Op-Ed: New Afghanistan Offensive Worth The Risks

Read Michael O'Hanlon's Op-Ed:

The U.S. Marines, with Afghan and NATO forces, continue to battle Taliban insurgents in a massive offensive in Marja, Afghanistan. The deaths of 12 civilians in a rocket strike was a setback for Western forces, but Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution argues that the benefits of the offensive are worth the costs.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the Opinion Page. U.S. Marines, British and Afghan forces continue to battle the Taliban in an offensive in Southern Afghanistan that started this past weekend. Its the first step in a new strategy designed to defeat the insurgency and build up local government, while avoiding civilian casualties. The military in Marja went so far as to announce this assault in advance, sacrificing the key element of surprise, taking greater military risks in exchange for what's hoped will be longer term political gains.

In a piece on The Daily Beast, Michael O'Hanlon described the death of 12 civilians in a misguided rocket attack as a major setback, but he argues that the benefits of the Marja offensive are well worth the risks. Do you agree? Is the trade-off worth it? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We have a link to his op-ed on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, coauthor of a new book, "Toughing it Out in Afghanistan," and joins us by phone now from Doha, Qatar, in his hotel room there. Thanks very much for staying up tonight to be with us.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution; Co-Author, "Toughing it Out in Afghanistan"): It's a pleasure to be with you. Thanks.

CONAN: And a lot of people would argue that giving up the element of surprise is a major concession. The biggest killer in Afghanistan has been IED, those improvised explosive devices. Telling the Taliban, in effect, weeks in advance we're going in Marja gives them plenty of time to lay all kinds of booby traps.

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, that's true, although I think that the booby traps were going to be there, anyway. In fact, they were there, and that was part of the reason we went in to Marja. It was Taliban-infested. The Taliban use these sorts of methods to protect their own sanctuaries. And so the issue really wasn't going to be how many IEDs would be planted. It was more going to be a question - and it still is a question - of how much resistance we'll face in sort of small-arms combat as we got through the town, or in these complex attacks, where they wait for somebody to inadvertently hit an IED and then attack the beleaguered unit.

And so, you know, we still have to keep an eye on that. But the calculation clearly was - and it makes sense to me - that we wanted to minimize civilian fatalities as we took back this Taliban sanctuary. And the best way to do that was to essentially scare the Taliban out of town. And even if they wound up surviving to fight another day, by reducing those civilian fatalities in the short term, we would build up more support for the government. We obviously accomplish, you know, relative humanitarian benefit compared to the alternative, and momentum would then begin to work in our favor, rather than the Taliban's. That was the calculation, and I think it makes sense.

CONAN: Even if that lets the leadership slip away, as you say, to raise more forces and fight another day. Wasn't that the problem in that first place after they were routed from Afghanistan in 2001?

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, I'm gad you put it that way, because that - yes, the leadership, or parts of it, could escape. But as for raising the forces, their best better of raising forces is having the people angry with the Afghan government and with our troops - in other words, you know, to the extent that we cause more casualties, to the extent that we don't succeed in providing security, that's when recruiting becomes easier for the Taliban.

So the idea here is, yeah, maybe a couple hundred operatives sneak away, but they have a harder time finding a population of tens of thousands of people from which they can do recruiting in Helmand Province, because the people won't be angry to the extent they would have been after the kind of attack, let's say, that we had, as you recall, in Iraq, in Fallujah and Ramadi back in 2004, where we, you know, unfortunately, inadvertently killed a lot of people, as did the Iraqi insurgents.

CONAN: Nevertheless, as we saw in this misguided rocket attack, well, the biggest number of casualties thus far is civilians.

Mr. O'HANLON: Yeah. No doubt it. And that's a huge tragedy. And, you know, we're talking about war. It's a horrible thing. What I point out on the opinion piece is you have to measure the risks of this sort of operation against the fact that 200 civilians are being killed per months by the war, mostly from the Taliban, as things stand. And so if there is a way to hasten the end of the war, some risk of short-term greater casualties is probably a worthwhile price to pay.

I know that's - I put that in, you know, these cold, analytical terms. Its a human tragedy, you know, where all of our hearts go out clearly to the American and British soldier who have lost their lives, and to these 12 civilians. I just hope that it doesnt get much worst. But I have to say, relatively speaking, for a big operation in a town of close to 100,000 people that involved 6,000 troops to have this number of casualties after about four days is a relatively modest toll.

CONAN: And we'll have to see how that develops as the offensive goes ahead. Nevertheless...

Mr. O'HANLON: Yeah.

CONAN: ...you're suggesting - and correctly - that thus far, the number of casualties has been low. But, in a way, aren't you asking the people of Marja, the Afghan civilians, to make a bet on which group of Afghans they want...

CONAN: ...youre suggesting, and correctly, that thus far, the number of casualties has been low. But in a way, arent you asking the people of Marja, the Afghan civilians, to make a bet on which groups of Afghan they want to lead them - the government, which has proven - widely regarded to be corrupt and inefficient - or the Taliban, which obviously has its own problems but nevertheless is not regarded as corrupt?

Mr. O'HANLON: Youre right. And in a way, thats the ultimate calculation thats going to either win or lose this war, I think, depending on what calculation is made. The interesting thing that Ive learned in the last few months, and well see if this data from this battle supports it, but Helmand province, in a way, is a place where our forces and the Afghan government tend to do okay once we actually show up and convey the sense that were going to stay a while.

You know, Helmand has been a place where we actually havent had many Americans at all, throughout the war, until last year. And the Brits were trying to do an economy of force effort in a certain part of the sector. I think, Neal, that the hardest place to accomplish the goal you mentioned is going to be Kandahar City. Thats where the anger at the Afghan government, the anger at Karzai and his tribesmen, the anger at NATO forces is particularly large and great. And thats where Im not sure how well be received. And I think the strategy for trying to essentially establish greater control there is going to be different, because we cant just move on in en masse.

But so far, as in neighboring Nawa, a town very close to Marja in Helmand province, when we moved in there, we were well received. The Afghan people were actually glad to see the government and NATO arrive. And as long as we convey the sense that were there to stay for a while, we tend to do okay.

CONAN: Well, this winter offensive in Marja is seen, as you know better than I, as a precursor to the more difficult operation to come in Kandahar, Mullah Omars hometown, the base of the Taliban.

Mr. O'HANLON: Yeah. But thats not going to be the same thing. From what I gather, and I think this is all a work in progress, but people recognize that Kandahar City is simply too big and probably too anti-Western to have the same kind of mass movement of even a mix of NATO and Afghan forces into the city center. And so if you were to scale the same size thing up for the size of Kandahar and try to move in, Kandahar is close to a million people, the city itself. And so youre talking about probably 50,000 troops. Theres no way were going to do that in this big kind of maneuver.

What we, I think, intend to do is to try to establish better control of the periphery of Kandahar City and then hope that we can gradually improve the best Afghan police and army units that will do a better job within the city itself. And that is the strategy. Its a more complex nuanced strategy, recognizing the point that you just made, that it would be very hard and perhaps even prohibitively hard to do the same sort of thing in that city.

CONAN: Were talking with Michael OHanlon of the Brookings Institution, co-author of the new book "Toughing It Out in Afghanistan," where hes talking about the offensive in Marja, where the U.S. is and its allies - are accepting greater military risks including the possibility of higher casualties and return for potential political payoffs down the road by reducing civilian casualties. Is the tradeoff worth it? 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. Karens(ph) on the line calling from Wichita.

KAREN (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KAREN: I would like to say I think that it is definitely worth the risk. I know its very risky right now, but down the line, I believe truly, that the people, the insurgents will take off and we can stabilize the area. And anything that gets the Afghanis and Iraqis involved in their own government is well worth it and well get our guys home.

CONAN: Get our guys home sooner in the long run.

KAREN: I believe so.

CONAN: Yeah. Its interesting, Karen. We heard a comment, today, from the policy czar for Afghanistan, and that of course is - Im just blanking on the name Michael OHanlon...

Mr. O'HANLON: Holbrooke.

CONAN: Holbrooke speaking today in Doha. But he was saying even after combat troops come home, we cant do what we did at the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and abandon the people there. Were going to be there in a training role to help those Afghans for many years to come. Is that okay with you?

KAREN: Yes. I believe that and, in fact, I believe the United Nations should step in with the peacekeeping mission that they already have operational and they can continue the training. And, yes, I do believe that its okay.

CONAN: All right, Karen. Thanks very much. There are high stakes to this offensive and thats reflected in this email. Michael OHanlon, we have from Joe(ph) in Minneapolis. If we do not succeed, our whole war effort seems unsustainable.

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, this is - yeah, I think that the broader point, its 2010 I dont want to quite say its a make-or-break year, but if the basic strategy of General McChrystal and President Obama, President Karzai, Ambassador Eikenberry makes sense, then we should see a much greater support by the Afghan people for NATO and Afghan units almost as soon as we go in to some of these places, as long as we can convey a sense that were there to stay.

Thats, of course, a psychological leap that may take some doing, but the main point here is that we believe the Taliban are very unpopular in Afghanistan and the only reason theyve been successful is through a campaign of intimidation and also a sense that there that the Afghan government is not really up to snuff, not really competent, not really serious. So, if we go in with a well-developed Afghan government cell, plenty of NATO and Afghan force, and the population does not support us, it fairly quickly invalidates the theory. So we really should start to see progress.

Now I dont want to say it should be immediate, because as we put in more troops and do more things, casualties will probably go up for a while. We should start to see progress, at least in those places that have been stabilized, fairly soon, and I think in a number of places in the course of 2010.

CONAN: Well, interesting that both sides took a different approach toward the civilian population of Marja - the Afghan government side and NATO saying, if you want to get out of the way, that would probably be helpful, if you want to leave, and the Taliban saying, no, you should stay and help protect us.

Mr. O'HANLON: Yeah. Although I think that we were not too unhappy about the Afghan population staying, we, you know, I think I dont think we made a desperate plea for a mass exodus. I think part of what we wanted to do is convince the Taliban to get the heck out so there wouldnt be so much fighting and so that we could actually establish a meaningful kind of government, not in a ghost town, but in a very normal, populated Marja very quickly.

That's why this all government sell was essentially ready to go, almost, you know, a movable pop-in government for the area around Marja, because we were hoping the population would largely stay or at least quickly come back and we'd be able to almost immediately validate the basic idea that we can deliver a better quality of life, we with the Afghan government, once we arrive in force.

And so I think we're hoping that that can actually bear out in the next few weeks and months.

CONAN: On the Opinion Page this week, we're talking with Michael O'Hanlon about his piece in The Daily Beast, arguing the offensive in Marja is worth the price. And you can get a link to that at our Web page. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Ron(ph). Ron with us from Frazeysburg in Ohio.

RON (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

RON: I totally disagree with your speaker. He thinks it's okay to - or we can ignore the innocent casualties so that we can test the military theory. We've killed too many innocents for too long in Afghanistan. I think it's time for America to quit.

CONAN: To quit and get out and stop killing Afghan civilians.

RON: Right now, yes. We're long past due to do that.

CONAN: Even if that means turning over control of the country to the Taliban?

RON: Are they any worse than a fraudulently elected president, Mr. Hamid Karzai?

CONAN: Michael O'Hanlon, that's a point that a lot of people raise.

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, the Afghan people have a pretty clear opinion on this, and that's that Karzai is much better than the Taliban. I have seen a great deal of polling. I'm here in Doha with my co-author, an Afghan woman, Hassina Sherjan, we just finished this book together. She represents a lot of Afghans in thinking that the last thing they would want is to back to either the years of civil war or the years of Taliban rule.

Any public opinion poll I've seen done in Afghanistan in the last 10 years has showed popularity for the Taliban at somewhere around five percent. President Karzai, even though I agree, he has limits as a leader. And even though I agree his cronies stuffed ballot boxes on his behalf, is seen as the preferred leader of the country by somewhere between two-thirds and three-fourths of the population, depending on which poll you look at.

In other words, he may not be perfect and I agree, his far from it. But the Afghans have no doubt about their preference between him and the Taliban.

CONAN: Let's go next to Wesley, calling from Orlando.

WESLEY (Caller): Hi. I just want to say that I agree with the Afghan people, that Karzai, although he does have the corrupt things going on with his election, he is still a better alternative to the Taliban, who before we came in in 2001, were actively oppressing their own people, especially women. And also, right now there's allegations that they use their own children as suicide bombers to target innocent civilians as well.

CONAN: Well, allegations are rife in wartime and not always accurate, so we have to be very careful about that, Wesley, because both people -people on both sides will say a lot of terrible things about what the other side is doing.

WESLEY: Definitely.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. Interesting, it's -again, the devotion of the current Afghan government to the rights of women has also been questioned by other critics. But a longer-term question for Helmand Province, it seems, Michael O'Hanlon, is what do you about the large number of farmers there who have been able to make money raising poppies. If you're going to prevent them from growing the crop that turns into heroine, they're not going to be happy about that.

Mr. O'HANLON: No, it's a great point and a real dilemma. And I have a Brookings colleague, Vonda Felbab-Brown, who's been writing about this in a great, new book. And what she argues - and I think the evidence backs her up - is that eradication tends to drive people into the hands of the insurgency, because opium tends to be more profitable for them to grow and it's easier to store.

You make a paste out of it, apparently, and the Taliban can come by, you know, next month or the month after and pick it up and pay people off. Whereas producing wheat or other crops requires a road system that works with less bribery, less road blocks. And we know the Afghan police are sometimes the problem today, too, not just the insurgents in terms with impeding that kind of normal road transport that's needed to make agricultural commodities marketable.

And so, I think part of the solution is actually to create this contiguous zone of government control, where you can actually have agricultural vehicles and trucks move back and forth, from market to farm. Part of it is probably going to be finding some ways to subsidize the production of licit crops as opposed illicit poppy, because you're right on, this is a big dilemma. And if we do go for eradication, which I don't think we are to the same extent, under the new strategy, but nonetheless, we're going to be unsuccessful and we're going to drive more recruits into the arms of the insurgency.

CONAN: Nevertheless, they still have to move the crop, even if it's opium. Are they going to sell it to the Taliban, who will then make money off of it?

Mr. O'HANLON: Yeah, and that's like you just implied, that there's no easy answer here. I think we do want to try to stop the Taliban from trafficking the opium, and so we will be willing to try to develop better intelligence networks to go after the shipment and storage of the drugs and go after the drug trafficking networks, just not so much the individual farmer.

CONAN: It's going to be a difficult conundrum, but anyway Michael O'Hanlon, thanks very much for being with us today,

Mr. O'HANLON: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. A new book he mentioned, which he is coauthor, is called "Toughing it out in Afghanistan." And he joined us today by phone from Doha in Qatar. If you'd like to read his op-ed in The Daily Beast, there's a link to it at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, the new era of campaign finance on TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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