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Afghanistan: When Should Longest U.S. War End?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The war in Afghanistan has gone largely unmentioned by both presidential campaigns. When it does come up, conversations focus not so much on what happening now but withdrawal.

If timetables hold, the U.S. and NATO will hand over combat operations to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, but plans call for American troops to stay on for many years in support and counterterrorism roles.

But if the candidates agree, the public has concluded it's past time to end America's longest war, after a spate of insider attacks by men in Afghan uniforms and continued frustration with a corrupt and ineffectual government. What's at risk if we leave now? What might we gain by staying? We want to hear from those of you personally affected by this war: soldiers, family members, Afghans, nonprofit workers. What convinced you one way or the other?

Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, the struggles to aid senior citizens and the disabled stranded by Superstorm Sandy.

But first Afghanistan, and we begin with retired General Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the Army, now chairman of the Institute for the Study of War. He joins us here in Studio 3A, and nice to have you back on the program.

JACK KEANE: Good to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And in a piece you wrote for the Wall Street Journal, you argued that the principal mission of the United States in Afghanistan, the defeat of al-QaIda, has yet to be achieved.

KEANE: Yeah, that's correct. I mean, the fact of the matter is we've driven a lot of the al-QaIda out of Afghanistan. I mean, that's indisputable. They've tried to come back a number of times. But it has always been to them their number one sanctuary, and they're sitting across the border, as we all know, not too far from Afghanistan itself.

They have relationships with Mullah Omar, and...

CONAN: The head of the Taliban.

KEANE: Taliban leader. And most of us who watch this closely know that this is where they really want to be. In terms of a safe haven, the mountainous terrain, the Taliban support for them, if they were able to regain control, it gives them license and liberty that they have no place else. And they're certainly used to that because that's what they had in the past.

So at times we lose sight of this, and certainly I can understand our listening audience's frustration with a war that has gone on as long as this has. Much of that is due to decisions we made when we prioritized Iraq over Afghanistan and put Afghanistan on a diet from, you know, essentially 2002 all the way to 2009, when the president made a decision to in fact increase our forces and escalate the war so we can possibly bring it to a quicker termination.

CONAN: Yet if there's going to be an eventual turnover to Afghan troops, doesn't the quality of those forces, don't the quality of the government, aren't those principal concerns? And neither seems to be up to the task right now.

KEANE: Those are, you know, absolutely valid points. Let's take the quality of the troops first. I've spent a lot of time on this in my assessments in Afghanistan for General Petraeus and also for General Allen and General Mattis because after all, the future success of Afghanistan will largely be determined by Afghanistan security forces and Afghanistan political leadership. That's indisputable.

The fact of the matter is the Afghan security forces, in our judgments, are adequate to the task, and we spent a lot of time looking at this. We won't know for certain until they're truly conducting independence, but we've now had some insight.

Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, the two places where the surge forces were applied, is where we've enjoyed the greatest success in Afghanistan since 2001 when we deposed the Taliban. We literally have beaten back the Taliban rather dramatically, and now, beginning in the summer, we turned over to the Afghan security forces, and they're doing pretty well.

We didn't know for sure. We thought they would, but it has to go out there and do it. So, now we have some insight, and we'll eventually begin to transition to them in other areas where they're on their own conducting operations. Now let's be realistic also. We're not too far away right now, and we can still provide some assistance, particularly intellectual assistance in terms of how best to handle this particular problem.

And at some point we will not have that. But the early signs are good. What we have to do here is keep the numbers of these forces at the proper level. Right now I know the command wants to keep it at the 352,000 level, which is about...

CONAN: That's for Afghan forces.

KEANE: This is for Afghan forces, 352,000, and that requires funding. And there'll be discussions within the administration, whether it's this one or a new one, you know, at what the appropriate funding levels should be. And we should keep an eye on that. If that goes down - if the funding isn't there to maintain that at 352,000, and it's reduced dramatically, which some options are considering as dramatic a reduction as 352,000 to 230,000, then I do think the future success of Afghanistan will be at risk.

In terms of the political aspect of it, there will be definitely be an election in 2014. I think we have to be realistic about that, in the sense that we probably will not get a transformational government, which will solve all the major problems in Afghanistan.

I think we'll get a government that will make some progress at change, and it'll take a number of governments to truly have the kind of effectiveness that we're used to seeing. And we have to be realistic about it. But it will be an improvement over the Karzai government.

They know the number one issue is corruption. They know they're not well-connected to the people at the local level, although local governance has improved rather dramatically. They know they have work to do, and all the candidates, you know, will be espousing that view. But it will be better, but it's not going to be a panacea for the problems they have.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations and history at Boston University, right now a visiting research fellow at the University of Notre Dame, and he joins us from a studio there in South Bend. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, thanks very much.

CONAN: And what's the - what's the risk of withdrawing 68,000 American forces from Afghanistan right now, as the majority of the American people would like to see?

BACEVICH: Well, I mean, I'm listening to General Keane's presentation, and I have to say I find it very persuasive, if in fact, we could conclude that prevailing in Afghanistan, winning in Afghanistan, would somehow equal winning the global war on terrorism, and we could declare victory and go home.

The problem with the analysis is that there's nothing that indicates that success in Afghanistan will solve the larger problem. That Wall Street Journal op-ed that General Keane wrote, that you referred to, he says that while we have been exerting ourselves in Afghanistan in recent years that al-QaIda has grown in strength in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sinai, Syria, Iraq.

So it's hard for me to understand how staying the course in Afghanistan gets to the larger problem. Indeed, I'd make an argument that says that to some considerable degree, it's the American penchant for meddling in the Islamic world, in particular the penchant for military intervention and occupation in the Islamic world, that fuels anti-Americanism that finds a violent expression.

And so rather than staying the course in Afghanistan, it seems to me what we ought to do is to ask the much broader question about the war with and which Afghanistan forms a part and say what is the strategy that is going to ultimately lead to success because the strategy we've been doing for the last decade is not putting us on a road to success.

CONAN: It's hard to argue there's a strategy that would be universal to cover Afghanistan, Yemen, where drones are being extensive; Syria, where the United States is not involved; and Iraq, where the United States is not involved.

BACEVICH: I disagree with you. I mean, I think it's too easy for us to say that there is no such strategy. Let's recall that in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush did conceive of a strategy. He called the Freedom Agenda, and it was based on the assumption that the vigorous use of American military power was going to enable to us to transform the greater Middle East, to fix the problems in the region so that people would no longer hate us and want to attack us.

Well, that strategy failed, and since then we haven't had one, and quite frankly I think that the argument that General Keane makes about let's stay the course in Afghanistan even as al-QaIda gains in strength elsewhere is indicative of this strategic failure.

CONAN: General Keane, we'll get more from you, and then we'll take a break and get some callers in on the conversation.

KEANE: Yeah, sure. Well, you know, first of all I agree with part of what, you know, the colonel is saying is that we really don't have an effective strategy, and that's absolutely true, and that's why we have the rise of al-QaIda, who's certainly - and they're not the catalyst for the revolutionary change that's taken place in the Middle East, but they certainly are taking advantage of it.

And I think the current administration has an unstated strategy in the Middle East of disengagement. And I think that's why al-QaIda is taking advantage of the situation in Libya and Syria. They're twice the size that they were when we departed from Iraq a little over a year ago.

And now they're clearly on the move, and you don't defeat the al-QaIda by shooting them. That's the harsh reality of it. I agree with the colonel on that. I'm not suggesting we don't - didn't go to war, we shouldn't have gone to war in Afghanistan because obviously we needed to eliminate that sanctuary.

But at the same time, we have to help influence and shape outcomes in the Middle East and give these transitional governments and others who are struggling to deal with political, social and economic injustices that exist in the Middle East and revolutionary change that's taken place, and the al-QaIda and the Iranians see that as advantageous to their political objectives.

We have to be involved in that process. It's not necessarily being involved with guns, it's being involved diplomatically and helping to shore up these transitional governments that are starting to manifest themselves as opposed to pulling away from them.

And I think that happened in Iraq, it just happened in Libya. We should have been training, helping to train those Libyan security forces not with U.S. military but providing contract services for them. They have some money to do it. We have some money, and we could have stayed engaged.

CONAN: Colonel Bacevich, do you see us pulling out of the Middle East, withdrawing?

BACEVICH: It's been over 20 years since I was a colonel, but if you guys want to call me that, that's OK.


KEANE: I can't help myself, I'm sorry.

BACEVICH: I guess I go back to the argument I was trying to emphasize before. The assumption here, the assumption that has existed at least since 9/11 and frankly that's existed since Carter promulgated the Carter doctrine back in 1980, is that the commitment of U.S. military power to the region will enhance the stability of the region.

I mean, we began trying to stabilize the Persian Gulf. We've ended up trying to stabilize the greater Middle East. But stability has not occurred as a consequence of deploying U.S. military power. The region is less stable today than it was back in 1980, than it was 2001. That ought to cause us to question the effectiveness of U.S. military power as an instrument to address this particular problem.

It could be that the commitment of U.S. military power is in fact counterproductive.

CONAN: We'll call him Professor Andrew Bacevich, with us from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend Indiana; retired General Jack Keane is with us here in Studio 3A. We're talking about the way ahead in Afghanistan. When is it time to end America's longest war? If you've been personally affected, what convinced you one way or the other? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. After a series of so-called insider attacks earlier this year, U.S. and NATO troops suspended joint patrols and training operations with Afghans. At least 50 international troops were killed by Afghan police or security forces this year.

After closer vetting of those allies, NATO resumed joint operations. Earlier this week, another apparent insider attack. A man wearing an Afghan police uniform shot and killed two British soldiers at a checkpoint in southern Afghanistan.

Polls in the United States show growing dissatisfaction with the war. Both candidates for president agree in general terms to a handover of combat operations by the end of 2014. We're talking today about when to end America's longest war. What's at risk if we leave now? What might we gain by staying?

We want to hear from those of you personally affected; family members, soldiers, Afghans, nonprofit workers. What convinced you one way or the other? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org.

Our guests, former General Jack Keane, with us here in Studio 3A; and Professor Andrew Bacevich at Boston University, now a research fellow at the University of Notre Dame. Josh is with us on the line from Jonesboro in Arkansas.

JOSH: Yes, thank you Neal. My question was about - they stated that, actually both of the gentlemen stated that when we first started, and when we couldn't support the communist occupation in Afghanistan, we actually supplied local militias and supported local militias. And after that, we are now - we're in Afghanistan, we have supported the same militias, the same people.

How can we be sure that we are going to have a structured government in that region in order to affect the surrounding regions when we do withdraw and not keep them from overpowering the government because they still have the strongest regional and tribal power in their areas. What can we do? What steps do you think we can take to actually make this a more structured withdrawal, similar to Iraq?

CONAN: Andrew Bacevich, it's probably fair to say some of the former warlords are on the government side, and some are on the other side.

BACEVICH: Well, that's right. I mean referring to my earlier argument about whether or not we're creating stability or instability, I mean, the good news-bad news story of the first Afghanistan war is that the effective covert support for the mujahedeen embarrassed the Soviet Union, may well have contributed to the collapse of communism. Oh, by the way, those same forces have come back and bitten us in the butt.

I mean, to Josh's question we can pontificate all we want to on the radio, but no one can say for certain whether or not the Afghan government and security forces, whenever we leave, will be able to support themselves. My own view would be that at the end of the day, the Afghans are going to determine their own future, and quite frankly, I don't think we have a particularly - any particular ability to shape outcomes in this country.

And we ought to acknowledge the fact that the Afghans have their right to self-determination, and they should be allowed to exercise it. I mean, in the broader sense, just in the way we talk about U.S. policy in this part of the world, we need to manifest some amount of modesty, especially based on the frustrations and disappointments of the past decade.

And the notion that we can shape the course of events in the Islamic world is nonsense, and we need to grow up and get over it.

CONAN: General Keane, we keep reading reports - Josh, thanks very much for the call - about groups in Afghanistan seemingly preparing for the next civil war as they carve up resources in the military and in the police and as they position their various militias in preparation.

KEANE: Well, certainly there's huge political factions inside of Afghanistan, and I mean, the real problem is clearly what the Taliban's objectives are and what they would like to do, you know, strategically, politically and militarily, sometime post-2014. I think that really is a major issue.

And obviously this administration and its instrument, the United States military and the Department of State, are trying to prevent that reality from taking place. And so I still think we have a chance to succeed here. I mean, our challenges have been exacerbated a little bit when the president made the decision to pull the surge forces out, you know, in our judgment prematurely over the objection of General Petraeus, who wanted to keep them in there through 2013, and they're already gone.

So we haven't been able to achieve the same military success in the east that we were able to achieve in the south and give the Afghans, in a sense, a better hand to play, you know, post-2014.

Yeah, make no mistake about it. I mean, this is a complicated issue, and you've got the Pakistanis with their hands in this, as well. They clearly would like to see a relatively stable Afghanistan but not a particularly strong one, and they certainly do not want it geopolitically aligned, you know, with India.

And one of the reasons why they, you know, are providing aid and assistance to the Taliban, which is one of the most tragic occurrences in that part of the world, because every single day, the Taliban are, in fact, affecting the operations on U.S. and NATO forces as a result of that assistance.

So, yeah, geopolitically a very complicated situation to be sure, and post-2014, we'll see what in fact is going to take place as we make this transition. No one, I think, here now can predict it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rita and Rita with us from Covington in Kentucky.

RITA: Hello.

CONAN: You're on the air, go ahead please.

RITA: Thank you. My son-in-law is sent to Afghanistan or Iraq, you know, while we were going to Iraq, alternately, and the thing is that nobody trains the extended family for making up this gap. The last - last year my daughter went into labor early. My son-in-law was still in Iraq. And so the extended family has to band together in order to make up this gap for, you know, two wars that - because when you consider them historically, they were lost from the very beginning.

You know, Afghanistan is not a cohesive country, it never was. And regardless of whether Saddam Hussein was there or not, he did hold Iraq together, and it was a cohesive country. But now, our families are being torn apart because they have - the government has torn apart these two countries.

CONAN: General Keane, I know this goes to your heart, the strain on the Army and the strain on Army families.

KEANE: Yeah, well, certainly it does, and Rita, we certainly appreciate the service that he's provided and the sacrifice that families are making and that you are making as you touch them. You know, this is a relatively new experience for me in understanding our own history in our country, where never before have we asked so few to do so much for so long for so many.

And one of my real frustrations has been that we've been unwilling to grow the size of the active-duty force that would permit a more reasonable and realistic rotation experience, you know, for these wars that we've been fighting. The military doesn't choose these wars, we execute them.

And there has been an enormous burden on these ground forces, you know, to bear this brunt, you know, for 11 years and for their families, as well. And listen, it's extraordinary the morale and the discipline of this force. The only way you can judge a military is its performance on the battlefield. I mean, and its performance is exceptional.

It is exceptional right now as we speak, as it was a number of years ago, despite the multiple tours. The resiliency of the people who are wearing this uniform and their families and what they are doing is extraordinary, and obviously, there are sacrifices being made here, and we should be doing everything as an institution and as a country to make certain that these families are taken care of.

CONAN: Rita, where is your son-in-law now?

RITA: He's currently in Washington, D.C., but of course we're holding our breath to see whether he's going to be sent back or not.

CONAN: Well, we wish you and him the best of luck. Thanks very much for calling.

RITA: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Go ahead, Colonel - Andrew Bacevich.

BACEVICH: I mean, there's no question that the U.S. forces have demonstrated astonishing durability that sees people like Rita's son-in-law going back again and again for these tours in these two, long, drawn-out wars. And I think there's no exception - no question that at the level of the individual soldier, down where platoons and companies operate, the force has performed very admirably. But in the larger sense, it hasn't performed in an exceptional way. It hasn't performed in an exceptional way in the sense that it hasn't been able - the United States military, neither in Iraq nor in Afghanistan, has been able to achieve conclusive success in a timely way, anywhere close to the amount of money that the politicians thought they were going to spend when these wars began.

And I think that we ought to acknowledge that disappointment and that failure of performance and engage in a serious conversation about why that disappointment occurred. When you go back and look at the U.S. Army doctrine in the 1990s, U.S. Army doctrine said that there was - that the mission was defined as victory. Nothing short of victory was going to be acceptable. Victory, said the Army - said Army doctrine, was going to be achieved quickly and decisively. Well, guess what? It hasn't happened, and it's not going to happen in Afghanistan. And we ought to have enough guts to ask why the performance has fallen so short of expectations in that regard.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Chad. Chad with us from Saint Louis.

CHAD: Yes. Hello. Thank you. I am a three-time veteran of - two times with the Marine Corps in Iraq (unintelligible) in the last year. I just returned from Afghanistan in April with (unintelligible) the Missouri National Guard. I definitely see that we have not progressed lately. This was a totally different deployment (unintelligible) with - in Afghanistan and we've kind of gotten stagnant. I worked, not side by side, but definitely saw the Afghan military. I don't think that they are going to be prepared anytime in the future to take over.

And I, kind of, question if the government will ever also be able to take over because of the tribal society that they have. I also - what I'm more concerned and my question is: I saw a trend of, as U.S. troops are moving out, civilian contractors coming in and replacing them. And right before I left, I kind of noticed - I was standing in the chow hall line and 60 percent of the people in that line were not wearing a uniform. They were civilians, and I would say 50 percent of those are not U.S. citizens.

So we have all this money that's going into Afghanistan with rebuilding it, and I think if we pull out, what is the plan and where will all the money go? I mean, are we still going to finance private companies and citizens that sometimes don't have ties with the U.S. to fight our war? Or we just - do we walk away and leave it all to the country?

CONAN: Andrew Bacevich, what happens in that circumstance?

BACEVICH: Well, I mean, this is one of the ugly secrets of the past decade that really isn't all that much of a secret. I mean, General Keane is correct that the military has been too small for the wars in which we have engaged. The American people are not willing to step up to the plate. Indeed, they haven't been asked to step up to the plate in terms of expanding the size of the force. And so the difference is made up by turning the war in very substantial ways over to contractors. I think this is pernicious. It invites corruption. It undermines the military professional ethic, and quite frankly, is another one of those fundamental questions that that needs to be addressed along with the larger purpose of these wars.

CONAN: Andrew Bacevich, now a research fellow at the University of Notre Dame, professor of international relations and history at Boston University, author most recently of "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War." Also with us, retired Army General Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, chairman of the Institute for the Study of War. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, General Keane, the situation when we withdraw - should it be tomorrow, or should it be 2014 - is it going to be substantially different? What would we achieve in the intervening months?

KEANE: Well, what we're trying to do is to orderly transition, you know, to 2014 where our forces obviously will be gone by the end of that year.

CONAN: Our combat troops.

KEANE: If that - yes. Well, our forces, period, except for a residual force, which will be much smaller, somewhere around 20 or 30,000. So the reality of that is the transition is already taking place, where we're turning over districts and provinces to the Afghan national security forces. And for Chad's sake - and, Chad, thanks so much for all your years of service. It's quite commendable. The fact of the matter is, based on what we are currently doing in those districts and provinces where we pull Marines out and where we're pulling Army troops out in Helmand and Kandahar province, were satisfied with the progress, and that's the good news.

That doesn't mean that this transition will be completely successful. It does not. But the early signs of it are encouraging. And we're not looking at this thing, you know, through a prism of wanting to be successful. I mean, we deal with the harsh reality of what is actually taking place on the ground and face up to it. So we'll see. No one knows for sure, you know, what's that going to be like. The enemy has objectives as well that they're going to want to achieve post-2014.

The contractor issue, I mean, 20 - 75 percent of the ground forces are support troops, in the sense that they support those who do the - who pull triggers, who actually do the engaging and fighting, about 25 percent of them. So to reduce strain on the military, a decision the key leaders made, because of the size of the military, was to have some of that support functions be performed by contractors. And actually, we began to do that in the 1990s in Bosnia, Herzegovina and just reduce the strain on the force on the - if you can reduce that 75 percent and have some contractors do that, those are reasons why those decisions would - are made. Now, you can make arguments, like Andy does, that there's issues involved with those decisions, and they certainly are.

CONAN: I wanted to give Andrew Bacevich the last word. What justifies the lost of blood and treasure in the next months to make a significant difference in Afghanistan?

BACEVICH: Oh, gosh. I'm not - I don't think I am able to answer that question. I mean, the - you're asking me to somehow see - is it possible to justify the sacrifice of American lives in this war? Was it - was the sacrifice made by Americans in a war - in the war in Iraq - justified? Was it worth it? I don't think I can answer that question. All I can say is that whatever value adheres to sacrifice is in the act itself. And I don't think that the rest of us really are in the position to comment on whether or not it was worth it.

CONAN: Andrew Bacevich, thanks very much for your time.

BACEVICH: Thank you.

CONAN: Andrew Bacevich, with us from South Bend in Indiana where he's a research fellow at the University of Notre Dame at the moment. And our thanks to Jack Keane, a retired Army general, now chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, here in Studio 3A. Appreciate it.

KEANE: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: When we come back, we'll find out what's being done to help the many older and disabled vet - residents who found themselves facing Superstorm Sandy with nowhere else to go. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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