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‘Trust Is Absolutely Essential:’ Combatting Afghan Infiltrator Violence

September 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Margaret Warner talks to Ret. Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, who commanded training of Afghan soldiers, about the challenge of enforcing the 2014 deadline to get combat troops out of Afghanistan, "basic human infrastructure" and educational hurdles, and how the Iraq war diverted resources from training Afghan forces for years.
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MARGARET WARNER: I’m joined by John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and veteran of both Iraq wars. He’s commanded U.S. trainers of both Iraqi and Afghan forces.

And, John Nagl, welcome.

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL (RET.), President, Center for a New American Security: It’s good to be back.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s not only President Obama who has embraced the 2014 deadline for getting out.

After initially criticizing it, Mitt Romney has said he would meet it, too. What do these new problems say about the feasibility of actually getting all combat forces, U.S. combat forces out by then?  

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: So, the core of the exit strategy, which, you’re right, there’s no political disagreement on this. Both the Republicans and the Democrats agree with President Karzai of Afghanistan’s assertion that all American combat troops should be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 — but that depends on Afghan security forces being able to pick up the load with the assistance of American and NATO advisers.

That relationship between the American advisers and the Afghan troops, trust is absolutely essential to that working out. And so these specific problems with the Afghan local police are not strategically decisive, but the relationship between American advisers and Afghan troops, not just through 2014, but for probably a decade afterwards, that really matters.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, based on your experience, what are the difficulties training indigenous forces, especially so quickly, so hugely? I mean, it’s gone from 100,000 five years ago to 350,000.

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: So, the basic problem in Afghanistan — there are many — one of them is that we’re working in a country that’s really been devastated by 30 years of war. So the human capital really isn’t there.

In Iraq, the soldiers knew how to read. They didn’t know how to fight. In Afghanistan, the soldiers know how to fight, but not how to read. And, unfortunately, it’s harder teaching people to read than it is to teach them to fight.

So, we’re struggling with basic human infrastructure problems. The other big problem is that we really took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan for so many years while we were focused on Iraq.

And we have been playing catch-up ball for the last couple of years.

And so as you rush to build a force in a very short period of time, some bad apples slip through.

And we’re seeing some of that. We’re also seeing continually cultural connection problems, so,

Americans, even after 10 years working in this country, burning Korans, American Marines desecrating Taliban corpses. And that sort of cultural conflict and tension does erupt into violence in this kind of society.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there any — you mentioned the Iraq war. Is there any precedent for an occupation force, a force like the United States, training up such a huge indigenous force so quickly in modern warfare?  

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: We tried to do similar things in Iraq, actually.

After quite cleverly disbanding the Iraqi force, we decided that that was a bad idea and decided to rebuild it. General David Petraeus worked hard in that effort to rebuild an Iraqi force, but he was working from a much larger force that had previously existed, a much better trained force.

MARGARET WARNER: And, as you said, they could read.

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: And they could already read.

So, no one, I don’t think, has ever tried to build a force this quickly in history from such a stunted base of human capital with such literacy problems, basic education problems. So it’s an enormously difficult task we have set for ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: So, will hitting the pause button, which is what they’re doing on the training of some of these, especially these local police, is that going to enable for a month or two to solve the problem? It sounds a lot more deep-seated than that?  

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: We won’t solve the problem, but we will mitigate some of the — we will find some of the worst actors inside the Afghan local police.

And they are going to — they will, over time, spread out and look at the Afghan national army, the Afghan national police, which had been raised over a longer period of time and have been more carefully vetted.

I was in Paktika Province in November working with some of these Afghan local police. They’re a pretty rough crowd. And so — but they do need to be vetted.

MARGARET WARNER: And chosen sort of initially by village elders, right?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: Correct. Correct.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: It’s a very locally raised force, raised by very brave American special forces troops.

But they’re not strategically decisive to the fight. They’re an additional layer of protection for Kabul, for the real core of the Afghan government. But we can slow down with them. The real problem would be if the Afghan national army had real infiltration problems.

MARGARET WARNER: So, bottom line, the American people who are hearing this campaign conversation, can they conclude that U.S. combat forces will come home by the end of 2014?  

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: They can certainly conclude that, but they should remember that American combat advisers are going to stay in Afghanistan for at least a decade to come.

They will be exposed to combat. We will continue to lose some American forces in an effort that I believe is worth the price for American national security, but that is going to continue to come at a price.

MARGARET WARNER: At a cost.

Well, John Nagl, thank you.

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: Thank you, Margaret.