Is Success Possible In The 'Graveyard Of Empires'?

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Host Michel Martin gets analysis of U.S. Afghan policy from Alex Kingsbury, an associate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where he covers national security. They discuss what Gen. David Petraeus brings to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and whether "success" can be achieved in the nation that’s been dubbed "the graveyard of empires."

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

For additional perspectives now, we go to Alex Kingsbury. He's an associate editor for the U.S. News & World Report, where he covers national security. He's been writing about all of this. He's with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. ALEX KINGSBURY (Associate Editor, U.S. News & World Report): Sure. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: I just to want to ask you to react to what you heard from Ashraf Ghani.

Mr. KINGSBURY: Well, yeah, a couple of things really struck me from a very sort of lucid and interesting point of view that he brings here. You know, the first thing he talked about was McChrystal's success in forging a close relationship with President Hamid Karzai, organizing Afghan forces and restricting the airstrikes in a special forces activity that have so angered many of the Afghans.

I think one of the critical things that was brought up in the Rolling Stone article that wasn't really talked about was that it illustrated that McChrystal had been unsuccessful in forging a unity of effort, if you will, between the military and the State Department. And if you'll keep in mind, you know, General Petraeus wrote the book on counterinsurgency, as everyone likes to remind us. In chapter two of that book, states that, you know, the most important thing in forging counterinsurgency is a unity of effort. You know, everybody has to be on the same page. And under McChrystal, that simply wasn't the case. He didn't have a good relationship with many in the State Department, and that shows...

MARTIN: And why was that? Was it personal or he just didn't agree with the policy?

Mr. KINGSBURY: Well, and I think, well, you know, he agreed where he was coming from, but I think many in the State Department didn't agree with the way that it was actually playing out in the field. It's been sort of a contentious strategy that they've forged over the years. And it has undergone many changes.

So, you know, I think State Department's coming from one point of view, CIA is coming from another point of view waging this drone campaign. And the military is coming from yet a third. So, you know, getting everybody on that same page is what was key to Petraeus' success in Iraq and he's going to have to replicate that in Afghanistan if he hopes to succeed.

MARTIN: I want to run something by you. I just want to expand on a question that I asked Ashraf Ghani about the way Americans are viewing this. A majority of Americans, this is according to a USA Today/Gallup poll out yesterday. It said that a majority of Americans favor the planned July 2011 timetable to begin the withdrawal. That 58 percent support the withdrawal compared with 38 percent who oppose it. And among the 38 percent who are against the timetable, most said the United States should not set any deadlines.

Now, you've been writing about the lawmakers who have to continue to approve and support this policy. They're increasingly restive about this, particularly, well, on both sides of the aisle. If you could just talk a little bit more about that.

Mr. KINGSBURY: They are. Yes, it's exactly right. I mean, you'll have to remember, many Democrats ran on essentially anti-war platforms and this is now a very long war, one of the longest in modern history. So the fact that it continues without an end in sight despite the deadline, you know, that's not what these congressmen were elected to do, in many ways, you know, they ran on this platform. So, you know, that's something they're going to have to answer for at the midterms.

I think another sort of interesting dynamic here is Petraeus is such a popular figure that the Congress may even have, you know, this might be in some ways kind of a blow to Congress, that Congress may have a lot more trouble saying no to Petraeus than they had in the past, you know, with him as the front man for this effort. He will make a very convincing case before lawmakers and before the public to see this through June just a little bit longer, for another year, or whatever it happens to be, to give his strategy more time.

MARTIN: Do you think that that's the next move, then, is to ask for more time? Is that your sense?

Mr. KINGSBURY: It's not my you know, I don't think we're there yet. I'm just raising it as the possibility that, you know, with him as the public face of this campaign, it really brings a much different tenor to the public debate in, you know, in front of a public that has really lost support for the war, but more in, you know, they've also lost interest in it. People aren't really paying attention to it, haven't for a long time, don't really think it's winnable.

I think the public would probably be more and polls have shown this, you know, I think the public would be more willing to support a war that they could see an end to - and a successful end to and those are very difficult to see at this point in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: If you could just tell us a little bit more in the couple minutes we have left, what are some of the next military initiatives likely in Afghanistan?

Mr. KINGSBURY: Right. Well, I think some of that will come out in Petraeus' hearing today. The senators are interested to hear about these rules of engagement that your guest brought up: The restriction of air strikes, which have caused a lot of civilian casualties and angered the population, and the use of Special Forces as well.

There's a very high tempo with a lot of these Special Forces guys. They go in and they tend to be trigger happy and blow things up and undo a lot of the counterinsurgency work that some of the Army and permanent units will be in a village and sort of get everybody on the same page, and then, you know, Special Forces will come and hit a high quality bad guy and kind of ruin a lot of that.

So it'll be interesting to see where Petraeus comes down on how much of that activity he sort of allows on the air strikes and everything else. The most important thing, though, is this idea of a counteroffensive. The Taliban have expanded their base. They're doing quite well, really, with, you know, a very undertrained army fighting the U.S. to withdraw, as Tom Friedman noted last week.

In order to get reconciliation into order to end this you know, we have to fight them to a point where they're willing to come to the negotiating table, join the Afghan government, accept being on the U.S. payroll, as they did in Iraq, you know, whatever it happens to be. We have to get them to that point and they're not there yet. And director of the CIA, Panetta, was on the "Sunday Morning" show saying that it doesn't look like they're going to be there for a while. So that is the long-term place where we need to get to.

MARTIN: And what's a while? That's the big question, isn't it? What's a while? Sure. Alex Kingsbury is an associate editor for U.S. News & World Report, where he covers national security. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Alex, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. KINGSBURY: Sure.

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