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Yesterday President Obama sought to reassure a jittery public that the U.S. government can meet its deficit challenge and that in Afghanistan, ‘we will press on and we will succeed.’ Last Saturday, 30 American troops died when their helicopter was shot down in an area not far from Kabul. Seven Afghan soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were also killed. It was the largest loss in a single day for the American military in Afghanistan since the war began nearly a decade ago, and it highlights the risks of our current strategy. Join us for a discussion on the new questions about U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
- Thom Shanker Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times.
- Paul Pillar Director, graduate studies at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former CIA National Intelligence officer
- Commander Anthony O'Brien Former Navy Seal, retired Lt Commander
- Lawrence Korb Senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. U.S. forces are continuing their investigation into the crash of an American helicopter in Afghanistan on Saturday. Thirty American troops were killed, the largest one-day loss of life since the war began. Joining me to talk about the tragedy and its potential impact on U.S. policy in Afghanistan: Thom Shanker, he -- pardon me -- he is Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, Paul Pillar of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining us by phone from Plymouth, Mass., Anthony O'Brien. He's former Navy SEAL lieutenant commander. And we will be taking your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MR. THOM SHANKERGood morning, Diane.
MR. PAUL PILLARGood morning, Diane.
MR. ANTHONY O'BRIENGood morning, Diane.
REHMThom Shanker, if I could start with you, give us an update on the investigation.
SHANKERRight. Of course. Always an honor to be on your show, Diane. Thank you.
SHANKERThe investigation was really slowed initially. This is a very rugged part of Afghanistan. And after a catastrophe like this for a very large vehicle and a lot of people, just removing the pieces and clearing the site, both to show dignity to those who passed and for investigative purposes, really took a lot of time. So the investigation is really moving into its serious phase today even as we speak. It appears pretty certain that it was a rocket-propelled grenade that brought it down.
SHANKERJust -- the military is calling it a lucky shot. These helicopters fly all over Afghanistan. But the Chinook is large. And while it's very quick and can carry a lot troops in landing and taking off, it's slow and loud and hot.
REHMAnd it becomes thereby an easy target.
SHANKERThat's right. Even at night when these missions are carried out -- that's why they're called the night raids -- these helicopters are silhouetted against the sky. You know, the powerful engines glow. And, also, when you think about a helicopter descending or ascending in a valley, even though it may be safe, if an insurgent or a militant is on the side of that valley, well, he comes just sort of eye to eye with the pilot at some point during the mission. That appears to be what happened here, although the investigation is still under way.
REHMWas this mission at all out of the ordinary?
SHANKERNot at all. There are questions already being raised about why one of the most elite SEAL counterterrorism units was sent on this mission. But nonetheless, there was a group of Rangers on the ground going after the leader of a militant IED in attack cell. They got in trouble. They called for help. That's what the SEALs do. But this is what they do many times a night. I did some reporting after the successful SEAL mission that killed Osama bin Laden. That got all the publicity.
SHANKERBut on the Afghan side of the border, that very night, there were two dozen other counterterrorism missions going on. So the pace, the tempo of these raids, Diane, are sort of unimaginable. They're kept in the secret, of course. So this was not unusual at all. It was just a very unusual and tragic ending.
REHMThom Shanker, he is a reporter for The New York Times and author of the forthcoming book "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda." Do join us, 800-433-8850. And to you, Anthony O'Brien, I'd be interested in your response to the questions now being raised about whether this particular target merited risking so many of our elite troops.
O'BRIENWell, it's an interesting question. And good morning to Thom and Paul and Mr. Secretary as well. It's an interesting question. I don't wanna second-guess the commanders on the ground. Certainly, if you've got a unit that's pinned down and they need some help, I'm gonna guess that the reason why they would bring in an asset like the Navy SEALs is because it was a very dangerous and risky mission, and they needed some urgent help. They were available in the area.
O'BRIENAnd so, you know, I'm not gonna second-guess what the commanders are deciding on the ground for that particular operation. Obviously, we have to take the good with the bad. The Afghanis have shown to be, for many, many decades, if not longer, to be very formidable opponents, and they're not gonna give up their country. And certainly when you add the recent Taliban element to it as well, it complicates things quite a bit. I'm not on active duty anymore, so my questions are more for our administration.
O'BRIENAnd issues like, you know, is this winnable? What are our objectives? What's the plan, locally, regionally, the measurable, the end state? Obviously, now that I'm retired, I can ask those questions that I couldn't ask publicly on -- with regards to our policies there.
REHMAnthony O'Brien, former Navy SEAL lieutenant commander. Turning to you, Paul Pillar. Is this incident, in your mind, likely to affect the pace of operations by the SEALs, either to increase or decrease their activities?
PILLARNo, I don't think it will. This is a, on its own right, a highly significant event. Thirty of our very brave warriors lost their lives along with eight Afghans, and we need to reflect on the sacrifice that they and their loved ones have made here. But in terms of the operational strategy, and more specifically the pace and amount of operations by the SEALs, no, it will not affect it. As Tom described, the hazards have been well-known for quite some time with these heliborne operations.
PILLARThe Pentagon spokesman described this as a one-off that would not affect decisions about continuing to conduct these operations. And I expect that will be the case.
REHMWhat about the Ranger team that was in place that the SEALs and others were going to rescue, Thom Shanker?
SHANKERThe details are still emerging, but appears to have been a mission by the Rangers or the elite light infantry, also part of the special operations community, going after an insurgent leader in the Tangi Valley of Wardak province. It's a very hostile area, west of Kabul. His network, his cell have been responsible for a number of IEDs and for a number of attacks on coalition forces.
SHANKERThey were trying expand the militant territory, take ground, and so the decision was made to go after him. And that Ranger group apparently got into a little trouble. Although all of them successfully completed the mission and none of them were killed. But, of course, at some point during the fight, they called for a quick reaction force, that was the SEALs and the resulting tragedy.
REHMCan you talk a little bit, Thom, about the overall role of the special forces in Afghanistan?
SHANKERRight. That's a great question, Diane. They have a continuum of effort. The Special Forces normally known as the Green Berets do a lot of what's called foreign internal defense. They are working with local Afghans to build their capability, the Afghan local police force, those sorts of things to help the Afghan stand up on their own feet. At the other extreme are the highly kinetic, the highly active, the highly lethal counterterrorism units, like the SEALs, like the Rangers, who really just do the attack piece of the mission.
SHANKERThey go after the networks to take out the financiers, the cell leaders, the bomb-making factories. And the elite SEAL unit that did the bin Laden raid, the one that was wiped out in the tragedy on Saturday, they go after high-value targets, the most critically essential targets identified my military intelligence.
REHMSo if you were looking at that Team Six that did go after Osama bin Laden, there were members of Team Six then aboard this helicopter not necessarily the same who went after bin Laden. On the other hand, did the insurgents not claim that this was in retaliation for the killing of Osama bin Laden, Paul Pillar?
PILLARThe likes of the Taliban as well as terrorist groups commonly claim whatever they can plausibly claim, or even not so plausibly claim. And I doubt very much that they were aware at the time, including whoever fired the rocket-propelled grenade, exactly who was in that chopper. But after it became known that SEAL Team Six personnel were involved, the obvious propaganda point for the Taliban to score was to claim and for others to claim that this was retaliation for the raid against bin Laden.
REHMWhat lessons do you think we should draw from this tragedy?
SHANKERI think the larger issues that Anthony O'Brien correctly mentioned, getting above the questions of trying to second guess commanders on the ground and operational strategy, but really stepping back and asking, what is this doing to help make Americans more secure? It punctuates the cause, it underscores the cause the we have been sustaining when we lose 30 of our finest in one incident.
SHANKERAnd we have to ask ourselves, is this the kind of cause that we want to continue to sustain in return for what benefit? And given that what we are fighting here is a Taliban that is basically an indigenous guerilla group, not an international transnational terrorist group. I think it's appropriate to be skeptical, whether or not we had this particular incident with the helicopter, about whether this is a cost-effective endeavor.
REHMAnthony O'Brien, do you want to comment?
O'BRIENYes, I just wanted to add that, you know, that those are the questions that actually, as far as my study shows, a majority of Americans have been asking those questions and not just in the last few months. These are some of the questions actually that were -- that, you know, were factors that helped the president get elected in 2008.
O'BRIENAnd now, of course, since the surge, it's his operation and that's fine. But I think that the majority of Americans, in fact a large majority are asking these questions, and is it winnable? What are the objectives? What's the plan that measures the instinct? We need...
REHMAll right. Anthony O'Brien, former Navy SEAL, lieutenant commander. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd, of course, we are talking about the tragedy in Afghanistan in -- on Saturday. Thirty American troops were killed, and that was the largest one-day U.S. loss of life since the war began. Here in the studio are Thom Shanker, Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times. He's co-author of a new book coming out on Tuesday, its title "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
REHMHere in the studio also is Paul Pillar. He is director of graduate studies at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University. He is a former CIA national intelligence officer. On the line with us is Anthony O'Brien, former Navy SEAL lieutenant commander. And joining us now by phone from Lewes, Del., is Lawrence Korb. He's senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Good morning to you, Larry.
MR. LAWRENCE KORBGood morning, Diane, and good morning to the rest of your panel.
O'BRIENGood morning, sir.
REHMTell me, to what extent do you believe the tragedy in Afghanistan last Saturday is going to galvanize public opinion on efforts to withdraw from Afghanistan more quickly?
KORBWell, I think it's going to be almost -- and I know no analogy is perfect, but kind of like a Tet moment where people will focus on this because, up until 2007, Afghanistan had been the forgotten front. But in the last year, particularly as our, you know, economic crisis has not seemed to get any better, people have been focusing on it because of the money that we're spending, they are -- I think Paul mentioned something about it before.
KORBWe're spending about $2 billion a month, you know, $2 billion a week there. And I think, you know, you had a vote in the House last year. You had 214 members say, you know, let's get out more quickly. And then you had two Democrats and a Republican senator writing an op-ed in The New York Times, pretty much saying the same thing. And I think what will happen is people are gonna take a look.
KORBAnd if you take a look at where this happened, we used to occupy this, then we left even at the height of the surge, and, of course, then we went back in. And that shows, even with the, you know, the top level of the troops that you have now, that you can't secure the, you know, the whole country, and there's no way we're gonna be sending more troops.
REHMSo, realistically, even if you do not send more troops, how much more quickly do you think withdrawal from Afghanistan could actually be accomplished?
KORBWell, I think the administration is not going to do it. In fact, I was very disappointed yesterday when Secretary of Defense Panetta said, you know, we're there to defeat al-Qaida. No, we're not. When he was at the CIA, he said there's hardly any of them, you know, left there, and, of course, we got bin Laden. I think you may see the Congress and maybe even as part of this deficit commission, you know, push -- or the deficit super panel, as they call it -- push to, you know, cut down more rapidly.
KORBThe president has talked about kind of, you know, getting the troops out by the end of next year. I think you may see that even accelerate. And what I would hope -- and many of us have been urging this for a while -- we should have started negotiating, get a third party to negotiate with the Taliban, you know, when we had our maximum amount of forces there.
REHMPaul Pillar, what do you think about this, as Larry has said, this deficit super panel cutting back on the amounts of money going into the war in Afghanistan? Will that hasten our withdrawal?
PILLARWell, all these things are obviously connected, and I'm sure the administration, as well as leaders in Congress, are thinking in precisely those terms. You know, one of the unfortunate and almost embarrassing things about budgetary practices we've had over these last several years is the way that the war expenditures -- most notably for Iraq, but also for Afghanistan -- have not been grouped with the sort of so-called core Pentagon budget, but they've been made a separate item.
PILLARAnd so a lot of the debate and discussion about defense expenditures has been well off the mark because they have not taken into account the fact that the war expenditures have been over...
REHMOff the books.
PILLAROff -- basically off the books in terms of core defense spending. So it's a big factor. And I trust and I hope that the super committee will bear this very much in mind as they work their numbers.
REHMLarry Korb, what will we have accomplished when we finally make an exit?
KORBWell, I think, you know, basically we, you know, have made it clear that, you know, al-Qaida can't come back there, and, of course, we used our bases in Afghanistan to get bin Laden. But in terms of what it will be like for Afghanistan, you know, 10 years from now, I don't -- I think things will be somewhat better because when we were there as part of this commission that Brahimi and Pickering put together -- you know, Brahimi, who's the guy who negotiated the Bonn Agreement.
KORBAnd we met with, you know, a lot of the Taliban leaders. Their position is, yeah, we wanna come back, but we're not gonna "be as bad as we were the last time," you know? So I think what you will end up with is kind of an arrangement where, you know, the Taliban will have some control in the southern part of the country. But they're not gonna make the mistake of, you know, allowing it to be a haven for al-Qaida again 'cause they know that's what got them driven out the first time.
SHANKERYeah. I think, you know, Larry and Paul have perfectly described the geostrategic questions there. I just returned from Afghanistan last Tuesday. And when you talk to commanders on the ground, they're all very, you know, positive and gung ho, but nobody uses the word victory or success anymore. The new phrase you keep hearing is Afghan good enough, and I think that's what they're looking for to come out of this.
SHANKERAnd to Paul's very good point about the budget, even though, Diane, we're here to talk about Afghanistan today, I think the American people have to realize that whether the budget cuts are 400 billion or more than that, we are very quickly getting to a point where the American military will not have the money to carry out the strategy on paper today. And no one is beginning to ask the questions, what won't the military do? Where won't it patrol? What parts of the world do we not care about? What parts of our security do we have to push through to another day?
REHMAnthony O'Brien, I wanna bring you back into this because the training of SEALs, as I understand it, is some two years in the making. Give us an idea of what goes into that training and the cost thereof per person.
O'BRIENWell, yes, ma'am. It -- of course, your average SEAL is your average American coming out of high school or college from all over the country. They go through this very demanding and challenging course. They're obviously people that seek a challenge and are very patriotic and wanna be one of the best of the best. But we also realized that we're only one member of a team.
O'BRIENWe lost some Army soldiers in that helicopter incident on Saturday, and we need to remember them and the SEALs in our prayers and thoughts. But the amount of training they go through, your timetable is about right, and it's probably whatever X number of thousands of dollars. And that's not to say that that's wasted in any way in the situation like this because we're gonna obviously pick ourselves back up and continue the mission.
O'BRIENBut, again, for me, I like the geopolitical conversation that the secretary and Thom and Paul are having because, you know, you look at Afghanistan. And one of the biggest questions I have before I get into any fight -- and if the fight is a good fight, tell me where and when and I'll be there. But the Soviets had tank divisions in that area for over a decade, and they couldn't make a dent because the Afghanis in that terrain are very, very tough.
O'BRIENWe have 150,000 folks or so, and a lot of them are on horseback, and it's a very, very challenging area. And, again, is it winnable? Is al-Qaida not there? The secretary mentioned that. What about the Taliban? The oppression of women continues. Opium. The village chiefs. The president, Karzai himself, is corrupted. And so you've got a multidimensional, complicated problem here, and -- but we definitely got to start addressing it and start looking at it in bigger terms.
REHMAll right. And here's an email from Morgan, who says, "First, I want to know if a Stinger missile that the U.S. government handed out to the Taliban in the 1980s brought down this chopper." Do we know the answer, Thom?
SHANKERWe don't know the answer yet. The early indications are that it was a rocket-propelled grenade. The Stinger scenario is out there on the Internet, of course, but there's no evidence pointing in that direction right now.
REHMAnd Morgan goes on to say, at first, the news report said a rocket-propelled grenade was used and sounds unlikely. Now, today, I read a report stating a more modern weapon was used. Do we know anything about that, Larry Korb?
KORBWell, it's interesting, and I was in government when we had this big debate about whether we should have given the stingers to the mujahedeen, you know, who were then fighting the Soviets. And our military was unanimous against it because they were afraid these would fall into the wrong hands. So, you know, we don't know. But, obviously, if these things are out there, that is a whole different situation because these are the, you know, these are much more lethal than, you know, a rocket-propelled grenade.
REHMAll right. Larry, can you stay on the line with us?
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Traverse City, Mich. Good morning, Josh. You're on the air.
JOSHGood morning. I just had -- wanted to comment on, and you guys have touched on it somewhat since I got on the line, but just -- I believe that for President Obama, it's just really critical that he does not make the same mistake that President Bush did with Iraq and just -- and being real with the American people in saying that, you know, we realize this is not what we wanted it to be, and being kind of man enough to say, you know, I was wrong a little bit.
JOSHAnd I think that's what hurt President Bush so badly, is everybody saw almost in arrogance, that he took us for idiots, you know? We can see what's going. There's no weapons of mass destruction. The countries aren't ready to change. You just mentioned, you know, the oppression of women and things like that. You know, people in countries, they change when they're ready to change. And I just really think it's -- he seems to be making almost the same mistake that President Bush did.
KORBWell, I think the caller's right. Now, Obama can't and, right now, look like he's caving in to the pressure. But I do think, you know, he has already started his withdrawal. And I think what he needs to do is accelerate that and then appoint a special envoy, not an American, get someone -- a Turk, for example -- to begin negotiations, you know, how this, you know, how this ends and what kind of situation we're gonna leave behind. But I think he's right. The last thing you wanna do is say, well, you know, we're gonna send more troops, you know, right now.
PILLARI agree with Larry's comment. And I just wanted to add, I would question, somewhat, the parallel that was drawn quite so tightly between the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war because there are -- I think it's fair to say that the Iraq war was a mistake from the beginning.
PILLARWhereas Operation Enduring Freedom, our military intervention into the ongoing Afghanistan civil war, was, in my view and I think the view still of most of the American people, a just response back in 2001 to the 9/11 terrorist outrage, which was committed by a group that, at that time, was resident in Afghanistan as a guest to the Taliban.
PILLARBut 10 years almost have gone by, and the issue is not whether it was a mistake in the first place but rather how has the mission creep in such a way that we're now trying to build a democratic society that's never really had one before. So the two wars are really different.
REHMPaul Pillar of Georgetown University. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go now to Knoxville, Tenn. Good morning, Don. You're on the air.
DONI just wanted to comment real quick. Any time you have generals on the air and they're pressured to give some reasons why we're in this war in Afghanistan, they always fall back to a main reason being women's rights, so girls can go to school, you know, for all the Taliban oppression. And I was just wondering if your panelists thought that that was really a legitimate reason, that we should have our military spending billions of dollars a year in this country to fight for women's rights.
O'BRIENI agree with the caller's premise. The primary reason why you engage the military at the strategic level is for the national security interest of the United States of America. And as much as I'm a fighter for the rights of women, it is -- it's not our duty in the military, primarily, to protect the women or stop drug trades, et cetera. However, the president is the boss, and he calls the shots.
O'BRIENAnd if -- whether it be President Bush or President Obama, when they tell us where to go and when, we give a snappy salute, and we do what we're told. But -- and, fortunately, we can discuss these things after retirement. And that's a -- so it's an honor to be with you to do so.
REHMThank you. Thom Shanker.
SHANKERWell, I just want to give Anthony a snappy salute 'cause his answer is perfect. I mean, we hear so often these conversations among civilians: why are we there, I don't want us there or the opposite, we should be there. The military does not assign itself these missions. They follow the orders of the elected civilian leadership who are representing, Diane, your caller and everybody else. So that is where the responsibility for these decisions resides at the end of the day.
REHMAll right. And to San Antonio, Texas. Joyce, you're on the air.
JOYCEGood morning. I just wanted to ask about the leadership ability, because as a person who has been in leadership for a long time, you never put all of your assets on one flight. You never use older technology than those assets are worth. And it sounds like the way we did it made no sense. At least, in the business world, we learned not to put a ton of assets in harm's way on one bad technology that could be seen. And that's not even war. This is war.
REHMAll right. Larry Korb.
KORBWell, I think that you have -- and go back to, you know, the point that Thom made. You've got to do, you know, the civilian leaders should do a cost-benefit analysis. And what happened is, as Paul mentioned, we went in there after 9/11, which was the right thing to do. But then we just kept on doing it and not thinking about it. And, of course, we diverted our attention to Iraq. Many people argue we could have finished the job back then. We didn't. The Taliban offered to negotiate with Karzai back in 2001 and we said no.
KORBThe Bush administration said no, you can't. President Bush used to get these reports on Afghanistan for what we know from, you know, Thom's colleague's book, you know, called, you know, "The Inheritance," David Sanger's book, and all he would ask about is how many women are going to school. And, you know, obviously, that's a good thing that you'd want, but that's not why you're, you know, waging this war.
KORBAnd I think what happened, President Obama during the campaign said, well, you know, I didn't think Iraq was a right war. We didn't pay attention to Afghanistan, so I'm gonna put more troops in there. Well, he did in early 2009. And then, of course, the military said, well, if you really wanna do the job, we need even more. Then, of course, you ended up, you know, basically tripling the number of troops.
REHMBut I think, Thom Shanker, our caller is also asking why were so many people on one helicopter.
SHANKERRight. And it really is a great question, whether as a business model or a tactical question for the military. We don't know enough about the mission. The Chinook helicopter is faster than the Black Hawk. It can carry more people. It can go higher. So it might have been the best piece of equipment for the mission, Diane.
REHMThom Shanker of The New York Times. Short break. Right back.
REHMAnd we're back talking about the tragedy that occurred on Saturday when a U.S. helicopter carrying some 30 U.S. personnel plus Afghan soldiers and a translator were shot down in Kabul. And President Obama is heading to Dover to view the returning bodies of servicemen killed on Saturday. Here's an email question from Jerry, who says, "Usually, elite teams like SEALs are flown by very special army aviators. These SEALs were flown by a group of the Kansas National Guard.
REHMWhy didn't they use the Night Stalkers of the 160th, the ones that flew the bin Laden mission? I'm sure the Kansas pilot was good, but they are not comparable to the Night Stalker pilots, especially for night direct-action missions like these. It just seems like the night vision time, they aren't as good." What about that? To you, Anthony?
O'BRIENHmm. It's a good question, and you're starting to get into an area of classified information that makes me a little uncomfortable, so I can't kick with too many of the details. But, again, we're kind of questioning the tactical level, the commander on the ground, what resources are used and why are they using them and if that's appropriate or not. And, you know, unless you're in that person's situation, it's tricky to do that.
O'BRIENI mean, I could sit in my living room in Boston and talk about that. But really, I think what folks need to focus on is less the tactical level. And trust me, these folks in leadership at the tactical level, they know what they're doing. And 99 times out of 100, they're making great calls. I really think that the higher level of attention needs to be on the policies, as the secretary said, the cost-benefit analysis of what we're doing over there, what's the threat there, what's the threat here. The Afghanis don't want us there.
O'BRIENThey mostly, you know, what they're getting -- benefit from us is our money over there. It's so difficult to win a politically correct war. We're trying to do that. And again, I think the key questions are, are the objectives achievable? Your previous caller had asked about the, you know, the tactical spread of the forces, the distribution of forces, having so many guys on one aircraft. I think that's a reasonable question and analysis and might be one of the big lessons learned that comes out of this specific incident.
REHMAnd we've got another email from Steve, who says, "Last year, WikiLeaks exposed documents contradicting what we'd heard in the news regarding downed helicopters in Afghanistan. The news said small arms fire brought helicopters down. The leaked documents said heat-seeking Stinger missiles. Is the RPG story another example of this, Larry Korb?
KORBWell, again, we don't know. And, of course, you would not want to think if, you know, the other side has sophisticated weapons like the Stinger. That completely changes, you know, your ability to send helicopters into lots of areas. And, again, we don't know. And that's why I hope this investigation that they have about what happened here, you know, really is forthcoming for, you know, for the American people.
REHMAll right. To Covert, Mich. Good morning, Bob.
BOBHi. And to comment on the snappy salute that the military only does what the civilian leaders ask them, I think, is just ingenious. I'd like to think that Obama would like to be out of there yesterday, but I think he's gotten rolled several times, that the military keeps telling him he can get this -- that they can get this job done, and I'd question that premise.
KORBWell, I think he, you know, he raises a good question. You know, based upon what we know from Bob Woodward's book, they did rolled him, because after he send in the initial group, they said, oh, we need a new commander. And, of course, Gen. McChrystal came in and, you know, asked for more troops, and Obama kept asking for, you know, alternatives and didn't get it. And I think, obviously, then somebody leaked what the military, you know, wanted, and that put Obama in a very difficult political position, so I think he's right.
KORBI mean, you know, Thom was right when he was talking about, yes, the military does what they're told. But you got to remember -- and I can tell you from personal experience while having been on active duty and then served in the Pentagon, there are pretty shrewd bureaucrats. And when they want something done, they know how to push all the levers of the American political system, including the media.
PILLARI'd agree with all that. But just in fairness to the military command, even if they're not in a Machiavellian sort of way trying to roll our president, military commanders have a mission to perform. That is defined in terms of accomplishing a military mission in the heat of operation. So naturally, they are going to take a different perspective. They're gonna think in terms of what resources they need to accomplish that mission.
PILLARAnd it is not their job, certainly not their primary job, to ask those same tough questions that Anthony O'Brien was raising about the larger policy issues and to what purpose are we doing all this. So even if we don't have generals trying to roll the president, they're always gonna, naturally by virtue of their mission and their job, take a different point of view.
O'BRIENLet me comment on that.
REHMSure. Go ahead, Anthony.
O'BRIENI like the question. I like the challenge. And the gentleman's correct. The military does what it's told, and the military advices the president. And they're gonna do so because they know what's going on in the ground. But honestly, the military leaders in the military, they wanna stay there and take -- and increase the chance of accomplishing their mission as much as possible. But dare I say, we're 40-something minutes into this discussion, and it's been wonderful.
O'BRIENAnd, you know, I don't think I've heard the word Vietnam yet. And I just said it, but the thing is is that at some point, the civilian leadership, the administration, the -- in the DOD, at the secretary level, at some point, they've got to take a step back no matter what the military's telling them who's on the ground and say, policy wise, national security wise, is this the wisest way for us to continue to go look at the cost benefit? And so that's what the civilian leadership needs to do. And that's not to waffle on what the military is doing, but as the former president said, the buck stops there.
REHMAll right. Let's hear from a Vietnam vet. Good morning, Randy. Hey, Randy, are you there?
RANDYDiane, I'm here.
REHMGo right ahead.
RANDYI beg your pardon?
REHMGo right ahead.
RANDYDiane, I was in Vietnam early on in the '65, '67 there. There was nobody in the Mekong Delta except the 25th Division. I had several experiences with almost the identical thing that's going on even with the load that was on to Hue -- or excuse me -- on the Chinook. Diane, listen. Right away, I was transformed back to Vietnam in a flashback.
RANDYAnd one thing I have to tell you that I'm concerned about also as are the people there -- that are there, other NCOs and the lieutenant, Diane, I'm concerned about the unit they were from and the effect that it had on the troops in Afghanistan.
REHMAny comment, Paul?
PILLARWell, speaking as another Vietnam veteran who caught not the beginning of the war, but the end of the war, I was there in 1972 and '73 doing a job that mainly involved transporting American GIs back home. And so I saw part of what it did do, what that war did to the American military. The principal bit of processing we had to do before sending these folks back home was a drug test to identify the disturbingly large number of heroin users who, by that time -- we're talking about 1972, '73 -- had emerged in the ranks of the American Army.
PILLARIt was a very large toll that that war took on the Army and the other services themselves, let alone to the rest of American interests and everything well as we know about the Vietnam War.
SHANKERTo the caller, it's a very good question about how this tragedy will affect the unit itself. I've spent the last several days talking to a lot of people from the soft community. And likewise, after the bin Laden raid, a lot of special operators, Diane, were very uncomfortable with the fist pumping and chest pounding after bin Laden was killed. It was a supreme tactical success. They were proud of it, but they like to operate in the shadows.
SHANKERLikewise, after this tragedy, they will, you know, come around each other and comfort each other. But to them, the mission continues. They will keep doing whatever it is the civilian leadership tells them to do. I don't think there's gonna be a morale problem.
REHMThanks for calling, Randy. Let's go to Fort Worth, Texas. Augustine, you're on the air.
AUGUSTINEHi, Diane. How are you today?
REHMFine. Thank you.
AUGUSTINEOne of the biggest mistakes we had is that we try to solve ideological, cultural, inter-tribal conflicts with military means, and that's really wrong. We only have two choices now. We can gather all the intelligence -- intelligent people of Afghani-American descent and explain to them that they have a moral obligation to teach their own country and provide them the tools for advanced development resource and recovery, education, social suggestions that would wanna change the structure, and see if they would be interested in helping their own country. That's one thing.
AUGUSTINEAnd the other one is simply to understand that if that is not achieved, eventually, they're gonna have a whole civil war that is maybe long overdue. And if it's going to happen, we cannot control that.
KORBWell, I think Augustine is right. Eventually, the future of Afghanistan is gonna have to be decided by the people there. I mean, we can't stay forever. We're supposedly going to turn over, you know, the military mission in 2014. And right now, we're negotiating a strategic framework agreement with the Karzai government to see how long, you know, we will stay and under what terms.
KORBAnd I think we need to recognize that. On the other hand, I think it's important, you know, we do have a moral responsibility. We've gone in, you know, for better or worse, we've been there a long time. We were doing these things to do the best that we can to give the Afghans, you know, the opportunity to, you know, live a life that, you know, is free from continuing violence and civil war.
REHMAnd to Kingston, N.Y. Good morning, Jim.
JIMGood morning, Diane. The comment I'd like to make is the Taliban aren't going any place. Even Winston Churchill, in his journal in the India war, talks about fighting the Taliban. Unless we can convert these people, this is a very strong religious belief. They feel they're fighting for God. And they're not going any place and they know that we are. So it's time to go.
PILLARIt's quite right. They're not going anywhere, and it's their country, not ours, that is the subject of the fight. I would just modify a bit what Jim said in pointing out that many of what we call Taliban, those who have taken up arms against the coalition, are not necessarily strongly religiously motivated. They are motivated more by being upset about a foreign occupation, about the damage being done by the war.
PILLARWe've seen the ranks of the Taliban increase, not decrease, over the last several years, which is an unfortunate pattern. But that is a reaction to part of what we are doing. It illustrates some of the counterproductive nature of what we are doing. But the basic point that it's their country no matter how long we stay there, they're not going to go away is quite correct.
REHMAnd here's an email from Michael in San Antonio. He is retired after 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. He says, "Everyone knows it's impossible to win the war in Afghanistan, but nobody wants to lose face by admitting it. We'd have a better chance of colonizing the moon than winning this war. Afghanistan is just a meat grinder. We keep feeding our young people into it. Bin Laden is dead. Let's get out." Do you agree with those sentiments, Larry Korb?
KORBWell, I think Michael has a good point, and that's why I was upset with, you know, Secretary Panetta saying, well, we're there to fight al-Qaida. We have basically neutralized, you know, al-Qaida. And the other thing is if we set the timetable to leave, then our military forces can leave with dignity.
KORBBut if we keep hanging around and hanging around, then it looks like, you know, brave people like Cmdr. O'Brien and these other people, they have not, you know, done their job. They've done their job. So I think that's why we need to take control. The president, the Congress need to take control of the situation.
REHMWhat do you think, Paul Pillar?
PILLARI quite agree. I would...
REHMDo you think it's time to get out?
PILLARWell, basic point I would make, Diane, is that the whole idea of losing face by getting out without having a victory and that this would damage U.S. interest to a large degree is overplayed. You know, that is not the way other governments, other adversaries of ours form their perceptions of us. There was a lot said about that after the Vietnam War. And there was a period in which we kind of sulked in our post-Vietnam syndrome.
PILLARBut it wasn't a matter of other countries saying, oh, the United States is not going to uphold their central interest, their core national interest because they shed a peripheral one. I think the same thing is true in Afghanistan. What we face here, what President Obama faces is a graceful way of exiting using the sort of terms that Thom mentioned before, you know, good enough, not trying to declare victory because it's gonna be hard to do.
PILLARI think the biggest peg we've had to hang a graceful exit on has been the killing of bin Laden. You know, not that that should have made a big difference in our Afghan strategy, but in terms of selling the idea that we've done our job. This was initially all about al-Qaida and responding to 9/11. That's probably the best possible opportunity to start the process, and I think that's basically what the president is trying to do.
REHMAnthony, as a former Navy SEAL, how do you respond? Would you get...
O'BRIENI have to agree with the caller's premise and as well as with Paul's point that it's not about losing face. That almost sounds like a political angle, kinda like, again, when we were -- when the civilian leadership decided that we needed to leave Vietnam. Again, whatever fight you're gonna get into, whatever the fight is, one of your questions has got be, is it winnable? And history in Afghanistan will show that it's very difficult to win a fight there, and especially if you're gonna do it politically correct. That's my view.
KORBWell, I quite agree that, you know, with Paul that we did overstayed, you know, the Vietnam, you know, type of thing. I say it's a great idea 'cause right now we're work -- doing joint exercises with the Vietnamese because of the Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. And I think we need to keep that in mind that this is not, you know, some sort of apocalyptic scenario, which some people will paint it out.
KORBI mean, there are still people saying, when I worked for Reagan, we got out of Lebanon. Well, that led to, you know, 9/11. No, we would still be in Lebanon trying to, you know, straighten that situation out.
REHMAnd finally to you, I wonder, Thom Shanker, whether you think the senior level of the Department of Defense and the White House are now thinking more in terms of timing to get out?
SHANKERWell, the public statements are all about stay the course, see the mission through. Remember, they're on a very dramatic reduction -- 10,000 by the end of the year, another 23,000 by next September, everybody out by 2014, Diane.
REHMThom Shanker of The New York Times, co-author of the new book titled "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al-Qaeda." Paul Pillar of Georgetown University. Anthony O'Brien, former Navy SEAL lieutenant commander and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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