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Killings Complicate U.S. Strategy In Afghanistan


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington; Neal Conan is away. We still don't know why a U.S. Army soldier allegedly murdered 16 men, women and children in Afghanistan. That investigation continues. The consequences, though, seem clear.

The families involved are devastated. The Taliban promises revenge. The Afghan Parliament issued a statement saying Afghans had run out of patience with foreign soldiers, and the New York Times reports that the Obama administration is debating a speedier pullout from the country.

All of this comes less than two weeks after U.S. troops mistakenly burned Qurans, and Afghans responded by rioting and shooting six Americans, and it raises important questions about the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. What does the military hope to accomplish there, and how do these latest shootings affect those plans?

Some insist it's time to get out now, and opinion polls show a growing number of Americans agree. Others argue the stakes are too high to leave. The overall strategy is sound they say, and the U.S. is committed to Afghanistan and the region in the long term.

Should the U.S. stay in Afghanistan, or is it time to go? We'd especially like to hear from those of you have served in Afghanistan. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address, talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the controversy over homeless hotspots, but first NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us here in Studio 3A. And thanks so much, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Can you tell us first: Do we know any more about who the alleged shooter is or why he might have done this?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know why he did it. There's no sense yet of what motivated him to do this. And of course, these are allegations. What we do know, he's a 38-year-old sergeant, married with two kids. He's out of a joint base, Lewis-McChord in Washington state. He did three tours in Iraq prior to his current tour in Afghanistan, and on his last tour in Iraq back in 2010, his vehicle rolled over, he got a traumatic brain injury, was treated for that and was found fit for duty.

But before anybody jumps on that whole TBI question, more than 100,000 service members have been treated for TBI over the past 10 years of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So again, it's hard to make a connection between the fact he was treated for TBI and what allegedly happened here.

Army criminal investigators are still looking into this case. He's still in Afghanistan, this staff sergeant. His family, by the way, has been moved on-post at the base in Washington, and we have a sense he could be charged within the next couple of weeks. That's what folks at the Pentagon tell me, but we really have no sense yet.

LUDDEN: And U.S. officials have said that they will - you know, as the justice plays itself out, they will hold him accountable.

BOWMAN: Oh absolutely, yeah. He'll clearly be charged, and what we know about what happened, he was at a small combat outpost in a rural area just west of Kandahar city. I was actually there with U.S. troops a year and a half ago, very rural area, and when I was there, they were just pushing out the Taliban. It was basically a Taliban nest. It was a no-go zone not only for Americans but for Afghan troops, as well, a very dangerous area.

And over time, over the past year and a half, the place has kind of blossomed, so to speak. The markets have opened, clinics and schools. So there's a certain, you know, passivity to the place in recent times. And the base he was at, at Panjwai District, he was working with Green Berets, reaching out to villages, working with villagers on defensive maneuvers and Afghan local police creating these small police forces in the villages.

So it was a very small combat outpost, and I've been to many of these in Afghanistan. Sometimes there are, you know, 20, 30, 50 Americans at this base, as well as Afghans. They can be very small, too, maybe a couple of acres. To the untrained eye, it looks like a small construction site, it's...

LUDDEN: Well, it sounds like quite an irony that in this region, it's much safer now because of American soldiers, and yet here we have this incident.

BOWMAN: Absolutely, we have this incident, and he left this combat outpost around 2 in the morning. The Afghan guards saw him leave and alerted the Americans. And the Americans did a head count of everybody there and then sent a search party out. At that point, some of the wounded were being carried into this combat outpost, and supposedly this staff sergeant himself returned, and that's when the investigation began.

LUDDEN: Do we know anything about a reaction to this point in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: There have been some protests around Afghanistan but not really that many yet. It's - I think everyone's kind of holding their breath to see what impact this will have in the coming days and weeks.

LUDDEN: So Tom, how do you see this affecting the U.S. mission and strategy, which as you've just been describing is really kind of a hearts-and-mind strategy.

BOWMAN: It is. It's a counterinsurgency. So the people are the prize here. You have to reach out and build bonds with the people, gain their trust and get them to work with you, in this case the United States, and help them support the Afghan government.

Something like this could do irreparable harm to this whole counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. A lot of people are very, very worried about it. And what's more, beyond that, is as they reduce troops in Afghanistan, another 22,000 American troops will be home by September, they're being replaced with small training teams, 18-member training teams that'll be working out in these remote areas with larger numbers of Afghan troops.

I was just down at Fort Polk, Louisiana, training up with some of these teams, and one of the teams we were talking with, they're going to the Panjwai District, where this actually happened, this incident. So people are worried about it.

LUDDEN: We are also joined now from a studio at the Brookings Institution by Michael O'Hanlon. He's a senior fellow there, and he has visited Afghanistan many times, as well. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Thanks, nice to be with you.

LUDDEN: So can you tell us just first your take on what this does to the U.S. mission there? I mean, there have been so many favorable interactions between Afghan and international security and assistance troops there all the time. How much impact do you think an incident like this week's might have?

O'HANLON: Well, first, that was a great conversation between you and Tom. And I thought he summarized the situation very well, and I think he was correct at the end to express the concern that there's no grounds, clearly, for complacency.

However, I'm still hopeful. In the context of a war, we've had obviously far too many tragedies and far too much loss of life and far too many frustrations, but nonetheless hopeful that we will somehow, with our Afghan partners, get through this for the simple reason that we still need each other. And I don't see anything about that changing.

I don't think Afghans are excited, those at least in positions of government decision-making, about the prospect of a hastened U.S. departure, and that would be the only alternative that one might contemplate from something like this, and that would essentially be tantamount to saying we don't think we can be successful, so we may as well limit our losses.

Afghans who are living in their own country, trying to make their own government work, trying to make their own army and police work, I think they don't like that scenario. They would prefer to, you know, have a bit more time with the partners and mentors they need to get their own government and their own forces up to snuff so they can do the job on their own.

And therefore, I think that logic will dictate that we should try to stick with the previous strategy. Having said all that, one quick additional point, clearly the ongoing strategy is still up for grabs in the sense that President Obama has only made the decisions about what level of U.S. troops to sustain in Afghanistan through September. As Tom pointed out, we're going to draw down to 68,000 total U.S. troops by that point, but between that moment and the end of 2014, when the whole mission is supposed to be complete, and everyone except, you know, limited numbers of advisors and counterterrorism commandos are supposed to be home, in that two years, there's no decision yet. There's no trajectory yet about what U.S. forces, what NATO forces will remain or what their exact mission will be.

So that debate had to happen anyway, and it probably will be influenced, at least on the margins, by this latest tragedy.

LUDDEN: Well, the White House has said it does not expect any decision on any further draw-downs before a NATO summit that's coming up in May. What do each of you expect to come out of there, Michael?

O'HANLON: Well, I don't know. I think the New York Times story today was probably quite good and accurate in depicting the kinds of options that are being framed. And, you know, early May is not very far away, of course, Jennifer, as you're well aware, which means the decision will be made over the next few weeks and then announced in Chicago. And so we really are in the heat of the decision-making at the moment.

As the New York Times explained it, and I have no reason to disagree fundamentally, one option would essentially get to that 68,000 U.S. troop level by September and stay there for another year, through the 2013 fighting season.

A second option, which reportedly is favored by Tom Donilon, the national security advisor, would take 20 - excuse me, 10,000 more U.S. forces out this fall and then another 10,000 or more out next year in the course of the spring, and therefore we'd be down to less than 50,000 U.S. troops during much of the fighting season of 2013 and continue on a gradual decline to perhaps, I don't know, 10- or 15,000 troops at the end of 2014.

And then the final option, which is sometimes associated, always has been associated with Vice President Biden, would have us cut even more deeply than that even faster than that.

BOWMAN: And, you know, people I talk with in Afghanistan, the American military officers say what they would like to see is sort of a lily pad kind of dropping down - a staircase, so to speak. So you'd go from 68,000, you would drop by X number and maintain that level for a certain amount of time, drop the next step and maintain that level.

Rather than having sort of a steady decline, it makes it hard to sort of plan where to put troops. That's what they would like to see. And clearly a commander always wants, you know, to maintain a certain level of troops or even get more troops. So that's I think where they are in this point, you know, going forward.

And as far as what's going to happen in May in Chicago, they're looking at after 2014, when all the U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out of the country and turn over primary responsibility to the Afghan government for their own security. And people I talk with say, you know, possibly 15,000 U.S. forces after 2014 would remain for trainers.

There would be some Green Berets that could go on counterterrorism operations and others who would help build up the Afghan security forces.

LUDDEN: Tom, before we lose you here, tell us, it seems like there's a bit of a mixed message here. The White House has this task of, in an election year, telling Americans we're getting out but reassuring people in Afghanistan and Pakistan we're not abandoning you.

BOWMAN: Right, there's messages for each, you know, area that on the one hand, as you say, the polls are showing more and more people want to just get out of Afghanistan. On the other hand, you know, people in Afghanistan look at this, and people in Pakistan and say, you know, are these folks leaving, are they just going to walk away. And that has a ripple effect, as well.

You know, people in the Northern Alliance will start stockpiling arms. People will start saying, well, wait a minute, if I'm on the fence with the Taliban and the Afghan government, maybe I'm going to hang with the Taliban for a while if everyone's just going to walk out the door. So there are all sorts of calculations people make when they see this kind of thing going on.

LUDDEN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks so much for your time today.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: We're talking about what the U.S. hopes to accomplish in Afghanistan and how the alleged shooting of 16 civilians by a U.S. soldier affects those plans. Michael O'Hanlon at Brookings is staying with us, and up next, we'll also speak with Fred Kaplan, who argues it's time to get out now. Stay with us. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Taliban insurgents shot at two brothers of Afghan President Hamid Karzai today. They were leaving a memorial service for the 16 civilians allegedly killed by a U.S. soldier.

Both escaped, along with other top Afghan officials, and were not harmed, but public outrage to the killings over the weekend continues to grow, and today we're talking about what the most recent events mean for U.S. strategy and what the military hopes to accomplish in Afghanistan.

We also want to hear from you. Should the U.S. stay in Afghanistan, or is it time to go? And we'd especially like to hear from those of you who've served in that country. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He co-wrote the book "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy," along with Martin Indyk and Ken Lieberthal. And we're also joined by Fred Kaplan. He's the national security columnist for slate.com and on Monday wrote a piece titled "Game Over in Afghanistan." Fred Kaplan joins us now by phone from New York. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

FRED KAPLAN: Thanks, good to be here.

LUDDEN: You wrote the consequences of leaving may be grim, but the consequences of staying are probably grimmer. Why do you think U.S. troops should leave now before the stated date now of 2014?

KAPLAN: Well, first of all, I should clarify one thing. Although the headline says now, I didn't write now, but I did write that it should happen sooner than Obama has previously scheduled.

The problem is this: Both - you know, we have on the one hand a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and on the other hand a transition strategy, a strategy of moving authority and military security over to the Afghans.

Both of these strands rely on trust. And I think that the trust has now been severed, perhaps irreparably. With the counterinsurgency part, you need to assure the Afghan people that we are protecting them, that our primary business is protecting them, providing them with basic services, forming links between them and the central government so that there can be a viable state after we leave.

The training and transition part is you need to build trust with the Afghan leaders. We're training them, the military people. They need to have trust and faith in themselves, trust in themselves, mutual trust with one another, and when you have a situation where, you know, a lot of Afghan people have to worry that they might - you know, rationally or not, they have to - they're worrying whether these Americans are going to come murdering them in the middle of the night.

And when you have a situation where American soldiers are worrying that some Afghan cop or soldier that they're training is going to shoot them in the back, as has happened 10 times now this year alone, this is not a recipe for a successful strategy of one way or another.

I think that at this point - and I've long been ambivalent about this war, but I think at this point, what good a large American presence in Afghanistan can do has basically reached an end.

LUDDEN: Michael O'Hanlon, what about that? Can they keep the strategy without trust?

O'HANLON: I don't think it's that simple. I understand Fred's case, and he makes it well, and it's worth taking seriously, but it's an impressionistic case, and Fred, I don't think you would disagree with me. It's not as if there's one definitive thing that's happened this year.

There have been obviously a number of bad things that have happened, I agree with that point, but there isn't that kind of a clear shift in either Afghan or NATO thinking about the other side. There's been a gradual sense of growing fatigue. It's true we're less popular in Afghanistan than we were five and six and eight years ago.

It's true that these so-called green-on-blue incidents really add up and do eat at a lot of American and NATO troops in the field, but let's not lose sight of the fact that hundreds of thousands of times each and every day, individuals cooperate in the field across that divide. Afghans work with NATO troops because the entire essence of our strategy now is joint operations and partnering in the field, which means that for every one of these terrible things, every one of these terrible tragedies, there are hundreds of thousands of times when the two sides work together effectively and successfully.

Now I do acknowledge that there is something to Fred's case, that there are growing doubts. I've heard more of them from Americans. I haven't seen systematic polling done to document this, but I still agree that the trend line is in the wrong direction on both sides in terms of trust.

But I think we can too easily lose sight of the degree of intensive cooperation that's happening every day and that's been happening, and we shouldn't let even a number of individual incidents by criminals or by Taliban imposters or by Americans who have lost their cool and lost their mind, as bad as these incidents are, we shouldn't let them trump all the good things that have been happening in the field, all the cooperation that's occurring daily.

LUDDEN: Let's bring a listener into the conversation. John(ph) is on the line from Tucson. Hi there, John.

JOHN: Hello, thank you for having. This is - can you hear me?

LUDDEN: Yes, go right ahead.

JOHN: I just wanted to do my blurb. I still largely support the policy, and I think this is really a time to reach out and consult not only with the Afghanis and do it very publicly but in the village where they lost so much. And at the same time of consulting, it's time to reach out to Americans and have a very wide, public debate. And I'm so grateful for talk of America because I have so many friends that call you, and it's not just Democrats or independents. I have Republican friends that call you.

Even when they say, well, this is (unintelligible) from me or whatever, so thank you very much. And the final thing is I believe profoundly that the penalties for lashing out, even if it was a mental thing, should be greatly increased. So somebody goes berserk, there are going to be really severe criminal penalties because we want the same thing on the other side, as well.

LUDDEN: All right, well John, thanks for the call.

KAPLAN: Can I just say something?

LUDDEN: Yes, go right ahead.

KAPLAN: John's point, I mean, that would definitely - this will be a military court martial, and the penalty could be death.

LUDDEN: I believe the Defense secretary has said that.

KAPLAN: That's right. Can I just raise something with what Michael said? And I reciprocate the sentiment, what he says, there's a very valid point to that. And, you know, it's one reason why I've been ambivalent for so long. I would add to that, though, two other considerations.

When President Karzai now seems actually to be on the verge of implementing a law that was passed some time ago, outlawing the presence of foreign security guards on Afghan soil, these foreign security guards, private contractors most of them, have been guarding aid workers, businessmen, you know, making investments in Afghanistan, even NATO bases.

Without these security guards there, if this really happens and they're going to be replaced by Afghan police and soldiers of untested reliability, you're going to see a complete shutdown of all economic development projects of any size. You're going to see an exodus of business leaders who are trying to help over there.

I mean, it's not like we started from a good relationship with the Afghan government, and now it's been soured by a few things. This has always been tempestuous. Karzai has always had - been split between kowtowing to us and kowtowing to his network, you know, his patronage network and a general anti-foreign sentiment among the people.

He's, you know, threatened to kick us out on any number of occasions until, you know, once in a while, somebody says OK, we'll go, and then he begs, you know, oh listen, I was just, you know, talking for domestic consumption, please, please stay.

It's not a situation that - it's kind of - it's long been an almost untenable situation, and I fear that it now may be untenable.

LUDDEN: All right, let's get another listener on the line. James(ph) is in Pensacola, Florida. Hi there, James.

JAMES: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I would just like - I'm an active-duty military member. I would just like to point out that, you know, it's so sad what, you know, this alleged shooter has done. I mean, I feel like he dishonors a lot of our service, those of us who have served over there. I was in Afghanistan.

And it just, you know, several of, you know, your guests have pointed out, and I think rightly so, that, you know, it - in a counterinsurgency type of situation, it's literally the worst thing that we can do. We're kind of, you know, literally shooting ourselves in the foot in this type of war.

The commander in chief, the president is right in pointing out that it's not who we are. And I would just hope that the American public, you know, sees that, and, you know, our international partners, and of course the Afghans do, as well. And I worry about kind of sometimes what I've noticed these days to be kind of an almost knee-jerk we need to support our own troops.

Well, you know what? When they do horrible things, no you don't. This guy needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent. He needs to be made an example of and held accountable for what he's done both for the American people and for the entire world. And I also fear that a lot, almost too much will be made of this PTSD/TBI that he may or not be going through. I mean, that's a terrible thing. You know, I know people who have it. I have some exposure to it in my job. I don't really what to say what I do. But I just hope, you know, it doesn't rob you of the sense of right and wrong. It's tragic that he - if he does suffer from PTSD or TBI.

But, you know, what he did, allegedly, you know, is horrible and needs to be treated as such. And that's just my wish for - as, you know, news continues to come in about this whole situation. Thanks.

LUDDEN: And, James, can you share this if you have any idea on when the U.S. should pull out?

JAMES: Well, you know, that's another thing. I - it's tragic. And I think it's the worst thing that could have happened in this type of situation in a counterinsurgency, like I say, but I don't think we should make any knee-jerk decisions based on it. You know, the plans that the president and the, you know, the rest of our leaders have laid out for our, you know, timely withdrawal from this conflict, I mean, are carefully laid plans involving multiple countries, multiple discussions. And I just don't think we should just, you know, suddenly pull the plug on everything because that would be a knee-jerk in itself and, I think, would also kind of dishonor, as some of your guests have said, you know, the sacrifices that we've already put - sunk into this.

You know, we need to leave with the perception of victory. If we just, like, pull the plug and leave the country, you know, worse off than we came and it's perceived as such by the world, almost like it was in Vietnam - I mean, I'm not old enough to have been involved in anyway with that. But, you know, the perception that we lost there is because it was the procession. The country fell apart pretty rapidly as soon as we left. And if we did that again here, I think it would be perceived the same way. So I think we should proceed cautiously...

LUDDEN: All right. James, thank you so much.

JAMES: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Michael O'Hanlon, James talked about leaving with the perception of victory. But I wonder if that's something that some Americans are deciding just won't ever happen and - no matter how long we stay?

O'HANLON: Yeah. It's a great question. And I thought James was extremely eloquent and persuasive on everything he said. But even with my views on the mission, I'm a little bit uncomfortable by the argument which may not reflect the entirety of his thinking, but nonetheless the argument that he made that in fact we need to worry about the perception of victory. I think we need to worry about some core minimal level of stability for Afghanistan. And I don't think we're going to be perceived as winning even if things go reasonably well in the next two, two and a half years.

I think we'll be sort of working our way towards a tolerable mediocre outcome where the Afghan government remains corrupt and in control of, let's say, the major cities and most of the rural areas but not by any means all of them. But it will be enough to prevent al-Qaida or other terrorist groups, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, from establishing major footholds where it has impunity. That has become, for me, the main achievable goal. It was always the most important goal. But we had somewhat higher ambitions for a while.

Now, I think we have to focus on that minimal goal, and it's more about averting defeat than achieving some great victory. So even with my view about the mission and being supportive of the mission, I wouldn't really focus quite as much on creating a perception of victory. I don't really think it's attainable in that sense any longer.

LUDDEN: All right. Let me just say that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Fred Kaplan, averting defeat or making it look like victory? You know, the rationale for staying has been, look, we've got to train Afghan security forces so they're ready to assume responsibility for safety and security. Isn't that a persuasive argument?

KAPLAN: Yeah. That's, you know, for a few years now, the definition of either achieving victory or averting defeat has been a little vague. I mean, obviously, part - nobody has had a maximalist view of this. Nobody has been saying, you know, we must win - at least, nobody in a position to do anything about it. It has generally been one of at least leave the place in one piece and give the Afghans the wherewithal to defend the place themselves. But, you know, that - even that might be a little difficult.

And I think for a few years now what I've been hearing - and Michael, who's been over there more than I might be able to speak to this - is that basically every - all the players involved are looking ahead in the next few years and creating - laying their groundwork for the next chapter in the great game. You know, the kind of the conflict for this patch of the earth and the areas around it have gone on for, you know, decades, centuries. They're putting their pieces in place for, you know, they're positioning themselves for the next stage of the civil war or the game for competition.

You know, Pakistan has enormous interest in Afghanistan. India has some positions in Afghanistan which makes Pakistan worried about encirclement. This is one reason why Pakistan has been supportive of the Haqqani network and other Taliban networks because they want them to be their representative in Afghanistan. It's an incredibly complicated thing, way more complicated than we knew when we got into this.

LUDDEN: You know what, we have just a couple of minutes left, and I want to get one more listener in here in this complicated story. Robert in Jacksonville, Florida, go right ahead.

ROBERT: Hello. Thanks for having me. I'm calling just because I'm in the U.S. Air Force, and I just recently returned from a deployment in Afghanistan. And basically, it's the same region that this staff sergeant in the Army killed a lot of those civilians. I don't have a broad-scope idea of what we should there. I know that, personally from a selfish standpoint, I would like to see our troops leave as soon as possible because nobody wants - nobody really wants to be there. But I see the need for us to be there. So I think we should stick with the president's game plan to keep us there until 2014.

LUDDEN: All right. Robert, thanks for calling. Michael O'Hanlon, we'll give you the quick last word here.

O'HANLON: Well, I don't - I mean, I agree. I will in the interest of fairness point out that I've been in contact with a military doctor today who has been saying it's time for us to go. And so I know there's a divergence and a diversity of views within the U.S. military as well, although I take the side of the position we just heard.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, gentlemen, thank you so much both of you. I'm sure we'll keep debating this in the months to come. Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book written with Martin Indyk and Ken Lieberthal is "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." And he joined us from a studio at the Brookings Institution. Thanks, Michael.

O'HANLON: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And Fred Kaplan is national security columnist for Slate.com and senior Schwartz fellow for the New America Foundation. He joined us from New York. Thank you so much.

KAPLAN: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Up next, the controversy over homeless hotspots. Is it creative charity or exploitation? We'll talk about it next. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.