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New Attacks Add Gravity to Afghan Strategy Review

October 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The U.S. toll in Afghanistan climbed after a weekend of heavy casualties as President Obama considers a push from top military commanders to add more troops to the conflict. Two military experts offer their views.

JIM LEHRER: The U.S. toll in Afghanistan climbed today after a weekend of heavy casualties. There was action on the war’s political front in Washington, as well.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: U.S. forces in Afghanistan began the month with their worst losses in more than a year. Just five days into October, at least 16 Americans have been killed. Eight of those fatalities came on Saturday when hundreds of Taliban insurgents attacked a pair of remote bases in Nuristan province near the Pakistani border.

The fighting in the rugged landscape lasted much of the day, and U.S. officials said a significant number of insurgents were killed. Various accounts said American troops were supposed to have been withdrawn from such sparsely populated areas. The reports said the pullout has been delayed by a shortage of helicopters, military red tape, and Afghan politics.

The attacks added new gravity to President Obama’s strategy review on the Afghan war. The top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, reportedly has asked for up to 40,000 more troops. Administration officials are considering other options.

But last Thursday in London, the general warned any plan that does not stabilize Afghanistan probably is short-sighted.

GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, commander, International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan: The situation is serious, and I choose that word very, very carefully. I also say that neither success or failure for our endeavor there in support of the Afghan people and the government can be taken for granted. My assessment, my best military judgment, as I term it, is that the situation is in some ways deteriorating.

KWAME HOLMAN: That speech may have raised new tensions between the commander and his civilian bosses at the White House and the Pentagon. On Friday, General McChrystal had a private meeting with President Obama aboard Air Force One while the president was visiting Copenhagen, Denmark.

The White House released this image of the two men, apparently absorbed in conversation. Officials did not characterize the exchange.

But on Sunday, the president’s national security adviser said he does not believe Afghanistan is in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban. Retired Marine General James Jones also offered a veiled criticism of McChrystal’s public remarks.

JAMES JONES, National Security Adviser: Ideally, it’s better for military advice to come up through the chain of command, and I think that General McChrystal and the others in the chain of command will present the president with not just one option — which does, in fact, tend to have a, you know, forcing function — but a range of options that the president can consider.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was even more forceful in discussing the internal debate.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations — civilians and military alike — provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately. And speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander-in-chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the meantime, the president will hold more meetings with his advisers before making any final decision on sending more troops. He’ll also meet with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders tomorrow.

JIM LEHRER: And to two different views of what the U.S. should do in Afghanistan.

Retired General Jack Keane is former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army and prominent advocate of the surge in Iraq during the Bush administration, and retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich fought in the Vietnam War. He’s now a professor of international relations at Boston University. His latest book is “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” I talked with them a short time ago.

Gentlemen, welcome. First, General Keane, do you believe General McChrystal was out of order when he spoke up publicly, as he did in London?

Gen. McChrystal speaks out

Col. Andrew Bacevich
Boston University
I hope that is the last speech he makes outside the theater for a long time. I think that his remarks were inappropriate and showed bad judgment.

RETIRED GEN. JACK KEANE, U.S. Army: Not for a minute. I think this thing is sort of blown out of proportion a little bit.

My take on that is, is that, you know, General McChrystal back in March was told to execute a counterinsurgency strategy. He's done an assessment as to how best to do that, and he certainly identified some resources that he's going to need. So he's putting all of that in play, and I think his speech reinforces that counterinsurgency strategy.

I don't think for a minute that McChrystal is trying to lobby those who are part of the decision-making process in Washington or can influence that decision-making process. He's just not that kind of a person. And, frankly, I think he probably feels terrible that people construed that. And it will probably be a long time before he makes another speech outside the theater, I would imagine.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Bacevich, how do you feel about what General McChrystal did?

RETIRED COL. ANDREW BACEVICH, Boston University: Oh, I hope that is the last speech he makes outside the theater for a long time. I think that his remarks were inappropriate and showed bad judgment, and I think that the pushback that we've heard from General Jones and from Secretary Gates is quite appropriate and timely.

JIM LEHRER: Why? What's wrong? What is wrong with what the general did?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, we have a debate that has been framed by the McChrystal strategic assessment that seems to suggest that the options available to the commander-in-chief are either to give McChrystal what he wants or to do nothing, to surrender, to give up.

I think that the point that General Jones made is exactly correct, that the president's civilian and military advisers owe him a range of alternatives so that the president can choose, not simply rubber-stamp a proposal by a theater commander.

JIM LEHRER: Now, General Keane, you see that differently? You think that's what's at issue here, is to rubber-stamp General McChrystal or to consider other options, as well?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, I think it's very appropriate for the White House, the Department of Defense to look at a whole range of options. I don't have any problem with the decision-making process that's taking place in the White House.

All presidents go about that in accordance with their own style and their own level of deliberation. And it's certainly appropriate for the White House to do that, and I would imagine the generals who are part of that process also believe it's appropriate.

JIM LEHRER: So when Secretary Gates says this kind of thing should be done privately, you don't agree with that?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, I absolutely agree it should be done privately. I just don't subscribe to the fact that McChrystal was out there, you know, lobbying influencers and trying to interfere with that decision-making process.

He answered the questions he believed forthrightly. He's already been told to execute a counterinsurgency strategy, and now there's a review of that previous decision, and that's also appropriate. I just don't believe that was the intent. And I'm sure, you know, he's not going to make another speech again for some time.

A counterinsurgency strategy

Gen. Jack Keane
(Ret) U.S. Army
We have, as accurately described by McChrystal...a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan where the status quo...will continue to deteriorate. And the best way to stop that bleeding is to put in play a counterinsurgency strategy.

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right. Well, let's go to the substance of this. Professor Bacevich, what is your view of the basic McChrystal recommendation and what he has said, at least, and what's been in the report and et cetera about the counterinsurgency proposal? Do you support that?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Oh, not at all. I mean, I think I disagree with General Keane, in that he wasn't -- McChrystal was not sent out there to execute a counterinsurgency strategy. He was sent out there to conduct an assessment of the situation, and he has provided his recommendation. His recommendation is counterinsurgency strategy.

I think one of the failings of his assessment is that it seems to take for granted that the United States possesses the wherewithal and the will to undertake this project of armed nation-building, which almost necessarily will unfold over many years, will consume many hundreds of billions of dollars, and will take the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of American soldiers.

And I, for one, think that it is appropriate for us to ask if we can afford to pay that bill and, more importantly, we should ask, are there not plausible alternatives?

JIM LEHRER: And, General Keane, you support the McChrystal approach, correct?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, I do. Certainly, a stable Afghanistan is in our interest, and a stable Pakistan is certainly a country of even greater strategic consequence than Afghanistan. Both of them are in our interest, and I think they're inextricably linked to each other, as a matter of fact.

We have, as accurately described by McChrystal and also by others who are part of the assessment team, a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan where the status quo, in the minds of those who assessed it, will continue to deteriorate. And the best way to stop that bleeding is to put in play a counterinsurgency strategy, which is largely civil, but part of that strategy clearly has to be to gain some security that's not there now so that you can make the kind of governance progress and political progress we want to make and also deal with reconstruction and economic assistance.

And one of the things we learned in Iraq -- it was very painful to learn it over three years -- is that it's very difficult to make that kind of progress in the civil area -- political, governance and economic -- unless you're able to obtain security.

And the counterinsurgency strategy first and foremost is to obtain a level of security so that we can make that other progress and then turn it over -- this isn't an open-ended thing -- turn it over to the Afghan national security forces when we can get them up to the kind of numbers we need.

U.S. interests in Afghanistan

Col. Andrew Bacevich
Boston University
I would insist that, although we have real interests in Afghanistan, they are quite limited, and we can achieve those interests more effectively and more efficiently by going down another route.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now, Professor Bacevich, what would be your alternative to that? Instead of counterinsurgency, what should be done?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes, I think the place to begin answering that question is with this question: Exactly what are our interests in Afghanistan? There seems to be an assumption among the counterinsurgency proponents that Afghanistan constitutes a vital national security interest of the United States and, therefore, the prospect of expending several hundred billions of dollars and losing all those American lives over a period of years makes sense.

I would insist that, although we have real interests in Afghanistan, they are quite limited, and we can achieve those interests more effectively and more efficiently by going down another route.

And one example of an alternative that deserves to be carefully examined is this so-called counterterrorism approach, which implies establishing a comprehensive and sustained system of surveillance across Afghanistan and then, based on intelligence that tells us that there is al-Qaida activity, there is al-Qaida presence, then to act in a surgical way to either take that out or at least keep al-Qaida on the run.

I'm not sitting here telling you I can guarantee that will work. I am sitting here suggesting that's an alternative that deserves to be examined along with the counterinsurgency proposal.

JIM LEHRER: Just on the surface, though, that means much -- not 40,000 more American troops, which would be required apparently for the counterinsurgency. You're talking about using fewer U.S. troops on the ground and use them more to go for al-Qaida targets and that sort of thing rather than to stabilize the ground?

ANDREW BACEVICH: That's correct. In other words, the object of the exercise would not be nation-building; that's what the counterinsurgency proponents are advocating. The object of the exercise would simply be to prevent al-Qaida from establishing the kind of presence that it had in September 2001.

JIM LEHRER: And that could be done with the number of troops that are there now?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think it could be done with far fewer troops.

JIM LEHRER: Far fewer troops.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I mean, I'm not trying to underestimate the surveillance challenge, which would be very difficult and would consume substantial resources, but the counterinsurgency proponents need to sort of come clean on the total bill that will be required if we implement the strategy that they support.

Fighting the Taliban

Gen. Jack Keane
(Ret) U.S. Army
I don't for the life of me know how you can defeat an insurgency with technology, drones and missiles. I don't know where it has ever worked in the history of mankind.

JIM LEHRER: General Keane, you're one of those proponents. How would you respond to that? First of all, to his proposal and what he says it would take, compare that to what it would take to do what General McChrystal and what you support.

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, first of all, we're already initiating the counterterrorism strategy. That's what we've been doing for a number of years, and we have an ever-increasing deteriorating situation. It was the same strategy that we used in Iraq for years, and it blew up in our faces.

I mean, the reality is, there are no al-Qaida operating in Afghanistan to any significant operational degree. The issue are the Taliban and the fact that the Taliban have the momentum.

I don't for the life of me know how you can defeat an insurgency with technology, drones and missiles. I don't know where it has ever worked in the history of mankind. And I certainly don't believe it's going to work in the mountains of Afghanistan or up in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Can we make success against the leaders who are the insurgent and the terrorist leaders using this technology? Of course we can. We have done some of that. But it doesn't defeat them. It doesn't take them off the battlefield. They're quickly replaced.

You have to separate those terrorists and those insurgents from the thing that they need most that guarantees their stability and their progress, which are the people. And that is why we're proponents of a counterinsurgency strategy that takes those people and that infrastructure away from them.

Look at, I don't have any major interest in nation-building in Afghanistan to any significant degree. I think we can get the security situation stable, put some real pressure on Karzai, to be sure, and we certainly need to do that in the back room with him, to be quite frank about it, and get this thing turned over to the Afghan national security forces in a couple of years, much as we have done in Iraq. I don't think we need to be there for years and years to do this.

JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen, we now understand both of your positions. Quickly, beginning with you, Professor, do you think the president needs to make a decision, whatever it is, quicker rather than -- I mean, do he have to move quickly on this?

ANDREW BACEVICH: No. He needs to make a decision in due time after he has considered all of the alternatives. I mean, this argument that he needs to make the decision tomorrow because General McChrystal has issued his requirements is patently absurd and, frankly, is simply used to try to deny the president the range of alternatives that ought to be presented to him.

JIM LEHRER: General Keane, do you agree that time won't hurt this decision?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, I think a reasonable amount of time that the president certainly seems to be taking to make a difficult decision like this, a deliberative decision-making process I think is what we're seeing in front of us is -- is fine. I mean, the next few weeks to make a decision on this and get all the issues on the table is probably a healthy process; I don't have any problem with it.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.