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Gates Urges More Troop Action on Afghanistan’s Drug Trade

October 9, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Thursday that NATO troops should do more to combat Afghanistan's drug trade. His comments came as new reports emerged raising doubts about American strategy and the Afghan government's ability to cope.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Taliban and al-Qaida attacks in Afghanistan have surged this year, and so have coalition deaths, in a war that entered its eighth year this week.

Since this past April, U.S. and coalition deaths in Afghanistan outnumbered coalition military deaths in Iraq; 610 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion.

In the United States, Afghanistan has become a campaign issue, as both presidential candidates have called for more troops for that theater.

The steady increase in violence also has raised new doubts among America’s allies that the fight can be won.

This week, a French diplomatic cable leaked to the French press quoted Britain’s ambassador to Kabul. It read, quote, “The current situation is bad. The security situation is getting worse. So is corruption, and the government has lost all trust.” He added, Afghanistan might best be “governed by an acceptable dictator.”

The quotes were later denied by the British government. But Britain’s top military commander in Afghanistan bluntly told the Sunday Times this week, “We’re not going to win this war.”

Last week, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, called for more troops on the ground.

GEN. DAVID MCKIERNAN, NATO Commander, Afghanistan: We need more resources. It’s not a question, though, of just military resources. It’s a question of more civilian resources, more governance, more economic aid to Afghanistan, and more regional stability, as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Over the next several months, the U.S. plans to increase its troop numbers from the current 33,000. Relations between the United States and Afghanistan have been strained in recent weeks after a U.S. military air strike on August 22nd killed dozens of civilians.

AFGHAN CITIZEN (through translator): They were children, old men, and women who were killed. There is no one among these dead who are Taliban.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. military originally reported between five to seven civilians died. But yesterday, a military investigation — spurred on by this amateur video — confirmed 30 civilian deaths.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said the deaths undermine his government and the international mission.

HAMID KARZAI, President of Afghanistan: We cannot tolerate civilian casualties, not even one. Therefore, the right mechanism has to be established, foolproof, to avoid civilian casualties.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. apologized for the incident.

Defense Secretary Gates, who is attending a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Budapest this week, urged allies to send extra troops.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: We need a better-coordinated effort between the civilian economic development and reconstruction efforts and the security efforts.

We need to have the Afghans in the lead. There is, I think, broad support for expanding the Afghan army and doing that as quickly as possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All together, there are nearly 51,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan now. NATO commanders are seeking up to 12,000 more.

Today, the New York Times and other newspapers reported that the Bush administration and the intelligence community have mounted full-scale reviews of the war in Afghanistan.

Intelligence agencies' review

Mark Mazzetti
The New York Times
They describe a bleak situation not only of rising violence, tremendous corruption inside the central government in Kabul, as well as the booming heroin trade that's kind of fueling this corruption.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on that, we turn to New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti.

Mark, it's good to see you again. What prompted these reviews?

MARK MAZZETTI, New York Times: The situation that's bad and getting worse. The Bush administration a few weeks ago announced this sort of comprehensive review inside the National Security Council that's designed to sort of be a soup-to-nuts examination of the policy, what's going right, what's going wrong.

At the same time, the intelligence agencies have been putting together what they call a National Intelligence Estimate about the situation in Afghanistan. It's in draft form, but our story today talked about how its conclusions are pretty dire.

They describe a bleak situation not only of rising violence, tremendous corruption inside the central government in Kabul, as well as the booming heroin trade that's kind of fueling this corruption.

So it's a pretty bleak situation at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But as you write in your report today in the Times, there's been bad news coming in for the last two years on Afghanistan. Why the review now?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, I think that the administration, in its sort of twilight months, is trying to right the ship before they leave office. There's been a lot of criticism inside the Bush administration that not enough attention has been paid not only to Afghanistan, but to the al-Qaida safe haven in Pakistan, while there was so much attention paid to Iraq.

There was someone I talked to who covers Afghanistan policy in the Bush administration who said, you know, the only good thing about hitting rock bottom is that things start to move. And right now, things are moving with this review.

So there is some concern that there was some people kind of asleep at the switch.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, tell us what you found, what you've learned about what's in this intelligence report that contributes to this, as you put it, downward spiral.

MARK MAZZETTI: Yes, they describe Afghanistan as in a, quote, "downward spiral." And beyond the violence that's been pretty well documented, the rising violence, some of it which is attributable to the safe haven in Pakistan, there is also a very -- a real indictment, I think, of the corruption inside the central government.

I think that this is leading to some rethinking in the Bush administration about exactly how to not only spend U.S. money, but also to focus U.S. efforts.

I think there's a lot more attention now to looking local, looking even at the tribal level, dealing with tribal leaders, possibly arming tribal militias as a way to deal or to arrest the encroachment of the Taliban.

This is something they've resisted for some time. They wanted to build up central institutions, you know, the army, the police force, the central government. Now there's a question about whether they need to look local to look at the vast swaths of Afghanistan that are not at all governed by Mr. Karzai's government.

Drug trade fueling corruption

Mark Mazzetti
The New York Times
There are some estimates that the drug trade basically accounts for 50 percent of Afghanistan's GDP right now. So that's a huge problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to ask you about some of those fixes, but to back up just a bit, how much is this review looking at why it's gotten to this point?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, I think that it's a lot of it. I mean, they try to assess, you know, the reasons for the violence, the reasons for the corruption.

If you look at the corruption side, there's no question that the drug trade is a large part of what's fueling this corruption at the central government and at the provincial level. There are some estimates that the drug trade basically accounts for 50 percent of Afghanistan's GDP right now. So that's a huge problem.

In terms of the violence, there is not only the question of the al-Qaida safe haven in Pakistan and the Taliban safe haven in Pakistan, but the Taliban has also been able to basically establish a base of sorts in parts of Afghanistan that coalition and American troops have not been able to secure and to hold.

So these are some of the reasons for the situation as it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much is in what you were able to find out about the number of troops? There's been a big debate here in this country about that. What were you finding in terms of what you learned?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, the troop issue certainly is front and center in the United States right now, as you reported. President Bush has authorized more troops; General McKiernan has said he wants more.

And you also talked about how Secretary Gates has been going kind of hat in hand to European capitals asking for more troops. This is the exact same thing his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, did.

They've been trying to get bigger European commitments of troops and money, really, since September 11th. There is some anger that some of those commitments that were made early after September 11th were never followed through on.

So they feel like they need American troops in part because they recognize they're not going to get the commitments from Europe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, you write today that some in the CIA say they think it has taken the White House too long to address this. Tell us what you found in that regard.

MARK MAZZETTI: We've done a lot of reporting this year about the sort of growing problem of Pakistan and the worsening violence in Afghanistan. And for several months, especially over the summer, you would hear a tremendous frustration that this is not front-and-center on the agenda of the White House, that this is getting worse, and yet, obviously, Iraq is a big focus, and that it would take some major, possibly cataclysmic event to again shift the focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And we saw to some extent a shift this summer, when President Bush was presented with intelligence that Afghanistan spy service was complicit in an attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, which I think angered the president, as well as some sort of high-profile attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This pushed President Bush to authorize unilateral American strikes by special operations troops inside Pakistan. So you're seeing a shift in policy over the last month or two, but a lot of people, as I said, think that this comes a little too late.

Security troubles

Mark Mazzetti
The New York Times
So the problem ... is that the troops go in, they clear out territory, they can't hold it. So if you look at tribal militias or tribal armed groups that can maybe hold this territory, instead of the Taliban, that might be a solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and coming back to the point you started to make a minute ago about what fixes are emerging from this, you talked about refocusing on the tribal areas. Come back to that point and help us understand that.

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, in Afghanistan, I think there's an increasing focus on, how do you protect people? How do you protect the Afghan population? If the government can't do it with the army or the police, can the tribal leaders do it? It's sort of the classic counterinsurgency doctrine.

It's worked in places in Iraq. If you have people protected, they turn away from insurgents.

So the problem, as it has been as in Afghanistan, is that the troops go in, they clear out territory, they can't hold it. So if you look at tribal militias or tribal armed groups that can maybe hold this territory, instead of the Taliban, that might be a solution.

In terms of Pakistan, it's the issue of, can you strike at targets -- al-Qaida safe havens, Taliban safe havens -- in these mountains and really make any kind of a difference?

There's been plenty of tension between Washington and Islamabad on that issue. And there was just another Predator attack today in the tribal areas.

So this is going to continue, I think, right up to the end of the Bush administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you get a sense, Mark, from your reporting that these officials believe Afghanistan can be fixed, can be -- I don't want to know whether the word "won" is right or not, given the fact that this war has gone on for so long? But what is their view about the end game here?

MARK MAZZETTI: The people who've spoke to us about the intelligence report said -- they sort of described it as depressing, but not hopeless, that there is a belief that you can sort of reverse these trends.

It takes more money, but more money spent wisely. It takes more troops, and it takes a sort of concentrated effort, in many ways the way that Iraq has turned around its security situation.

There's a lot of people who are very hopeful that, with General Petraeus now in charge of Central Command, which means he's in charge of Afghanistan, he can apply some of the same counterinsurgency principles that he did to Iraq, in Iraq to Afghanistan.

So there's some hope there, but no one is sugarcoating it. Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs today, painted a picture that said, you think it's bad now? It's going to get worse next year.

So, again, there's at least hope that people recognize there's a problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Mark Mazzetti reporting, talking to us on his report today in the New York Times. Thanks very much.

MARK MAZZETTI: OK, thank you.