As Obama Mulls Afghan Decision, A Look Ahead President Obama is expected to announce his decision on troop levels in Afghanistan this week. When the president takes the podium at West Point on Tuesday, he'll draw not only from America's experience at war in Afghanistan, but from the Soviet Union's as well. Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution talks to guest host Robert Smith about the president's deliberations. Riedel served as a CIA agent in the region under now-Defense Secretary Robert Gates; he also chaired the first Afghan policy review completed this spring

As Obama Mulls Afghan Decision, A Look Ahead

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Welcome to the program.

BRUCE RIEDEL: Thanks. Great to be with you.

SMITH: So a lot has happened in Afghanistan since the spring. What's changed in the months since that first review?

RIEDEL: President Obama inherited a disaster from his predecessor, and it's gotten even worse over the last six months.

SMITH: Well, it's one thing to place blame, but this is now in Barack Obama's lap, and so he needs to announce a number, that's what people are looking for, on Tuesday. In your opinion, how many troops does he need to do the job, and have the goals of that job changed?

RIEDEL: I'm not a military expert, and I don't have all the intelligence that's available to the White House and the Pentagon, but I think General McChrystal probably has it about right. We need somewhere in the realm of 35 to 40,000 more troops, whose principal responsibility will be to protect population centers while we build up the Afghan army and the Afghan police so that they can take over the mission as quickly as possible.

SMITH: You were quoted in the Wall Street Journal with an interesting concept. You said America is in the rare position of fighting the same war twice in one generation from opposite sides. How does that affect how the U.S. fights the war now?

RIEDEL: Now, we find ourselves in the position of being the army trying to bring an end to an insurgency in Kabul and Kandahar and the other cites of Afghanistan. One thing we know from that is that as long as you have a safe haven next door in Pakistan, it's very, very difficult for the army operating in Afghanistan to succeed.

SMITH: Well, you mentioned Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was a CIA officer in the 1980s, correct?

RIEDEL: That's correct.

SMITH: Now, of course, he's in the administration. So, what did he learn, and what did this administration learn from the Soviet example? I mean, Mikhail Gorbachev had to grapple with a similar choice in 1985, whether to put in more troops and escalate the war in Afghanistan.

RIEDEL: We face something very different, an uprising by the Pashtun minority in the south and east of the country. The Taliban has always been a movement that appeals only to Pashtuns. The other 60 percent of Afghans are not interested in seeing a return of the Taliban. That's a significant advantage we have that the Soviets did not have.

SMITH: But with the political situation in Afghanistan, does that make a difference on the ground, having 60 percent support?

RIEDEL: When the president announced in March that he intended to fully resource this effort, most Afghans said, finally, finally, the Americans are getting serious about this. If the president comes out this week and says he's prepared to put the resources, men and money into this, I think he's going to find an Afghan partner that wants to work with us. That's a significant advantage that the Soviets never had.

SMITH: Thanks for joining us.

RIEDEL: Thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.