Analysis: Will Obama's Afghanistan Strategy Work?

President Obama has ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. He's giving them an 18-month timeline to reverse the Taliban's momentum and get Afghan forces ready to take over. For analysis on the plan, Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne talk to John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security; Alex Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace; and Steve Coll, president and CEO of the New America Foundation.

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

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We have analysis, this morning, of how President Obama tried to balance many interests as he gave orders for Afghanistan.

President BARACK OBAMA: As president I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces, I don't have the luxury of committing to just one.

MONTAGNE: The president is sending more troops, 30,000 more troops, and also setting a timeframe for troops to start coming home.

INSKEEP: We're going to hear, this morning, from three analysts who spend time in the region. We begin with John Nagl, who is an Iraq War veteran, a leading thinker on counterinsurgency matters, and president of the Center for a New American Security. Welcome to our studios, John.

Mr. JOHN NAGL (Retired Officer U.S. Army, counterinsurgency expert): It's nice to be back.

INSKEEP: The president says he'll send troops soon, and then start pulling back in mid 2011, about 18 months later. But what does that mean to begin pulling back 18 months later?

Mr. NAGL: I don't think he used the word pull back. I think he used the word, he'll start transitioning control of parts of Afghanistan over to Afghan security forces, and a major part of what he's going to try to do with the American troops he's sending over there is build a more capable, larger, more robust Afghan army and Afghan police force - that is essentially our exit strategy.

In some places in Afghanistan - some of the more secure places, with some of the better Afghan units - by the summer of 2011, he hopes to be able to start transitioning to an Afghan lead. But by no means is that going to be the end of the war.

INSKEEP: Well, when you think about counterinsurgency and the way that's worked in different parts of the world, is 18 months - not all of it being time when all the troops will even be there, the extra troops - enough time to make a significant difference?

Mr. NAGL: These are long, hard, slow wars. That said, there are some places in Afghanistan where the insurgency is not very strong. And the people in Afghanistan, who have lived under the Taliban, really don't want to experience that again. So, improvements in governance, improvements in the Afghan economy, and better Afghan security forces will allow some parts of Afghanistan to - to really start relieving themselves of this burden of an insurgency, I think over the next 18 months - in some places.

MONTAGNE: Let's bring two more voices into the conversation. With us, in the studio, is Alex Thier. He is with the U.S. Institute of Peace, directs their Afghanistan and Pakistan program. Welcome.

Mr. ALEXANDER THIER (U.S. Institute of Peace): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And Steve Coll wrote the Pulitzer prize-winning book �Ghost Wars� about Afghanistan and Pakistan. Welcome.

Mr. STEVE COLL (Author of �Ghost Wars�): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let me begin with you, Steve Coll. You were in Afghanistan recently. In my experience there, Afghans want more than anything, security. Does that mean that Afghans will welcome more Western troops? Are those the same things?

Mr. COLL: I think that Afghans are so willing to credit the idea that they are, but they are skeptical, increasingly, and uncertain about the relationship between the international presence and their own future. They are sitting on the fence, broadly, and waiting to see what the effect and the commitment of the U.S. actions on Iran will actually be.

MONTAGNE: Although when you say commitment, of course, the president spoke of, to some degree, you know, beginning to pull out troops in 2011 - don't know how many troops that would be and how big of a pullout that might be when the time comes - but what does that say to Afghans?

Mr. COLL: Well, I think that was a message that had three different audiences. For Afghans, the leverage was on the government to get them to understand that their proposition of taking responsibility for their own security was a time bound one and a serious one. For the United States, it was a signal - obviously to domestic audiences - we're not there forever.

I think the most important signal, though, was to the Pakistanis and the Taliban themselves. Does that calendar affect their calculations? Does that give them something to work with? And I think that - that was obviously the reason not to do that, but the president decided the other two messages outweigh the third.

INSKEEP: We are going to talk about all those points you raised. Let's start with trying to leverage - put some leverage on the Afghan government. Let's listen to some tape from the president's speech last night.

President OBAMA: We'll be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance. We'll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable.

INSKEEP: That's President Obama, last night. Alex Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace is in our studios this morning. And Alex, can you really work with some parts of the Afghan government without accepting it all.

Mr. THIER: I think you can. We can't look for or expect perfection from the Afghan government. And if you look at the last eight years, the record is a mixed one. In some cases, we've made tremendous advances with the Afghan government, putting together a national health system, educating millions of Afghans. In other words, when we have the right partners - not just at the top, but in the ministries, in governorships in key provinces - then we are able to make progress. What we need to do is to right the balance. We need to increase the number of actors that we can act with that are effective and try to minimize those that cause us problems.

MONTAGNE: Although, of course, many of these actors - the governors, for instance, the ministers - these are appointed by President Karzai.

Mr. NAGL: They're all appointed by President Karzai. And that's, I think, the story of President Karzai. President Karzai, in many ways, has been very supportive of this effort. He has put the right people in place at critical times; but at the same time his government has been corrupt and has undermined our ability to act effectively there.

INSKEEP: John Nagl, can this government competently support this 400,000-person Afghan army that the United States now wants to build and train?

Mr. NAGL: I think that's probably one of the two or three most critical questions that we're waiting to see an answer to. President Karzai, after a clearly fraudulent election, gave a very good inaugural speech - said the right things. The president announced, last night, some new incentives - both carrots and sticks - to try to coerce his government, both from the top and at all levels, to be more effective. We're going to have to wait and see if he's going to deliver now.

MONTAGNE: But let me ask something: this is a very hard question for Afghanistan. The most important thing that that government can do in certain ways is to build its security forces - police as well as the army or the military. This has not been done well, especially with the police and even with the army. It takes time. Is 18 months time to do what General McChrystal would like actually to have done?

INSKEEP: Steve Coll.

Mr. COLL: I think it's time to make a start, but the project doesn't depend only on Karzai's attitude, it's also going to depend on the integrity of the politics and the ethnic balance inside those forces and the sense of purpose that they develop in partnership with international forces. The history of Afghanistan suggests that there is space for a successful multiethnic Afghan national army. It also suggests that army only lasts as long as there is a political sort of mission that the Afghan people are rallied around.

INSKEEP: I want to play one more piece of tape here - the president justified the commitment in Afghanistan by raising the importance of Afghanistan's neighbor, which you mentioned, Steve Coll. Let's hear a little more of the president's speech last night.

Pres. OBAMA: The people and governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are in danger, and the stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al-Qaida and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them.

INSKEEP: Steve Coll, do troops in Afghanistan help or hurt Pakistan?

Mr. COLL: I think they help Pakistan because the challenge in Pakistan is a Taliban revolution, an insurgency that is inextricably linked to the insurgency in Afghanistan. And if that insurgency can be defeated or at least contained in Afghanistan, it'll give the Pakistani state, including its army, more space to confront its own rebels.

INSKEEP: Although, I will say this: Pakistan has kind of a mixed reaction to it. Some Pakistanis don't - are nervous that more troops will drive the Taliban in their direction. Alex Thier?

Mr. THIER: Well, I think that the challenge with Pakistan is simultaneously signaling to them that we're serious about the commitment to Afghanistan and that we're going to remain there, but at the same time, also signaling to them that we are concerned about Pakistan's own security perspective.

INSKEEP: Ahmed Rashid told Renee earlier today - Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani journalist - that he thinks people in Pakistan will read this 18-month moment when the troops will begin to transition as a signal the U.S. is on its way out of Afghanistan. There's not really a commitment.

Mr. THIER: Well, I think that the most important element of this speech is that there's a confidence crisis in the region. And for the last three or four years, everybody has seen a deterioration. And so I think that the signaling -the most important signal is sending the additional troops and sending additional money, and I think people will hear that strongly in the region.

INSKEEP: Alex Thier, you get the last word. He's director of Afghanistan and Pakistan for the U.S. Institute of Peace.

MONTAGNE: We've also been speaking to John Nagl, president of the Center for A New American Security.

INSKEEP: And Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation. Thanks to you all.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: