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Death Toll Mounts as Coalition Forces Confront Taliban

July 15, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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As coalition forces attempt to wrest control of southern Afghanistan from Taliban insurgents, they are experiencing their highest casualties in eight years of war. Analysts discuss the rise in violence with Gwen Ifill.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, the escalating war in Afghanistan. Gwen Ifill has that story.

GWEN IFILL: Two weeks into a renewed U.S. and NATO-led assault in Afghanistan, the coalition is taking heavier casualties than at any point in the eight-year war. The effort, led by U.S. Marines along with British troops, is designed to establish security in regions long held by a resurgent Taliban.

A force of 4,000 Marines and 650 Afghans launched an operation dubbed Strike of the Sword two weeks ago, targeting the strife-torn southern Helmand province.

The new NATO commander, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, has aggressively shifted the focus from hunting and killing the Taliban to protecting the population.

But following several high-profile incidents where U.S. forces killed large numbers of civilians, McChrystal recently released a set of stringent guidelines for the use of force. The document echoed much of what the general told his new command last month.

GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, Commander, International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan: Displaying respect, cultural sensitivity, accountability, and transparency are essential to gaining the support and trust of the Afghan people. If we gain that trust, we cannot lose. If we lose that trust, we cannot win.

GWEN IFILL: The renewed offensive relies more heavily on Afghan forces — the key to success, President Obama said yesterday — in a fight that he emphasized was important to all coalition members.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: The issue in Afghanistan is not simply an American issue. It is a worldwide issue. And, you know, the vulnerabilities to terrorist attack in Europe are at least as high as they are here in the United States. All of us want to see an effective exit strategy where increasingly the Afghan army, Afghan police, Afghan courts, Afghan government are taking more responsibility for their own security.

GWEN IFILL: Until now, Afghan forces have been minimally involved in the fight, and the training of Afghan security forces has become a centerpiece of U.S. strategy.

And while the Taliban have largely fled the advancing Marines, they have left behind a deadly array of improvised explosive devices, the makeshift bombs that wreaked havoc on U.S. forces in Iraq.

STAFF SGT. MICHAEL MEDINA, United States Marine Corps: The most dangerous thing right now is the Taliban putting roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices along with victim-operated pressure plates, which victims step on and they go off. Pretty much, that is our main concern now.

GWEN IFILL: The bombs and other fighting have exacted a heavy toll on the coalition: 24 Americans and 22 allied troops have been killed just halfway through July. Among the dead are 15 British soldiers.

Eight of the dead returned home yesterday were met by thousands of mourners lining the streets of a small town as the cortege passed. Those deaths, coupled with outrage over questions about adequate equipment, have led to public questioning of the war effort in Great Britain, even as 140 more soldiers were dispatched to join the 9,000 British already in Afghanistan.

Sharp increase in violence

Seth Jones
Rand Corporation
Both the British and U.S. Marine Corps forces have increased operations in Helmand province....And the response, as I think could be predicted, the Taliban resorted to asymmetric tactics, that is, roadside bombs, targeted assassinations.

GWEN IFILL: For more, we turn to Seth Jones, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation. He's written extensively about Afghanistan and just returned from there.

And Clare Lockhart, co-founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness, which promotes best practices in development. From 2001 to 2007, she was a United Nations official, an adviser to the Afghan government, and then an adviser to coalition military officials.

Welcome to you both.

Seth Jones, why does it seem like violence and casualties have increased so sharply in Afghanistan of late?

SETH JONES, Rand Corporation: Well, I think the major reason is that both the British and U.S. Marine Corps forces have increased operations in Helmand province. They've both established duel offensive operations.

And the response, as I think could be predicted, the Taliban resorted to asymmetric tactics, that is, roadside bombs, targeted assassinations. So more Marine Corps and more British forces in the field are more vulnerable to improvised explosive devices, and that's led to more dead bodies.

GWEN IFILL: There is a military component, obviously, as Seth Jones pointed out, Clare Lockhart. Are there other factors, as well, which drive this increased violence in casualty numbers?

CLARE LOCKHART, Institute for State Effectiveness: I think absolutely. As Seth says, it's partly the operations that have been going on in Helmand. I think it's partly it's the summer season, when fighting is generally more active, and then I think it's partly because it's the political season.

The big event in 2009 is the election on August 20th. There will be presidential elections. And I think that, as well, is leading to increased volatility in the country.

GWEN IFILL: Now, there's nobody who thinks that Hamid Karzai is not going to be re-elected. So what is it about the election that feeds into this?

CLARE LOCKHART: I think it's -- traditionally, in Afghan history, transition of power between regimes has always been an act of violence. The transition in 2001, after the tragedy of 9/11, the establishment of the Bonn Agreement, and then in 2005, with the election of President Karzai, were the first two instances where there's been a peaceful transition to power.

This is then the third transition. And whether President Karzai is elected or whether one of the other contenders gets elected -- I think there is evidence that the field is opening up now with the commitment of the U.S. to a credible and fair and free election -- regardless of who wins, it is a time of volatility.

A new and risky strategy

Clare Lockhart
Institute for State Effectiveness
The focus of the mission has now fundamentally changed away from kinetic operations, taking due concern about civilian casualties, and changing the mission to focus on protecting the population and putting their trust central to that.

GWEN IFILL: Now, there has been concern in Britain, as we talked about in that set-up piece there, Seth, about the sudden spike in casualties. Is any of this connected at all to military strategy? Is this connected to preparedness in any way on the part of the coalition forces?

SETH JONES: I don't think it's a function of preparedness. I just think there's been a push from the U.S. military and from the British militaries to take more risks in Afghanistan.

The focus of U.S. and British counterinsurgency strategies is to protect the local population. That means getting more out into villages, and that means increasing risks to soldiers. But I think, partly, this is a function of a slightly different strategy that's aim is to protect local Afghan villagers, and that does mean exposing oneself to improvised explosive devices and other threats at the village level.

GWEN IFILL: So is it fair to say this was expected as part of the strategy, that there would be increased casualties?

SETH JONES: I think virtually everybody that has been looking seriously at Afghanistan for the last couple of months has generally predicted an increase of violence. This is the fighting season, as Clare noted, so I think, in general, this has been expected.

GWEN IFILL: What about the concern among Britons that there has not been sufficient equipment for the folks on the ground, for the troops on the ground in Afghanistan?

CLARE LOCKHART: I know that's very much a concern of the British public, but I know also that there are efforts underway to make sure that they have the equipment that they do need.

I think what we have to look forward to, as well as making sure that the troops do have the equipment they need and that -- and as much as anything, with the right kind of doctrine and approach on the ground. And as we heard General McChrystal say, the focus of the mission has now fundamentally changed away from kinetic operations, taking due concern about civilian casualties, and changing the mission to focus on protecting the population and putting their trust central to that.

So with that changed mission, I think we're going to see -- and as President Obama said yesterday -- once the political season is over, we can look forward to determining -- and now people are beginning openly to talk about, as President Obama did, what's the exit strategy from the country?

Building Afghan capacity

Seth Jones
Rand Corporation
I think the problem that we're running into on the ground in Afghanistan, though: There are not enough Afghan national security forces and coalition forces to do what General McChrystal and others want, and that is to protect the local population.

GWEN IFILL: Has that changed mission made, perhaps, people, civilians look at this and say, "Bait and switch. We were supposed to be there as peacekeepers, and now all of a sudden we're in the middle of a counterinsurgency"?

CLARE LOCKHART: I think the transition over the last eight years, if we look back, has been difficult for the population to understand, which is why it's helpful to have the mission articulated so clearly.

After 2001, the original ISAF mission, the International Security Assistance Forces, was to maintain the political settlement. So in a sense, it was a peacekeeping mission.

And, actually, for the first few years, there were remarkably few casualties. Peace and stability was pretty much there. It was possible to travel throughout the country unarmed and peacefully.

It was only after 2005 and really in 2006 and 2007 that the Taliban began to reform and come back, so then more kinetic operations were held. So I think that now the clarification that the mission is there to protect the population is going to lead to a change.

GWEN IFILL: You know, in so many ways, Seth Jones, Iraq and Afghanistan are apples and oranges militarily, but also we remember the echoes of discussion about passing this on to the Iraqi security forces, having the central government take greater charge, more control, and basically withdrawing international forces and passing it on to folks on the ground.

As the president was saying yesterday, Afghans will have to solve this problem. Is this what's underway here? And is it comparable at all to what we've seen before?

SETH JONES: Well, I do think it's a core tenet of counterinsurgency to build local capacity. And we've seen a shift over the past few years to put a lot more resources, including money and attention, toward building Afghan national security forces, army and police forces.

I think the problem that we're running into on the ground in Afghanistan, though: There are not enough Afghan national security forces and coalition forces to do what General McChrystal and others want, and that is to protect the local population.

That's the challenge we're finding in rural areas of the south, the east, and the west of Afghanistan. The only place to look -- and it's an area that we've begun to look at a little more carefully -- is, are there ways to leverage local Afghans to help provide security in their own villages?

Improving Afghan governance

Clare Lockhart
Institute for State Effectiveness
It's not just a question of having a police force. There needs to be a court system. There needs to be a prison system. And we need to look at the broader array of economic and governance tool kits and the institutions that are necessary.

GWEN IFILL: And is there a central government that we can turn to and say, "Here, this is yours"? Or is it different in Afghanistan?

CLARE LOCKHART: I think that's absolutely the central issue. And it's partly, as the military actors are focused on, building the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police force, but as we all know, it's not just a question of having a police force. There needs to be a court system. There needs to be a prison system.

And, more broadly, we need to look at the broader array of economic and governance tool kits and the institutions that are necessary.

The reason -- as is becoming increasingly clear -- that many young men join up for the Taliban is simply because that's the best way they can get an education and a job.

So I think we need to look very clearly at, are we investing in an Afghan education system so that Afghans can get a vocational education or an education so that they can start their own civil service and be entrepreneurs? And are we investing in the jobs, in the job creation that will mean that they have the ability to earn a basic living wage and then they won't be joining the Taliban?

GWEN IFILL: How much of this is undercut, however, by corruption, old-fashioned corruption?

SETH JONES: Well, I think the public opinion polls in Afghanistan are very clear about this. Afghans feel that the government is increasingly corrupt at the local level, provincial level, and at the national level.

And I think that is one of several factors that is driving the insurgency, is when you get into rural areas of the country, many Afghans believe there is no central government that has provided services to them or that has been able to protect them.

So I do think the corruption issue has been a driving factor, one of several, in creating the insurgency.

GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that?

CLARE LOCKHART: I do. And I think really one of the central issues for whoever wins the Afghan election is going to be, can they regain the trust of the population? And that's centrally about building accountability systems, making sure that the money collected from the population in revenue is managed properly and goes to build and to sustain the social services that are so desperately needed by the population.

GWEN IFILL: Clare Lockhart, Seth Jones, thank you both very much.

SETH JONES: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: On our Web site, newshour.pbs.org, Seth Jones talks about his new book, "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan."