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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Today is Memorial Day. That's a day we set aside to honor those who have given their lives in military service. We honor all of them. But in a moment we're going to remember one soldier in particular who died in Iraq in 2006, leaving behind a remarkable testimony of love and wisdom to the infant son he barely knew. Writer Dana Canedy is going to tell us their story in just a few minutes. But we're going to start the program by talking about the other war the U.S. is fighting, the war in Afghanistan. We're going to take a step back and try to understand where America's war effort in Afghanistan stands today.

And we'll end the program with a special musical performance. That's all coming up. But first, we want to talk about what's officially known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Since the U.S. military initiatives were launched in Afghanistan in October 2001, more than 600 U.S. service members had lost their lives in that country and more than 1800 have been wounded. In recent weeks there has also been controversy over whether U.S. troops have caused civilian casualties and if so, how many and why?

Since President Obama took office, he's vowed to put more focus on Afghanistan. Despite that we believe the mission there has been largely overshadowed since the U.S. invaded Iraq in March of 2003. So, today we've decided to place a special focus on Afghanistan and to unpack exactly what the U.S. is trying to accomplish there. So we turn to Amin Tarzi. He is the director of Middle East studies at the Marine Corps University. He is here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you so much for joining.

Dr. AMIN TARZI (Director, Middle East Studies, Marine Corps University): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: I hope this is not unbearably simple for you. But I think it's very important to lay out exactly what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan. Why did the U.S. go to Afghanistan to begin with? And has the mission changed overtime?

Dr. TARZI: When we went to Afghanistan the mission was very simple. To destroy al-Qaida and to disrupt their activities so they cannot come back and harm us or our allies, simply that. If you look now seven years past, the mission, in a way, more of what we call in the military -mission creep - (unintelligible) you start talking about nation building, state building. We are still confused about the two of them. They are two different - very different concept, nation and state are two different concepts.

And I think one of the difficulties in Afghanistan both in our case and in case of our allies and in case of the Afghan government is that after the initial very straight forward disruption and destroying of al-Qaida, everybody else looks at Afghanistan differently. And still continue to do so.

MARTIN: What was the relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban then when the U.S. began its mission and what is the relationship now?

Dr. TARZI: We went to Afghanistan in October. The operation, the military end of it had started earlier but the actual bombing and attacks started on 7th October 2001. At that point, al-Qaida had basically taken over the Taliban institution. If you look at it in a medical way, Afghanistan - if you compare Afghanistan to a body, al-Qaida was a cancer cell that was basically spreading to pretty much all of it except for a very small part in the north western part of Afghanistan. So they were basically controlling the country. The country - they didn't care about Afghanistan, per se. It was a place for them to spawn and to attack, as we saw what they did.

MARTIN: It was a host.

Dr. TARZI: Exactly. And currently the situation is much, much, much more complicated. Today the Taliban have morphed into - what in a book that I and a colleague from Stanford have published. We call it - I call it a Neo-Taliban. Just to mention these are not the same people. So, some members of the new insurgency or Neo-Taliban have direct links with al-Qaida. Some of them do not. Some of them are people who are politically disenfranchised. Some of them are just common criminals, either dealing with the drug business, which in Afghanistan is now booming, or they are just trying to find political niches.

MARTIN: When you say that the U.S. mission has morphed into nation building, what do you mean? And when President Obama says we as a country and the military need to put more focus on Afghanistan, what's he talking about?

Dr. TARZI: We are now talking about nation-state building. The notion is that state building, which kind of became the mission, should be focused on more concretely. That the Afghan government, through the Afghan -which is called ANA - which stands for Afghan National Army, becomes finally the vanguard of keeping that country secure. And, of course, another issue is right now that we have ushered a democracy and the notion is that democracy will be one of the more, you know, another preventive measure not to allow something like the Taliban to regain territory.

MARTIN: What is the next step in the U.S. engagement with Afghanistan that Americans should be paying attention to? Are their markers that would allow those who are interested to understand whether the U.S. is making progress there or not?

Dr. TARZI: Right now, the main measure of success or benchmark, in my view is the elections upcoming in Afghanistan, which is in August. If those elections are held reasonably, and I use that cautionary word, not reasonably well, meaning first of all it's not very, very much violent, one. Two, whoever is selected is accepted by the majority of Afghans as being at least fair, I think we have progressed right there. I think that is very crucial, it's upcoming, it's a specific date. And this is right now the main thing. And one reason you may have to make sure that you have enough forces, both military and civilian, on the ground to do that.

What we're lacking right now is the civilian side of it because Afghans unfortunately, after 30 years of war, do not trust each other. They will trust a foreigner looking as an observer or something. These elections with about 7000 polling stations, unfortunately because of lack of cooperation from international community but also because, mainly because of security, a lot of these polling stations will not be monitored. And that is one issue that hopefully the Afghans will find a way to accept the results.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Amin Tarzi. He is the director of Middle East studies at the Marine Corps University. He is here with me in our Washington, D.C. studios and we're talking about Afghanistan. Why is the U.S. there? Is the U.S. succeeding? The initial effort there was aimed at disrupting and destroying al-Qaida. Where is Osama bin Laden believed to be now? Is he believed to still be in Afghanistan? Where is he?

Dr. TARZI: Most likely if he is alive, he - most likely he is in the area of northern Pakistan, which is (unintelligible) up north and Gilgit. Gilgit is more east but it is somewhere close to the Afghan border where the mountains are very high, they are impassible. Most of our equipment including our helicopters don't even function there. And there is a web of family living there that if he is alive, as long as he does not use a cell phone or any electronics, he pretty much can stay there for as long as he wants.

You need a very, very robust human intelligence, something we clearly lack, and the network and the webs of family is there such that penetrating it would be close to impossible. As I said it's a very elaborate network of human intelligence that could get there. So, if he is there and as long as he does not move out and uses electronics he could just stay there. My own view is if he is alive he is most likely in northern Pakistan.

MARTIN: Is there, emerging to the degree that you can say this, and it's a difficult question, do you think that there is any emerging sense of a civil society in Afghanistan? I guess what I want to ask is, is there any shared vision of what Afghanistan should be?

Dr. TARZI: I think yes. We had a conference just two months ago in Quantico at the Marine Corps University hosted by Marine Corps University and some other agencies. And there were Afghans of different factions, very high-level Afghans. And one remark I made to one colleague is that, I said, 15 years ago, these two would have been killing each other or actually not ever sitting at a table. Today, they're actually talking. They may disagree but they're talking.

The fact that the Afghans are going to the polls, as imperfect as those polls are, is a big, huge difference from what is going on. And I know that some of the more amazing gains in the last seven years. There's issue of women - I mean, there is no question about it, Afghan women have gained more than anybody else.

And they, I think, are showing it, that they are actually progressing into a civil society. So far, it is still unfortunately limited to the city of Kabul, maybe Heart, and some northern areas. In the south, unfortunately the violence is not allowing it. There's a free media. Afghanistan enjoys a better media, which is actually more vibrant than perhaps any country in that region.

MARTIN: And finally, and again, this may be a difficult and unanswerable question but I will try. I think that this conflict has gone on so long, the U.S. campaign here has gone on so long the president has said not only that we are not going to withdraw from Afghanistan but in fact we're going to increase our efforts there.

But for a lot Americans, I think they might wonder why? This is a poor, difficult, violent country, perhaps with a culture that many Americans do not understand. And I think that they may wonder, why does the United States stay? Why is it important to U.S. interests for the U.S. to continue its efforts there?

Dr. TARZI: Well, the short version, I think President Obama had made that clear when he elaborated on what we call now the Af-Pak Strategy is that if Afghanistan falls and does not hold itself up, you know, they will be infused back or they will be taken over by the Taliban who will allow al-Qaida and again we - who is the target of that? It's us, Europeans and countries that are democratic and against them. That is the short answer.

The longer answer, I think, there's also an issue of responsibility. My own idea - and this is my own idea, not U.S. government policy - is that we need to - while we need to support this aggregation, we need to make sure that the Afghans understand this is not a limitless effort, that they have to take over sometimes. So as we go in, let's say, percentages, they take more percentages to their effort because if not, I think, we may have Americans question the validity or is it worth our blood and money?

MARTIN: Amin Tarazi is a former Marine. He's done extensive research on the politics and the state-building process in Afghanistan. He currently serves as the director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University. He was kind to join us on this Memorial Day from our Washington, D.C. studios. And I want to assure our listeners that we will have extensive resources on our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org so that you can follow our conversation especially with the maps.

Professor Tarazi, thank you so much for joining us. And thank you for your service, if I may.

Dr. TARZI: You're very welcome. Thank you ma'am. God bless, America.

MARTIN: As Professor Tarazi pointed out, the one thing most people agree on with regard to Afghanistan is that success there depends as much or more on building civic institutions as on winning military battles. So how does that happen? For answers, we called on Claire Lockhart, the director of the Institute for State Effectiveness. She warns that the Taliban are still a force especially in rural Afghanistan even though they do not have the support of the people.

Ms. CLAIRE LOCKHART (Director, Institute of for State Effectiveness): Villages, as far as I can tell, are saying, we don't like the Taliban. They didn't do a great job of running the country before. And we don't want them to come back. But right now, we don't have an option because they're the ones who are offering to protect us.

MARTIN: You can hear the rest of our conversation with Claire Lockhart on the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org

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