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Taliban Proves Resilient Foe in Afghanistan

October 29, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Seven years into the war in Afghanistan, U.S. and allied troops are still battling Taliban insurgents, leading to talk of sending more troops to the country. New York Times correspondent John Burns, who just returned from the Afghanistan, provides an update.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s been seven years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 following the 9/11 attacks.

But the relatively easy ouster of the Taliban government has turned into a long and deadly struggle that’s now taking more U.S. and allied lives than the war in Iraq.

Now there’s talk of both sending in more troops to Afghanistan and negotiating with elements of the Taliban.

New York Times foreign correspondent John Burns recently returned from several weeks reporting in that country. And he joins me now.

John, welcome back. What are U.S. commanders saying to you about their troop needs in Afghanistan?

JOHN BURNS, New York Times: Well, the needs are urgent and pressing. Unlike the situation in Iraq, where, for at least three or four years, American commanders were very reluctant to say publicly what they were saying privately, which was that they needed more troops in Afghanistan.

General McKiernan, the commander there, and General Petraeus, who is to take over on Friday overall commander for the two wars, are saying very clearly they need more troops.

They have 65,000 NATO troops of whom about 33,000 American troops. If there’s going to be a serious increment in those troops, they’re unfortunately going to have to be American troops.

The European allies, the principal European NATO allies are simply very reluctant to deploy more troops and especially to deploy more troops into the areas of most hazard.

RAY SUAREZ: Did they have a specific number of U.S. troops going in country in mind and a specific mission for them?

JOHN BURNS: Well, General McKiernan said when he was back in Washington to see the president and discuss war strategy earlier in the month that he would like to see at least three more American combat brigades.

He’s been told he can have one — that’s something like 3,500 to 4,500 men by early next year — but that any increment beyond that will have to come later in the year and will depend on a troop drawdown in Iraq. The two wars are now very clearly linked in that respect.

Afghan strategy linked to Iraq

RAY SUAREZ: Did the generals in Iraq, those running the American effort and telling you they need more troops, in effect, waiting to see what happens November 4th? Does the fate of those requests in some part rest on who's elected president next week?

JOHN BURNS: I think the uncertainties about future American military strategy in Iraq (inaudible) uncertainties about Afghanistan, the principal difference, which I think would be evident to most Americans, would be that there has been a protracted debate in Iraq over the Iraq policy now for years. Should we stay? Should we go?

At least in mainstream American politics, as I judge it from my time here in the United States in the last 10 days or so, it seems to me that the general view is that failure is not an option in Afghanistan.

And, of course, that goes back to 9/11 and the recognition of where 9/11 came from, from al-Qaida in an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban.

And so it seems to me that all the main players here, and Senator Obama among them, are agreed that there may need to be more troops, and more resources, and more money, and more aid money, and a new war strategy in Afghanistan to prevail there.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the state of the mission, is the state of the pacification of the country different in Afghanistan from what it is today in Iraq? And you've spent a lot of time in both places. Maybe you could compare them.

JOHN BURNS: Yes, I think it is. And, of course, it comes as a great surprise in a way for somebody who spent as long as I did, five years in Iraq, to see how quickly the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated.

And I think you could say that, in some respects -- parallels are a little misleading -- but in some respects, the situation in Afghanistan -- and let's remember, seven years after the fall of the Taliban -- looks a little bit like the situation in Iraq, shall we say, in late 2004 and early 2005, when all the indicators, all the indices or, as the military likes to say, all the metrics are headed downward.

The trends are not good. There is a need for more troops. There's a need for a new war strategy. And the most optimistic estimate seem to be that even if more resources are dedicated, it may take two to three years to begin to turn this around.

Negotiated peace very unlikely

RAY SUAREZ: Is that assessment, what you just said, the kind of thing that's leading people to talk openly about opening up channels to the Taliban?

JOHN BURNS: It is, but I think we need to be very wary of that. Of course, if you could engage the Taliban in serious negotiations and bring this war to an end by those talks, nobody would oppose them. But at the moment, they haven't even had talks about talks.

There's a lot of talk here and amongst diplomats about the need for talks. There are some very preliminary sorts of encounters, none of them substantial or substantive.

The problem is this: The Taliban are, in fact, a divided organization to an extent. There are fissures within the Taliban. There are elements in the Taliban that are more militantly Islamist than others. There are other elements which are more nationalist and Islamist.

There are fissures which go back to the old Mujahedeen struggle against the Soviet occupation, rivalries between different commanders, all of this is true.

But those rivalries and those fissures tend to lead in the direction of more radicalism, that's to say, people who, if they start outbidding each other within the Taliban on this issue, they'd like to outbid each other in terms not of more accommodation towards the negotiation and towards some settlement of this war, but to more militant positions.

And there's still the dominant -- at least ideological figure within the Taliban is Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, the man who as much as any founded the Taliban (inaudible) bin Laden, and who continues to declare on militant Islamist Web sites that he remains at one with al-Qaida. So that doesn't seem very promising to me.

RAY SUAREZ: What if you get out into the villages? What do people who have lived with the Taliban and, in some cases, suffered with the Taliban think about those kinds of ideas?

JOHN BURNS: Well, there's some of the good news. I didn't travel very widely, but I did get outside of Kabul and I did go into villages. I went into a number of villages which had been destroyed by the Taliban shortly after they came to power in Kabul.

And there and elsewhere, I found the same truth. And, by the way, it's essentially the same truth that we found in a like circumstance in Iraq, and that is to say, there are not demands for the withdrawal of American or NATO troops. Quite the contrary.

People who lived under the Taliban, like people who lived under Saddam Hussein, do not want to go back to that brutality and repression. They want security. Above all, they want security. And they recognize that that is not likely to come by a drawdown or a retreat of foreign forces.

So the notion that a foreign force is doomed to fail in Afghanistan, as we can see from history you could make that argument, I think is in this case not applicable.

They want security. They want a little bit more, if you will, moderation in some ways -- sometimes in the application of American and other NATO firepower. I'm talking about civilian casualties from bombings. That's true.

But, above all, what those people seem to want is they're very disappointed that their lives did not improve in terms of their standard of living, especially because of the years of drought. Food is very much more expensive.

And the common complaint in those villages is that they are worse off now than they were five or six, seven years ago. That's going to be a difficult thing to turn around, an expensive thing to turn around. And all the more difficult for the fact that so much of the hinterland in Afghanistan, most of it, indeed, south of the Hindu Kush, where the Pashtun tribes...

RAY SUAREZ: I'm sorry, I have to break in here.

JOHN BURNS: ... predominate.

RAY SUAREZ: But thanks a lot for talking to us. Good to talk to you again. John Burns with us.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you very much.