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The Path Ahead For The U.S., NATO And Afghanistan


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Last week, NATO announced sharp reductions in some joint operations in training with the Afghan army and police. The announcement followed a series of so-called green on blue attacks, where Afghan soldiers and police killed U.S. and NATO troops.

While the suspension of joint operations is temporary, it's to remain in place until commanders determine that the threat to coalition forces has dropped, it does raise serious questions about U.S. strategy. Begin with a surge to weaken the Taliban in a U.S.-led offensive, while Afghan forces are recruited and trained to defend their own country after 2014.

If you've served in Afghanistan, how do we do that without training and joint patrols? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the fan fury over the latest botched call in NFL football, but first the war in Afghanistan. Douglas Ollivant is a senior national security fellow with the New America Foundation. He's a retired Army officer who served in Iraq and spent a year as the senior counterinsurgency advisor in Afghanistan. Nice to have you with us today.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Thank you very much.

CONAN: He's with us here in Studio 3A. Is this short-term suspension a blip or a long-term problem?

OLLIVANT: It's certainly a long-term problem. The first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. And I think it's very clear we have a problem with our transition strategy in Afghanistan, which as you said in your introduction was continuing to advise the Afghan security forces while American forces, you know, work their way out of a job and leave the country. That strategy is now clearly at risk.

While this blip may be temporary, the measures that are going to have to be put in effect, and we don't know entirely what they are, and it's probably prudent that they're a little quiet about exactly what those measure are, but we know a couple things that it involves.

We know that these joint operations are going to be approved at a higher level, that at least a full colonel, perhaps even a general, are going to have to sign off on each joint operation. And we know that there's what they call guardian angels, which are soldiers who are dedicated to essentially watching the Afghan trainees to ensure that none of them take any measures that could harm the American trainers.

While that's great from our interest, if I'm an Afghan, and I'm being trained, and I know the guy in the corner there is waiting to shoot me if he perceives I'm doing something hostile, I'm probably not in a mode to really receive the training that someone's trying to push at me.

CONAN: And even if there's some determination, again on what basis we don't know, that this, the security situation is better, and we can resume these things, doesn't it give the initiative to the Taliban? At least a quart of these are said to have been Taliban operations. They just do a few more, and what do you do, suspend it again?

OLLIVANT: That's a great question. You know, how do you find - presumably they're trying to vet and find who the infiltrators are. But that's really hard in a society that doesn't have birth certificates, where people use one name, there's no family names. It's hard to know who these people are, where they came from.

And a noble, patriotic Afghan looks much the same as a Taliban infiltrator to us. Perhaps the Afghans themselves can do a little better but from our perspective not so much. What this - the real concern is the - what I've called the trust deficit this generates between the Americans and the Afghans.

If the Americans are looking at each of their Afghan trainees as a potential Taliban infiltrator or, actually in most cases, someone who think their honor's been violated in some way and therefore is going to shoot their American trainer, and the Afghans perceive, correctly, that the Americans are looking at them this way, it's awfully hard to generate the comradeship that you need to have an effective mentorship relationship.

CONAN: Joining us now is Stephen Biddle, professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University. He's also a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and an occasional consultant to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan. He's with us studio now from CFR. Nice to have you with us.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you've said that there's a bigger question, beyond the focus of whether or not the Afghans will be prepared to take over security duties in 2014. What's bigger than that?

BIDDLE: Well, I think the issue has to do with what the cause of the truth deficit that Doug mentioned may be. I mean, in some ways if the cause of this is Taliban infiltration, it's relatively easy to address. You can, in fact, do a better job of vetting. You can, in fact, do a better job of intelligence. You can presumably reduce the incidence of this as a result.

The more worrisome possibility is if there's a deeper cultural divide that reflects underlying problems in the Afghan national security forces that may be harder to fix. And in particular, soldiers tend to see combat motivation and performance under fire as a virtue that outstrips almost all others.

And often, especially younger soldiers have a difficult time mustering very much respect for colleagues who don't show that. A common problem in developing-world militaries is that they often have difficulty generating combat motivation out in the field because the institutional structure of the military, and the officer corps in particular, gets politicized.

When developing-world militaries fail in combat, it's often not because they don't have enough training, or they don't have enough advisors, or they don't have enough equipment. It's usually because the officer corps gets captured by patron client networks and politicized, loses the ability to generate combat motivation in the field.

It would not be surprising if, in the enterprise of creating a developing-world military from scratch, which is more or less what we're doing in Afghanistan, we were to encounter problems like that. The most worrisome possibility in the green on blue problem in Afghanistan in my view is if it's providing a window for us into the real proficiency in the field of the Afghan security forces in a way that's otherwise very hard to measure.

In a sense, if American troops in significant numbers are reaching an assessment that these guys in fact can't do the job and have lost respect for them, Afghans then resent the kind of mistreatment that they get as a result, and every now and then, it bubbles all the way up to the point of a shooting.

If so, the bigger problem is less the shootings themselves, problematic though they are, and more the part of the iceberg that's still below the surface of the water, the larger problem of Afghan performance and the degree to which that's generating friction between these two militaries that we're observing through the occasional problem of green on blue.

CONAN: I see what you're saying, but if we're not able to develop that level of communication and that level of respect, if we're not able to carry out the training that's needed to bring those forces, the numbers up to what they're going to need and bring them up in combat proficiency through joint patrols, what's the point?

BIDDLE: Well, I mean, we've been waging the war to prevent Afghan territory from being used either as a base for attacking us or as a base for destabilizing its neighbors and especially Pakistan. That's the underlying point. And the strategy for bringing about that objective has been, as Doug suggested, oriented around preparing the Afghans to carry on an ongoing war on their own or with minimal Western assistance after 2014 in a way that would prevent Afghan territory from being used as a base to attack us or a base to destabilize its neighbors.

If the Afghan security forces aren't going to be up to that job, and in particular if the officer corps is getting politicized in ways that would systematically undermine their ability to perform in the field well enough to obtain those two objectives, it brings into serious question how many lives it's worth spending between now and 2014 if after 2014 the Afghan security forces aren't going to be able to pull their weight.

CONAN: And Doug Ollivant, the soldiers and Marines out in the field, this question will have occurred to them, too.

OLLIVANT: One would think. We really are at I think an inflection point. This is the latest in a series of setbacks and/or bad news. High violence continues to occur in the surge areas, in the places where we've sent the most troops. You know, not surprisingly, we sent them to the worst areas, but they continue to be bad.

There's no political solution in sight in Kabul. No one, no realistic observer thinks that the political situation in Kabul is any better. Local governance, we had a very good report come out of the United States Institute for Peace this week about how local governance hasn't gotten any better, either. Highway 1, which connects Kabul to Kandahar, think of it as like Highway 95 connecting Washington and New York, is interdicted, you can't drive down that. The Taliban control major portions of that highway.

There's been no change in Pakistan in terms of their support, their safe havens. And we're about to start downsizing the Afghan national security forces just as their economy will also likely contract as Americans and NATO and associated NGOs all start to leave.

So we'll be discharging guys with guns who know how to use them just at the time that we can expect the Afghan economy to be not so great.

CONAN: There was also a report that said violence was down nine percent in August. That comes at the same time as a - what turns out to have been a significant attack at Camp Bastion, an important base that I think surprised everybody.

OLLIVANT: A surprisingly successful attack at Camp Bastion. Yes, violence is down nine percent in Afghanistan, perhaps not coincidentally at the same time that we've taken 33,000 troops who spent every day going out and trying to instigate violence against the Taliban. They've left. We should expect violence to come down a little bit.

CONAN: And Stephen Biddle, as we ask you, we by the way want to hear from those of you who've served in Afghanistan if there's just basic lack of trust that results in fewer joint patrols, a big cutback and far less training, what's the point? 800-989-8255. Email us, As you look at that attack on Camp Bastion, does that seem to signal to you any diminishment in the strength of the Taliban?

BIDDLE: Well, I mean, the Taliban clearly have the ability to plan complicated attacks and execute complicated attacks in fairly sophisticated ways, albeit on relatively small scale. There's still a lot we don't know about the details of what happened at Bastion, but it looks like at least part of what happened was that the Taliban used purloined American military uniforms to allow them to get closer access to the base's security perimeter.

If it turns out that at the end of the day this was a clever ruse and that they managed to get onto the base, exploiting careful planning and good preparation on their part of course but nonetheless clever ruse, then at the end of the day it'll be a one-off that they probably won't be able to repeat.

I suspect that everywhere in Afghanistan right now, sentries are on alert to check people in American uniforms more carefully than they would've otherwise. If it turns out that they fought their way through a defended perimeter without the use of subterfuge, that would be a much more sweeping change in the military situation and cause for greater worry.

None of this, however, is good news. We would much prefer to be in a situation in 2012 where the Taliban were so weak that they couldn't put together this kind of sophisticated operation, and they clearly still can.

CONAN: We're talking about the jobs of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan after the suspension of most joint operations. If you've served there, how do we prepare Afghan troops to defend their country if we don't have training and joint patrols? 800-989-8255. Email Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Afghan commanders say they're re-vetting all of their police and military recruits in response to the killings of more than 50 U.S. and coalition troops in insider attacks by Afghan forces.

NATO, as we've heard, stopped most joint operations, training runs and joint Afghan-NATO missions. These joint operations are key to NATO's strategy to prepare Afghan forces to defend their own country by 2014. If you've served in Afghanistan, how do we do that without training and joint patrols? 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Douglas Ollivant, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a former Army officer who served in Iraq during the 2007, '08 American troops surge. From March 2010 until March 2011 he was a senior counterinsurgency advisor in Afghanistan. And Stephen Biddle, professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University and adjunct a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as an occasional consultant to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan.

And Doug Ollivant, let me turn back to you. Is there any perception that you can see here in Washington about the scale of this problem and fundamental rethinking about the transition in Afghanistan?

OLLIVANT: I don't think we see a full understanding of this. We don't see either political candidate wanting to talk about Afghanistan. That's been well-noted. And the Pentagon, at least officially, is in denial on this. I'm looking at a tweet from 54 minutes ago from the Department of Defense that says Afghanistan made metrics of success, partnered ops(ph) continue, overall violence down, Afghans in the lead. We're going to enable the Afghan national security forces and the government for a bright future.

CONAN: Stephen Biddle, the idea that this is proof, as we heard from the NATO secretary-general, that at least temporarily the Afghans can take the lead, that they're able to do this, does that seem justified?

BIDDLE: Well, we didn't choose to do this of our own accord. I mean, if in fact the assessment of the command in Kabul had been that the Afghans are ready, we don't need to take the risks associated with going out with them on partnered patrols in this way, then we would've announced this policy without the instigation of green on blue attacks.

I think the fact that we did it in response to a problem suggests that I don't know that we thought we were ready to do this otherwise.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We'll start with - we'll start with Zach. Zach's on the line with us from Springfield, the one in Missouri.

ZACH: Yes, sir, how are you today?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

ZACH: I was calling because I served in Afghanistan for 12 months and I understand counterinsurgency (unintelligible) to be get rid of the bad guys, set the government up and then keep that government there. Well, we got rid of the bad guys, the Taliban, back several years ago. And then we're failing to do anything about the government. And then this is just one more third of the way, getting rid of partnered patrols, is just getting rid of that supporting the little bit of government you do have.

Because I know we have instances of, like, Taliban infiltration to the security forces, and whenever that happens, the Afghans that we were partnered with would be like, oh hey, they betrayed us too. It wasn't like, oh, hey, that was some Afghan that got an American. It was oh, hey, that was some guy trying to be one of us, hurting one of our friends who goes out on patrol with us every day that we live with, that we've become brothers with.

And I think that whenever you separate, it just creates another side. It's like an opposition - instead of being one of your brothers you're living with every day. So...

CONAN: Can I ask what part of the country you served in?

ZACH: In Sangin District. It's in Helmand Province.

CONAN: That's been a busy area.

ZACH: Yes, sir. When I was there, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, dropped more ordnance in the first two weeks than every other day combined since the war began.

CONAN: If there are - if this suspension is long, if there are subsequent suspensions, do you think they're going to be able to bring the Afghan forces up to snuff?

ZACH: Well, see, I don't know because whenever we were there - because all the people we newly recruited, and their leadership was often like the blind leading the blind. So with professional soldiers and military there to help guide them, they were able to see exactly what was going on. And by living together, you could see - you got a better understanding of the whole concept of operations and leadership styles, and it's not just how to fight a war but how to build a military.

CONAN: I understand.

ZACH: And they're just so far behind, like just getting rid of partner patrols and living(ph) around them now, I think it's just giving up and saying, OK, we don't have the government set up; that's one-third of the counterinsurgency idea. We don't support that government by protecting it because we're giving up on their forces. So what's the point of waiting around till 2014 (unintelligible) we only accomplished one-third of what we've set out to do.

CONAN: Zach, thanks very much, appreciate it.

ZACH: All right, thank you for your time.

CONAN: And Douglas Ollivant, he makes a good point, and that is that there is - we think of the forces, think of the government as the corrupt politicians in Kabul. Obviously the army's a part of that operation too. That's the government too.

OLLIVANT: That's absolutely right, and Zach really hits on the core of our problem here. You know, what's under American control is we can go out and kill bad guys, and the Marines and - you know, I'm a retired Army officer, but you're not going to hear me say anything bad about the way the Marines conducted themselves in Helmand in general and in Sangin in particular. That was an incredibly hard fight, and they really sacrificed.

But what you have to do then is essentially, you know, lead the horse to water, so to speak. You have to make the Afghan - you can't make them. You have to encourage the local forces, Afghans in this case, to take charge of their own military, to take charge of their own security, and in the larger sense take care of their government, both local and national.

We can't make them do that. We can show them how. We can teach them. But at the end of the day, they have to decide they want to do it.

CONAN: And Stephen Biddle, it's hard to do that. It seems impossible without joint patrols.

BIDDLE: Well, I mean joint patrols are important for providing a more proficient Afghan security force. But the point your caller raised and the point that Doug was responding to a moment ago is arguably much more profound than that, which is the importance of governance reform to success in this campaign.

Classic counterinsurgency theory sees insurgencies as violent competitions in governance, where the government and the rebels are together trying to persuade a relatively uncommitted population to side with them, the party with whom the population sides then wins the war. We have tended in Afghanistan to put disproportionate emphasis on security, trying to put combat forces in positions where they can protect civilians against insurgent attacks.

And we've done much less to reform the operations of the Afghan government in a way that would enable it to win this competition for the uncommitted middle in the country. And this is deeply problematic and ultimately can be problematic even for your ability to provide security.

One of the central threats to an indigenous military, the Afghanistan national security forces here, providing effective security is, again, if the officer corps gets politicized, if it gets captured by an essentially predatory, maligned civil governance system.

If we decide we're going to mostly ignore civil governance because we think we can succeed by focusing on combat activities to provide security, I think it's shortsighted in any number of ways.

CONAN: Let's go next to David, David with us from Virginia Beach.

DAVID: Hi. When I served in Iraq, an American general made the very astute comment that the killing between the Sunni and the Shia would begin to subside when they decided they loved their children more than they hated each other. So my position here is that the Afghans will begin to change when they love their freedom and prosperity that they have been experiencing more than they fear the Taliban.

They are going to - Afghans will take - many of them, not all - will take whatever side they think is going to win. And if they have grown accustomed to some freedom and prosperity, and they've seen their families flourish, then they will be much, more reluctant to let the Taliban come back in and take over and put things back to where they were, you know, 20, a hundred, thousand years ago, whatever.

They will begin to take up arms against the Taliban themselves.

CONAN: Freedom and prosperity, is that what you saw, David?

DAVID: Well, I saw some Afghans experiencing some freedom and prosperity that they had not experienced before under the Taliban, and they really, really like it. When - the question is: When will they stand up to protect that in the face of the Taliban that want to take that away? And...

CONAN: Stephen Biddle?

BIDDLE: Well, I think the caller points out the importance of fear in civilian behavior and insurgency. And that's an issue that we should keep careful focus on. I mean this is an environment in which you can be killed and your family can be killed for making the wrong decision about who to side with, for making the wrong decision about who to provide tips on.

One of the reasons why governance reform is important in this context, though, is that in situations like Afghanistan, the government can actually be a source of fear. One of the many ways in which the Afghan government at the moment preys upon its own population in important parts of the country is by taking people's land. In an agricultural society, if a corrupt patron-client network including major government officials in provincial government is taking people's land and throwing them off it in order to make the land available for corrupt real estate deals, you're threatening people with destitution, and you're putting people in a terrible dilemma where they may be very well - polls have shown that most Afghans don't like the Taliban governing platform. They would prefer something else, anything else almost.

DAVID: Right, right.

BIDDLE: But if you put them in a situation where if they carry on with support of the nominal government, their farm and their home is going to be the next one to be taken after watching their neighbor suffer the same fate. They can't - they don't feel like they can go to the courts because the courts are owned by the government's patron-client network. They can't go to the police because the police are owned by the network. They don't think they can go to us because we appear to be in league with all of this.

The only people they can go to in that situation is the Taliban, and it puts them on the horns of a dilemma in which even an unpopular governing ideology can nonetheless attract significant on-the-ground support in key parts of the country because of the dilemma and the fear associated with that, that this kind of governance problem creates for the population in these parts of the country.

CONAN: David, thanks very much.

DAVID: Well, if local powerbrokers, local warlords are one of the keys to that turnaround because you're right. They don't trust the government in Kabul. They trust whoever has the power close to them. And when the local warlords say we do not want the Taliban to come in to our villages and take over again and we're going to resist them, that's when it's going to change.

CONAN: But doesn't that create another fragmented warlord society? These are mostly ethnic leaders.

DAVID: Not every country is suited to the government that we know and love.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DAVID: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: We're talking about Afghanistan and U.S. strategy there after the suspension of most training and most joint patrols with Afghan soldiers and police. Our guests, Douglas Ollivant, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a former Army officer who also served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser in Afghanistan. Stephen Biddle is professor of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University and an occasional consultant to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And our caller just mentioned we should not really try to necessarily create a government in our own image. This is an email from George in San Francisco: Having spent considerable time in Iraq, Afghanistan, I wonder if our emphasis on creating a Western-style Afghan military is misguided. The Taliban, a very effective fighting force without any Western-style training. Should we even be trying to create a Western military from the cloth of our own Afghan partners? Douglas Ollivant, it may be a little too late to change horses in midstream, but what about the suggestion?

OLLIVANT: I think there's been a lot of mirror-imaging in Afghanistan - us trying to make the Afghans look like us. Say, a good friend of mine used to say somewhat tongue-in-cheek that what we've done in Afghanistan has taken arguably the best irregular fighters in the world and turned them into the worst regular army outside of Africa.

CONAN: And let's see - we go to Peter. Peter is on the line with us from Columbus, Georgia.

PETER: Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Peter. Go ahead.

PETER: Hey. How is everybody doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

PETER: Good. Hey, I was back in Afghanistan in 2009, and I was part of the ETT teams, which was the embedded trainer team.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

PETER: And we received actually one of the first platoons that came under their basic training with, you know, the first version of the M-16 rifle. And pretty much right away, what we noticed was as soon as payday rolled around, we would lose about 30 percent of that platoon because they would just disappear, take their money and bring it back to their villages and families. And, you know, their command and their structure would not punish them when they came back, you know, a week to two weeks later, you know, and not knowing where they went.

They'd come back with no gear. And, you know, logistically, it was a nightmare because their supply system was broken. So they would just come to the ETT guy and say, hey, we need boots and armor and helmets because we lost ours. And so it was always a constant battle of trying to replenish their supply system, where we funded them the whole supply system with equipment, boots, armor, uniforms, but we're constantly like, you know - the big issue is we refuse to fight unless we have this, this and this. But, you know, it's just - we don't know what they're doing with their equipment was the issue we were having.

CONAN: Would you feel confident about going back there now?

PETER: I'm actually going back probably the first of the year. I wouldn't say that I'm not terribly, you know, thinking the country is going to be any better, but from I would say from 2009, 2010, I'm pretty sure that's in the worst standpoint now.

CONAN: So do you feel that in terms of the strategy that it can work?

PETER: Counterinsurgency itself - I went through combat adviser course before we deployed, and it was - it seems very effective, you know, how it works. But the people want to have a change. And, you know, as COIN points out, the people are the prize. Well, if the people don't see it that way and don't want to be changed or they don't want to be helped, then you're not fixing your country.

CONAN: COIN, he referenced the counterinsurgency strategy. Peter, thanks very much for your call.

PETER: You're welcome.

CONAN: We just have a couple of seconds left, but let's see if we get one more caller in. This is Chuck. Chuck with us from Salt Lake City.

CHUCK: Hello. Hey. Thanks for my call. Great show today.

CONAN: Thanks.

CHUCK: I just got back from Afghanistan Thursday, and I think all of your comments from your callers are right on. I think the idea of us trying to create a First World army, you know, with equipment and training-wise and doctrine-wise in just a few short years is ludicrous. I mean, look how long it's taken us to - it's taken generations for us to build our army out to that level. And, you know, the Afghans, you know, they're just like any other people. They want freedom. They want peace. They want to be able to raise their children in a good environment and improve themselves, but I don't think they want to, you know, I don't think they understand and I don't think they really have a desire to follow our, you know, Western model of life.

And I think that's the one about trying to, you know, instill our morals and our beliefs into their system just doesn't work, and I think that's what gets rejected. The other thing is...

CONAN: Very quickly, Chuck.

CHUCK: Very quick. Advisory mission is typically something done by our Special Forces. You know, the individuals we have are very stringently selected, you know, because it takes very fine touch and, you know, because we're in such a hurry to do it, we've, you know, done the next best thing, is put our more veteran soldiers in (unintelligible).

CONAN: Chuck, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Welcome home. Thanks very much for the call. Our thanks also to Douglas Ollivant and Stephen Biddle. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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