Weighing U.S. Policy In Afghanistan
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Across the border in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is stepping up its engagement. The new general in charge, Stanley McChrystal, is changing the strategy. He says protecting civilians is more important than killing the enemy.
Here is earlier this week on MORNING EDITION.
(Soundbite of archived broadcast)
General STANLEY McCHRYSTAL (Commander, Coalition Forces; Afghanistan): It takes military and political courage to do this because you don't see the quick wins, there is not the sudden lightning move that captures an enemy capital or anything like that. You're actually fighting to convince people to support their government.
BRAND: America will have 68,000 troops on the ground once the build-up in Afghanistan is complete. That's bringing increased skepticism in the foreign policy world about President Obama's strategy for Afghanistan and what exactly those troops should be doing.
Joining me now are two experts with different views. John Nagl is president of the Center for a New American Security. He advises General McChrystal, and he's in favor of a strong counterinsurgency program in Afghanistan.
We're also joined by Michael Cohen. He's a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He's been writing that the counterinsurgency approach is the wrong way to go and that we should be getting out of Afghanistan.
Welcome, both of you.
Dr. JOHN A. NAGL (President, Center for a New American Security): It's good to be here.
BRAND: Well, let's start with you, John Nagl. What is our mission in Afghanistan - a basic question?
Dr. NAGL: Oh, we have two missions, I think, in Afghanistan. The first is to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terror. The second is to prevent Afghanistan from acting as a security drag on the region, from Afghanistan dragging down Pakistan and creating further instability in the region.
Doing both of those things requires really the same action from us, that is creating an Afghan security force responsive to an Afghan government that can govern and secure Afghanistan on its own.
BRAND: And, Michael Cohen, you write about mission creep. What do you mean by that? And isn't it important to make sure that Afghanistan is not a place where al-Qaida can regroup and possibly launch another attack on the United States?
Mr. MICHAEL A. COHEN (Senior Research Fellow, New America Foundation): Well, I think, first of all, I mean, if you'd go back and look in March when President Obama announced his policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he made clear that the goal was to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan, what appeared to be somewhat of a limited counterterrorism mission.
Since then, we've seen that mission evolve into a full-fledge counterinsurgency. We're now seeing, as you mentioned, General McChrystal talking more about protecting population then targeting the enemy. You're seeing reports of U.S. soldiers going out and targeting drug traffickers who are linked to the Taliban, even overhauling the Afghan prison system. And the possibility has been raised of bringing more troops than the 17,000 that President Obama sent in February.
So I think what's happening is the mission is expanding significantly. And I don't get a clear sense from the administration they have a real sense of what the goal is.
I mean, you saw this week Ambassador Holbrooke, who is responsible for regional policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, basically when asked what does success look like, evoked the old Potter Stewart line about I know it when I see it.
Well, I would hope to hear a little more - better sense from Ambassador Holbrooke and out of the administration exactly what the goal is there.
And the other point about the safe haven issue, I mean I find this to be one of the problems with how we talk about Afghanistan. The simple fact is that there has been a safe haven for al-Qaida for the past seven and a half years, it's in Pakistan.
BRAND: John Nagl, would it then be a better use of our resources, not necessarily military resources, but monetary resources and diplomatic resources to focus more on Pakistan than Afghanistan?
Dr. NAGL: Oh, we are, in fact, focusing the resources on Pakistan that we're able to focus on that particular theater in this fight. The additional counterinsurgency assistance to Pakistan has been very helpful, we believe we killed Baitullah Mehsud last week, and that's a very good thing in terms of better relations with Pakistan and bringing Pakistan fully on board in the fight against both the Taliban and al-Qaida.
But the idea that we can withdraw from Afghanistan and that that won't have a debilitating affect on what the Pakistanis are finally doing to confront terrorism inside their borders, I think, is absolutely incorrect. What we do in Afghanistan has huge impact in Pakistan.
BRAND: And when will we know when it's time to bring the troops home? When will we know we've been successful in Afghanistan?
Mr. COHEN: I mean, I think the problem is that we don't know because, to some extent, the administration has not really defined what success looks like.
I mean, in some ways, if you think about disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaida in Afghanistan, we've kind of won that battle, because they don't really exist in Afghanistan in any serious way.
I think we need to be clear to what our goal is in Afghanistan. Do we want to do nation building? Do we want to create a stable Afghan state? Or do we want to focus instead on containing al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan on -containing as best we can a Taliban takeover? And is there a situation under which we can accept Taliban playing a political role in Afghanistan so long as they are not harboring al-Qaida terrorist groups?
BRAND: And, John Nagl, as we said earlier, Richard Holbrooke said, we'll know it when we see it when it's time to leave. Do you have a clearer idea of when it'll be time to withdraw forces?
Dr. NAGL: I do. I think the key to success in this fight and the way we'll know it's done is just as in Iraq, where Iraqi security forces are increasingly taking responsibility away from American forces, and when we're going to be able to withdraw with some degree of success over the next couple of years, is in Afghanistan, when there are sufficient Afghan security forces to take the lead in the fight, and American forces can increasingly drawback and drawdown.
We need to build a bigger Afghan National Army, bigger Afghan police forces in order to secure that country, keep pressure on al-Qaida and on the Taliban on both sides of the border and, ultimately, allow an American withdrawal with a secure, stable Afghanistan and Pakistan.
BRAND: John Nagl is president of the Center for a New American Security; Michael Cohen is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
Thank you both very much.
Dr. NAGL: Thank you.
Mr. COHEN: My pleasure.
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