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Amid Afghan Strategy Review, What Are the Options?

September 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the Obama administration reconsiders the U.S. options on the Afghan war, experts weigh in on the debate over sending more troops and containing the Taliban's influence.

JIM LEHRER: Now, looking for a strategy in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Clinton outlined some possible choices and objectives yesterday in an interview with Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you actually reassessing whether counterinsurgency is the way to go here?

HILLARY CLINTON, secretary of state: I think what we heard the president saying yesterday is, look, you’re going to have to convince me that whatever decision — is it classic counterinsurgency with additional troops? Is it counterinsurgency at the same troop level? Is it a different mix of troops? Is it a counterterrorism strategy?

MARGARET WARNER: Fewer troops?

HILLARY CLINTON: Is it — who knows? I mean, what we’re looking at, though, are the goals that we have. Our goal is to protect the United States of America, our allies, our friends around the world from what is the epicenter of terrorism, namely the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

JIM LEHRER: And President Obama last night addressed the choices he would have to make. He spoke on the CBS “Late Show with David Letterman.”

U.S PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I’m trying to do at this point is to make sure that both on the military front, on the diplomatic front, on the civilian front, training Afghan military and police, that on all these elements that we’ve got a coherent strategy that can work.

JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill takes the story from there.

GWEN IFILL: Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton made clear they are rethinking strategy in Afghanistan, but what are the alternatives?

For that, we get two views. Zalmay Khalilzad was George W. Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan. And Marc Sageman is a terrorism consultant and former CIA case officer. He’s written extensively about al-Qaida.

Welcome to you both. When you hear President Obama and Secretary Clinton talk about counterterrorism versus counterinsurgency, first of all, explain what that means.

Debating the strategy

Marc Sageman
Terrorism Consultant
I think we should go in a different direction. I think we should go into a counterterrorism direction. And the difference is counterterrorism is far more focused.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, counterinsurgency means that the problem of Afghanistan is defined that it is an insurgency going on that's a combination of Taliban, some of the other networks, the Haqqani network, the Hekmatyar network, and the al-Qaida group are working together to take over Afghanistan again, first to get their coalition to lose its will in Afghanistan and then to overthrow the government, and then, from there, to once again make Afghanistan a safe haven for terrorism more globally.

So a counterinsurgency strategy will focus on all of this. The threat that -- the four, if you like, posed together. And the way to carry out that strategy, the most effective to carry out that strategy is to protect the population, prevent a sanctuary for the insurgents, because for insurgency, sanctuary is very important, and there is a sanctuary in Pakistan for these groups, and to build government institutions, civil society, economy to win over the people, and isolate the insurgents, and the military means applied would be against the insurgents, but principally by protecting the population.

GWEN IFILL: To which General McChrystal has suggested would require a lot more troops. But this is the -- that was the approach that President Obama had said eight months ago was the U.S. strategy. Is it the correct approach? Or are we now heading in a different direction? Or should we be, Marc Sageman?

MARC SAGEMAN, terrorism consultant: I think we should go in a different direction. I think we should go into a counterterrorism direction. And the difference is counterterrorism is far more focused.

And, indeed, we've been doing very well in the West, if our goal is protection of the United States and the West. We haven't had any casualty from terrorism here in this country for the last eight years and in the West in the last four years.

So something is working. And what's working is a strategy of containment, containment at our borders, containment at airports, good police work inside each country of the West, and also very good intelligence sharing.

GWEN IFILL: Which requires fewer support troops?

Al-Qaida's strength in region?

Zalmay Khalizad
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan
Our success so far has a lot to do with our ability to keep these networks under pressure, all of them. If we were to go to a counter-terror mode, focus only on al-Qaida, you risk a return to what we had before 9/11.

GWEN IFILL: Which requires fewer support troops?

MARC SAGEMAN: Well, I think that's kind of irrelevant. I think it would require fewer support troops because, in a sense, there are no Afghans in al-Qaida and al-Qaida is not in Afghanistan. It is in Pakistan, as the ambassador just pointed out and as McChrystal's report points out.

So I'm not really sure why we should choose the most lethal option, the most expensive option, and the least likely to succeed option.

GWEN IFILL: A response to that, Ambassador?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Yes, I think it's very important to recognize that our success so far has a lot to do with our ability to keep these networks under pressure, all of them.

If we were to go to a counter-terror mode, focus only on al-Qaida, you risk a return to what we had before 9/11. Because what we did then, although we have modified some of the operation, is to attack the terrorists, to attack al-Qaida.

I believe that the best counter-terror strategy now, given how the groups have become intertwined, is a counterinsurgency strategy. General McChrystal was a counterterrorist. He was the commander of U.S. forces to fight al-Qaida.

Now he's gone to Afghanistan with a mission to come up with a strategy to implement the objectives that were defined by President Obama when he came in. And he believes that what is required to succeed in the effort is a counterinsurgency strategy.

And I think we would increase the risk significantly if we would only focus on al-Qaida and leave the rest on their own. I think the problem both in Afghanistan and the broader problem with terrorism would increase.

GWEN IFILL: Does it sound to you, listening to Secretary Clinton and listening to Senator -- President Obama over the last several days, like they are moving away from the suggestion that he's made, moving away from the assertion the president made not long ago, that this is a war of necessity?

MARC SAGEMAN: Perhaps. I hope so. But the groups that threaten the United States are not in Afghanistan. They're all in Pakistan: Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, al-Qaida, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, the IGU, the Islamic Jihad, and they're all in Pakistan, so why are we fighting in Afghanistan?


GWEN IFILL: Well? Answer that question.

'Blow to our credibility'

Zalmay Khalizad
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan
It will be a devastating blow to our credibility for us to abandon this effort.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: It's because we are there in Afghanistan that they have been pushed -- some of these groups -- to Pakistan. Were we to narrow the focus, leave Afghanistan, there's no question that they would pour across the border. Their allies are in Afghanistan. Some of al-Qaida is in Afghanistan. There's no question about that, as well. But more will come.

And you will -- and besides, it will be a devastating blow to our credibility for us to abandon this effort. I think the president is right that he ought to take his time, look at the options. I think this is a difficult situation. Whatever he decides to do, it will take his leadership to bring the country together.

But it is my judgment that however we need to, for the sake of the forces that we have there, to send the capabilities quickly that can manage the risks that we are facing so they don't face the risks that they wouldn't otherwise face.

GWEN IFILL: Is time of the option? And is fighting this war in Pakistan even an option politically?

MARC SAGEMAN: Well, we are fighting the war in Pakistan. We do have -- we keep the pressure on al-Qaida, not just al-Qaida, but Tehrik-i-Taliban, we just killed...

GWEN IFILL: From drones and...

MARC SAGEMAN: ... Baitullah Mehsud with the drones, that's right, and then, also, training the Pakistani army to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.

But I want to point out that Afghans don't travel. We don't really see too many Afghans in the west doing terrorist operation. I'm not really sure what this arrest last Monday was about. It may or may not be a real plot, but usually we don't have Afghans to do that.

We have Pakistanis. We have foreigners. And we especially have people who were radicalized in the West who travel to Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Obama has time to decide

Marc Sageman
Terrorism Consultant
I think that re-evaluating the decision is really a healthy move.

GWEN IFILL: How long does the president have to make a decision, in your opinion?

MARC SAGEMAN: I think that re-evaluating the decision is really a healthy move, because as the ambassador said, a lot of it is about our credibility. And let's face it: I'm not sure that the American public are going to...

GWEN IFILL: One month, two months, a year?

MARC SAGEMAN: Well, if he's going to increase the troops, no, I think he has far more time than he thinks.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I think he has time, not a year, but in months. But I believe that the question of another factor on time, there is obviously pressure from the public, the decreased support for the war effort.

But that is not an independent variable. That is because people are losing confidence that the current strategy is producing results. Should he embrace that strategy, such as what General McChrystal has proposed, and the situation improve, I think he will have the people with him.

GWEN IFILL: Zalmay Khalilzad and Marc Sageman, thank you both very much.

MARC SAGEMAN: Thank you very much.


JIM LEHRER: You can listen to a reporter's podcast about the Taliban's military strategy on our Web site,