Next President Faces Growing Crisis In Afghanistan When a new administration takes over in January, it will face challenging and overlapping problems in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, two countries that are critical to U.S. national security. The conflict in Afghanistan, once called "the forgotten war," has been escalating in recent months.
NPR logo

Next President Faces Growing Crisis In Afghanistan

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Next President Faces Growing Crisis In Afghanistan

Next President Faces Growing Crisis In Afghanistan

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


From NPR News this is All Things Considered, I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. When a new administration takes office in January, they will inherit the overlapping challenges of Afghanistan and Pakistan. All this week, we've been examining the conflicts in those two countries, which are critical to US national security concerns. In our final story, NPR's Jackie Northam reports on what options the next president will have to reverse the deteriorating situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

JACKIE NORTHAM: It wasn't so long ago - just over a year or so - that Afghanistan was considered the forgotten war. The White House and the Pentagon were focused on Iraq. While things started to stabilize there, the situation in Afghanistan steadily deteriorated. The Taliban have grown in strength and numbers, attacks on American and NATO troops have soared, and US intelligence agencies say unless there are major changes the situation will continue a downward spiral. When a new president takes office in January, he will face a stark reality. Laid out recently in congressional testimony by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chief of Staffs): I'm not convinced we're winning in Afghanistan. I am convinced we can.

NORTHAM: Over the centuries, no invader has ever succeeded in Afghanistan, whether it be the Soviets in the 1980s, the British in the 1800s or Iran and India in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Bush administration in its final months in power is developing a new strategy for Afghanistan, and has ordered some 8,000 additional troops - which falls well short of what senior US commanders in Afghanistan are asking for. Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says he is not surprised the commanders are being shortchanged.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): We have never put significant resources into this war. Every year we haven't met the requirements from the ambassador, from the field commander. We have let the Taliban grow in power without providing anything like the resources we provided in Iraq.

NORTHAM: Like many others, Cordesman says the long-term solution will require more than just military action. Republican presidential candidate John McCain places hope in General David Petraeus, who, as the next head of US Central Command, will oversee operations in Afghanistan. Petraeus is credited with turning around the situation in Iraq, in part by paying local militia to provide security. In the second presidential debate, McCain indicated he hoped Petraeus would have success in Afghanistan by using the same method.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): The same fundamental strategy that succeeded in Iraq - and that is to get the support of the people.

NORTHAM: During the debate, Barack Obama, said the US would have to stem the flourishing Afghan opium trade, which supplies millions of dollars annually to the Taliban. And, Obama said, Washington needs to press the government of President Hamid Karzai to rein in corruption and help the people of Afghanistan.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): We have to have a government that is responsive to the Afghan people, and frankly, it's just not responsive right now.

NORTHAM: But there hasn't been a strong central government in Afghanistan's recent history. Bob Grenier, the CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1999 to 2002, says the US may have to abandon the idea of creating one, and start dealing with tribal leaders on a local level.

Mr. BOB GRENIER (Station Chief, Central Intelligence Agency): It's going to require a lot of engagement in very small, godforsaken places under the ground, but I think we need to empower local leaders, and that's going to mean arming and equipping, and trying somehow to lead local village defense forces or the local equivalent.

NORTHAM: Grenier says it's important to build up local forces in the Pashtun area along the border with Pakistan. Bruce Riedel spent nearly three decades in counterterrorism at the CIA. He says if a new administration wants to succeed in Afghanistan, it must be with the cooperation of Pakistan. But Riedel says, that may not be easy.

Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Former Officer, Central Intelligence Agency): Pakistan is an incredibly complex country, and Pakistani politics are full of contradictions, conspiracies and slights of hand.

NORTHAM: Riedel says the next US president needs to make it clear to Pakistan's new government that those days are over.

Mr. RIEDEL: One of the things he needs to convey to Islamabad is that the time for double-dealing is over. You need to be on one side of the war on terror - our side or their side.

NORTHAM: Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari, is considered pro-American. There's been a shake up at the country's powerful intelligence agency, and the military there has launched an offensive into a Taliban stronghold along the Afghan border. For its part, the US has stepped up attacks on suspected Taliban hideouts using unmanned Predator aircraft. Recently, President Bush authorized US Special Forces to launch raids on Pakistani soil. Bob Grenier says that is a dangerous turn of events.

Mr. GRENIER: Essentially, we are starting a fight that we can't finish. Because we are generating far more radicalism, we are motivating more people to fight against us and to fight against the Pakistani government.

NORTHAM: A new administration will have to somehow balance long-term goals with a need for immediate action in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. When it assumes office, it will be walking into the middle of a crisis. And whoever is in charge won't have the traditional six to nine months to assess a situation and draw up a policy for what is no longer the forgotten war. Jackie Northam, NPR News Washington.

Copyright © 2008 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.