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A Look Ahead To The Future Of Afghanistan


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Of course somebody needed to mark the occasion today by setting off a bomb. It was Afghanistan, where what is hoped will be a turning point was reached today when a ceremony was held in which the Afghan government officially took control of the nation's security, meaning that the U.S., which still has nearly 70,000 troops there, swaps into what is called a support role. Same for some of the 30,000 troops from other NATO nations.

In time, less rather than more, the idea is that most of these foreign troops will get to go home, by the end of next year that is. A landmark day, that is how NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen described it at the handover.

SECRETARY GENERAL ANDERS RASMUSSEN: Last year we agreed that by the middle of this year we would reach an important milestone, where your forces would be taking the lead for security across the country. We can all be proud that we have delivered on this objective and that Afghan forces today are taking the lead on security.

DONVAN: And yet just before Rasmussen spoke, another bomb went off in another part of the country. Three civilians were killed. And by itself, and unfortunately that is nothing new, and perhaps that is the question for Afghanistan: Is today a new day? Is what was once clearly a failed nation now reborn and on its way to success, and how would we be able to tell?

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai talks about talking with Taliban. Where might that lead? And what remains for a U.S. role in Afghanistan? What does it mean to be in a support position? We would like to hear from those of you who have served in Afghanistan to answer this question: How do you measure success there now? How do we measure it?

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later on in the program, what is it like when you are one of the last to speak an endangered language? But first, looking ahead at Afghanistan. Tom Bowman has just returned from covering Afghanistan. He is NPR's Pentagon correspondent. Tom, welcome to the program.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

DONVAN: Today means what in terms of this handover? How significant is it?

BOWMAN: Well, I'm not sure how significant it is. It really is, in some respects, a public relations move. The Afghan army and other security services still need a good amount of help from the United States training, medevac, providing in some cases air strikes against Taliban fighters.

I talked with a senior general just before coming back, and he said, well, it's kind of still a glass half full. They're holding their breath right now. The Afghan forces are clearly doing a lot more than they ever have in the past. They're doing, you know, what you could argue are independent operations in most parts of the country, doing pretty well, and also taking the brunt of the casualties right now.

Last year is was 10-to-one casualties, Afghans to U.S., and casualties includes those killed and wounded. This year about 33-to-one Afghans to U.S. and coalition forces. So they are doing a lot more, but it's going to take quite a bit of time to really see if they're truly independent and if they hold together as a force.

Everyone again is holding their breath now during this fighting season. Will they be able to maintain security on their own? And again, it's still - the jury's still out on that.

DONVAN: So yesterday is not so different from tomorrow?

BOWMAN: I don't think so.

DONVAN: And actually you're proposing many more questions than answers. I mean, at the beginning of the program we went through a list of questions; you've kind of repeated them. In other words the rest has yet to be told.

BOWMAN: Right, so the big thing is can the Afghan security forces hold against the Taliban with minimal U.S. support. And a bigger question won't come until next spring with the elections. Again, American officials are saying can the country and can everyone sort of have a consensus candidate for president. Will the elections be held in the spring as they're scheduled? Will they be put off? Will there be a big political fight?

If that's the case, the big worry is a fracturing of the Afghan army, everyone going back to their respective warlords. That's a real, real worry.

DONVAN: If things are as uncertain as you say, then, does that also muddy in any way the future U.S. role there, or is that pretty much on paper and going to be followed?

BOWMAN: It's pretty much set in stone, I would say. What we don't know is how many U.S. troops would be there after 2014 for the training mission and counter-terror mission. Estimates of 8,000 to 12,000 troops, those numbers are out there. Also the money. You're talking billions of dollars, at least $4 billion a year, to keep the Afghan security forces in equipment and pay. That's coming from the United States taxpayers.

Those are pretty much set, as far as we know. The big question is: How long will the American people and Congress be willing to pay billions of dollars to keep the Afghan security forces paid and equipped? That's an uncertain question in these times of economic woe.

DONVAN: And right now the answer is indefinite, as opposed to indefinitely.

BOWMAN: Well, it's a 10-year security agreement, but as far as will that money be coming years after year after year, I don't think anybody can predict that right now.

DONVAN: I also want to bring in Julian Barnes. Julian, thanks for joining the program. You cover the Pentagon and national security for the Wall Street Journal and are with us here in Studio 42. Welcome to the program.

JULIAN BARNES: Thanks for having me here.

DONVAN: A little bit of the same question but not in precisely the same way. But looking forward, was today the landmark day that the NATO secretary general suggested it was?

BARNES: Well, the U.S. and its allies look for occasions to mark to show that there is progress, to show that we are over time moving to more of an Afghan lead, more of an Afghan role. But Tom is exactly right. The - it's not like tomorrow the Afghan military is going to be significantly better than they were yesterday or that things will be different.

But we have seen an evolution over the last year with less involvement by the U.S. in tactical level operations.

DONVAN: That's for real. That's (unintelligible)...

BARNES: Yeah, I mean, there are fewer U.S. forces out on patrol with the Afghans. The Afghans are planning their own missions, executing their own missions. There's still this big infrastructure of U.S. support there that is going to decrease over the next couple years. And the key question will be how real is this. Can they do these sort of basic operations? Probably yes.

Can they do the bigger scale operations? Much more of a question.

DONVAN: And the Afghan troops themselves, your impression of them, are they getting to be good at their job?

BARNES: They are a lot better than they were four years ago. They're a lot better than they were, you know, a decade ago. But it's a far different military than the U.S. that still doesn't have - it lacks some basic discipline. You know, you see reports, you listen to reports from reporters in the field of how the - you know, a patrol stops, and discipline breaks down, and they're not providing security or doing some of those basic tasks that the U.S. has been hammering time after time.

But doing things on your own, taking off the training wheels improves some of those things pretty quickly. So we may see a change on some of that.

DONVAN: Tom Bowman?

BOWMAN: And it's important to know here, in Afghanistan they have what's called layered security. It starts with what's known as the Afghan local police, and for want of a better term, they're sort of an armed neighborhood watch. They're hired at the village level. They're in their own village, chosen by the village elders, trained by the American Green Berets. That's the first line of defense against the Taliban.

Then you have the Afghan uniform police, which is supposed to come to the aid of the Afghan local police if they get in trouble, and then on top of that you have the Afghan army.

DONVAN: So the weaponry gets higher and higher and higher.

BOWMAN: The experience and the weaponry gets higher, and we were out with Afghan Green Berets with American Green Berets, and those are the top tier. The problem you see in many places of the country where we went, and we went to the eastern part of Afghanistan, hard up against the border with Pakistan and also the south, around the city of Kandahar, a lot of times the army doesn't get along with the Afghan local police, the armed neighborhood watch.

They basically see them as thugs or local yokels, and the Afghan local police look at the army as from other parts of the country. The Afghan army is largely from the north, Tajiks and Uzbeks and Hazaras. They look at them as basically, you know, they're from another part of the country, they're even foreigners. All they want is a paycheck. They're not here to help us.

You have to have good communication, and they have to work together, and from what we saw, that's a serious problem.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Lee(ph) from South Dakota. Hi Lee, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

LEE: Hi, how are you?

DONVAN: We're good, thanks. So we're asking how - are you a veteran of Afghanistan?

LEE: I am.

DONVAN: OK, and so we're asking people who were there to sort of give us your metric for success. What would you need to see to tell you that it's working?

LEE: Admittedly it's a problem, and I'm going to repeat some of the statements that were made earlier. When we first went into Afghanistan, the clearest mission that we had was to establish some form of centralized government so there could be a sort of national control over the goings-on in the country. The problem is that Karzai has remained in government. There's been a lot of corruption, and he's become increasingly unpopular.

But due to the fractured nature of politics within Afghanistan, I'm not entirely certain that there is some sort of consensus political leader that's prepared to take over. And that's especially concerning as the Taliban could gain in power as U.S. forces wind down and then perhaps shift its attention over to Pakistan, which is the nuclear power and is dealing with India on the other side, as Kissinger has noted.

So I'm not really entirely certain at this point what our ideal endgame looks like other than hopefully some sort of consensus candidate who can really, I don't know, I guess galvanize the Afghani public behind a single figure.

DONVAN: Lee, what you're saying sounds a lot, I think Tom Bowman, like what you're saying.

BOWMAN: That's right. The key word there is hope. They hope there's some consensus candidate that can be the next president of Afghanistan. But right now all it is is hope. They don't have a good sense who's going to be running, what support that person would have. And they're really nervous about it because again, they think if there isn't a consensus candidate, if the election is somehow delayed or if Karzai decides to stay in power, they're afraid the army will just split apart.

DONVAN: All right, Lee, I want to thank you for your call. And Tom Bowman, I know that you are on assignment. So we're going to let you go, and Julian Barnes will be staying with us. And we're going to come up to take a break. We are looking ahead at Afghanistan. As of today, Afghan troops officially took over security operations there. We're trying to measure just how significant that was. So far we're hearing maybe not so much in itself.

But we would like to hear from those of you who have served in Afghanistan to answer this question. How do you measure success now? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan. Stars and Stripes has a special section on their website called Heroes 2013. And in this they've interviewed a number of veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and that includes some of the four living Afghan vets who have received the Medal of Honor.

One man, after he received the Silver Star, summed up a sentiment that is common among the honorees they talked with. He said: It feels awkward sometimes being called a hero. As NATO officially hands over security to Afghan forces, we're taking a moment today to look ahead at Afghanistan, and we want to hear from those of you who have served there.

And our question to you is: How do we measure success now? And we want to ask you that question based on what you've seen on the ground. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest today is Julian Barnes, he covers the military and national security for The Wall Street Journal. And I also want to bring into the conversation now Stephen Biddle. He is professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University. Stephen Biddle, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Thanks for having me.

DONVAN: So we are - we've been talking about the Afghan government so far in the program, but we really can't be talking about Afghanistan without talking about the Taliban, which at one time formed the Afghan government until it was ousted by U.S. and NATO troops in 2001 and remains a thorn in the side of Hamid Karzai but still has loyalty in the country.

So gauge for us the role as we try to look forward, the role of the Taliban in the fate of Afghanistan.

BIDDLE: Well, the Taliban are not actually a terribly popular political movement within Afghanistan itself. They have some support, especially in the south, but Afghanistan has been pretty heavily polled since 2001, and in no poll that I've seen has nationwide support for the Taliban politically in the country risen above about 15 percent.

What the Taliban have going for them primarily is state support in the form of Pakistan. The Pakistanis view the Taliban as their safety net. In the event that the counterinsurgency project in Afghanistan collapses, and the country returns into something that looks like 1990s-style anarchy, the Pakistanis view that as a disaster, tremendous insecurity immediately across a porous western border.

In the event that that happens, the Taliban are their Plan B. That's their way to try and reestablish something resembling order on their western border. The primary advantage of the Taliban in this conflict is the support they get for that purpose from the Pakistani government.

DONVAN: Julian Barnes?

BARNES: That's right. I mean, the Taliban are far more feared within Afghanistan than they are popularly supported. Most Afghans, as Professor Biddle has said, wouldn't voluntarily support a Taliban government. But it remains a divided country. There does remain some support within Pashtun populations for the Taliban, and as we've seen in the past, you know, should order of the central government break down, and the Taliban force remains strong, you know, they could be a threat to stability in Afghanistan, which is why we see so much emphasis on this peace process and the need for it to move forward as the international military operations begin to wind down.

DONVAN: Talk to me also, Julian, about the Taliban's most recent moves to actually go the diplomatic route.

BARNES: Well, we now today have the announcement that an office in Qatar would open, a Taliban office. This has been something that the U.S., Obama administration, has been trying to engineer for a long while. It's controversial within Afghanistan. President Karzai would like peace negotiations to happen inside Afghanistan in Kabul, not necessarily in Doha, Qatar.

But having a place where the U.S. can meet with the Taliban, where other countries can meet with the Taliban and begin a political negotiation could be important. And this comes along with some concessions by the Taliban: that they will not use Afghanistan as a place to launch attacks; that they ultimately favor a peaceful resolution to the war.

Now that's not quite the same as saying they'll lay down arms tomorrow, but it could potentially be an important first step.

DONVAN: Steven Biddle, also in the Taliban, explain to a viewer who would have this question what the answer is. The question is: Why would Afghanistan, the government of Afghanistan, and the U.S. in one step removed, want to negotiate with the Taliban as opposed to just continuing to take the line of wanting to defeat or destroy the organization?

BIDDLE: Of course for a long, long time, the U.S. government policy was precisely that we would fight to defeat the organization rather than negotiate with them. That policy changed a couple of years ago, largely because the government decided that the scale of effort needed to destroy the Taliban as a military organization exceeded what the United States was willing to pay.

And in an environment where destroying them or suffocating them or rendering them militarily incapable of continuing is just seen as being more expensive than the stakes are worth. That only leave you with the alternatives of either trying to negotiate some kind of a settlement that preserves some of our war aims or withdrawing and quite possibly allowing the government to collapse and seeing none of our war aims realized.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Jack(ph) from Traverse City, Michigan. Hi Jack, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JACK: Hi, thank you for taking this call.

DONVAN: It's a pleasure to have you.

JACK: I worked on Afghanistan from the NATO perspective. I was the political advisor to the NATO commander at the operational level and visited Afghanistan 40 times for a week at a time. I think what we're losing sight of is that this political problem in Afghanistan is not our problem to fix. The effort we have made in Afghanistan has been almost totally military-centric.

Ninety-five percent of our spending has been focused on the military effort, and we have really dismally failed the development side of the problem. I think it's too late to solve that problem, but what we've got now is a situation where the Pentagon is trying to drag out a process that should end in 2014.

I don't think the Afghan forces are going to be perfect in 2014 or 2015 or 2025, but they're going to be good enough to fight whoever it is they're trying to fight. And the longer we stay involved, the more dependent they're going to remain on us.

DONVAN: Jack, when - for people who don't know the terms of art, when you say that the U.S. has not focused on the development side of the equation, what does that mean?

JACK: Well, just take as an example we've spent $500 billion in Afghanistan, and 40 percent of the people, according to the U.N. right now, say 40 percent of the people are undernourished. This is a disastrous imbalance of spending, whereas we have built, on the model of the U.S. forces, an Afghan national army. And that Afghan national army, as correctly was pointed out by Mr. Barnes, is primarily Tajik and Uzbek, setting up a split in the country if the Taliban gets a significant role in the government, which they will do.

I say that because I've traveled all over southern Afghanistan to the smallest villages, and the Taliban are the village. They - the people are the Taliban, and we've never really absorbed that. We talk of it as an external organization.

DONVAN: Jack, do you - are you saying, though, that you think that if there had been, say, more money spent on for example agriculture, housing, roads, communications, that this equation would be different now?

JACK: I think we have - we took a centralized approach, which was a mistake. It's not a highly centralized country.

DONVAN: Let me - thanks, Jack, for your answer, and thanks for your call. I just want to let our guests respond to that. And let's start with Julian Barnes. What do you make of Jack's point?

BARNES: Well, he makes some good points. There was a lot of develop money - development money spent, even if it was not the primary focus of the U.S. And it's not clear whether that has made - those projects made a difference. It's not clear whether more of that would have changed something.

I mean, I think the U.S. has come out of Afghanistan and Iraq very humbled at its nation-building ability, it's ability to transform political life or economic life. A lot of money has been spent in Afghanistan. The standard of living in an Afghan village is not a lot different than it was. And it's not clear whether, you know, more wells, more schools, more dams would have made a difference. Maybe it has.

But I think that we are now more skeptical of that kind of operation.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Mark(ph) from Fort Knox, Kentucky. Hi Mark, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MARK: Hi, thanks for taking my call.


MARK: I wanted to just talk a little bit about - I'm disengaged from Afghanistan, have been for - about three years now. But I left Afghanistan the last time in 2010 and I...

DONVAN: What did you do there?

MARK: I was with the organization that was in charge of detention operations and they were...

DONVAN: What does that mean?

MARK: Detaining Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, you know, just prison operations. And they were undergoing the transition at that time of those detention operations to Afghan nationals.

DONVAN: You mean build - putting a fence around somebody - holding prisoners in a jail or a camp or something like that. I'm just trying to understand this because...

MARK: Right. It's a good deal more complicated than that, but I guess you could say, yeah, just kind of maintaining an improvement standard that's...


MARK: ...pretty much similar to the ones that we have in the U.S.

DONVAN: And so it was your sense that things are, you know, in that slice of it that you saw, did you see in a sense progress? Did you see order being established (unintelligible)?

MARK: Right. We - no, I left before full transition. We were developing the programs and the training, and we're doing what would be called the (unintelligible) with the local nationals. We had a great command team over there. We had a great organization over there, and we had good Afghans over there. But the thing to understand is that they are not trying to get to the U.S. standard, you know? We have people who have 15, 20 years in corrections in the military, in the U.S. military.

And your average entry-level soldier has over a year of corrections training. And we're pushing them through six months, seven months, you know, four or five different ethnic groups that have never worked together. They're from different geographic locations. We're pushing them through and trying to create a coherent team. And for that, given what I saw since I didn't see the full implementation, I thought it was highly successful given those requirements.

DONVAN: Well, thanks, Mark.

MARK: You can't expect them to be U.S. soldiers. You can't expect them to be U.S. troops or even British troops. We've spent how many billions of dollars getting our soldiers trained, you know? And so we have a standard to meet.

DONVAN: Mark, thanks...

MARK: And we need that standard.

DONVAN: ...thanks for your call. I want to take a point that you've just made to Stephen Biddle. And thanks again, Steve - Mark, for calling. Stephen, you know, Mark was talking about - he saw at this very, very local level, the various sort of sect and identity groups in Afghanistan working well together. And I'm wondering what your take is on how that work in the larger national army scale. I'm kind of curious about what is the glue now that actually holds the army together?

BIDDLE: I mean at the enlisted level, the army is reasonably reflective of the country ethnically. The problem at the enlisted level is that the Pashtuns that the Army has tend to be eastern and northern Pashtuns rather than southern Pashtuns. The Taliban insurgency is primarily associated with the Pashtun ethnic group. It's most dangerous in the south. Recruiting in dangerous parts of the south has classically been weak. So if you look at it on paper, the enlisted troops are reasonably reflective of the nation's ethnic balance. The geographic balance isn't as good.

The officer corps tends to be more Tajik and Uzbek than we would like. At the moment, the military is held together by some combination of the U.S. role in advising and assisting. A sense that if the United States leaves and the Afghan national military is on its own, they're the only thing that stands between the country and some sort of Taliban restoration. So that tends to hold them together. And last but not least, patronage and patron-client relationships. And the third of these is potentially the most worrisome issue looking forward.

What we're trying to do in Afghanistan really is build a Third World army more or less from scratch. If you look at the military history of the Third World as a whole, Third World armies don't usually collapse because they don't have the right training or because they don't have the right equipment or because there aren't enough advisers running rifle ranges. When they perform poorly, it's normally because they get captured politically by a corrupt regime, and that they get pulled into a patron-client network that saps their ability to generate combat motivation among the troops in the field.

So I think the key issue for the Afghan security forces looking forward is in a country where so much of commerce and governance and daily life is managed through a series of patron-client networks, can the security forces remain independent enough of that that they can continue to generate combat motivation after they don't have us to lean on?

DONVAN: All right. Thank you, Stephen. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to James(ph) in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Hi, James. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JAMES: Hi. How are you doing?

DONVAN: We're good.

JAMES: I wanted to make a comment. Your last speaker just mentioned the Afghan National Army and how well they're working and I'd like to touch on that as well. Their structural organization and especially communication is great. Coming from all different parts of Afghanistan and moving to a different area allows them to not be controlled by the local forces, and by that, I mean the drug people and the Taliban forces can't get to them because they can't get to their families.

The other major issue is the communication interagency. The ALP, AUP, obviously, don't like the ANA, but the AUP don't communicate with each other. Each position doesn't have any sort of communication. And several times when I was stationed over there, we would be on a patrol, and they would almost shoot their counterparts because nobody told them they were patrolling in the other's (unintelligible).

DONVAN: James, are you speaking to us from a base now in the U.S.?

JAMES: I am. Yes, sir.

DONVAN: So are you heading back as far as you know?

JAMES: No, sir. I was injured over in country.

DONVAN: So I'm assuming, though, that you talk with guys who are still over there. Is there a sense that things are getting - are working, are beginning to work, have been working?

JAMES: With the ANA, certainly. The ANA have made amazing steps since I was there a year ago.

DONVAN: By ANA, you mean the Afghan National Army? It's basically the big army, right?

JAMES: Yes, sir. And...

DONVAN: OK. Just wanted to explain for our audience. Yeah, go ahead.

JAMES: And they work very well. The Afghan local police are not very good. They basically - they are what the ANA think they are, is just local thugs. And the Afghan uniformed police are even worse because they are the ones controlling most of the drugs in the area and the Taliban movement. So it's not getting better for those two, but the Afghan National Army is improving very well. And if they can maintain their hold, they will be successful.

DONVAN: All right, James. Thanks for your call. We have about 20 seconds left, and I just want to give Julian Barnes the chance to use those. No, 18 seconds left. When you go back there next time because you come and go, what are you going to be looking for for markers of success?

BARNES: Part of what your callers have said, how well does that Afghan National Army, the security forces work on their own, how much structure from the U.S. remains to keep them united, to keep them from being captured, as Professor Biddle said, by one group or other, so how many U.S. forces are there, how well are they advising from a high level, the Afghan security forces on the ground.

DONVAN: All right. Thanks very much. Julian Barnes, Wall Street Journal reporter, joining us here in Studio 42, and Stephen Biddle, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, who joined us by telephone, thanks to both of you. Up next, what do we lose when a language dies? We will hear from one speaker of the endangered Athabaskan language. Stay with us. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.