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How Would Obama’s Troops Decision Impact Afghan War?

November 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Margaret Warner sits down with two reporters who cover the Pentagon to sort through the various options President Obama is likely weighing as he prepares to make an announcement on the war in Afghanistan.
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JIM LEHRER: The White House said today, Mr. Obama would address the nation on Tuesday, at 8:00 p.m., from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Margaret Warner has more on the options.

MARGARET WARNER: On Monday night, President Obama wrapped up the last of 10 meetings with his national security team. For months, they have been reviewing and debating troop increase options for Afghanistan, reportedly ranging from 10,000 to 80,000. The options were presented by his new commander on the ground, General Stanley McChrystal.

They would augment the — augment the 68,000 U.S. troops there now. NATO countries have contributed another 35,000.

For more on what could be done with different options, we turn to Elisabeth Bumiller, Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, and Mark Thompson, national security correspondent for TIME magazine.

Welcome to you both.

First of all, Elisabeth, what was really the range of options that was given active consideration here?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: It was really 40,000 to 10,000. The White House quickly discarded the 80,000 option as — as — as way too big and not doable with the army that the United States has right now.

MARGARET WARNER: So, if we — let’s start at the high end, 40,000. Based on the unclassified memo that everybody has seen of General McChrystal’s, and your own reporting, what would he — what is he likely to do, if he were to get that many troops?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: The consensus is that he would send a large number of troops to the south, perhaps 15,000 troops to Kandahar Province, which is the Taliban heartland, to try and get control of that province.

And there would be another perhaps 5,000 sent to Helmand Province, which is the breadbasket of Afghanistan. It’s the center of the opium culture, where poppies grow and where the Taliban control a lot of the poppy crop. And, therefore, it’s a big source of income for them.

The United States would like to see more pomegranates and wheat and other grains grown there. Probably another 5,000 would be sent to the east, to the border of Pakistan, to what — the three provinces that border south — north and south Waziristan and Pakistan, which is the al-Qaida stronghold.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that — is that what you’re picking up, Mark? And — and, if so, why the focus on Kandahar? That would really be a new venture for the U.S. That’s where the British troops have been.

Switching focus to Kandahar

Mark Thompson
Time Magazine
Kandahar is the heart of the Taliban, the city and the province surrounding it.

MARK THOMPSON, national security correspondent, TIME: Yes. There's a handful of U.S. forces and allied forces around Kandahar.

Kandahar is the heart of the Taliban, the city and the province surrounding it. If you go back it 2007 in Iraq, the decision was taken the way to bring peace, or some sort of peace, to that region was to surround Baghdad, the Baghdad belts, with a cordon that would keep at least bad trucks out of Baghdad and bring some peace there.

Essentially -- it's not going to be quite the same, but that's sort of what they're talk about trying to do to Kandahar, because, currently, the Taliban in Kandahar is running rudimentary courts. They're collecting taxes. They're doing lots of things that you would think a government would do. It's Afghanistan's second largest city, after Kabul. And the fact is this is one the allies and the U.S. have sort of kept on the sidelines. And now they're going to go after it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let's -- let's dispense with the low end, because, from all the reporting, that's not being actively considered anymore. That's 10,000 to 15,000 troops. What would that option allow?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: That would have been largely trainers. There would have been perhaps 10,000 troops, more or less, sent in to train the Afghan security forces, which is the -- you know, a big, big, priority, because the idea, of course, is you want to get the Afghans be able to fight this war themselves.

And the rest would have been focused -- I mean, well, basically, that also would have involved a lot of drone strikes in Pakistan, which the argument is, you need -- you still need people on the ground to collect intelligence.

MARGARET WARNER: So, this was the Joe Biden option?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: This was the Joe Biden option, which, by the way, early on, there was a lot of signals coming out of the White House that they -- that the -- that the president was looking at this very closely. But that changed over the course of the last few months.

MARGARET WARNER: So, let's go, Mark -- unless you want to add a word on that, let's go to this middle range, the Goldilocks range, between the 10,000 and the 40,000.

Give us a sense of what the commanders would give up if, let's say, it's 35,000, rather than 40,000, or if it's down to 30,000?

MARK THOMPSON: Right.

I mean, basically, they're talking about protecting population centers. They're talking about the so-called ink spot strategy, which is, you protect this village, but not that village. You go to the village where the folks are most anti-Taliban or perhaps most pro-American, and you make that in this district sort of a center of development.

And you hear the phrase dislocated envy, that -- that you want to make the guys in this village jealous of this village, because they're doing well. Now, plainly, with more troops, you can do more of those villages. With fewer troops, you can't do so many. And I think the number of trainers is likely to drop, especially on the U.S. side, hoping that NATO in the next month or so will step up to the plate there, because that may be a little easier for them to sell to their governments.

MARGARET WARNER: And with the 30,000 or 35,000, Elisabeth, can they still pursue the strategy of protecting also the -- the major cities?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And, so, what are we talking about there?

Securing the main cities

Elisabeth Bumiller
New York Times
The major cities we're talking about are obviously Kabul, Kandahar, Herat in the west, Jalalabad in the east, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: The commanders think they can do that. The major cities we're talking about are obviously Kabul, Kandahar, Herat in the west, Jalalabad in the east, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, and so forth.

And I think also with the slightly less troops, they -- the commanders have talked about a brigade, a fourth brigade, which is about 5,000 troops or so, that they could have to use flexibly across the country. And there would be just less of that, and also less trainers.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, speaking of -- of brigade, the president made very clear he was going to ask the NATO allies to pony up more troops. And Gordon Brown, the prime minister of the -- of Britain, said today he thought there would be 5,000 more troops.

How would they be used, Mark?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, number one, a lot of them would be used as trainers.

But, interestingly, 35,000, if that's the number that the president decides on, and 5,000 from -- from the other NATO allies, that's 40,000. That is sort of what Stan McChrystal was looking for. A lot of them would go as trainers.

I mean, nations like South Korea, Slovakia, Turkey, and Georgia all are talking about keeping the troops there that they have already got there longer or sending in more. But it's all in the hundreds. I don't think any of those four nations gets up to 1,000. Britain is talking about sending 500 more immediately in the wake of the president's speech next week.

So, these are all -- you hate to say it, but sort of dribs and drabs. But if you get up to 5,000 to 7,000, in addition to what the Americans are likely to send, that's a pretty significant chunk of soldiering.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: But, you know, a lot of the allies are -- are pulling out. The -- the...

MARGARET WARNER: The Dutch.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: The Dutch. The Canadians are pulling out in 2011. They have had 2,800 troops in Kandahar. And there is no sign from them that they are going to send any troops in the future. They have said: We have been there close to 10 years, and that is enough.

So, they're -- they're -- it's a tough road. And the United States has said they -- they would like 10,000 additional troops from NATO. That is looking very hard.

MARGARET WARNER: What is McChrystal's thinking on how -- how they would interact with the Afghan army, because that's obviously a big part of this strategy? What's going to -- what would be different, at least from what you know from the memo and from people you have talked to about it, compared to the way it's being done now?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, more than half of any additional U.S. troops would actually marry up with Afghan units. And they would work together, much more so than has been the case so far.

Frankly, so far, there haven't been enough members of the Afghan national army to do anything significant. Down in Helmand Province, they are just a sprinkle of forces in with the Americans and the other allied forces. If -- the belief is that, if they can churn out a lot more Afghan army forces, they will be able to marry up and sort of mentor these fledgling Afghan units. That's when they hope to do.

Finishing the job

Mark Thompson
Time Magazine
There's going to be a lot of pressure next summer, right when midterm elections in this are coming due, right when the Congress and the Democrats are nervous about paying for this.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, yesterday, the president said he was going to finish the job. It was the first time he ever used that phrase. What are you being told that really means?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: That means there will be a vague exit strategy, some -- some vague guidelines for what we, the U.S., expects.

I mean, the military has told me that, for example, we have, depending on the number of troops the president is aiming for in terms of the Afghan security forces, we have how many recruits we should get each month, how many we should retain, you know, how many -- we have very clear guidelines. So, there will be -- but I don't -- there will be no "We have to be out by a certain date."

MARGARET WARNER: So, an exit strategy, perhaps, Mark, but not a timetable?

MARK THOMPSON: I think there's a series of off-ramps starting as early as next year that, depending if things -- I mean, Stan McChrystal made it very three months ago: We have got a year to get this right.

Three months, 25 percent of that time, has already passed.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Jones has said the same.

MARK THOMPSON: And so there's going to be a lot of pressure next summer, right when midterm elections in this are coming due, right when the Congress and the Democrats are nervous about paying for this.

MARGARET WARNER: But -- so, what are we -- what are you being told we will see in the president -- what the president unveils next week that will lay out some kind of off-ramps?

MARK THOMPSON: There -- there will be benchmarks. I don't know what they are yet. And I don't know that they will be released next week.

Margaret Warner: All right, Mark Thompson, Elisabeth Bumiller, thank you.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Thank you.

MARK THOMPSON: Thank you.