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Are Peace and Stability Possible in Afghanistan?

June 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Afghan forces took control of their country's security, the Taliban agreed to join the U.S. and Afghanistan for negotiations. Gwen Ifill talks to former Defense Department official David Sedney, retired Col. David Lamm of the National Defense University and Pamela Constable of The Washington Post about this turning point.

GWEN IFILL: For more on all of this, we turn to three people with extensive experience dealing with Afghanistan. David Sedney served in Afghanistan on the National Security Council staff and then as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. Retired Army Col. David Lamm was the chief of staff to the Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005. He’s now at the National Defense University. And Pamela Constable covers South Asia for The Washington Post. She’s recently back from Kabul.

Recently back as it last week, Pamela. Tell us a little bit about these two things that happened today. How much of a difference does it make that there’s a handover, and is Afghanistan ready, and how much difference does it make that they’re going to Qatar for these meetings?

PAMELA CONSTABLE, The Washington Post: It’s been really quite a set of stunning developments.

When I was there just a few weeks ago, everything was gloom and doom. The Taliban were exhibiting extraordinary ferocity and reach and going after international charities, even going after the International Red Cross, Supreme Court. They really seemed to be going for broke.

So this — obviously, we’re now learning that there was this double track going on and they have been quietly negotiating with American officials and others the whole time. But it’s — they’re very good at playing games. And so we are not going to read too much …

GWEN IFILL: The Taliban, you mean?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Correct. We can’t read too much into them saying that they want to talk. They have been wanting to talk with the Americans for a long time. It’s the Afghans they don’t want to talk with.

GWEN IFILL: Which leads to my next question, Col. Lamm. Is Hamid Karzai prepared either to go to that table and also to accept the security responsibilities that are now being put in his lap?

RET. COL. DAVID LAMM, U.S. Army: Well, for a long time, his major issue would be to negotiate with the Taliban.

But he is pretty adamant about those negotiations being conducted in Afghanistan. He is not a big fan of them being carried on outside the country, nor is he a big fan of having bilateral negotiations going on between the U.S., Taliban, a year or so ago, the British, the U.S. and the Taliban.

He considers that a bilateral issue that he needs to deal with, the Taliban, and that needs to happen in Afghanistan. The Taliban, on the other hand, don’t recognize Karzai’s government and that poses a big problem.

GWEN IFILL: David Sedney, is what we’re seeing happening, the stunning events that Pamela Constable describes, is it symbolic or is it real?

DAVID SEDNEY, Former Defense Department Official: I think it’s both.

It’s both symbolic, in the sense that this is a real turning point in the transition of lead security responsibility for the Afghans today. And that shows that the commitment of the United States and the international community to build Afghan security forces that are able to defend their own country is coming to fruition.

But, at the same time, the desire of all Afghans, including the Taliban, for peace after 35 years of war is reflected in this agreement to begin talks. So, I agree with Pamela. This is a really important development. It’s symbolic, but I think there are going to be a lot of things that are going to play out over the summer.

And we will see a very different situation in Afghanistan by the end of this fighting season, by the end of September.

GWEN IFILL: Pam, the president said there are going to be bumps in the road. He was talking not just about the meetings in Qatar. He was also talking about the handover, right?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, yes. There’s so many aspects of this, number one.

There’s been a lot of sort of rosy optimistic views on this, the state of the Afghan defense forces by those who spent huge amounts of money and effort and time and lives to train them. But, honestly, especially when we’re talking outside the army, there’s a great, great deal of progress that needs to be made before they can really stand up. And even within the army, there’s a lot of concern about factional and ethnic divisions within the army and the leadership there.

So, that is a great concern. It’s not only about being able to fight. It’s about the will to fight. And the other bump in the road which everyone in Afghanistan is very worried about is whether Karzai in fact is going to be willing to step down and leave power, as he has promised to do as the constitution requires him to do.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Col. Lamm about that, because that is — there is an election which is looming. And that is — the political potential is also a huge bump, potentially.

DAVID LAMM: The political bump is the most high-risk bump of them all.

The election has to be secured. If we have indeed passed security over to the Afghan forces, I noticed the words they used was, we passed control over to the Afghan forces this week. I would venture to say that we pass responsibility and potential blame for what happens. I’m not sure they’re in control.

Given all that, that same set of security forces now has to secure an election process. And my experience with that in 2005 and in the subsequent election — or 2004 and in the subsequent election, is that’s a difficult task. It was a major effort for the Americans and allies while we were in Afghanistan. And I’m not saying on the outcome there. I think it might be a task too far for the Afghan security forces.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, David Sedney?

DAVID SEDNEY: I’m much more optimistic.

I believe that the Afghan security forces have already shown over the last six to nine months the ability to take on the security responsibilities for their own country. And they have done that by defeating those attacks that Pamela mentioned. She is correct that there was a lot of lashing out by the Taliban, but they have not taken back any territory that they had lost in the previous year.

GWEN IFILL: So, even attacks like this Red Cross attack that she referenced, that is not worrying to you?

DAVID SEDNEY: Oh, certainly, it’s worrying and it’s concerning to — that the Taliban have gone after an international institution like the Red Cross.

But that doesn’t mean that they are regaining territory. They’re not regaining the support of people. In fact, they’re losing support from the people. And they are in a position where they really need to come to the table.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a distinction that can be drawn about progress in urban areas, Pam, vs. progress in rural areas, and that we not overstate whatever we see or don’t see?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: I would say there is a fairly big difference, particularly talking about the ability of security forces to repel and respond to attacks.

They have been doing a very good job in the city. But in the cities, you have multiple sources. You have the local police. You have the intelligence police. You have special police forces and you have the army, as well as backup from international forces at a distance.

So, they have got a lot more ability to zero in and go after and get some of these suicide bombers and get some of these gunmen out of there. In remote rural districts, it’s much more difficult. The Afghan army is spread very, very thin, police even thinner and not as well-trained. And local police forces, which are being stood up now to defend villages, with almost no training at all.

So the picture is much — much less sanguine out, particularly certain areas. There are districts and many, many provinces that are essentially under Taliban control, not necessarily thickly filled with foot soldiers, but psychologically under Taliban control.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you, David Lamm, about another piece of this, which is the economics of the situation, not only whether there’s the underlying economic strength in Afghanistan to support these transitions, but also how much this is going to cost and who is going to pay.

DAVID LAMM: Well, from the Afghan national security forces’ side, I think the number is about $4.1 billion dollars a year, of which we’re going to ask Europeans for about $2.1 billion dollars. The Afghans themselves have to contribute about $500 million dollars to that.

And the rest would be settled — will be the United States. I think what we should be prepared for is the United States to pick up most of that bill, if not all of that bill, because if the political process and the election becomes unraveled, political will of many of these countries, particularly our European allies, they’re say, what is this all about? Why are we putting more money into this effort?

And I think the Americans have to be ready to go that entire bag of money alone.

GWEN IFILL: Does that mean, David Sedney, that it’s too soon for Americans to breathe easy and say we’re backing out of Afghanistan, even with deadlines looming next year, even with this handover today?

DAVID SEDNEY: I agree that it’s something that we can’t rest easy on.

But, at the same time, I think we should feel quite proud that what we said we were going to do, we have done. We have built up the Afghan security forces. We have driven the Taliban to a situation where they can be controlled by the Afghan forces.

But I have to take a little different view from Pamela on that. There are areas where the Taliban are in control of some districts, but these are not areas that they have retaken control in the last year. The Afghan security forces have kept what they have won over the last year, and they’re going to start pushing out.

And particularly in the Taliban heartland areas of Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the areas where the Taliban started, that’s where the real key battles have been fought over the last three years, and that’s where the Taliban have suffered their greatest reversals.

GWEN IFILL: But the U.S., this cannot happen without continued U.S. pressure and involvement.

DAVID SEDNEY: With U.S. support at this point.

The U.S. and our NATO allies, we’re not leading the operations. We’re not planning the operations. We’re providing support. We’re standing behind the Afghans. And what they’re showing — and sometimes they suffer tactical setbacks on the battlefield — but they are always going back, going back to the places where they have been pushed out of, taking that territory back and pushing the Taliban further back on their heels.

GWEN IFILL: David Sedney, David Lamm, Pam Constable, thank you all very much.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: You’re welcome.

DAVID LAMM: You’re welcome.