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Public Views Shifting on War in Afghanistan

September 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with editorial page editors about the public's view on the war in Afghanistan and increasing doubts over sending more troops.


JIM LEHRER: The prospect of expanding the American presence in Afghanistan ran into new opposition today. It came as the nation marked the anniversary of 9/11, the event that triggered the war in Afghanistan.

Ray Suarez has our lead story report.

RAY SUAREZ: The war in Afghanistan loomed over ceremonies at the Pentagon, marking the attacks of eight years ago today. President Obama paid tribute to all those who died on 9/11 and to more than 800 Americans killed to date in Afghanistan. And he said America’s commitment to the fight has not wavered.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let us renew our resolve against those who perpetrated this barbaric act and who plot against us still. In defense of our nation, we will never waver; in pursuit of al-Qaida and its extremist allies, we will never falter.

Let us renew our commitment to all those who serve in our defense: our courageous men and women in uniform and their families and all those who protect us here at home. Mindful that the work of protecting America is never finished, we will do everything in our power to keep America safe.

RAY SUAREZ: But not long after Mr. Obama spoke, the Senate’s leading Democrat on military issues formally came out against increasing American troop numbers in Afghanistan. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said the U.S. has “lost the initiative.”

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich.: We should increase and accelerate our efforts to support the Afghan security forces in their efforts to become self-sufficient in delivering security to their nation before we consider whether to increase U.S. combat forces above the levels already planned for the next few months.

We need a surge of Afghan security forces. Our support of their surge will show our commitment to the success of a mission that is clearly in our national security interest, without creating a bigger U.S. military footprint that provides propaganda fodder for the Taliban.

RAY SUAREZ: A day earlier, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned any call for more troops would get a tough reception in the House, as well.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., speaker of the House: I don’t think there’s a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in the Congress.

RAY SUAREZ: Currently, the U.S. has 62,000 troops in Afghanistan. By the end of this year, that force will number 68,000, as part of a surge the president ordered earlier this year.

But the American commander, General Stanley McChrystal, and other military leaders have warned the war is not going well. And McChrystal is expected to recommend adding thousands more soldiers and Marines.

President Obama’s election opponent last year, Republican Senator John McCain, lent his support today to another troop surge. He said the U.S. cannot wait.


Taliban still strong in some areas

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: I believe it's a false choice to try to grow the Afghan national army while holding back on any additional U.S. combat troops. There are vital areas that are controlled by the Taliban and its allies today. It'll require U.S. military force to shape, clear, hold and build in those areas. And if we await the day when the Afghan national army has increased in size and capable of carrying out all of these operations fully on its own, it may well be too late.

RAY SUAREZ: As of Thursday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs would not be pinned down on what the president will decide or when.

ROBERT GIBBS: ... separate resource decision, reports will be coming in the next few weeks, but have not been received as of yet. The president will make a decision based on what he thinks is in the best national security interest of this country.

RAY SUAREZ: The president must make his decision at a time when the Afghan war has become increasingly unpopular and casualties are rising. So far this year, 194 Americans have been killed, including 51 in August alone, the deadliest month yet.

The toll kept rising today, as NATO announced another U.S. service member was killed Thursday in eastern Afghanistan.

The country's volatile political situation has further complicated the task ahead. Last month's presidential election was fraught with allegations of fraud.

Nevertheless, at 9/11 observances today, some soldiers and commanders on the ground said they still draw inspiration from what happened eight years ago.

MAJ. GEN. RICHARD FORMICA, U.S. Army: Today's ceremony is very special and meaningful for most of us, certainly for Americans who felt the immediate impact of that attack that day. We all share in sorrow and mourning for those who lost.

RAY SUAREZ: Afghan President Hamid Karzai also expressed condolences today to the 9/11 victims. And he said he hopes the world will continue the struggle against terror.

JIM LEHRER: And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we take a look at part of the debate over Afghanistan now as it's playing outside Washington with three editorial page writers who focus on international affairs: Marjorie Miller, foreign policy editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times; Ricardo Pimentel, editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; and Jonathan Gurwitz, columnist and editorial board member at the San Antonio Express News.

'Growing Disenchantment'

Ricardo Pimentel
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
We're suggesting that you should be very skeptical of troop increases, that the goal should be neither to defeat the Taliban militarily, nor to build a strong central government, that the better route might be building better local governance.

Ricardo Pimentel, starting with you, your paper just published an editorial suggesting military withdrawal may be needed and, quote, "At the moment, any strategy that requires additional U.S. troops has the too familiar whiff of quagmire." So what are you seeing?


RICARDO PIMENTEL, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Well, we're seeing growing disenchantment with U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, not just owing to the casualties, but to the lack of progress and people wondering if there's a better way. And we think there is.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that way may lead you -- I mean, right now the question is whether it might be troop increase. You're suggesting maybe the opposite direction?

RICARDO PIMENTEL: We're suggesting that you should be very skeptical of troop increases, that the goal should be neither to defeat the Taliban militarily, nor to build a strong central government, that the better route might be building better local governance and creating safe havens where local governments work and where economic development can bloom.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And, Jonathan Gurwitz in San Antonio, on the other hand, your paper has an editorial today that reminds readers of the reason we're in Afghanistan and says, quote, "That's a mission that can't be accomplished with cruise missiles and special forces teams alone." What are you seeing?

JONATHAN GURWITZ, San Antonio Express News: Well, that's a debate that we had eight years ago. And President Bush decided and the American people agreed that it was not enough just to fire cruise missiles, that in order to deny a sanctuary to the Taliban and to al-Qaida, that he with had to put boots on the ground.

And so we're rehashing that debate today. And I think that President Obama has got it right again, that not only is the security of Afghanistan at stake, but the security of Pakistan is also at stake, and we cannot secure that border region, and we can't have the kind of economic development that was just talked about unless there's security on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Marjorie Miller in Los Angeles, it sounds like your paper's waiting to be convinced. Your editorial today says, "The president deserves an opportunity to present his case to the American public. The burden of proof is on him to explain why the United States still needs to be in Afghanistan." So what are you looking at? What are you looking for to decide?

MARJORIE MILLER, Los Angeles Times: Well, we want to hear what it will cost, how long it will take. We want him to articulate clearly his goals in Afghanistan and whether they're achievable.

What are the measures of success for getting there? How will we know along the way that we're headed in the right direction? Is it the measure of territory that we can recapture from the Taliban? Is it the hopefully declining number of civilian casualties? Is it the number of Afghan troops and security forces that can be trained to eventually take over so that we can get out?

We're in the skeptical camp. We're not ready to endorse by any means an increase in the number of troops, but we're not ready to call for a pullout until we let him make his case.


War fatigue

Majorie Miller
Los Angeles Times
First of all, we're a country that's been at war on two fronts at least for eight years in Iraq and Afghanistan. And people are tired.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marjorie, let me stay with you on this next round, looking at opinion polls, which as Ray Suarez told us in that piece are showing lessening support. Does that surprise you? What do you see happening? Can you tell what's going on where you are?

MARJORIE MILLER: Yes, it doesn't surprise me at all. I think there are a number of factors in play, internal and external.

First of all, we're a country that's been at war on two fronts at least for eight years in Iraq and Afghanistan. And people are tired. There's a war fatigue.

In Afghanistan in particular, even though you could argue it was underfunded or understaffed, there aren't really measures of success yet. We can't claim any successes or big successes for those eight years on the military front right now.

We could initially, when -- in 2001, when we went in and the Taliban was pretty quickly defeated, and al-Qaida was put on the run and pushed into Afghanistan. But since then, the Taliban has recovered quite a bit of territory.

And on top of it, you have an election in Afghanistan last month that is contested. The results are not clear. There are accusations that President Karzai is stealing the election.

And so I think Americans are waiting to see how that plays out, because there is no case for risking American lives on behalf of a president whose legitimacy is questioned in his own country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ricardo Pimentel in Milwaukee, what do you see with public opinion? What is driving at this point?

RICARDO PIMENTEL: All of the reasons that Marjorie just stated: lack of success, rising body count, and an unwillingness to partner with a government that is so inept and so corrupt. It makes little sense to Americans to prop up a government that is acting this way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ricardo, do you sense a lot of interest in this? I mean, even on this program, we talk so much about health care, the economy. It's in the last few weeks and months where we talked more about Afghanistan. I just wonder if you have a sense of the level of interest and, I don't know, acknowledgment of all this where you are?

RICARDO PIMENTEL: I would say health care is probably number one on folks' agenda right now. It is what is hitting them most at home.

But that's not to say that they don't care about Afghanistan. They do care about the loss of blood and treasure. But health care at the moment is what is hitting their pocketbooks most directly.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Jonathan Gurwitz in San Antonio, of course, you have a major military presence there. So how much do you see this -- that clearly must affect how people look at all this.

JONATHAN GURWITZ: I think it's pretty significant here. Last month, we had two San Antonians who were among the fatalities in Afghanistan, a soldier and a Marine. And just about everyone knows someone who is deployed or who has been deployed. And so I think it is personal for a lot of people, and it's very high on the radar screen here.

Military burdens

Jonathan Gurwitz
San Antonio Express-News
It is common to meet soldiers and Marines who have had three and four deployments either to Iraq or Afghanistan, and it's not uncommon to find men and women who have been over five or six times.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you, Jonathan -- I mean, again, going back to your editorial today, where you really tried to make the tie to 9/11, Marjorie was talking earlier about public opinion kind of weariness of the war. Do you have any sense of weariness there? Or is it a lack of understanding or maybe even forgetting the tie to 9/11? Is that what you were trying to do?

JONATHAN GURWITZ: Well, I think there is -- because of the passage of time, there's another issue that we see here in San Antonio, and that is that the burden that's being carried by a very small number of people in the military and their families, who it is common to meet soldiers and Marines who have had three and four deployments either to Iraq or Afghanistan, and it's not uncommon to find men and women who have been over five or six times.

And that takes a toll on those individuals. It takes a toll on their families. And that's something that we're very cognizant of here.

And, you know, there's another problem in the Army that they're trying to grapple with, which is an increase in suicides. And officially, there's no explanation or no study to confirm why the number of suicides in the Army has gone up so dramatically in the last few years, but I think plenty of observers will say that it's because of the repeated deployments and the stress that's being placed on our soldiers and Marines and people in the military.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Marjorie Miller, as we've said, General McChrystal is going through his review of all this now. The president has to make a decision at some point, fairly soon. What do you want to happen in this interim period? What discussion or what kind of things should happen?

MARJORIE MILLER: Well, a clear articulation of the goals, a clear articulation of the strategy, and how we can -- actually, I'd like to hear an articulation, again, of why President Obama thinks this is a war of necessity, which he claims it is, because al-Qaida is largely in Pakistan right now. And we're fighting in Afghanistan to make sure that they don't go back.

So I'd like a very clear explanation for why we need to commit so many resources to Afghanistan. There are plenty of other places where al-Qaida might seek refuge where we're not at war -- Somalia, Yemen, other places. Why do we, at this point, need to be in Afghanistan at this level?

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ricardo Pimentel, same question. Is there something you're waiting to hear that may change your mind or sway you on this?

RICARDO PIMENTEL: Not just why, but how, why they think perhaps that military solution can work where it hasn't worked elsewhere and how Afghanistan is dissimilar to Iraq. Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan I think would require far more commitment in troops than we've ever seen in Iraq. And I would like to see an explanation of how he would accomplish that and whether he would accomplish that over the objections of the American people.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there. Ricardo Pimentel in Milwaukee, Jonathan Gurwitz in San Antonio, Marjorie Miller in Los Angeles, thank you all very much.

JIM LEHRER: We have more about both Afghanistan and the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on our Web site at You can listen to a reporter's podcast about the war and President Obama's popularity in Europe and watch a slide show of images of the 9/11 memorial sites in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.