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By some measures, roughly a quarter of American deaths in Afghanistan this year have come at the hands of Afghan security forces. The count is spiking at a time when the American war effort is relying increasingly on Afghan military and police to maintain security there – and facilitate transitions of power. We examine the new risks facing the American military and diplomatic figures who are working with Afghan partners.
- Robert Cassidy Colonel, U.S. Army; Military Professor, Joint Military Operations, U.S. Naval War College
- Nora Bensahel Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security
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, rising gas prices, need we say more? Okay, we'll try to figure out why.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, squeezing an already-strained marriage in Afghanistan, American officials are still scrambling to contain the fallout of a killing spree that took place this weekend when a U.S. soldier allegedly entered a village outside Kandahar and began shooting civilians. The attack took place at a time when the relationship between Americans and their Afghan partners was already teetering on the brink.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBy some measures, roughly one in four American deaths in Afghanistan this year has come at the hands of Afghan security forces, including a jarring incident in February when two American military advisors were killed by an Afghan police officer inside of a government building in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA critical component of the U.S. withdrawal strategy involves further side by side collaboration with Afghan military and police training and Afghan security apparatus that can take over responsibility, but trust seems to be eroding on both sides and the clock is ticking. Joining us to have this conversation is Colonel Robert Cassidy. He's a military professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He served as a top advisor to one of the senior commanders in Afghanistan from June 2010 to June 2011. He joins us from studios in Newport, R.I. Colonel Cassidy, thank you for joining us.
COLONEL ROBERT CASSIDYHi, Kojo, thanks for having me here today.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by telephone is Nora Bensahel. Nora Bensahel is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Nora Bensahel, thank you for joining us.
MS. NORA BENSAHELThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, if you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. How has the past month shaped your opinion of the American military effort in Afghanistan? At this point, what do you think is the best way forward? 800-433-880. Robert Cassidy, I'll start with you. You served in Afghanistan and you've studied extensively the kind of mission the soldier allegedly involved in this weekend's attack was working with, one of the so-called village stability operation efforts aimed at supporting local Afghan government and security forces.
NNAMDIAt first blush, what can you tell us about the philosophy behind these village operations and the damage this weekend's events might have on the American ability to carry them out in this region and throughout Afghanistan from here on out?
CASSIDYThanks for the question, Kojo. Before I answer that I would like to highlight that my views today are my own based on my practice and scholarship and not necessarily the Department of Defense's or the U.S. Naval War College. The first thing I'd like to highlight is village stability operations in a village stability platform, as well as the Afghan local police is actually a sign of success in Afghanistan and that the special forces community, over time, has really perfected how they assess an area and then develop it and then decide if the people actually want to develop a community defense program.
CASSIDYSo overall, in Afghanistan, if I was going to highlight some of the successful things, a VSO would be one of those, as well as the building and the improvement of the Afghan security forces at large.
NNAMDILet's stay with VSO for a second because you wrote last summer that these village stability operations are a crucial component of the overall counter-insurgency strategy we're pursuing in Afghanistan. To what degree does this strategy rely on trust between American forces and their Afghan partners? And in light of what's happened these past few months, do you think that kind of trust is still achievable?
CASSIDYYes, I would not overstate the bleakness of it or some of the hyperbole that we've seen in the press over the last several days. Certainly, the string of events over the last three months is odious and tragic and abominable, but I wouldn't say that those events portend any cataclysmic changes in Afghanistan.
CASSIDYBasically, the campaign focuses on bringing security to the people and connecting the population with a degree of governance. Now, in Afghanistan, governance and government are not necessarily synonymous as we perceive them in the U.S. and in the West. So the VSO and the Afghan local police do two things. They provide security and they provide some degree of governance and that they can connect people in rural areas with the district center. So in that sense, that's why I characterize them as a microcosm of the overall campaign in Afghanistan.
NNAMDIWe should mention, point out, that village stability operation efforts are generally placed in strategically important rural areas where there are few Afghan national security forces. But Robert Cassidy, what can you tell us about how these collaborations work on the ground level when young American troops are interacting with local Afghans? It's my understanding that you were there as late as last summer.
CASSIDYAh yes. In fact, I did have an opportunity to interact with several of these cases of Afghan local police and I found it fascinating because what I saw was small detachments of Green Berets operating in indigenous garb with indigenous community members training them how to secure themselves. And what most studies of, you know, the aggregate corpus of counter-insurgencies over time will tell you, that any successful counter-insurgency campaign usually includes a well-thought-out and executed community defense program or community defense initiative.
CASSIDYAnd where the ALP and the VSO are now, you know, macro-cosmically across Afghanistan is truly a successful story, notwithstanding this tragic episode of this week.
NNAMDIAgain, if you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. How has the past month shaped your opinion of the American military effort in Afghanistan? Turning now to you, Nora Bensahel. We're hearing reports of an attack on an Afghan government delegation that was visiting the site of this weekend's attack. Where do you think the events of the past couple of months have left the Afghan government officials who are trying to work with both the United States and keep local Afghans happy at the time?
BENSAHELYeah, I think that the recent effects do add a number of additional challenges both for the U.S. forces that are there, the civilians who are there and for the Afghan government. As you know, at the outset, partnering with Afghans, whether it's through the VSO program or whether it's military units working with Afghan military or police units, that strategy of partnering has been really central to the way that the U.S. has approached the war in the past two years.
BENSAHELAnd it has had a really positive impact in a lot of the ways that were just mentioned and in terms of the abilities of the security forces, but it does depend on trust between the partners and that trust is precisely what the Taliban forces have been or insurgent forces have been trying to undermine. And to a certain extent, I think they're being successful at that. U.S. advisors are going to need to work with their civilian partners. If they're not in military units, they're going to need to be more careful about who they work with.
BENSAHELThey'll probably need more protection around them as happened in Iraq where ministerial advisors would go in with their own personal security guards, for example, and that makes it harder to establish that kind of trust. It's not impossible, but it does add a layer of challenges.
NNAMDINora, I want to circle back to some of your work. I was combing through some of your recent work this morning and I came across a paper you published earlier this year where you wrote that, as a whole, civilian agencies are going to face growing mismatches between what's going to be demanded of them in places like Afghanistan and the resources available to them. The strategy in both Afghanistan and Iraq is going to ask a lot of civilians and diplomats working there. What concerns do you have about Afghanistan, specifically in the light of the past several months?
BENSAHELWell, I think that as I just mentioned, the civilians are going to have a more difficult time working with their Afghan counterparts, partially because of the security concerns, but also because there may be more constraints that are placed on them, for example, by the State Department security services and so on. What we were talking about in that report was that civilian agencies have generally been under-resourced to support operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where there's so much work to do on the development and governance side.
BENSAHELAnd as U.S. military forces withdraw, there is increased pressure on other civilians in the U.S. government to come in and take their place to do a lot of that development, economic work, working with local, regional and national governments and so on. And there's not that much capacity in the State Department to do that. We've already seen that in Iraq, where there were grand plans for a fairly large, continued U.S. embassy presence that's already being scaled back because of those capability issues.
BENSAHELAnd as the U.S. military starts withdrawing, it continues withdrawing because the drawdown is already going on now through 2014. That's going to increase the demands on civilians in Afghanistan as well.
NNAMDIWell, how much progress can we make and how secure can we make our civilian forces if we draw down our military capacity significantly?
BENSAHELIt does limit their ability to operate. You can contract for private security if that's not being provided by U.S. military forces. But again, that's a constraint on where the civilians are able to go, the kind of work they're able to do, their ability to work with local partners. Again, not impossible, but it just makes it that much harder.
NNAMDIBut Robert Cassidy, it's my understanding that contractors might be a bit of a sore point with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai?
CASSIDYAh yes, there have been tensions associated with the private security companies for the last several years and in fact, there's momentum with deadlines approaching that will have private security contractors hand the mission over to the Afghan public protection force, which is an indigenous element that will help secure those civilians that have to work in the rural areas that are not necessarily protected by the military forces.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Leida (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Leida, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEIDAYeah, if you talk to Afghan people, you will find out that many of them oppose the Taliban and having them in power in Afghanistan. So people were saying that we should leave them there and leave Afghanistan. I think they are making a big mistake. We need to make sure these small groups of people are not dictating government of Afghanistan what to do. But in the meantime, we have to make sure the mentality of the American military shouldn't be anti-Muslim, anti-Islamic, as it has been during the last couple of years.
LEIDAUnfortunately, there is a lot of bad publicity against Muslims, which makes our soldiers vulnerable to this kind of behavior and that needs to be changed. But one thing is for sure, this is something that the military should do, not the private contractors because the private contractors, there's no control and there's going to be a lot of tragedies as we saw in Iraq.
NNAMDIIndeed, Leida, we had quite a lot of discussion yesterday about how American military and civilian officials need to be prepared for life in Afghanistan. But I'd like to follow a little bit on some security issues with both you, Colonel Cassidy, and you, Nora Bensahel. In Kandahar, things have been particularly unsafe for Afghans who are working with American forces. Hamid Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was killed by one of his bodyguards last summer.
NNAMDITo what degree is either of you worried or both of you worried about the willingness of Afghan officials to step forward as trusting partners at this point in the game and do we really have any other choice, Robert Cassidy?
CASSIDYI'm not overly concerned about the willingness of the Afghan civilian officials to step forward, and I'm very confident in the Afghan security forces. One thing I would note, that we had emphasized as a fact when I was in Afghanistan, was the resiliency of the Afghan people. And what that really equates to is an unbelievable capacity to bounce back after a tragic event. And after those events that happened last year in Kandahar where we had significant personalities killed by the Taliban, and after attacks on Kandahar early last spring the Afghan security forces were able to manage many of those attacks on their own.
CASSIDYAnd I would also echo the caller's point and that is that most Afghans do in fact want us to help them achieve durable security and do want the government effort to succeed. And very few would like to see a return of the Taliban Emirate. In fact most Afghans have seen the Taliban cruelty and they'd rather not have them return.
BENSAHELI agree with that. I think it's very important to distinguish actually between events that are happening in Afghanistan, that the effect that those events are having in the United States versus in Afghanistan itself. The tragic shooting of the 16 civilians in Afghanistan recently is a very big deal in the United States, as it should be. This is not behavior that should be tolerated by the U.S. military, and in fact it is not.
BENSAHELBut it is not gaining the same kind of traction in Afghanistan as it is here, where unfortunately I think a lot of people assume that this kind of thing happens all the time. They don't make the distinction -- many Afghans don't make the distinction between one guy who goes off and is doing this without the approval of the chain of command and U.S. military forces operating more broadly.
BENSAHELSo the event this past weekend I don't think has really changed the debate in Afghanistan or the willingness of locals to work with us. I think that's driven by the more long term relationships that Colonel Cassidy was talking about. But it may have very important strategic effect both on the negotiating space that President Karzai has in discussing any future role of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. And I think it'll have, as it already is, have a tremendous impact on U.S. public opinion looking at this -- at the conflict there.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll return to this conversation about Afghanistan and take your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think is at stake in the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan. What do you think is the most sensible way to do it? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking about rising gas prices and what that has to do with you. Right now, we're talking about Afghanistan with Nora Bensahel. She is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. She joins us by telephone. And Colonel Robert Cassidy, he joins us from studios in Newport, R.I. He's a military professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He served as a top advisor to one of the senior commanders in Afghanistan from June, 2010 to June, 2011.
NNAMDIRobert Cassidy, I was struck by something I read in the Washington Post this morning. A former military official said that rather than focusing on building relationship with Afghans, American troops and coalition forces are going to be, and I'm quoting here, "operating with one hand on their pistols looking over their shoulders." Do you think that's a likely eventuality here? Do you think that's a fair statement?
CASSIDYI do not think that's a fair statement. In fact, I think that highlights some of the unfair hyperbole that's been ubiquitous in the press in the last three months since the first incident in January. And I think that we need to be prudent and be candid in how we qualify the magnitude and the consequences of aberrant incidents that are not at all characteristic of our forces or of the Afghan forces. We've been partnering with the Afghan security forces for many years in many places with thousands and thousands of troops. And these are isolated incidents.
CASSIDYI'd also like to, out of college serendipity, I actually am a fan of Nora's work and she published something in October of 2009 that I think is still exceedingly relevant. And the title of the commentary was "How to Tell if We're Winning in Afghanistan." And it's about a two-page piece, but we were actually using this, as it's so sensible and cogent, in looking at Afghanistan in a campaign because in America and in the American military we tend to be encumbered by an overreliance on metrics.
CASSIDYIn order to determine how well we're doing in Afghanistan over the last two years she essentially came up with two questions, and they are this. If we look at Afghanistan now compared to December, '09 when the president announced the new strategy, first question is, do the Afghan forces, the Afghan government and the coalition control and influence more territory now than they did two years ago? And the second question is, are the Afghan security forces in fact bigger and better than they were two years ago?
CASSIDYAnd I think the answer to those two questions is an unambiguous yes. Imperfect, flawed? Yes. Congruent with Afghanistan and not America? Yes, but those are the realities that we changed on the ground the last two years.
NNAMDIAccurate to accurate interpretation of your work, Nora Bensahel? Yes?
BENSAHELYes, I think it's accurate. But what I would say is that there are still real questions about whether those things are sustainable. I agree that that describes where we are today. But as we start looking towards a larger U.S. drawdown as we move towards 2014, which is when President Obama said that most combat troops will be out, in fact combat missions will end, there will still be some troops there, I think that there are still real questions about the sustainability of those gains over time and whether they'll outlast the U.S. presence.
BENSAHELI think it's very wise to focus on this partnering and training of local partners both on the civilian side and the military side because ultimately that's what's going to improve their capacity to be sustainable once U.S. military forces leave. But I think that the gains to date are still relatively precarious. And unless the kind of robust training and partnering continues, I am concerned that a lot of the gains won't last after we leave. That's why it's really important that both U.S. military and civilian officials continue with this partnering, mentoring and training.
NNAMDISpeaking of writing, Robert Cassidy, you wrote way back in 2004 in the early stages of the war in Iraq that American forces there and in Afghanistan were going to be sucked into a, quoting here, "war against the flea and that they would have to relearn lessons from other unconventional wars." Have they been successful?
CASSIDYYes. I would say that the disadvantage we started these wars with was that we had expunged almost all of our doctrine and thinking about insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. And as a result of really Iraq, although we were in Afghanistan two years earlier, the insurgency had not regenerated by then in full bloom. But the consequences of invasion of Iraq demanded upon the military while in the crucible of combat that it relearn counterinsurgency over again. So we learned it from the bottom up and from the top down. And then there was some doctrine produced in the middle of the last decade.
NNAMDIYou've worked on the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq. What would you say are the crucial differences in those situations as far as how they affect counterinsurgency strategy?
CASSIDYWell, some of the major differences geographically is, you know, Afghanistan is more rural than Iraq. So a lot of the insurgency operates in and among the rural populations. And then I would say, you know, the Afghan people have been at war for really almost 39 years 'cause I started it in 17 July 1973, when Mohammad Dawood Kahn usurped Zaheer Shah. That was the beginning of an era of tumult and in conflict and then invasion that, you know, faced the Afghan people.
CASSIDYSo I think they're a little more both inured to violence and tired of violence. But they're so resilient that I think if we can help them become durably secure over time the enterprise will succeed. And I would say I'd also agree with Nora that the perceptions in the U.S. are really the challenge at this point. And I think there's momentum accelerating in the wrong direction. And ironically in Afghanistan, you know, most of the people support the effort. But the support, it seems, in the U.S. for a sustained effort in Afghanistan continue to diminish at a higher rate.
NNAMDIAs an indication of that here's Shima (sp?) in Alexandria, Va. Shima, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHIMAThank you very much for the time. As an Afghan American, I am sad and outraged over this shooting. And I call end of this occupation. As (unintelligible) a former parliament member who has been against this long war said that the Afghan people are sandwiched between Taliban and foreign troops. If the foreign troops leave Afghanistan, the Afghan people have to deal with only one enemy. For people who worry about what happens to Afghan women, just know that Afghan people eventually have to deal with Taliban and other war criminals, war and government.
SHIMAAnd as time pass these criminals and Taliban are getting stronger, richer and more dangerous. So it's time to end the war. And if people are interested they should read the Responsive Attack by afghansforpeace.org. And also if they want to know more about Afghanistan and women they should check the Afghan organization called (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIShima, Shima, allow me to interrupt because the point that was being made here is that the reaction in the United States that seems to be -- especially in terms of favoring immediate withdrawal seems to be much stronger than the reaction in Afghanistan. So that the reason I'm asking this question is, is Afghan's For Peace based in the United States?
SHIMAI'm sorry, I don't hear the...
NNAMDIAfghans For Peace -- is Afghan's For Peace based here in the United States?
SHIMAYes, they are. They are basically more young Afghans that started this organization, yes.
NNAMDIOkay. Nora Bensahel, I'm going to ask you to respond to Shima.
BENSAHELI think that's an increasing perception. There are recent opinion polls showing that more than half of the American public wants the war in Afghanistan to end and to bring home all the troops rapidly. The Obama Administration is reportedly considering a number of different scenarios for how troops will be brought home, what numbers and at what time between now and 2014. And there's a suggestion that the timetables may be accelerated because of some of this public pressure at home.
BENSAHELI think it's also really important to note that the war in Afghanistan, the situation we're in now is really paying the price for the fact of -- paying the price for eight years of neglect. The U.S. was not seriously conducting counterinsurgency operations or even large scale military operations against insurgents really until 2008 and into early 2009, mostly because the U.S. emphasis was on the war in Iraq. And so by the time the additional troops went in and the strategy that we're discussing came into play it was already building on a legacy of eight years of failing to operate in this way. And that's yet another reason why the situation there is so challenging today.
NNAMDIShima, thank you for your call. I know you both have to go but I do have to ask one more question, because lurking behind all of this is the question of where Pakistan fits into the picture. Mike Mullen, the recent Chairman of the Joint Chiefs basically called out Pakistan in public in his final months on the job, suggesting that Pakistan's spy agency supported the Haqqani Network, the group that was credited for orchestrating attack on the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan last year. How do you feel these strategic calculus when it comes to Pakistan has changed at all during the past several months? First you, Robert Cassidy.
CASSIDYI would say quite frankly that the strategic calculus Pakistan has not changed a bit unfortunately because the sanctuaries in Pakistan, in my view, are the hugest strategic risk to success in Afghanistan. I mean, what I see is operation momentum in Afghanistan with the things I talked about and the things I highlighted from Nora's commentary. That's operation momentum. But to have a real strategic momentum there needs to be some turning off of the support effects and the pernicious effects that emanate across the border in Pakistan.
NNAMDIAnd Nora Bensahel, Pakistan?
BENSAHELPakistan is a crucial actor in everything that goes on in this part of the world. In fact, the instability in Pakistan and the need to gather intelligence is one of the reasons why the U.S. does want to maintain some sort of troop presence past 2014, even if we're not conducting combat operations. I think the recent events make negotiating that kind of follow-on arrangement with the Karzai government more challenging and therefore could potentially have some strategic implications for our ability just even to know what's going on on the ground in Pakistan.
NNAMDINora Bensahel is a Senior Fellow at the Center for A New American Security. Nora Bensahel, thank you for joining us.
BENSAHELThank you. You're welcome.
NNAMDIColonel Robert Cassidy is a military professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He served as a top advisor to one of the senior commanders in Afghanistan from June, 2010 to June, 2011. Robert Cassidy, thank you for joining us.
CASSIDYYou're welcome, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, higher gas prices in this region. We'll try to figure out why it's happening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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