In Kabul, NATO's Words Heard From A Distance

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke Friday of "a new phase of our engagement;" a transition that would lead to what he called "Afghan leadership and Afghan ownership of the war." As NATO leaders discuss Afghan strategy at a summit in Lisbon, we hear how those words sound in Kabul. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Quil Lawrence.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Let's return now to Afghanistan and NATO's agreement to begin reducing troop levels there and return control of security to Afghans in 2014. NATO leaders emphasized they're not leaving Afghanistan altogether. The Western alliance will remain in place after that date to provide military assistance and training for Afghan forces.

NPR's Quil Lawrence is in the Afghan capital and joins us for a view of how Afghans might view(ph) the talks in Lisbon. Quil, thanks for being with us.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Good morning.

SIMON: And how are Afghan leaders looking at this NATO meeting?

LAWRENCE: I think Afghan military commanders and government ministers, they seem to be on the same page as the generals and the NATO officials here. For the first time since 2001, I think they're all feeling like they finally have a decent shot. They've got enough U.S. support, enough soldiers on the ground. They have enough attention from the White House.

Of course, that's a tacit admission that the first seven or eight years were something of a long, wasted opportunity. Many of them will say that if this sort of effort had been applied back in 2002, 2003, the problems then were much smaller. They're aware of the fatigue among donor nations, especially those that have taken casualties here, but I don't hear much concern about other NATO countries. They're mostly worried about the U.S., whether the U.S. is going to, is going to stay.

SIMON: And can you give us any insight into how regular Afghan citizens might be viewing this debate now?

LAWRENCE: Well, I find that Afghans outside the government or that aren't working with the Americans are living in an absolutely completely different reality from the one that I hear described by U.S. generals, by NATO officials, by congressmen and U.S. senators who come here.

For example, down in Kandahar, where they certainly have seen fierce fighting and killed many, many Taliban fighters down there, but at the same time villagers down there have been evicted from their homes by the violence. They see that their homes are now - and their fields are still so littered with Taliban landmines and booby traps that the U.S. military has actually had to bulldoze or sometimes rocket their houses just to clear them.

And they certainly aren't feeling any sort of a peace dividend. I don't get a lot of optimism in my talks with them. They're wondering if this is just a normal winter break in the fighting and it's going to come back just as fierce. The Afghans I talk to here in the capital, they just don't see the gains that people are talking about. They have trouble traveling around the country. It's less safe that it's been in the past. They find that the government is still overwhelmingly corrupt and many of them I talked are trying to leave the country.

SIMON: Might they reflect that the picture the U.S. is presenting at NATO meetings and elsewhere is just a little hopeful?

LAWRENCE: Exactly. I think that they see since the summer and since the new team arrived under General Petraeus, there's been a very steady and strong message of cautious optimism, and I think many of them can see that that was on the way to the Lisbon summit. Many of them have commented that when you talk to these people on the eve of a NATO summit, you're certainly going to hear a very clear message.

SIMON: And let me ask you about the state of readiness of Afghan security forces. What estimates do you hear, do you gain from your reporting, as to when they might be able to take control of large areas of the country?

LAWRENCE: Well, the good news is that rates of attrition seem to be down. You still have a lot of soldiers going AWOL, but - you know, from very fierce fighting. That's understandable. But they say the recruiting goals are being met. I just actually spoke with a friend who's a translator for the Marines down in Helmand and he says he's very impressed, that the army, the Afghan army has improved quite a lot.

But the question really is when they'll be able to take the lead, and that seems a very long way off. First off, before they'll be able to plan and lead missions on their own - it'll be a few years, they say, before that will happen. And then if you watch the number of helicopters that American troops use to supply themselves with food and water, the Afghans have none of that capability. It will be a long, long time.

SIMON: And another insight from the Afghan point of view: Why would President Karzai tell the Washington Post that he has such great reservations about the U.S. strategy just before this meeting?

LAWRENCE: Well, NATO officials said that that certainly wasn't helpful to them, and in some ways they see that President Karzai's still having it both ways. In private, his ministers and his aides can praise the military progress and say this is going great; in public he can go with the anti-American flow and he can condemn these night raids in Afghan homes and continue making peace overtures to the Taliban.

SIMON: NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul. Thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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