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How Widespread, Deep Are Anti-American Feelings in Afghanistan?

Nine Afghans were killed Monday after a suicide car bomber targeted a NATO air base, ramming its entrance. Judy Woodruff and guests discuss the latest violence amid ongoing anti-American protests over Quran burnings at a U.S. air base.

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    For more on all of this, we get three views.

    Thomas Johnson is a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He's worked on Afghan issues for the past two decades. Matt Sherman worked for the State Department in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011. He was also an adviser to the top U.S. military commander, and now has his own consulting firm. And Andrew Wilder is the director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs at the United States Institute of Peace.

    And we thank you, all three, for joining us.

    I'm going to start with you, Matt Sherman.

    When you look at this outbreak of violence, what does it say about how widespread, how deep is the anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan?

    MATT SHERMAN, former State Department official: Well, as Ambassador Crocker said, the deaths of Americans and Afghans is truly a travesty.

    But we must resist the urge of pulling back and make every effort to reach forward. The decision to pull advisers out of the government ministries is really something that we can't have define our long-term relationship. I mean, this is a problem that is throughout Afghanistan, but there have been mistakes on every side.

    There has been poor communication, frankly, by Americans and the government of Afghanistan to articulate our intent and what we're trying to do together to bring security and governance to that country. But this is not a situation where we shouldn't continue to try to bridge that divide.


    But, Thomas Johnson, to try to get at the question of how deep, how widespread is this anti-American feeling, how do you read it?

  • THOMAS JOHNSON, Naval Postgraduate School:

    Well, I think it's very widespread.

    There was an Afghan army colonel quoted today in one of our newspapers. And he said the sense of hatred is growing rapidly. And he described his troops as thieves, liars and drug addicts. But he also said Americans were rude, arrogant bullies who use foul language.

    And it brings me back to an Army report that was published in May of 2011 that was based on interviews of hundreds of Afghan soldiers, as well as hundreds of American soldiers. And Afghans basically looked at the United States as, you know, conducting illicit night raids, mistreating women, lack of respect for the country, indifference in shooting, arrogance, and constant cursing, and while the United States, based on these interviews, suggested that Afghan national army members were incompetent, drug users, cowardly, lazy, unreliable.

    So I think there's some systematic underlying tones here. And there's some real break points between the United States and the Afghan soldiers, it seems to me, right now. And it's growing. It's a cumulative effect.


    Andrew Wilder, how do you read this? How wide, how deep is this feeling?

    ANDREW WILDER, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs, United States Institute of Peace: I think Afghan attitudes towards international forces is really ambivalent.

    On the one hand, incidents like this Quran-burning incidents or the videos of troops urinating on dead Taliban or civilian casualties certainly don't do a lot to win Afghan hearts and minds. On the other hand, I don't think that translates into Afghans wanting international forces to head for the exits right away, because if there's one thing Afghans fear more than anything else, it's a return to anarchy and civil war like they had in the 1990s.

    I was recently talking in Kabul, and I talked to one cabinet member there who said, if you took a poll today and asked the majority of Afghans do you want the international forces to stay, they said no. But if you turn around the next day and ask them do you want them to leave, they would also say no. So there's a real ambivalence about international presence in Afghanistan.


    Given that, Matt Sherman, back to you, what does all this say about this now longstanding U.S. plan to train the Afghans to work with the Americans to transfer power in the next couple of years?


    Well, it means that we shouldn't make any drastic decisions right at the height of this type of intensity. We need to not look at this as a nice little — we need to look at a more comprehensive type of approach.

    We have been redoubling our efforts to do with training. And there certainly is much work to be done. But part of the reason why — in my mind, why the Taliban or whomever is responsible for killing those trainers in the Ministry of Interior is because the enemy actually does see that type of training as a threat to them.

    By us building relationships up with the police, they actually know that that's going to bring a capability that is a direct threat to the enemy and those that are trying to bring down the country and the government.


    And, on that same question, Thomas Johnson, the entire U.S. strategy now premised on the idea that the U.S. can trust the Afghan security forces to work with the U.S., where does that stand?


    Well, I mean, The Wall Street Journal has reported that there's been 77 coalition members killed by Afghan forces in the last five years. And 57 of those have been since early 2010.

    I think this is a growing problem. And with the United States pulling its forces out, the United States is going to rely more and more on Afghans to be able to guard forward operating bases and combat operating posts, as well as roads and lines of communication.

    And there's going to be more of an opportunity for this type of fratricide to occur unless we can come — get to the bottom of this. But I'm fairly pessimistic. I think this is an accumulation of a lot of mistrust between individual Afghan soldiers and U.S. soldiers.


    Andrew Wilder, it sounds like you're occupying somewhat of a middle ground here between — between our other two guests. Given what both of them are saying and given what you see and you've learned about what's happening over there, how does the U.S. thread and NATO thread this needle right now?


    Well, I also don't think we should just rush for the exits and based on the events of the last few days dramatically shift our strategy.

    However, I have long also been critical of the strategy of basing — pinning too much hopes on the Afghan national security forces as our exit strategy. We have a lot of questions about their capability, a lot of questions about sustainability, who's going to pay for them in the long term, and now questions about, with the new strategy of embedded trainers, is there going to be sufficient trust for that strategy to work?

    But that's where I feel that the security piece really needs to be matched by a much more robust political strategy and a diplomatic strategy to push forward on a political negotiating front, which is also going to be extremely difficult. But we need to complement the security strategy with a more robust political strategy.


    Is that realistic, Matt Sherman?


    I believe it is. And I think those — it was well-put.

    I mean, there is high risk with any of these types of embedded types of approach. When I was an adviser in Baghdad to the Ministry of Interior, you know, we were frequently targeted. And we were shot at. A member of — a colleague of mine was shot six times, near fatally.

    These are the risks that come with this sort of job. But it's also a critical component in the mission and why — in my mind, why the enemy has been targeting it more so in the recent months.


    And, Thomas Johnson, are you saying that you believe the timetable should be speeded up for withdrawal, that, despite the arguments, for example, that Andrew Wilder and Matt Sherman are making, that the U.S. should move more quickly to get out?



    Unfortunately, I believe that we should speed up the withdrawal. I think that we've now been in Afghanistan going on 11 years, well over twice as long as we were in World War II. And Afghans, from the cobbler to the soldier on the street, has lost faith in us, I believe. I think we've overstayed our welcome and we're now viewed as basically an occupier. And I think that's very dangerous.


    Matt Sherman?


    I think we've been viewed as an occupier for a while.

    And while, this point in history, these events are going to probably be looked at in history books over the coming years, it must be remembered as a time — I hope it's remembered as a time when Afghans and Americans come together to better understand one another, and not a time when America retreats under Taliban threat.


    What are the prospects, Andrew Wilder, that the two sides can understand one another? You come back to the Quran burning. After 10, 11 years, something like that still happens. How do you deal with that?


    Yes. Well, I think it is unfortunate that, 10 years into this, we're still having — struggling at such basic levels to understand each other. So that is grounds for pessimism.

    But, ultimately, I think we're there to — Afghans still fear, as I said before, international forces leaving too quickly and things falling apart, because, as bad as things might seem to us right now, they have been much worse in the past in Afghanistan. And the presence of international troops in the framework that President Obama outlined of withdrawing downwards towards 2014, I think, is what we should stay with for the time being.


    And, practically speaking, what needs to happen now in order for this — for the communication, at least, to improve, to be able to move to the next step?


    Well, I think this is where, I mean, I think we need to stick to the strategy.

    And this is where I think when — about a month ago, four French troops were tragically killed, and, shortly thereafter, President Sarkozy announced that they're going to withdraw their French troops a year earlier than planned. And that's what I think is very positive that the White House clarified, that there's not going to be an acceleration of troop withdrawal now.

    We need to stick with the plan that's been outlined to date on the military front, but we need to complement that with a much more robust political and diplomatic strategy.


    Andrew Wilder, Thomas Johnson, Matt Sherman, we thank you, all three.

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