but we will not decide the battle between the Shiites and the Sunnis over who will control Islam, and it's just futile. I worked very hard�
CONAN: Perry, all of this is interesting, but what do you want to hear from the president tomorrow night?
PERRY: I want to hear the president say look, I will send only the troops necessary to protect the troops that are already there and then to get out as quickly as possible from that area.
CONAN: So only force protection and then withdraw as quickly as possible?
PERRY: That's exactly right. Politically, we have no end in sight.
CONAN: And what do you do about the prospect - two prospects - one of which is that the Taliban would then reestablish bases in areas for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida to resume their conduct and start all over again the plotting that began with September 11?
PERRY: I would only remind you that, in Iran, when Schwarzkopf came in and overthrew the government and put a 21-year-old man in charge, called him the king of kings, and then Schwarzkopf stayed and set up SAVAK, the secret police. For the next 25 years, through force, we maintained some semblance of an independent government, or at least one that had some kind of authority we could respect. But when we left, the instant we left, and I was there when the shah was overthrown, my next-door neighbor said we're so glad to finally get rid of some American puppet government. And that is exactly the attitude I'm going to have, no longer - no matter how long we stay.
CONAN: All right, Perry, thanks very much, appreciate it. And his point about the puppet government, Ted Koppel, there is little support in this country for the government of Hamid Karzai, who appears, by just about any measure you can see, of having stolen the last election.
KOPPEL: Yeah, and running a corrupt government. but he did say something. Hamid Karzai, and I was thinking as I was listening to Perry talking about the shah and our support for the shah - Hamid Karzai said something that was very truthful the other day. He said, in effect, hey guys, you Americans are not here for my sake. You're not even here for our sake.
I'm transliterating now what he said. You're not here for the sake of Afghanistan. You're here to protect your own interests. So this notion of we're going to leave if you, Hamid Karzai, don't do exactly what we tell you, is nonsense. You won't leave as long as your interests are threatened. Once your interests have been met, nothing that does me any good is going to keep you here anyway.
CONAN: Let's see if we can Jay(ph) on the line, Jay with us from Durham, North Carolina.
JAY (Caller): Yeah, thanks for taking my call.
JAY: I want to hear him say that we're there to save U.S. credibility. I think that's important after the last eight years, and I don't think the WMD argument is going to fly at all, given the Bush doctrine of Iraq. And that they need to train the politicians, take them out of the country if they have to, and show them how a civil society can operate without corruption.
CONAN: And so how long do you think that will take, do you think?
JAY: Well, it may take several years, but it's worth the sacrifice. I mean, our credibility - this is our last chance to get it right, I think and our - the U.S.'s credibility is at the lowest point it has been in an awful long time and as long as - you know, as long as I can remember, and that's what we're fighting for at this point, and that is in our best interest.
KOPPEL: Neal, may I jump in just for a moment? Is it your impression that when we're talking about nuclear weapons in Pakistan that maybe the Pakistanis don't have them?
JAY: No, I believe that they have them, but I believe that they're protected and that we've been working - since we re-engaged with Pakistan, I think our military understands their military and that they have that agreement, that they won't be susceptible. I don't think they're as susceptible as you'd make them seem to be, and I think that argument just doesn't work anymore because it's been ruined.
KOPPEL: Well, but you know, if I may, I just think it's a totally different argument. The argument with Saddam Hussein was that he had weapons of mass destruction, and it turned out he didn't. Here the argument is there's no question but that the Pakistanis have them. The only issue is: Is there any danger of those weapons falling into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists? And if you look at what's going on in Pakistan these days, where some of these Taliban groups and al-Qaida-related groups have taken over military posts for a couple of days, you've got to concede that there is some danger to the current government.
In fact, the civilian government in there right now may very well fall within the next few weeks.
JAY: Yeah, you probably know the situation better than I. But as far as I've heard on other programs that, you know, there is close ties with the military there. And when the military decides that it wants to do something in Pakistan, it seems to succeed. It hasn't had an interest in the past in stopping the Taliban, but now it does, so�
KOPPEL: Well, actually, they're the ones - I mean, you're right. We do have close relations with the military, but you know, just in the interest of historical accuracy, it was the ISI, which is the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, that's the intelligence agency for all the Pakistani military, they're the ones who set up the Taliban. They're the ones who created al-Qaida. They're the ones who armed, among others, Osama bin Laden. And they did it back in a day when we wanted them to do it, but now it's sort of spiraled - you know, that's when we wanted to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan. But now it's kind of spiraled out of control, and they may be, you know, the Frankenstein's monster here is that the Taliban and al-Qaida are now, not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan, powerful enough that they represent a real threat.
JAY: Right, and I�
CONAN: Jay, I just want to give somebody else a chance, okay?
JAY: Email from Liz in Boulder, Colorado. I'd like President Obama to explain how we will fund a continued war effort in Afghanistan and how much it is estimated to cost. And the numbers you see thrown around are something around the order of $75 billion.
KOPPEL: Yeah, I mean, the really startling number, because it's smaller and easier to comprehend, is that for each soldier that we have over there, it costs $1 million per year. We're probably going to end up funding it the way we've been funding it all along, which is that we're borrowing money from the Chinese.
The Chinese have lent us over a trillion dollars, and certainly a lot of that money has gone into funding the military both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
CONAN: There's also the question, some in Congress - liberal Democrats, as a matter of fact - are saying we need a war tax if we're going to - if this is so important, and we're going to be there for a while, we need funds to pay for this.
KOPPEL: Yeah, it's interesting because David Obey is one of those Democrats who has been calling for a war tax, and obviously, the concern of liberal Democrats is that if you don't raise additional taxes for the war, then some of the fund of money that is there right now is going to be taken away from the some of the social programs that liberal Democrats want to see funded.
I see both an irony there and in the fact that the conservative Republicans, who normally are so fixated on the notion of individual families not living beyond their means seem to have no trouble whatsoever with the U.S. government living beyond its means and fighting two wars without funding them with any additional taxes.
CONAN: Let's go to Blass(ph), Blass with us from Miami. Hello? Hello, are you there? Okay, I guess Blass has left us. Let's go instead to John(ph), John with us from Mountain View in California. And John, can you hear me?
JOHN (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Yes, John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHN: Thank you. I have a question for Ted Koppel that has to do with media interest. And what I'd like to hear the president give us a more balanced view of what's going on in the world. If it's important for us to have five, ten thousands of troops in Okinawa and Korea and Japan - and those were in our strategic interest, why is it not also in our strategic interest to have tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan for a long-time commitment?
KOPPEL: Well, it may well be in our strategic interest to do it. The problem is, we're running out of troops because we now have a volunteer, you know, a volunteer army and a very fine volunteer military. But the fact of the matter is, we simply don't have enough troops to keep all of those commitments that you referred to, and the new ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, going.
JOHN: Well, I understand the Japanese want us to get those troops out of Okinawa. Why don't we pull some of those troops over?
KOPPEL: Well, they have wanted us to get them out. You know, we have maintained a presence and maintained a nuclear umbrella over Japan for many, many years now, since the Second World War because the great concern 50, 60 years ago, as you may recall, was that Japan not rearm and that Japan not become a nuclear power. So there have been good reasons for keeping those troops in that region.
CONAN: Right. Jake - John, thanks very much. Email from Rain(ph) - I hope I got that right. This, she writes, I want President Obama to say we will be out of Afghanistan within a year no matter what. We are throwing money into a sinkhole that would be better used at home. I want the U.S. to try - to stop trying to fix the world. And again, according to the opinion polls, this is an opinion that is widely held in this country.
KOPPEL: And it may in fact turn out to be absolutely the correct opinion. I just want to be sure that when we make that decision to pull those troops out of that region, if that's what we do, that we recognize the danger inherent in doing that. It may be that by pulling out of there, the threat of some kind of nuclear terrorism against the United States is diminished. On the other hand, it may not be. And I wouldn't want to be the one that have to make that decision right now.
I mean, the president is truly facing a Hobson's choice. He's going to make someone unhappy no matter what he does. But in the final analysis, his job is to operate in the national interest of the United States. That's why I say, please, please, please, tell us what that national interest is. Tell us how that national interest is served by sending more troops. And then the American public is going to have to come around. And if it's a compelling argument, we'll have to bite down hard and live with it and maybe raise more taxes, maybe - you know, I really do have an objection to a tiny fraction of the American public bearing the entire burden of fighting the wars. If it's in the national interest of the United States to fight the war, then we should all have to bear part of the burden.
CONAN: We're talking with senior news analyst Ted Koppel about the president's speech tomorrow night in West Point. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's an email from Sandy(ph). I would like to know why this is not a United Nations world issue with a collective effort to resolve the potential dangers. Also, what if all this money and incredible ingenuity went toward more peaceful ways to resolve these issues? There are, at the moment, 68,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan. I think the total number of foreign forces is something like 116,000, so there are thousands of NATO and other troops there.
The president is gonna be asking for more, and I think he got a commitment of 500 more from Britain, but that's - he's asking for 5,000 more overall, I think.
KOPPEL: Yeah. Well, I think he's getting a few thousand more from several NATO countries, but not nearly as many as he wanted. You know, the great danger whenever you go to the United Nations is you face the Security Council, and sitting in the Security Council is Russia and China. And if they're not willing to go along with what we perceive to be not only in our national interest but in a global interest and global peace, if we're not able to make a compelling argument that this is also in their national interest, we're not going to get anywhere in the U.N.
CONAN: Let's go to Ted(ph). Ted with us from Muskegon in Michigan.
TED (Caller): Hi, I want the president to tell us what the trade-offs are on our policies, what the threat is that we're actually facing and how much will it cost us in lives and treasure to deal with that? Is the military the only resource? Can we do this covertly much more effectively and much more inexpensively? What are the alternatives? How sure are we of the perceived threat?
We were sure of the domino theory in Vietnam. It didn't materialize. So we really need to look at the trade-offs, how certain we are of the facts, what we know and what we speculate, and what these things are going to cost us. And then say to the American people, are you really prepared to spend that money and risk those lives? And if you are, back it up with whatever you need to do, a tax, a draft, whatever. That's what I hear from the president tomorrow night.
CONAN: Do you think that those alternatives were among the things he may have discussed with his advisers in those long set of meetings over the past few months in White House?
TED: I'm sure they are, now explain them to the American people. And I'm glad he took a lot - long time. I would much rather see him take a long time to consider it, which - and I don't think the situation has changed that much in the time he's been thinking about it. I'm glad the president is thinking about these things. I'm glad that we have this president, because I think he is considering those things. Now, tell us what - tell us what the issues were and why you concluded what you've concluded.
TED: That's what I want to hear from the president tomorrow.
CONAN: That - Ted, I think you have a chance of hearing at least some of that tomorrow night, though again, all those calculations may not be involved in what the president lays out tomorrow night - particularly the covert approach. But nevertheless, Ted Koppel, I think there's going to be a renewed emphasis on training of Afghan troops. I think that's going to be part of it. And also, the civilian side is going to be talked about quite a bit as well.
KOPPEL: It is, and you know, obviously the short or sort of middle range hope is that there is some way of bringing stability into Afghanistan. But again, as long as all we're talking about is Afghanistan, I think we are ignoring the elephant in the room. The elephant in the room is 60 to 100 nuclear warheads in Pakistan, and the danger of - I mean, we literally, it's time to start reading your - whether you read it on the Web or whether you read it in the newspapers, it's time to start looking at those stories, many of which are buried on A12, about the danger of Pakistan's civilian government collapsing. Once again, we have a Pakistani president who is on the verge of ending up in the slammer. He's been there before. He may be there again.
CONAN: A long interesting article on Pakistan's troubles in the Economist this week. Ted, thank you very much for the call.
TED: Gentlemen, great show. Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. And Ted Koppel, as always, thanks to you.
KOPPEL: Thank you vey much, Neal.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.