Watching D.C. From Kabul

Gen. David Petraeus goes before the Senate Armed Services Committee to be considered for the post of commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He is expected to pass confirmation easily, but not before he gets tough questioning on how the war in Afghanistan is progressing. Host Michel Martin talks with former Afghan finance minister Ashraf Ghani about how all of this is playing out in Afghanistan.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

As we track the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, we go behind the bench to learn more about retiring Justice John Paul Stevens and about the clerks who play such a significant role with justices. That in just a few minutes.

But first, does change in leadership mean a new direction in Afghanistan? General David Petraeus is on Capitol Hill today, where a Senate committee will decide whether to confirm him as the next commander of U.S. forces and NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan.

It marks the first time General Petraeus will have spoken publicly since President Obama tapped him to succeed General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal, of course, was forced to resign from the post last week after damaging remarks were reported.

We want to know if the change will mean greater or less chance of success in Afghanistan and whether troops really will begin the withdrawal next year. We wanted to hear two perspectives on this starting first with Ashraf Ghani. He was a former finance minister under President Hamid Karzai. He was also a presidential candidate in the 2009 Afghan elections. Currently, he is the chairman of the D.C. based institute for state effectiveness. But we reached him in Kabul where he has a home and he's there now. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ASHRAF GHANI (Former Finance Minister, Afghanistan): Pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, before we get to the policy portion, I would like to ask, how has news of the shakeup of the military command in Afghanistan been received there?

Mr. GHANI: We are adding one superb general being replaced by another. So in that regard, the continuation of leadership is immensely impressive. General Petraeus' willingness to serve his nation and to serve the interest of security in Afghanistan is exceptionally commendable. So his willingness to step down from Central Command to take direct control in Afghanistan has been seen as an act of dedication. There was an immense regard built both by the Afghan government and significant segments of the Afghan population for General McChrystal.

Within a year, he reorganized ISAF forces into a much more cohesive force on the ground. He introduced the counterinsurgency doctrine with real depth and breadth. And he built a very close relationship with President Karzai in terms of dealing with civilian casualties, search and seizures and raids, which were very highly emotional and emotive issues.

So there's sadness over his departure, but there's also an immense respect for President Obama and for the administration in terms of accession of civilian control. And it's provided an example of how civil military relationships should be conducted.

MARTIN: Let's talk more about the policy, then, and President Obama's sort of sense of the way things are there. As you must know, there's a lot of weariness about the mounting death toll and the, of course, the spiraling cost. So, I wanted to ask if you believe that a hard timetable should be adhered to for withdrawal. And if not, why not?

Mr. GHANI: First of all, in terms of mounting casualties, this is an outcome of the policy. This is a counteroffensive. Counteroffensives historically raise the level of casualties on both sides. The casualties that are incurred by American troops and other NATO allies are a result of a deliberate policy decision and the strategy.

President Obama has made a decision to provide a test of time to make sure that all attention is focused on a doable job that is sufficiently resourced for the duration. I've had the privilege of being in discussions with President Obama and he's clear that we need to introduce and inject a sense of urgency. And that sense of urgency is welcome.

MARTIN: What do you think is the most important thing that the military can and should accomplish or must accomplish before a drawdown begins, which is - just to remind people - is set to begin in July of 2011? So, what do you think is the most important task for the military to accomplish before that time?

Mr. GHANI: There, of course, it's building the Afghan security institutions to a level and capacity that they would be able to take the lead rather than the support role.

MARTIN: And how optimistic are you personally, if I may ask?

Mr. GHANI: I gave up my American passport, I live in Afghanistan almost full time, I've dedicated myself, I've been working again, nine months pro bono to help the government arrive at plans which we are going to present at Kabul conference that will be taking place. We've understood what loss of dignity and loss of inability to live in one's own country is about.

The risks are immense, but I think all sort of opportunities. The key is to be able to seize the opportunities and manage the risks. I'm personally committed to this enterprise and I think so are the majority of the Afghan people.

MARTIN: Ashraf Ghani is the chairman of the Institute for State Effectiveness. He's the co-author, along with Clare Lockhart, of the book "Fixing Failed States." He also served as Afghanistan's finance minister from 2002 to 2004. And as he told us, he's living and working in Kabul now. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. GHANI: Pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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