President Obama, right, speaks Oct. 15 at the White House about his plan to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, center, listen in.

President Obama, right, speaks Oct. 15 at the White House about his plan to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, center, listen in.

Fourteen years ago this month, the United States launched the war in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Operation Enduring Freedom scored early victories and ousted the Taliban government in Kabul. Last year, U.S. combat troops left Afghanistan in large numbers and put government forces in charge of security. But in 2015, the Taliban is having its best year ever, including the 15-day capture of Kunduz last month — and the Islamic State is making inroads there. President Obama now says U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan until he leaves office. Diane and guests discuss that policy reversal and the future of U.S. involvement in the region.


  • Carol Lee White House correspondent, The Wall Street Journal
  • David Rothkopf CEO and editor, FP group, which publishes Foreign Policy Magazine; author of "National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear (2014). He also has a Foreign Policy podcast, "The Editors Roundtable."
  • Ambassador James Dobbins Senior fellow, the RAND Corporation former assistant secretary of state for Europe and special envoy to Afghanistan
  • Sarah Chayes Senior associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; former correspondent, NPR; former adviser, Joint Chiefs of Staff; author of "Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security"


  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama says he'll reverse course in Afghanistan, keeping American troops there until he leaves office. The decision comes after big gains by the Taliban, which are said to control a fifth of the country. Joining me to talk about reversal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the rise of Taliban and ISIS forces there and the future of U.S. involvement in the region, David Rothkopf of The Foreign Policy Group, Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal, and Ambassador James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation.

  • 10:07:35

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining us by phone from Boston, Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace. I invite you to be part of the conversation as always. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Thank you all for being here.

  • 10:08:03

    MR. DAVID ROTHKOPFPleasure to be here.

  • 10:08:04

    MS. CAROL LEEPleasure to be here.

  • 10:08:05

    MS. SARAH CHAYESThank you, Diane.

  • 10:08:06

    REHMCarol Lee, I'll start with you. Give us an idea of why President Obama made this reversal of his decision on troops.

  • 10:08:18

    LEESure. Well, it was a number of things. As you mentioned in your introduction, it was the Taliban was making gains and that was concerning within the administration. At the same time, the Afghan security forces were not performing at a level that gave the U.S. any sort of assurance that it was worth withdrawing all the troops that the president had -- as the president had planned.

  • 10:08:41

    LEEAnd the president of Afghanistan, President Ghani, had requested that the U.S. stay longer and keep more of American presence there. And you can't discount the concerns by the president of the rise of Islamic State and the potential for something similar to what happened in Iraq after all the troops were withdrawn there in 2011 to take place in Afghanistan.

  • 10:09:05

    REHMSo to you, David Rothkopf, how does the president's current plan differ from what was in place?

  • 10:09:16

    ROTHKOPFI think the original plan was, I mean, the original-original plan was to get out and to get out as soon as possible. I think it was to dwindle it down and essentially be out by the time he was out of office. Now, it looks like we'll be up around 9800, I guess, at the end of next year and 5500 in the year after that. And, you know, that is designed to keep a lid on things, as one observer said to me. It's enough to keep Kabul fairly stable and to give us the option to expand or go after flare-ups like what we recently in Kunduz, which was the first time that the Taliban had taken over a major city in Afghanistan since 2001 and, thus, was a real shock to the system in the White House and I think one of the things that drove this.

  • 10:10:15

    REHMAnd Ambassador Dobbins, do you think it was the right decision?

  • 10:10:22

    AMB. JAMES DOBBINSI do. I think that the president has shown that although he likes to set deadlines and likes to try to keep them, he has been willing to adjust when conditions changed. He made the original decision to withdraw all troops by the end of 2016 in May of 2014. Two or three weeks later, the Iraqi army collapsed and the Islamic State took over a large portion of Iraq and even, at one point, it was approaching Baghdad. So that was one change.

  • 10:10:56

    AMB. JAMES DOBBINSA second change is that after he made that decision, you had a new government in Afghanistan, which was much more cooperative, much more desirous of working closely with the United States and we've had already talked about the other changes, the emergence of the Islamic State as a threat in Afghanistan itself, a very hard fighting season and finally, the fall of Kunduz. All of those, I think, justified the alteration in the president's intentions.

  • 10:11:26

    REHMSarah Chayes, you spent years in Afghanistan, first as an NPR reporter, then doing some other things. What's your reaction to the president's decision?

  • 10:11:43

    CHAYESI have to say I actually think it's a decision that's almost empty of content in the sense that politically, of course, it's, at this point, neutral to keep troops longer than the earlier deadline, particularly in light of the -- events that your other guests have mentioned. But as, I think, Iraq really shows us, this is not an issue that can be solved through military means. It's not an issue of the military capability of the Afghan national security forces.

  • 10:12:20

    CHAYESIt's an issue -- it's two issues. One is the role of the neighboring country of Pakistan, which a decision to leave troops doesn't address, and perhaps more importantly, it has to do with the quality of governance within Afghanistan. And so although the current government of Afghanistan may be seen as more "cooperative" with the United States government, it is a completely non-functional government. I mean, it is a -- it's a joining at the hip of two individuals who bitterly fought each other in a completely fraudulent election.

  • 10:12:56

    CHAYESSo the government is essentially at a standstill. There is no minister of defense, for example. And at the local level -- I went back when Kunduz did fall. I went back to look at the -- my notes from the first time I went up there, which was in the spring of 2009. There were already significant Taliban incursions and the head of the German military intelligence, the Germans were in charge of the north there, was pulling us aside saying, the governor is a disaster. He's stealing land all over the place and the people of Kunduz don't like him.

  • 10:13:33

    CHAYESAnd, you know, land in Afghanistan, this isn't just a piece of territory. It means there's irrigation channels that may be hundreds or even thousands of years old. It means there's fruit trees on the land. Someone would often rather be killed than have his land stolen. And so these issues, which are the fundamental drivers of what's going wrong in Afghanistan are not addressed by this decision.

  • 10:13:58

    REHMWhat do you say about that, David Rothkopf?

  • 10:14:01

    ROTHKOPFI think it's absolutely correct analysis. I don't know that it's politically neutral because I do think that the president's decision in Afghanistan was driven very heavily by what happened in Iraq and I think the president is starting to see his legacy be almost the opposite of what he wanted it to be. In other words, he wanted -- he saw his mandate to be elected to get the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan and it looks likely that he is now going to leave for his successor situations in Iraq and Afghanistan that are arguably considerably worse than the ones that he found.

  • 10:14:38

    ROTHKOPFAnd I think when he looked at what was going on in Iraq and he saw ISIS on the rise in Afghanistan, he said, look, I've got to put a lid on this. I've got to punt it. So it's understandable, but it is clearly a punt. It is not a move towards a solution.

  • 10:14:53


  • 10:14:53

    LEEWell, that's right. And it's a punt even in the sense that the president announced that he's going to leave the 9800 troops in Afghanistan, as he said, for most of next year and hopefully go down to -- with the goal of going down to 5500 troops by the time he leaves office in January of 2017. Now, that number is lower than what the military commanders wanted from him and what he gave to them in exchange is to say not set a deadline for when they would go to the 5500 troops, to say that they'll come back and they'll do a review and determine whether or not that the conditions are right for going down to that number.

  • 10:15:34

    LEEAnd the White House was very clear when pressed on this issue that you could see many more troops left in Afghanistan after the president leaves office. There's no guarantee that it's going to go down to 5500.

  • 10:15:45

    REHMAmbassador Dobbins, what about Sarah's point of government's inequality thereof?

  • 10:15:52

    DOBBINSWell, I think Sarah's right that this -- the president's decision on military troop levels doesn't address two fundamental problems. One, Pakistani behavior, tolerance and even assistance to the Taliban and, secondly, governance in the country. I think she's wrong that there's not -- that the military aspect of this is indifferent, if you will. The American commitment is certainly not sufficient to win the war, but the absence of a commitment would be sufficient to lose it and lose it comprehensively, that is the government would be overthrown, Afghanistan would be toppled into a civil war, comparable what's going on in Syria today.

  • 10:16:35

    DOBBINSIn the '80s and '90s, something like 8 million Afghans fled the country so you could see refugees flowing from Afghanistan. Not in the dribble that we currently have, but in the numbers you're seeing from Syria if things went badly wrong.

  • 10:16:48

    REHMWhat about this timeline, David?

  • 10:16:52

    ROTHKOPFWell, I mean, I think that the timelines, as Jim said at the beginning, that we seem to try to impose never take and that what is most likely to happen here is that this one will not take either because the government is dysfunctional, because these underlying problems have not been addressed because the opposition is gaining strength. But they also gain strength from the establishment of these timelines.

  • 10:17:17

    ROTHKOPFYou know, look at it in the context if you're a Taliban or you're there from the Islamic State and you're saying, well, look, it's 15 months. Maybe it's 20 months. At some point, these guys are out, we're in, let's set ourselves up. And so I think it is extremely likely that unless we're prepared to leave troops in Afghanistan for the indefinite future, that sooner or later, the Afghan meltdown scenario will take place.

  • 10:17:45

    REHMDavid Rothkopf of the FP group that publishes Foreign Policy magazine. He's the author of "National Insecurity: American Leadership In An Age of Fear." Carol Lee is White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Ambassador James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation. Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace.

  • 10:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about what's happening in Afghanistan. U.S. troops have been there now for 14 years this month. Here's an email from Steve in Maine who says, let's not apply American nationalistic standards to the Afghanistan people. We are not defending the country from the Taliban. The Taliban are Afghanistan and have sympathizers there. Many Afghanistan people have no patriotism in their country, especially in the war lord regions. How do you see that, Sarah Chayes?

  • 10:20:51

    CHAYESI disagree quite strongly. I lived in Kandahar for most of the decade, which was the Taliban stronghold, and let me tell you Kandaharis were done with the Taliban in December of 2001, when I first arrived. Taliban are Afghans, that's accurate. They are certainly not Afghanistan. And secondly, the notion that Afghans have no patriotism or no feeling for their nation is also completely incorrect. They may have internal disagreements with each other, but I don't know a single Pashtun who wants to join Pakistan or wants to create a new country, although that was the case for a while in the past. I don't know any Tagiks who want to be part of Tajikistan.

  • 10:21:43

    CHAYESYou know, it's sort of the way we Americans have dual or triple identities, often -- or multiple identities. I'm speaking to you from Cambridge, Mass., where I grew up. I'm a proud New Englander. But that doesn't make me feel any less American. On the contrary, I feel American because I'm a proud New Englander. And that's really how I found both the ethnic and local identities in Afghanistan to work.

  • 10:22:10

    REHMHere's an email from Jack in Michigan. He says, I made 40 trips to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2010 as a senior NATO official. Sarah Chayes has identified the key problem and she's been trying to get her points across since 2005 -- the endemic corruption of the people we're supporting make all our rationalizations for staying irrelevant. We are seen by the ordinary people in the countryside as endorsing the very people who are stealing from them. David Rothkopf, what exactly is it that our troops are doing there?

  • 10:23:01

    ROTHKOPFWell, ostensibly, the troops -- according to the White House and the recent announcement -- will be doing training and basic kind of security support. They're not going to be going out, they're not going to be engaging. They're going to be trying to enable the Afghans to do their, you know, to do their business. But of course, you know, we've seen these missions shift and morph as circumstances dictate that they morph. And I think a great portion of this is going to have to involve, you know, some special forces action when you get situations like the situation you got in Kunduz. And of course we've seen that that can have difficult consequences.

  • 10:23:48

    REHMAnd what do you think about that, Ambassador Dobbins?

  • 10:23:53

    DOBBINSWell, I think that there are several aspects to the mission. One is training the Afghans, particularly in the higher levels of command and logistics, where...

  • 10:24:02

    REHMCan we really do that? Are they willing to take on those obligations?

  • 10:24:09

    DOBBINSOh, I mean, the Afghan Armed Forces certainly have evolved very significantly since we began to train them. And we didn't seriously begin in 2002. We didn't begin until four or five years ago in a serious and comprehensive fashion. And they've developed quite significantly since then. But they still require assistance in areas like combat evacuation, combat air support, logistics, those kinds of things. So partially advising them in those areas. There is a tactical aspect for the Afghan Special Forces, with U.S. Special Forces actually going out with them on missions, directed principally at trans-national terrorist organizations like al-Qaida and like the -- increasingly, the Islamic State. And there, U.S. troops are on the ground.

  • 10:25:03

    DOBBINSAnd finally, there's an extremist mission of providing combat air support in cases where the Afghans are likely to be overwhelmed, as was the case in Kunduz.

  • 10:25:12

    REHMCarol Lee, The New York Times reported on Friday that the Taliban now control one-fifth of the country. So how do American forces operate in a situation like that?

  • 10:25:35

    LEEWell, I think if you step back and look at what this policy is designed to do, it's essentially just designed to keep a lid on a problem from worsening. And in that sense, you know, the mission of these American troops is counterterrorism operations, you know, train and assist the Afghan security forces. But it's really, at its core, just designed to make sure that the situation doesn't get worse and to try to, as the president said, make sure that that doesn't increase the threat to Americans here at home. And at the same time, he also, you know, he's meeting with the president of Pakistan this week. And his message was that if people want American troops to be gone, then there needs to be an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

  • 10:26:24

    LEEAnd, you know, that's obviously a huge challenge. And there's no signs that that's actually going to happen. But in the meantime, you know, he's doing this to try to put a lid on a problem so that it doesn't worsen.

  • 10:26:37


  • 10:26:37

    LEEAnd that's at the core, that's all he's doing.

  • 10:26:38

    REHMSorry. David.

  • 10:26:40

    ROTHKOPFWell, often, when I go and I talk to people at the Pentagon, their greatest frustration is they say you can't fight a war half way. And that one of the things that we're trying to do in Iraq or one of the things we're trying to do in Afghanistan is keep a lid on things, pacify things enough, punt things off into the future. And that to defeat an enemy, particularly an embedded enemy that's been there a long time and has much longer term interests than you do, you really need to go into it with a wholehearted commitment. And one of the things that President Obama -- for, likely, for good and easy-to-understand reasons -- has had trouble with is doing that, is ordering troops in with a commitment to doing what is necessary to achieve victory, even short-term victory.

  • 10:27:24

    REHMBut aren't numbers necessary to achieve victory?

  • 10:27:29

    ROTHKOPFNumbers are necessary. Will is necessary. Devolution of responsibility to your combatant commanders is necessary.

  • 10:27:36

    DOBBINSAnd time.

  • 10:27:37

    ROTHKOPFTime is necessary. The willingness to take risks is necessary. And none of those things are present.

  • 10:27:44

    LEEWell, I was going to say, it also takes a lot of money and it takes, you know, for a president, it takes having the country behind him. And he does not have the country behind him. And he hasn't for some time. And he's quite aware of that.

  • 10:27:56

    CHAYESI -- can I break in?

  • 10:27:56

    REHMSo, to you, Sarah Chayes.

  • 10:27:58


  • 10:27:59

    REHMWhat is it that accounts for the Taliban's success in taking over a fifth of the country?

  • 10:28:09

    CHAYESThis is, you know, again, I feel like this conversation has devolved back to issues of military capability. Guess what? The Taliban don't have close air support and they don't have logistics and they don't have medevac and, yet, they're making progress. So clearly -- and, oh, by the way, in Vietnam, we were all in. And yet in both of these cases, what we have ignored is, again, the quality of governance. And when, you know, the governor is stealing your land or the police or even the soldiers, who are spread out in a counterinsurgency sort of posture, are shaking you down for the beams in your buildings or the apples that you're bringing to market. Why would you take a risk on behalf of that government in order to fight against the Taliban?

  • 10:29:00

    CHAYESAnd so what you have, at best, is villagers are laying low and they're allowing Taliban in -- at worst, they're colluding, because it actually looks as though the Taliban at least are predictable and are not always favoring the connected and the wealthy.

  • 10:29:20

    REHMI want to turn now to the bombing of the hospital in Afghanistan, Sarah, which the U.S. military has called a mistake. And yet the director of the Doctors Without Borders, Christopher Stokes, has said it was not a mistake. What's your reaction?

  • 10:29:49

    CHAYESMy reaction, number one, is I kind of cannot believe, after everything we've been through, that this happened. Because it's clear that the coordinates of that hospital were, in fact, had been transmitted to the U.S. military quite some time ago. And so that should have been on a map. The second thing -- and this is based on insufficient evidence -- but from what I have heard, the Afghan, in particular, police, but let's say the national security forces, were upset that Taliban were being treated in this hospital. Like any other medical facility, it's kind of colorblind and whoever goes in there gets treated.

  • 10:30:31

    CHAYESAnd I hear that there was a prior incident in which armed ANSF officers barged into the hospital and actually shot some people, in order to take three wounded Taliban out that they wanted to arrest or whatever. The prospect that that airstrike was called down deliberately on the hospital by Afghan National Security Forces is something that I find completely plausible. Because I have seen the U.S. military used as sort of the air force of different organizations or factions or individuals on the ground for years.

  • 10:31:13

    REHMYou disagree, Ambassador Dobbins.

  • 10:31:16

    DOBBINSWell, the commander, General Campbell has said that the decision was made within the U.S. command chain.

  • 10:31:22


  • 10:31:22

    DOBBINSIt doesn't mean some Afghans weren't calling for air support but I don't think he would take responsibility if he could have pushed it off on somebody else. That seems implausible.

  • 10:31:33

    REHMDavid Rothkopf.

  • 10:31:34

    ROTHKOPFWell, you know, I -- whatever the origin, the United States took responsibility for doing something that's exactly as Carol just described -- as Sarah just described it. And the reality is that we knew where this was. We shouldn't have been taking action against it in the way that we did. There were warnings. And then, as it started to happen, there were further, you know, statements saying, you know, stop doing this. This deserves a very serious investigation.

  • 10:32:03

    ROTHKOPFYou know, we, at Foreign Policy, have now run two articles by a photographer who went in and looked at it and run photos of the place, talked to people who were involved in it. And I have to say, it's extremely disturbing -- in some cases, more disturbing than even we could show -- what happened here. And I think the assertions by the MSF people that potentially war crimes took place is not outlandish.

  • 10:32:28


  • 10:32:29

    LEEWell, I -- one -- this is another reason why the president has -- why Americans don't want to have troops overseas in places like this. It's just another -- and for the president, it's another reminder of the problems that come with that. And it's a real problem for his administration. There's three investigations going on. The president had to personally place the phone call to the international director of the Doctors Without Borders to apologize...

  • 10:32:56

    REHMTo apologize.

  • 10:32:57

    LEE...after the White House said they wouldn't. So they clearly -- and they said he made that phone call because of new information he learned. So they clearly are worried about whatever they're seeing. And the one thing that they have resisted, and it's not clear that they'll be able to resist this for a long time, is an independent investigation.

  • 10:33:12

    REHMAnd, sadly, the Doctors Without Borders has said they will leave Afghanistan because of this incident. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First let's go to Shapell in Indianapolis. You're on the air.

  • 10:33:45

    SHAPELLGood morning, Diane.

  • 10:33:45

    REHMHi, there.

  • 10:33:48

    SHAPELLI had a question and then a quick comment. My -- first, my question is this. Isn't it true that in Iraq, the Iraqi people and government did not want us there, whereas, in Afghanistan, the Iraqi -- or the Afghanistan government and people want us there? That's my question. And then my quick comment is, I heard a gentleman name off a list of things the president didn't want to do, such as time, effort, stuff that he didn't want to do. But he never mentioned casualties and American soldiers' lives, and that's kind of disturbing to me.

  • 10:34:21

    REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. Carol.

  • 10:34:24

    LEEYes, it's true that the Iraqi government did not want the U.S. to leave what they called a residual force in Iraq. And the White House will point to that repeatedly as the reason why they withdrew completely. However, it was also very politically convenient and meshed well with the president's overall message to withdraw completely. And he hit that note very hard during his reelection campaign. And they're -- what they're saying now is that the difference with Afghanistan is that the Afghan government is asking for additional U.S. assistance.

  • 10:35:04


  • 10:35:04

    ROTHKOPFWell, I mean, the White House has said that and there was certainly opposition to certain kinds of deals from the Iraqis. But there are people within the administration who have said publicly since then that the administration didn't really push for the kind of status of forces agreement that would have allowed us to keep troops there -- didn't really make an effort in that direction because they kind of wanted out and the Iraqi people we were listening to kind of collaborated in that. And that, if we had wanted to stay, we could have. We just would have had to make an effort to push for it.

  • 10:35:36

    REHMAmbassador Dobbins.

  • 10:35:37

    DOBBINSWell, I think the questioner is basically right that, in Afghanistan, the overwhelming number of people want the U.S. to stay. In Iraq, there wasn't a single Iraqi politician who was prepared to stand up in public and ask the U.S. to stay. And in Afghanistan, there's almost not a single Iraqi politician that's not prepared to stand up and ask the U.S. to stay. They had a presidential election. They had 13 candidates. Twelve of them can't -- ran on the platform of asking the U.S. to stay. It was a vote getter. So in that sense, the public attitudes and the elite attitudes are really mirror opposites in the two countries. That's true enough.

  • 10:36:15


  • 10:36:17

    LEEYeah, I remember, I traveled with Vice President Biden to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq in 2011. And at that -- or it was earlier than that. And at that time, he was trying to negotiate some kind of agreement with the Iraqis. And it was very clear that that wasn't going to happen and that, at the same time, it was very clear that the administration wasn't that unhappy about that. Because the president really believed in completely withdrawing from Iraq. I mean this was a president who ran and has been saying since 2007 and 2008, that this was his legacy. This is why people elected him. And he really wanted to deliver on that. And I know he said this week that he is not disappointed by this decision in Afghanistan.

  • 10:37:04

    LEEBut he surely -- this is not how he envisioned leaving office. And I think he is disappointed that he's had to make this decision and go back into Iraq.

  • 10:37:13

    DOBBINSYeah, it's just, the president saying he's not disappointed is completely implausible. He's going to leave a situation in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Libya, and arguably in Israel-Palestine much worse than he found it.

  • 10:37:26

    REHMDavid Rothkopf, Carol Lee, Ambassador James Dobbins and Sarah Chayes, they're all here to answer your questions after a short break.

  • 10:40:03

    REHMWelcome back. We'll take another phone call, this from Amherst, Mass. William, you're on the air.

  • 10:40:11

    WILLIAMHi, Diane, thank you for taking my call.

  • 10:40:13


  • 10:40:15

    WILLIAMThe question I want to ask is, why are U.S. troops in Afghanistan? Originally, you heard the justification that the Taliban was creating safe havens for Al Qaeda, this was under the original invasion of Afghanistan under the first, second President Bush, in the early 2000s. What evidence is there, is what I want to know, that the Taliban still poses a threat to U.S. national security? Because I can't see a reason why U.S. troops should be in Afghanistan if the Taliban is merely trying to control territories, and they're not posing national security so I was wondering about their national security.

  • 10:40:54

    REHMSure. Carol Lee?

  • 10:40:57

    LEEWell, I guess the broader answer to your question is, once you're in, it's hard to -- there's a lot of different reasons why it's difficult to get out, and obviously the U.S. went into Afghanistan after 9/11 and at the peak of our involvement there, there were roughly 100,000 troops. And they've slowly drawn down. And now what you're seeing is a situation where conditions on the ground make it harder to leave. Meaning that, you know, they might not see -- be enough reason to go in now, but we're already there, and so there's a lot of ways in which the President can justify not withdrawing.

  • 10:41:39

    REHMBut what about the threat to U.S. national security, David?

  • 10:41:45

    ROTHKOPFWell, I mean, the threat exists to U.S. national security if ISIS established a long term foothold there. The bigger threat to U.S. national security is, as Sarah suggested earlier, which is Pakistan, which is a nuclear country, which has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. And I think part of what we've said all along, and by the way, a part of what the President said when he came into office was that, you know, essentially, you know, Afghanistan was directly connected to Pakistan. Afghanistan is kind of the front porch of Pakistan, as these issues go.

  • 10:42:16

    ROTHKOPFBut I don't think the true presence that we've got now is certainly enough to deal with that, nor is that the intent, and I think that's the problem. The intent is really short term. I don't think we have a long term plan to deal either military with those issues, or as Sarah has pointed out, effectively with the political or economic issues which are even more critical.

  • 10:42:38

    REHMAmbassador Dobbins.

  • 10:42:39

    DOBBINSWell, the Taliban retained a relationship with Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda continues to operate in Afghanistan, although at much reduced levels. The Islamic State, another transnational terrorist organization, is operating in Afghanistan. It's actually operating against the Taliban, so there's conflict within these insurgent movements. There's half a dozen other transnational terrorist movements that are operating in and through Afghanistan. Afghanistan is at the crossroads for violent extremism in the region.

  • 10:43:11

    DOBBINSThere's half a dozen states that surround and border Afghanistan, including China, that have large Muslim populations that are subject to this kind of threat. And Afghanistan is the weakest of all of these countries, the one that's least able to control its territory without some assistance. And if it loses control to that territory, these terrorist movements have the capacity of spreading and threatening not just the United States, but a lot of other places.

  • 10:43:38

    REHMHere's an interesting email from David, who says "Sarah has a very good point about governance. In light of her statement, what does she recommend the United States do?"

  • 10:43:55

    CHAYESI've spent a lot of time making recommendations, as Jim has been able to witness over the years, and the problem is, sometimes you're sort of out of time. I mean, we had an incredible window of opportunity, particularly in the early 2000s. I think we even -- we, the United States -- even had a significant possibility of exercising much more leverage than we did in 2009. Now, we're at a stage where we have not much leverage, but even that, the United States is reluctant to use it.

  • 10:44:36

    CHAYESSo, for example, as you've all pointed out, Afghan leadership really does request and almost desperately want the ongoing military support. So what were the conditions that we put on that military support? None that I heard. We just made a decision to leave these troops in over the previously stated deadlines. I think there could have been significant conditionality in terms of, okay, how are you gonna organize this government of yours? Are you gonna fit, let's take Kunduz, the different stakeholders in Kunduz, local community leaders, and put them around a table?

  • 10:45:20

    CHAYESSo you're not talking a table that has the Afghan government and the Taliban, the two most repudiated forces in Afghan society as the only ones negotiating over the future of the country. And you actually try to find out, what are the grievances in Kunduz? What is causing the population of Kunduz to actually become permeable to the Taliban? And let's see if we can't address some of those. And I think those are the types of things that the U.S. government could do, but not having done them over the past 14 years, I find it not very likely to see them employed now.

  • 10:45:56

    REHMAnd what about ISIS, Ambassador Dobbins? It seems to be becoming even greater in influence, power than the Taliban itself.

  • 10:46:10

    DOBBINSWell, I don't think it's reached that stage, and it's mostly at this point made up of dissident Taliban members who are receiving some ideological content, and maybe some money from ISIS in Syria. But at this point, it's mostly Afghans and it's mostly members of the Taliban who are reflagging their operation.

  • 10:46:31

    REHMBut aren't they growing in numbers...

  • 10:46:33

    DOBBINSThey are.

  • 10:46:34

    REHM...and influence?

  • 10:46:36

    DOBBINSThey are, although so far, they are still confined to some discreet and limited territory.

  • 10:46:42

    REHMDo they create a larger threat, Sarah, than does the Taliban?

  • 10:46:48

    CHAYESI think the threat is partly, you know, it's a winning team. And there's a sense of momentum that the Taliban haven't had, at least the well-known Taliban leadership hasn't had, partly because it is well known to be under the thumb of the Pakistani military intelligence service, called the ISI, whereas ISIS is seen as a more independent and kind of the biggest, baddest player in this field at the moment.

  • 10:47:24


  • 10:47:24

    ROTHKOPFWell, let me throw in two other X factors into this mix. One is that deterioration in Afghanistan is almost certainly gonna invite from the west, Iran, into more involvement into parts of Afghanistan and I think we're already starting to see that. But in the longer term, you know, Afghanistan is where the great game has been played, originally by the British. we saw the Russians in there, we've seen ourselves in there, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if ten years from now, as we're looking at continuing turmoil there, it's the country that has made coming through central Asia to the Persian Gulf as its, one of its principle priorities that's gonna have the biggest stake there, and that's China.

  • 10:48:03

    ROTHKOPFAnd China, interestingly enough, has set itself up as an observer to the talks with the Taliban. China's biggest embassy is in Pakistan, China's one belt, one road policy brings that road through central Asia. And containing the Islamist forces in that part of the world is extremely important to the Chinese. And I think it's not the issue right now, but if you look out over the next several years, it's gonna be a growing one for them.

  • 10:48:47

    REHMSo, Carol, you mentioned that the Pakistani president is coming to meet with Mr. Obama later this week. What will the President try to get from him?

  • 10:48:47

    LEEWell, I think you're gonna see him try to get some sort of -- the Pakistanis to try to facilitate some sort of, like, what he was talking about, negotiations, talks, between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But, you know, I don't see this White House having the wherewithal or the desire to throw everything that would be required behind an effort like this, or obviously a military effort in Afghanistan. And largely, you know, what the President did last week was hand this off to the next president. And so, I don't think you're going to see major strides in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan in the next 15 months.

  • 10:49:30

    LEEI think you'll see an effort to make sure, as we were talking about earlier, that things don't get worse, and that the threats don't grown to the U.S. and U.S. interests, but largely, he's gonna hand off this package to the next president and leave it with them to deal with.

  • 10:49:45

    REHMAmbassador Dobbins, do you agree with that?

  • 10:49:48

    DOBBINSLargely. I think there is another issue that the White House is interested in, which is curbing the growth of Pakistani nuclear weapons development, and there have been new stories about a possible arrangement that the administration has been mulling over.

  • 10:50:05

    REHMSpell that out.

  • 10:50:07

    DOBBINSWell, it would -- at its base, it would be offering Pakistan something similar to what we have with India, that is a cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, in exchange for some understanding from Pakistan not to begin to develop and deploy tactical nuclear weapons, which would be very easy for terrorist groups to seize, because they're small, because they're portable, and because they tend to be deployed forward. And that's a source of anxiety for the administration.

  • 10:50:39

    REHMAmbassador Dobbins, senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, former assistant secretary of state for Europe and special envoy to Afghanistan. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones to Richmond, Va. Hello, John, you're on the air.

  • 10:51:10

    JOHNGood morning, Diane. You run a wonderful show.

  • 10:51:13

    REHMThank you.

  • 10:51:14

    JOHNYour commentators today, I have a question about their understanding of an item called the Status of Forces Agreement. The caller who called in a few minutes ago was asking as to how it is, why we left Iraq and yet we're in Afghanistan and the commentators pretty much made the point that we really could have stayed in Iraq, but we didn't push hard enough. And the way they referred to it tells me, I think there is some general misunderstanding, or ignorance as to what a Status of Forces Agreement is. And it is the critical element with regard to whether we will maintain forces in a country, or even put forces in a country at all.

  • 10:52:02

    JOHNPrime Minister Malaki and the politicians, and it has been commented, that nobody has the resolve or interest in having us stay, but the issue was, they wanted American forces to be coming under Iraqi law. The Status of Forces Agreement exists to essentially say that when we put soldiers in a country, they are subject to the uniform code of military justice, and not to the (word?) law within the specific country. There had been enough, certainly, collateral damage and there had been certainly enough actions that seem like misdirected fire and a lot of Iraqis having been killed and obviously people were up in arms about it.

  • 10:52:52

    JOHNBut as to whether this country pushed hard enough or not, the way it was talked about is, hey, somebody's misunderstanding what the actual issue was and why we left. We had no choice but to leave Iraq.

  • 10:53:08

    REHMAll right, thanks for your call. David.

  • 10:53:11

    ROTHKOPFTwo things. One, since I said, this, first of all, I was reporting what I had heard from the very, very topmost officials in the Pentagon and senior national security officials in this administration, who felt that we could have and should have pushed harder, and felt that we could have arrived at this agreement, and that we could have solved those problems. But secondly, why don't we just look at what's happened? We now have more troops in Iraq than we would have had under the Status of Forces Agreement without a Status of Forces Agreement. So that just puts the lie to the whole thing.

  • 10:53:44

    DOBBINSYeah, I mean, what Malaki told us back in 2011 was that he would sign a Status of Forces Agreement but he wouldn't submit it to the Parliament, because the Parliament wouldn't endorse it, and that we would have to accept an agreement which was not legally binding. And we said that was inadequate. In 2014, when the Islamic state exploded into Iraq, we accepted exactly the proposal that Malaki had originally made, that is, an agreement from the Prime Minister that gave us the protection which was not submitted to the Parliament, and that's the basis upon which we're there today.

  • 10:54:16

    REHMAll right, and one last email from Doug in D.C. "At what point must we admit a benevolent democracy is the best we can hope for in Afghanistan, and the other Islamist countries where we intervene. And the more we intervene, the less benevolent and democratic they become." Sarah Chayes.

  • 10:54:45

    CHAYESI think there's something to that, but it's quite ironic, because the -- I think the presumption behind the question, and behind a lot of American commentary, is that we, the United States, seeks to bring a benevolent democracy, meaning a democracy that had the best interests of the citizens at heart. But I have to say, that's not what I've seen, either up close in Afghanistan or from a distance in Iraq, rather, it seems as though we're not so much brining the American ideal of democracy as we're bringing the American perception of what Afghan government really is. And so we ended up supporting warlords, supporting governments in both places that were extractive and abusive.

  • 10:55:39

    CHAYESAnd so in a sense, we did make it worse than it had to be by reinforcing and enabling some of the worst tendencies and practices of both of those governments.

  • 10:55:47


  • 10:55:48

    ROTHKOPFTotally agree. I mean, the reality is, first of all, we haven't acted in a way that's consistent with promoting benevolent democracy. Secondly, we have a lousy track record in actually helping to promote benevolent democracy anywhere else. And thirdly, most of the countries in the region have a lousy track record of dealing with anything that's even a distant cousin of democracy.

  • 10:56:13

    REHMAnd we'll have to leave it there. David Rothkopf, he is CEO of the Foreign Policy group, he also hosts a foreign policy podcast called "The Editors Roundtable." Carol Lee is White House correspondent for "The Wall Street Journal." Ambassador James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation, Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment and author of "Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security." Thank you all so much.

  • 10:56:51

    LEEThank you.

  • 10:56:52

    CHAYESThank you.

  • 10:56:53

    REHMAnd thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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