In Afghanistan, 'New Spirit' To Confront The Taliban Retired Army Col. John Nagl, an expert on counterinsurgency, says he saw a new U.S. determination to stamp out the insurgent Taliban when he visited Afghanistan this month. He says the U.S. 'can win this war' if military commander Gen. David McKiernan gets the resources he needs.

In Afghanistan, 'New Spirit' To Confront The Taliban

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This week we're airing a series of interviews about Afghanistan and U.S. policy there. Yesterday we heard from former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes. She now runs a cooperative business in southern Afghanistan where they've seen a strong resurgence of the Taliban. Today, we'll hear from retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, an expert on counterinsurgency. He's now with a think tank, the Center for a New American Security, and he's just back from a weeklong trip to Afghanistan. He was invited there by the top U.S. military commander in the country, General David McKiernan. This was his second trip to Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN NAGL (Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security; U.S. Army, Retired): There's a new spirit, I think, in Afghanistan. I was there last February, February of '07, and I was struck by a very uneven application of counterinsurgency principles on the ground. Since then, a number of things have changed. They've established a counterinsurgency academy, which we got to visit on this trip. And they train both Americans and Afghans and all of the members of the ISAF coalition in the principles of counterinsurgency.

General McKiernan - also a great grasp of counterinsurgency, a real sense of energy. And he has asked when he agreed to take the job to stay there for two years to really see some things through. So I'm cautious - I'm much more optimistic about Afghanistan than I was two weeks ago, before I headed over there. I'm certainly far more optimistic than I was last year when I was there.

BLOCK: I'm surprised to hear you say that because what we hear is that the Taliban are gaining more and more control of more territory, gaining more power, more and more acts of violence. You seem to be saying things are on a different trajectory?

Lt. Col. NAGL: No. It's - I'm looking into the future. So I absolutely agree that right now we're in a stalemate. And in a counterinsurgency campaign, if the counterinsurgent is not winning, then he's losing. So I don't think we're winning right now, but I think that we can win this war. The question is going to be whether we in the United States, our allies around the world can give the team that's on the ground in Afghanistan right now - a good team - whether we can give them what they need to accomplish this job.

BLOCK: And how many more troops do you think it would take to do that?

Lt. Col. NAGL: Yeah, we're currently order of magnitude 30,000 American troops in Afghanistan. I think we probably need to double that. The Afghan National Army is about 70,000 right now. Secretary of Defense Gates made the correct decision, I think, earlier this year to double that. I think we may need to double it again. I think the total number of Afghan National Army soldiers we need is probably closer to two hundred or two hundred and fifty thousand against the 70,000 we have right now. And I think that under a new administration, under this new leadership we have on the ground in Afghanistan and at central command with General Petraeus, that sort of commitment applied according to classic counterinsurgency principles, I really think we can win this thing.

BLOCK: You're talking about 30,000 more troops. Barack Obama has talked about sending more troops, but he hasn't talked about that many.

Lt. Col. NAGL: And it's not clear to me that we have that many. Frankly the army isn't big enough for the wars that we're asking it to fight right now. And this is, I think, a fundamental mistake we've made since September 11. We fought two long wars, two protracted wars, but we have not mobilized the United States for war. And I think there's a wonderful opportunity and also a necessity, I'm afraid, for the new administration to call on the nation for an additional spirit of sacrifice and an additional spirit of service.

BLOCK: You fought in Anbar province in Iraq back in 2004. And since then there's been a dramatic turnaround. Sunni insurgents who were fighting the U.S. are now our allies. It's a program called The Awakening. And there's a real question about whether that provides a model for something that could work in Afghanistan. What do you think?

Lt. Col. NAGL: The Awakening, also sometimes called the Sons of Iraq. And there's a real question about whether we can develop a Sons of Afghanistan program in Afghanistan. And I think the answer is probably. I think of an insurgency as an onion. In the hard, sharp core of the onion, those are people who are motivated by ideology, and frankly have to be killed or captured. But as you go outside the onion, as you get to the outer layers of the onion, the insurgents are less and less committed, and in many cases they're driven purely by economic motives.

And those - you can peel those folks away, the small-t Taliban. And I believe that some form of expanded reconciliation program that offers them inducements, the possibility of jobs, as we gave to the Sons of Iraq - under the Awakening program many of them became security guards, security providers. Some of them provided security for me in the Doura market this past August when I was there. That sort of program offers real potential to - not to defeat the Taliban-based insurgency, but to whittle it away. And these wars are won slowly, one insurgent at a time, one cup of tea at a time.

BLOCK: Well, John Nagl, thanks very much for talking with us.

Lt. Col. NAGL: I enjoyed talking to you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, now with the Center for a New American Security. He just returned from a trip to Afghanistan.

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