Saturday, September 19, 2009

The situation in Afghanistan: An experienced observer's view

I reproduce below part of a recent Bill Moyers interview (on September 11, 2009) with Nancy Youssef, a reporter with the McClatchy newspapers who has recently returned from Afghanistan. Youssef has been working in that part of the world for many years, and I thought her perspective on the Afghanistan war can help us visualize better what is at stake in the Afghanistan/ Pakistan war. RLC

BILL MOYERS: Is it clear to you what our goals are there? [Afghanistan]
NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, the Secretary lays it out the following way. He says that because the Taliban cooperated and collaborated with Al Qaeda, the United States must make sure that the Taliban's not allowed to return so that it therefore doesn't allow Al Qaeda to return. I guess the question that I have, and that hasn't really been answered is, that may have been true then, but what is the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda now?

Because if the premise of the strategy that is that the Taliban can't be allowed to return, because they'll provide sanctuary for Al Qaeda, I want to understand what that relationship is between those two, to determine if that, in fact, will really happen. For me, it's not clear yet. And it's a very hard question to answer. Because the word Taliban, in a way it doesn't mean anything anymore.
BILL MOYERS: Who is the enemy? Who are these soldiers fighting?
NANCY YOUSSEF: I don't know. I mean they're fighting this nebulous group called the Taliban. And some of them are fighting men who are joining because they need money. Or because they've been forced or coerced into fighting the Americans. Some Taliban are people who have no ties to the ideological Taliban at all, but are just angry that occupation forces, in their mind, are in their country. Some are people who are ideologically driven, who want an Islamic state in Afghanistan, who want to work with Al Qaeda. It's a very, varied enemy. And I think that's what part of what makes a strategy so hard and what makes it so difficult for the troops. Because everyone they're fighting could be a farmer the next day, could be a local. There are no borders. There's no uniform. There's no way to distinguish one from the other. So, I think that's what makes it so hard. The Taliban that I saw, and I was in Kandahar were people who--
BILL MOYERS: That's the southern part of the country right near the Pakistan border.
NANCY YOUSSEF: That's right. And it's one of the most important provinces historically. And you go there and the Taliban is this bullying organization that is a form of order that at least the Afghans are familiar with. And they control the community. The local government that we've established does not. The police chief, the Taliban police chief, lives in the city. The U.S. backed police chief doesn't. He lives on base or he lives in Kandahar proper. And I'm talking about in the provinces. The local district leader who works on behalf of the Karzai government. It's too dangerous for him to live in the city. He lives on the base, or he lives in Kandahar. So, it's a coerced, forced order. It's sort of the devil you know versus the devil you don't.
BILL MOYERS: And what about Al Qaeda? The guys who did attack us on 9/11. Where are they? And who are they now?
NANCY YOUSSEF: The United States believes that the leadership is in Pakistan. But, you know, something I struggle with personally is what happens if the next attack is planned in Somalia or Yemen or Europe, where they've expanded or have a presence there? What is the United States response then? I sometimes worry that we're fighting the last war instead of the next one. And I think when you look at Al Qaeda and how it's spread, you start to wonder. They don't use a sanctuary anymore. It's now an apartment and internet access to start planning these attacks, and how do you defend against that? I don't know.
BILL MOYERS: So, what do the generals whom you interviewed, the colonels and on down tell you remains our goal?
NANCY YOUSSEF: You know, I spoke to General McChrystal when I was there. And I think more than anything, he wants the opportunity to try this out. That if we're going to do it, let's do it. Let's really put our effort towards this. We think about this as--
BILL MOYERS: What does that mean? More troops?
NANCY YOUSSEF: More troops. More time, more than anything else. That this is not something that can be turned around in time for a political or an election cycle. He needs time more than anything else.
BILL MOYERS: You know, Nancy, that's what the generals kept telling President Johnson in the early days and at the peak of the escalation in Vietnam.
NANCY YOUSSEF: But, you know, we talk about Afghanistan as an eight year war. But the truth is it's been eight separate individual years of war. So, I think that's the--
BILL MOYERS: What's the distinction?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Because we've never gone after this in a real way. There was a strategy 2001 to 2003. And then we tried something else 2003 to 2005. And then it escalated and we tried something else. So, I think if we-- to me, I think what General McChrystal's really saying is if we're going to do, let's do it. Let's really do it. And I think that's the disparity that from the military perspective they'll tell you we haven't really been given the chance, because we were too busy in Iraq. So it's a true argument. It's a fair argument. That was an argument made in the past. We need more time. We need more time. But I think for the commanders on the ground, it feels a bit of a rollercoaster. It went from being the just war, during the campaign, and in the early days of the Obama Administration, to a potential quagmire that we're not sure we want to send more troops to.
BILL MOYERS: But now, Obama's made it a, quote, "war of necessity".
NANCY YOUSSEF: He's made it a war of necessity, but yet, there's a real debate about basic questions on this war. This war of necessity, what's happening now in Washington and all these assessments. We're trying to answer very basic questions, "What is the goal? What is the strategy? How do you implement the strategy?" So, even though we call it a war of necessity, I don't think it's ever been treated at a war of necessity, even now. That debate is just starting, in year eight of the war. It's extraordinary.
BILL MOYERS: Things just seem to be going off the rails there. Is that your judgment, too?
NANCY YOUSSEF: I think-- remember that President Obama sent 21,000 more troops, and what happened was the United States expanded its reach. Now, you ask the Afghans, they'll say that when U.S. troops show up, more problems show up for us. Because then the fight starts.
BILL MOYERS: They're caught in the middle.
NANCY YOUSSEF: That's right. Then they are caught in the middle. I mean, when you go to Afghanistan, the Afghans are not trying to work with Karzai, embrace their new democracy. They're trying to survive within the confines of the district. They're manipulating the Taliban, whichever local district leader or warlord in charge. They are not looking for some grand democratic process. That's not what's happening. So, when the U.S. troops show up, from their perspective, it's more problems. Now, the United States will say, "Things could get worse before they get better, because we have to engage them in the fight." But I don't think the Afghans are on board with that yet. I think they feel like we-- I can't tell you how many Afghans said to me, "I don't want the Americans. I don't want the Taliban. I just want to be left alone."
BILL MOYERS: What are they like these people who are caught in the middle? I mean, you got to know a lot of them. You wrote about them in your dispatches. What do they say to you?
NANCY YOUSSEF: You know, they're tired is what the sense I got more than anything else. There's this renewed effort in the United States to engage in Afghanistan. And they've been living with it for eight years. We talk so much about the Washington clock. And how the President--
BILL MOYERS: The Washington clock?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Yeah. How they have 12 to 18 months by the administration's estimates, the military does, to turn things around. I think the Afghan clock is ticking a lot faster. They're tired. They're frustrated that this country has brought a corrupt central government that doesn't serve their interests. They're smart. They're savvy. And they are trying to survive. You know, so many people tell me that Afghanistan's not ready for democracy. I would argue, "Look at the democracy that they've seen. Who would be ready for that?" And that's where they are. They--
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean? What democracy have they seen?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, the democracy they've seen is from their perspective a fraudulent election that's brought about a government that's more corrupt, in their view, than even the Taliban was. And by the way, they don't get any more basic services. They have to pay a lot more in bribes to get basic things done. Their warlords in some cases are more empowered under the system, not less. Who would want to democracy under that? I think we have to think about how we've defined democracy in their minds. It's really become about survival.
BILL MOYERS:I know from reading that our forces are trying to do some good things there. Roads, schools, they move into a village, get acquainted with the elders, try to establish some basis of trust and credibility. And yet, then, you know an attack during a wedding party, I was reading the other day, will completely negate those good intentions, right?
NANCY YOUSSEF: That's right. I was in Zhari District, which is about 20 miles west of Kandahar. When the Canadians first came in, they painted schools and they built new schools for the residents. And you know what happened? The NATO forces eventually had to destroy them, because the Taliban took them over. So--
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean the Taliban took them over? This suggest the Taliban are far more sophisticated than a lot of us think.
NANCY YOUSSEF: I don't think they need to be sophisticated. They own everything. They own the terrain. They know the terrain better than anyone. All they have to do is sort of bully their way in. Because without enough forces, how much security can you really provide that school. That's the thing. We've talked about this Taliban as they've come up with a strategy. I don't think they really had to do anything too complex. We have currently-- there are 101,000 troops, U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

It's an extraordinarily small number for a country of that size and that level of complexity to it. So, why build these schools if you can't establish security? It was a problem in Iraq, too. They would brag about, "Well, we put up this new school. We provided new electrical grid." And the next day it would be, it would be bombed. And Afghanistan's in that same place. But Afghanistan, I think, will take longer. It's just a far more complex country. And I'm not sure that the United States is ready for that yet. Or at least has been readied for it yet. It's going to take years.
BILL MOYERS: What's your greatest fear of what might happen there?
NANCY YOUSSEF: You know, because I'm the Pentagon correspondent, someone said this to me that stayed with me forever. My biggest fear from the military perspective is that Iraq doesn't fall apart quickly, but that--
NANCY YOUSSEF: Iraq. That Iraq falls apart slowly. And that we find ourselves in a place where we're doing this with troops. That as we're slowly bringing down troops in Iraq and slowly building up in Afghanistan, we find ourselves in a really difficult situation in both countries.
BILL MOYERS: So, you fear we have to reengage in Iraq?
NANCY YOUSSEF: I fear that we're going to find-- I don't know that the United States will. I mean, the Status of Forces Agreement makes it very clear that the United States is not going to engage.
BILL MOYERS: The Iraqis want us out.
NANCY YOUSSEF: That's right.
BILL MOYERS: There's a legal agreement to get out.
NANCY YOUSSEF: That's right. But what happens when the violence starts to escalate in Iraq and starts to escalate in Afghanistan, and we're say, at 80,000 troops in both countries? What is the United States role at that point? Is the plan to sit aside and do nothing? Will the Iraqi Government still feel that way? Depending on what the violence is? That's what keeps me up at night. Is that fear of that point where the United States finds itself engaged in both wars or at least heavily committed to both and not quite out of one, not quite in the other.
BILL MOYERS: President Obama has said that on the 24th of September, as you indicate, he will set forth his strategy. Do the officials you cover at the Pentagon have a sense of where his head is on this?
NANCY YOUSSEF: You know, that's the fundamental problem in all of this. You'll hear this. You might hear these phrases about counterterrorism versus counterinsurgency. Counterterrorism argues for a very narrow approach. We leave some drones there. We leave a few troops there. We keep an eye on things and we attack when necessary. And in Washington, that's sort of being led by Joe Biden. And then the counterinsurgency argument is we do everything. We build up a stable government so that there's no room at all for the Taliban to come back in. We build the economy.

We build better governance. And on this camp is, Hillary Clinton, General Petraeus, General McChrystal. And the problem is nobody knows where Obama is on that spectrum.
BILL MOYERS: Suppose he commits to a long war. Will the American people-do we have that kind of patience?

NANCY YOUSSEF: I don't know anymore because you see these polls come out and the majority now don't think this war is worth fighting. I was thinking about it. 60 days ago, when General McChrystal started the assessment, the political capital for this war was much, much higher. We hadn't had the health care debate the way it has.

We hadn't seen the kind of troop deaths that we had seen. And the political capital has diminished so quickly. At the minimum, General McChrystal's arguing for a strategy to build up the Afghan forces to a capacity that would cost about $3 billion dollars a year. This is in a country that generates $800 million of total revenue every year. So, at the minimum, he's talking about committing the United States and Europe and NATO to an indefinite financial commitment to Afghanistan. How do you sell that in this current economic climate? I don't know how you do that.
BILL MOYERS: And in the last eight years, there's been about $32 billion of foreign aid that's been splashed across Afghanistan. Can you see any of the effects of that?
NANCY YOUSSEF: It's very, very minimal because at the core it's security. I mean, that same number, you'll hear talked about how much has reached the Afghans. It's something ridiculously small. Like $4-$6 billion that actually has reached the ground in Afghanistan. Do you see it? Not really. You'll see it in pieces. You know, you'll see the ring road, or a paved road of some kind there. Or you'll see a new water system, or a new school, or a new crop buildup. But there's nothing linking all those things together. That's what's missing. So, it's very piecemeal. So, it's sort of like a mirage of a big pool of water in the middle of the desert. You know, you see it and then it sort of disappears, because it doesn't have any real long term impact.
BILL MOYERS: You're reporting depicts a very dismal picture there. So does every other bit of reporting I've seen, including the cover story a couple of weeks ago of "The Economist", which reaches a grim conclusion about the state of things there. But is there-- I'm not looking for a silver lining, but for a reporter's assessment, is there any good news there?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Yeah, the good news is that the United States is committed to it. The good news is that the world thinks that this is a priority. The good news is that there's now a renewed effort and that the best minds are on this and trying to come up with a solution. And that--
BILL MOYERS: The best and the brightest?
NANCY YOUSSEF: I don't want to say-- Maybe. But to me, I think the question at this point becomes either the United States commits to this and really commits to it. Or it walks away. But this middle ground of sort of holding on isn't going to work anymore. And that, to me, the good news is at least we are now coming to a head. We're at least coming to that decision point. And that's a critical decision that needs to be made. And to me, that's good news, because at least it gives everybody involved some sense of where this is going. I think that's something worth looking forward to because what's been going on up until now is unacceptable.
BILL MOYERS: But people say to me, you know, they're opposed to escalating the war. But they say, "How can we walk away from the people who joined this fight in no small part, because we've asked them to?"
NANCY YOUSSEF: Right. And what happens if the United States and the Coalition leaves? The Taliban invariably comes back. And there's the potential now for Al Qaeda to come back and we start it all over again. This is the problem with Afghanistan. You can't stay. You can't go. There are no absolutes in this. And it's this fine line that everybody's trying to walk. Are we prepared for the risk that comes with leaving and allowing the Taliban to come back in and potentially for that sanctuary to rise again? And now you've got a population that's more angry and more empowered in a very, very powerful and dangerous part of the region.
BILL MOYERS: But you're going back.
NANCY YOUSSEF: I have to go back. You know--
BILL MOYERS: Why do you have to go back?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Because I'm the Pentagon Correspondent, and I think it's really dangerous to depend on people in the Pentagon to tell you what's happening on the ground. There's no way to understand it other than to go. And I'm not smart enough to just sort of read reports. I have to feel it. I have to smell it and touch it and feel that fear in some way. I have to be in the humvee and feel the fear of not knowing what's going to happen. Or be in the car with the Afghan with my Afghan friends and feel what it's like to not know if that coalition soldier's going to kill you or not. There's just no way for me to understand it. And the vantage point of Washington, in some ways, doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter.

What matters is what the troops are doing. And you can't replicate anything going there. And I really do love it. It's a beautiful country. I love the people. I love hanging out with the troops. I love understanding it. To me it's a great privilege to have a job where I can go to the frontlines and really see what's happening. It's a great way to make a living.
BILL MOYERS: But just this week the "New York Times" correspondent, Farrell, was held hostage. And as he and his journalist friend, who in Afghan interpreted for him, was killed. He got away, but the Afghan was killed. And just this week, your colleague, who was in Afghanistan, Jonathan Landay of "McClatchy," was in a hostile action and in a perilous situation. Why do you put yourself in that?
NANCY YOUSSEF: It's sort of like Afghanistan, the alternative is far worse to me, which is to do nothing, which is to say nothing. You know, I have a unique background. My parents are from Egypt. And I'm, I'm raised Muslim and I feel like I have something to say. I feel like I can walk that line between what the local populations are feeling. What the military is feeling. And I don't walk in blindly. Every time I go, I sort of look at my hands and feet and say, "Oh, I hope I come back with all of these." I mean, I know what's involved.

I know those risks, and it's around. I mean, it's become personal, in a way. Every day this week, I wake up, and there's a bombing. And I worry about my friends in Afghanistan. And my colleague who sits right across from me at work is caught in an ambush. And I think, "What can I do to sort of tell people about this? What people have to know. They just have to know."

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