MARGARET WARNER: For more, we turn to Kevin Sieff, The Washington Post bureau chief in Kabul.
And, Kevin, welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Let’s start with today’s suicide attacks. What are U.S. officials, military commanders on the ground telling you about, one, are they related and, two, who they think is behind them?
KEVIN SIEFF, The Washington Post: Right.
As far as we know at this point, they’re unrelated attacks, although most officials will tell you that they were both executed by the insurgency.
We don’t exactly know which arm of the insurgency. No one at this point has taken credit for the attacks. But the one in the south is by far at this point the most deadly.
MARGARET WARNER: How concerned are they about this uptick in attacks? I think we reported up 11 percent in the second quarter this year over last year.
KEVIN SIEFF: Yes, I think there is concern particularly in a place like Nimroz, where it’s been quiet for a long time.
The Marines for the most part have pulled out, have drawn down their presence quite significantly. So, I think an attack there is quite concerning to them. You know, they will tell you that 2014 is still a ways away. And, you know, the U.S. and NATO troops will be here for quite some time.
So, the fight against the insurgents is not over yet, but still, in a place like Zaranj, there’s no NATO presence whatsoever there. So, an attack this big at this stage in the war I think is concerning both to NATO and obviously to the Afghans, who are living this.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, there’s the other worrying trend which is the increase in so-called green-on-blue attacks, or Afghan soldiers on American forces. How concerned are commanders on the ground about that? We heard Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying he was very. And what do they think is behind it?
KEVIN SIEFF: Right.
I think there are a range of issues that spark these attacks. You know, a number of them are sparked by personal disputes, where there’s no real insurgent presence.
But some of them, particularly some of the recent attacks, are executed by Taliban or insurgent plants who manage to infiltrate the security forces. And they go through training, they put on Afghan uniforms, and they wait for the right moment.
The two attacks in Helmand last week were particularly concerning. Three Marines died in each attack, so six total. And I think, particularly in Helmand, where you’re seeing a significant drawdown now, which means that the Marines that are on the grounds are forced to have sort of a more intimate relationship with their Afghan counterparts, small American advisory teams that are attached to the Afghan forces, so that relationship is really important at this point.
And when that sort of — when the relationship is challenged by something like this, it’s a really devastating blow at a really important time in the drawdown.
MARGARET WARNER: Then let me ask you about the shuffle at the top in the Karzai government, the defense and interior ministers being dismissed by parliament. What’s behind that?
KEVIN SIEFF: Right.
Well, you know, the vote was taken by parliament, and the lawmakers here accused these two very important ministers, maybe the two most important ministers in Afghanistan, of being corrupt, and not taking sort of appropriate action against — in the case of the defense minister, against the rocket attacks from across the border in Pakistan.
But the biggest issue that they were concerned about was this issue of corruption. And it happened very quickly. Karzai within a couple of days acknowledged that, you know, the parliament had made its decision and agreed that these men would both be removed.
It certainly doesn’t say much about public confidence in key Afghan officials, at a really — again, at a really important time.
These are two guys who have historically been really strong American allies, particularly Minister Wardak, who has been the defense minister since 2004, has played a really instrumental role in building up the Afghan national security forces.
But these accusations of corruption have haunted his tenure essentially since he got here. So, you know, American officials are quick to say that this is certainly — you know, it gives you a sense of Afghan democracy in action, but at the same time we don’t know who will replace these guys and if they will be sort of as willing as these guys were to work with the Americans during a really important time.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about one other development we hear about out of Afghanistan, which is the government “revealed” — quote, unquote — this week that they had talked with a senior, what, former Taliban leader. Is there anything to this talk of renewed negotiations or peace talks?
KEVIN SIEFF: Right.
It’s very early in the game at this point, so it’s hard to say for sure. I mean, certainly, both the Afghans and the Americans here will tell you that they’re confident that this sort of — this chapter and talks with the Taliban will be more successful than the last. The last was essentially a failure. Very, very little happened.
The Afghans mostly blamed the Americans for not giving them sort of the proper role at the negotiating table. So this time, the Americans are very adamant that the Afghans take the lead in a real way.
So what we’re seeing now is mostly that. It’s the Afghans meeting with key Taliban officials in Pakistan and most likely in other places as well, and trying to get these negotiations off the ground. The question, though, is what sort of bargaining power do they really have at this point?
I mean, the last chapter of negotiations really hinged on these prisoners at Guantanamo. And if the Americans were willing to release these prisoners, the Taliban said that that would sort of be a foundation for negotiations.
If that’s not a part of the puzzle here, if the Americans are unwilling to release those prisoners, and this is really sort of an Afghan-led negotiation without that American involvement, it’s unclear really how quickly this will move or really, you know, how far it can go.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Kevin Sieff of The Washington Post in Kabul, thank you so much.