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After almost 11 years, the conflict in Afghanistan is already the longest war in American history. But after a brutal wave of attacks against U.S. forces by assailants disguised as Afghan allies, a peaceful resolution to the war remains elusive. We chat with veteran Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran about the cloudy future of the American war in Afghanistan.
- Rod Nordland Deputy Kabul Bureau Chief, The New York Times
- Rajiv Chandrasekaran Senior Correspondent, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, life inside the world's largest democracy with one of its most influential journalists, we'll talk with Indian writer, reporter and novelist Tarun Tejpal about his latest foray into fiction.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, the foggy future of what's already the longest war in American history. The conflict in Afghanistan is now 11 years old and a clean and peaceful resolution to the war remains elusive. Today's headlines are dominated by reports about the mounting tolls of insider attacks on U.S. and NATO troops and the abandonment of one of the cornerstones of America's exit strategy, a peace deal with the Taliban.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to contemplate the endgame in Afghanistan is Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is a senior correspondent and associate editor at The Washington Post. He's the author of several books, the most recent of which is titled "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." Rajiv, thank you for joining us.
MR. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARANGood to be on with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIRajiv joins us from studios at The Washington Post. Joining us by phone from Afghanistan is Rod Nordland. He is deputy Kabul bureau chief for the New York Times. Rod Nordland, thank you for joining us.
MR. ROD NORDLANDA pleasure.
NNAMDIRod, a peace deal with the Taliban has been one of the central pieces for the American plan to disengage from the war in Afghanistan which has already lasted for more than a decade. But you reported this morning that American officials have all but written off the idea of that happening in the near term. Why have their opinions shifted this way and if a peace plan is off the table with the Taliban, where do we go from here?
NORDLANDWell, I mean, they have basically just given up on it. There was a peace process that showed some promise earlier in this year in Qatar, meetings planned between Taliban and American officials, and some preliminary meetings did take place, but then that fell apart.
NORDLANDAnd since then, they just haven't been able to recover any momentum for a peace process and particularly with, you know, a withdrawal schedule now and looking ever closer by the end of 2014, they just don't think they're going to get the Taliban back to the table.
NORDLANDThe plan had been to offer the possibility of reconciliation and at the same time, batter the Taliban as hard as they could and bring them to the table. And that just hasn't worked and they have stopped hoping or at least stopped expressing much hope that it will work before 2014.
NNAMDIRajiv Chandrasekaran, is it fair to say that at this time American officials are in a situation where they're trying to reduce their goals bit by bit before the scheduled departure of troops?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, I think most certainly. It's not just on reconciliation. You see it in terms of what American goals have, are right now in terms of the reconstruction of Afghanistan, in terms of the development of the security forces, in terms of the development of Afghan government institutions, both in Kabul and down at the local level across the country.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd just as recently as a couple of years ago, there were very, very ambitious plans. We were going to build from scratch local governments in dozens and dozens of districts around the country. Those are sort of county-level entities in Afghanistan.
CHANDRASEKARANWe had very ambitious projects to try to rebuild the economy. Much of that has fallen by the wayside. But just to follow up for a second on this issue of the abandonment of reconciliation. You know, it's a host of factors coming together, many of which Rod has very smartly identified, but we also have a political overlay to all of this.
CHANDRASEKARANOne of the things that the Taliban wanted to see from the United States as a confidence-building measure was the release of some detainees from Guantanamo to Afghan custody perhaps, but placed under house arrest in the nation of Qatar. Doing so would have been simply too political volatile, too politically risky for President Obama in an election year, so steps like that could not be taken at the very moment when all these forces were trying to come together to try to move forward with deal-making.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd so now, as we move into 2013 and 2014, as U.S. troops keep coming home, our leverage at trying to propel these negotiations really drops off precipitously.
NNAMDIWell, Rajiv, NATO Chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told The Guardian yesterday that the wave of insider attacks against NATO forces is taking a very big toll and that it could speed the withdrawal of troops. You wrote last month that the Taliban's attack strategy seems to be driven by a combination of both desperation and savvy. What do you mean by that?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, in desperation, from the point of view that they've taken some significant losses across the battlefield over the past few years because of the U.S. troop surge, areas where they once held sway, they've been pushed out of. A lot of special operations forces, raids at night have managed to target senior commanders and mid-level financiers that have really helped to sustain and propel the insurgency in some parts of the country.
CHANDRASEKARANBut the Taliban remains remarkably resistant, resilient I should say, and they've sort of switched some of their tactics from trying to hold large swaths of ground, for instance, in southern Afghanistan, to trying to conduct more spectacular attacks aimed at shaking the confidence of the Afghan people, making them doubt the ability of Afghan security forces to take charge of the nation as NATO and U.S. forces leave.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd trying to essentially win the game of public perception there, recognizing that in an insurgency perceptions are almost as important as the reality of the territory that is controlled. And so we have seen this shift and one part of that strategy employed by the Taliban has been to try to exploit these so-called insider attacks where those in Afghan military uniforms fire on U.S. and NATO forces in close quarters.
CHANDRASEKARANNow some of these are the result of Taliban infiltration. In other cases it's the Taliban threatening members of the security forces to take these acts otherwise they'll attack their families. So it's a combination of factors but it's really hit at the heart of the American transition strategy.
NNAMDIRod Nordland, what do you think these insider attacks and assaults reveal about the ability of Afghan forces to deal with insurgents once NATO troops leave?
NORDLANDWell, I'm not sure that the insider attacks bear on that directly, but they are certainly a very worrisome trend. I mean, insider attacks now are the second, possibly third, but definitely one of the major causes of deaths of American and coalition troops now and they're very alarmed about it and very worried about it.
NORDLANDThe trend has been growing steadily. It's not just insurgents, though, it's also, in many cases, at least a quarter of the cases that have been documented and possibly more. It the result of culture clashes and personal arguments and just a disconnect between the Americans and the Afghans.
NORDLANDAnd this has a real long-term significance for the fight here because if the Americans aren't able to stay and train the Afghans and help them with the training, they're not going to be able to stand up to the Taliban. And as it is now, they have to replace about a third of their forces, the Afghan National Army, at least replace a third of its forces every year from attrition, from either deserters or just men who won't re-enlist because they don't believe in the enterprise.
NORDLANDAnd then that means training something like 60,000, 65,000 new soldiers every year. Are they going to be able to keep up that tempo without an American presence here? It's going to be quite a challenge.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Rod Nordland. He's deputy Kabul bureau chief for the New York Times. He joins us by phone from Afghanistan and Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent and associate editor for The Washington Post and author of several books, the most recent of which is titled "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,."
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org Rajiv, at what point do you think the Taliban decided to make these green on blue killings a central part of its strategy? We're 11 years into the war. Why did these killings gain momentum now instead of years ago?
CHANDRASEKARANKojo, that's a really good question and it's one that I've posed to a number of senior American NATO officials and nobody has a very good answer. In part, it may be because they stumbled upon this. They started to see the impact of these attacks that were caused not by their own doing, but by Afghan soldiers who were suffering from post-traumatic stress or the result of cultural clashes, all these other factors.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd perhaps they started to realize that they could also have an impact here on the transition strategy, on the resolve of foreign nations that have contributed forces there by trying to conduct these attacks. But it is an interesting question and it's still not clear how many of these attacks are really the result of the Taliban deliberately planning to do them versus people in the security forces who decide to sympathize with the insurgency or cases where the insurgents managed to co-opt security forces.
CHANDRASEKARANIt's a new phenomenon on the battlefield that intelligence analysts and others are really trying to get a much better handle on and there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
NNAMDIRod Nordland, we're starting to come up on some pretty crucial deadlines. American troops are already coming up on scheduled draw-downs. What sense do Taliban leaders have do you think for whether they might have already weathered the biggest military pressure they're likely to face to come to a peace deal?
NORDLANDI think, in fact, they're very self-confident and I think that the American military tends to overrate just how much damage they've been able to do to the Taliban. I mean, they could trot out statistics on night raids and the number of Taliban so-called mid-level commanders and facilitators and so on that they arrest on a daily basis and or kill and you know, the fact is that the Taliban has no trouble replenishing its ranks.
NORDLANDTheir strength now, the estimated strength, even by the military's own estimates, the American military's estimates, is the same now as it was five years ago. They're still able to do, you know, increasing levels of damage. They're able to launch strategic attacks on occasion when they want to and make spectacular attacks, you know, from time to time.
NORDLANDAnd they're able to do things like have an impact on these insider killings and so on. And you know, from their point of view they're on a roll. Everything that we've seen from them suggests that that's the way they look at it and that's also a big factor in, you know, the lack of any kind of traction on a peace process.
NNAMDIRajiv, where do neighboring countries fit into the end game at this point, particularly Pakistan?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, good question, you know, Pakistan says one thing often and actually does another thing in reality on the ground. Pakistani officials of late have voiced support for a peace process for instance. They have made commitments over the past couple of years to crack down on insurgent sanctuaries.
CHANDRASEKARANThe reality, however, is that Pakistan has done precious little to crack down on the freedom of movement that the Afghan Taliban enjoy within the borders of Pakistan and the Taliban's ability to raise funds, to acquire munitions and to plot attacks on the Afghan side of the border.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd with regard to a peace process, Pakistan has some internal red lines that I think are very clear to U.S. officials and that is that the Pakistanis worry that if the Afghan Taliban were simply left alone to strike a deal with the Afghan government, if that was possible, it's not entirely clear that that government -- that deal would necessarily be in the best interests of Pakistan's government. So Pakistan is essentially trying to play a role of a middle man here saying, look if you want access to these Taliban leaders we need to be there at the table. And that's in effort to ensure that Pakistan's interests are met and that Pakistan continues to have some leverage over the process.
NNAMDIRod, we spoke earlier -- actually this is for Rajiv -- we spoke earlier this summer about many of the lessons you think American diplomatic officials have learned and unlearned about Afghanistan particularly when it comes to the civilian projects we've undertaken there. At this point do you expect that any of the institutions we've tried to help the Afghan government build or the infrastructure we've helped the government build can survive once NATO troops leave and Afghans are responsible for running the country themselves?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, I think some of them will be able to be sustained. You know, we've poured in an enormous amount of money, built a lot of things. I don't expect it all to wash away into dust as the troops come home. You know, I think some of the gains that have been made, for instance in the world of education and in health care, may be sustained. Although, you know, we built a lot of buildings that will not be able to be staffed because the Afghan government won't be able to pay salaries and there're not going to be enough trained Afghans to take over functions that are performed today by Americans and other foreigners.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd we should also note that when troops come home it doesn't mean that all the aid workers and all the civilian personnel will be coming home as well. Many of them will stay. But the bigger question here, Kojo, is for all the money we've poured into the country, tens of billions of dollars for reconstruction projects over the past decade, and we look at the result of all of it, I think it'd be very hard to look at Afghanistan and say we got our money's worth, that this was a -- that these were projects well spent. There's been an enormous amount of waste, a lot of it lost to corruption but a lot of it lost to simple inefficiency, bad planning and poor leadership.
NNAMDIYou have, in fact, led me -- Rod...
NORDLANDYeah, I would -- I would agree with all of that but I think I'd add another point.
NORDLANDAnd that is that you often hear Afghans say, you know, the Americans haven't done anything in ten years. And that's actually ridiculous. I mean, they've repaired roads. They've actually given the country some pretty decent highways that they haven't had. They've repaired heavy infrastructure like dams and generating plants. You know, Kabul has no real electricity shortages, which could still not be said of Baghdad for instance. They've actually done a lot but the overwhelming fact here is that nobody sees it that way. No Afghan really thinks that they have.
NORDLANDAnd so we've sent these tens of billions -- I think it's 60 some billion dollars in reconstruction aid and we haven't won very many hearts and minds at all.
NNAMDIWell, Rod Nordland, and this I guess is my exit question and the pun is deliberate, and that is, are the Americans experiencing what the British colonialists and then the Russians have already experienced in Afghanistan? Rod Nordland?
NORDLANDWell, yes, I think probably in a lot of ways that's true as the graveyard of empires. And this is certainly, you know, well on its way to becoming, you know, a graveyard again and to many ways.
CHANDRASEKARANLook, there is a lot of relevant history there, both from the British years, the Anglo-Afghan Wars, from the Soviet occupation. And even from, as I write in my book, the American involvement in Southern Afghanistan in the 1950s and '60s. But as we marched back into Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks 11 years ago, much of that history was simply ignored. We thought that we could do it better than others have before. We thought that that history didn't apply to us. And to some degree that's true. We are a better counterinsurgency force today than the Soviets ever were. We are more enlightened than how the British sought to rule Afghanistan.
CHANDRASEKARANBut there are factors that simply don't change geography, culture, tradition, the role of religion in society. And we in Washington, our government simply didn't grasp that well enough. And so we have unfortunately gone about repeating many of the mistakes that the British and Russians have. And on the civilian assistance front many of the mistakes that our own fellow Americans did 60 years ago in the southern deserts of that country, to me it's a real shame.
NNAMDIRajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent...
NORDLANDYeah, I was...
NNAMDIOh well, you get to finish, Rod Nordland.
NORDLANDYeah -- no, I was talking to the Russian ambassador here the other day and he pointed out some of the -- a lot of the similarities. The size of the force that the Russians built up -- the Afghan force that they built up before they left was about, you know, actually a little bit bigger than what we're going to leave the Afghans with, 300 and some thousand police and soldiers. They did an awful lot of reconstruction. In fact, arguably a lot of the reconstruction they did was more durable than some of the things that we've done. You know, all the, yeah, thousands of empty schools that nobody goes to for instance.
NORDLANDAnd, you know, he said basically, you know, he's learned from our mistakes so well that you've repeated them exactly.
NNAMDIRod Nordland is Deputy Kabul Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Rod Nordland, thank you for joining us. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post. His most recent book is called "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." Rajiv, thank you for joining us.
CHANDRASEKARANGood to talk to you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, life inside the world's largest democracy with one of its most influential journalists. We'll talk with Indian writer, reporter and novelist Tarun Tejpal about his latest foray into fiction. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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