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Anticipating Withdrawal, Weighing Options for U.S. Troop Levels in Afghanistan

January 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
While the White House considers how the U.S. military might best make its Afghanistan exit, Judy Woodruff gets two views on the topic from Bing West, author of "The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan" and former Defense Department official Celeste Ward Gventer.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the troop levels after 2014, we get two views.

Bing West fought in the Vietnam War with the Marines and served as assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. He’s traveled frequently to Afghanistan and authored eight books, including “The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan.”

And Celeste Ward Gventer was a deputy assistant secretary of defense in 2006 and 2007. She also served as an adviser to U.S. political and military leaders in Iraq. She’s now at the University of Texas in Austin.

And we thank you both for joining us.

Bing West, to you first. Is it a good idea to even be considering going to zero troops after 2014?

BING WEST, author of “The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan”: Judy, I think it’s nuts.

I think it was a highly injudicious statement. Our troops are still fighting there. Our senior general just came in and offered three options. The midpoint option after 2014 was 12,000 troops. I don’t see what the White House gains by making an off-the-cuff statement: Well, maybe we will just make it zero.

Our troops are still in combat. The people who enjoy a statement like that are the Taliban and al-Qaida. We have an unreliable ally in President Karzai. He is erratic, and this will cause him to be even more erratic.

And our own allies will be looking at us and saying, uh-oh, where is the United States going? So, no, Judy, I think that this was a highly injudicious statement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Celeste Ward Gventer, injudicious statement and a bad idea?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER, University of Texas at Austin: Well, I have the greatest respect for Bing West, and I’m honored to be on the show with him, but I respectfully disagree.

I think for us to be talking about troop levels right now is really putting the cart before the horse in any case, because, frankly, we should be talking about our vision for the region strategically. But, in any event, we still need consider that having no troops there is a real option, and I think to ignore that option would be strategically foolish.

We heard about the supposed apocalypse that was coming if U.S. troops left Iraq. U.S. troops left Iraq, and the apocalypse has not arrived. So, that is a real option for us, and it would be irresponsible for us not to consider it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Bing West, what is the argument then for keeping a significant contingent of troops, whatever that number is?

BING WEST: Oh, Judy, I think it’s pretty clear.

In all due respect to Celeste, in the Iraq case, we don’t have what we have now in Afghanistan. Right next to Afghanistan, Pakistan, is where al-Qaida is today. The president, on over 300 occasions, has authorized strikes to kill al-Qaida on one side of the mountain, and we’re trying to keep them from going — coming in to the other side of the mountain back into Afghanistan.

And to leave that place open would hurt our own security. So I don’t want to stay there for the sake of the Afghans. But I want to leave enough of our special operations forces there so that they can strike wherever they have to, and we can’t do that if we pull out entirely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Celeste Gventer, why isn’t — why doesn’t that make sense?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Well, I think you have to consider whether, if we left 20,000 or 9,000 or 3,000 troops there, when does it end? When is this over?

It seems like a recipe for just staying there, disrupting these groups in perpetuity. And it’s not clear to me that that actually advances what is ultimately a political problem in Afghanistan. It’s not a military problem.

Also, our presence may be creating what economists would call a moral hazard, that states in the region and political groups in Afghanistan are precisely not reaching the accommodation they need to reach because we’re there. And so I think we need to think deeply strategically about what we’re doing there for how long. And then you ask the question how many troops you need to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Could — Bing West, could these troops — I mean, just extrapolating from what she said, could they be — if there are a significant number left after the end, formal end of combat, could that be an impediment to improvement in Afghanistan?

BING WEST: Well, Judy, the way I look at it, the only reason we went to Afghanistan, which is a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere, is because 3,000 Americans were killed from Afghanistan in New York City.

And those terrorists are right across the border and they still want to kill us. So the way I look at it, I will put the politics to one side, but as long as al-Qaida wants to kill us, I want to see us killing them until there aren’t any more al-Qaida left, none, just put them all six feet under the earth.

And that means that we have to remain there and just keep hitting them and hitting them and hitting them until we shatter them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Celeste Gventer, you both, I think, have referred to this that this has been brought up in the context of negotiating legal immunity for any troops who would stay after the end of combat. Why is that important?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Oh, it’s utterly essential. And we saw the breakdown in negotiations over troops in Iraq on exactly this point.

It would be intolerable for the United States to subject its soldiers to legal action by the Afghan government. It’s just simply unthinkable. And so we have got to get past that problem first, and that’s a problem we didn’t get past in Iraq, and it’s why we really don’t have troops there now.

But if I could just say, I agree with the spirit of Bing West’s remarks. I too would like to see al-Qaida six feet under the earth, but we have to consider that al-Qaida has actually moved well beyond Afghanistan. And it’s not clear to me how remaining in Afghanistan with a fairly large footprint fits into a larger global counterterrorism program.

And I think we need to answer that question before we talk about how many troops we need in Afghanistan, what they should be doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bing West, you can respond to that, but I would like to know your view on this legal immunity. Would you agree that that is something that any troops that remain would have to have?

BING WEST: I agree entirely with Celeste. She is absolutely correct.

Look, I have no truck with a lot of what the Afghan government is doing.

I just look at this as being in our interests and I think we have to deal with President Karzai in a very hard, very firm way, because he is not reliable. But, in the end, it’s not about Karzai and it’s not about politics. It’s about the fact that al-Qaida wants to kill us.

And we have to remain there with some troops because of distance. I agree with Celeste. If we could be offshore and do it, fine. But the distances are just so huge that, practically speaking, it makes sense to keep a small number of troops there who are aggressive and offensive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, finally to you both, it’s been raised, it’s been speculated that this could be just a negotiating ploy, tactic on the part of the administration to get President Karzai and his government to give that immunity. How do both of you see that question?

Celeste Gventer.

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Well, I certainly hope that they’re taking the option seriously, because, as I said earlier, I think it would be irresponsible not to take that option seriously.

It is a real option, and we should be exploring it. If it helps to put pressure on Hamid Karzai and various other Afghan officials, as well as regional powers, to let them know that we could be gone and they need to fix this problem, and they need to fix the problem in their region, then great.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bing West, do you think it could be what she said, an effort to put pressure on President Karzai?

BING WEST: Well, I hope so, and I like the way Celeste framed it.

But President Karzai is so erratic that you don’t know how he is going to react to anything. So I would prefer that we not do those things in public, because he is really not that reliable. He is a little bit nutty himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we appreciate your both talking with us. We know President Karzai will be meeting with President Obama on Friday.

Bing West, Celeste Ward Gventer, thank you.

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Thank you so much, Judy.

BING WEST: Thank you.