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In Afghanistan, Troop Deaths Highlight Instability

July 14, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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On Sunday, Taliban militants waged the deadliest assault on U.S. and NATO troops in three years, highlighting the challenge of the ongoing armed conflict. A New York Times Magazine reporter and a counter-insurgency expert measure the complexity of the conflict.
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MARGARET WARNER: The attack that cost the lives of nine American soldiers took place at a U.S. military outpost in the northeast Afghan province of Kunar, near the Pakistan border.

It’s the latest in a series of violent insurgent attacks, including a bombing outside the Indian embassy in Kabul and that killed 55 Afghanis. Insurgent attacks are up 40 percent in eastern Afghanistan alone.

The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has led to calls for more U.S. troops there. Pentagon commanders say they want to send more forces, but they would have to come from Iraq.

Today, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said the U.S. should send in another 7,000 U.S. troops to the 33,000 already there. Senator John McCain is supposed to give a speech on Afghanistan later this week.

For more on the situation, we go to Elizabeth Rubin, a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine, who spent time with U.S. troops in Kunar province late last year.

And Seth Jones, a specialist in counterinsurgency with the RAND Corporation, he’s traveled frequently to Afghanistan, including recently to Kunar province, as well.

Welcome to you both.

Elizabeth Rubin, tell us, first of all, about what this province is like.

ELIZABETH RUBIN, New York Times Magazine: Kunar province is in the northeastern part of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. And it’s always been used by insurgents, before that by the Mujahedeen during the time of the Russian war, as a transport route.

And so it’s a key area where the Taliban enter the north of Afghanistan. That particular area is close to tribal areas in Pakistan. And so a lot of the attacks that are coming into Kunar are coming right over from the Pakistani border.

MARGARET WARNER: And what does the U.S. military operation there consist of? I understand the unit you were with is, in fact, part of the same brigade as that of the soldiers that were killed yesterday.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: I think so. There’s sort of a blackout right now on who exactly was hit, but presumably it is the same brigade. And they operate in small forward-operating bases out in the villages.

You know, sometimes there’s 20 to 30 guys living in a barn or living in tents and bunkers. And they try to interact a lot with the villagers, who are caught between the Americans and the insurgents. So it’s a very, very difficult fight out there.

MARGARET WARNER: And are these bases or outposts well-protected?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Mildly, but not really. Sometimes there’s just, you know, concertina wire around it and soldiers who are guards. Because they are trying to be out there in the field and it’s mountainous terrain, it’s not easy to set up a big base like you would have in Iraq, for example.

The people behind the attacks

Seth Jones
RAND Corporation
What you do have is some coordination across now over a dozen groups that are involved in the insurgency against U.S. and other NATO forces.

MARGARET WARNER: Seth Jones, the reports are that the insurgents in this case managed to breach the outpost to some degree. What does that tell you?

SETH JONES, Rand Corporation: Well, it tells us a couple of things. One is it tells us about the audacity of the attack.

That means it was not just a stand-off attack with shots fired from guns and rocket-propelled grenades, but it was an effort to at least take the base, which is -- these types of situations have been fairly infrequent over the last few years.

So the second issue is this also indicates that they're becoming just bolder in general, bolder about their situation, I think, in eastern Afghanistan and southern Afghanistan, and bolder in general, and they're willing to take on an American base, a forward-operating base in eastern Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, are forward-operating bases like this able to call in either reinforcements or some kind of support? Apparently this fight went on for a number of hours.

SETH JONES: Part of the question is and part of the challenge in these areas is where air assets are. So, yes, there are assets in places like Bagram.

Part of the question -- and it's not clear at this point -- is who was flying around, what airplanes were flying around, how long it took for airpower to actually come in and provide support.

It was also at night, as well, or at least in the early morning. So it's not clear who was flying and what assets and how quickly they could get to this area.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Elizabeth, based on your reporting there, certainly in the neighboring valley, who are the insurgents in that part of Afghanistan?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: They're made up of former Hezb-e-Islami, which belongs to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He has aligned himself at times with the Taliban. He's one of the enemies, declared enemies of the government.

There's also Pakistani political parties that support Taliban elements up there.

They're a little different from the southern Taliban, but they have been very bold in their attacks. They have also ambushed another fire base in Kunar within the last year, where they overran the base, and the soldiers there were only saved by airpower, in fact.

And they've done very bold ambushes, where they come up on a patrol of 12, 15 soldiers and surround them. These are hardened fighters who've been at it for sometimes 10 to 20 years.

MARGARET WARNER: And are they, Seth Jones, are they part of -- is there a unified Taliban command? I mean, who's really running this?

SETH JONES: Well, there clearly at this point is no unified Taliban or insurgent chain of command across Afghanistan.

What you do have is some coordination across now over a dozen groups that are involved in the insurgency against U.S. and other NATO forces that operate on both sides of the Afghan and Pakistani border and include a whole range, as Elizabeth noted, a whole range of insurgent groups, but also tribes, subtribes, and clans.

In this area of Kunar, where I was in May, there are also individuals involved in the illicit gem and timber trading. So a whole range of networked groups that really begins to look like Iraq looked like in 2003.

MARGARET WARNER: There were also reports that some of the local villagers may have been part of this, in part because maybe they had been attacked -- this region had been attacked by a U.S. bombing just on July 4th that killed more than a dozen. Is that part of the pattern?

SETH JONES: It is part of the pattern in the sense of virtually all of these types of operations need local popular support for a range of reasons. And they were effective in this case in clearing out one of the local villages and it appears getting some popular support. But support is the fundamental aspect of any insurgency, including in this one.

Needs of U.S., NATO soldiers

Elizabeth Rubin
New York Times Magazine
I think that they would acknowledge that the political aspect of a counterinsurgency was as important as the military. And they often felt that the Afghan side was not doing its part to help the counterinsurgency effort.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Elizabeth, of course in the political campaign and here in Washington, the need for more troops, U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a topic of discussion. The soldiers that you were with, did they say they thought they needed more American forces?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: They are mixed. To some extent, what they really wanted were more resources. They always need more airpower. You're talking about 6,800-foot mountains up there. Airpower is a matter of life and death.

They need more helicopters. They need more planes, more than they needed soldiers. But of course, the more soldiers you have on the ground, the less you have to rely on airpower. It's a really complicated mix.

And I think that they would acknowledge that the political aspect of a counterinsurgency was as important as the military. And they often felt that the Afghan side was not doing its part to help the counterinsurgency effort, that is the Afghan politicians in Kunar.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, in terms of working with the locals and whether it's providing jobs, whatever?

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Providing jobs, also not being corrupt. You know, when you're stealing from the local population, it's really hard to win over their support and their trust.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, Seth Jones, what difference would another 7,000 to 10,000 soldiers make?

SETH JONES: Well, I think the issue is, what would those soldiers do? If they were involved primarily in what the U.S. military calls direct action, involved only in killing or capturing insurgents, I think the benefit would be minimal.

In fact, I think what has proven to be most effective, where U.S. and other NATO forces are able to do this is in working with local Afghans and in clearing territory, holding it, and then building, that is, reconstruction and development.

So the critical question, if there were more resources, is what they would do.

Keeping Pakistani insurgents out

Seth Jones
RAND Corporation
[I]n this area of Kunar, as well as up and down the border, the ability of groups to move on both sides of the border is fundamental.

MARGARET WARNER: And we haven't even spoken about the need to keep the insurgents from coming over from Pakistan.

SETH JONES: Yes. And that is a fundamental -- and clearly, in this area of Kunar, as well as up and down the border, the ability of groups to move on both sides of the border is fundamental. The command-and-control structure of virtually every major group is on the Pakistani side.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, since it's going to be some time, it appears, before more troops could be moved from Iraq to Afghanistan, what can be done in the short term?

SETH JONES: Well, I think one thing interesting -- the provincial reconstruction team in Kunar is spending a lot more time working with the local population on figuring out what the population needs, what project needs to be developed, and then actually doing it with a local population. I think that's critical.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Seth Jones, Elizabeth Rubin, thank you both.

SETH JONES: Thank you.

ELIZABETH RUBIN: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: On our Web site, you can find in-depth coverage on the war in Afghanistan. Visit us at PBS.org.