The White House review of President Obama’s war strategy in Afghanstan is setting the stage for troop withdrawals next July. The new assessment cites progress in pushing the Taliban out of key population centers in the south. But it also highlights remaining challenges, chief among them the safe havens in the border region of Pakistan. Two new U.S. intelligence reports paint a gloomier picture of the war and the risks of the Taliban returning to parts of the country. The administration suffered a diplomatic setback on Monday with the loss of the U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke. Diane and her guests discuss the status report on the Afghanistan war.


  • James Kitfield Senior correspondent, The National Journal.
  • Bill Harris Former senior U.S. civilian representative, Kandahar Province and a retired career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service.
  • Jessica Mathews President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  • Andrew Exum Fellow at the Center for New American Security. He blogs at and is the author of "This Man's Army." He served as a civilian adviser to General McChrystal and was an Army Ranger, serving two tours in Afghanistan.


  • 10:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Over 2,200 coalition troops have died in what is now America's longest war. The White House is releasing its year-end review of its war strategy in Afghanistan. It comes as two U.S. intelligence reports are released simultaneously. Joining me in the studio to give us an assessment of the war, James Kitfield of National Journal, Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Andrew Exum of the Center for New American Security. Joining us from Colorado Springs is Bill Harris. He is former senior U.S. diplomat to Kandahar.

  • 10:07:57

    MS. DIANE REHMAnd throughout the hour, we'll take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. James Kitfield, I know you've just returned from Afghanistan. But give us some of the details of the review that have already been released.

  • 10:08:32

    MR. JAMES KITFIELDWell, they haven't been released yet. They've been kind of -- parts of it have been kind of leaked out to the press. But what we've seen, it has been telegraphed for, you know, five to six weeks. And I got the same message when I was just over there last week with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which is the -- you know, the counterinsurgency surge, if you will, is working. It's starting to work in -- it's working in Helmand, and it's working in Kandahar, finally, in the sense that we have enough troops there now. As General Petraeus told us, the counterinsurgency math is finally starting to add up. He has enough troops to basically clear those areas of major Taliban pockets, and they're moving in.

  • 10:09:11

    MR. JAMES KITFIELDAnd the really good news is the Afghan army is, like, 60/40 participating in these operations although they're led by the U.S. But that means that they can do a lot of the whole. They can -- and they're much better at that because they interact with their own people. So that's the good news. And we have enough forces now to actually start making progress. But as these two intelligence reports point out, the two big unknowns in this thing are the sanctuaries for the insurgencies in Pakistan and the ability of the Afghan government to then come in behind our forces and, you know, provide governance -- remain open questions.

  • 10:09:47

    REHMAnd, Andrew Exum, you have also just returned from Afghanistan. There's a report this morning that there's growing concern about civilian deaths. Tell us what you've seen.

  • 10:10:03

    MR. ANDREW EXUMYeah, I mean, first off, I just concur with the other earlier assessment. I think that tactically and operationally the counterinsurgency operations are working on the ground in Afghanistan. But you have these two larger strategic concerns that undermine all of those tactical gains, being governance and sanctuaries in Pakistan. With respect to civilian casualties, I think one of the things that coalition commanders like to point out is that the vast majority of these civilian casualties are caused by the insurgents, not by NATO forces.

  • 10:10:28

    MR. ANDREW EXUMThe problem with that analysis is, is that the Afghans actually disaggregate the casualties a little bit differently. When they think of insurgents causing these casualties, they don't think of it as just one unitary actor, like the Taliban. They think of many different actors causing this. And as a result, the U.S.-NATO forces are just one of many actors that are seen within this complicated Afghan landscape. The researcher, Erica Gaston, in Kabul has done some groundbreaking research on this.

  • 10:10:56

    REHMAnd, Bill Harris, I'd like to bring you in. What do you see as the current situation?

  • 10:11:04

    MR. BILL HARRISWell, Diane, I think I could agree with the previous two speakers, James and Andrew. First of all, yes, we do have the right force package. For the first time, we can fight everywhere in the south at once. We were not able to do that at any time over the last few years. Secondly, we have the civilian experts -- which I was one -- over the last year in Kandahar. And we have the money. We have plenty of money. So I think a lot of credit goes to the president for deciding to double down in Afghanistan.

  • 10:11:34

    MR. BILL HARRISThe counterinsurgency strategy is working. There's no doubt about it. The people and the insurgents have been separated, which is the objective. I think certainly the sanctuaries, for me, would be the big game-changer. I don't see how we win unless the sanctuaries are closed down.

  • 10:11:54

    REHMAnd turning to you, Jessica Mathews, NATO is reporting that three Afghan children were killed, nine people seriously injured Wednesday in a bike bomb explosion in Kandahar. The nine injured included two children, member of the Afghan National Police. Apparently, there is growing unrest among the Afghan people themselves as this insurgence against the Taliban continues. What's your assessment of what's happening in Afghanistan?

  • 10:12:38

    MS. JESSICA MATHEWSMine is quite different than the three assessments, I think, that you've just heard because the bigger picture -- I mean -- I guess all three of our colleagues mentioned the sanctuaries. But the bigger picture is the strategy. The strategy is we increase the force, the Taliban gets weaker. And then we put more effort into building an Afghan army, and Karzai gets stronger. The actual reality on the ground is the reverse. For nine years now -- 10, the Taliban has gotten stronger, and Karzai's state, for good reasons, has gotten weaker.

  • 10:13:24

    MS. JESSICA MATHEWSSo the question of what will happen next year and what these tactical victories mean is, I think, in reality what we see from the military's assessment that the counterinsurgency is "working," is a measure of inputs and outputs. How much money do we have? How many troops do we have? How many people do we kill? But we don't have an Afghan state, so we don't have anybody to turn over these places to. In Kandahar, specifically to your question, people who talk to the coalition die. They get killed.

  • 10:14:09

    MS. JESSICA MATHEWSAnd the reality is -- and, of course, we've got a ruling coalition -- a ruling -- a ruler in Kandahar, Karzai's brother, whom is deeply involved in the drug trade and corrupt to the nth degree. Counterinsurgency requires a state ally. We don't have one. So in -- I would say, in addition to what you heard about the sanctuaries and the impossibility -- and I use that word seriously -- of winning a military victory when the opponent has a sanctuary across the border -- it didn't work in Korea, it didn't work in Vietnam, it didn't work in Algeria -- it can't work. The other strategic hole in our policy is the absence of an Afghan state with which to work.

  • 10:15:01

    REHMJessica Mathews, she is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Bill Harris is former senior U.S. civilian representative in Kandahar Province, retired career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service. Andrew Exum is a fellow at Center for a New American Security. James Kitfield is senior correspondent for National Journal magazine. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Andrew Exum, I know you wanted to make a comment on Jessica's points.

  • 10:15:43

    EXUMWell, I think that, you know, Jessica raises a couple of good points. First off, the sanctuaries and the problems with Afghan governance are real. If, for example, you think that the weakness of the Afghan government is the problem and you expand the power of that state, then that's one tactic to get you a result. But if you think that the Afghan government is being predatory, as we've seen it's been in Kandahar and Helmand, then strengthening the power of the Afghan government might actually work across purposes. The one thing I'd say as a -- you know, as a caveat to all that is that I think it's way too early to tell whether or not the tactical and operational successes that we've seen so far in Helmand and Kandahar are going to have a strategic effect.

  • 10:16:22

    EXUMWe got to keep in mind that President Obama decided to surge troops on one December of last year. The last of those surge troops, which is the division headquarters in the 10th Mountain Division that arrived in Kandahar, arrived two months ago. And because of the cyclical nature of the Afghan conflict, where you have to measure yearly success because of the fact that it -- you know, it reaches a crescendo in the summers and then it dies down in the winters, we're really not going to be able to affect -- to measure the strategic effects of this surge until, you know, September or October next year. So I think it's a little too early to be declaring a strategic failure in Afghanistan.

  • 10:16:57


  • 10:16:58

    KITFIELDI kind of agree with that. I think -- you know, my assessment, really, of this is that it's a mistake to look at this as a 10-year war because we haven't been fighting this war for 10 years. We've just started really focusing. I mean, the Bush administration -- let it be reminded to all of our listeners, you know -- just ignored this as it focused on Iraq. So we just now started to do this. But that time that we've wasted, I think, has bled all the margins of error out of this.

  • 10:17:24

    KITFIELDSo it's a very near thing, whether we can do what needs to be done on the timelines that are left, and the timelines that are left are between now and 2014 with a gradual drawdown of allied forces and U.S. forces beginning next summer. If we had, you know -- this report that I -- and the reports I received last week would have been a good news story in 2005. Right now, it's kind of like, maybe we can, you know, salvage something acceptable out of this at the 11th hour, but we are at the 11th hour.

  • 10:17:57

    REHMJames Kitfield, he's senior correspondent for National Journal magazine. We're going to take a short break here. When we come back, we'll open the phones, hear your questions, your own personal views on what's happening in Afghanistan, and one can argue whether it's an almost 10-year war or otherwise. Stay with us.

  • 10:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the assessment of the war in Afghanistan. It's due out from the administration tomorrow. There have been a few leaks just before the break. James Kitfield was talking. I wonder how you, Andrew Exum, see what's happening with American troops on the border with Pakistan.

  • 10:20:32

    EXUMYeah, I mean, I think, first off, trying to secure the border in Pakistan when we can't secure the border in Arizona -- it's extremely difficult to secure a mountainous border like you have in the Durand Line. I've been fighting or studying this war since 2002. I myself have spent time on the border as a young infantry officer in 2002 and 2004. And I think the strategy that we have right now, which is basing yourself more among the civilian population and trying to isolate the civilian population from the Taliban is a much better strategy.

  • 10:21:02

    EXUMI think trying to shut down the border, which is actually what Karzai wants us to do -- I mean, Karzai feels that what we're doing in southern Afghanistan is, in a lot of ways, targeting his political coalition. He'd like us to focus our war efforts on the Pakistanis. But for a variety of reasons, both geographical and political, that's a difficult thing to do.

  • 10:21:20

    REHMBill Harris, how do you see it?

  • 10:21:24

    HARRISI think we have a tendency to conflate three conflicts that are going on side by side out there. One of them is the war between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. That's the conflict that we're working on, first and foremost. And then you have the regional shoving match out there that includes Iran, Pakistan, China, India, Russia, us. Who did I forget? And, thirdly, the international global jihad. Yes, they're all related. But I think if we conflate them, if we take them as a single conflict, it just looks hopeless.

  • 10:22:01

    HARRISOur job, when we got to Afghanistan in the civilian surge a year ago, was to support the military in shifting the initiative on the battlefield, and I think we've done that. Taliban no longer have the initiative in the South, and that's their stronghold. They don't take territory. They don't take infrastructure. They don't take population centers. They're giving all these things back. Now, we have a security space. We have political space. What do we do with it? Well, we have to flood the zone with governance and development projects. And, again, for me, all roads lead back to Pakistan. We have to shut down the sanctuary.

  • 10:22:41

    REHMYou're shaking your head negatively, Jessica.

  • 10:22:45

    MATHEWSWell, I mean, there are several things. You know, Andrew used the phrase, we need to isolate the Taliban from the civilian population. The Taliban is the civilian population. Unlike Iraq, the -- are Afghans, and the people, as he knows, that were -- you know, that you fight at night are that you see in the fields in the day. So, secondly, I think to say we need to flood the area with governance is too -- is a little bit fanciful. There is no presence of the Afghan state, other than some army and police units, in most of the rural areas of the country.

  • 10:23:34

    MATHEWSAnd Bill's description of what's happening in Kandahar just -- in fact, I think what we've heard today, the descriptions written by, particularly, NGOs who are on the ground and by groups like the International Crisis Group -- that have, I think, a superb record in describing these conflicts, as they did in Iraq -- paint a completely different picture than what you've heard.

  • 10:24:03

    REHMSo, Jessica, what are you saying? Are you saying that you believe that this effort, this surge, has not done what it was intended to do, that we are wasting lives? We ought to get out now? Is that what you're suggesting?

  • 10:24:22

    MATHEWSNo, no. It's perfectly true, as everyone has said, that it's too soon to say the additional 30,000 troops "haven't worked." But I think it is probably not too soon to say that the strategy doesn't match reality here, in part, both in the local level and the bigger picture that Bill Harris just mentioned, which is the United States is making a major effort to open a special relationship with India. Why? Because we're worried about China. China and Pakistan are joined at the hip. We -- so we have got a strategy that conflicts with itself. All right? So the -- I think that the only hope here -- and we've -- everybody has said we can't do this. We can't win militarily if we can't close the border. And...

  • 10:25:16

    EXUMNo. I don't think everybody said that.

  • 10:25:18

    MATHEWSWell -- or if we can't, eliminate the sanctuary. Okay. Let's -- that's the accurate way to say it.

  • 10:25:22

    EXUMI don't think anyone said that either. I think what you're trying to do is reduce the effects of the sanctuaries in Pakistan, but nobody said to eliminate them.

  • 10:25:29

    REHMBut how do you do that, Andrew? How do you reduce or even eliminate those sanctuaries at the border?

  • 10:25:38

    EXUMSure. I think the Pakistanis, since 2004, 2005, have pursued a quite logical strategy. They're planning for the United States when we exit Afghanistan. So what they're trying to do is support proxies that are going to represent their interests in Afghanistan past a U.S. withdrawal. When we announced that we're beginning to leave in July 2011, we encouraged that strategy. When we extend that time line, when we talk about the fact that we're going to be there until 2014, that we're going to be supporting the Afghan state beyond 2014, that affects the Pakistani strategic calculus. But, quite honestly, nobody is saying that you have to have the perfect government in Afghanistan in order to be successful. And nobody is saying...

  • 10:26:14

    MATHEWSAnd I don't either.

  • 10:26:14

    EXUM...that you have to -- nobody is saying that you have to eliminate the sanctuaries.

  • 10:26:18

    KITFIELDA couple of points on the border. I mean, I was just there in RC-East, and we got a chance to interview the commander of the 101st who actually has that fight. It is a holding action that's very -- he calls -- kinetic. There's a lot of high-intensity combat going on there. They've captured or killed 3,800 -- I think you said -- insurgents in the last three months. They have 140 bases -- you know, forward outposts, command posts -- all along that border. They know they can't seal it. What they have done is kept major elements of the Taliban coming through those river valleys that head right to Kabul. And the fact that Kabul is fairly safe -- we haven't seen a huge amount of big terrorist attacks in Kabul -- shows you that they have some success at that.

  • 10:26:58

    KITFIELDThis also makes the point that, you know, yes, that sanctuary still exists on the other side. Occasionally, we've seen the Pakistanis get serious in South Waziristan. Last year, they had an offensive that pushed a lot of the insurgencies in the Haqqani network farther north, which is right where our border posts are. So we're seeing a lot more activity. You know, eventually, it's going to require the Pakistanis to do more in the North, and they haven't lost hope. And Secretary Gates is constantly saying that, you know, they are kind of catching their breath after the floods, after these offensives. But he hasn't given up hope we can get them to put pressure on the Pakistanis at the North.

  • 10:27:30

    MATHEWSI think that that's -- I think Pakistan is a -- Pakistan's principal strategic worry is not Afghanistan. It's India. And we're -- there is nothing we can do to change that. I really believe that it doesn't matter how many trips our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of Defense make there. It won't change that. On the other hand, there is a tiny kernel of common interest between the United States and Pakistan, and that is neither of us wants chaos in Afghanistan when the U.S. major force leaves, whenever that may be. In that kernel of common interest, I think, is a possibility it may very well not work for negotiations. And, I mean, what we haven't said here this morning that needs to be said is the Taliban is controlled in Pakistan. Okay?

  • 10:28:26

    MATHEWSISI runs Taliban forces, and the Taliban leadership is sitting in Quetta, not the people we're killing in Kandahar. So I -- and, by the way, you know, even the killing has a consequence as well because it's been widely reported that the people that are taking the place of those we kill -- younger, 25-year-olds -- are even more radical than the people we're killing. So I -- the question, I think, becomes, is there -- and this is at the core of the military strategy as well -- is there a kernel of common interest on which we can negotiate? And I think Gen. Petraeus' view is he wants us to be in a stronger position before we start. The question...

  • 10:29:15

    REHMBill Harris -- yeah, Bill Harris, how do you see it?

  • 10:29:19

    HARRISLet me just make a point on governance in the South to Jessica's point, which I think is a little pessimistic. First of all, I don't think anyone's mentioned the fact that the Taliban are deeply unpopular, even in the South, which is, again, their stronghold. There is governance in the South. For instance, the six districts surrounding Kandahar City, each has a district governor, a district assembly, a district center, bricks-and-mortar buildings, programs that support prosecutors and so forth in each of these six key terrain districts around Kandahar City.

  • 10:30:01

    HARRISIn Kandahar City itself, the city is divided into 10 subdistricts. Each has a district manager who reports to the mayor. Mayor Hameedi of Kandahar City is a very courageous guy, a guy that we see no conflict of interest in. The same can be said of Gov. Wesa. So I don't think it's entirely fair to say there is no governance in the South. There is some. Now, where I do agree is that governance is the -- is a kind of tipping point, and you have to hit, I think, a couple of tipping points for this thing to start going our way.

  • 10:30:39

    HARRISOne, we are hitting right now, which is the initiative shift on the battlefield. That shift -- that initiative has now shifted to us. The second one, though, is a lot tougher. And I think this is where I agree with Jessica. And that is, some sort of a majority of Afghan public opinion, especially in the South, has got to be willing to take a chance on their own government. And this government of Afghanistan is so tightly controlled at the center and is so stingy, that that is -- that's still an open question, whether that government is going to show up.

  • 10:31:17

    REHMBill Harris, I want to ask you about Richard Holbrooke's death on Monday. Apparently, his last words to his surgeon were, you've got to stop this war in Afghanistan. Now, the State Department has somewhat tried to say that he uttered those words in exchange as they were trying to relax him before surgery. But as one who served under him, I wonder how you see those words.

  • 10:31:58

    HARRISWell, for openers, he's perfectly in character until the last moment...

  • 10:32:02


  • 10:32:03

    HARRIS...and no surprise there. I worked with Amb. Holbrooke during the period of the Kosovo War. He is -- he's really a towering figure in our foreign service. Recall that he started as a State Department foreign service officer. I think in Afghanistan, Dick Holbrooke may have met something close to his match. There really is no negotiation ongoing, which is what Dick Holbrooke always did best -- negotiation. Now, it's fair to say that he, up to the last minute, was trying to put the pieces on the table that would create a kind of dialogue, a multi-party dialogue, on how to close out the Afghan War. I think that dialogue is going to develop over the course of the next 12 months, and I think there is hope for it. I'm sorry to say that Dick Holbrooke isn't going to be there, and we are really going to miss him.

  • 10:33:02

    REHMBill Harris, he is former senior U.S. civilian representative in the Kandahar Province, a retired career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers. I want to get to the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Treasure Island, Fla. Good morning, Carl. You're on the air.

  • 10:33:33

    CARLGood morning, all. Thank you for taking the call.

  • 10:33:35


  • 10:33:36

    CARLOut of respect for a fallen soldier in my hometown, I attended that funeral, and it truly is a sobering experience. And I believe I'm correct that there are some 500 Americans who have died in that war so far.

  • 10:33:52

    REHMOh, it's much closer, I think, to 1,500.

  • 10:33:56

    CARLOh, I apologize.

  • 10:33:57


  • 10:33:58

    CARLI thought 500. But in any event, how many have been killed and had been injured for life, of course? And the frustration I have is this, and perhaps the panel can help me. There is such pervasive corruption in that country. It appears to me as though there is. Karzai, certainly, is arguably mentally ill at times. The longest war in our history and the tremendous cost of the war, so my basic frustration question is this -- I consider myself an average American. What can I do, as an average American, to bring this war to an end?

  • 10:34:41

    REHMI think Carl states the frustration of many, many Americans. That question is a good one. Andrew.

  • 10:34:51

    EXUMYeah, I mean, one of the things that Bill said about flooding the South with development and aid projects -- they're good development and aid projects, but you could argue that we're sending so much money into Afghanistan that, really, both the government of Afghanistan as well as the insurgent groups, have an interest in this war continuing because they are able to siphon off so much money from aid and development. So in answer to Carl, one of the things that I would do is lobby your representative in Washington to pass a bill that allows us to rollover unspent aid and development funds to the next fiscal year.

  • 10:35:21

    EXUMWhat that will do is reduce the perverse incentive within our own government to spend all of our aid and development money allotted for each fiscal year. Right now, there is entirely too much money that's being sent into Afghanistan. And, again, it is fueling this corruption, and it is not only funding members of the Afghan government, but also the insurgency itself.

  • 10:35:42

    REHMHmm. James.

  • 10:35:44

    KITFIELDThat's an interesting proposal. I, actually, you know, go back to Petraeus' argument that, you know, a dollar is better than a bullet in a lot of these cases. You need money. These commanders' emergency funds have been critical...

  • 10:35:54

    REHMBut it has to be used correctly...

  • 10:35:57

    KITFIELDWell, it does. And they're...

  • 10:35:58

    REHM...and honestly.

  • 10:35:59

    KITFIELDOh, absolutely. We've made some massive mistakes -- for instance, hiring security services that were really just fronts for local warlords. So we've done some stupid stuff, but the -- my basic point is, in many of these cases, you have to have money to -- for a counterinsurgency to succeed. And there is going to be some -- I mean, I take the point, you know? The corruption is rampant in the Afghan -- in Karzai's government. But in some level, we have to admit, in any country that is one of the poorest countries in the world, there is going to be corruption. There's going to be crony-ism. (sic) I would like someone to name me the country in those kinds of straits that says there is no corruption.

  • 10:36:32

    REHMBut we're talking about millions of dollars.

  • 10:36:35


  • 10:36:36


  • 10:36:36

    KITFIELDNo, billions.

  • 10:36:37


  • 10:36:37're talking -- you know, you can, I think, fiddle around the edges which would be what -- you know, that you could rollover money. But the fact is, we are fueling a war economy, and a war economy always has these problems. The critical problem is that the size of our spending relative to the size of the Afghan economy is massive. So you're going to get this effect...

  • 10:37:01

    HARRISThat's true.

  • 10:37:02 matter what -- you know, how much you tweak who is getting the money or whether it rolls over or something. This -- I mean, you can hire only western security forces, for example, and -- in which case you're not putting money into the Afghan economy for the few that aren't corrupt. But this problem is inherent in what we're doing.

  • 10:37:27

    REHMJessica Mathews, she is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And a short break here. More of your comments, your questions after our break.

  • 10:40:02

    REHMAnd here's a question from one of our listeners in Durham, N.C. Reg wants to ask, "Please clarify the significance of July 2011. Does that mean our troop levels will have peaked at that date and that the number will then decline until 2014? Is 2014 the year when the U.S. will stand down from the conflict? How is it that decisions on all these matters seem to be made unilaterally by a commander in chief and the executive branch? Who are the members of Congress whose views matter concerning our commitments and policies?" Andrew.

  • 10:40:52

    EXUMYeah, I mean, there are two key dates. July 2011 is when President Obama has decided he wants to see the beginning of a drawdown in Afghanistan. 2014, by contrast, is the date that President Hamid Karzai mentioned in his second inaugural address. That's when he wants full sovereignty over Afghanistan. So between 2011 and 2014, you're going to see us drawdown, and the debate will be about how quickly you can drawdown. And that 2014 date, that was ratified by members of the NATO coalition in Lisbon in agreement with the Afghan government. So everybody's on the same page with respect to 2014.

  • 10:41:27

    EXUMBut what I think you can expect after 2014 is a continued U.S. training mission in Afghanistan and a continued special operations presence. But I think it's quite realistic to expect that that presence is going to be maybe a fifth to the sixth the size of the current presence, which is about 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops. But that final package, with respect to the training and equipment mission as well as the special operations force, that's going to be the subject to much debate in much the way that the residual force that we've left in Iraq was the subject of much debate, but which is completely off the front pages of the paper now.

  • 10:42:04


  • 10:42:05

    MATHEWSWell, at the time of the Lisbon Summit, the Pentagon said that the 2011 date -- and they've said this often, which is, first of all, conditions-based -- so it depends on things going well. It depends on the Taliban getting weaker, the Afghan army getting stronger. I think trends on the ground suggest the reverse. Secondly, they also said that the 2014 date for full handover of conduct of the war was "aspirational." And General Petraeus has said, both publicly and privately, that he expects -- in one case he said -- the grandchildren of people now fighting there to be ready to carry on this effort.

  • 10:42:44

    MATHEWSSo I think the question -- and we should also point out that the -- Andrew was -- important point that the troop presence now includes NATO troops, non-American NATO troops. Many of those are going to depart, the Dutch, the Canadians, the Irish, the Polish, the UK, France, Germany...

  • 10:43:08

    EXUMBut NATO is signed on through 2014. That was agreed on it, but...

  • 10:43:11

    MATHEWSWell, but not at a constant level of troops.

  • 10:43:14

    EXUMNo. Neither have we, for that matter.

  • 10:43:15

    MATHEWSAnd so -- and we know that these others are planning departures in the immediate future, so we're going to be dealing with fewer troops. Now, some of these have only marginal military utility anyway 'cause they're so constrained, but fewer troops and more cost over this period. But the important point, I think, is that the wiggle room on these two dates is enormous.

  • 10:43:45

    REHMWiggle room, James.

  • 10:43:47

    KITFIELDThere was always a lot of wiggle room in that July 2011 conditions-based beginning the withdrawal. What was really, I thought, fascinating, 2014 puts you -- you can trace the glide path, if you will, from 2011, 2014. I'm -- I disagree with Andrew. I think it will be much less than a fifth that will be left after the end of 2014. There will be a residual train and equip. There will be some commanding control enablers left. But it'll be, like he said, Iraq, where you just don't see it on the front pages 'cause we're not fighting, and we don't have casualties.

  • 10:44:17

    KITFIELDAnd, you know, to me, I must say, I don't think you can argue that the Taliban is not -- is stronger. The Taliban has lost huge chunks of territory. You know, when an insurgency threatens a state, it usually starts when, you know, there's -- you know, terrorist attacks, unrest. Once it moves to holding large swaths of territory, you're in deep trouble. We have reversed that in the South. That's a positive thing. A lot of Taliban have been killed and captured. So I can't -- I don't think we can argue the Taliban's stronger. Now, is it resilient?

  • 10:44:48

    MATHEWSWhat about the North and the West?

  • 10:44:51

    KITFIELDYeah, with the North is...

  • 10:44:51

    EXUMYeah, well, I mean...

  • 10:44:52

    KITFIELDWell, the -- what happens is, when you squeeze this bubble, they do tend to go some place else.

  • 10:44:56

    REHMOf course.

  • 10:44:57

    EXUMNo, but...

  • 10:44:57

    KITFIELDBut they have nothing like the presence and the hold on territory in the North and the West that they had in the South. So...

  • 10:45:03

    MATHEWSBut this is never -- this kind of war is never a question of holding territory.

  • 10:45:08

    KITFIELDWell, it...

  • 10:45:08


  • 10:45:09

    KITFIELD...if you have a -- you know, you talk about sanctuary. If you have a sanctuary within a country that they can operate out of -- much like the Sunni insurgency had in Iraq and Anbar -- then you are in deep trouble. Once you deny them that sanctuary, like we did in Anbar and Iraq, you can have significant success against them.

  • 10:45:24

    REHMAll right. I want to take a caller in Framingham, Mass. And, Bill Harris, this will be a question for you. Jeff, you're on the air.

  • 10:45:36

    JEFFHi. This is not just a question. It's a statement. I think that this conversation sounds insane to me. You're talking about having a war as if it were scheduled television programs. We're going to do this in 2011, this in 2014. And I have not seen wars like that since studying back in 1100 when they would do it for some kind of exercise. We fought in the '30s and '40s to prevent a real enemy from conquering and subjugating Europe, and that was the Nazis. Nobody talked about how long it would be, what day we were going in or out. This sets up the kind of thing that George Orwell horrifyingly predicted -- endless kinds of endless wars.

  • 10:46:35

    REHMBill Harris.

  • 10:46:37

    HARRISWell, Jeff's right. War is insanity, no doubt about that. I had a chance to see that myself over the last 12 months. I think in terms of trying to game this out with a calendar in your hand, Jeff's also right. What we're looking at here is some breathing space that was granted at Lisbon to the president to flatten the glide path a little bit, but basically, the reality, I think, is this is going to be progress dependent. If we are not continuing to make progress by some discernible measure, Congress and the American people, I'm guessing, are going to take a pass on stepping up any kind of effort in Afghanistan.

  • 10:47:23

    HARRISI just want to say a word about the Taliban, to Jessica's point. The Taliban is not growing stronger. I think that is absolutely not true. The Taliban in the south is on its heels, but, again, for me, all roads lead to Pakistan. As long as they can go to Pakistan and recover, then that's temporary.

  • 10:47:45

    REHMBut what happens when U.S. troops and others move out of Afghanistan? Doesn't the Taliban come right back in and start running the government, Andrew?

  • 10:48:01

    EXUMWell, I think if you don't make any progress building up certain institutions, like the Afghan National Security Forces, that happens, but I think we've seen a lot of successes building up the Afghan National Army and now, recently, with Afghan National Police. Just to the gentleman's point, I would say that you're absolutely right. You know, we achieved decisive victories over the imperial armies of Japan and over Germany. But when was -- when exactly did we withdraw from Japan and Germany? We didn't. We continued a longstanding and successful train and equip mission that continues to this day.

  • 10:48:30

    EXUMAnd to Jessica's point about violence in the North, look, if you just look at the facts, three provinces account for 65 percent of the violence in Afghanistan -- Kandahar, Helmand and Kunar. Nine districts account for 50 percent of the violence in Afghanistan. That's out of 401 districts. If you actually bothered to run the numbers and look at the violence in the North, it's a miniscule percentage of the violence that's overall in Afghanistan. And there are natural limiting factors to a Pashtun insurgency in the North and West of Afghanistan that you don't have in the South and East. So it's a bit of a canard. I'm sorry.

  • 10:49:00


  • 10:49:01

    MATHEWSWell, it isn't because violence is the last phase of a growing strength. Political -- the growth of political presence is what you have to measure first, and that is growing in the North.

  • 10:49:14

    EXUMAnd how do you measure that?

  • 10:49:14

    MATHEWSYou can't -- well, the people...

  • 10:49:16

    EXUMWhat statistics -- what measurements have you made?

  • 10:49:17

    MATHEWSSee, that's a difficulty of our kind of military operation. You can -- you have to do it by statistics, but if you talk to the people on the ground...

  • 10:49:25

    EXUMNo, but you made a point. Back it up with evidence.

  • 10:49:27

    REHMOkay, hold on.

  • 10:49:27

    MATHEWSWell, for example, you cannot travel to the North now without -- basically, without permission, except in an armed cavalcade -- without permission from the Taliban. NGOs now get permission from the Taliban. They get a slip that allows them to travel to the North. That was -- that you...

  • 10:49:45

    EXUMWhere in the North? Just -- and if you're talking about...

  • 10:49:47

    MATHEWSKunduz. I mean…

  • 10:49:48

    EXUMIf you're talking about Kunduz, I agree.

  • 10:49:50

    MATHEWSWell, you know, I'm -- a year ago, less than a year ago, that didn't exist, right? It's a growing political presence as it has -- everywhere else, the political presence grows first before the violence. The point is, the argument that we've only -- that we've been -- that we fought nine one-year wars, right, misses the point that the overall trajectory is that for 10 years now our commitment in troops, in money and resources has gone up every year. And the situation has gotten worse. You could not imagine in 2005, as James mentioned a minute ago, that we would be in 2010 where we are now, given -- you know, given the amount of effort that's been made.

  • 10:50:41

    MATHEWSSo that's the other side of that picture that I think we just have to -- it isn't pretty. Nobody -- I certainly don't take any pleasure in, you know -- in saying what I've been saying. But the contrast between what is reported by our military and these input-output measurements and the outcomes that people on the ground describe -- my colleague Gilles Dorronsoro has been going there for 20 years. He goes three months a year. And the International Crisis Group -- I could name you -- doesn't. It's so stark right now that you have to step back and say, wait a minute. You've heard here that the Taliban are deeply unpopular in the South, and you hear from people who live there that that Taliban is tremendously popular in Kandahar. So...

  • 10:51:37


  • 10:51:37

    HARRISI live -- let me just say that I lived in Kandahar.

  • 10:51:39

    REHMOkay, Bill.

  • 10:51:41

    HARRISI lived in Kandahar for 12 months. And, you know, I'm a retired State Department guy so I hope I get some points, some integrity points or, you know, nongovernment points here. But the people don't like the Taliban. I'm quite certain of it. I've been to lots of villages. I've talked to lots of people. I've been all over that province, and the Taliban were a real failure as a government. I would go so far as to say, right now, the Taliban is not a viable insurgency if you define insurgency as an alternative government to the Kabul government.

  • 10:52:16

    HARRISNow, that may not last, and I think that's the stage of the conflict in which we find ourselves. We have to make this sustainable, and I think we can. This is really our game to lose as far as I'm concerned. And one other point, the military are not cooking the books here. The military, I think, played it very straight and conservatively on how they report their activities. And if they are reporting outputs, well, I think you have to forgive them and all of us for that. Because output is what we were sent there to produce.

  • 10:52:49

    REHMBill Harris, he is a former career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an e-mail from Peter in Tarrytown, N.Y. who says, "We imposed a government in Iraq that is not responsive to their citizens. They retain their power only with the backing of our troops. We're trying to impose a government in Afghanistan in a country that's never had one and doesn't want one." James.

  • 10:53:25

    KITFIELDWell, I don't think it's ever going to have a strong central government. I would disagree a bit about Iraq. I mean -- again, I've gone on the record many times -- it was a strategic blunder of absolutely mammoth proportions. But it is probably the most democratic place and all of central to commands region in the Middle East. I mean, it's all monarchies and the autocrats. Actually, they have elections there that matter in Iraq now. You can look at it and find fault with what's going on in Iraq right now, but you have to say that it is -- elections do matter in Iraq right now.

  • 10:53:51

    REHMOkay. I have one question for all of you. What happens when U.S. troops leave Afghanistan? James.

  • 10:54:00

    KITFIELDI think there is a chance that when we pull out the training wheels, if we do have a glide path through 2014 that we've created, Afghan Security Forces that can take our place and keep that country together. There's also a chance that that government does not improve the institution building that we do is a failure. Karzai is just too resistant to that, and then the whole enterprise falls apart.

  • 10:54:21

    REHMBill Harris, how do you see it?

  • 10:54:23

    HARRISOh, I see it very much in the same way. I think if we built up the police and the army, if we have created a basic mechanism for the government to deliver fundamental primary services to the people, and if assistance levels can be dialed in at something which is not too low to be ineffective, not too high to be corrupting, I think you have a 50-50 chance, maybe better of an Afghanistan that can run itself.

  • 10:54:52

    REHMFifty-fifty a chance, Andrew, or more?

  • 10:54:55

    EXUMWell, let me address the worst-case scenario. If our project does fail in Afghanistan, if we're not able to get the Afghan National Security Forces and government where we'd like, I think Afghanistan falls into another phase of civil war. But it's a phase of civil war that, quite frankly, the Taliban can't win. They're deeply unpopular, and the odds are stacked against them in terms of resources, in terms of external sponsors as well.

  • 10:55:19

    REHMSo what you're saying is Afghanistan could fall into civil war once we leave?

  • 10:55:26

    EXUMAbsolutely. I think it's a realistic possibility. I think that that is exactly what we're trying to avoid.

  • 10:55:33

    REHMAnd do you think we are on the verge of being successful?

  • 10:55:37

    EXUMI think that we have the inputs right, but I don't think that we're -- I don't think I'm going to be able to accurately measure whether we've had operational and strategic successes until another 10 months from now.

  • 10:55:47


  • 10:55:49

    MATHEWSWell, an army won't solve the problem because an army has to have a state to fight for. So the question then is, what can we do to have a state? We've tried everything with Karzai. We've tried embracing him. We've tried public criticism. We've tried private pressure. We've tried to move him out through elections. None of it has worked. So I think that the answer to your question is, it depends and on what sort of political solution we could achieve. I doubt it will come as a "military" -- you know, a "straight military victory." And it has to come from some kind of negotiated settlement.

  • 10:56:37

    REHMJessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Andrew Exum at the Center for New American Security, James Kitfield, senior correspondent for National Journal Magazine, Bill Harris, former career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service, thanks to all of you. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 10:57:07

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

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