Behind the lies of Congressman George Santos. Diane talks to the owner of the small weekly paper that first broke the story, and a Washington Post journalist who is following the money to see who financed Santos's political rise.
Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
Russia denies the U.S. claim that cruise missiles aimed at Syria hit Iran. NATO denounces Russia for reports that it violated Turkish airspace. President Obama apologizes for the U.S. bombing of a civilian hospital in Afghanistan. Doctors Without Borders calls for an independent investigation into the attack in Kunduz that killed physicians and patients. And a group of four Tunisian organizations working together to promote democracy wins the Nobel Peace Prize. A panel of journalists joins guest host Indira Lakshmanan for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Tom Bowman Pentagon correspondent, NPR
- Karen DeYoung Senior national security correspondent, The Washington Post
- Edward Luce Chief U.S. commentator, Financial Times; author of "Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent"
BBC: Migrant Deaths By Route
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back on Monday. The U.S. says Russian missiles launched at Syria landed in Iran. Doctors Without Borders pushes for an international investigation of U.S. airstrikes on a field hospital. And the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to a group of democracy advocates in Tunisia.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANHere to discuss this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Tom Bowman of NPR, Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post and Edward Luce of the Financial Times. Welcome, everyone.
MR. TOM BOWMANGood to be here.
MR. EDWARD LUCEHi.
MS. KAREN DEYOUNGHello.
LAKSHMANANWe will be taking your comments, your questions throughout the hour. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850. You can send us your email at email@example.com. Or you can join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. So it has been an incredibly busy week, specifically with the Syria crisis, which as they are changing, as they say, facts on the ground are changing quickly. Karen, Russia has significantly stepped up its military presence this week and Syrian President Assad's forces are more aggressively on the attack against opposition rebels. Tell us what's happening.
DEYOUNGWell, I think that the Russian buildup started about a month ago and at the same time President Putin was saying he wanted to join the fight against the Islamic State, and the Obama administration was nervous about this and watched it and President Obama met with President Putin at the United Nations early last week and Putin outlined exactly what they were going to do, which was to fight the forces that were combating Assad in the belief that this was the only way to really start to get at the Islamic State, that the forces that were fighting the Islamic State needed to join with Assad, the Syrian army on the ground and that the United States was welcome to join this effort.
DEYOUNGAnd Obama said, well, wait a minute. You're welcome to join our effort, which is against the Islamic State. We still think Assad has to go. And there they left it and literally hours after Putin flew out of New York, the Russians started bombing. They have sent dozens of fighter jets to Syria and are using them. They have launched cruise missiles as you said. They have done a sort of token number of attacks against ISIS, but most of their attacks have been focused in Western Syria really against the forces that are combating Assad, allowing Assad's forces on the ground to move forward.
DEYOUNGIt's interesting to me that this is basically the same strategy that the United States has in Iraq. We will do airstrikes and leave the ground open for local forces to come in and take over. In this case, the local forces being Assad. I think the administration is not quite sure what to do about this. They have said that they will continue their fight against ISIS and warned the Russians to stay out of their way, but that's as far as they've gone so far.
LAKSHMANANAnd so is there something that could make enough of a difference to change the direction of this war in Syria? Could we see Assad now triumphing in the end, Tom?
BOWMANWell, it's too early to say because what's going on now is a ground effort with Russian support. They've moved some of their rocket launches, some of their artillery, armored vehicles up to the north. Idlib province, that area, up into a valley there to support Hezbollah and also the Syrian Army. I'm told the initial assault was pushed back by rebel forces. Al-Nusra is up there, the al-Qaida-linked group, and I think some other groups as well. Free Syrian Army, which has been supported by the CIA, is up there as well, but they've been pushed back.
BOWMANThey'll make another assault, but clearly, you're starting to see a much more aggressive effort on the ground as opposed to just in the air. And as Karen said, that's right, most of the Russian attacks from the air, both cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea and also their fighter aircraft, have centered on Homs and Hama and Idlib province to the western part of the country, not ISIS territory. It's rebels against Assad territory.
LAKSHMANANThat's right. That's right. And so, Ed, I'm sort of struck by this, about how much of a tactical advantage the Assad regime could be getting from Russia's military presence and could it, in effect, sort of undo or reverse what the United States has been trying to do by hitting ISIS, but not trying to benefit the Assad regime in any way.
LUCEYeah. I mean, clearly, the game here is to eliminate everybody else other than ISIS and then make it seem as if the only logical option for the U.S. and others, if they want to defeat ISIS, is to accept the facts on the ground, that the Assad regime is the only vehicle that can do it, to hold their nose and do it. That's clearly...
LAKSHMANANThat seems to be what Putin is trying to make happen.
LUCE...that's clearly the -- exactly. I think the danger here is that it's getting, you know, the analogies we have with the first World War that keep cropping up, the analogies we have of the Spanish Civil War, of great powers fighting through proxies or, indeed, of the Vietnam War of Nicaragua, that you've got this buildup of forces acting on behalf of greater powers. The American forces admittedly are pretty puny. Assad is not. And that you get into a situation where negotiations are the end game, but improving the situation on the ground becomes the means by which to improve your position at the negotiating table. That's the history of these proxy wars.
DEYOUNGBut I think that it now is a real danger that these negotiations simply won't happen any time in the near future. The basis on which the Americans were sort of optimistic that there might be a real path for negotiations was that Assad had grown weaker.
LAKSHMANANNegotiations to have a change in the Syrian regime.
DEYOUNGTo have a change in government. The Americans have always insisted that that has to result in Assad leaving office. The Russians, who back Assad, have said, no, he should stay. And now you've got those talks becoming increasingly unlikely because Assad is no longer on the run and there's really no reason for him to participate in negotiations in which one of the preconditions is that he will leave office. At the same time, it also really throws out American plans to start fighting against the Islamic State on the Turkish/Syrian border in the western part where they have made advance, even though the Kurds and others have cleared them out of the eastern part of the border.
DEYOUNGThe U.S. plan was to send in an escalation of airstrikes to get its coalition partners to begin airstrikes there. Now, that's very close to the area where the Russians are bombing and they're bombing the very forces the Americans were counting on to move into this area. So I think that the whole U.S. strategy, at least in terms of Assad and settling this Syrian civil war is kind of thrown into the air.
LAKSHMANANSo it's gotten incredibly complicated. We have the U.S.-lead coalition with its airstrikes. We have Russia with its airstrikes at somewhat cross purposes and now we have U.S. officials saying that four cruise missiles fired by Russian warships were actually missing their target in Syria and landed in Iran. What do we know about that, Tom?
BOWMANWell, that's the report from the United States, that four of them hit in northern Iran. There's an Iranian TV report that some of these missiles hit in the rural area, rattled windows, killed some cows, left a big hole in the ground. Iran denies it so does the Russians. But getting back to this discussion of where we're headed now. What it looks like is clearly in the western part of the country, you're going to have Iran and Russia and the Syrian Army pushing against the rebels.
BOWMANIt seems like the American strategy now is to support the Kurds, support the Syrian/Arab coalition in the eastern part of the country. They're pressing Raqqah. So you could see the Americans and these allies try to defeat the Islamic State in their hometown, their headquarters in Raqqah. It's easier said than done, but clearly, that's what the plan is to do now. There's still some talk about some sort of a safe zone. Hillary Clinton came out in favor of a safe zone. Others have as well.
BOWMANIt's talked more about, I think, at the state department than at the Pentagon. I think the Pentagon sees this as very difficult. I was talking to one senior officer who said, listen, creating a safe zone, that area is like the bar scene in "Star Wars." Remember, in the movie, that all these characters are in the bar and you didn't know who was who. They're saying that there's...
LAKSHMANANAnd who's targeting who? That's also part of the question.
BOWMANRight. Well, and the point is that you might want to save some people and shoot at other people. So it's very difficult to create a safe zone, a no-fly zone because if you do create a no-fly zone, you have to eliminate the air defenses. And Assad's air defenses are very formidable. Now, you have the Russians playing a role there as well so there could be a very small safe zone if they create on at all. But again, they're still saying it's a non starter.
LAKSHMANANMeanwhile, Karen, we have seen that apparently the U.S. is scaling back and changing its mission to train and equip Syrian rebels. Explain that to us.
DEYOUNGWell, this goes back to what I was talking about and what Tom was just talking about, about this Syrian border area west of the Euphrates River, western Syria, the Turkish border. The Islamic State has moved into that area. The Turks don't like it. The Americans have agreed to push them out with airstrikes, again, before all the Russian stuff started and the Americans were training -- were going to train thousands of Syrian fighters to go into this area once, theoretically, it was cleared of the Islamic State.
DEYOUNGWhat they found is that these fighters did not want to fight the Islamic State. They wanted to fight Assad. They had a hard time vetting people. You'll recall that just a couple of weeks ago, the commander, the U.S. Central Commander General Austin said, actually, of the thousands they hoped to train this year, they really had only succeeded in putting four or five individuals into this area. Everybody agreed that this program had failed. It wasn't going to happen. And now, what they've decided to do is to take that program and scale it back significantly, no longer thousands, hundreds who are going to be trained not as fighters, but as liaisons and airstrike spotters who will join the Kurds and the Syrian Arabs in eastern Syria where they're fighting against the Islamic State there.
LAKSHMANANSo not quite an end to the program, but certainly very much a refocusing of it. We're going to take a short break. I look forward to hearing your questions and your comments. Call in and stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio are Edward Luce, chief U.S. commentator at the Financial Times and author of "Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent," Karen DeYoung, chief national security correspondent at The Washington Post, and Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent at NPR. We were talking about the complicated situation in Syria. And I wanted to mention that Iran has said that one of its top generals was killed in an attack by ISIS in Syria. How big of a blow is this to Iran? How big of a blow is this to Assad, Karen?
DEYOUNGWell, it's a big deal in that it confirms the presence on the ground of senior Quds Force Iranians, which we sort of knew.
LAKSHMANANWhich we knew.
DEYOUNGBut I think that when someone...
LAKSHMANANThey've been photographed and on Twitter. Yeah.
DEYOUNG...someone that senior actually on the ground where fighting is taking place, I think is a big deal. And it reconfirms the escalation of Iran's participation through Hezbollah and also with its own forces, at the same time the Russians are stepping up their participation and the belief that this was all coordinated by them at some point during the summer.
LAKSHMANANAnd how does all of this affect what's happened in the last couple of weeks, the entry of Russia, et cetera, how does that affect the U.S.-Iran relationship, Tom? Now we have this report about supposedly Russian missiles landing in Iran.
BOWMANWell, after this nuclear deal, there really is no relationship to speak of. You know, the U.S. has been pressing for some sort of a negotiated settlement in Syria. That clearly is not going to happen in the near term.
LAKSHMANANThey thought it would be a benefit. They thought a side benefit of doing this nuclear deal was that maybe Iran would play ball on pushing Assad to the table of peace talks. No?
BOWMANRight now -- now that Iran doesn't want to talk to the U.S. about anything and...
LAKSHMANANYeah, so tell us about that. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, came out this week...
BOWMANRight. He was speaking, of course, of the Republican Guard. So some of this is preaching to the choir. We would see that in our own country, a politician maybe talking to a group more conservative than he or she is, they would probably adjust their talk to this particular group. And that's, I think, what happened here. I'm not sure how much we should read into this right away. But the clear -- the bottom line is that a negotiated settlement in Syria with either Russia or Iran is very difficult. Russia has made it quite clear that they will do everything to support Assad. And also they want to protect their interests in Syria, including their naval base on the Mediterranean Sea.
BOWMANAnd the bottom line, I think, is Russia is really driving this train now. The U.S. is in the back.
LAKSHMANANThey want to protect Tartus, as you say, their only naval base in the Middle-East. At the same time, we've heard from the last few years from Secretary of State Kerry's people, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's people, that, oh, no, the Russians aren't married to Assad. They're willing to put him aside. What they really want is a peaceful transition. Karen, do you think that the events of the past few weeks put a complete lie to that? Or have the Russians just simply gotten fed up and tired with how the situation is going and think that Assad is the only solution?
DEYOUNGI still don't think the Russians are totally married to Assad. They're married to what they see as their interests in Syria. And at the moment, those are represented by Assad. I think throughout, the Americans have been sort of flummoxed by the Russian attitude to this because the Russians have told them privately, don't worry about Assad. We don't, you know, we're willing to give Assad up, if we can get a negotiation that protects our interest. The Americans say they have told the Russians -- again, this is over a period of years -- you can have your base.
DEYOUNGYou can have your influence in Syria. But we really want to have a negotiated solution here. And we believe that that would include Assad leaving. And of course the opposition in Syria, as the war has gone on, hates Assad more and more and more, after the barrel bombs and...
DEYOUNGAnd even if the United States...
LAKSHMANANAnd the chemical weapons.
DEYOUNG...were to say, okay, let's put off Assad's departure, they're not going to put up with it. And so we've never had a great deal of control over them and I think that they would not agree to that. And again, as I said before, that -- the whole negotiating track seems to be, for the moment at least, just blown up in smoke.
LAKSHMANANAnd the full-on Russian involvement now introduces a completely new wrinkle. We have this email from Pat in Rochester, Mich., who says, Putin is scary. It appears that he can do whatever he wants because no one has an answer on how to stop him. It appears the bully method will win. He decides to take over country by country in the Middle East. Ed, any validity to this listener's thoughts?
LUCEWell, quite a bit of validity. I was thinking, when we had these -- yesterday, of the cruise strikes from the Russian ships in the Caspian Sea, that this was quite unnecessary from a logistical point of view. This was a demonstration that Putin can do it, that he can -- and of course he couldn't, four of them, that they didn't land just a quarter of a mile away as some off-target strikes do, they landed in a different country. This is the equivalent -- the ballistic equivalent of him parading around with his shirt off. There is machismo to this.
LUCEBut there is also a method to it. I think Russia wanted and wants to insert itself back into the conversation, to make it absolutely plain that without Russia no solution is going to be possible. I think it wants leverage in the Ukraine. It clearly wants sanctions to be lifted and this gives it a much greater voice in that conversation.
LAKSHMANANAnd we know that Russia has played ball very nicely with the P5+1 talks with Iran. The U.S. has sung its praises, saying how it really held the line on the nuclear deal and the Ukraine issue and sanctions never interfered with that.
LUCEIndeed. And we've actually got some suggestions -- on the fringes at the moment, but I expect we'll hear it more however unrealistic it might seem -- of having a P5+1 kind of process for Syria. And, you know, I don't think anything is predictable right now and that sounds outlandish. But Russia wants to be part of all the big geopolitical conversations.
DEYOUNGI don't think it's -- I don't think it's exactly correct, as the questioner asked, to say that Putin is taking over country after country in the Middle East. I mean, the vast majority of the countries in the Middle East are U.S. allies to the extent that they're allied with anyone. He has a -- he, Russia and Iran have a coincidence of interest right now, which has been made more plausible by the fact that the United States and Iran and Europe and Iran don't over many things. And so you have Russia trying to -- as was said, as Ed said -- you know, gain leverage over Ukraine and to say, you know, Syria's our place. Syria is our one place in the Middle East. You can't have it.
DEYOUNGEven though the Americans keep saying, we don't want it. We just want it to stop.
DEYOUNGAnd, you know, the American strategy so far has been to say, Putin, you'll discover this is a quagmire. You'll -- the same thing will happen as happened to you in Afghanistan. You can't fight in this place. I think the question that that begs though is, will the facts on the ground change so significantly in terms of the Islamic State and the Syrian Civil War that, by the time Russia, if ever, gets into a quagmire, we won't have very many options.
LAKSHMANANLet's take a quick call from Samuel in Suitland, Md. Samuel, you're on the line.
SAMUELGood morning. How are you guys doing?
LAKSHMANANVery well. Thank you.
SAMUELMy comment is, I've been calling this show ever since this Syria conflict started. And my comment basically was, we should have supported Assad from the beginning. As bitter as this sounded, we're not ready to commit -- when he leaves, we're not ready to commit to keep peace in that their country. So why are we trying to take the only government, or the only basically responsible party there, trying to hold the country together. It doesn't matter how bad he is, in that part of the world, there are no good leaders. He is the leader. He at least had the country running or something.
SAMUELWe're supporting people there, all they want to do is basically destroy the country and fight for their own personal interests and kill every Alawites that's in the country. Are we really going to sleep every night knowing that when Assad leaving, millions of Alawites will get killed. Is the U.S. really ready to sit there and say we accept that? No.
LAKSHMANANOkay. Thank you, Samuel. Ed?
LUCEI mean, I don't agree that Assad is the only true leader or the future of Syria. But I would say this, that, you know, the history of rapid decapitation of regimes and de-Baathification of regimes...
LAKSHMANANAs we saw in Iraq.
LUCE...notably in Iraq, is not a good one. So a gradual transition -- were we to get to a negotiated situation where the Russians and the U.S. are basically getting down to that kind of detail -- were Assad to be in power for part of that transition and it would be acceptable to the opposition groups -- I mean, this might seem like a fantasy talk at this stage -- then that's acceptable. But the insurgency, the rage, the hatred on the ground in Syria is because of the brutalism of this regime. This is one of the most brutal regimes in the world. It's not just -- and it's a hereditary brutal regime.
LUCEIt's more than 30 years ago that the whole city was razed by Assad's father, a whole city of Muslim Brotherhood, 20,000 people killed because they posed -- they were, I guess, the sort of forefathers of ISIS, a more moderate version, 20,000 people were killed. He leveled that city. There is a history here of absolutely beyond the pale repression. And to say that Assad is the solution, I have to say I respectfully, very strongly disagree with the caller.
LAKSHMANANAll right. I'm struck by how, four years ago, we were in a way in the same place with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the time talking about the Geneva process. And we had Geneva I and then we had Geneva II. And there was talk about the safe zones. And there hasn't been much progress in the Obama administration's ability to deal with this problem. Even though we've been fighting ISIS, you know, Assad now seems to be stronger than he ever was before because of Russia's entry into the fray. Tom.
BOWMANYeah. Absolutely. Russia helped him immensely. Because, remember, he gave that speech saying he was going to pull back his troops to this corridor, you know, with Damascus and up to the north to Aleppo. But I agree with what Ed said that there's no way the United States could have supported Assad, after brutally killing so many of his own people and continue to this day. But with Russia helping Assad now, clearly it's going to get a lot bloodier. Will Russia get into a quagmire? Not necessarily.
BOWMANI don't think they're going to put a huge number of ground troops in there like they did in Afghanistan. They can just keep bombing and bombing without any concern about the Geneva Conventions or about hitting civilians. They'll deny they're hitting civilians. But one thing to remember is they're using a lot of dumb bombs, not precision bombs in there. So a lot of that will result in more civilian casualties.
BOWMANAnd one other thing, the result of this -- the second and third order effects, as they would say in the military -- as you continue to hit them harder -- the rebels and civilian areas -- you're going to see more people leave that country. You have seven million displaced people within Syria now, four million outside the country. Over the coming weeks and months, you're going to see a lot more of them heading toward Europe. And the latest, today, the BBC was reporting that the number of refugees in the islands off Turkey, the Greek Islands, have gone from about 4,000 a day up to about 7,000 a day. So you're going to see a lot more of this in the coming weeks and months. And as winter approaches, it's going to be much more dire.
LAKSHMANANWell, let's talk about that Europe migrant crisis. The EU has launched this new operation in the Southern Mediterranean now to intercept boats smuggling migrants. Karen, can you tell us a bit about it?
DEYOUNGWell, this follows -- it's a real change in what they were doing in the Mediterranean before. And, again, many of these are African refugees, not necessarily the Syrians, who are coming through Greece and going up through the Balkans and into Hungary. You know, last year, when the Italians were pretty much going it alone out in the Mediterranean, it was a rescue operation. Now the idea is that they will stop them. They will arrest the smugglers. They will put the migrants -- if they are judged to be economic migrants -- they will put them in camps, probably established in Africa.
DEYOUNGAnd this is part of a larger decision that the EU has made this week, that they will start stopping people and determining from the beginning whether they are eligible for asylum or whether they are economic refugees and that they will deport those who are determined not to be eligible for asylum. Of course, the question with the Syrians and other people from the Middle East is, where are they going to deport them to?
DEYOUNGThey can't send them back. I think, as Tom said, this -- these operations in Syria are going to drive more people out. There's a though that as the weather gets colder, there might be a slight drop in people coming. But...
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, please call 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Ed, you know, as Karen was mentioning, this decision to increase the deportation of people who don't qualify for asylum, this would be a very big change for the EU. Because last -- this year, so far, we've had 500,000 people arriving in the EU seeking sanctuary or jobs. But of those who failed to obtain asylum or residency in the EU, fewer than 40 percent are currently deported.
LUCEYeah. I mean, it's clearly to do with the massive surge in invalid refugees. Now this is a very fine distinction in many cases. I think in the case of Syrians, it'd be pretty hard to define a Syrian of any description as an economic refugee. So proving that they are Syrian as opposed to Iraqi or from another part of the Middle East would be, I would have though, all that's sufficient. I think, though, there's a bigger game going on here and that's between the EU and Turkey. Turkey, as you know, has for years been trying and failing and lastly, basically given up trying to join the EU, the accession talks. And it's created a lot of bad blood. And now suddenly the shoe's on the other foot.
LUCETurkey is host to millions of Syrian refugees -- perhaps, as Tom and Karen said, millions more to come. And how Turkey treats those refugees, whether it actually, whether it continues to allow them essentially unfettered access to the Aegean, with all the ghastly sort of traumas that face the refugees, and the smugglers on the Aegean, or whether it actually takes steps to seal off its coastline is a question that the Europeans are now making a priority.
LUCESo one of the suggestions that Angela Merkel is toying with is having some kind of an explicit deal, whereby Germany says that we will take half a million Syrians from Turkey -- that you already have in Turkey -- and in exchange we will step up really very serious aid to you -- very serious humanitarian aid and very serious logistical aid in terms of the military situation on your border. That kind of deal is now becoming possible. And Erdogan might be, you know, a human rights abuser, he might be somebody who jails journalists and harasses NGOs but, you know, relative to his neighbors, he's the kind of person you'd invite home for tea. He's not that bad.
LAKSHMANANMm-hmm. And Tom, quickly, I mean, we heard that France wants EU member states to commit more personnel to help at EU borders. We heard the governor of Bavaria in Germany saying that his government is considering self-defense measures along the border.
BOWMANRight. But with this scale of people coming and more, likely, on the way, it's going -- you're going to be hard pressed to find anybody, you know, customs people, police or army, that can push back these number of people and also on the sea as well. In this country we've tried to prevent drug traffickers from coming in with boats into Florida and the Gulf Coast. It's very difficult. That's a lot of water out there in both the Gulf Coast and also the Mediterranean, to try to prevent every boat coming in and checking and boarding every boat. It's very, very difficult. It's labor intensive. And let's face it, if you're being bombed in Syria and you have a way to get out and you have the means to get out, you're going to leave.
BOWMANAnd you're not going to stay in Turkey. You're going to keep moving up into Europe. And that's going to continue to happen.
LAKSHMANANAnd now with social media, we're seeing that maps are appearing online for Syrian refugees to discover the easiest ways out of the country. So technology is changing everything. As long as the Syrian crisis continues, I think we're going to see that refugee crisis. We're going to take a short break and, when we're back, your calls and your questions. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio are Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent at National Public Radio, Karen DeYoung, senior national security correspondent at The Washington Post, and Ed Luce, chief US commentator at Financial Times. So we need to talk about Afghanistan, where the U.S. bombing, which the U.S. has admitted to, of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, has killed at least 12 hospital staff members, at least 10 patients, 37 people wounded and some two dozen more who are still missing and feared dead. Tom, tell us what happened. What do we know?
BOWMANWhat we know is that there was a fight around this hospital in Kunduz. The Afghan Special Forces say they were under fire by Taliban fighters, and the -- they radioed American Special Forces soldiers, who I'm told were about a half-mile away, 800 meters. And the American Special Forces in turn communicated with an AC-130 gunship, it's a very formidable aircraft, it has three large guns, and the biggest gun is a 105 Howitzer, which fires a shell roughly the size of a fireplace log.
BOWMANNow some of these aircraft also can carry missiles, Hellfire missiles, and bombs, as well, but we're not sure exactly what variant of the AC-130 it was. Now the hospital says there were no Taliban either in the hospital or around that area. The U.S. disputes that. They say there were some Taliban there, they were firing on the Afghans, and that's why they called in the airstrike.
BOWMANWhat's interesting here is you usually want to have what's called eyes on the ground of a target, but what the Americans, being a half-mile away, there' no possible way they could have had eyes on this target. And also, I was aboard an AC-130 in Iraq back in 2007 on a mission. They have very sophisticated cameras, and they have a number of bank of terminals, and you can see, you know, clearly what's on the ground. They have night vision capability, very clear capability. This was before dawn.
BOWMANSo you can see people running around on the ground. So one of the key questions for the people on that aircraft is did you have good targets, did you actually see people firing, running, fighting...
LAKSHMANANSo they should've been able to tell it was a hospital, even, based on what you're saying.
BOWMANWell, that's the other thing, too. That's -- they're called protected places, and usually have maps...
BOWMANSaying this is a protected place. It could be a school or a mosque or a hospital. Did they have that information? MSF, the Doctors Without Borders, said they told the Americans, the Afghans and the Taliban that this was a hospital. So the question is, did they know it was a hospital, was that information communicated to the aircraft, did they have clear targets. We have a lot of questions here that have not been answered yet.
LAKSHMANANNot only does MSF say that they had previously told the Americans and the Afghan forces, they say that the bombing continued for 30 minutes...
BOWMANThat's right, they kept...
LAKSHMANANAfter they reached the Americans in Kabul and Washington to tell them that their hospital was under attack. Karen, how is that even possible, a one-hour-and-15-minute attack, according to MSF, and it continues for 30 minutes after they've reached Washington and told them you're bombing our hospital.
DEYOUNGThat's clearly one of the many things that'll be subject to investigation. The MSF people say there were two very large flags on the top of the building that no one could have missed, that it was only this building that was targeted over and over and over again over this period of time, as you said. None of the surrounding buildings were hit.
DEYOUNGThe United States has said, look, there are three separate investigations going on by the Pentagon, by the forces on the ground, by the Afghans. MSF has said that's not good enough, we want an independent investigation. You guys have had innumerable different explanations that you keep changing what happened, from the point where initially they said oh, something appears to have happened to President Obama actually calling the head of MSF and apologizing for it.
DEYOUNGYou know, the United States has criticized others in the past for these kinds of attacks and has been very sharp in demanding independent investigations, and I think that they say they're going to hold their ground, there's no need, the military is perfectly capable of investigating itself, but MSF I think is not going to let this issue go away.
LAKSHMANANThat's right. I was struck that the Special Operations Forces commander, General John Campbell, told a Senate committee on Tuesday that this strike was ultimately the result of a U.S. decision made within a U.S. chain of command. And let's not forget that the U.N. has documented some 1,700 Afghan civilians killed by U.S. airstrikes since 2008.
DEYOUNGOf course not all of them affected the 1999 Nobel Prize laureate Medecins Sans Frontieres, who are able to make more noise about it. They've even compared it to a war crime.
LUCEI mean, General Campbell also said, I think in that same testimony, that the Obama administration should look at other options in terms of its drawing down of U.S. presence in Afghanistan. There's now under 10,000 U.S. troops left there. There should be just over 5,000 by the end of the year and zero combat troops by the end of Obama's term.
LUCENow if the implication is that, although he said that before this tragedy, if the implication is that the thinness on the ground of U.S. forces is going to raise the possibility of mistakes, ghastly, tragic mistakes like this happening, then, you know, clearly that's a very good reason for President Obama to revisit what is obviously a deep political commitment of his.
BOWMANAnd there are also a number of questions here about what was used in this attack. The AC-130 was used in the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq back in 2004, killed a number of civilians. Human Rights Watch and other groups say this is not the kind of weapon you want to use in an urban environment. So there are questions about why couldn't you use an attack helicopter, let's say an Apache or a Marine Cobra helicopter.
BOWMANMy guess is because it would put a pilot at risk. We all remember Blackhawk Down, but there's going to be a lot of talk about is this the right kind of weapon to use in this kind of environment. And getting back to the issue of level, troop levels, right, there are now about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. General John Campbell, who by the way is the commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he's been given a chance to just ease down on that withdrawal and have a higher number toward the end of the year.
BOWMANThey're supposed to go to an embassy presence by year's end. What he's provided now to the White House is options to keep a higher number there by the end of next year, anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000. And as I -- when I was over there back in April and May, there was a lot of talk about the U.S. has to keep three bases open, Bagram to the north, Kandahar in the south and Jalalabad in the east. And with Jalalabad is where the CIA works out of. A lot of the drones go out of that base into Pakistan.
BOWMANAnd they -- of all the bases in Afghanistan, a lot of people would argue Jalalabad is the key.
LAKSHMANANThey don't want to give that one up.
BOWMANTo keep an eye on Pakistan.
LAKSHMANANBut Karen, is that even the solution? I mean, we did think that the U.S. was going to go down to just 1,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2016. That would essentially allow Obama to fulfill his campaign promise to bring to an end all U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Is this the right answer, to keep it going?
DEYOUNGWell, the argument is that with that embassy-based contingent there of fewer than 1,000 people, it would be the only place where U.S. troops were based. In fact, they wouldn't have a counterterrorism possibility. They wouldn't have an airstrike capability. And so although this tragedy has happened as a result of U.S. counterterrorism operations, the larger question of what happened in Kunduz, where the Taliban took over a major Afghan city for the first time, I think raised the question of can -- is this the time for the Americans to be pulling back.
DEYOUNGCan they continue to do these kinds of operations, hopefully not committing mistakes as they did with the hospital? But the larger question of can they help the Afghans, which they clearly need, fight back a resurgent Taliban without a larger presence there.
LAKSHMANANIt feels, in a way, circular, like we're coming back to the argument that we spent the entire 2009 year on.
LAKSHMANANWhen the administration undertook this huge review of its Afghan policy, spent the entire year looking at what its troop presence was going to be. And now here we are six years later considering the same question without real answers.
DEYOUNGWell, remember the result of that examination was a very sharp increase.
DEYOUNGA surge in forces.
DEYOUNGBut Obama announcing that said, and this is temporary, and I am going to be pulling them down quite rapidly after that. And people said at the time, you can't, you can't announce what your endgame is...
DEYOUNGWhile you're still surging.
BOWMANAnother issue informing this whole debate is Iraq. They saw what happened. Iraq fell apart. They don't want to have that happen again in Afghanistan. I think that's why you'll likely see, by the end of the year, the president make a decision on 3,000 or 5,000 troops in Afghanistan well past 2016. And getting back to Kunduz, what's interesting is that General Campbell, the commander in Afghanistan, has been very reluctant to use any air power to help the Afghan forces. His attitude...
LAKSHMANANWho supposedly are the ones who called for this strike.
BOWMANWell, that's what he reported to the Senate, that they called for the airstrike through the U.S. Special Forces. He's been very reluctant to use any American airpower to help the Afghan forces because his attitude is listen, you're in charge of this fight now. The Taliban, they don't have aircraft, so you have to get into the fight and go after them.
BOWMANWhen I was there in April and May, I spent all my time, roughly a month, over there going out with the Afghan forces in Kandahar and Zabul Province in the south and up in Nangarhar in the east. And they are definitely getting into the fight. Every one of them I was with, every general and colonel, complained if only we had air power, we could do a much better job.
LAKSHMANANThat's been a longstanding complaint.
BOWMANThat's going to take years for them. They only have two attack helicopters. It's going to take years.
LAKSHMANANNow Ed, I mean, you know, we also have heard from all of the boosters within the administration of a stronger U.S. commitment to Afghanistan that the gains that have been made since 2002, for example the gains for women and the gains for minorities, the gains in education and health, that all of that could be rolled back if the U.S. were to go down to a skeleton force. Now it's -- it's questionable whether this particular incident is going to increase the argument for, you know, bringing down forces to avoid such problems like this or increasing the forces so that there wouldn't be such a mistake.
LUCEThat's right, it could play either way. I think that there is also a more credible elected government in Ashraf Ghani's presidency than there was with Hamid Karzai. So if you wanted to make the case, look, that these people are worth shoring up, that you cannot abandon them just for a political deadline, then it would be easier to do so with Ashraf Ghani than it would have been with Karzai. But the big problem here has always been Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and since, you know, that...
LAKSHMANANYou mean as a haven for Taliban?
LUCEAs a haven, and if the whole logic of Afghanistan is to prevent it from being a haven for -- I mean, there are havens all over the place nowadays, but if that -- that was the original logic, then, you know, the big -- pardon the cliché, but the elephant in the room is still there, it's Pakistan.
LAKSHMANANKaren, the president did actually call Dr. Joanne Liu, the international head of Medecins Sans Frontieres, to apologize for this, and presidential apologies to victims of U.S. actions abroad are relatively rare. I mean, if we look back in 2012, Obama wrote a letter to Hamid Karzai apologizing after copies of the Quran were burned. In 2004, George W. Bush apologized for the Abu Ghraib scandal, saying he was sorry for the humiliation. But ultimately this has not quieted Doctors Without Borders at all. They're still calling for an independent, international investigation. How likely is that to happen?
DEYOUNGI don't know how likely it is to happen, but -- and they can certainly launch their own investigation. The question would be how much the American military would cooperate with it. But I think that if you looked at her news conference, which happened on the same day she got her call from Obama, she said, fine, you know, good for him. She wasn't very sympathetic. She said, look, this is -- this is what we do.
DEYOUNGIf we don't -- if we don't take a stand here, none of our people are safe. We operate in dozens and dozens of countries, and the only way we can survive is by all of the combatants agreeing that we are off-limits.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Let's take a call from Sharon in St. Louis, Missouri. Sharon, you're on the air.
SHARONHi, thanks. Just to comment, it doesn't really matter too much what happened. I mean, of course it does. But what matters is how to make the repair for it. And I believe that the military or the U.S. government should fund the rebuilding of the hospital. It shouldn't be up to Doctors Without Borders to have to rebuild it. It should be up to the military or the president or Congress to rebuild the hospital for Doctors Without Borders. Thank you.
LAKSHMANANTom, is that something that is standard practice within the U.S. military?
BOWMANWell, what's standard practice is when someone is killed, the U.S. would pay reparations to the family. I'm sure in this case, I mean, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars rebuilding Afghanistan. So I'm quite certain that they would rebuild this hospital. And as far as the independent investigation, Doctors Without Borders called for this Geneva organization to mount an investigation. They were created I think back in the '90s, but they've never mounted any investigation on any issue.
BOWMANAnd the other place you could have an independent investigation is the U.N. Now the U.N. has also labeled this a war crime, but I don't see anybody at the U.N. stepping forward saying we will mount an investigation. I tried to reach out to the U.N., sent some emails to their folks, and never heard back over the past two days. So it's a question we should all keep asking the U.N. If you think this is a war crime...
LAKSHMANANWhat are you going to do about it?
BOWMANYou have a number of people up there who could mount an investigation. And getting back to John Campbell, he did say in his Senate testimony that he would coordinate with any, you know, private entity that wanted to investigate this, any outside group that wanted to investigate. That's the only thing he said. He never mentioned anything else about that. So we should all hold him, his feet to the fire...
LAKSHMANANAccountable for that.
BOWMANAnd see if they actually will coordinate, more than coordinate. Will the U.S. military cooperate?
LAKSHMANANWith an independent investigation.
BOWMANBut they really haven't said much about that.
LAKSHMANANAll right, well, one piece of bright international news today is the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won. Tell us about the quartet, Karen. Who are they?
DEYOUNGThis is a group of four organizations, civil society organizations in Tunisia, the General Labor Union, the Confederation of Industry, the Human Rights League and the Lawyers Organization, that have tried to promote a dialogue between Islamist and secular forces in the country. Tunisia, of course, is where the Arab spring started. They have fared somewhat better than some of the other countries that have gone through this. They've elected a couple of governments. But it's still a tenuous situation there.
DEYOUNGYou have the major parties again divided between Islamist and secular groups. You've had a couple governments overthrown over the past couple of years. You have periodic assassinations. Of course we all remember when a number of tourists were shot there. So it's not a stable situation. But again relative to other places in the Middle East that have tried to go through this process, they at least are surviving, and this group is being congratulated for what it's done to try to promote a dialogue between these two sides.
DEYOUNGAnd again, that's a rough approximation. I mean, there are lots of different groups in Tunisia, but trying to get them together and to promote a dialogue.
LAKSHMANANSo in the Arab Spring democracy movement, surviving means winning. And what message is the Nobel Committee trying to give in giving this group the award?
LUCEThe dialogue is a better path to peace than fighting. I mean, I think what Karen said about, you know, the Arab Spring, it began there, the Jasmine Revolution began in Tunisia. The other parts of the Arab world to which it spread, like Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, have not -- and Libya, of course, have not fared so well. I think Tunisia is a homogenous country, though. So some of the sectarian divides that you're seeing in places like Syria are not so easy to transpose.
LAKSHMANANAll right, very quickly, how many of you thought the pope was going to win?
DEYOUNGWas going to win?
LAKSHMANANThe Nobel Peace Prize.
DEYOUNGOh no, I didn't.
LUCEI thought John Kerry, you know.
LUCEJohn Kerry thought he was going to win.
LAKSHMANANThank you so much for joining us. This is Indira Lakshmanan. Thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
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