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Obama: Thousands More Troops Headed To Afghanistan

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Last night President Obama announced what many observers are calling the most consequential decision of his presidency to date - what he plans to do about Afghanistan. He announced a dramatic increase of 30,000 U.S. troops on the ground and equally tight timeline for their departure in July of 2011. It was a serious and business-like speech, and the president made no effort to downplay the scope of the task.

President BARACK OBAMA: Now let me be clear: none of this will be easy. The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will be an enduring test of our free society and our leadership in the world. And unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions, failed states, diffuse enemies.

MARTIN: The additional troops are scheduled to begin deploying as early as next month, and will bring the total number of U.S. service members in Afghanistan to more than 100,000. More than 900 Americans have been killed during the war in Afghanistan to date. Almost 300 have died this year alone.

Throughout the day, NPR is brining you different points of view about the president's decision. Later, we'll hear from two journalists who have been following the president's decision making process. Abdur-Rahim Fuqara of Al-Jazeera International, and Pam Gentry of Black Entertainment Television.

But first, we decided to reach out to three people with very different backgrounds, but all with deep experience in and around Afghanistan, and on the ground in Afghanistan. Ashraf Haidari is political counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. Journalist Najib Sharifi worked with NPR in Afghanistan, he is now pursuing post-graduate journalism studies in the Washington, D.C. area. We're also joined by Captain Benjamin Tupper, who spent 12 months embedded with the Afghan National Army. He is the author of �Welcome to Afghanistan, Send More Ammo.� He joins us from member station WAER in Syracuse, New York. And I thank you all so much for being with us.

Mr. ASHRAF HAIDARI (Deputy Chief of Mission, political counselor, Embassy of Afghanistan, Washington, D.C.): Thank you.

Mr. NAJIB SHARIFI (Journalist): Thanks.

MARTIN: Now, first I'm going to start with you Mr. Haidari. In fact, I am going to ask each of you this question. The president did not paint a terribly encouraging picture of circumstances in Afghanistan right now. In fact, let's play a short clip of what he said last night.

Pres. OBAMA: Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards. There is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum. Al-Qaida has not re-emerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe havens along the border. And our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan security forces and better secure the population.

MARTIN: Mr. Haidari, do you agree with his assessment?

Mr. HAIDARI: Of course, yes. I completely agree with the president. It's a very accurate explanation of the current situation in Afghanistan. And, of course, the Afghan government is present in Kabul, and most of the provincial centers across the country. But that doesn't mean that we are effectively delivering basic services to people in terms of rule of law and governance, and particularly security in the south and east of Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been resurgent over the past at least five years, as the president I think also discussed in I think part of his speech that Afghanistan was neglected because of, of course, the situation in Iraq.

So, we are in control in Afghanistan, but of course, we need to accelerate the process of state building in Afghanistan. Not only of course building their security and institutions, but also strengthening governance and institutions�

MARTIN: The bottom line though, the president said that this - Afghanistan is in danger of becoming a host - a failed state and a host for al-Qaida. Do you think that's fair? Is that a fair assessment?

Mr. HAIDARI: I think I could agree that Afghanistan could be a potential failed state if it were not for the presence of the international security forces. So, that's why we need to accelerate the process of strengthening state structures in Afghanistan, both security and civilian institutions, so that we increasingly stand on our own to deliver the peace dividend that the people of Afghanistan have expected.

MARTIN: Najib, do you agree with the president's assessment of circumstances there?

Mr. SHARIFI: Yes, I do agree with the president's assessment. What we understand that Taliban cannot pose an imminent threat to overthrow the government, but we need to make all possible efforts to stop from the progress of the Taliban. And we should keep in mind that today, the Taliban are much more violent than when they were ruling. And at anytime to come back, God forbid, they will be much more violent than the time they were ruling. This is because they played a lot during the past seven years. During the time that the regime was being overthrown, thousands of them died but this has increased the - the�

MARTIN: The will.

Mr. SHARIFI: �the clashes that existed between the mujahedeen fighters and the Taliban, when they were fighting back in the 1990s, and early 2000. And at the same time, today we see that thousands and thousands of people were working for American or international institutes or organizations, U.N. embassies, and so what will happen to the fate of all of these people?

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because you and I had spoken previously on the program, and at the time, if I'm remembering correctly, you were critical of the troop presence. You thought it was just stimulating more resistance, in essence. So, what do you think now? What do you think of the president's proposal to add yet more troop presence, even for a limited time?

Mr. SHARIFI: Well, I remember very well that two months ago that I do not agree with the policy of increasing troops because that cannot - by that we cannot achieve a lot. But today, I can say that I support the policy of increasing the troops and that's because within the past two months the news of the foreign forces - of the withdrawal of foreign forces and the fact that U.N. pulled out 600 of its workers from Afghanistan, it dramatically decreased, weakened the morale of the Afghan people and boosted the morale of the Taliban.

So, we need - we needed a strong commitment like this to show the enemy - to show to the Taliban that, no, we are decisive in our decision and we are firm in our conviction, and we will not leave it to you. But something that I do not expect to hear from the - from President Obama was the timeline that he set for withdrawal of the American troops from there, because as I said earlier, we need to keep the morale up. And this means - this is basically a message for the Taliban that be patient, and hopeful.

MARTIN: And wait it out. Interesting. Captain Tupper, let's hear from you. Do you, first of all, do you agree with the president's assessment of the facts now? And what do you think of his proposal?

Capt. TUPPER: Yes, as a blanket statement, yes, I think he was on target and accurate. And I would agree with the comments that your guests have made also. I'd throw in this caveat. Is the government in Kabul at risk of being overthrown? No. I don't see that happening for years. But I don't know if that's really the standard we should measure things by. We have a figurehead government. It's got a lot of issues, as shown most recently in the elections with the fraud.

But where I was, and I think where a lot of people who are down in the weeds in the outer provinces and remote districts centers, that's where you see, really, where the rubber hits the road, so to speak, where you see the Taliban in control. And by that, I mean there are established government agencies, district centers, police, et cetera. But when the population has disputes, at least in the area I served, which was mostly eastern Afghanistan, Ghazni and Paktika provinces, when the general population had problems, if they went to the government officials, they were asked to pay bribes. They were asked to, you know, give up things to get something.

So they started slowly but surely going to these - we'll call the shadow government, shadow district centers, whatever you want to - label you want to put it, run by the Taliban. Because, frankly, one of the things that I can say positive about the Taliban is they don't seem to be as interested in bribes on these lower levels. I'm not saying I'd prefer to see them in authority. They come with a lot of baggage. But, yes, there's a government in Kabul. No, it's not at risk of being overthrown or overrun.

But to me, that's only part of the measure. Down in the little district centers you see the Taliban has more influence and the people look to them more as a, maybe fair governing body than the actual government itself. And, I think therein lies the big problem we face in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: I'm gonna want�

Capt. TUPPER: How do we�

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

Capt. TUPPER: Yes, go ahead. Sorry.

MARTIN: No, I was going to - I'm going to want to hear from Mr. Haidari about the corruption issue. But I want to hear from you because you've talked a lot about this in your writings and when you've been asked about this before. Do you think that, I mean, the president is making two arguments - three arguments. He's saying that there's a vital national security interest for the United States. That's thing one. Thing two, that we need more troops in order to give the institutions in Afghanistan, both the security forces and the civilian government time to get stronger. And that the third, that it is fixable. And so, on the corruption question, is it fixable in the timeline that the president has laid out?

Capt. TUPPER: Is that question for me?

MARTIN: Yes, it's for you.

Capt. TUPPER: Is it fixable? I don't know. I don't think anybody knows. I think it's possible. And I think it's something we should put some effort into doing and make sure we hold the Afghan authorities both accountable. And I think we've given them a lot of blank checks. I think we've kind of turned the other way. Our focus was on another war in another country. And, you know, we reaped what we sowed.

Is the corruption - the corruption will never go away. Corruption is part of our government. It's part of our institutions. It's part of our daily lives here in America. It's a phenomenon that I think transcends countries. There will always be corruption in Afghanistan. There's corruption in India, which is a functional country. There's corruption all around, Iran, all these places. That's okay.

The problem is, we have levels that exceed the ability for the government to work, for the government to meet the needs of its people. That, I think, can be reigned in if we're able to express a degree of clarity to the Afghan government that we are not going to let the levels of corruption that have been occurring continue. They cannot continue.

MARTIN: We need to give Mr. - we're going to take a short break in just a minute but I want to give Mr. Haidari a chance to respond briefly before we take a break. And we will come back after a short break. But you're hearing sort of a theme here, that American political leaders and the public are growing impatient with the government. They feel that it is not addressing its own issues. Can you speak to that?

Mr. HAIDARI: I think, yes, the Afghan government - and, of course, the Afghan people have heard enough on the issue of corruption. And it is an issue that we are seriously committing to fighting in Afghanistan. And, I think, I agree with the speaker's comment that corruption in Afghanistan is systemic. It's about state institutions lacking capacity and resources and, of course, therefore making vulnerable the bureaucracy to corruption.

MARTIN: And, I'm sorry�

Mr. HAIDARI: So that's why we need to focus on the civilian surge to strengthen governance and rule of law and institutions in Afghanistan beginning with�

MARTIN: I need to interrupt because, as I mentioned, we need to take a short break. We will come back. We're talking with Ashraf Haidari, political counselor from the embassy of Afghanistan, Afghan journalist Najib Sharifi, and former Army National Guard Captain Ben Tupper.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll talk about how voters here at home and the international community are responding to the president's speech on Afghanistan. That's in just a few minutes. And later, we'll hear about that mayor's race in Atlanta. It's still too close to call.

But first, we continue our conversation with Ashraf Haidari, political counselor at the embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., journalist Najib Sharifi, and a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict, Captain Benjamin Tupper. He was actually embedded with Afghan National Forces there. Thank you all, again, for staying with us.

Before the break, Mr. Haidari, I interrupted you briefly, if you would just finish the point that you were making. We were talking about the growing impatience on the part of political leaders here, the Afghan people, obviously, and the American public with what they see as the failings of the Karzai government, particularly in addressing corruption. If you would finish the point you were making.

Mr. HAIDARI: Correct, I think, I said that it is a systemic problem, that corruption is a symptom of weak governance. It's not a cause of it. And when it is a symptom of weak governance that means state institutions have been weak from the very beginning. We've lacked a comprehensive state-building strategy that has really not helped to strengthen the state institutions from the very beginning. Remember that the Bonn Agreement gave us a government on the paper back in 2001.

But since then, there's not been a comprehensive state-building strategy to strengthen the institutions that the Bonn Agreement gave us. And that's why we welcomed it back in March - the president's comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan. That's why we, of course, welcome this announcement on the strategy, not only to focus on security but also on, of course, civilian.

And of course, the Afghan government has taken a number of steps. So far we've prosecuted some 600 officials for corruption charges. There are some 15 ministers right now under investigation that we will, of course, prosecute over the coming weeks and months. There's a high office on oversight and anti-corruption that needs to be strengthened. And we're committed to working with the U.S. and our other partners to - for strengthening and give this office the capacity to implement its mandate. So we look at this issue as more of the cumulative problem from the very beginning, in absence of a broad state-building strategy�

MARTIN: And I take your point that you're working on it seriously as a government.

Mr. HAIDARI: Sure.

MARTIN: Mr. Sharifi, you actually have a very - you have a unique background. You're a medical doctor in addition to being a journalist. And so you have the opportunity to see quite a lot of things when you were working in Afghanistan. And, of course, you still have family there. So I wanted to ask you about the whole question of institution building.

I mean, the president said that - that he's not interested in sort of nation building per se, or the nation he's interested in building is this one. And yet, there are those who'd say that civilian institutions have to be given the capacity to function properly. Did you hear enough about that aspect of - that side of the story in the president's speech? And what do you think needs to happen going forward?

Mr. SHARIFI: Well, I did hear that but it was not stressed upon very strongly and we need - we need that along with the military surge. And as long as -that's an inseparable part of the military surge, if you expect it to succeed. And the reasons that earlier I said that today I support the military surge is because we only needed this psychological support from the international community. If they're put on the ground, we'll not see much effectiveness from them. And I hope more of them engage in training the Afghan security forces.

With regards to institution building, it's a big need of us today, and it is one of the cause of corruption. I hope serious attention is paid on that. But coming back to the issue of corruption, I shall say that within the past - and obviously corruption is the main cause behind the dissatisfaction of people from the government. Well, we do know - we do understand that lack of having strong institutions in the country has been the cause of corruption.

But at the same time, I can say that we have not had goodwill on the part of the Afghan government to eradicate corruption in the country. We had very high profile examples and - of corruption going on there every day. But there was nobody to watch it and to say that this is a cancer that is destroying the government and is destroying the country.

So why shouldn't we address it? And today that we're saying that we've - why should we start from - why should we start addressing corruption today? Why didn't we start to address corruption five or six years ago, when we had a lot to do and when corruption was in the beginning stages?

MARTIN: Okay. Well I'm going to hear from Captain Tupper and I want to give him the final thought. And Captain Tupper, what do you think needs to happen going forward? I mean, I'm sure that you have a lot of interesting thoughts right about now. There has been so much conversation about how long the president took to make this decision, whether he took an appropriate amount of time and so forth and whether in fact�

Capt. TUPPER: I have no problem�

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Capt. TUPPER: �no problem with him taking that time at all. I think it showed a steady hand to a very complex problem. I think anybody who studies Afghanistan, the more they read, they realize it doesn't get easier, the solution gets even muddier and more difficult to draw out. So time wise, three months took no - I had no problem with that. I think that was the proper course of action. I think the additional troops, I think, speaking to an American audience who's -probably that's their biggest concern. Why are we sending troops? This country is the graveyard of empires. No one ever wins there.

I don't think the intent - I don't think anybody thinks that these 30,000 extra troops wins the war or defeats the Taliban. I don't think that's the purpose of them. And I think the president made it clear, we - or maybe he didn't say this directly, but I took this out of the speech, we need to negotiate with the moderate elements of the Taliban from a position of strength. Right now, we're not in that position. I think these 30,000 troops, they will create a degree of expanded security influence in the country.

They will also create more problems. There will be accidents that happen that alienate Afghan people. We may bomb a wrong compound or accidentally shoot someone who shouldn't have been targeted. That will happen but the net good that will come out of this will be more than the negative. The end-state goal in whatever, 18 months from now, is that we've created conditions in some of the larger population areas that allow the government to start to function or to function better.

It's very difficult for anybody to do a normal job when going to school or going to your workplace involves the risk of getting killed in an explosion without warning. That makes your economy dysfunctional. That makes your government dysfunctional. Security, these 30,000 guys and gals are going to increase security in certain areas. They're not - their goal is not to defeat the Taliban. The Taliban will never be defeated. You never defeat an insurgency. You hopefully co-opt it and bring it into your system, bring it back into your fold, like we've done in El Salvador, Angola, you know, pick a country. I think that's the goal. And I think that's one that's attainable.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. It's been a very interesting discussion. I thank you all so much for participating. That was Captain Benjamin Tupper. He spent 12 months embedded with the Afghan National Army and he's also the author of �Welcome to Afghanistan, Send More Ammo.� He joined us from our member station WAER in Syracuse, New York. I was also pleased to be joined by Ashraf Haidari. He is a political counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan here in Washington, D.C. And journalist Najib Sharifi. He was here with me also. He's also pursuing graduate studies in journalism and is a medical doctor. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Capt. TUPPER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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