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Leaders Warn Afghan War ‘Serious and Deteriorating’

August 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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With warnings that the situation in Afghanistan is "serious and deteriorating," military leaders say that more troops are needed to regain control.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, coming up with the right strategy and the right number of troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Five months into President Obama’s stepped-up campaign in Afghanistan, attacks by the Taliban and its allies are on the rise. American and Afghan casualties are growing, too. More U.S. troops have been killed already this year than in all of 2008. At the same time, polls show declining U.S. public support for the war.

Now, as the top American commander, General Stanley McChrystal, readies his major strategy review, debate is growing over whether more U.S. troops will be needed.

Yesterday, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen offered a stark assessment on CNN’s “State of the Union” with John King.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: I think it is serious, and it is deteriorating, and I’ve said that over the last couple of years, that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated. Their tactics, just in my recent visits out there and talking with our troops certainly indicate that.

JOHN KING, anchor, CNN: You have no doubt he’ll ask for more troops?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: No, actually, we’re not at a point yet where he’s made any decisions about asking for additional troops. His guidance from me and from the secretary of defense was to go out and assess where you are and then tell us what you need. And we’ll get to that point.

And I want to, I guess, assure you or reassure you that he hasn’t asked for any additional troops up to this point in time.

MARGARET WARNER: Separately, top regional U.S. commanders in Afghanistan told President Obama’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, this weekend that they need more troops.

For more on this, we go to two experts who’ve been to Afghanistan this summer. Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute of the Study of War, a Washington think-tank, she was in Afghanistan for four weeks this summer as part of General McChrystal’s strategy assessment team. The views she expresses this evening are her own.

And Thomas Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, he co-authored a piece on foreignpolicy.com this past week entitled, “Afghanistan is Today’s Vietnam.”

And welcome to you both.

Kimberly Kagan, I’ll begin with you. Admiral Mullen calling it not just serious, the situation in Afghanistan, but deteriorating. Do you agree with that, and what is the evidence you look to, to tell you that?

Taliban growing and expanding

Thomas Johnson
Naval Postgraduate School
I think the situation has been bleak for at least a year-and-a-half. And I think that it's gained the attention of Washington recently.

KIMBERLY KAGAN: I do agree with Admiral Mullen's statement because the Taliban has actually been growing in its capacity to affect the population of Afghanistan, to perform certain functions that we think of as government functions, such as taxing the population, and also intimidating the population through assassination campaigns and through occupying towns and villages throughout Afghanistan. This is a sign of growing Taliban control in southern Afghanistan.

In addition to that, the Haqqani network, which is a distinct group from the Taliban...

MARGARET WARNER: Named for...

KIMBERLY KAGAN: Named for Jalaluddin Haqqani, now presumably led by one of his sons, as he is older, is actually growing in its capacity in the eastern part of Afghanistan to launch spectacular attacks against targets in Kabul and its surrounding provinces. And so what we have are two enemies fighting and actually enlarging their spheres of influence.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Johnson, do you think it is deteriorating, I mean, even since U.S. troops began arriving in greater numbers? And is it because of more U.S. troops that we're seeing more attacks or, in fact, is it in spite of it?

THOMAS JOHNSON, Naval Postgraduate School: Well, I think the situation has been bleak for at least a year-and-a-half. And I think that it's gained the attention of Washington recently.

But there's no question at all that the situation has gotten very, very bleak. I mean, I was in Kandahar this summer, and it was very hard to talk to people that didn't show disgust with allied policies. The problem in Afghanistan is the delta or the difference between the people's expectations and what's been delivered.

So it's a very tough situation right now. But I don't think necessarily that it's a question of the number of troops. I think that, while more troops on the ground will help, I think the real problem is manpower distribution. I think that we still have too many troops that are staying behind the wire in forward operating bases.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning they stay inside their bases rather than getting out?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Absolutely. I mean, if we're fighting a counterinsurgency, we have to interact with people.

So I don't think it's necessarily a qualitative problem. I think it's a quantitative -- I'm sorry, I don't think it's a quantitative problem. I think it's a qualitative problem. It's a manpower distribution problem.

My estimation is less than 4 percent of our troops are involved in reconstruction activities, and that's no way to secure a population and win a counterinsurgency.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that the way you see it? And in fact, does that mean more troops are or aren't the answer?

Forces need to be redistributed

Kimberly Kagan
Institute for the Study of War
We simply do not have enough troops there to create the kinds of dense forces needed to secure the small neighborhoods all throughout Afghanistan where the insurgents are fighting

KIMBERLY KAGAN: I agree with Tom that the forces that we have in Afghanistan do need to be redistributed and focused on areas where the population is extremely vulnerable and where the insurgency is strong.

But I think, even if you do that and we get the troops without caveats outside of the wire, we will still need more forces in Afghanistan, because the population of Afghanistan is large. It's roughly 30 million people. And we simply do not have enough troops there to create the kinds of dense forces needed to secure the small neighborhoods all throughout Afghanistan where the insurgents are fighting.

MARGARET WARNER: And many in very rural areas. So fit this in with the theme of your piece this weekend that Afghanistan is today's Vietnam. I mean, in Vietnam, there was a steady increase in the number of troops. Is that the parallel you fear?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, I think -- yes, it is. Let me give you a number, different comparisons. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, these are both countries that had defeated a European powerhouse over a 10-year guerilla war that then resulted in basically a north-south civil war.

They both are countries that have an uncontrollable border where the insurgents or the guerillas are taking refuge in a neighboring country.

In both instances, I think that we misread -- the United States, that is -- the actual enemy that we're fighting. In Vietnam, we thought the Viet Cong were primarily communist when they were nationalists that were trying to reunite the country.

I think, in Afghanistan, we view the Taliban as secular insurgents, when I think they're jihadists. I think that they're what Eric -- I forget his last name -- in "The True Believer" in the 1950s, when he wrote "The True Believer," I think these are true believes. And I think that it's basically they're insurgents wrapped in the narrative of a jihad, and that's a very different enemy than I think that we're -- than we think we're facing.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Kim Kagan, does that parallel or potential parallel offer a cautionary note about the prospect of steadily increasing forces? I mean, the additional U.S. forces President Obama ordered there aren't even yet fully in, are they?

KIMBERLY KAGAN: That is correct. There are more forces that will be arriving essentially over the course of the fall. But I think that we can get too focused on historical examples and historical analogies.

And although I agree with some of Tom's comparisons, I also think that the situation in Afghanistan is fixable and that the United States does have an opportunity to succeed.

I do think that more resources are necessary and required. And I share Tom's concern that they might be filtered in or trickled in rather than put in such that General McChrystal and his subordinates can conduct the decisive operations that they need to conduct in order to defeat the enemy.

Regime legitimacy a major factor

Thomas Johnson
Naval Postgraduate School
Afghanistan has had a long history of dynastic and traditional and religious types of legitimacy in the regimes. And we tried to paint a coat of democracy over Afghanistan that's been very difficult.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, do you all read -- how do you read the comments we've heard from Admiral Mullen and the commanders who spoke to Ambassador Holbrooke and to the reporters traveling with them, talking about, in their case, the need for more troops? Do you see the military trying to prepare the public or the Obama White House for the request for more troops? Do you think that's what's going on?

THOMAS JOHNSON: I think that's a possibility. But, again, I do not believe that this is just a question of the number of troops.

I think a real problem in Afghanistan is that we've misread what regime legitimacy represents in Afghanistan. I mean, the father of modern sociology, Max Weber, talked about three types of points that bring up regime legitimacy. He talked about dynastic, he talked about legal, and he talked about religious.

I think that Afghanistan has had a long history of dynastic and traditional and religious types of legitimacy in the regimes. And we tried to paint a coat of democracy over Afghanistan that's been very difficult.

MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact, briefly, before we go, Kim Kagan, so last week we had this election. The results are still unclear, the election for president and the provincial leadership. How does that uncertainty cloud or affect the prospects for military success? Do you think it's a factor?

KIMBERLY KAGAN: I think that, regardless of whether Karzai wins or Abdullah Abdullah wins, there will be need for a continued presence in Afghanistan. I also believe that it is incredibly important for General McChrystal and all of the civilian apparatus to help create legitimate government institutions in Afghanistan that are capable of performing these functions that Tom mentioned for the people.

MARGARET WARNER: But that's a very long-range proposition, is it not?

KIMBERLY KAGAN: I don't think that that's something that can be done quickly. I think that it's something that will take time.

MARGARET WARNER: Kim Kagan and Tom Johnson, thank you both.

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, thank you.

KIMBERLY KAGAN: Thank you.