No Easy Answers In Afghanistan, Pakistan

After an early 2010 offensive in Afghanistan's Marjah province, the U.S. military continues preparing for a similar advance in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. But a high-profile book by journalist Bob Woodward describes an administration deeply divided over U.S. policy in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Amb. Richard Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and NPR senior analyst Ted Koppel describe what's at stake.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in New York City this week for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

President Obama, who arrives in the city later this afternoon, faces no shortage of challenges, foreign and domestic, but none more difficult than the related conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Both countries have weak central governments plagued by corruption. They both face a powerful common enemy. One of them is a nuclear power.

At the start of this administration, the president named veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke as his special representative on what's come to be called AFPAK. He and NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel join us in just a moment.

And we'd like to hear from those of you who have been in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in uniform and out. What's at stake? Why are we there? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, U.N. goodwill ambassadors Don Cheadle and Edward Norton. But first, Ted Koppel joins us from his home in Maryland. Ted, good to have you as always.

TED KOPPEL: It's always nice to be with you, thank you.

CONAN: And Special Representative Richard Holbrooke joins us by phone from his hotel here in New York, and Richard Holbrooke, nice to have you back on the program.

Ambassador RICHARD HOLBROOKE (Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan): Thank you, it's good to be back, especially with my old pal Ted Koppel.

KOPPEL: Uh oh, we hadn't said anything yet, Richard.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Well, I figured I'd get that in, Ted, before you try to skewer me as you have over, what, 25 years.

KOPPEL: Never successfully, as I recall. Neal, you'd better take this back in hand quickly.

CONAN: Excerpts of Bob Woodward's new book "Obama's Wars," were published today in the New York Times and the Washington Post. He quotes you, Ambassador Holbrooke, as saying that the president's policy in Afghanistan can't work. Can you put that in context for us?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Gosh, I thought you'd never ask. Look, I read the New York Times article just as you did. It came out of nowhere. I am here in New York, as you just said, spending 85 percent of my time on the Pakistani floods, which is an incredible catastrophe.

I haven't seen the book. I have no idea what that phrase refers to, when I'm alleged to have said it, if I said it at all, what the context is. I think the best thing for me to do is to duck and just say I'll look at the book, I'll find out what the allegations are. I'll deal with them later.

But I just don't have time to do it right now. I'm not trying to blow you off because you're the only interview I'm giving right now. We're so busy. But just let me take a pass on that please.

CONAN: Well, let me just put it in a slightly different way, then. From this remove, a lot of people in this country see a government that is weak and corrupt, that appears to be losing ground to the Taliban. We're talking Afghanistan here. Can the president's policy succeed?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Well, I signed on for the strategy we're now carrying out, and we are doing the civilian portion of it in ways that I am actually quite proud of. We have a fantastically dedicated team in the provinces in Kabul and Islamabad and here in Washington and New York. And we're doing the things that really matter to the people of Afghanistan in support of the overall strategy.

I believe in those things. I think Afghanistan has gone through an unbelievably difficult 32 years, and they deserve, particularly given our historic role there, they deserve our involvement.

Also, a vacuum in Afghanistan would be a strategic catastrophe for the region, and I'm nor reasserting a domino theory leftover from another war in another place in another century. I'm simply referring to the obvious interaction between Afghanistan, Pakistan and, above all, the people who threaten our homeland so directly and operate on the border region in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.

So I'm supporting the strategy and implementing the policy under the direction of the president and Secretary of State Clinton.

CONAN: Ted?

KOPPEL: Let me say first of all, that was as elegant a job of bobbing and weaving as I've heard in a long, long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KOPPEL: And I'm not going to try and push you on that one, Ambassador Holbrooke. But let me ask you: When you talk about a vacuum, why would a vacuum in Afghanistan really make any difference? And do you believe the American public even understands the real reasons why we are there?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: I can't answer the second part of the question, Ted, although it's a legitimate question, because that's not my job. What the American public understands is very complicated.

There are people who think we should be doing more, there are people who think we should be doing less, and there are people who think we are doing it right. There's a lot of questions about it, but that's not my side of the equation.

On the first part of your question, however, I think that's a complicated question that goes back into history that you and I are both familiar with and in fact I think used to discuss occasionally on "Nightline."

Afghanistan is one of the classic examples of a poor, weak country in a strategic location that draws the great powers in. It's no accident that the phrase the great game in the 19th century was originally designed to cover that region of the world.

And when everybody became independent in 1947, we went into a new phase, but the real drama here began in 1978 when the U.S. policy succeeded in driving the Taliban, excuse me, when they succeeded in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989, the period that's often called Charlie Wilson's war.

Then, the United States turned its back on Afghanistan. The only person left in the U.S. government who was a senior official then is Bob Gates. And he has publicly said that this was a mistake, and we can't do it again, and he has used the phrase we're not going to turn out the lights and leave, an obvious reference to 1989.

So why has he said that? Why do we believe that? Because if the if it becomes a vacuum, vacuums have to be filled, and look at its neighborhood: on its eastern border, Pakistan, which has a deep strategic interest in the area but is always focused on India and their obvious publicly-stated concern that a vacuum in Afghanistan will bring them and India into a confrontation. And as Neal said as an introduction, we're talking here about nuclear states.

On its western border, Iran with a 1,400-mile unpatrollable border and an opportunity to make major mischief or cooperate with us.

And the other countries in the neighborhood, China, which borders Afghanistan, Russia, which is just over the horizon, and just across the water Saudi Arabia, UAE, all of these countries have very deep, vested interest.

I'm not making this up. This is what they tell us, and I've been to every one of the countries I mentioned except for Iran. So the U.S. has to take into account its own strategic interests, and this starts with the fact that the people trying to destroy America, the men of 9/11, the men who trained the inept, fortunately inept, Times Square bomber are lurking in the western areas.

And it's our belief that if you let Afghanistan become a vacuum, that those people will return to Afghanistan, it's just across the border, have a wider terrain to operate on, inspire global anti-American jihad to compound our current challenges, and we'll be worse off.

At the same time, Ted, we are not talking about an open-ended military troop commitment. President Obama spoke to that point at West Point last year, and he has said it repeatedly since.

I know that's a very long answer to a complicated question, but it's a legitimate question that deserves a complicated answer.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get...

KOPPEL: Let me - if I may, Neal, could I just follow up with one question? Again quoting from the book that you haven't had a chance to read and I haven't had a chance to read, either, but in the newspaper Bob Woodward quotes David Petraeus as saying you have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives.

And I think you would probably agree with the general concept, but it's sort of awkward to have that statement hanging out there and at the same time the president's clear desire to get U.S. forces out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Ted, that's the first time I heard that quote. I didn't see it in the only account I've read, which is the New York Times account.

CONAN: It was in the Post account, yeah.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: I hadn't seen that. But I'm a little unclear as to where the quote marks ended in that.

KOPPEL: Well, actually, I can read you the whole thing: Woodward quotes Petraeus as saying you have to recognize that I don't think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It's a little bit like Iraq, actually. Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq, but there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' live.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Mm-hmm.

And I think the reference there is to the anti-terrorism fight.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Yeah.

KOPPEL: But again, I put it in the specific context now of Afghanistan.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Well, that's really interesting. You know, I know Dave Petraeus very well because he was my counterpart for the first year and a half until he went back out to Afghanistan. And we're in constant touch.

And I know what he means by that, but I don't think we need to try to parse exactly what he means. He can speak for himself.

If he said that, if he said that, I think what he's referring to is the fact that a series of new movements in the world, in the post-Cold War era, which started, I might add, ironically at the time "Nightline" started as "America Held Hostage" because I believe the seminal event was the Ayatollah Khomeini taking over the embassy, capturing the 53 Americans and starting a feeling that you could go after the Americans this way, and it just escalated.

I think that what David is saying is that this is going to be a problem for the rest of our public years in public service. I don't interpret that comment, Ted, as a specific reference to Afghanistan. But I'll let David speak for himself. If my interpretation is correct, however, I of course subscribe to that.

I also want to go back to your core point. No one is saying that our military troop commitment is open-ended, and David Petraeus himself, in the quote you've just read attributed to him, says very, if the quote is accurate, he's saying he's not saying that we're going to fight military combat operations forever in Afghanistan. He's saying we're in this fight for the rest of our lives, by which I think he means something else.

In any case, the president said our combat troop commitment is not open-ended, and everyone has said, including the quote you've just read attributed to David, everyone has said that there is no such thing as a pure military victory in Afghanistan.

CONAN: More with Ted Koppel and Ambassador Holbrooke about the Obama administration's strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan after a short break. We will also get to your calls. You've been very patient.

Give us a call if you've been there, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Why are we there? I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, this is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in New York City for the U.N. General Assembly.

We're talking about AFPAK, President Obama's strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, with Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel.

We want to hear from you as well. If you've been there, why are we there? What's at stake? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Let's go to Jeffrey(ph), Jeffrey calling us from San Antonio.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Neal, can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes, I can.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Before you go to Neal in San Antonio, could I have permission to make a quick comment on what you just said?

CONAN: Sure.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: The phrase AFPAK, which you've used twice, I need to explain that phrase. It is deeply offensive to Pakistanis and I'm sure to your many Pakistani-American listeners. And so it has to be put in context.

When we took office in January of last year, we found that the previous administration had treated Afghanistan and Pakistan completely differently, to the point when the president's special assistant, General Lute, who is still there, under President Bush was the assistant for Iraq and Afghanistan, and Pakistan was handled separately. This was also true in the State Department, the military and the intelligence community.

So we proposed that and actually both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had said this during the campaign. We proposed to merge policy towards the two. This inevitably led to the acronym AFPAK, and it is used internally occasionally, but I just need to say really strongly that we never use it in public. I try to avoid it in private, and it really offends people in Pakistan.

CONAN: Thank you for the clarification.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Thank you for letting me make it.

CONAN: Jeffrey, go ahead, please.

JEFFREY (Caller): Hey, how's it going, gentlemen? Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Go.

JEFFREY: I was a contract driver both in Iraq and Afghanistan, a civilian contract driver. I worked a lot with the military in both theaters. And I want to say something that I think a lot of people might be thinking but a lot of people just don't want to talk about. And this is coming from someone who's a working man, you know, from the streets of San Antonio.

And I talked to a lot of the troops that were over there, and you can go around and around in circles, and we can talk about politics and all this nonsense about are we there for the greater good, are we not, should we help these people, should we not.

I'm going to tell you what one soldier actually told me in Iraq, which always disturbed me, but it always sort of struck a chord in me. He said, you know, we're supposed to be helping these people. And he had had comrades that were in Afghanistan at the same time. And he said, you know, we're supposed to be here helping this people, but I keep meeting them running the other way.

You know, we can talk politics, and we can talk about what's right and wrong all day long. This will go on and on and on, as the one guy said. But the truth of the matter is that none of these guys feel like any progress has really been made there.

They don't want to come right out and say it. There's all kinds of repercussions and things that'll happen if they just come right out and say it, but I'm telling you, it's sort of time to stop the nonsense and stop basically, you know, the BS talk about this.

These guys do not feel like these people, number one, are happy at all that they're there; number two, now are happy that we've left Iraq; and number three, like anything has really been, you know, done for the greater good.

Have you seen pictures of Baghdad before we were there and seen the country before we quote-unquote invaded?

CONAN: Jeffrey, I don't mean to cut you off, but we're talking today with the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iraq is outside of his ambit. But your broader point, I think, is apt. There are a lot of people in Afghanistan, clearly, Ambassador Holbrooke, who do not like the United States being there. They do not like foreigners being there.

In Pakistan, you were talking about the flood. We've had some people saying they don't want people there even to deliver humanitarian aid.

JEFFREY: That's right.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: I really, I was just in the flooded areas, and I have not heard anyone say that. The Pakistanis are in desperate shape. One-fifth of the country is underwater, the area the size of Italy. If you put it on a U.S. map, it stretches from the Canadian border to Florida.

And we are first with the most: our helicopters, our assistance, everything else we're doing, plus mobilizing the world community, and I'm proud of that as an American. And I just saw nothing but a desire for assistance. They're in desperate shape.

And as the water recedes, and they start to go home, they're going to there's going to be no homes to go to. The cattle is gone. The crops are gone. They're going to be in stagnant-water areas. The kids are going to drink bad water. They're going to have dysentery. And I just think to politicize this issue is to fail to recognize the fact that this thing is bigger than the tsunami and Haiti combined, it is - it affects more than 20 million people, and it is a tragedy for the people, and the whole world should pay attention.

That doesn't mean we have to pay the whole reconstruction bill. We can't do that, but we have to lead the world in helping. That's who we are as a nation, and I'm proud that we're doing that under President Obama's leadership.

On your larger point, the one Jeff made and you're alluding to, I want to be very clear that while I've certainly heard the views that Jeff cited many, many times and investigated them, because I believe in anecdotal information from the field of just the sort Jeff was describing, the a careful examination shows a much more complicated picture.

In public opinion poll after public opinion poll taken by ABC, the BBC, public opinion research centers in Germany and Afghanistan itself, it shows that roughly seven to eight percent of the population wants the Taliban. The vast majority of the people want peace, and they don't want the Taliban to come back.

Now, you can argue that you can't have both, and that may or may not be true, but I just don't think it supports it. As for the idea that as we advance you see the Afghan soldiers going the other way, that also is not supported by facts.

If General Petraeus was with you on this line, he would give you a lot of data about the Afghans. They're paying a very heavy price resisting the Taliban.

And finally, let's not forget the women of Afghanistan. The women, the black years, as they're called in Afghanistan, famously discriminated against women in an extraordinary way, and we must not forget that issue.

CONAN: Ted?

KOPPEL: Actually, I'm glad you're letting me jump in at this point, Neal, because Ambassador, with all due respect, I don't know of a single instance where a great power, let alone the United States, has gone to war, has sent 100,000 troops because of the mistreatment even of one entire gender.

If we were going to send troops, we would have to send hundreds of thousands of troops then to Africa to prevent genital mutilation. That isn't the reason why we're in Afghanistan.

And when you raised the issue before of our departure from that region, from Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1989, you made the excellent point that Secretary of Defense Gates regrets that we did that. There were many others who do.

And I think the great fear is that the United States is preparing to do the same thing again. Can you reassure the American public, if indeed it wants to be reassured on this, that that is not the case?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Let me take first your comment on women and then secondly your very important point. I did not mean to suggest, and I do not want to be misunderstood, that Americans are risking their lives and paying the ultimate price for an unachievable objective of changing the culture and sociology of a very strongly traditional society.

I simply wanted to make the case that, in answer to Jeff from San Antonio, that there are really complicated, cross-cutting issues here, because Jeff made a sweeping generalization about the country where a closer look shows a more complex picture.

But the fact is that women are much better off today in Afghanistan than they were seven or eight years ago, and he was suggesting that everybody is worse off and everybody wants us out, and that is absolutely not borne out by examination of the situation.

Back to your larger point. It is because you've posed the dilemma in very clear terms, Ted. The president has said that our troop commitment is not open-ended. At the same time, he and Hillary and Bob Gates and others, myself included, have said repeatedly that there is a post-combat role for the international community led by the United States in Afghanistan.

And that would consist, in my view, of several key components. First of all, economic and development assistance, without which the country would implode economically. Secondly, continued support for the training, equipping and advising of the military and the police. They which we are now doing in a very, very proactive way.

The long-term strategy that we are all working on and supporting is to have the Afghan security forces gradually take over the security responsibility. On that critical issue the strategy depends, and if that isn't successful, the strategy will not be successful. If it is, the strategy will succeed. And that, of course, lease the question of how much time we have to get it to have it succeed and that's an issue that's much discussed and will be front and center at the NATO Summit in Lisbon in mid-November.

KOPPEL: What's your answer?

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Well, you know, that's a political question. And your judgment on that is...

KOPPEL: No. It's a very - it's - no. It's a practical question. How long do you think it will take? I mean, nobody thinks that's going to happen in your term.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: No. I agree with that. And that's why the President's speech in reference to July 2011 is important to look at very carefully. The President said we would begin careful withdrawals, drawdowns if you will, of our troops starting in July of next year on a - based on the conditions that exist on the ground. And he is sometimes misinterpreted by people as saying we're going to withdraw starting in July of 2011. That's not what he said.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is another Jeff(ph). This one from Williamsburg, in Virginia.

JEFF (Caller): Hi there. Thank you for taking my call. Ambassador Holbrooke, particularly, thank you for joining this conversation. And I wanted to continue on the point that you actually just made about the strategic messaging and what the President said. I was in Afghanistan in 2002 in Kandahar and also in Paktika province, which is in eastern Afghanistan. And I think strategic messaging, the President got it right when he said to all domestically and international audiences, that we're going to build up forces to win. But he badly misjudged it by adding that nuanced caveat you referred to that will begin in, quote, "careful drawdown."

Pueblo in San Francisco and New York City, I'm sure, with the left wing of his own party, played very poorly in Paktika province and Kandahar, I'm sure. Because what the Taliban is telling those folks is that they know they have to bet their lives on who has the staying power. Is it the Taliban or is it the Americans? And stay with us and ride it out when the Americans leave, it'll all be good. But if you support them when they leave, we will kill you. So these people have to literally bet their lives. So I think it was a terrible misjudgment the President made by adding that nuance, which was not perceived overseas.

And added to this, the President, I believe, has some credibility with the left wing of his own party, similar to how Nixon was able to go to China because of the credit he had with the right wing of American politics. The President, I hope, will seize the opportunity on the strategic messaging front, to put an end to this silly moral equivalent argument that you hear still frequently made by the left wing in our own country - that, well, sometimes Afghan civilians die under U.S. bombs so that we're just like the Taliban. I would argue that if you intentionally try to target irregular warfare fighters that are intentionally making themselves in with the population in violation of the Geneva Conventions and you unintentionally kill innocents, that's not the same thing as having a suicide bomber intentionally kill women and children...

CONAN: And Jeff...

JEFF: You should say that.

CONAN: Jeff, a couple of points. Let's give the ambassador a chance to respond.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: Well, Jeff, first of all, I appreciate your service in Paktika. It may interest you to know that three different three different recent visitors to Paktika - two of them Afghan, one is senior American military officer - have all said that the situation in Paktika is dramatically changed as we deploy some of the additional forces that are coming in to Paktika. Now, those of you listening in the radio should understand that Paktika is as critical to the future of the country as the more publicized areas in Kandahar and Helmand are.

Secondly, if I would - I completely disagree with you about politicization of this by telling about left wing inside the Democratic Party and so on. This is not - this should not be a partisan issue. The concerns that are being raised about Afghanistan by thoughtful Americans are legitimate, and every concern that has been stated publicly is one we have discussed and thought about internally. And I have great sympathy for the people who question it, and I would never characterize them as left wing or right wing, because we get attacked from both sides. This is a very big issue. Having said that, the rest of your analysis is pretty accurate in my view, and I agree with most of what you said.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks for the call.

JEFF: Thank you for taking it. Have a nice day.

CONAN: Bye-bye. You too. We're talking with Ambassador Holbrooke and Ted Koppel.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email we have from Cathy(ph) in Boulder. Great interview. Thank you. My husband is a contractor at Bag. I assume she means Bagram Air Force Base. And I've been over there for volunteer work in Kabul to an NGO. The Afghans are lovely people, need our continued help. I was treated like a rock star when I volunteered as an English teacher at a girls' school. We worked diligently, especially with the children. And we will win the hearts and minds of these dear people who are so much in need of our help. So there are people who are also in support of the policy.

We just have a couple of minutes left with you, Ambassador Holbrooke, and we do want to talk about Pakistan as well, which is the other half of the equation. But, in a way, are we not talking about a Pashtun insurgency on both sides of the border that has to be treated as one difficulty?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Amb. HOLBROOKE: I wish it were that simple, and I used the word simple on it's most ironic context. The Pakistan part of - side of the border, you have extraordinarily complex mix, a toxic brew of at least four or five definable and separable insurgencies. You have al Qaida. You have the Haqqani group, a vicious nihilistic group of people who were in Pakistan but range all the way into Kabul and have tried to - they attacked the Indian embassy. You have the LeT terrorist movement whose main goal appears to be attempt to provoke a conflict between India and Pakistan, which goes back, Neal, to your introduction.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Amb. HOLBROOKE: You have the Pakistani Taliban, who were trying to overthrow the Pakistani government and who were the trainers, fortunately inept trainers, of the Time Square bomber. And then last, but definitely not least, you have the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar's group, or sometimes loosely referred to as the Quetta Shura. Now, these groups overlap. They interact. But they seemed to be getting a little closer together under the tremendous pressure that they've been put under by the military forces.

But there they are. And Pakistan is at the center of this drama. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without buy in from Pakistan - however you define success. And if they weren't success in Afghanistan, then Pakistan would become even more critical in terms of needing our assistance. That's the strategic overview. Now, in the middle of this...

CONAN: Ambassador Holbrooke, I apologize, we've just ran out of time. And we know you're very busy today, we appreciate your taking your time. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He, along with Ted Koppel, joined us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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