What Is The Definition Of Success In Afghanistan? On Tuesday, President Obama ordered the deployment of an additional 17,000 combat troops in Afghanistan, citing a "deteriorating situation" that "demands urgent attention and swift action." More troops heading to the country raises questions about how exactly to define success in Afghanistan.
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What Is The Definition Of Success In Afghanistan?

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What Is The Definition Of Success In Afghanistan?

What Is The Definition Of Success In Afghanistan?

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan. On Tuesday, President Obama ordered the deployment of an additional 17,000 combat troops to Afghanistan, citing a deteriorating situation that he said demands urgent attention and swift action. Meanwhile, the president has launched a new review of strategy in Afghanistan, which should be completed by spring. All of which raises the question: What would success in Afghanistan look like? We'd like to hear from military personnel and civilians who have served in Afghanistan. What do you think it means to succeed there? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, and our email address is talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our Web site; go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Joining us in Studio 3A is Craig Mullaney. He served as an infantry officer in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004, and he advised the Pentagon transition team for President Obama. Good to have you with us.

Mr. CRAIG M. MULLANEY (Retired, U.S. Army; Author, "The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education"): Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: Let me ask you, when you were serving in Afghanistan, did you feel the goals were clear? Did you understand what the strategy for victory was?

Mr. MULLANEY: I understood what our mission was in Afghanistan. In 2003, we were fighting a counterterrorist strategy. We were oriented on the enemy, primarily, and not on protecting the population. That began to shift over the course of my deployment. So, by the time I left in 2004, we'd begun the first steps towards a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. And I think the latter strategy is probably most appropriate for winning in Afghanistan.

NEARY: So, when you say it went from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency while you were on the ground there, does - what is the effect of that on troops?

Mr. MULLANEY: It's a change in mindset, and I don't think we, sort of, fully embraced the new approach by the time we left because, really, you're asking that instead of training to go on raids and on ambushes looking for the enemy, you spend much more time looking for your friends and building up those relationships with local allies, making the population feel safe, allowing a permissive environment for them to give you the intelligence that ultimately leads to better accuracy in finding your enemies. So, you take away the enemy's source of support, which is the local people.

NEARY: Were troops prepared for that shift sort of psychologically, in other words, shifting to finding friends instead of finding enemies?

Mr. MULLANEY: It's a change in approach. I don't think I was ready for it. We did the best we could under the circumstances. I think what you've seen in the U.S. Army over the last seven years is a steep learning curve, and we're doing a much better job now of fighting, really, a multifaceted strategy, where it's not just about attacks and raids; it's also about partnering with local sheiks in Afghanistan, with tribal elders, looking for opportunities to build schools, provide economic opportunity, and like I said, to take away from the - sort of the Taliban's source of support.

NEARY: So, why does that seem to be the best strategy going forward, this counterinsurgency strategy?

Mr. MULLANEY: Well, I think when you're - I think the strategy has to be adapted to what the enemy situation is. And if you're fighting an insurgency, a counterterrorist strategy is probably not the best approach. You need a counterinsurgency strategy. Now, there's two ways of fighting a counterinsurgency. To simplify, you can focus on the enemy, or you can focus on the local population, protecting the population. Protecting the population, I think, is a better approach. It isolates an adversary that doesn't actually have much popular support. I mean, most Afghans don't want the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It's - they're strongest where there's no international presence. It's the only alternative to chaos. And so, sort of expanding the writ of law in Afghanistan and making people feel safe will sort of deprive the Taliban of that vacuum in which they are so effective.

NEARY: And does that also work, then, to counter terrorism? I mean, is that a dual goal?

Mr. MULLANEY: I think they're - I think the two go together. They're sort of parallel strategies because clearly we still have terrorists operating in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan. And so, when I think of counterinsurgency strategy, you're adversary is primarily the Taliban. When I think about the counterterrorist strategy, that's about al-Qaeda. And with al-Qaeda, it's much more about capturing and killing and trying to exploit sort of some information and intelligence assets that we have to do that most effectively. But really, I think for Afghanistan as a state, the larger threat comes from the Taliban not al-Qaeda.

NEARY: Do you have a sense of what success would look like in Afghanistan, what would it mean to be successful there?

Mr. MULLANEY: At a very basic level, I think success in Afghanistan is two things. One is it's a state, a state in Afghanistan that is not at significant risk of being overthrown by an insurgency. It won't mean a white flag of surrender from the Taliban; it'll mean they're reduced to a nuisance. Second, it's preventing al-Qaeda from having a base for transnational terrorist strikes in the region, in Europe and in the United States. Those are two very difficult goals, and they sort of require separate strategies that are - that work hand in glove with each other.

NEARY: All right, I want to bring Tom Bowman into the conversation now. He is with us in Studio 3A, and he reports on the Pentagon for NPR. Good to have you with us, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN: Good to be here.

NEARY: Officials in the Obama administration have been talking about the need for clear and achievable goals, concrete goals. Any idea what they mean by that? Is it...

BOWMAN: Well, it's a departure from what we heard in the Bush demonstration. Just back in December, President Bush was hosting President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. They talked about a flourishing democracy in Afghanistan. You're not hearing any talk of that anymore. They say a flourishing democracy may not even be on the horizon in Afghanistan. So, they're looking at achievable goals, concrete goals, they can achieve in maybe the next three to five years: building up the Afghan security forces, working more with the local governments, the districts and provinces to try to shore up those governments, provide aid, do more to go after the narcotics and the poppies in Afghanistan, and eventually, talk with what they call reconcilable Taliban elements that would be willing to put down their arms and become part of the government.

So, it really is looking at the building blocks of a stable democratic state, and again, they're not saying this is going to be in any way a great democracy in the near future. So, that's what they are focused on. And the note that 12,000 troops that are going in the spring and summer, and then the additional 5,000, most of those are trainers for the Afghan army. They haven't been named yet. We have a sense of who they might be, but they haven't received deployment orders yet. So, right now, it's just 12,000, 5,000 to come later. And the whole point of sending those troops over, picking up on what Craig said, is to provide security for the population. It's a classic counterinsurgency strategy, where you fan out, provide security for the population, and then, civilian experts, government experts, can flow in and help rebuild societies. So, that's sort of where we are now in Afghanistan.

NEARY: Let me ask you about a phrase you're just using, did you say pliable Taliban? What was the phrase you used...?

BOWMAN: No, no, reconcilable.

NEARY: Reconcilable...

BOWMAN: No, no, reconcilable Taliban. That's a term General David Petraeus, who now commands Central Command, the whole region is using. But there's a sense that - some are suggesting talking to the Taliban now. I think Petraeus and a lot of other military officers you talk with are saying, we don't want to talk with the Taliban while they're resurgent, while they are in a position of strength. We want to send the troops in there, get a greater sense of security on the ground in Afghanistan and really, in essence, beat them on the battlefield or at least subdue them to a point where more would be willing to put down their arms and join a government that most military people would say, you're not quite there yet.

NEARY: We're talking about Afghanistan and what success might mean in that country and what it might look like, and we're especially interested in hearing from military or civilians who have served in Afghanistan. So, give us a call, the number is 1-800-989-8255; you can send an email to talk@npr.org. One thing I was wondering about as we're hearing about troops being sent, more troops being sent to Afghanistan, certainly something that we know from Iraq, a mistake that was made at the beginning, was that there was no exit strategy. Do you have a sense that there is an exit strategy for Afghanistan, that there's an end game here?

BOWMAN: You know, not really, and a lot of people I talked with at the Pentagon are asking me, you know, what does success look like here? You know, how do we know when we've, quote/unquote, "won"? So, there were concerns, I think, in the Pentagon about that very point, and what you're hearing about now at the Pentagon is a three to five year bridge where you can do some of these things we talked about earlier, providing better security, start with the building blocks of a civil society, and at the end of that five years, hopefully start withdrawing U.S. troops and turning more of it - this over to the Afghan, local Afghan forces and then civilian experts, nongovernmental organizations, and others who can really start rebuilding the country. But the hope is you cross that bridge in five years and you can start withdrawing troops, and again, that's a hope.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call from Bob. He's calling from Miami, Florida. Hi, Bob.

BOB (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

BOB: Well, I was just going to say that if - when you look at it as what Americans think peace is, that's not the way it is over there, that the Afghans, they are fairly comfortable fighting. It's almost like having a very argumentative type person. They're going to clash with a lot of people because of their ways or beliefs. I was over there and the reason why I'm not going back there is because it's just - it is - every time you make a little headway, you think you make a little headway, you see something that - something else that is just not going to allow them to be peaceful like we think peaceful should be.

NEARY: All right, Bob, thanks for the...

BOB: And I think that a lot of it is just a tolerance and not letting the area to become total chaos.

NEARY: Thanks so much for your call. I'm going to ask Craig to respond to that because you have been there, so perhaps you can give us your take.

Mr. MULLANEY: Hi, Bob. I don't know that I can generalize about - that Afghans are any more sort of disruptive and sort of combative than Americans. I mean, parts of the country I spent time in are - in the U.S. are sort of equally fractious. But I do think that in some areas, you can achieve a modicum of peace and stability that Afghans can accept.

NEARY: All right, Craig, thanks so much for joining us today. Craig Mullaney served as infantry officer in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004, and he's the author of "The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education." This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Richard Holbrooke is the new U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said last week that the challenges in those countries are much more difficult than anything the U.S. faced in Iraq or even Vietnam. Our focus this hour is on what success in Afghanistan might look like. What is the U.S. strategy for that country? And we'd like to hear from military personnel and civilians who have served in Afghanistan. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, and our email address is talk@npr.org. Join the conversation at our Web site; go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation.

Tom Bowman is with us; he's NPR's Pentagon reporter. And Tom, I'd like to read an email and you can response to some of the points that are being made here. This is from Matt in Montgomery, Alabama: I served in the Combined Transition and Training Command in Afghanistan in 2006. Success will take the reconstruction of a severely broken nation. Prior to 1976, Afghanistan was a tourist attraction, and not for drug traffickers or Islamic extremists. The 1976 coup, Soviet invasion, civil war and Taliban-ization destroyed a civil order. This will have to be reconstructed through a Marshall Plan that will create a stable society with a moderate level of security.

BOWMAN: You know, I think he's absolutely right that the civil war there, the Soviet occupation destroyed that country, destroyed a lot of its infrastructure, its, you know, ability to grow food and its great agriculture base. It will take a long time and a lot of money to turn that country around. There's absolutely no question about that. And then also, the United States made the deals with the warlords over the years there and some of them are still in power, provincial governors, part of the government of Hamid Karzai, and they were clearly part of the problem back then and they still are. That's another issue - the corruption of the Karzai government and how do you get around that, how do you deal with that. How do you put pressure on all these folks? Do the right thing, and provide services for their people. It's a very, very daunting task.

NEARY: And I hear the phrase Marshall Plan and I hear a lot of money. And I...

BOWMAN: Well, absolutely.

NEARY: And I'm thinking about the amount of money we're already spending on our own...

BOWMAN: Right.

NEARY: Domestic economic problems...

BOWMAN: You know, I talked earlier about what the hope is in the Pentagon is that three to five year bridge, you provide more security, you start building up the country again, but - and then the other side of that bridge, the Afghan security forces take over, or take over to a greater degree. And then you have, you know, non-governmental organizations come in help rebuild the country. But most people I talk with say it's going to be decades to really help this country to a better future.

NEARY: All right. I'd like to bring in another guest now, Rajan Menon joins us now. He is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a fellow at the New American Foundation. He joins us from member station WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Welcome to the program.

Professor RAJAN MENON (International Relations, Lehigh University; Fellow, New American Foundation): Thank you for the invitation.

NEARY: Let me start out by asking you what we've been asking everybody. What do you think success in Afghanistan would look like? What's your idea there?

Prof. MENON: Well, I would agree with the two prior guests. One is I think very few people make the argument, which is the credible one, that democracy is possible. Even if it were possible, we'd have to spend a lot of time in Afghanistan, spend much blood and treasure, and I don't think that's economically or politically feasible, not least because of our economic situation here at home. So, what we have to try to bring about is a minimally functioning government which can do two things - three things actually - keep order, prevent the country from being a platform again for a reconstituted al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates, and thirdly, that is capable of being a conduit for the fruitful use of such economic assistance as the international community can provide it. And I do agree with the person who sent the email, who argued that that is absolutely critical.

Now, the fact is, this kind of a political settlement - and we'll get to this soon, I hope - may see a government in which the Taliban participates, a government that the Taliban actually runs. But the bottom line, for me, is what happens to Afghanistan in terms of our number one priority in that country, which is that it not be constituted as a base floor for terrorism. I think those are the stakes and those are the realistic objectives.

NEARY: All right, I was surprised to hear you say, not only that it might be a government in which the Taliban participates but which the Taliban runs. That seems like a radical concept to me that would be hard for the United States to accept.

Prof. MENON: Well, it's a time for radical ideas. It seems to me that President Obama has very clearly said that military force, although we're ramping it up, cannot be the solution, that there needs to be an overall political solution. There have even been hints from the administration that moderate Taliban - I'm not entirely sure what's meant by that phrase...

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MENON: Will be allowed to participate in this process under appropriate conditions. Now, once you open that door, you then have to reckon with the Taliban that is part of the political process, and down the years, it may have a somewhat larger role than you or I might like, that is certainly a possibility. The question really becomes what then happens, and what can we do to make sure that Afghanistan is not a place from which grievous harm can be done to American lives?

NEARY: And I'm listening to you and I'm thinking, wait, are we going back to the place where we began if the Taliban somehow has a large role in the government. I mean, you're talking about a group of people that have a very rigid belief system, that they're willing to use violence to enforce - you know, we've seen them burning down schools for girls recently in Pakistan. I mean, why...

Prof. MENON: Well...

NEARY: How do you incorporate that kind of group with that kind of belief system into a government that isn't in some way a threat?

Prof. MENON: Well, let me be clear. I'm not cheering for the return of a government run by the Taliban. What I am saying is that if you have a settlement in which even a moderate, pliable, whatever the term of art is, the Taliban are allowed to participate, then you will have to reckon with some role, perhaps a significant role for the Taliban. Now, there are, Lynn, some ideas that I have for making this happen and when it's appropriate, I'll be happy to share them with you.

NEARY: All right. Let's just get one call in here first, and then I want to hear more about that, and you might be able to respond to this listener as well. John from Aspen, Colorado, go ahead.

JOHN (Caller): Hello.

NEARY: Go ahead, John.

JOHN: Yes, I worked in Afghanistan a total of about seven years over the last 35 years. I began as a Peace Corps volunteer there. I'm working now. I'm an assistance professional for various places. I've worked in Central Asia, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan of late. The problem in Afghanistan is that our U.S. approach has been completely dominated by the Department of Defense, that is, it's been a military approach. Our very definition of security in Afghanistan is a military one basically, whereas what Afghans see, and I tell you this from firsthand experience on the ground, from - after meeting with many, many Afghans through local NGOs and through local community groups, that the problem is the definition of security.

The Afghans say, what we want is we want our government to assert itself, the rule of law to implement this democracy that was voted into power. There were very, very high hopes in 2003 through 2005 that this would begin to happen. But by the end of 2006, it was pretty clear that it was not happening. And this was sort of the watershed that started the success of the Taliban, because the Taliban is only successful in Afghanistan because people don't have any options. It's a vacuum. It's a vacuum of leadership. And what the U.S. has not done is engage the Karzai government on a conditional basis and collaborated in programming to change that, to bring effective development and rule of law, anti-corruption, anti-crime, and justice to Afghanistan. Now...

NEARY: All right, John, if I could just interrupt you one moment, I think Tom Bowman is interested in responding to what you're saying.

BOWMAN: Yeah. You raised an absolutely good point there in there's widespread belief that the Karzai government is not providing essential services to its - the folks down in the provinces and districts, real concern about that in Washington. And with these reviews going on now in Washington, they all agree that more has to be done to reach down to the district level, to the province level, work with the tribal chieftains, the local elected officials, try to get them more aid, more government services down there, that's one thing. And there's also an agreement, I think, at the Pentagon and elsewhere that this can't be just a military solution, that you need a lot more civilian government experts in there to help rebuild the country from Department of Agriculture, from Drug Enforcement Administration, and others to go in there and help rebuilt. And clearly with the NATO meetings coming up in the spring, there's going to be a real push from the United States to have NATO send also its civilian experts to help rebuild Afghanistan, as well. But he's spot on with his comment.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for you call, John.

Prof. MENON: Lynn, may I add something else?

NEARY: Yes, go ahead.

Prof. MENON: The problem - I agree with this argument. The problem, however, is the idea of capturing the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, by giving them a decent life, by proving them an economic assistance, by bringing in experts. That is all well and good. But the bottom line is that you cannot do that without some minimal level of stability which is not only not there at present, it is atrophying. Now, the answer seems to me to be that adding more troops will bring that about. A couple of comments about that. Remember that this country in population is 15 percent larger than Iraq; in area, a third larger than Iraq. In areas where the Taliban has been extremely active, in the south and the east traditionally, particularly in the south in the provinces of Helmand, Oruzgan and Kandahar, adding troops has actually not had the desired effect and the Taliban now controls 70 percent of the population. So, the argument is not that military forces should not be used. But as the gentlemen who called, I think emphasized that we need an overarching political settlement which I think the administration recognizes as necessary and is crafting. So, this is a good time to have a discussion about what that settlement might look like.

GROSS: And what do you think that it might look like again?

Prof. MENON: Well, I think several things can be done, six in particular. One is to make a declaration and declarations are important. The United States has no interest in an open ended commitment in Afghanistan to occupy, to cease - to seize and establish bases. And that we would withdraw in some limited timeframe. Let me pick a number, by the end of 2010, if and I emphasize if, there is a political settlement that sticks and that we will help to make that happen. So, that's the first point. The second point is to offer the Taliban a ceasefire as long as they abide by it. Someone who called in earlier or emailed, I don't remember, said the Afghans are weary of war, and goodness knows that's true because they have paid dearly in blood and treasure for a war that's lasted more or less 30 years. This puts the onus on the Taliban for the lack of peace.

Now, if that ceasefire holds, then you have a window of opportunity to convene what the Afghans call a loya jirga. And to devise the kind of system that I think your correspondent was talking about in part, that is settle for a center that is relatively weak. Historically, that's how Afghanistan has been run. Devolve power to the provinces, have governors elected and not appointed. Have a parliamentary system where political parties vie for power. Enable the - such Taliban or all the Taliban if they want to participate, to participate, providing the ceasefire is observed and the ground rules are observed.

NEARY: Rajan, I just - I'm trying to get some callers in here so if you can hold on a moment, I just want to remind our listeners that you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And we're going to take a call now from Mustafa who is calling from Salt Lake City. Hi, Mustafa. Go ahead.

MUSTAFA (Caller): Hello, ma'am. How are you?

NEARY: Good. Thanks.

MUSTAFA: Good. One, I agree with Tom and John, with both of them, and also that participant that who is talking about Afghanistan and compromising to moderate Taliban. Believe it or not, Taliban is a very, very little minority, that they are not important at all. But what are people disenchanted - that's with the level of corruption, the quickening of the occupation of our forces in Afghanistan. The amount of corruption - that's really made people very upset because we have been supporting all these warlord instead of building the infrastructure, building the economy, when Afghanistan is not a poor country.

This is so misunderstood. They have very good reserves of gas. They have wonderful mining opportunities and a lot of other things. And the other thing is education; we have not contributed to the education of that country at all. So, what are people are looking at - they are looking at another forces coming into their land and destroying whatever they have. They have nothing but itself being destroyed and now they are completely left in rubbles. That is the problem. We got to completely change our view of how we are going to reverse that country. It is not going to be a military solution, no way. I think if we got to help to rebuild the interest structure of that country. We got to go start helping building the schools, hospitals, and housing in that country....

NEARY: All right, Mustafa. Let me ask Rajan to respond to you quickly. Thanks so much for you call.

MUSTAFA: Thank you.

Prof. MENON: I agree with the caller completely. I would just add very quickly, Lynn, and I'll be quick about this, just a couple of more pieces of this. Fourth, I think President Obama has said this, you need a regional conference that involves India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia. All of them for different reasons, we don't have time to get into this, have a reason to see Afghanistan not fall apart, not become a terrorist haven. Fifth, you need a pledge from the regional participants and the United States that as long as the governments of Afghanistan do not allow it to become a terrorist haven, there will be no attempt to intervene or invade the country. Sixth and finally, the United States cannot carry the burden of any kind of Marshall Plan. That's not on the cards for reasons we know well. You need to form an international consortium with wide participation, not just by the West, but by a whole host of countries which over a long period of time, if the security situation holds and if the pledge to not allow terrorism to take route holds, funnels in money and appropriate specialists to make that money work. Now, is this plan a fool proof? Absolutely not, but I don't think that it takes anything that we're doing now off the table, but if what we're doing now does not work, there had better be a plan B.

NEARY: All right, Tom Bowman, in the time left, you've been listening to what Rajan has had to say, but also I'd like you to address what the listener called in about, and that is this concern about corruption and the need to rebuild the infrastructure of this country.

BOWMAN: Oh, there's a widespread concern about corruption in the Karzai government. And I think one way they're going to try to get around that is to work at the local level providing funds in expertise to work with the tribal leaders and the local elected officials who try to rebuild from the bottom up. And also work with some of the tribal elements, they're talking about creating sort of a community watch kind of program, similar to what you saw in Iraq with the Sons of Iraq program that would provide security. The U.S. would provide equipment, not weapons they say, but transportation, radios, that kind of communication equipment. But clearly, a lot more money is going to be needed. I'm not sure if they will be a Marshall Plan. I don't think anyone has that kind of money today. But clearly a lot more money from the United States, and they're going to try to get more money from the NATO countries and other countries, and also, importantly, civilian expertise.

NEARY: All right. Tom, thank so much for being with us. Tom Bowman is NPR's Pentagon correspondent and thanks also to Rajan Menon. He teaches international relations at Lehigh University. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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