obama's war
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Interview: Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.)

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Nagl literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency -- Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam -- and was one of the co-authors of the Army's Counterinsurgency Field Manual, published in 2006. He is now president of the Center for a New American Security. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 1, 2009.

“There's a famous saying in Afghanistan: 'The Americans have the watches, but the Taliban has the time.' They know we're going to leave at some point, and all they have to do is wait us out.”

Give me a thumbnail sketch of the security question in Afghanistan and how serious it is.

The security question in Afghanistan is serious. The Taliban is gaining strength. The government of Afghanistan is in disarray. As we speak, apparent election fraud is dampening even further belief in the [Hamid] Karzai government, which has not been effective at governing. The Afghan security force is insufficiently sized to take on the current threat that the Taliban presents.

And interestingly, the Pakistani government is beginning to take counterinsurgency more seriously and putting some degree of effective pressure on the Taliban and perhaps even on Al Qaeda and its side of the border. This is not entirely a bad-news story. I think that the Taliban on the Afghan side of the border is gaining in strength largely because the Afghan government is being outgoverned, not because it's being outthought. On the other side, on the Pakistani side of the border, there are some positive sides.

Why is it that we're eight years into this and the United States and its allies can't or haven't gotten it right in fighting the Taliban?

We have underresourced this war to an extraordinary degree. "Negligence" is the nicest word I can say about how we've approached our policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last eight years. We initially did not send enough forces to Afghanistan. We allowed Mullah Omar, we allowed Osama bin Laden to escape across the border into Pakistan largely because we didn't have enough troops on the ground.

And we have never since put enough troops on the ground to protect the Afghan population from the encroachments of the Taliban. We gave the Taliban space to regroup inside Pakistan, and they started to come back. We never built the Afghan security forces to a sufficient degree of strength, to a sufficient size, sufficient training, sufficient equipment to take on the threats that they faced.

And so the Taliban has essentially had an eight-year march on us. They've made progress while we've been focused on the other war in Iraq. And we're just now in 2009 starting to devote the degree of attention, the degree of resources to the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan that it has long deserved.

It's been no secret that the Taliban has been gaining strength. Back in 2006, it was clear to a lot of people that the Taliban was gaining strength. Why didn't we move sooner?

There was no oxygen in the room in 2006. The war in Afghanistan was going south fast, and the national security team of the previous administration conducted triage, and they focused -- correctly, probably -- on Iraq, where the need was absolutely urgent. ...

I was [in Iraq] in August 2008 and literally saw Iraq being reborn as the surge strategy came to fruition there. I went from Iraq in August 2008 to Afghanistan in November 2008, just a couple of months later, and found a war that was clearly going in the wrong direction; that was underresourced; where we had a commander on the ground, Gen. [David] McKiernan -- good man, understood what he was trying to accomplish, was trying to get more resources for that war.

But the army was tired; the nation was tired. The administration was not willing to send more resources to Afghanistan in late 2008 because doing so would reinforce then-Sen. Obama's claim that they had taken their eyes off the ball by focusing on Iraq, and they'd allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ...

When this Obama administration took over in early 2009, ... it didn't realize how bad the situation was, how dire the need was, and what a serious problem it faced. ...

How can you make that concrete, that seriousness of the situation? In what terms would you define it? The number of attacks on troops?

In any counterinsurgency campaign, metrics are very, very difficult. It's hard to tell who's winning and who's losing. Obviously, one of the things you look at is the number of casualties. Already, on Sept. 1, 2009, we've lost more American soldiers in Afghanistan than we have in any previous year of this war. And we've still got September, October, November and December. We've still got four months to go.

So, clearly, the number of casualties we're suffering is increasing. There are a number of reasons for that. That by itself is not enough to indicate that the Taliban is growing stronger.

Part of that is that the U.S. is going after them.

We're in more places. We've got more troops on the ground. We have started to contest areas that, frankly, we have conceded to the Taliban for the past five years. One of the smartest ways to think about who's winning and who's losing is to find out where it's safe to travel with two Humvees or three Humvees.

And there are a lot of places in Afghanistan where there simply has been no allied presence for a number of years, in some cases since the Taliban was initially toppled in 2001. There haven't been any American forces, any allied forces for eight years.

So we are going into places that have been under the control of the Taliban. We are finding people who are afraid to work with us because they've trusted our promises before, and we've left them to the tender mercies of the Taliban. We're seeing a more capable enemy with more sophisticated tactics, with more sophisticated weapons. It's fighting in large units, which is one of the signs of success for an insurgent. It's able to build up to larger units undetected and conduct mass assaults. We're seeing voter intimidation -- widespread voter intimidation, apparently -- particularly in the south, to a lesser extent in the east, during the recent presidential elections.

So there are a whole series of indications which tell us that we are not winning right now in Afghanistan, and in a counterinsurgency campaign, if the counterinsurgent isn't winning, he's losing. ... There's a famous saying in Afghanistan: "The Americans have the watches, but the Taliban has the time." They know we're going to leave at some point, and all they have to do is wait us out.

So, ... while we still have time on our clock, we've got to get to a point where the Afghan security forces are sufficiently sized and sufficiently trained and equipped, where the Afghan government is secure enough and capable enough to provide a base level of security for the key population centers in that country. That's our definition of success. The clock is ticking.

American public opinion is turning fast against the war.

I'm not sure that's true.

The polls say that 51 percent --

The polls say that 51 percent of the American public no longer support the war in Afghanistan. But they also say that only 2 percent of the American population thinks that the war in Afghanistan is the most important thing happening right now. So although American support for the war is diminishing, that is not a very strongly held belief.

And I firmly believe that were the president to get out in front of the American people, explain to the people what's at stake, what the likely costs of failure in Afghanistan are, explain that we have a strategy, that we are resourcing it for the first time, explain the history of what's happened in terms of the American involvement in Afghanistan ... and express his determination to keep the American people safe by building Afghan security forces that can allow us to withdraw from that country within the next three years, we should be able to start drawing down. Within five years, we should be purely at an advisory level in Afghanistan.

... Do you really know that in three to five years from now, we're going to be able to turn the tide in Afghanistan?

Predictions are difficult, especially about the future. ... I know what the total number of security forces required to secure Afghanistan is. It's in the area of 500,000. I know that we've got about 150,000 now. I believe that within five years, we can build up to about 500,000 Afghan security forces. I believe that with a concerted advisory effort inside the ministries at the national level, at the provincial level, the district level, we can improve governance in Afghanistan. We can move the needle in the right direction.

And I can look at the history of past counterinsurgency campaigns, including the one in Iraq, and illustrate that our exit strategy depends on handing off responsibility to capable, host-nation security forces. So I can see all that happening.

There are things I can't guarantee. I can't guarantee that the Pakistani military, the Pakistani government continues to conduct counterinsurgency reasonably effectively on its side of the border. It's moving in the right direction. The trend lines are positive for us. We've had some very big successes recently and some very promising signs of cooperation -- not as much as I'd like to see; I'm not being a Pollyanna here. But that has to continue.

It seems a no-brainer for Pakistan go to go after Baitullah Mehsud or Mullah Fazlullah, [who are attacking inside Pakistan]. They're not going after the Haqqani network or Mullah Omar. Those are the people that are making trouble across the border in Afghanistan.

They are increasingly coming to understand that the Taliban they created largely at our request to overthrow the Soviet regime inside Afghanistan in the 1980s, that Frankenstein's monster they created is starting to turn on them. And it's very hard, I think, for them to separate that out.

There are some factions that operate exclusively against American forces inside Afghanistan.

That's the good Taliban in their view.

That's the good Taliban in their view. But they are starting to understand that the good Taliban can become the bad Taliban.

Are they?

I think so.

Is there evidence?

The fact that the degree of cooperation between the United States and Pakistan, at least against the Pakistani Taliban --

The bad Taliban.

The bad Taliban in their eyes, right? We know that that is happening to an increasing degree. The only reason that they would ask for our help, cooperate with us in actions against the Pakistani Taliban, is if they're scared, if they begin to understand that some Taliban can present a threat to their regime. ...

I am not willing to throw in the towel yet. I don't have a better alternative or a lower-risk, high-return alternative than continuing to work with this Pakistani government and continuing to nudge it forward toward taking more effective action.

What about getting tougher with the Pakistanis?

I think we've done that in this administration. I think that one of the lessons of the past eight years -- the campaigns both in Iraq and in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- has been that we can't establish an exclusively personal relationship, a you're-my-guy-whatever-happens relationship with the leaders of countries in which a counterinsurgency campaign is being --

You're talking about the Bush administration's relationship with [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf?

With Musharraf and with Karzai and with [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Malaki, right? In all cases, we developed very personal relationships at the highest levels of our national leadership with their national leadership, and that made it very difficult for subordinates, for ambassadors, for general officers commanding to lean on the government to get them to take the actions that we believed were necessary to defeat the insurgents.

It seems we're still waiting for the Pakistanis to get serious about going after the networks of Taliban that are coming across the border and killing American soldiers.

I think we are using carrots and sticks more effectively than we did in the past. I am not going to say that we've exactly calibrated the degree of arm twisting correctly. ...

We spoke with the head of the ISPR, the army's [Inter Services] Public Relations, Gen. [Athar] Abbas, spoke with [Rehman Malik], the minister of the interior. Both of those guys told us that the Taliban of the Haqqani network and Omar don't operate out of Pakistan.

I don't believe that.

But they say that.

I'm not surprised that they say that. I don't believe it.

But why should anybody believe the Pakistanis when they're saying nonsense like that, when they're still covering up their relationship with the Taliban?

With at least some aspects, some elements of the Taliban, that's absolutely correct. The question then becomes, can we achieve any of our objectives? Can we move the ball in the right direction by working with these people, or are we better off completely cutting them off, right, or taking a very firm stance against them with no cooperation at all?

It is the assessment of people who are better informed than I am on these issues, who work [with] them every day, that we are achieving more through the current policy of some carrots and some sticks than we would be by cutting them off completely.

And I tend to agree. I would like to see more pressure applied against the Pakistani government, but I do think that it is possible to push too hard. So I'm seeing much more positive action in 2009 than I have ever before in the history of this war, really since our cooperation together against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. I am willing to continue the relationship while maintaining the pressure. And I don't know what [Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan] Ambassador [Richard] Holbrooke and [head of U.S. CENTCOM] Gen. [David] Petraeus say behind closed doors. ...

And if [the Pakistanis don't start taking counterinsurgency seriously], what will the consequences be for American troops on the other side of the border?

American troops continue to suffer, are put at risk, are wounded, are killed because of -- at the very best shading this as well as I possibly can -- because of failures by the Pakistani government to take actions against forces using its own territory. And it's possible to draw a much blacker picture.

This is an ally of the United States. Money is coming from U.S. taxpayers to support the Pakistanis. And what you're saying is they continue at least --

-- not to take all the actions that we would like them to take against forces using their territory to stage attacks on American forces and on our allies in the Karzai government.

You could make the argument that we're funding the enemy.

You could make the argument that the Pakistani government is playing both sides of the street; that it takes some actions that are very helpful to us, that it takes others that are decidedly unhelpful. The percentage of actions it takes that are helpful to us has increased over the past six months.

By no means is this a simple relationship. By no means do our interests coincide completely. That's true, of course, with any state in the world. But the relationship with Pakistan is particularly confusing, particularly troubled. And deciding how to navigate that relationship to put pressure on the Pakistani government to take actions against non-state actors, in come cases, possible state-supported, non-state actors --

Agents?

-- inside its own border, agents of the state that conduct actions that are extremely unhelpful --

Putting IEDs [improvised explosive devices], killing American soldiers.

-- to the United States and our allies. Enormously difficult relationship.

Give me a thumbnail sketch of Afghanistan: its geography, its economy, its level of development and the challenge that presents.

A friend of mine who's fighting over there describes Afghanistan as biblical. The level of development is appalling. Afghanistan measures I've seen: the fifth poorest state in the world; the second most corrupt state in the world; on the outskirts of the capital have hundreds of thousands of people living in mud huts in shantytowns. ...

As you study the history of insurgencies, successful insurgencies tend to be fought, frankly, in places like Afghanistan, in places where you've got mountains; you've got tribal societies which tend to resent outsiders and protect insiders, protect people of their tribe; and most importantly, where you've got a sanctuary just across a border that's impossible to police. That's what Pakistan is.

So it's a very, very difficult place to fight a counterinsurgency campaign. It's a very good place to be an insurgent. ...

So these are some of the reasons why the Taliban is growing stronger and why we need, if we're going to succeed in Afghanistan, to get more boots on the ground as soon as we possibly can -- American boots now, and Afghan boots as soon as we can.

By classic counterinsurgency measures, how many troops do we need?

By classic counterinsurgency measures, success in Afghanistan would require 600,000 counterinsurgents. We're well below half that right now. So the current international forces on the ground, after a huge increase in American forces in 2009, which is not yet complete -- we're at about 100,000 internationals. We've got about 80,000 Afghan army, we've got about 60,000 Afghan police, for a total of 250,000 counterinsurgents.

Are you saying there have to be more American troops on the ground?

Initially there needs to be more American troops on the ground. The long-term answer and our existing strategy is more Afghan troops on the ground. We need to double the size of the Afghan army and the Afghan police over the currently planned increases.

Can the state support that once we go?

Afghanistan will not be able to provide resources to source a military of that size. That would be an international responsibility. It would be our responsibility. As the insurgency is defeated, the number of troops can be drawn down. And it will be a trailing indicator. So the violence goes down, and then a year behind that, two years behind that, we can start drawing down the Afghan military.

But I have a vision of Afghanistan in the future being like Bangladesh, being like Pakistan, in that one of its major sources of revenue could be providing peacekeepers for U.N. peacekeeping operations. The mountain people of Afghanistan know how to fight. They're good soldiers. The problem is that we have not built them of sufficient size. We have not given them the equipment, the training, the advisers they need to do what needs to be done to enable us to depart and leave behind a secure Afghanistan from which we cannot again be attacked.

What gives you confidence that this is a war that can be won?

The single biggest factor in my belief that we can succeed in Afghanistan is I know the people who are responsible for this war. I've known Gen. Petraeus for well over 20 years. I know Ambassador [Karl] Eikenberry, the American ambassador there. I know Gen. McChrystal, Stan McChrystal -- a man who eats one meal a day whether he needs to or not; runs 20 miles a day; is smart, but also is absolutely dedicated and inspires an extraordinary loyalty in the people who work with for him.

So we have the most talented Americans we have as a nation in charge of this war. We've got a very good team in the Pentagon with Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates, probably the best secretary of defense we've ever had. Adm. [Mike] Mullen, who is absolutely focused, told me the most important thing he's doing as chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff is developing a personal relationship with the leadership of the Pakistani military, trying to provide pressure on them to get them to do the things that need to be done to keep America safe.

So I'm confident that success in Afghanistan is very much in America's vital national interest, that defeat in Afghanistan would be a catastrophe, and that we've got the right people in place to do what needs to be done. We just have to decide as a nation that this is something we're willing to do. ...

I think we're making the right strategic changes. We're stepping away from an excessive use of force, an excessive reliance on air strikes. We're changing from a strike-the-enemy strategy, which never succeeds in counterinsurgency campaigns, to one that's focused on protecting the population, which is the only way to succeed in the modern era, in a CNN era. ...

So, what were the lessons learned [from Vietnam]?

The U.S. military learned how to conduct a counterinsurgency in the later years in Vietnam under [Gen.] Creighton Abrams. ... We became the best military, the best nation in the world, I would argue, in counterinsurgency in the very late years of Vietnam. It didn't matter.

The only way a great power loses a small war is if it runs out of public support at home, and we didn't learn fast enough in Vietnam. We then decided as a nation that counterinsurgency wars were bad wars, and we weren't going to fight them anymore. We focused exclusively on the conventional military, and we built the best conventional military in the world. ...

[How did the military start thinking about counterinsurgency again?]

... I fought a tank platoon in Desert Storm -- great, formative experience. I was a lieutenant. And I reflected on that experience afterward, and my analysis was that we were so good as a conventional army in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse that our enemies weren't going to fight us that way anymore; that they were going to fight us as terrorists and as insurgents.

And so, in the mid-1990s, I looked hard at the American counterinsurgency experience in Vietnam and the British counterinsurgency experience in Malaya [1948-1960] because I wanted to learn how to conduct a counterinsurgency and how to build militaries that could succeed in counterinsurgency, and published that in 2002, after the Taliban had fallen in Afghanistan, before the invasion of Iraq.

Did anybody pay any attention?

It was very hard finding someone to publish a book on counterinsurgency in the late '90s and early after the turn of the century in the early 2000s. There was not a lot of interest in counterinsurgency then. So I like to joke that I wrote both the best and the worst doctoral dissertation on counterinsurgency in the 1990s.

The U.S. had faced insurgents in Somalia, and arguably the experience in the former Yugoslavia called for a counterinsurgency campaign. So it wasn't as if you had to go all the way back to Vietnam to see the need --

El Salvador in the 1980s, right? It was clear, I think, that the world had changed, but the scope and scale of the change was not clear yet. And the degree of change required in the American military was not clear either. And it took a while for that realization to filter through. And it did not filter through everyone at the same time.

And some people -- David Petraeus, while a professor at West Point, had written his doctoral dissertation [at] Princeton also on Vietnam. So he was very well positioned in late 2003, early 2004, when he was really for Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. And he implemented a counterinsurgency campaign almost completely without instructions. The joke was that the 101st Airborne, which he commanded, was the only division in the American army with its own foreign policy, because he was opening northern Iraq to trade. He was making all kinds of decisions completely outside his scope of responsibility. ...

Gen. Petraeus is an extraordinary man, and he attracts and collects people who have a certain skill set and who think a certain way. So when he came back from his second tour in Iraq in late 2005 and was assigned responsibility for the Army's doctrine, for the Army's thinking at the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, [Kan.], I got together with him. ... I had been his student at West Point 20 years before. We started talking about the need to change the way the Army thought about counterinsurgency, and that led to the writing of Field Manual 3-24, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, under the direct supervision of Petraeus' West Point classmate Dr. Conrad Crane, a retired Army lieutenant colonel with a Ph.D.

And Con and I, Gen. Jim Mattis of the United States Marine Corps, who had the equivalent job for the Marines, Gen. Petraeus out at Leavenworth worked together, brought together a team of about two dozen people that created in a period of about 15 months a counterinsurgency field manual that was a pretty drastic revision of the way we were conducting counterinsurgency at the time in Iraq.

And this is what Obama is betting on?

The history of counterinsurgency campaigns tells us that the way to succeed -- there are two options. You can either conduct the Roman method, where you kill everybody, sow the fields with salt and prevent anybody from living there again. That defeats the insurgency, but it's illegal and immoral and absolutely not a solution we can think about.

The other alternative is to conduct population-security counterinsurgency: Secure the population from the insurgents and build host-nation security forces to do that over time, and the insurgency then is co-opted. ... And we've seen that that method has at least a chance of success.

There are no guarantees. War is uncertain, and wars hinge on political decisions, on decisions of generals, on actions of soldiers. But this gives us the best possibility of success in my estimation, in Gen. McChrystal's estimation, in Gen. Petraeus' estimation. We just have to decide if we're willing to devote the resources, the soldiers, the money, the time required, and if we believe, as I do, that that is the best way to accomplish our national objectives in Afghanistan.

What's behind the push into Helmand?

... Helmand has been an underresourced province. There have not been sufficient troops in Helmand to secure the population. The British army, which had primary responsibility for Helmand, was, frankly, forced into a strategy of what the troops call "mowing the lawn." They would clear and leave. The insurgents would scatter, would go the hills, and then when the British troops left, they'd come back down and terrorize the population again.

So the determination was made that it was finally time to clear and hold Helmand, to put enough troops there so that we could chase the insurgents out and keep them out.

Why is Helmand important?

Helmand is important largely because of the poppy growing. It's the largest single source of opium poppies in Afghanistan, which means it's the largest single source of opium in the world. The analysis was done that the poppies grown in Helmand were a major funding source for the insurgency for the Taliban. I'm not convinced that that analysis was correct.

But we have cleared Helmand now, and we are holding Helmand. We are also finally starting to push into Kandahar, the neighboring province, the capital of the south, and, frankly, the initial home base of the Taliban, what I consider to be the most important city in southern Afghanistan.

I was in Helmand with the Marines, and we were at the southernmost point of the Marine insertion. We were still 100 miles from the border with Pakistan. I was told by the captain there there weren't enough troops available to go any farther than that. You say we're clearing and holding Helmand, but, in fact, we're only --

We're clearing and holding part of Helmand. We're re-clearing and holding more of Helmand than we have previously.

Is that enough?

It is not enough. And since there aren't enough Afghan forces, since there aren't enough American and international forces, we've got to make hard decisions about what we're going to clear and hold in Afghanistan and what we're not.

And this is what people criticize. They say: "Look, we can have a counterinsurgency strategy, or we can use counterinsurgency tactics. But if you don't do it whole hog, you're not doing yourself a favor. You either do it or you don't."

Classic counterinsurgency strategy recognizes that the counterinsurgent at least initially won't have enough forces to clear and hold everywhere, to be strong everywhere.

So it recommends that the counterinsurgent make hard choices, do triage and decide, what are the cities that absolutely must be held? What are the population centers that are most important? Clear and hold them first and then create "oil spots" of security that spread outward and ultimately link up with other oil spots of security, with the spreading oil being host-nation security forces who are simultaneously being trained and equipped and sent out to secure the countryside.

I don't think we've done a good job to date of doing that triage. Of deciding what the most important places are in Afghanistan, ... Kabul would be first. Number two would be Kandahar, would be the capital of the south.

So you say we've got the best people in charge and we're not making the right decisions?

I'm saying that the decision to clear and hold Helmand was not made by the current team. ... It is not clear to me that that was the right decision. ...

The plan is to send these Marines into Helmand. McChrystal comes in at short notice. The plan is ready to go. What decision does he make? Frankly, it's not clear to me that he'd had the time to do the analysis and stop that attack and switch it to the Kandahar.

And it's also not clear to me that there were sufficient resources -- and I haven't done the troop-to-population ratios -- because Kandahar is a big city. It's the biggest city in the south. It's the most important city in the south.

The Taliban capital.

And the Taliban capital. It's not clear to me that we had enough resources to clear and hold Helmand. So that decision may have been the best available given the resources that were available. ...

A growing number of people are saying we need to come back home, that we need to cut this off at this point and focus on protecting ourselves here and use our resources to go after terrorists camps if they crop up; mission creep is what we're looking at here, and that we've gone from hunting Al Qaeda, which was the initial reason for this engagement, to nation building in two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These are long, hard wars. I've fought in both kinds. I would not choose to fight a counterinsurgency campaign if I had the choice.

What we learned on Sept. 11 was that vipers can grow in ungoverned spaces, and that in a globalized world, they can harm us. We cannot police every ungoverned space in the world. But in Afghanistan, we know there is an enemy that harbors Al Qaeda, and that provides a base from which we can again be threatened.

Or at least they could harbor Al Qaeda. Right now the Taliban does not attack us, and Al Qaeda has slipped across the border into Pakistan.

The Taliban does attack us, but only on the ground in Afghanistan.

Right. And if we weren't there, they wouldn't be coming over here to attack us.

If we were not there, I concur.

They're not global jihadists.

They are not global jihadis. They would resume control of Afghanistan. Assuming that Pakistan continued any degree of pressure on Al Qaeda, I believe that Al Qaeda would relocate back to Afghanistan. It is also possible that were we to pull up stakes and no longer fight in Afghanistan, that Pakistan would then come to a complete truce with the Taliban and with Al Qaeda. In fact, I think that's the most likely scenario, at which point we would be unable to use bases in Afghanistan as a place from which to put pressure on Al Qaeda.

But why not use our assets in surveillance and securing our borders, doing a better job of policing terrorism?

There is a certain amount of counterterrorism we can conduct if we don't have bases inside Afghanistan, if we don't have bases inside Pakistan --

It sounds far cheaper and less ambitious.

It is absolutely cheaper. It is, I believe, less effective. The hard part in a counterinsurgency campaign, in a counterterrorism campaign, isn't killing your enemy; it's finding your enemy. The more boots on the ground we have in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the closer relationships we have with those governments, the more advisers we have working with them, the better relationships we have with the Pakistani and the Afghan militaries, the more information we derive on their enemies and on our enemies. And those overlap. They don't absolutely coincide.

Can the United States afford this?

The United States is the richest country in the world. We're currently spending about 4.2 percent of our gross domestic product while fighting two wars. We've got 150,000 troops or so deployed to Iraq. That number is going to draw down ... fairly dramatically over the course of 2010 and 2011. We're building to 70,000 troops in Afghanistan. That's nearly a doubling over the course of the last year.

So this is well within America's ability. It is well within the resources we have available. We have to decide, as a nation, if this is our priority. ...

Let's go back to April '09. Can you describe what was going on in Pakistan at the time?

In April 2009, we came very near to losing this war. The government of Pakistan signed a peace treaty with the Taliban, which had taken over the Swat River Valley, which is a resort area, essentially, inside Pakistan. It's about 60 miles from the capital. And the Pakistani government essentially decided that it was unwilling to fight against the Taliban for control of Pakistan.

There was an extraordinary effort made by everyone, from the president through the secretary of state, secretary of defense, Ambassador Holbrooke, Gen. Petraeus all leaned in hard; the chairman, Adm. Mullen, all leaned in hard on Pakistan to convince Pakistan that it could not yield to the Taliban in the Swat River Valley, that it had to fight for control of its territory, and it chose to do so.

It conducted a very vigorous -- not a very sophisticated -- counterinsurgency campaign in Swat that continues today, but that, frankly, defeated the Taliban there, and --

It wasn't counterinsurgency.

It was closer to the Roman method of counterinsurgency, I'd argue, than to the American method.

Destroying villages.

Absolutely right.

Heavy bombing.

Heavy bombing.

Iron fists.

Not sophisticated.

Two million refugees.

Not devoted to protecting the population, but devoted to killing the Taliban. And they, broadly speaking, cleared the Taliban out from the Swat River Valley. This marked a turn in how seriously the Pakistani government understood that the Taliban ... presented a threat to it.

And we came close to losing Pakistan in April '09?

I believe that had the Pakistani government not taken those actions to clear the Swat River Valley, to take the Pakistani Taliban on aggressively, that the government of Pakistan would have fallen. And I believe that that would have put the United States at greater risk. It would have hurt the campaign against Al Qaeda. It would have hurt the campaign against the Taliban on both sides of the Durand Line.

Right now, there is a peace deal between the government of Pakistan and the tribes allied with Jalaluddin Haqqani and his network in North Waziristan.

Correct. ...

But maybe it would make sense before more aid goes to Pakistan that they renounce their peace deal in North Waziristan. Is that on the table?

I believe that it would be wonderful were that to happen. It is not clear to me that we can provide enough carrots and sticks to convince or coerce the Pakistani government to do so. And this is a process -- and frankly, part of the Pakistani government's hesitance, I think, is that we have abandoned them before. We have not demonstrated that we are committed to security and stability in this region over the long haul. We used, frankly, Pakistan and Afghanistan to throw the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the '80s, which ultimately was a critical factor in the overthrow of the Soviet Union, and we then left. And we cut all relations, essentially all relations off with Pakistan in the wake of their nuclear test in the 1990s.

So the Pakistani government is right, I think, to look at us questioningly and wonder how committed we are to this fight and whether we really mean what we say.

But does it give you pause to hand them billions of dollars while they have a peace deal with Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj Haqqani?

It absolutely gives me pause. I absolutely have to hold my nose when I work with the Pakistani government. But I also have to understand where they are and where they've come from and what the history of the relationship is. And I believe I have to be thankful that I'm getting half a loaf from them today, and hope that I get two-thirds of a loaf from them tomorrow. ...

Do you think the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] knows where Osama bin Laden resides?

I am confident that there are people inside Pakistan who know where Osama bin Laden is.

Do those people work for the Pakistani government?

There's almost certainly someone somewhere associated with the Pakistani government who knows where Osama bin Laden is, and I am willing to work with that government to try to find that person and get that piece of information. I believe that that is not the only way for us to get that information. There are other things we can do as well, and we're doing those. But every additional bit of information we can get makes it more likely that we're going to be able to kill that guy, and that would be a good day.

Why not withhold aid to the Pakistani government until they cooperate in outing that resource that knows where Osama bin Laden is?

I believe it is far more likely that if we cut the Pakistani government off from American aid and assistance that we will lose all of those ties that we've just rebuilt. The trust that we've been building would be lost, and we'd have to start all over again, and I believe that makes it more likely that Osama bin Laden lives longer. ...

[What are we up against in Helmand in terms of how the enemy fights?]

We're fighting an insurgent enemy using classic insurgent strategies who, broadly speaking, refuses to face us in frontal battle, but instead fights with ambushes, with snipers, with improvised explosive devices that leave the counterinsurgent, leaves the American soldier, the Afghan soldier with no enemy to hit at, nobody to target.

I often felt in Al Anbar in 2004 that I was fighting ghosts.

In Iraq.

In Iraq. And when you're fighting ghosts, the only way to win is to build relationships with the people who will tell you ultimately who the ghosts are.

How hard is that?

That is enormously difficult. You've got to develop personal relationships, develop bonds of trust across cultures, and make the people believe correctly that you're going to be there to protect them against reprisals from these ghosts.

Is it reasonable to expect a 22-year-old Marine sergeant to be able to bridge that gulf?

With the right leadership, that Marine sergeant, that Army sergeant has demonstrated that he or she is able to do so in Iraq, and they're doing it every day in Afghanistan in the places where we're able to clear and hold. ...

Some argue that it's way out of the military's lane to expect a soldier wearing Kevlar and heavily armed to serve as a diplomat, an anthropologist, a sociologist.

American soldiers have served as diplomats, as priests, as confidants, as explorers. American soldiers can do what needs to be done to keep the nation secure. They've demonstrated that for 235 years, and they'll continue to do so. They're doing it on the ground today in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Just in Afghanistan, we haven't given them the resources they need to succeed. Before we quit, before we surrender, I'd at least like to put enough soldiers on the ground, give them the resources they need, and take a decent shot at this thing.

That means more will come home in body bags.

That does mean we'll lose more, right. And I've lost a lot of friends. All of us fighting in these wars have lost friends, have lost comrades. They believe that what they're doing is keeping Americans safe. ...

The question is whether the president has the political space to garner the public support he needs to prosecute the war or whether the time has run out. Is that correct?

The Americans have the watches, but the Taliban has the time.

All they have to do is survive. They know eventually we will leave.

At some point, we will leave. The question is whether we'll leave with sufficiently well-trained, well-equipped Afghan forces to secure the country we leave behind.

And what if those Afghan forces are supporting a government that remains corrupt? It won't matter if that force is a well-trained military if the people still don't trust the government that that force represents.

And that's exactly right.

It's an enormously ambitious project.

It is an enormously ambitious project. It is the strategy that I believe has the best chance for success. But there are no guarantees here. And in particular, if we don't properly resource it, we know it won't succeed.

So we've put a new commander in place. We've put a new ambassador on the ground. We've supported him with a very strong team in Washington. And this president has said, correctly in my eyes, that this is a necessary war. This is a war that America needs to win. ...

posted october 13, 2009

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