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Grim Military Report Stirs Questions on Afghan Strategy

September 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A sober assessment by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan calling conditions on the ground there "serious" have raised new questions about U.S. and NATO strategy against the Taliban. Experts speak with Gwen Ifill about the chances for victory in Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: When President Obama heads to Camp David tomorrow for an extended holiday weekend, he will have with him a report from the Afghanistan commander he put in place in June, General Stanley McChrystal.

The contents remain confidential, but McChrystal has said his conclusion is that “The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable.” The general is expected to ask for additional U.S. troops, even as the rising death toll has fueled public concern about the U.S. role there.

So, is success in Afghanistan achievable?

We take up that debate with Andrew Exum, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security. He was part of the initial assessment team that reviewed the situation in Afghanistan for General McChrystal earlier this summer. And Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel in the United States Army, he now teaches international relations and history at Boston University. His latest book is “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.”

Andrew Exum, as you take stock of what the situation is right now in Afghanistan, is — is it — is success achievable?

ANDREW EXUM, Fellow: Yes, but.

Yes, we can accomplish the president’s limited aims of keeping Afghanistan an area which is not hospitable towards the types of transnational terror groups that attacked America on 9/11. But it’s going to take a lot of effort. It’s going to take more resources. It’s going to take a much larger Afghan national security forces.

And I think the question that Dr. Bacevich, and many are asking is, is, is it worth it? Is it worth the investment? The one thing I would say that I served in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2004, but I also served in Iraq in 2003.

And from really 2002 until about 2007, 2008, Iraq precluded any type of serious investment in Afghanistan. So, it’s not so much that we have even tried to win in Afghanistan or really build up Afghan national security forces. Really, thus far, we have only committed just enough resources not to lose. We haven’t quite made attempts to — to actually win just yet.

GWEN IFILL: So, Colonel Bacevich, is there a vested interest that the U.S. has in making this war — success in this war achievable?

Is the war necessary?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, Andrew Exum answer is yes, but, with regard to whether the war is winnable. I think my answer would be, no, and.

No, it's not, and there really is a prior question that deserves to be asked. And that is, is the war necessary in the first place?

I mean, my argument would be that the assumption that Afghanistan constitutes a vital national security interest of the United States deserves to be critically examined. I think the answer is, our interests there are quite limited.

And I reject the proposition that fixing Afghanistan is the only way in which we can achieve those limited interests.

GWEN IFILL: So, are we at a turning point right now?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: Are we at a turning point in Afghanistan?


COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: I think we're probably at a -- at a turning point in the Obama administration.

President Obama was elected because he promised to change the way Washington works. In fact, we are probably embarked upon a course in Afghanistan which will simply affirm the way Washington works, imagining that the best way to secure the well-being of -- of the American people is to engage in these sort of misadventures on the far side of the world.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Andrew Exum? Are these misadventures to the end?

ANDREW EXUM: Yes, Dr. Bacevich and I know each other well. And this, his critique of the war of Afghanistan, is a part of a larger critique of U.S. foreign policy, a critique that I -- I have a degree of sympathy for.

But, with respect to Afghanistan, we differ. I do think that we have interests in Afghanistan, the interests that I -- that I alluded to, that Afghanistan is not used for transnational terror groups to attack the United States or destabilize the rest of the region.

Professor Bacevich and I agree that these interests are not worth an unlimited investment of -- of U.S. resources. But I think that -- that, first off, he's incorrect, actually. I don't think we're actually trying to -- quote, unquote -- "fix" Afghanistan. We're not trying to turn it into Switzerland or some -- some other central mountainous kingdom.

What we're trying to do is build up certain key institutions in Afghanistan that we believe will make that country inhospitable towards transnational terror groups.

ANDREW EXUM: What we're trying to do is, especially over the next 18 to 24 months, build up Afghan national security forces, and improve them in both quality and quantity.

GWEN IFILL: But, in order to do that, I gather that General McChrystal is expected to ask for an additional U.S. troops, maybe 10,000-20,000, in order to build up the Afghan troops. Is that -- is that putting more down the same, you know, rat hole?

Grim assessment of the war

ANDREW EXUM: Yes, I think it depends -- first off, I think that General McChrystal, what he will likely do -- and this was not a part of our -- our strategic assessment. We basically just described the way we see the war. It's pretty grim.

I think the assessment that we put forward was -- was pretty realistic. Having said that, I think, when General McChrystal goes forward with a resource request, it will follow two things. First off, it will follow a group troop-to-task analysis conducted by his staff as far as how many troops we need.

And, then, second off, what it will do is, it will provide the commanders here, the commander in chief, as well as the secretary of defense, with a couple different options, that, if you give me A number of troops, I can do X. In other words, I can both build up Afghan national security forces and protect what we see as vulnerable populations in Kandahar and in the (INAUDIBLE)

If you give me B number of troops, I can do Y. But there's going to be risks involved with each option. And, so, it really depends on how many troops he gets.

GWEN IFILL: I guess the question, Andrew Bacevich, then, is -- is, are the risks worth it, or is there really a way to back out at this point?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think -- I think that there is a serious requirement to examine alternatives.

I mean, Andrew Exum says that we're not trying to convert Afghanistan into Switzerland. True enough. But we're trying to make in Afghanistan something Afghanistan has never been. This whole concept of securing the population doesn't simply imply protecting them from harm. It implies programs of economic development and political reform, the creation of legitimate institutions of governance.

These have never existed in Afghanistan. We imagine that we can create them. I doubt that we can, and, again, would want to emphasize that it's something that we need not do.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned...

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: I mean, Andrew -- Andrew has written off the last eight years of effort, which have not been insignificant, and which have gained us nothing.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I want to ask you to follow up on this question about governance, because, of course, we're still waiting on the results of this election.

How much of our success in Afghanistan was tied to the credibility of Hamid Karzai or whoever emerges victorious?

I will start with you, and then I will ask Andrew Exum the same question.

Karzai has forfeited legitimacy

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, my sense is that the project has really -- I mean, Karzai has been our Diem, to make a comparison to the Vietnam of long ago.

He's been our guy, who was supposed to deliver a pro-American support and effective leadership. I mean, what I'm reading in the newspapers about the way this election has been handled, he has forfeited whatever limited legitimacy that he possessed.

GWEN IFILL: Andrew Exum, what about Hamid Karzai?

ANDREW EXUM: Yes, I think it's a problem. I think we have a problem with corruption, not just at the -- at national level, but at the lower levels as well. And I freely admit this.

Wherever I traveled in Afghanistan, you talk to Afghans in the -- in the west, the north, the south, the east, they will identify corruption as a major issue.

And one of the findings that we had is that, quite honestly, the -- what the government of Afghanistan does and fails to do is as much a threat to mission success in Afghanistan as anything the insurgent groups do.

But I take issue with -- with what Professor Bacevich is saying. I don't think that he has enough visibility on the lines of operation that are proceeding forward in Afghanistan. I don't think that he's familiar with the -- the current strategy and the current operations that are taking place.

Signs of success in Afghanistan

GWEN IFILL: So, you're the optimist, as optimistic as anybody seems to be these days. So, what does victory -- what does victory look like in Afghanistan?

ANDREW EXUM: Yes, actually, I don't think I'm -- I'm too much of an optimistic. I wish we had a real fire-breathing hawk for this war.

I think I'm very sober about the -- the chances for success in Afghanistan. I think we can be successful, especially if we build up the security forces. I -- you know -- well, I'm not sure if Afghanistan has ever been a strong state, but it's certainly been a state at peace before 1979.

There's always going to be that strong tension between Islam, the tribe, and the state. Afghanistan is a -- is a complicated nation. But, at the same time, if you build up those key national institutions, I think we can provide a counterbalance to some of those transnational threats that we're facing.

GWEN IFILL: And Andrew Bacevich, what do you think victory looks like? Withdrawal?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think -- I think Andrew's presentation invites certain questions.

When will we achieve success? How many years? How many tens or hundreds of billions of dollars are we going to spend? How many hundreds of U.S. and NATO soldiers are going to lose their lives? And is that the best place in the world for us to be expending those sorts of resources?

I mean, my fundamental contention is that we have better things to do than to try to transform Afghanistan into something it has never been.

GWEN IFILL: All right, Andrew Bacevich, Andrew Exum, thank you both very much.

ANDREW EXUM: Sure thing.

JIM LEHRER: Teachers can find a lesson plan about negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan on our education page called "NewsHour Extra." That's at