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Where Is Counterinsurgency In Afghanistan Now?


As further details emerge about this week's shootings in Afghanistan, the situation on the ground there continues to develop. As we've heard, in recent years a lot of emphasis has been placed on the counterinsurgency effort, on winning hearts and minds as opposed to targeting terrorist cells. So what do these latest incidents mean for that already fragile effort? John Nagl is a military counterinsurgency expert. He is now teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Sarah Sewell comes from a civilian counterinsurgency background, and is a fellow this year at the Naval War College in Newport. Hello, John and hello, Sarah. Thanks for being with us.

JOHN NAGL: It's a pleasure.

SARAH SEWELL: Pleasure to be here.

LYDEN: John Nagl, would you just take a step back and assess how much damage you think has been done by the most recent incident if you had to quantify it.

NAGL: I think it's enormous because we're trying hard to move to a situation in which fewer outside troops support local troops, and the local troops are going have a very thin sprinkling of advisors with them, and for that to work, those advisors have to absolutely be able to trust the Afghans they're going be fighting with. And that trust has been deeply, deeply damaged on both sides.

LYDEN: Sarah, can counterinsurgency work on any kind of timeline, or is that just telling militants how long they need to lie low?

SEWELL: We don't really determine when the fight is over. I mean, the whole point about counterinsurgency is that ideally the lasting solutions come from political settlements, and one of the interesting dynamics about setting a deadline, we say it is in part to bring an end to a conflict, and yet it really does undercut the negotiating incentives from the perspective of the Taliban. And the current events I think make it very difficult to disaggregate these emblems of distrust and despair, in many cases, from any kind of a clear-eyed assessment of what we actually want and what it would require to get there.

LYDEN: I want to ask you about something I read preparing for this. A civilian advisor in discussing the reaction to the Quran burning, as unfortunate as that was, versus reaction to these civilian shootings, said that they had all thought that there was going to be a much larger reaction to the shootings, and then said, you know, it just shows how little we understand after a decade. Do you think that civilian advisors really do understand very little after a decade?

SEWELL: I think Americans in general do an extremely poor job of putting themselves in other people's moccasins and I don't think that this particular war is an exception, despite the fact that we have devoted an enormous amount of effort to trying to understand the mindsets of different perspectives within Afghanistan. But it's actually, I think, amazing the extent to which we've expected Afghans to tolerate civilian deaths.

I mean, one way to think about the most recent incidents is that Afghans have become somewhat inured to civilian harm. I mean, people have been killed left, right, and center, and what's really important to remember is that the deaths that Afghans experience are far greater than the number of deaths that the coalition imposes. The vast majority of civilian harm comes from the Taliban who claim to care about civilians but their actions completely belie that point. Nonetheless, for Afghans...

NAGL: And in fact, they actually use violence against civilians intentionally in order to accomplish their objectives, and I think it's worth - horrible as the American and NATO casualties inflicted on civilians are - they are unintentional except when they are crimes as in this most recent case. The Taliban uses violence against innocent people in order to accomplish its objectives, and I think that is an important distinction to draw.

LYDEN: Sarah Sewell, what kinds of questions are you getting from some of your students about do we stay or do we go, or what kinds of questions are they posing?

SEWELL: One of the pieces that I spend a lot of time talking with folks in uniform about is helping them understand how it is that they're perceived sometimes as the bad guys, when in their minds all they're trying to do is good. For Afghans, there may not be that big a difference between the Taliban's acts of purposeful harm for civilians, or the coalition's inadvertent and unintended killing of civilians because for them it's the loss that hurts, and in that measure, this year has been a worse year for civilians than recent years.

LYDEN: And what if those incredibly meaningful distinctions don't exist for Afghans? In other words, what if someone that you supported - foreign troops because you thought it would bring stability - is now perceived as a problem, the enemy, as we're hearing every day from Afghans. John Nagl?

NAGL: I'm afraid that there is some of that happening. And the story is even more tragic of the man who lost children in this most recent rampage. He had fled his home, had fled Panjwai because it was occupied by the Taliban, it was too dangerous. The American Marines came in and at enormous cost, enormous sacrifice, cleared the Taliban and out from his sector and the village leadership and the provincial leadership was encouraging people to move back to their homes. And he had just made that decision to return to his ancestral home and when he did his family was killed. The frustration and the pain and the anguish I think is clear among the Afghan people who just want this to end.

LYDEN: More and more Americans just want the war to end. Polls are showing that there is increasing pressure to bring troops home quickly. Right now, that isn't the military position, I realize. But what if the U.S. leaves ahead of this 2014 timetable? Do you see a civil war breaking out in Afghanistan?

SEWELL: I think that there already is in essence a civil war, right? I mean, we call it an insurgency but it's a civil war and I think that the goal of the strategy right now is to try to equip the national government essentially to continue maintaining security and tamp down the insurgency.

Now, I think it's very difficult to argue that the Afghans are ready to take on their security functions by themselves now, and I think more time is better. Whether more time is enough is a very difficult question to answer.

LYDEN: Sarah Sewall is a visiting fellow at the Naval War College. She joined us from WBUR you're in Boston. John Nagl is teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy. He joined us from KBYU in Provo, Utah.

Thank you both very much again.

SEWELL: Thank you, Jacki.

NAGL: Thank you, Jacki.


LYDEN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.