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Transcript:

November 14, 2008

DEBORAH AMOS: Welcome to the JOURNAL. Bill Moyers is away this week. I'm Deborah Amos.

Only a week ago we were celebrating the election of the first African American to the office of president… But this historic moment was not only about what had ended, but what is ahead.

BARACK OBAMA: Two wars. A planet in peril. The worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq, in the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us.

DEBORAH AMOS: He seemed to be bracing himself for the storms to come. His initiation started with the President's Daily Brief - that ultra-secret assessment of the latest intelligence and threats against the United States. While we don't know the details, there's no doubt about what's in that brief: the worsening situation in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, and North Korea. All complex problems and the list goes on. And if you're thinking the financial crisis is the only crisis that matters, well think again. A wise head in Washington said to me this week, you don't choose to do foreign policy - it's imposed on you.

The war in Afghanistan, often called the 'good war', has also and possibly more correctly, been called 'the forgotten war.' 2008 has been Afghanistan's bloodiest year since the US-led invasion of 2001. And security there has deteriorated so much that it's now considered an even deadlier battleground than Iraq, as shown in the FRONTLINE special, "The War Briefing."

NARRATOR: The company lost two men this week. They are all on edge.

SGT. LUCAS YOUNG: Where's it coming from?

SOLDIER: They got us pinned down in a tight spot. Break. Every time we move, they are shooting at us. So I need a presence here in the Korengal. I just need to push into Korengal.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: The next president will face a situation where in the next year or two, he will have to make the decision that faced the Soviets in 1988, either to massively reinforce and to wage a war very aggressively, or to get out.

DEBORAH AMOS: Here to help us understand the road ahead in Afghanistan and the rest of the world, are Fred Kaplan and Elizabeth Rubin. Elizabeth Rubin is the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She's a contributing writer at THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE and she's reported extensively on life and politics in Afghanistan.

Fred Kaplan is an award-winning reporter and writes the "War Stories" column for SLATE magazine. He's also the author of DAYDREAM BELIEVERS: HOW A FEW GRAND IDEAS WRECKED AMERICAN POWER.

Welcome to the JOURNAL.

FRED KAPLAN: Thanks. Good to be here.

DEBORAH AMOS: Elizabeth, this has been the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since 2001. And in your last long article, you went to ask some questions. One, with all of our technology, why are we killing so many Afghans? And, two, why are so many Americans getting killed there? So what's the answer? What went wrong?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Well, part of the problem is that we have small forces of Americans out in the villages, in the mountains. Or we have small special forces groups that are going out, looking for the Taliban. I mean, the topography is a nightmare. When they get stuck out there, there's no way that, you know, a truck can come with more troops. They've got to fly in. And they drop a bomb from the air. And half the time, the Taliban are in a village shooting from the roof or the window of a friend's house or a village that they've taken over for the day, or the night. And so civilians get killed. It happens all the time. Sometimes it's bad information. Sometimes it's, you know, the bomb - I watched three bombs go off target in one day. One of them was a kilometer off target. One of them almost landed on us. These are 2,000 pound bombs.

DEBORAH AMOS: And did they kill people that day?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: No. They happened to be out in the mountains where we were. They landed on trees and there were fires for the next three days. But it does happen because of all sorts of glitches that can go on. And we rely so much on air power because we don't have enough troops on the ground. So it's just a much more complicated fight. We ignored it for many years and it got entirely out of control.

DEBORAH AMOS: I wanted to ask both of you, there is a math problem that in some ways President-Elect Obama has. Because he says, "Let's focus on Afghanistan." Let's move troops to Afghanistan. But they have to come from Iraq. There's no place else. The math is indisputable.

FRED KAPLAN: Yeah, this is the remarkable thing. You'd think we have a million man army and all the $700 billion military budget if you include the cost of the war. But we're in a situation where there's really only one spare brigade, combat team in the entire Army. If there was some emergency someplace where we had to take two or three brigades, one or two of those would have to come out of Iraq. So, yeah, and President-Elect Obama wants to put two or three brigades in Afghanistan, as he has said. They're all going to have to come out of Iraq.

DEBORAH AMOS: And that means that Iraq has to be more stable-

FRED KAPLAN: Yes.

DEBORAH AMOS: -to deal with Afghanistan. Simple as that.

FRED KAPLAN: That's right. And, I mean, aside from all other issues, which also play in the same direction, the same conclusion, it's a zero sum game. Yeah.

DEBORAH AMOS: Elizabeth, you've been on the ground in both places, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Are there transferable skills from soldiers who have served in Iraq who are on their way to Afghanistan?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: All the - most of the soldiers that I was with in Afghanistan had been in Iraq. Many of them have been deployed four times. They've done Afghanistan twice, Iraq twice, or three times. They're totally equipped for that and trained for that and ready for that. What they were not ready for, which I think they will be now, was the fact that Afghanistan was going to be so much harder in a way than Iraq.

Everyone was afraid of the IEDs in Iraq. But in Afghanistan, especially in the northeast where they're concentrated, it's mountain fighting with guerillas who are hiding behind boulders and trees. And this kind of fighting, it wears down on your nerves every day, especially because the whole idea is to have been pushing them out into these little, you know, fire bases.

So they have to be prepared for that. But the transfer is not that difficult. What's difficult is the cultural transfer. These aren't the same countries. And, you know, as much as -everybody's been saying this - but as much as they need a military solution, a military guy, you can't ask a military guy to be an anthropologist, a humanitarian aid worker, a killer, and, you know, and a doctor. And that's what they're sort of asking them to do. They need to have much more civilians working on the ground in these areas.

FRED KAPLAN: I think ultimately what has to happen, and very quickly is to build up the Afghan Army, which I'm told, I mean, I was there about two and a half years ago and the Afghan Army when they were just beginning-

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Yeah.

FRED KAPLAN: -to build it up. I mean, their idea of training was, you know, aiming a rifle, you know, and hitting a target with, not even with a bullet. Just seeing if they can line up the sight. I hear they're actually doing quite well now. But they need to double, maybe even triple the size. The last general, American general who just left said that they need 400,000 troops. I mean, we're not going to get anywhere near a quarter of that, you know?

DEBORAH AMOS: Yeah.

FRED KAPLAN: So it's got to be an Afghan solution.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: I would just say that quite well is really just - it's just not the case. I mean, some of the units are-

FRED KAPLAN: Relatively quite-

ELIZABETH RUBIN: -relatively quite well. And it's not entirely their fault either. They basically have been given tricycles, you know? They're still on training wheels. They're attached to an American unit. They have no way to call air power themselves. They don't have - half the time they don't have enough ammunition. They don't have enough clothing. They don't have enough food.

They have to be given all the resources that a western military would have. We can't expect them to go out there with one helicopter flying around in the air, transporting the intelligence minister.

DEBORAH AMOS: This week the "Washington Post" gave us some hints on where Obama is going. And the headline was "Obama to Explore New Approach in the Afghan War." The report talks about ideas for a regional strategy.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Uh-huh.

DEBORAH AMOS: Is this a big departure from the Bush administration? And is it where we ought to be going?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: It's a huge departure. I think people have been talking about a regional strategy for some time now. One of the problems that's happened in Afghanistan is you have a proxy war going on there between Pakistan and India, the U.S. and Iran. China has big investment in Afghanistan. The Russians I think have the largest number of intelligence agents in Afghanistan. So everybody is sort of jockeying for power.

DEBORAH AMOS: On the ground, how do you see that? Are there examples where you know that this is what's happening?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Well, for one thing, for example, a couple years ago you might remember there was a spate of Indian engineers getting executed along the roads. They were building roads. They were building other projects. This, when I would speak to the Taliban in Pakistan, they were given orders by their ISI handlers.

DEBORAH AMOS: ISI?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Pakistani intelligence. Then you had the Indian embassy explosion. And it was absolutely linked back to Pakistani agents. On the other hand, the Indians have brought in a large number of consulates all over the country. Some say they are supporting the Baluch insurgents, who have an insurgency in southern Pakistan. And certainly the Afghans all prefer the Indians in some was. They're one of the largest investors in the country. So you know, Pakistan and India have been, in one way or another, at war for 60 years. And now they are continuing that war in Afghanistan. China's invested hugely in Pakistan, so Pakistan isn't automatically going to do whatever we say because they also need to listen to China. And we need to be talking to China about Pakistan and Afghanistan.

DEBORAH AMOS: So you're saying that the Pakistani intelligence agency would ask their allies, the Taliban, to assassinate Indians in Afghanistan?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.

DEBORAH AMOS: And that's how the proxy war gets carried out.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: That's how the proxy war. The Afghans are, you know, in the middle of the sandwich. They get used by whoever because they're very poor. And they will work sometimes for both sides, sometimes for three sides.

DEBORAH AMOS: But, you know, what we all heard all through Iraq is there's two time clocks. There's Washington's time clock and Baghdad's.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Right.

DEBORAH AMOS: And now there's Kabul's time clock.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Right. Which is very slow. Yes.

DEBORAH AMOS: So do the American, especially in the middle of an economic disaster, have the will, have the patience to stick with what both of you are describing as a very long process where we're still in a moment that you will hear political voices saying, "We're losing. Let's get out."?

FRED KAPLAN: Yeah, you know, one thing, you know, when NATO took over the Afghan operation, there was a big celebration. Okay, "We're taking over from these crude Americans. We're gonna do it right." But at the time they thought it was a peacekeeping operation. They didn't anticipate that there would be a war still going on. So they go down to the south. Taliban come out to play. And they say, "Oh, well listen, I said I'd come. But, no, I'm not gonna fight at night. I'm not gonna fight on the ground. I'll fight in the north but not in the south."

They put 57 I think different caveats on different nations saying what they will not do. Then Secretary Gates comes into office and he's livid because, my god, these NATO countries, they said that they would be helping us but they're not. And it took them a while to realize that, no, they didn't know that this was what they were getting into. They didn't sign on to fight a war.

So, okay, so they don't want to send troops to a war. At least send money then. All of the other countries in the region that don't want to see Afghanistan falling apart again, you know, they need to put - if they're not going to put lives on the line, they've got to put money on the line. 'Cause we can't bear the full cost.

DEBORAH AMOS: And so that puts an extra burden on the American government and the American public at a time that they, in overwhelming numbers, voted for change, voted for ending the Iraq War. And so my question is, is there a political dimension to this that we either don't know yet, or will come to play?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: The political dimension is talking to the Taliban. I mean, and that is going on. And that's the only - I mean, there are people who say there's no way we should. But even the U.S. military started saying we have to. It's never going to end unless there's a political solution. But that's also where, you know, Pakistan comes in and India comes in and Iran. And I do think that Obama will be given, at least for a few months, you know, a lot of goodwill on the part of the world that wants to work with.

DEBORAH AMOS: But let me ask you then, let's widen this one more step. Since 9/11 there has been a war on terror, which has no end that anyone has been able to explain.

FRED KAPLAN: And all terrorists are the same.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Right.

FRED KAPLAN: And, therefore, we should treat them all as enemies instead of finding cleavages between them and playing them off one another.

DEBORAH AMOS: And so is this idea that we talk to the Taliban one way to - do we need to rethink the war on terror? Or are we in a war without end?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Clearly they already thought about that in Iraq when they did the whole Sons of Iraq and turned, you know, the Sunnis against al-Qaeda and the tribes - so it's not like this hasn't been happening. They were talking to insurgents and paying off insurgents to stop being insurgents. I mean, that's what Petraeus' whole plan was in Iraq. So I think it's already been reconsidered, redefined. It's just nobody's come out and said, "Okay, the war on terror is over. We're doing something else now."

FRED KAPLAN: Nobody's made the general point. I mean, it's actually very serendipitous that at this time Petraeus is going from being the commander in Iraq to being the commander of Central Command, which controls the entire region, because this is his MO. His first instinct, in other words, going into Afghanistan, was to say, "Well, what forces can be played off against each other here?" It's kind of become a recipe of success for him. And then you also have the sheer problem of scarcity. We don't have enough troops and enough money to go kill and capture every bad guy on earth. So what do you do about this?

DEBORAH AMOS: Fred, you have written in your column that President-Elect Obama is actually catching some breaks. That we still have a President in office, which he has very clearly said is President Bush until January 20th. What are the breaks?

FRED KAPLAN: Well, I don't know if there are any breaks in Afghanistan. But for example, in Iraq, they see Obama as something different. And, therefore, I think - and there are some indications that they're putting an extra effort into getting their act together and coming up with an agreement that can satisfy everybody so that, you know, we can leave by 2011 but, in the meantime, stick around a little bit.

DEBORAH AMOS: And will Obama catch a break with Iran?

FRED KAPLAN: Iran? I mean, some of that's up to the Iranians. But it is nice that the price of oil has gone down by about 50 percent in the last couple of months and that Ahmadinejad seems to be in a little bit of domestic trouble. And maybe Obama can get the Europeans to cooperate a bit more on sanctions against Iran because they don't think that Obama is just practically one breath away from bombing the place, that he really is interested in working out a solution.

Ultimately, we have to work out a deal with Russia, too. And I think there are some possibilities there as well. These reports from the monitors in Georgia which suggest that, well, maybe it wasn't such an unprovoked aggression that Russian did. It doesn't excuse the brutality. But maybe we can overlook that and get things back on course. And get something going where a number of countries have common interests in getting things done. And they might disagree on one point, but they agree with this point. So let's get together and do that.

DEBORAH AMOS: But we are in the middle of a financial crisis, the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetimes. That will take up a certain amount of oxygen, brain cells, whatever you want to say, in the way that Iraq did in the beginning of the Bush administration. It sucked all the air out of diplomacy, as Richard Haass who worked for the White House at that time, has said. You haven't factored that in, in that list.

FRED KAPLAN: Well, I would say one thing. Maybe we'll have a secretary of state who doesn't have to look over his or her shoulder every two minutes to make sure that the vice president isn't sabotaging whatever he's trying to do.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: That's a really good point.

FRED KAPLAN: You know, even the entry of Bob Gates, the Secretary of Defense, has changed the dynamics of national security decision making in the White House profoundly. You don't have people running in and of the Oval Office trying to be the last person to convince the president of something. No, you have actual debates going on in front of the president. It's much more systematized. You know, I really do think that if that had been going on, even though the Bush administration, even with all the other problems, things would be a lot more manageable at this point.

DEBORAH AMOS: Manageable but the financial crisis does put some constraints on policy.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Yes and no. I mean, you could look at it another way, which is that if the U.S. is not just money bags then it means that other countries realize they actually have to do some work with the U.S. and with whoever is in the region. So in a way it makes the world much more interdependent. Rather than seeing the U.S. as - the U.S. is either going to do its policy for better or for worse 'cause they've got all the money. It doesn't work that way anymore.

DEBORAH AMOS: When the Bush administration took on Afghanistan and then Iraq, there was this notion that we were involved in a democracy-building operation. And then there was talk even in the campaign about victory, that there would be a way that we would know that it was time to leave, that it was over. Those ideas have really lost currency. So is there a measure of success in these wars, in Afghanistan and in Iraq?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: I think the measure of success is when they're not in the news anymore, you know? When they start to just become countries that are existing on their own. You're not going to have, like, "This is Success Day." When there's a certain kind of stability and a country is being built, it's going to be a lot less newsworthy than when you have, you know, Afghans getting killed every day, Americans getting killed every day, Pakistanis and Indians killing each other in Afghanistan. When the killing subsides and the country's being built. But you're not going to have one day that's going to signify the end. I think these ideas that there's a black and white, "okay, this is victory" day, we pull out. It just doesn't work that way. The world doesn't work that way. That's what I would say.

FRED KAPLAN: Yeah, you know, the Cold War was actually an anomaly in history. I mean, this idea of two pretty stable blocs that faced off. And each of them controlled its half of the world. And that at one point, one of the sides just went poof. And I think the mistake that the Bush administration made at the end of the Cold War was they said, "We won the Cold War; therefore, we control everything and everybody has to bow down. We are stronger than ever. We are like Rome. Everybody has to do what we want."

But what was really going on, we were actually in some ways weaker than we were before because, in the old days, everybody kind of vaguely on our side, would look over to their shoulder and know that, oh geez, the Russian bear's over there. So, okay, I'll go against my interests to go along with this because the alternatives are too dreadful.

Well, now, the bear's gone. These countries, they can go their own way, pursue their own interests without much attention to what Washington says.

So what the next president has to do is really to adjust to America's reduced place in the world and to - how to advance our interests in a world where we actually control much less. And it's very difficult. But it also provides possibilities because there are ways of reciprocal benefits for both countries. And as Elizabeth was saying, you can create diplomatic situations where other countries feel a stake in the matter, too

DEBORAH AMOS: Fred Kaplan and Elizabeth Rubin, thanks very much for joining us.

FRED KAPLAN: Thank you.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Thank you.

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