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Afghan Violence Ignites New Concerns About U.S. Military Strategy

June 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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For more on the fresh violence in Afghanistan, Margaret Warner talks to Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post, Lt. Col. John Nagl, president of the Center for New American Security, and Col. Andrew Bacevich of Boston University.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the situation in Afghanistan, we turn to Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post. He just returned from Afghanistan. Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, he has been advocate for sending more forces to Afghanistan. And retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich. He teaches at Boston University. His latest book is “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.”

Welcome to you all.

Rajiv, let me begin with you. You have been there on the ground. You were in Marjah. From the picture you painted, it appeared as if it’s not going to plan. What did you find?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, national editor, The Washington Post: Well, Marjah is turning out to be quite a tough slog for the U.S. Marines and Afghan security forces that are there.

I was with the Marines back in February when they swooped in to this part of Helmand Province. And, you know, after a few weeks on the ground, the initial reports were that things were going pretty well.

And even some Marines were talking about potentially seeing catastrophic success there. Well, what now appears to have been the case is that the Taliban were simply laying in wait, trying to look for the soft underbelly of the coalition forces, and now have begun to reassert themselves, both by directly attacking Marine forces, but also by waging a pretty effective campaign of intimidation that has dissuaded many locals from stepping up to work with the Afghan government to avail of reconstruction projects.

And so what General Stanley McChrystal had hoped would be sort of exhibit A in demonstrating how the new counterinsurgency strategy and additional troops could create sort of momentum and demonstrate to Afghans that it could sort of turn the corner there, what instead is happening is that Marjah is looking like it’s going to be a long, protracted struggle.

MARGARET WARNER: And just following up briefly, the government in a box that General McChrystal had promised that local Afghan government would take root and grow, how is that going?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Yeah, this was supposed to be a big part of that whole effort. And that government in a box has turned out, Margaret, to be largely an empty box.

The — many of the Afghan government officials who have been assigned to Marjah have really refused to show up down there, because it’s hot, it’s dangerous, it’s unsafe. So, they hang out at the provincial capital about 20 miles to the northeast.

And the — the district governor, a guy who had spent four years in a German prison for attempted murder of trying to stab his stepson, is now viewed as a relatively incompetent manager and a rather lazy figure who prefers to take long afternoon naps, as opposed to engaging in the necessary nitty-gritty of governance.

MARGARET WARNER: John Nagl, as we said, you were an early advocate for this surge strategy. Do you think it’s in trouble now? Or are these just growing pains?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL, president, Center for a New American Security: I think we’re seeing just how long and how hard this campaign is going to be.

Counterinsurgency campaigns are messy and slow. The one in Afghanistan will be no different. And, in fact, we are still at the beginnings of this process. There are still another 10,000 U.S. troops moving into Southern Afghanistan. They won’t be on the ground until the end of August.

The Afghan government is still trying to find its feet. It’s wavering a little bit, trying to decide just how committed we are to this fight. And — and, perhaps most importantly, we’re just now starting to see the fruits of our efforts to train and equip more Afghan forces, both army and police, starting to bear fruit.

So, I think what you’re seeing is the start of what’s still going to be a very long effort to create an Afghanistan that can hold and build on its own.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Andrew Bacevich, do you see it that way, that it’s really too soon to make a judgment; we’re really just at the beginning?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH, Boston University: Well, yes, it’s going to be a long project. The problem is that I don’t think General McChrystal or President Obama really has the time available to let the thing spin out.

The point made early on, I think, deserves emphasis. The events of the first five or six months of this calendar year were intended to demonstrate the feasibility of the McChrystal strategy.

Marjah was the place where that strategy was going to be rolled out and was going to provide a demonstration of how we’re going to go forward. General McChrystal himself recently called Marjah a bleeding ulcer. So, it seems to me the issue here is not simply one of — of time and how much time is available, but there — there — we should be asking very serious questions about whether the strategy devised by General McChrystal and approved by the president actually can work.

MARGARET WARNER: Answer that, John Nagl. I mean, why isn’t Marjah a demonstration of the fact that maybe this strategy isn’t the right one?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: I think Marjah is a demonstration of how difficult it will to be for this strategy to succeed, given the condition of the Afghan government at this point, the condition of the Afghan security forces.

So, we’re — we’re seeing the beginnings of some progress, in particular, as I said, in the Afghan security forces. We haven’t moved all of them down south. We haven’t trained as many of them as we planned to, so that there’s no doubt that, if our objective is to create an Afghanistan that can stand on its own, that ultimately is going to be able to secure its own territory, not provide a safe haven for terrorists, not drag down the security of the entire region, that that is still possible. But it is going to take a long time.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Andrew Bacevich, what do you make now of Hamid Karzai and what we have learned about him as a — quote — “effective partner,” which is of course what you always need for effective counterinsurgency?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: I don’t know that there’s anybody on planet Earth who thinks that President Karzai is an effective partner in this enterprise.

And you’re quite right. That was one of the crucial assumptions in the Karzai — excuse me — in the McChrystal strategy, that we would be able to have a partner that we can rely on. President Karzai has given any number of indications in recent weeks that he is, A, losing faith in us, in our ability to make good on our promises, and, B, that he is considering other options that may enable him to retain his hold on power.

There is no effective partner.

MARGARET WARNER: Your rejoinder to that.

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: President Karzai is displaying some troubling signs. This is a standard problem in any counterinsurgency campaign.

If there were an effective government, there wouldn’t be an insurgency against it. So, we are working with President Karzai, trying to demonstrate our commitment to him. I thought the president did that very effectively last month.

And we are bringing more advisers in and — and trying to reinforce the behaviors that we want to see. But President Karzai is — is in a position where he has to balance out our commitment against the threats he faces.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to ask all three of you, so I want to go around fairly quickly here — and I will begin with you, John Nagl — so, what does this say about whether meeting the July 2011 deadline to begin at least withdrawing U.S. forces is feasible?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: I think we’re going to have to wait until the December White House review and give General McChrystal a little more time to demonstrate progress before we can make that determination.

MARGARET WARNER: Andrew Bacevich.

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: I think, in some senses, the real deadline is December. Secretary of Defense Gates recently commented that, if we’re not able to demonstrate real progress by December, it’s going to become impossible to maintain adequate public support.

I think that’s right. And the very fact that General McChrystal has had to postpone the start of the supposedly decisive Kandahar offensive means that McChrystal has that much less time to deliver on this major success. He’s basically got to do in Kandahar what he was unable to do in Marjah over roughly the same period of time.

MARGARET WARNER: And, so, Rajiv, first of all, on the question of the feasibility of the deadline, the military commanders you talk to in the field, what do they think the Marjah experience says about the prospects of meeting that deadline?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, they note that Marjah is only four months old, the operation there. They say they need more time, and that counterinsurgency is — is an arduous process. And so they say, look, judge this later on this year.

But that certainly does put McChrystal in a tough position, certainly also with the delay of the start of the Kandahar operation. And it increasingly looks like, you know, the battle lines for the end-of-the-year White House review may be similar to what they were last fall, when the White House was deciding whether to increase troops in Afghanistan, with — with McChrystal and other military commanders essentially arguing, look, we have got the strategy, we have got the troops, we just need more time, and those on the other side saying, look, you have had a chance, and it really hasn’t materialized.

I think it’s worth noting that, as General Petraeus was testifying today, talking about increasing security in the south, the — the district governor of Arghandab, a district directly to the north of Kandahar, where there is a significant U.S. military clearing operation, was assassinated in a suicide bombing in Kandahar today.

And I was just talking to some U.S. Embassy officials in Kabul just a little while ago who are noting that their efforts to hire additional Afghan civil servants to go down in Kandahar have been very difficult. They have not been able to find enough qualified Afghans to go down and work for the government down there, which is going to be a key part of this upcoming security operation.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We’re going to have to leave it there.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, John Nagl, and Andrew Bacevich, thank you all.

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: Thank you, Margaret.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Good to talk to you.

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you.