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As U.S. Plans Military Exit, a Challenge to Reassure, Train Afghans

September 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
While the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is on the horizon, the death toll for foreign troops rises. Taliban fighters launched attacks on a U.S. military base and some Afghan troops turned their weapons on U.S. and NATO allies. Judy Woodruff talks to Ret. Lt. Col. John Nagl and Johns Hopkins University's Vali Nasr for more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on this, 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 Vali Nasr, he is dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He served in the Obama administration’s State Department focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And, gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Vali Nasr, let me start with you.

General Dempsey, we heard him say this is a very serious threat to the war effort. We know that Secretary Panetta, in addition to what we just heard him say, also called this the last gasp of a dying insurgency. Who is right?

VALI NASR, Johns Hopkins University: Well, the Taliban have been under pressure for some time, but they are proving to be very entrepreneurial and effective in carrying out new ways of attacks.

They’re trying to give a message to the Afghan people that they still have fight in them, that they have momentum on their side. And I think the fact that these attacks continue and that we see more and more Americans and foreign troops die, and there is audacious attacks on bases with results, does worry the Afghan population that the Taliban has perhaps still got a lot of energy at the same time as we’re telling the Afghan population that we are ready to leave.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how do you see this? Which is it?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL (RET.): I think Vali is right. I think it can be both.

So, we have put the Taliban under a great deal of pressure. We are now withdrawing the surge troops that we moved mostly into the south of Afghanistan. They did regain a lot of territory that had not been under allied control, but the Taliban remains resilient.

They continue to show planning ability. They conducted these attacks on Camp Bastion, on the air base, wearing stolen or somehow procured American Army uniforms. So there are still very capable leaders and strategists. Still — this fight is not over yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Vali Nasr, is it because they have a new energy, new strategic advantage on their side? Is that what’s going on here with the Taliban?

VALI NASR: Well, they have capability to plan and to do new things.

So we went into the south in Helmand. We pushed them out of their territories and we declared victory. But then they proved that they can carry out assassinations, kill Afghan officials. They can terrorize the population. They can attack U.S. bases. And they have also proven the ability to infiltrate the Afghan military, which is what we’re telling the Afghan population, is a really golden solution to Afghanistan is this military.

And the Taliban are already proving it to be porous. And that sort of undermines our whole narrative to the Afghan population. And this shows, as I said, a great deal of ability for them to pick what fronts they want to confront us on, rather than the one that we chose to fight them on in the south.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what’s going on, that they know what the U.S. strategy is and basically they’re trying to outsmart…

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: Well, we have been very clear on what our strategy is, That is to increase the capability and the capacity of Afghan security forces and Afghan governance, while bringing the skill and the capability of the Taliban down to a level so that the Afghans can handle it increasingly on their own.

We have been clear about that. That’s the strategy we’re following. And I think it’s the right strategy. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t score goals on us at times. And they have proven able to do so.

I disagree with Vali a little bit. I don’t think that the problem of so-called green-on-blue killings, that is Afghans in uniforms killing American soldiers, isn’t so much Taliban infiltration. It looks like about 25 percent of those cases are infiltration.

The others are, very sadly, cases of disgust or discontent with how the Americans treat the Afghans, and cultural friction, and cultural misunderstandings in an awful lot of these cases.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean troops or police who are serving, who were not part of the Taliban, but who then turn against the United States?

What about that?

VALI NASR: Well, that in itself is worrisome.

In other words, if the non-Taliban Afghan who are in security forces are growing anti-American, that means that the line between Taliban and Afghan security forces can be actually gradually diminishing.

And, also, in the eyes of the population, sometimes, the way we look at this very clinically, that this many are Taliban and this many are not, may not be as apparent to the Afghan population, who basically see that the Afghan security forces are acting like the way the Taliban would act.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, now, this all started, John Nagl, before this video, this anti-Islam video came out. But is that playing a significant role in what we’re now seeing?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: I don’t think it’s playing a significant role in the attacks we saw over the weekend.

It is playing obviously a very significant role in the more broad Islamic uprisings against American embassies, including in Pakistan. And I continue to think that Pakistan is the root of the problem and the country we should be most concerned with in the region.

Afghanistan, I think, is going to be OK. The American strategy of handing off to Afghans is going to succeed, as long as America remains committed to the security of Afghanistan for the long haul, which I think it’s going to. Pakistan could go very strongly the wrong way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But so that raises the question, Vali Nasr, the — this entire U.S. plan of, as you have both been discussing, turning over security to the Afghans, what the Taliban is doing and what these insider attacks are doing, though, is undermining the heart of that idea, isn’t it?

VALI NASR: Well, it is, and mostly because, ultimately, in these kinds of conflicts, you need the public on your side. You need the public to believe that you are winning and the Taliban are losing.

And whenever that is created, that confuses the public. And many people begin hedging against you. People begin worrying that maybe the Taliban are coming. And when you have these massive protests, as we are seeing in Afghanistan, it also creates a sense gradually that the government may be losing control, that you have a sense of instability seeping in.

We spent a lot of time in 2009 to try to convince the Afghan public of certain stability in the country and certain direction. And that’s now, I think, in danger.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it sounds like you’re more worried than John Nagl is about Afghanistan?

VALI NASR: Well, yes, largely because we’re leaving. And we have set a timeline that we think is going to work like clockwork by 2014.

And now, increasingly, there are set of questions on the table, not only about the integrity of the Afghan military, but what if this political situation in Kabul keeps disintegrating? And that stability that we’re assuming is not going to be there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about all that?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: I am less concerned about the Afghan government. I think that Kabul is likely to hold.

I think that the United States will remain committed to the security of the Afghan state for at least a decade to come.

Both political parties in the United States are firm on this point. I think that there’s an American consensus behind continued advice and support to the Afghan government. As long as that happens, the Afghans with our help will be able to stand against the Taliban.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, we will all continue to watch it.

John Nagl, Vali Nasr, we thank you both.

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: Thank you.

VALI NASR: Thank you.