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In Afghanistan Plan, Exit Strategy Remains a Sticking Point

December 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jim Lehrer speaks with former Army and CIA officers with experience in Afghanistan to get their take on President Obama's new plan to increase and eventually decrease the number of U.S. troops there.

JIM LEHRER: That follows some analysis of the military plan for Afghanistan. It comes from two former American military and intelligence officers with on-ground experience in Afghanistan.

Retired Army Colonel David Lamm was the chief of staff at coalition headquarters in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2005. He’s now at National Defense University. Arturo Munoz was a CIA operations officer in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. He spent 29 years in the CIA, before retiring earlier this year. He’s currently a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

Colonel, first, in general, do you see the Obama approach as a big change in the mission, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan?

COL. DAVID LAMM (RET.), U.S. Army: No.

Quite frankly, it’s very consistent with a counterinsurgency campaign that we waged from 2003 to 2005. There were some deviations from that campaign through 2006, but it is a — what I see in the strategy is a classic counterinsurgency campaign, at least up to 2011. Now, what — what happens after that will be interesting.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it, Mr. Munoz? A change in mission?

ARTURO MUNOZ, former CIA official: The current emphasis, as enunciated by Obama and Gates and the leadership in the recent statements, I would say it’s not a major change. I would agree with the colonel.

I think more than a counterinsurgency strategy, though, the official justification is really heavy on counterterrorism. Putting al-Qaida as the main reason we’re there, that’s the really in the counterterrorist arena. And, actually, that is similar to — to what we were doing, you know, in — under the previous administration.

So, I think there’s actually a discrepancy between the counterinsurgency strategy articulated by General McChrystal, which is focused on countering an insurgent movement, vs. the statements that we have heard recently that the reason we’re there is to fight al-Qaida, which is a terrorist organization.

So, we’re really mixing counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, and I think that’s significant.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think — you agree with that? It is a mixture, because one requires different troop levels, too, does it not?

COL. DAVID LAMM: It does. And there are two ways to go about it.

I think, as Arturo points out, what we — what we’re dealing with here is two problems at the same time. There’s an insurgency, a Taliban insurgency.

JIM LEHRER: The Taliban is the insurgency.

COL. DAVID LAMM: That’s right. They’re the insurgents.

JIM LEHRER: The terrorists are the al-Qaida, right?

COL. DAVID LAMM: Al-Qaida. And, at some times, even Taliban, when you look at their means to get something done, may, in fact, engage in terrorist activities as a means to an end.

So, what Stan McChrystal, General McChrystal, has laid out is the best way to deal with both of those is a whole nation counterinsurgency approach that stabilizes the Afghan government, provides some local security for the Afghan people, and, in that way, sort of pushes al-Qaida, marginalizes them, while either bringing into the fold, the political fold, the Taliban, or eliminating them in some way.

But you can’t eliminate the Taliban. I mean, they are indigenous folks that live there.

JIM LEHRER: You agree with that? If the — the — because one of the missions that has been stated by — was stated by the president, and it’s been — and been reinforced by Secretary Gates and others, is to stop the momentum of the Taliban.

Do we — is this — does this plan make sense to you as a way to get that done?

ARTURO MUNOZ: Well, I totally agree with that, with the focus on the Taliban, because they are the insurgents.

And — and I think that is completely justified, because I think that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would be highly destabilizing to that whole region. I think the impact on Pakistan would be very deleterious, if you had Islamic militants gain the upper hand in Afghanistan.

And, so, I think that — that our intervention is entirely justified. And I think the counterinsurgency strategy is the right way to go. I agree with what the colonel is saying.

My — my only qualm is that I think we have overemphasized in our public discourse the importance of al-Qaida too much. Now, they are advisers to the Taliban. And — and you can see the effects of the al-Qaida advice on the Taliban, for example, the expansion of the use of suicide bombers. That’s not a traditional Afghan tactic. It’s not even a traditional Taliban tactic.

But now they’re doing it, as a result of the influence of al-Qaida. So, I’m not saying al-Qaida isn’t there, and I’m not saying that — that it’s not an important factor. I just think that we should not overemphasize the importance of these terrorists.

JIM LEHRER: Well, we — the hearings for these last two days, we — members of the House and Senate have been asking the — the top folks about this plan. And there have been a lot of questions.

But the big question that’s been raised, of course, is the exit date, or the target exit dates…


JIM LEHRER: … to begin withdrawing American troops in July 2011. How do you see that?

COL. DAVID LAMM: Well, I — I see it very consistently in watching the statements that — as the secretary of the defense did, that that — that may be a time when we begin — when some troops may come out.

But, in December, 2010, we are going to do a reevaluation. And based on conditions on the ground, we are going to talk about how we phase or if we phase troops out.

So, I think the — the withdraw of troops is going to be based on what happens on the ground, as the — as the secretary outlined. I also think, though, that the troop cap, the 30,000, plus maybe an additional 3,000 or so, tops 34,000, I think that’s the cap.

I think, politically, you can’t go back now and ask for more troops. But you may fudge on when those troops and how many begin to come out.

JIM LEHRER: You see it that way? I noticed you were nodding your head on the cap thing.

ARTURO MUNOZ: Well, I agree with what he was saying that we shouldn’t look at this as an exit date. I mean, we need to view this as a point in time in which we’re going to evaluate our program and if we should start reducing troops and — and then to what amount.

Now, one of the big criticisms has been made — and everybody’s heard it is — that you should never announce any kind of date when you’re at war.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Right.

ARTURO MUNOZ: And a lot of people have made statements. When in the history of human warfare has a commander in chief made a statement like this?


ARTURO MUNOZ: And I think these are valid criticisms. But the problem is, this is not an ideal world. And there are conflicting considerations that take — you have to take into account. There’s political considerations you have to take into account.

There is a nexus between…

JIM LEHRER: Both here and in Afghanistan.

ARTURO MUNOZ: Here and in — absolutely right.

ARTURO MUNOZ: Here and in Afghanistan. And you have polls here in the United States that say, most Americans don’t want to be in Afghanistan.

And the problem is that this sentiment can be manifested in congressional decisions. And if — if the president doesn’t take into account that sentiment, what may happen is, Congress may cut off funds. So, he may make the perfect military decision, the exact number of troops that, according to the military formulas, should be sent, and then Congress won’t fund it.

Why? Because most Americans won’t want to be there. So, I think what Obama’s trying to do is a balancing act. And that’s why he made that — that deadline that…

JIM LEHRER: Put the date on there?

ARTURO MUNOZ: Yes, that’s why he put the date on it.

JIM LEHRER: Does it look that way to you, Colonel?

COL. DAVID LAMM: And I will add to that, whatever analysis we have done on the threat, the enemy, both al-Qaida and associated movements in country and the Taliban, by saying 2011, we now have to go back and reassess the — the strategy, because, by putting that marker out there, all of the insurgents in al-Qaida are going to reassess their strategy, based on that date.

JIM LEHRER: And they’re going to keep that date right there in front of them, are they not?

COL. DAVID LAMM: That’s right.


COL. DAVID LAMM: And now that there’s a date there, they’re going to reevaluate their strategy and probably change it.

More interestingly is — is the regional players are going to reassess their strategies. Pakistan is going to look at this and go, 2011, maybe the U.S. is here, maybe not. Iran, to the west, is going to take a look at that. The Turkmens and the Uzbeks to the north are going to take a look at that.

And all of those players are going to hedge their bets outside the borders or even inside Afghanistan. So, that makes a very interesting dynamic.

JIM LEHRER: As a man who spent his whole adult life as an intelligence officer, a lot of this is — has to be educated guesswork at this point, does it not?

ARTURO MUNOZ: Oh, yes. That’s absolutely right.

JIM LEHRER: When all this thing is going to happen and…

ARTURO MUNOZ: That’s absolutely correct, yes.

JIM LEHRER: And — and the — at this stage, it would be impossible to say whether all these little pieces could come together as perfectly as what people would want?

ARTURO MUNOZ: Oh, you can’t predict human behavior. You’re right about that, yes.


COL. DAVID LAMM: And — and the pieces will never come together perfectly.

What you hope is, is that General McChrystal on the ground and General Eikenberry, who will run that country team on the ground and merge the civilian and military effort, are — are nimble enough to make the changes at the right time, which is — which is the key.

The war has to be fought from embassy Kabul, with that country team and those folks on the ground. It’s very, very difficult to do that back in the political arena in Washington, D.C. So, I think we have got the right team forward. And now that this president has laid out the strategy, he’s given the number of troops, funding will follow…


COL. DAVID LAMM: … for the civilian buildup and the civilian surge, we’re told, now the folks on the ground have to get this done.

JIM LEHRER: Created the possibility, as you say?


Let — I would add, also, another aspect of this deadline that’s been given, or time frame. In addition to all the players he mentioned, there’s another player that we haven’t mentioned, which is the Afghan government.


ARTURO MUNOZ: And I actually think it’s useful to communicate to the Afghans in clear terms this is not an open-ended commitment.

JIM LEHRER: So, that’s part of it?

ARTURO MUNOZ: That’s right.


ARTURO MUNOZ: You have to make some improvements, you know, by a certain time frame.

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right.

We have to leave it there. Gentlemen, thank you very much. Much more to talk about it. We will do it. We will keep talking about it, I promise. Thank you.

COL. DAVID LAMM: Thank you.

ARTURO MUNOZ: Thank you.