RAY SUAREZ: Just back from a reporting trip to Afghanistan for The Washington Post is senior correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
As the fighting season, what they call the fighting season, starts again, is it a weakened Taliban that’s taking the field? What’s the state of the battle?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, The Washington Post: Well, I think it’s a different battle in different parts of the country.
And in some areas, the Taliban has been weakened, or at least their strength eroded, and particularly in the south, where I have just come back from a two-and-a-half-week trip. In some of the most violent areas last year, in some of the places that were seen as essentially no-go areas for coalition forces, where the Taliban held sway, U.S. forces have made some pretty significant headway. This is in parts of Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
And part of that is because of the — the troop surge that was ordered up by President Obama, many, many more boots on the ground, and the use of some very sort of heavy-fisted tactics there, a lot of bombs dropped from fighter planes, a lot of heavy munitions fired on the ground that have made some inroads.
But it’s a mixed bag, Ray. When you look at eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban is certainly ascendant over there. Violence levels are trending dangerously upward there, as well as in the northern part of the country. And we’ve seen also growing attacks against Afghan security forces in recent days, as you note, and against Afghan civilian targets.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Gen. Petraeus called the situation one of progress but progress that was fragile and reversible.
When you were on the ground, what does progress look like and what does that fragility look like?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, progress looks like more people coming out, going to the bazaars, sending their children to schools, economic activity.
You see signs of residents starting to forsake the Taliban, in some cases even picking up rocks and throwing them at insurgents who are seeking to intimidate them from engaging in day-labor-type projects. But it all feels very unsustainable at this moment.
The Afghan security forces still don’t seem anywhere near ready to start to assume responsibility for security in these areas. The Afghan government is still in many cases absent, or where they are, they’re in very small numbers and largely ineffective.
And so it raises the real question, how do you — how do you start to transfer this, and how do you start to take some of these forces and apply them to other parts of the country where security is not as good? And there isn’t a clear plan for that at this point.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’re talking about unsustainability during the same year that the United States is starting to talk about a troop drawdown. Is it going to be able to happen? And does it risk losing everything?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think, as we heard, the president is committed to a meaningful drawdown that will start this summer.
Just exactly what those numbers will be obviously haven’t been decided. I think there is going to be a long process of negotiation between Gen. Petraeus and the military. We’re going to want to seek to attenuate the drawdown.
And the White House, which is mindful of not just the human cost of this, but also the — the promise that he explicitly made the American people when he ordered the surge, as well as the sheer cost of this war, which is going to be about $120 billion this year. So, with all of those factors in play, the president is going to, I think, push for something — something significant.
And so we’re at the high-water mark right now. So, it’s hard to imagine, with fewer troops, them being able to do more of this in other places.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, fewer troops. Do you risk, as happened earlier in the American commitment there, leaving certain parts of the country, only to have the bad guys come back?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: And that’s what commanders say they don’t want to have happen.
So, they are working very hard to try to train up the Afghan forces, trying to do this transition process in a measured way between now and the year 2014, when all the NATO members have committed to transition over lead security responsibility to the Afghan government.
But that’s not a whole lot of time in the grand scheme of things to try to build up an effective army and police force. And so what we start to see are some other experiments. For instance, the — the U.S. military is trying to stand up village-level defense forces in many parts of the country. President Karzai is concerned that these units might one day potentially turn into militias.
But it’s a sign of new efforts being taken to try to bridge this gap and trying to create pockets of security, understanding that in many cases you can’t simply hand over areas wholesale to the Afghan army and say you’re now in charge.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk again about Kandahar.
You have written of it as being a place that’s working better, that’s safer to be on the streets. Yet, just in the last several days, the police chief there was killed. Is this the kind of thing that is going to continue, whether NATO remains or not?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: What we’ve seen in the last couple of days with these attacks against the police chief in Kandahar Province, the attack of the Afghan Defense Ministry, with the suicide bombing targeting American and Afghan troops working together in the east, are that the — the Taliban are going to be seeking softer targets.
They’re going to be going after Afghan officials and civilians, because, in many cases, it’s much harder to go after U.S. bases or, in some cases, you know, U.S. patrols. So, this could potentially be an even more bloody and violent summer than last summer.
And so, you know, this is the classic mixed bag of counterinsurgency, where, in some cases, yes, things look much better. The road between Kandahar and Helmand Province is now — most civilians can drive down. You don’t have to go in an armored convoy. You know, a — the journey between two Marine bases in northern Helmand Province that once took the Marines eight hours now can be completed in 20 minutes.
The other day, after a U.S. Army sergeant was killed in an — by an improvised mine, three Afghan elders actually took the remarkable step of showing up at the patrol base for a memorial service for this soldier.
So, there are these — there are these unusual signs that are sprouting up this spring over there. At the same time, there continue to be attacks unabated. And so, when one looks at this — and this is the challenge that President Obama and his national security team are going to face.
On one hand, there are a set of facts that point to some real progress. And the argument that military officials are going to make is, let’s cement that progress. Let’s not slack up right now. Let’s build on that.
But if you look at the facts from a different perspective, it’s also possible to argue that a lot of this is unsustainable and that the Taliban’s momentum sort of continues unabated.
RAY SUAREZ: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thanks for stopping by.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Good to talk to you.