JIM LEHRER: And now, the new Obama mission on Afghanistan. We start with some background, narrated by NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden.
TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Seven-and-a-half years into the American campaign in Afghanistan, the U.S. and its NATO partners face a revived Taliban insurgency, which is battling to extend its reach throughout the country.
The joint U.S.-NATO effort has 55,000 troops on the ground; more than 30,000 are Americans. The Obama administration says it will add 30,000 troops to Afghanistan over the next several months.
New obstacles arose last week. A bridge was blown up on a main supply route in Pakistan, and the government of Kyrgyzstan said it would cancel the lease on the air base at Manas, a major supply point for Afghanistan.
At the start of a security conference in Munich, Germany, Russia offered a base on its territory for Afghan re-supply. The conference focused on the Afghan challenge.
For his part, Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, suggested domestic political negotiations.
HAMID KARZAI, President of Afghanistan: This is perhaps the right time for me to call for a process of reconciliation. We will invite all those Taliban who are not part of al-Qaida, who are not part of terrorist networks, who want to return to their country, who want to live by the constitution of Afghanistan, and who want to have peace in the country and live a normal life to participate, to come back to their country. And I would request the international community to back us in this fully.
TOM BEARDEN: The U.S. delegation was led by Vice President Joe Biden, joined by the national security adviser, James Jones; General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command; and the new administration’s special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke. Holbrooke, who is now heading to the region on his first mission, told the conferees yesterday that Afghanistan is “going to be a long and difficult struggle. In my view, it’s going to be much tougher than Iraq.”
Jones said the U.S. and its NATO partners must work together.
JAMES JONES, National Security Adviser: We cannot afford failure in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not simply an American problem; it is an international problem.
TOM BEARDEN: But the conference showed sharp disagreements among the NATO allies. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said his country’s limit on troops was 4,500.
FRANZ JOSEF JUNG, Defense Minister, Germany (through translator): I think, with military means only, we will not be successful in Afghanistan. We have to combine effective military security and civilian reconstruction.
TOM BEARDEN: Jung’s British counterpart, John Hutton, said the alliance was failing in its efforts and needed a new mindset.
JOHN HUTTON, Defense Minister, United Kingdom: What I want from NATO is more of a wartime mentality to rise to the challenge of the threat that we face, less of a peacetime culture, which is characterized, I’m afraid, far too often by process, an obsession with process, bureaucracy, and prevarication. Given where we are today, however, I think we need stronger force levels in Afghanistan.
TOM BEARDEN: But several NATO countries have said they’re planning to reduce their commitments to Afghanistan or withdraw all together.
Security situation 'quite serious'
JIM LEHRER: For more on U.S. options in Afghanistan, Seth Jones is a political scientist at the Rand Corporation. He's a frequent visitor and commentator to and about Afghanistan.
Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow on South Asia at the Heritage Foundation. She's a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. State Department.
Seth Jones, do you agree with these dire assessments that were voiced in Munich over the weekend about Afghanistan?
SETH JONES, Rand Corporation: Well, I agree in part. I mean, I think the situation is quite serious on the security front. The levels of violence in 2008 were up 33 percent from those levels of 2007. The numbers of improvised explosive devices have increased tremendously. And Afghans in general -- Asia Foundation poll recently indicated they increasingly feel insecure.
But at the same time, I think it's important to balance that. The insurgency is deeply fractured among over a dozen insurgent groups. This is not just the Taliban. And many of them, as we saw today with the recent ABC-BBC poll, are not particularly popular, support levels under 10 percent.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add or subtract to that, just the overall situation?
LISA CURTIS, The Heritage Foundation: Well, it was a tough year in Afghanistan. Afghan civilian casualties were up 60 percent. Coalition forces casualties also the highest to date. So it was a tough year, but we can't turn our back on the conflict.
I think it's clear that more troops are necessary. That's not to say that ultimately a political resolution won't finally end the war, but I think what we have to ask ourselves is the idea out there that there's no military solution, is that an idea that the Taliban leadership accepts? And I think the answer right now is certainly no.
We have to create...
JIM LEHRER: You mean the Taliban believes there is a military solution.
LISA CURTIS: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: From their side, you mean?
LISA CURTIS: They've made gains. They've made gains over the past year. So I think we need to create an environment that's conducive to a genuine political reconciliation, which means that Afghanistan will not return to the harsh Taliban rule of the 1990s.
How troops are used is important
JIM LEHRER: I want to come back to the details here in a moment, but what do you say to Lisa Curtis' point that there's no turning -- the U.S. cannot turn its back on this situation? Why can't we? Why do we have to stay? Why can't we just go away?
SETH JONES: Well, I think the lesson is actually pretty clear. I mean, as we saw in the 1990s, that Taliban control of areas leads to what we've seen in Pakistan, al-Qaida training camps, people who come through Pakistan, as we saw in 2005, conduct attacks in London subways. We saw this in a range of different countries, with arrests in Germany and Spain and France over the last few years.
So the more that the Taliban begin to control territory, their relationship with groups like al-Qaida remains significant. I think, turning our back, we would fail to understand the lesson that we should have learned on September 11, 2001.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that we have no choice?
LISA CURTIS: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: That we, the United States of America, has no choice?
LISA CURTIS: Absolutely. I think we do need a new strategy to achieve the original objective, which is ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorists.
Now, while the vast majority of Afghans don't support the harsh policies of the Taliban, they're also angry about the growing number of civilian casualties.
So I think one important part of the administration's new policy has to be to prioritize limiting civilian casualties, which means sending ground forces to intermingle with the population, to secure the population, not relying on aerial bombardment, which actually leads to the killing of civilian casualties. So I think the way we use the troops there is very important.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?
SETH JONES: I do think it's important. I think the discussion of troops often zeroes into this discussion of numbers. I think what's actually been quite important historically is how troops are used historically.
I think what we see with growing concerns about U.S. military forces in Afghanistan among Afghans indicates, I think, the primary thrust has to be building Afghan capacity to conduct operations, that is, police, military forces, intelligence, and not to rely on international forces to do this.
So the question is, when increasing numbers of U.S. forces go into Afghanistan -- we see this with the Marines in the 10th Mountain Division, in particular -- are they going to be trying to win this one for the Afghans or are they going to be trying to build Afghan capacity to win it?
And so I think that's where this struggle has to hinge on, is building Afghan capacity, not trying to win it for them.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?
LISA CURTIS: I do. I also think an important part of this strategy is the establishment of the senior Pakistan-Afghanistan representative, Dick Holbrooke, who's now in the region. And I think this will improve U.S. diplomacy in the region.
I think part of the problem over the last seven years has been the tendency to view the problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan separately, which has led to finger-pointing between Afghanistan and Pakistan watchers, rather than seeking comprehensive solutions that advance U.S. interests in the region.
And I think there's a growing recognition that we need to encourage better relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, if we're going to get control of this situation. So I think this will also be helpful.
Undermining Taliban is key
JIM LEHRER: In our set-up, Tom Bearden's set-up, President Karzai said he wants international support for what he's doing. Is that a viable solution? Is there a political solution from the top down that the United States can support?
SETH JONES: In my view, the U.S. approach since 2001 has largely been what you might call a top-down strategy, that is, to build an Afghan government that is capable enough to establish...
JIM LEHRER: A strong central government?
SETH JONES: ... a strong central government that can establish order and deliver services. I think that is, as we've seen -- not only is it not going to happen, but it's actually ahistorical. Afghanistan's most recent stable period, between 1933 and 1973, had a central government that could establish order in urban areas, but in rural areas...
JIM LEHRER: Forget it?
SETH JONES: ... these were local institutions, tribal jirgas and shuras that established order. So I think we have to back away from this illusory concept of a strong central government that can establish order in rural areas. It's not going to happen, and it hasn't been the recipe in the past.
JIM LEHRER: Now, that would be a huge change, would it not?
LISA CURTIS: Yes, but...
JIM LEHRER: For the U.S., I mean?
LISA CURTIS: Yes, I think Seth is right, though. I think we do need to think in terms of what makes sense for Afghanistan.
I think the key is undermining the ideology of the Taliban, making sure that, you know, there is not support for closing down girls' schools, for harsh public punishments, the kinds of things we saw in the 1990s. So it's important -- we talk a lot about trying to separate Taliban from al-Qaida. I think what we should be thinking about is separating the Taliban ideology from Pashtun nationalism. And that's really what this is about.
JIM LEHRER: Why is that important?
LISA CURTIS: Well, it's important, because, as I indicated, the vast majority of people don't support the policies of the Taliban, but they're intimidated by their violent tactics.
JIM LEHRER: Do they support the idea of a central government in Kabul?
LISA CURTIS: Well, I think they want services, they want reconstruction, they want things that average people want. And so I think they do support the idea of elections, so it's very important that the elections are held, as they're supposed to be held in August, because, in a way, elections are our best weapon against the Taliban ideology.
Government has 'severe challenges'
JIM LEHRER: Do you see things getting better? Or are we about -- even with this new Obama approach, with Holbrooke and Jim Jones -- clearly, because he has had at NATO, had a lot to say and a lot to do about Afghanistan, there's new attention. Do you think things are going to get better?
SETH JONES: I think it's going to take time for things to get better.
JIM LEHRER: A lot of time?
SETH JONES: I think it's going to take a fair amount. And there's systemic challenges right now. Taliban have infiltrated and other insurgent groups have infiltrated the east, the center, the south, in parts of the west.
The Afghan government itself has severe challenges. We've seen this on corruption, individuals involved in drug trafficking, so -- and then, of course, the entire sanctuary in Pakistan. I mean, this is a very, very serious challenge.
So I think, as U.S. forces move into some of these areas, actually, levels of violence are going to increase rather than decrease.
JIM LEHRER: You see some bad times ahead?
LISA CURTIS: I do. I think it is likely to get worse before it gets better, but we need to commit over the long haul. We can't make the same mistake we made after the Soviets left Afghanistan, which was virtually to turn our back on the region.
I think we have to demonstrate to the Afghans, we have to demonstrate to the Pakistanis that we will remain committed to Afghanistan until it stabilizes, becomes a secure place for the Afghan people. And I think this is absolutely critical.
President Obama, President-elect Obama had committed on this on the campaign trail. And I think we need to see that he remains committed to that goal.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much.
SETH JONES: Thank you.
LISA CURTIS: Thank you.