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On October 7, 2001, the United States launched the war in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Operation Enduring Freedom scored early victories and ousted the Taliban government in Kabul. But the U.S. invasion of Iraq two years later diverted attention away from Afghanistan and the Taliban reemerged. In the decade of fighting that followed, the war has claimed the lives of more than 1,700 American soldiers and cost the U.S. government $560 billion. Guest host Laura Knoy and her panel will discuss what’s been achieved in America’s longest war, and the future of U.S. involvement in the region.
- Fernando Lujan U.S. Army Special Forces major
- Jonathan Steele Former chief foreign correspondent for the Guardian; author of the forthcoming book, "Ghosts of Afghanistan" (November 2011)
- David Kilcullen CEO and president of Caerus ("CARE-us") Associates, former senior counterinsurgency adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq
- Lt. Gen. David Barno Former Commander of the U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan: "Operation Enduring Freedom," (2003-2005) and senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security
MS. LAURA KNOYThanks for joining us. I'm Laura Knoy of New Hampshire Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Ten years ago this week, the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan. Since that time, more than 1,700 American soldiers have lost their lives. Public support for the costly war is fading, and a new Pew Center survey finds that just one-third of post-9/11 veterans thinks the war has been worth fighting.
MS. LAURA KNOYJoining me in the studio to talk about the war in Afghanistan and the future of U.S. involvement in the region, David Kilcullen of Caerus Associates. David is the former senior counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. He's also a 20-year veteran of the Australian Army. And, David, it's really nice to meet you. Thanks for being here.
MR. DAVID KILCULLENGreat to be here.
KNOYAlso with us is Lt. Gen. David Barno, senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security and former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. And, Gen. Barno, it's really nice to see you, too. Thanks for being here.
LT. GEN. DAVID BARNOLaura, great to be here.
KNOYAlso joining us from the NPR studio in New York is Jonathan Steele, former chief correspondent for the Guardian, author of the forthcoming book "Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground." And, Jonathan, I went through the book. Congratulations on it, and thanks for being with us this hour.
MR. JONATHAN STEELEWell, thank you for taking me on.
KNOYWell, and we'll also take your comments and questions at 1-800-433-8850, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can join us on Facebook or Twitter. And, gentlemen, just taking a big step back, here we are, 10 years. I'll turn to you first, Gen. Barno, since you were deeply involved in Afghanistan. What has the U.S. achieved there?
BARNOWell, it's notable, I think, since the towers fell here on the 11th of September of 2001, we immediately turned our attention to the source of those attacks in Afghanistan.
BARNOAnd I think the biggest successes we've seen in the ensuing years are, essentially, the destruction of the Taliban regime, which harbored al-Qaida, who were the sources of that attack, which killed almost 3,000 Americans here in the United States itself, and the elimination of the Taliban regime. We now have a democratically elected government, although flawed, certainly in Kabul.
BARNOWe have 5 million Afghan kids in school, a million of those are girls that -- there were zero girls in school at that time. There were about 50 kilometers of paved roads in Afghanistan back in 2001. They're somewhere around 8,000-plus kilometers today. But I think, most importantly, the United States is more secure because al-Qaida has been, in many ways, if not crushed, certainly put on their back foot and disrupted in some pretty severe ways. And our efforts in Afghanistan have been central in that.
KNOYWhat do you think we haven't achieved, Gen. Barno?
BARNOWell, we certainly haven't stamped out the Taliban insurgency. When I was there from '03 to '05, the levels of violence in the country were very, very minor. There were virtually no roadside bombs. There were no suicide attacks.
BARNOIt was a very, very different place. But we saw, in the ensuing years, probably starting in the spring of '06, the Taliban escalating every year with more and more attacks, more and more violence, the introduction of roadside bombs, of suicide attacks. And the U.S. and then, later, NATO never really escalated and responded to that until here in the last 18 to 24 months.
BARNOSo we had a period of time there where the Taliban, in a sense, had free reign to continue to increase their attacks for almost three years before we responded.
KNOYAnd free reign to continue, why is that, David Barno? Were we distracted by Iraq? That's the line that you often hear.
BARNOThat's certainly part of it. I think -- as I was leaving Afghanistan in May of '05, we were announcing that we were turning over the Afghan effort to NATO, to our alliance in Europe. And we announced later that year we were withdrawing 2,500 combat troops in December of 2005. We rescinded that decision, but that sent a message that the United States was moving for the exits.
BARNOAnd I think all of the players in the region began to recalculate their plan based upon an Afghanistan that had the United States out of the action. And so, I think, that in a lot ways contributed to the Taliban's resurgence. I think a lot of players reinvested in the Taliban as a hedge against what was going to come next.
KNOYAnd, David Kilcullen, jumping on to what Gen. Barno said, what have we achieved in Afghanistan after 10 years? And what haven't we achieved?
KILCULLENI would agree with the general that we've done a huge amount in terms of reconstruction and development for some aspects of Afghan society. I also think we've done rather well in the counterterrorism aspect of neutralizing and reducing the threat from al-Qaida. And we've done pretty well in dealing with the insurgency, actually.
KILCULLENI think the general is being a little bit modest there in terms of, certainly, his achievements at the time. And some of the work that we've done in the last year or so has been extremely effective. Where, I think, we've done badly, and continue to do badly, are in three things, which, unfortunately, I think, are much more important than that military success.
KILCULLENFirstly, we really failed in the 2001 to 2003 timeframe to go through a proper reconciliation and peacemaking process in Afghanistan.
KNOYThe day two issue.
KNOYOkay, you invade, day one. What do you do, day two?
KILCULLENYeah. And how do you actually put that society back together or help people get to a point where they can deal with their issues in a nonviolent manner? And we didn't really enable or achieve that. Secondly, we still have not really been able to stand up a viable, legitimate, responsive and effective government in Afghanistan.
KILCULLENAnd that means that, while the military piece is going, frankly, rather well right now, it's difficult to see where we go from here if we can't actually stand up that viable government. And, thirdly, there is just such an incredibly large degree of corruption and abuse now in some aspects of Afghan society that, even if we would successfully destroy every last insurgent tonight so that there was no Taliban tomorrow morning, it's quite likely that a new Taliban would grow in another few months because the Taliban isn't the problem.
KILCULLENThe Taliban is a symptom of a bigger set of issues. So, on the whole, I think we've done a -- if you take a 10-year view, I think, we've done a great job with some aspects. But it's difficult to see how it comes out well from here.
KNOYWell, and, Jonathan Steele, I want to go to you. But just real quick, David, you piqued my interest. The Taliban, if you got rid of them tomorrow, another group like them would sprout out. You called them a symptom of larger issues. Like what?
KILCULLENWell, I see the war as a cycle of instability rather than a classic insurgency. In a counterinsurgency model, you think, well, the insurgency is the problem. If we get rid of the insurgency, the problem goes away. That's actually not how I see the situation in Afghanistan.
KILCULLENI see a pattern of corruption, some of it fueled by drugs, but a lot of it fueled by our own aid money, actually, which enables and incentivizes abuse on the part of power brokers and some officials of the government that creates this incandescent rage among substantial parts of the population against the government, but also against us because it's our sponsored government as the international community.
KILCULLENAnd then that enables and provides support for insurgents, not just the Taliban, but a wide variety of different groups. And the instability that they create creates opportunities for corruption. And that's the cycle that we have to break if we want to actually put this thing to bed.
KNOYWell, and, Jonathan Steele, in your book "Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground," you take the long view, not just a decade, but 30 years of Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion and what happened in the years on out. Where do you see this U.S. effort now, Jonathan, after a decade of fighting in Afghanistan?
STEELEWell, I think, it's basically a stalemate. And as you point out, my book really goes back 30 years. I covered the Soviet war three times in Kabul when the Soviets were there, and I saw what they were doing. And I think it -- what -- the haunting is the fact that the same mistakes they made are now haunting the United States. There are some intriguing differences, which we can come on to later between the two issues.
STEELEBut, essentially, the Russians got themselves into a stalemate. They could clear ground, but they could never hold it. And I think the problem now is that the United States' administration is completely divided. The CIA, according to its latest assessments, as we understand this summer, used the phrase stalemate repeatedly. But that's not the line that their boss, Gen. David Petraeus, was using when he was still in charge in Afghanistan.
STEELEAnd so I think the White House is divided on that. I mean, the point was that in -- the Russians used the same strategy, really, as the Americans use now, which is I call a garrison strategy. You hold the cities. You keep the communications going on the main roads between the cities, and then you try and push out into the countryside and take a little bit of ground here and there as much as you can.
STEELEBut the point is, at some point, you have to leave it. You can't be there forever. And I'd just like to quote to you what Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, who was the chief of the general staff, told the politburo in November 1986. He said, after seven years in Afghanistan, there is not one square kilometer left untouched by a boot of a Soviet soldier. But as soon as they leave a place, the enemy returns and restores it all back the way it used to be.
STEELEAnd his defense minister, Marshal Sergei Sokolov, a few months later said this war cannot be won militarily. And I think the U.S. is in the same position. It cannot win this war. It has to move to some kind of negotiated settlement because the insurgents are there because the Americans are there. Most of them are fighting for patriotic reasons to get rid of the foreigners. There are other issues as well.
STEELEBut, basically, it is the presence of the Americans that -- and the British and the other coalition forces that increases the insurgency. And I thought it was very interesting. In the Pew survey that you mentioned just now, 51 percent -- one of the figures was that 51 percent of the veterans, the post-9/11 veterans, think that the over-reliance on military force creates hatred that breeds more terrorism. In other words, this whole thing has been counterproductive.
STEELEAl-Qaida may have been dispersed from Afghanistan, but it has more people working with it and being trained in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa and so on. So all that's happened is that al-Qaida has been pushed out of one safe haven into three or four others that it now has.
KNOYSo this garrison strategy that you talk about, Jonathan, what strategy should have been employed, in your opinion, instead of soldiers, you know, holed up in their garrisons and then, once they leave, insurgents take over again?
STEELEWell, I think it has to be a government of national unity. And I think I agree with David Kilcullen, who said at the beginning, in the first years after the toppling of the Taliban, not enough was done in reconciliation. You could even go back to the Bonn conference of December of 2001 when the Taliban had been pushed out of Kabul. They were still in Kandahar at that stage.
STEELEAnd the Pashtuns were really excluded from that Bonn conference. And so there's a real sense in the southern part of -- eastern part of Afghanistan where most of the Pashtun live that their political position is no longer accepted, that they've been marginalized. And a lot of people -- by the way, Pashtuns were ethnically cleansed from different parts of Afghanistan, the north and the west, where pockets of them used to live.
STEELESo there was a real grievance there, and it wasn't addressed. And it's still there because, even though Karzai himself is a Pashtun, we know that the Afghan National Army is a majority Tajik and Uzbek army. And so when they come into Helmand and Kandahar and so on to try and take over from the Americans and the British, they are still perceived as a foreign force by the Pashtuns.
STEELESo the garrisons may be still there, but instead of being American and British sitting there, other foreigners, Tajiks and Uzbeks, are sitting there. And they're not making progress.
KNOYSo we're not fully appreciating those tribal differences, you're saying, Jonathan? Let me jump in right now.
STEELEWell, let's say ethnic rather than tribal.
KNOYYes. Right. I let me jump in and just remind you that this is "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to take a short break, but then we'll start taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Coming up, more on 10 years of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
KNOYWelcome back. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's hear from you. 1-800-433-8850 is the number. You can send email to email@example.com. Our guests are David Kilcullen, president and CEO of Caerus Associates, former senior counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.
KNOYAlso with us, Lt. Gen. David Barno, senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security and former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from '03 to '05. Also joining us from New York, Jonathan Steele, former chief correspondent for the Guardian and author of the forthcoming book, "Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground."
KNOYAnd, gentlemen, I want to add another voice into our conversation now. Joining us by phone, from Fort Belvoir, Va., is Fernando Lujan. He's a U.S. Army Special Forces major. And, Fernando Lujan, thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.
MAJ. FERNANDO LUJANThank you. It's great to be here.
KNOYWell, and you wrote an article in The New York Times just recently, an opinion piece, recently titled, "This War Can Still Be Won." Why do you feel that way, Maj. Lujan?
LUJANWell, thank you very much, first off, for having me on the show. I really just want to inject a little bit of perspective from my place on the ground. I've just returned from Afghanistan. I spent about 14 months there.
LUJANAnd the job I was doing was sort of unique in that we were going around wearing Afghan uniforms, embedded in Afghan units in all the areas we've just heard people talk about, down in Helmand, and down in Kandahar and Uruzgan and in Zabul to try to get a behind-the-veil sort of perspective of what is really going on in the Afghan National Security Forces.
LUJANYou know, how are they operating, even when coalition forces aren't there, and it's just a team of two or three of us operating there? And, really, you know, how have things changed over the past years? And I really appreciate Jonathan Steele's comments there because I'd like to actually challenge a couple of those from the perspective I had.
LUJANThe piece where we said that the Army can clear but can't hold, I think that it's really significantly changed over the past couple of years. I think it really doesn't come down to coalition forces holding those areas. You're right. I mean, we can go in, and we can clear. And we can leave, and the minute we leave, the Taliban comes back in.
LUJANBut what is starting to happen now in Kandahar and in Helmand is that we've gone to these places, but we are now starting to see a much more professionalized Afghan National Army, Afghan National (word?) Police going in these places and able to hold onto the ground and build up a connection with the population. And, I mean, I'll just give one little story here.
LUJANI mean, I -- there's a place in Uruzgan that I had a chance to visit, a valley that, really, no coalition forces could even really drive into without being shot up. And just this past year, they had a big clearing operation, came in there and established contact with the locals, and started working a program called the Afghan Local Police, where, essentially, a special forces team comes into the village and gets the buy-in from the local leaders there in the village to live there inside, and to be, really, villagers and to recruit local policemen from that area, right?
LUJANAnd what they were able to was to get buy-in from the senior village leaders and for them to give up -- you know, hey, this is my first son or my second son, you know, and he will be part of your security force. And in some ways, those local security forces could even be more valuable than the Afghan National Army because they come from that neighborhood.
LUJANI mean, they grew up in that village, and so they know who is who, you know, who belongs here and who doesn't. And even having -- you know, one of those guys might be better than having 10 foreign, you know, Afghan National Army guys present in the village. And we were able to see that, with just a small investment in personnel and buy-in from the Afghan community, they were able to keep the Taliban out, you know?
LUJANAnd it wasn't a matter -- it wasn't anything really dramatic. There was, you know, the senior Taliban from Pakistan essentially said, hey, you know, don't worry about it. You know, they -- we've seen them clear this valley before. But after they were there for two, three, four weeks, you know, you started to hear, hey, this is -- what's going on? There's something different here. You know, why are they staying? Why have they not left?
LUJANAnd then, finally, they pulled away. And the local Taliban, the people that, you know, were from the villages there essentially switched their alliances, you know. And I remember sitting in a shura and seeing local villagers there and having one of the Special Forces sergeants tell me, hey, you see that guy, and that guy, and that guy?
LUJANYou know, those are local Taliban. You know, we know they were shooting at us last year, but they're willing to play ball now. They know why we're here. They know what we're doing, and they support the local security effort here. And so those alliances are going. That is something that, you know, is potentially sustainable because it comes from the Afghans, not from us.
KNOYSuccess on the ground then from the Afghans, so this concept, Maj. Lujan, of national unity versus ethnic loyalty, you're seeing a sense among the soldiers that you worked with a growing sense of we're all Afghans?
LUJANThat's absolutely correct. And that is something that I think -- I mean, in all candor, I came in not really knowing what to expect, right? I knew -- I mean, I'd been to Afghanistan previously, the last time was in '06, and I knew that it was a very heavily Tajik organization. But coming in now, I mean, really having the time to spend time with -- probably on the order of 20 different Afghan battalions in the field, it's not that same sense.
LUJANI mean, I see these guys, and, you know, there are Tajiks and Uzbeks and Hazaras, but there's also a growing number of Pashtuns being integrated into the conventional Afghan National Army units, right? And there were some battalions where I saw upwards of 40 or 50 percent Pashtun soldiers. And then, among the officers, less, but still a growing number, I'd say, between 20 and 25 percent.
LUJANAnd, more importantly, said hey, you know, I heard Mr. Steele's comment about, hey, we're seen as foreigners. We're rejected by -- you know, the Afghan National Army has rejected -- I don't see the same thing. I see a lot of the key leadership positions, particularly the corps commander positions are being filled by Pashtuns, right? And those are really the symbolic leaders. I mean, they know this is the commander.
LUJANThis is the guy that controls this entire Afghan National Army force. And, you know, Gen. Hamid, Gen. Malouk, the two generals for the corps down in Helmand and Kandahar are Pashtuns, and they're seen that -- and they're the primary interface with a lot of the governmental leaders in that area. So...
LUJAN...they're coming together, I mean, and it's a multi-ethnic coalition there.
KNOYMaj. Lujan, one last question for you, please. So based on your experiences on the ground, embedded with Afghan forces, what's the way forward for the United States in this conflict?
LUJANWell, I think the way forward is the way that we're proceeding, frankly. I think that there -- while the surge has accomplished a lot -- many of it purposes in giving us some breathing room, right, and letting these units have a little space to develop, I think, now that the gradual responsible withdrawal of forces down on the tactical and operation level -- actually, there's a lot of opportunity there.
LUJANAnd the reason I say that is, when you have a lot of resources, a lot of forces on the ground, it's good because it helps for security. But there's also a downside in that it sometimes inhibits partnership and empowering the Afghan units that are there, right, because it's easy to say, hey, we have all these resources. We can control the territory, you know? Let's do it ourselves. Why bother, you know, putting the Afghans into that role?
LUJANYet if you are starting to see resources constrained and forces drawn down, you know, small is beautiful in those kinds of environments. You know, it forces you to partner and to push the Afghans into the lead because you just don't have the forces to do it by yourself. It's a catalyst for partnership. And it's, in my mind, is really the way forward because the Afghans really are going to be the end result here.
LUJANI mean, we're going to succeed or fail based on what they are able to do after we withdraw.
KNOYWell, Fernando Lujan, it's been good to talk to you. Thank you so much.
LUJANOkay. Thank you.
KNOYThat's Fernando Lujan. Again, he is a U.S. Army Special Forces major. He's been embedded with Afghan troops for the past 14 months. Jonathan Steele, I'd love your reaction to what we just heard from Maj. Lujan. Can this war still be won as he says? What do you think?
STEELEWell, I remember going in 1986 to places that I hadn't been able to go to in 1981 with Soviet escort. And they had made advances, too, so it's not impossible to make advances if you put enough men and material in there, and you're willing to sit there and occupy. You can make the advances. The point is that, at some point, you can't -- you have to leave. The Americans can't be there forever, occupying a country just as the Russians did.
STEELEAnd one of the things I do in my book is to confront many of the Western myths about Afghanistan. One of the biggest one is that the Soviet Union suffered a military defeat in Afghanistan. It didn't. It could've stayed there many, many more years just as the Americans can stay many, many more years in Afghanistan if they want to. They also can't be defeated militarily.
STEELEWhat happened was that the new leadership came in with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 and said, look, this is a stalemate. It's costing us far too much, in terms of men and money, and there is no victory. They can't defeat us. We can't defeat them. But we have to find a political settlement. And that's the same in the situation now. So I don't deny all the things that Maj. Lujan has been telling us.
STEELEAnd it's very interesting, and, no doubt, there have been small advances here and there. But they don't change the big strategic picture. I mean, the military is very good at looking at tactics and claiming advances here and there. And there is a kind of obligatory optimism if you're a military officer. You don't want to say we're doing badly. You're not allowed to say that in public, really.
STEELEBut the fact is the strategy is what's important. What is the strategy? You can't just occupy their country forever. And the Afghan National Army can't be built up ever into a sufficient force that will command respect and loyalty in the Pashtun areas, unless the government, for which it's working, the Afghan national government, has respect. And it doesn't because there's so much corruption at the local level, as well as at the central level.
STEELEAnd people -- many areas trust the Taliban more in terms of justice. They feel we get justice (unintelligible) all the tough and summary justice on issues of dispute. If you go to the government when there's a problem of land or whatever it is, some civil issue or criminal case, you have to bribe judges and prosecutors and so on to get a hearing, let alone to get a judgment.
KNOYWell, I'd like to hear from both of you in the studio, too. What do think, David Kilcullen? You're an expert in counterinsurgency. What do you think about the strategies that we heard from Maj. Lujan about and his overall view that things are going well there, or it's starting to work?
KILCULLENLet me say, first off, that Nando (sp?) is a friend of mine and, like all of us, very happy that he's -- he made it back safely from a particularly tough job in Afghanistan. I agree with everything Fernando said. I think that the Afghan army has developed very significantly in its capability in the last two or three years. I guess, where I would come down on it, though, is that that doesn't actually matter as much in the long term as we would like it to.
KILCULLENI think that unless you can translate that into a civilian government that actually has the respect of its population and can govern, as Jonathan was saying, then it only gets you so far. I guess I would differ very slightly from Jonathan on one minor point, which is that a lot of us have been saying there's no military solution here. We need to make peace. I'm actually wondering whether we're in a good position to make peace at this point.
KILCULLENWe've seen the collapse of the Afghan peace process in the last two weeks. President Karzai just signed a strategic cooperation agreement with India. The Pakistani national security establishment have played a very significant behind-the-scenes role in the Taliban, so, on the one hand, I think we're not getting there on the civilian aspects of the war. We're doing very well in the military part.
KILCULLENBut we're just not translating that into the progress we need to get to a political solution on the ground in Afghanistan. But the bad news is we may also not be in a good position to just make peace. It's not as simple as saying there's no military solution. We just have to make peace. And I know Jonathan is not saying that, but I know other people have been saying that.
KILCULLENAnd I think we actually have to recognize that maybe it's going to be a bit harder to negotiate a settlement than we might like to think.
KNOYOur number here in "The Diane Rehm Show" is 1-800-433-8850. 1-800-433-8850, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Your thoughts, too, Gen. Barno, on this complicated situation that Maj. Lujan and Jonathan Steele and David Kilcullen are talking about. You know, military success is great, but it's not enough.
BARNOWell, I think one of the most important things Fernando said was that the absolute reality that, ultimately, this is going to be up to the Afghans themselves, that they are going to have to, you know, seize the banner here and move forward to defend their own country. The United States is going to give them capabilities to be able to do that. We're going to be resourcing their effort.
BARNOWe've assisted in training and growing and equipping their army in a dramatic fashion. It's going to be over 300,000 army in their security forces, police forces in the next couple of years, but, ultimately, this is going to be decided by them. And that -- I'm not sure they've fully grasped what that means yet. And that means not only in the military side are they going to have to continue the fight.
BARNOBut, as all of the participants here today have noted, the government is going to have to reform itself. It's going to have to change 'cause it simply isn't acceptable in its current form with the degree of corruption that it's widely perceived and accurately perceived as being, you know, a characteristic of the very fundamental part of the acting government in most places in the country. That's not sustainable.
KNOYAnd we haven't talked about the government of Hamid Karzai yet and how it's so often described as an unreliable partner for the United States.
BARNOYeah, a very, very difficult strategic partner, one that's become more so, and I would add though, you know -- and I know President Karzai well, and I spent a lot of time with him when I was in Afghanistan for 19 months -- that the U.S. has contributed to that in a sense by having absolutely no continuity in the leadership of our effort there.
BARNOIn the last 10 years, the United States has had 10 different military commanders for the operations in Afghanistan and, by my count, seven different U.S. ambassadors in a 10-year period. No university and no business could survive that kind of leadership turnover, yet we're fighting a war in this way.
BARNOSo the Afghans are continually -- you know, one of the comments I hear from them occasionally in their leadership is, so many messengers, what's the message?
KNOYWell, that's interesting, and I haven't heard that before. So thanks for bringing that up. Let's go to our callers now. Again, the number, 1-800-433-8850. And waiting in Lansing, Mich. is Matt. Hi, Matt, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for waiting.
MATTHi. Thanks for taking my call. Originally, I had a question about the historical context of this war, but, unfortunately, that was answered a little while ago. So I have a different question for your panel now. I was wondering -- we talked a lot about -- we've been there for 10 years so far. And I'm really wondering, what's the endgame for the United States? Winning can mean very different things for different people.
MATTSo I'm wondering, what is -- what would be a win in the eyes of your panelists? And I'll take my comments of the air.
KNOYMatt, it's a great question. And I do want to talk a little bit more about the historical context of that because, again, Jonathan Steele, that's your book. You go through in great detail -- and we won't do that now -- but just some of the mistakes that the Soviets made and how the United States is repeating those same mistakes. Can you just give us a quick idea of what you're talking about there, Jonathan?
STEELEWell, I think it was the origins of the war with the real thing. I think this war began with the Russians in a mood of anger and revenge because they didn't like the leader in Kabul who had murdered the previous president who was much more close to Moscow and seemed a more reliable person. And so they came in with regime change, just as the Americans came in with anger and a sense of revenge after 9/11 and wanted to get rid of that regime.
STEELEAnd the Russians did it very quickly, just as the Americans did. And then they thought it would be fine, and we could pull out quite quickly. They didn't do the day-two problem that we've already touched on, so that was the real thing. And mission creep came in, and what was meant to be a quick withdrawal turned into nation building. And, as I said before, it just became an unending burden, and they decided to pull out.
STEELEBut they also had this big problem with Pakistan. I mean, Gorbachev asked for an assessment of what we do next, and one of his military advisers said, well, as long as you have an open border with Pakistan, there's nothing we can do 'cause there's an endless supply of people coming across with training and money. And there's nothing we can do about it unless we put 250,000 men on the border, and that's unrealistic.
STEELEIt's exactly the same problem we have today. If Afghanistan was an island in the South Pacific, it would be different. But it's got this open border with Pakistan. And the Americans can never seal that border, even with all these drone attacks and everything else inside Pakistan -- something the Russians never did. They're not going to seal the border, so that is the problem.
STEELEBut the difference, I think, is that, as I said, a new leader came in, Gorbachev, very much like Obama. He inherited a predecessor's war. He saw it was not working, and he changed strategy. What is really, I think, disappointing to me is that Obama came in and has tripled the number of troops there instead of saying we have to get out.
STEELEHe's actually gone much further in, and he's even now trying to negotiate what's called the strategic partnership agreement, which will keep the U.S. troops there indefinitely, not combat troops, but they'll be called advisers or trainers or logisticians or whatever else you want to disguise them as. But they still will be uniformed and armed.
STEELEAnd it's an open-ended commitment. And I don't think the American public really wants that, according to all the polls.
KNOYWell, and maybe after a break, David, you can talk more about the surge and the impact of the surge. I also want to ask all of you about Matt's excellent question. What is the endgame for the United States in Afghanistan? So we'll talk about that coming up, also take your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Keep it right here.
KNOYWelcome back. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan today on "The Diane Rehm Show" and welcoming your comments at 1-800-433-8850. And, gentlemen, before we go back to the phones, I did want to follow up on something that Jonathan Steele said earlier. And, David, that was about the surge, Obama's surge of -- I believe it was 2009 when he announced it.
KNOYWhat impact do you see that having, again, given your expertise as a counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus?
KILCULLENWell, let me just clarify, I was not advising Gen. Petraeus in Afghanistan, but in Iraq. Yeah.
KNOYYes, in Iraq. Yes.
KILCULLENWell, the -- I think the surge has had a number of rather good effects on the ground. We've seen a very significant level of damage to the southern and eastern Taliban in terms of their ability to operate on the ground. We forced the enemy into what I would call a winter operating pattern. Normally, in the summer, they operate in guerilla fashion in the countryside.
KILCULLENIn the winter, they move into the cities, and they adopt more of a terrorist bombing and assassination type of approach. We've made the countryside so difficult for them to operate in that they've actually started to target the cities more frequently over the last six months.
KNOYAnd we sure have seen that.
KILCULLENWe've definitely seen that. One of my research team leads was actually stuck in the street for six hours outside the embassy compound in Kabul a few weeks ago when the Taliban and Haqqani network attacked the ISAF headquarters. Now, that's an interesting example because one of the other problems with the surge is that when he announced the surge, the president, unfortunately, also said exactly how long it was going to last and exactly when we were going to leave.
KILCULLENAnd that's had a very chilling effect on Afghan popular confidence. Your listeners probably know that the attack on the compound happened from a building that was half-finished. What they may not know is that that building was being built as a hotel by an entrepreneur who stopped building it as soon as the president announced that we were going to leave in July 2011. And it's been sitting empty and abandoned ever since.
KILCULLENAnd that is true of many construction projects across Afghanistan. A lot of people lost confidence when they realized that we were going to depart some time after 2011. And I think this gets to Matt's question about what's the endgame. I think we can talk a lot about what we want the endgame to be. But, I think, if we look at the probabilities, we're going to muddle through to 2014.
KILCULLENI don't think there's any significant likelihood of a major military defeat or a major breakthrough by the Taliban. I think the Taliban are basically locked out in a military sense. The problem is what's going to happen after 2014 (unintelligible).
KNOYAll right. Let's take some more calls, gentlemen. And our number again, 1-800-433-8850. And Andrew's calling from Detroit, Mich. Hi, Andrew. Thanks for being with us. Go ahead.
ANDREWSure. Thanks for taking my call. I've been really encouraged in the past few years, actually, to hear folks of the military, including Adm. Mullen most recently, explain that what we're dealing with is an issue of the confidence of the Pakistanis and of the tribal elders and stuff in having the U.S. and having security be there for them.
ANDREWThis is not an issue of ideological alliance with Taliban, but I think that narrative is not present in the American public's mind. I don't think that the media and politicians have really been conveying that narrative. It's been much less nuanced. It's been about bad guys.
ANDREWAnd I also wondered if -- what is the degree to which our regular soldiers and our vets are thinking in this sort of terms of bad guys in ideology and our failure to convert people's minds versus the issues that people are having to be protectionists and maintain alliances with Taliban because, you know, they might -- because they're going to be vulnerable to them down the line?
ANDREWWhat accounts for this disconnect? And what's the impact as far as our vets while they're in -- while they're there and serving and while they -- when they come home?
KNOYOkay, Andrew. Thanks a lot. And why don't you take that one, Gen. Barno?
BARNOWell, it's a complicated question. I think the -- why the enemy fights, how the U.S. looks at that, whether everybody sees the same lens, I think it does bring in also the issue of Pakistan, which the caller noted. And that's just crucial to the endgame in Afghanistan. As Jonathan noted, Afghanistan is not an island. It's part of a region. Its next-door neighbor is Pakistan. There are 30 million Afghans, but there are 187 million Pakistanis.
BARNOBy 2050, there's going to be 300 million Pakistanis next door. It's the second largest Islamic country in the world, and they have somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 nuclear weapons. So if we think about U.S. vital interest in that part of the world, and, increasingly, we're going to have to think about how we transition our presence there and still protect these vital interests, Pakistan, you know, comes to center stage here.
BARNOAnd, unfortunately, if you take a circle and say one circle is U.S. interest in the region and another circle is Pakistan's interest, those circles only overlap a bit. They're not synonymous. U.S. interests and Pakistani interests are not the same. So the Pakistanis are making decisions, and they're taking actions with regard to Afghanistan in a way that advances their interest to protect their back doors. They see it from Indian influence.
BARNOTheir number one worry is not terrorism. It's not al-Qaida. It's India. And India is a, you know, 1.2 billion population nation next door that they fought three-and-a-half wars with and lost each one, and to include losing half of their country. They're desperately worried that Afghanistan will become an Indian entree into their back door.
BARNOAnd so a lot of what they're doing is, rightly or wrongly, is trying to ensure that they've got the ability to influence (word?) in Afghanistan, apparently through the Taliban, in an era where the United States is not going to be present in as much wars, if present at all.
KNOYWell, and, Gen. Barno, since you mentioned it, I do have a couple emails and Twitter messages from our listeners, including Tom in Oxford, Mass., who says, "I would love to hear your panel discuss the implications of Afghanistan's recent treaty with India." Can you go into that a little bit? I mean, it's not that far afield from what we're talking about.
BARNORight. That's breaking news here, of course, in the last 48 hours that President Karzai has signed some type of a strategic partnership agreement with India. In many ways, this is Pakistan's ultimate nightmare. They do not want to see an Afghan state on their western border that's allied with India that potentially could, you know, in the Pakistani viewpoint, at least, pose a threat to surround Pakistan on both east and the west with Indian influence.
BARNOSo this is going to be problematic. But I also think, once again, it reflects the Afghan is starting to hedge their bets against the day after the Americans are gone.
KNOYWell, and, Jonathan Steele, to you, again, what sort of relations did the Soviet Union have with Pakistan vis-à-vis Afghanistan? And is the United States repeating what the Soviet Union did there or not?
STEELEWell, I think it's quite similar because, as I said earlier, Pakistan was supporting the Mujahedeen fighting against the Soviet Union. Of course, Pakistan had the backing of the west and Saudi Arabia and China as well 'cause they were also supporting the Mujahedeen. But the negotiations that finally were achieved in April 1988 in Geneva involved the government of Pakistan and the government of Afghanistan and the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., as it then was.
STEELEAnd so Pakistani is absolutely crucial. But, I mean, I think it was President Obama, at least as a candidate -- I'm not sure if he repeated it in the early months of his presidency -- that said the real key to this is Kashmir. I mean, we have to solve the problem of Kashmir 'cause that is really the source of Indio-Pakistan tension, a huge part of dispute about who controls Kashmir. So I think that's where you have to look for a solution.
STEELEBut the endgame that I would like to see is an independent sovereign Afghanistan with a functioning government and with no foreign troops of any kind and with -- compact with all its regional neighbors, Iran, as well as Pakistan, India as well, China, Central Asian states who would agree, finally, to stop using it as a pawn in a great game, that would not try to interfere in its internal affairs and dominate its government and so on.
STEELEAnd I think that's really the endgame that we would like to see. But it does involve, as I said, not having foreign troops. And, therefore, the strategic partnership agreement that Ryan Crocker, the ambassador, is trying to negotiate right now sabotages all that because you cannot have a non-allying country with large numbers of foreign troops.
STEELEThe Taliban and the other insurgents will never negotiate as long as they feel there isn't an absolute zero withdrawal -- I mean, 100 percent withdrawal with zero troops left behind. And so that, really, to my mind is a crucial thing at this point, that President Obama has to absolutely say publicly we are committed to negotiations.
STEELEWe recognize this is a stalemate, and we will withdraw all our troops by the end of 2014 -- not just the combat troops, all troops. And we will use what leverage we have in the remaining three years to try and broker a government of national unity in Kabul that will include all the groups, including the Taliban and the Haqqani network and all the rest of it, so that the civil war, which is essentially underneath the foreign intervention, can also end.
KNOYWell, and I want to turn our attention, gentlemen, to how Americans feel about this 10th anniversary. Here's an email from Kurt in Illinois. He says, "How is a very poor country like Afghanistan going to pay all the police and soldiers we are training? Is the assumption that the U.S. taxpayer will pay them indefinitely through some part of the Pentagon's budget?" Kurt, thanks for that.
KNOYAnd, David, I'll turn to you on that, not only for that specific question but more just -- we hear about, you know, war fatigue here in this country. We're tired of the bad headlines. We're tired of our soldiers being killed, and we're tired of paying these enormous bills. So go ahead, David.
KILCULLENWell, two points, one on U.S. popular opinion, and I think this tracks rather well with all the other countries that are involved in Afghanistan as well. Most people, when asked, what do you think about Afghanistan, are extremely negative. But when you ask people, what's your top five or six listed big issues, Afghanistan isn't at the top of that list.
KILCULLENIt comes after employment and the economy and, you know, the possible future problems associated with Social Security and so on. It's down there in the list. And that's true of most countries. So I don't think it's a vote changer or necessary a public opinion issue that's at the same level as, say, Iraq was back in '06, '07, based on most of the polling that I've seen. The issue about, you know, what happens from here and...
KNOYRight. Do we keep paying these bills even after we're gone?
KILCULLENYeah. So, right now, the war is costing us about $108 billion a year. Most of the estimates say that to continue running the Afghan government's military forces, as they currently are structured after we leave, would be somewhere in the order of $2- to $5 billion a year. So that's a lot of money. It's still a hell of a lot cheaper than what we're doing right now.
KILCULLENThere's been a lot of effort put into thinking about things like the so-called new Silk Road initiative, some various agricultural and mining initiatives to try to find a viable approach for Afghanistan to pay for itself. I would, however, say that that's not as critical as some people think. Afghanistan is what we call a rentier state. It has been for 150 years. It's the nature of Afghanistan in the region.
KILCULLENIt hasn't been subject to a massive civil war for the last 150 years. There are other factors involved than its economic basis. We can come to stability through, as Jonathan said, some form of national reconciliation much more easily than through somehow pitchforking Afghanistan into the 21st century. Economically, I don't think that that's necessarily the best way to do it.
KILCULLENI guess where I part ways a little bit with people is in the belief that it is actually possible to achieve this very nice outcome that we've been talking about. There is a very substantial element in the Afghan population that is not going to sit down under a government and national unity that includes the Taliban.
KILCULLENThe northern ethnic groups are not going to do that, and there is even a substantial portion of the Pashtun population that's not going to do that. And I think we're looking at a potential for a very substantial civil war the size of Iraq in 2006 if we're not careful here.
KNOYWell, and thanks for that email, Kurt. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Again, looking at the reaction to the 10th anniversary of Afghanistan in this country, Gen. Barno, what about the presidential election? How do you hear these candidates for president talking about the Afghan war?
BARNOIt's actually rather remarkable how little conversation has been held on that. I mean, even in the debates that the Republican candidates had so far, looking at the administration, as Dave Kilcullen points out, most Americans don't have this in their top three or top five, in a lot of cases, list of things that are important to them. I think that, in a way, reflects the fact that this is the first prolonged war that's been fought by the all-volunteer force.
BARNOThat you've got -- you had a group of volunteers, including members of my family, who've been out there fighting in Afghanistan and in Iraq for the last 10 years. But the majority of the American public, the other 99.5 percent of our population, really hasn't been involved with this. And so the reality of how this plays out politically in the upcoming election is uncertain right now.
BARNOBut, to date, we've seen almost no discussion of it all, which is really striking, given that we have 100,000 Americans, you know, leaving the front gate of their compounds daily and going into combat in Afghanistan.
KNOYWell, and given the price tag that David just outlined for us, too. $100 billion a year, I think, is what you said roughly, David.
KILCULLENA little more than that, yeah.
KNOYRight. So -- right. So I do read about in the political press a growing anti-war trend in the GOP base. Certainly, when Ron Paul talks about, let's get everybody out and let's get them out now, he gets big cheers. Gen. Barno, what do you think?
BARNOWell, fiscal austerity is here, and it's here to stay, I think, for the United States. You know, in fact, our think tank is releasing a report that I'm co-authoring, tomorrow coming out, looking at responsible defense, how to make hard choices in an era of fiscal austerity and what we're going to see, less government money available for all sorts of services, but in -- also including the Defense Department.
BARNOAnd so looking at those dollars we're spending in Afghanistan is going to be part of that. But, ultimately, we have to decide, where are our vital national interests around the world? How do we continue to protect them? And what choices do we make in our ability to do that? Where do we take risk? Where do we invest more? Is the future going to be more about Asia and less about Europe?
BARNOHow do we set that up in a way that makes sense, given that we're not going to have as many dollars to spend?
KNOYWell, here's a comment from Facebook that I want to share with all of you. And I think I'll throw it to you, Jonathan Steele. This person says, "When I lived in Afghanistan from 1968 to '71, the loya jirga system still functioned at the village level, even under the king. It worked. Why did we not embrace the loya jirga government system and then eliminate the warlords? Is the answer as simple as we insist on imposing governments in our image?"
KNOYCould you, when you answer it, Jonathan, also just talk briefly about what loya jirga is, in case some people don't remember what that is?
STEELEWell, loya jirga is a kind of council or consultation at different levels. It can be, as the questioner said, at the local level, or it can be provincial level. And recently we found two or three at the national level where, in fact, Karzai was appointed initially by an emergency loya jirga in 2002. And we've had another thing called peace jirga a year ago, which set up the High Peace Council that was supposed to deal with dialogue and question of talks and so on.
STEELESo it is a very good idea. It is obviously a little bit dominated traditionally by local elders. It's very male, and mullahs and clerical people come in as well. So it's not really suited to a more evolving, modernizing, urbanizing society, especially when you're trying to bring on the rights of women. But it is respected by many Afghans, and they see it as something positive and of their own and not a sort of Western import.
KNOYAnd, Jonathan, you described earlier your endgame, your ideal picture for where Afghanistan could be. No foreign troops on the ground. Afghanistan is not used as a pawn by its neighbors. It's peaceful. It's stable. David Kilcullen said he does think that that vision can be achieved. I wonder, real quickly, Jonathan, what do you think?
STEELEWell, I'm actually quite pessimistic because I think the murder of president -- former President Rabbani two weeks ago was a real blow, not because he was actually involved -- he was head of the High Peace Council -- but not because he was really involved operationally in talks. I think he was just doing a lot of visits and things but not really substantial talks. The more important thing was he was one of the highest profile ethnic Tajiks in Kabul.
STEELEAnd it's raised suspicions between the Tajiks and the Pashtuns. I'm quite pessimistic about that. The very fracturing of the -- all the insurgent groups between the Haqqani, the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Taliban itself is no longer centrally controlled as it was in the earlier period, makes it very hard to get things done.
KNOYAll right, Jonathan, we just -- yeah. Let me just jump in. David, did I misspeak there. You are optimistic, or you're not optimistic?
KILCULLENNo, I'm not particularly optimistic.
KNOYYou're not optimistic. I apologize.
KILCULLENNo. I think it's relatively unlikely that we're going to get to that political settlement.
KNOYAll right. Well, we'll end it on that, gentlemen. I really appreciate you coming in, sharing your visions for what might happen on this 10th anniversary. Jonathan Steele, good to have you. Thank you very much for your time.
STEELEI enjoyed it. Good.
KNOYJonathan Steele, author of the forthcoming book "Ghosts of Afghanistan." And, Gen. Barno, it was nice to meet you. Thank you for being here.
BARNOLaura, great to meet you.
KNOYThat's David Barno. He's a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security. And, David Kilcullen, good to have you, too. Thank you.
KNOYI'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Erin Stamper. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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