U.S. Pursues Two-Track Strategy In Afghanistan

Guest host Mary Louise Kelly talks with Dexter Filkins, foreign correspondent for The New York Times, about the nation's strategy in Afghanistan: stepped-up attacks on Taliban insurgents, while pressuring them to come to the table for negotiations.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

From Afghanistan this week, more evidence that American commanders are now pursuing a two-track strategy. On the one hand, dramatically stepping up air strikes to try to bleed the insurgency. And on the other hand, stepping up pressure on Taliban leaders to negotiate and ultimately to make peace with the Afghan government.

The New York Times' Dexter Filkins is following both those tracks, and he's on the line now from Kabul.

Welcome.

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Foreign Correspondent, The New York Times): Hi.

KELLY: So help us flesh this out. The effort which, as you report in today's paper, is being orchestrated by the top commander there, General David Petraeus, the effort is to pound the enemy with bombs and missiles while at the same time expanding diplomacy, trying to get the Taliban to come to the table for talks.

How are these two parallel strategies supposed to work together?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, in theory, it makes a lot of sense. You know, Clausewitz, the Prussian philosopher and historian said: War is the continuation of politics by other means. And that cuts both ways. I mean, when wars end, they return to politics. And so I think the idea is we will - using an extraordinary amount of military force, which they are now - we will signal to the Taliban and we will convince them that they have no hope of victory. That door to them will be closed.

But at the same time, we're going to open this other door which is the door to a political settlement. And that would involve, conceivably, some kind of concession, some kind of, you know, power sharing or something like that probably pretty far down the road.

But that's the theory, and I think it sounds pretty good in theory. I think, like everything here, it gets a lot messier when you get down on the ground.

KELLY: Well, let me press you on a couple of areas of messiness. I mean, one is the Taliban put out a statement - it's been reported this week - denying that they're taking part in talks. Have you been able to actually nail down any evidence that the senior commanders of the Taliban, who matter, are interested in coming to the table and talking peace?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, you can pretty much throw out what - I think his name is Zabihullah Mujahid...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: ...the Taliban spokesman says that's just kind of, you know, propaganda. But there is evidence that there are some Taliban leaders who are taking part in discussions. And I think these are extremely preliminary discussions. These really aren't even negotiations. I think it's better to describe them as talks about talks, or maybe even talks about talks about talks. They're probably just sitting down and having tea and really just preliminary discussions.

But I think what's unclear is the level of endorsement that these discussions have from the very senior leadership, meaning Mullah Omar, who's hiding in Pakistan.

I think, by most accounts, the Taliban have felt for the last couple of years that they have the momentum. And if that's true, why would you stop and make a deal if you have momentum? And I think that's the big question.

KELLY: Another big question mark here is what the U.S. role is or should be in any talks that may be taking place. You report today that this is an American-led diplomatic initiative. What evidence do you see of that?

Mr. FILKINS: That's what we've been told by pretty senior American leaders. They have said that they've not only encouraged these talks - and now they're speaking publicly about it, which is pretty remarkable.

KELLY: We had General Petraeus acknowledging this week that NATO and U.S. commanders are helping Taliban leaders travel to Kabul. Pretty remarkable.

Mr. FILKINS: On any other day of the week, if they saw them, they'd shoot them or they'd capture them. So that illustrates a level of openness on the part of the United States that really hasn't been evident before.

KELLY: Any concern that this two-track strategy might backfire, that by ramping up bombs and missiles you would, in fact, drive Taliban negotiators further away from wanting to talk and negotiate?

Mr. FILKINS: I think that's a real concern. You know, it's impossible, particularly in this part of the world and particularly in the middle of a war, to foretell the future. But I think there is a concern on the part of some people that if you pound the Taliban and you bleed the Taliban, it will basically remove any amount of goodwill or a kind capacity for making that leap of faith that's necessary to engage in negotiations. That's a real concern.

KELLY: All right, lots of questions still there.

That's The New York Times' Dexter Filkins on the line from Kabul.

Dexter, thanks a lot.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you so much.

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