On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
In December 2009, President Obama set this July as the month when troops would begin to withdraw from Afghanistan. But as the date nears, debate continues over how many troops to bring home and how to do it. Afghan president Hamid Karzai complicated the discussions yesterday. He demanded an end to U.S. led coalition strikes against civilians. As the price tag for war grows, many Americans say they are ready to see troops come home. Others say the U.S. is making gradual progress and should stay. New pressures on the U.S. in Afghanistan and continuing debate over withdrawal plans.
- Ambassador James Dobbins director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, and former special envoy to Afghanistan.
- Phyllis Bennis director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies; co-author author of "Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer"
- Stephen Biddle senior fellow for defense policy, Council on Foreign Relations; author, "Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded yesterday that the U.S.-led coalition end air strikes on civilians. The criticism could complicate President Obama's plan to withdraw nearly 100,000 troops from the country. Joining me to talk about what's next for the U.S. in Afghanistan, Stephen Biddle of Council on Foreign Relations, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, Amb. James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation.
MS. DIANE REHMI do invite you to join us, 800-433-8850. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MS. PHYLLIS BENNISGood morning, Diane.
MR. STEPHEN BIDDLEGood morning.
REHMStephen Biddle, President Obama set a date to begin troop withdrawals. What do you expect to see next month?
BIDDLEI think most people are expecting some withdrawal, but thoroughly modest.
REHMWhat does that mean?
BIDDLEA few thousand, I think, probably less than 10,000.
REHMA few thousand, less than 10,000.
BIDDLEWell, we're all speculating. I don't think this decision has actually been made yet. But I think most people are expecting something in that range and probably skewed more towards support elements and less towards combat elements. But then, again, I don't think any of these decisions have been made.
REHMWhat do you -- what relation does -- the fact that he sent 30,000 additional troops to the region, what relationship does that have to the number he then withdraws or decides?
BIDDLEWell, to the extent that the debate within the administration heats back up again over this, that's going to be one of the key questions. The vice president, for example, has, at various times, suggested that the drawdown should be as fast as the draw up was. So we should get -- we should remove the 30,000 as quickly as they came in.
BIDDLEI think most people are expecting that the withdrawal would be a lot slower than the reinforcement was, but, again, that -- to the extent that this is re-litigated. The case for the war is re-debated within the administration. I'm sure this will be one of the issues that'll be debated.
REHMPhyllis Bennis, what about you? What level of withdrawals do you believe should begin in July?
BENNISI'm glad that you asked it as should, Diane, rather than what do I expect, because what I expect is pretty much what Steve just said. What I think is much more appropriate is to begin a serious drawdown for a rapid withdrawal of all of the 100,000 U.S. troops, the 90,000 U.S. DOD contractors and the 50,000 NATO troops. This is not a war that's going to be won militarily.
BENNISWe should acknowledge that and begin a serious process, not a token process. The costs of this war, in lives and in money, are not token. And a token withdrawal is simply not going to be enough.
REHMJames Dobbins, is that how you see it?
AMB. JAMES DOBBINSWell, in terms of what I expect, there are two questions, one is how many troops he withdraws, and then the second is over what timeframe. So if he wants to withdraw 30,000, he could say, I'm going to withdraw 30,000 over 18 months rather than over a year. Or he could say, I'm going to withdraw 15,000 over a year. The effect is essentially the same on the ground. Just one sounds better.
AMB. JAMES DOBBINSSo there's going to be some game playing between those two parameters. As to what I think, I believe a more cautious drawdown is appropriate. I think there have been gains. I agree the war is not going to be won militarily, but I think it could be lost militarily. And I think it would be unfortunate if the significant gains that have been achieved over the last year are, in effect, discarded.
REHMHow do you articulate our goals at this point in Afghanistan?
DOBBINSWell, I think we have to remember why we went there. We went there not just because al-Qaida had found a refuge agenda, a sanctuary in Afghanistan, but because it was actively allied to the Afghan government. It was the only place -- it wasn't the only place in the world where al-Qaida found some sanctuary, but it was the only place in the world where it had a government with which it was allied.
DOBBINSAnd we went in, in order to deny Afghanistan both as a sanctuary, but also as an ally of al-Qaida. And what we continue to fear is that, if the Taliban came back, took over control of the country again and remain allied to al-Qaida, you'd have a repeat of that situation.
REHMI heard you say if the Taliban came back.
REHMAre you saying that the goal is to ensure that the Taliban does not come back? Is that our goal now?
DOBBINSI think the overarching goal is to prevent the return of a government that's allied with al-Qaida. If the Taliban were to break its links with al-Qaida, which is one of the reasons the administration is now in talks with the Taliban, then I think our attitude would be different. But as long as they remain allied to al-Qaida, I believe that we need to block their return to power.
REHMYou talk about the government of Afghanistan. How strong is President Karzai, Stephen Biddle?
BIDDLEStrong in the sense of the ability to make his running the provinces, not very strong in the sense of likely to be turned out of office by anyone in Afghanistan as long as the United States stays militarily, I think probably stronger that we would like. The question is, what dimension of strength, one means?
BIDDLEThe kind of strength we would like, the ability of an Afghan government that retains the loyalty of its citizens across the country to control its territory in such a way that it's territory cannot become a base -- either for terrorist attacks on us or for destabilizing its neighbors, and especially Pakistan -- I don't think the current Afghan government has that kind of strength. We're hoping that it will get it. I don't think it has it now, absent substantial assistance from outside, both economically and militarily.
REHMWhat about President Karzai's comments yesterday, Phyllis?
BENNISWell, I think it's one of the interesting things about it when he said that this would be the last time that he would give this warning. He said it in quite a threatening way. He, of course, doesn't have the power to stop NATO because his government has no real independent sovereignty. It's a government that is itself dependent on the U.S. and NATO to stay in power. There's a certain irony in that, but he said that for popular opinion.
BENNISIt is clearly a reflection of Afghan opinion. Afghan opinion -- from my understanding, talking to people who have traveled outside of Kabul recently -- is very, very divided. And there's very little support for the government, which is seen as massively corrupt, very little support for the presence of the U.S. and NATO, which are seen primarily in the context of these air strikes that are killing civilians, another one just in the last 24 hours or so, where at least -- well, the figures vary -- but somewhere between nine and 11 civilians of whom almost all were children under the age of 10.
BENNISThese are things that outrage Afghans. And the Taliban, not so surprisingly, has about as much support, it seems, as other forces. The Taliban is one more warlord group. The U.S. is seen almost as the biggest warlord on the block at this point, but one among many.
DOBBINSWell, apropos of Karzai's recent statements, I think one of the problems with democracy promotion is that you get governments that are responsive to the attitudes of their population. And so one of the problems with promoting democracy in Afghanistan is we have a president who's speaking -- who's voicing sentiments that are widely shared. And the -- there is a widely shared sentiment that night raids and air attacks on civilian buildings, even if they're harboring terrorists or insurgents, is inappropriate. So he's voicing those.
DOBBINSBut I think, you know, a lot of the attitudes toward Karzai and towards what's going on rely essentially on anecdote. There's been a lot of polling in Afghanistan, dozens of polls over the last several years, and they show a rather different picture. They show that Karzai's current popularity, personal popularity, personal approval maybe is 82 percent. Then his government's rating is 62 percent.
DOBBINSNow, that's combined with a lot of concern about corruption and lack of security, but they are comparing the current government not to Switzerland, but to their experiences in the '80s and the '90s. And things have gotten a lot better. Their GDP is up by 300 percent. Half of Afghans have telephones these days. Eighty percent of them have access to some kind of basic health care facility. Longevity is up. Infant mortality is down.
DOBBINSIf you ask Afghans, are things going in the right direction, the majority of them say, yes. If you ask them, are you better off now than you were four years ago -- the classic Ronald Reagan question -- the majority of them say, yes. Are they concerned about the things that we've just heard? Yes. They are very concerned about it. They're putting pressure on the government, and a lot of the anecdotes you get reflect that concern.
REHMAt the same time, if you ask that question of people here in the U.S., you won't get the same kinds of answers. And part of that response is based on, I believe, that we're spending too much money on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and certainly contributing to what's happening in Pakistan. Stephen Biddle, is the money worth it?
BIDDLEThis is obviously an expensive war to wage, and it's been an expensive war to wage for a long time. I think the case for waging war in Afghanistan is actually a close call on the merits. It's expensive to wage, both economically and in human terms. We have real national security interest involved, but they're limited. This is not like World War II. There's no chance that the Taliban are going to invade the United States and conquer the country.
BIDDLEIn a situation where we have real but limited interest and high cost to wage the war, I think what we're left with is a situation where costs and benefits are fairly close to one another. And, on the analytics, one doesn't dominate the other one.
REHMWhat are the benefits?
BIDDLEThe benefits are that the primary threat to the U.S. homeland in the near term, the collapse of the state of Pakistan and the loss of control of its nuclear arsenal and the potential leakage of nuclear weapons into the hands of terrorists in South Asia who mean us ill is reduced by virtue of a more stable Afghanistan rather than an unstable Afghanistan.
REHMStephen Biddle, he is at the Council on Foreign Relations, he is author of "Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle". Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back. We're talking about the ongoing struggle in Afghanistan. More than 1,500 U.S. personnel have died in that country. The question is the drawdown scheduled for some time in July, to what extent will the number satisfy those who are both for continuing effort in the country and those who feel the U.S. should be drawing down quickly? Stephen Biddle is here in the studio. He is at the Council on Foreign Relations.
REHMPhyllis Bennis is director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, co-author of "Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer." Amb. -- pardon me -- James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, former special envoy to Afghanistan. You, just before the break, Stephen Biddle -- having a little trouble this morning -- we were talking about the cost and the benefits. Phyllis Bennis, I know you wanted to add to that.
BENNISWell, you know, Diane, in the most recent poll from just a couple of weeks ago, 64 percent of people in this country said the war is not worth fighting. And I think that's a very important one because it goes to the question of how we make that judgment about what's worth it.
BENNISI think that Steve's point would have a lot more merit if we believe -- and I don't -- that our war in Afghanistan was bringing stability and improvement to the lives of Afghans, was making it less likely rather than more likely that new terrorists would be created out of things like the drone attacks, like the night raids that antagonize people so profoundly. That's, in fact, not what's happening.
BENNISAnd when we have the U.S. military spending $2.1 million every minute of every day on the Pentagon on all these wars, I think that people are realizing that the costs simply are not close to adding up when we look at what happened in Wisconsin around the state deficit there. The state deficit that was at the core of those protests was $1.8 billion.
BENNISThe taxpayers of Wisconsin, just last year alone, spent $1.7 billion, almost the exact same amount on the war in Afghanistan. I think if we ask any of those people in Wisconsin, would you rather that war come home? They would say, yes, we're part of that 64 percent.
REHMHere's an email from Dorothy in Winston-Salem, N.C., who says, "If the Afghan leader does not support our troops and their tactics and strategies, aren't we in a no-win situation? Also, the American taxpayer is likely to think, why should we support him and his government if he does not support ours or NATO's efforts?" She finalizes her email by saying, "There is no military solution. These questions must be considered." James Dobbins.
DOBBINSWell, Karzai isn't challenging the NATO presence. And, in fact, the percentage of the Afghan population that supports the NATO presence is a lot bigger than the percentage of the American population that supports the NATO presence. Something around 60 percent of the Afghan population wants the NATO presence.
REHMBut I thought he would...
DOBBINSWhat he's challenging is NATO's tactics, and, in particular, breaking into civilian homes and air strikes on civilian homes, even when we suspect…
DOBBINS...that they are harboring terrorists. Now, I think, you know, under the Bush administration, who made many mistakes in Afghanistan as elsewhere, the president maintained a close personal relationship with Karzai, spoke to him every week. Obama came into office saying he wasn't going to do that anywhere. He was going to depersonalize that relationship. Karzai was going to have to deal with his local envoys, not with the president directly.
DOBBINSAnd, I think, that, to some extent, explains the fact that Karzai keeps going public with these concerns and unhappiness. I'm not particularly defending what Karzai had to say. I think it's very unfortunate, and I don't think that our tactics can change to the degree that he wants. But, clearly, he is reflecting a public concern, which is a legitimate concern. It is their country, and I think we do have to address that in a serious way, perhaps at the highest levels.
REHMHow would President Karzai wish to see NATO operate other than using the tactics it is using?
DOBBINSI doubt he has a well-considered plan. This is a cri de coeur. I think one is going to have to look at some -- I mean, we had much fewer of these attacks six months ago. We stepped up the number of air strikes. They've gone up very significantly. I think he would prefer that they go back down. Again, I'm not making a case one way or the other, but, you know, he's a democratic politician, just like in this country. And sometimes they say things which, on reflection, seem rather irresponsible.
BENNISWell, I think that what we're looking at here is a reflection of the shift in U.S. war policy. And we've gone back and forth between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency and which one is on the rise at any given moment. At the moment, we seem to be moving back towards a counterterrorism approach, away from counterinsurgency. But somehow, in that debate, we're not taking into account the other option, which is to end the military war.
BENNISYou know, you spoke, James, about the increasing benefits to people in Afghanistan. But if you look at, for example, the U.N. figures, Afghanistan is still the worst place in the world for a child to be born and expect to live to its fifth birthday. It's the second worst place in the world for a woman to give birth and think she's going to live through childbirth. That has not changed since the years that the Taliban was in power.
BENNISAnd in that context, when we look at, well, we're doing it for the women -- which is often what we hear -- the vast majority of women who died too young and too soon in Afghanistan are not dying because they're killed by the Taliban. They're dying in childbirth because we have not been able to do much about that outside of Kabul.
REHMAnd here's an email from George in Chapel Hill, N.C., who says, "Waiting to listen to today's show, and what do you know? Another Marine has died in Helmand Province. Time to get everybody home, save lives, money and effort." Stephen.
BIDDLEReasonable people can make the case either that we should wage this war in order to reduce the downstream risks if, in fact, we fail, Karzai's government collapses and it destabilizes its neighbor, or the opposite. The only problem I have with the debate about Afghanistan, as it's often conducted, is people will address either the costs and not the risks, or people address the risks and not the costs.
REHMAll right. Well, let me hear you lay out the risks if the U.S. withdraws.
BIDDLERisks if the United States withdraws are the two risks that the administration has identified. The first is that Afghanistan could, again, become a base for attacking us, as it was in 2001. That's the one that most people talk about. I actually think it's the less pressing of the two.
REHMLet me stop you right there. Isn't it a continuing risk even with NATO there, even with U.S. troops there? We are not necessarily preventing any al-Qaida attack on this country, are we?
BIDDLEI'm unaware of any significant international terrorist plot hatched from within Afghanistan since 2001.
REHMCan we be certain of that since we had no idea that the 2001 bombing was coming?
BIDDLEWell, I mean, at the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld, you can't know what you don't know. But we have...
BIDDLEWell, we have no positive evidence that Afghanistan has been used as a base for plotting attacks against us since 2001. That's the argument for the effort we made in Afghanistan. The first piece of it, that our presence there has, in fact, prevented Afghanistan from becoming, again, what it demonstrably was in 2001, a base for launching the largest terrorist attack in history on United States soil.
BIDDLEThe more important reason to worry about Afghanistan, in my view, given that Afghanistan is not unique in that sense, Yemen could play that role, Somalia could play that role, Djibouti...
BIDDLEThere are many places around the world that could conceivably be bases for attacking us. What's unique about Afghanistan is it's immediately proximate to a uniquely unstable nuclear weapon power, Pakistan, where al-Qaida's remaining global headquarters and infrastructure is located, and where a variety of other Islamist militant groups, (word?) are located.
BIDDLEPakistan is in the midst of an internal civil war of its own right now, which, by many measures, is not going particularly well for the Pakistani government, and many of whose combatants against the Pakistani government are in some degree of collaboration with the Afghan Taliban that are waging a war on the other side of the Durand Line.
BIDDLEIf the Karzai government were to collapse as a result of United States withdrawal, which I think is highly likely, and it will already be replaced either by some sort of Taliban restoration, which I think is relatively improbable, or by chaos in renewed 1990-style civil warfare, which I think is more likely, either of those two outcomes would create a major source of instability immediately on the other side of a notoriously porous border in the form of the Durand Line and could easily be the thing that tips an already problematic Pakistan over the boundary into collapse with potentially grave consequences for the United States.
DOBBINSI basically agree with that. And I'd say, Diane, we did know that Afghanistan was being used to plot attacks on the United States before 9/11. We knew Osama bin Laden was there. We knew there were training camps there. We knew that they had already conducted attacks on the World Trade Center, on the USS Cole and on other U.S. targets. So we knew it.
DOBBINSWe weren't doing anything about it because it was so inaccessible, other than occasionally sending a cruise missile in to attack a, by then, empty site. So we did know, and we do know that there haven't been any attacks since then that have originated from Afghanistan.
REHMIsn't it still inaccessible in terms of many of the regions within Afghanistan?
DOBBINSIt's not as inaccessible to U.S. forces as it was before 2001. But the point was that before 2001, they weren't in inaccessible regions of Afghanistan. They were co-located with the government. Bin Laden moved to Kandahar so he could be near Mullah Omar, who was running the country. There was an act of collaboration. We don't have that in Pakistan. We don't have that in Yemen. We don't have that in Somalia. And if the Taliban came back, there would be a high risk that we would have that again in Afghanistan.
BENNISFirst of all, I don't think we know what the risk would be or not be if the Taliban came back. The conditions are completely different. And at least, they did offer -- whether it was true or not, we never were willing to test it -- to turn over Osama bin Laden for trial back in 2002. Things are very different in terms of what the willingness would be of any government in Afghanistan, Taliban or otherwise, to align themselves in that direct a way with the -- with al-Qaida.
BENNISI think the two things that we have to look at here are, on the one hand, it was not only Afghanistan that was involved in the attacks of 2001. They trained in Germany. They actually trained in Florida, went to flight school in Minnesota, not in Afghanistan. So this notion that somehow everything was done from Afghanistan, where they certainly were inspired, I think we need to be very careful about that.
BENNISBut, most of all, going back to Steve's point about the possible danger that could emerge in the future down the road, we don't have the right. And the fact that we have the capacity because we're the strongest country in the world in history doesn't give us the right to go to war preventively against a future danger that might or might not ever occur. We don't have the right to do that.
REHMPhyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies. Time to open the phones, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. First to Mark, who's in Seaford, Del. Good morning to you.
MARKGood morning, Diane. Just a quick comment. I was reading that Alexander the Great, the Macedonian, died and got buried, what -- in what is called Afghanistan today. At that time, it was just the old Trojan Empire. It wasn't called Afghanistan. That's just one piece of land. And, now -- and then came the Mongolian hordes, and then came -- this is before the Muslim religion or before even Christianity itself. And then, of course, the Greeks and Russians were all lost there.
MARKSo if -- we just don't get it. I mean, we -- as a country, we are too big to fail. We cannot -- we can still decimate terrorism and al-Qaida without being in Afghanistan. We don't have to be in Afghanistan.
BIDDLEWell, I think the caller is alluding, in part, to the argument that Afghanistan is a historical graveyard of empires and, therefore, we can't succeed. I think that's overstated. Alexander, after all, did not die in Afghanistan because he was defeated there. More recently, the...
DOBBINSThey didn't die in Afghanistan at all.
BIDDLEMore recently, the three Anglo-Afghan wars that are often used as evidence to suggest that Afghans defeat all invaders, only one of the three actually ended with an unambiguous defeat for the British. And both of the other two of the three wars, the British came out with a significant part of their war aims intact, especially control of the Afghan foreign policy. I think, for a variety of reasons, the historical analogies here are more complicated than often suggested.
REHMAll right. To Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Randy.
RANDYGood morning. I wanted to say that I have a son who is a 19-year-old Marine, and he's scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in October. I support the military. And I would certainly support this war if I felt it was justified, but I don't. I agree with a lot of the statements that your guest, I believe, Phyllis has made, you know, about the war not bringing stability to Afghanistan.
RANDYAnd in a sense, I feel that this war actually hurts our national security far more than it helps. I think it should be ended now. I think too many American lives have been lost, and way too much money has been lost.
REHMRandy, tell me why you think the war hurts our national security.
RANDYYes. I feel like there's two main reasons, one of them is -- I guess, maybe the most important one -- I think we're actually making more enemies and, you know, and creating a whole new class of would-be terrorists by our actions in Afghanistan. You know, you talked a little bit about how the civilian bombing, I think, enrages the local population and just makes some people more determined than ever to hate the United States and...
MARK(unintelligible) lost in the long run.
RANDYThe second reason would be simply the monetary cost. If we weaken our country monetarily with our debt and all these things, then we are a weaker country in general. And in that sense, it engenders -- endangers our national security on that front as well.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks so much for your call. James Dobbins, are we creating more enemies?
DOBBINSFirst of all, regards to the legitimacy of our presence, we have a U.N. Security Council resolution which authorizes our presence. And we have an invitation from the Afghan government that authorizes our presence. So we have a pretty firm basis in international law for being there. In terms of civilian casualties there, the U.N. said that 2,700 civilians were killed last year, three-quarters of them by the Taliban.
DOBBINSThat's not an insignificant figure. But in terms of the homicide rate, that's lower than the homicide rate in Washington, D.C.
REHMAll right. Whoa. Amb. James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation. Short break. Right back.
REHMAnd just before the break, we heard from Randy, whose son is going to be deployed to Afghanistan in October as a member of the Marine Corp. Phyllis, I know you want to comment.
BENNISI think that Randy raises a very important point about how we are, in his words, making more enemies from our actions. It's not only the specific things that so outrage people on a day-to-day basis, the night raids and the civilian casualties, of course, but it's also the presence of foreign occupiers. It's not so different than how we would feel if our country had been occupied for years without anybody asking us whether we wanted them or not.
BENNISI think that the reality is that Randy is right, that this -- his son's deployment -- I'm so sorry that he has to face this -- is not going to make our country safer, that when we look at what's going on, for example, in the Arab Spring -- I just came back from Cairo, and people that I spoke to in Cairo were asking when is the U.S. going to get out of Afghanistan. They don't see this as an entirely separate issue from the Arab Spring.
REHMAll right. To Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Mike.
MIKEHello. Hi. Thanks for the show. I'd like to acknowledge that we, as a country, are running out of cards. But there is one great card in our hand that we are not using, so we are not even considering or discussing or debating. So here it is. I would recommend the following: They are not going to like us. We have made enough enemies. We don't care whether they like us or not, but we think we should make the Talibans fear us.
MIKEAnd any villages in Afghanistan that are harboring terrorists, we should make them know that air strikes will come and then offer a radical solution because our limited air strikes are already receiving lots of protests by President Karzai and other Afghan people and acknowledged its legitimacy. They don't like it. We should let them know the next time they should harbor terrorists will receive a smallest amount of nuclear attack. We use a tactical nuclear weapon that will destroy that whole village...
REHMWhoa. I don't think...
BIDDLEThis is the Soviet tactic.
BIDDLEWe never went to nuclear weapons.
REHMI know. I know.
REHMI don't think the U.S. is prepared to do that.
BENNISEven the Soviets never used nuclear weapons. We're the only country that had used nuclear weapons.
REHMOkay. Here is an email from Michael in San Antonio...
BIDDLEUnusual, in an American (unintelligible)...
REHM...who says, "We have many problems here in the U.S. that cannot be addressed because we are bogged down financially and emotionally in these wars. How can anyone with an ounce of common sense look around this country with our myriad of problems and still justify our spending $10 billion a month of borrowed money on war? It just boggles my mind. Every dollar spent on these wars is $1 not spent on rebuilding the U.S." Stephen Biddle.
BIDDLEAs I mentioned before, this war is obviously expensive, and it's been expensive for a long time. That isn't news. Nothing changed about that. No, it has not. The...
REHMBut our problems at home have gotten worse.
BIDDLEHave gotten worse. Our problems at home have been rather severe ever since the stock market crashed and the financial crisis arrived.
BIDDLEThat isn't news either. I think the...
REHMBut it's getting worse.
BIDDLEWell, the issue here at the end of the day is, in order to make any decision about Afghanistan -- leave, stay, reinforce, plant daisies, whatever it may be -- you need to compare the cost, which is obviously high, with what risk you think you're making some difference about by being there.
BIDDLEI categorically reject the notion that our presence is actually making the American security worse. I know of no systemic -- systematic evidence to support that view. The consequence of our leaving, I think, in the view -- certainly in my view and in the view of most people that write and talk about Afghanistan, would be in all likelihood the collapse of the Karzai government. That may or may not have downstream consequences in Pakistan that would cause, potentially, the deaths of large numbers of Americans.
BIDDLEThis calculation at the end of the day turns on, how much do you worry about the downstream consequences of a series of bad events happening, where the likelihood of that chain working is probably a lot less than 50 percent, but a lot bigger than zero? And if as a result of the United States departure from Afghanistan we end up with a collapse of Pakistan and a nuclear-armed terrorist organization, subsequent generations of historians will look back at whoever made that call and decide that this was the single worst call in the history of American foreign policy. It may not work out that way.
BIDDLEYou're stuck in a situation where you're trying to decide, how much am I willing to pay to reduce the odds of a fairly unlikely event to the point where they become a very unlikely event?
BIDDLEThe United States has a long history of making exactly that sort of call in the past. Throughout the Cold War, most of U.S. defense policy was about taking a relatively unlikely event, some bold, out-of-the-blue Soviet nuclear strike, and making it extremely unlikely at the cost of trillions of dollars. Successive American presidents from both parties decided that investment was worth making. That's what this calculation is about.
BIDDLEReasonable people can make it either way. But if you're going to make it by saying that we ought to get out and we ought to stop spending the money and we ought to put it into, you know, domestic policy or any other purpose, you have to take into account and accept that increased risk downstream and have some sort of assessment of whether you think it's large, small or irrelevant.
BENNISI think that it's very small. But I also think it's not legal for us to make a decision to go to war against one country and stay at war against that country, occupying that country for 10 years at enormous cost to the people of that country when we think that maybe someday it might be a possibility that it could be happening, that maybe someday we would face a challenge from Pakistan.
BIDDLEThe people of that country...
BENNISWait, wait. Let me just finish.
REHMLet her finish it, please.
BIDDLE...they want us there.
REHMLet her finish.
BENNISWell, you say that. I know a lot of people who don't, from people I talked to who live and work in Afghanistan. So I think that we have to be a little bit cautious. We also have to look a little bit at something called the international law, that this country -- although people actually care a lot about international law, it turns out, our government, unfortunately, historically, has not.
BENNISAnd the fact is, what James said was right, that we have the legal right to rely on a U.N. Security Council resolution. That's not the same as legitimacy. There is also questions of what we are doing there that goes to questions of legality and legitimacy, but goes fundamentally to the question of the cost. Is it worth it, what we're doing to people in Afghanistan, which I think does inevitably -- not as an unlikely possibility, but inevitably -- makes us less safe by raising generations -- plural -- generations of people now who see the U.S. as an illegal occupier in their country?
BENNISAnd it goes directly in our country, back to what President Eisenhower warned us of when he talked about how all of the money spent on the military -- he said, on the military-industrial complex -- is money taken directly out of the mouths of hungry people and the jobs of people who have no jobs.
DOBBINSYou know, Phyllis has suggested that the Afghan people don't want us and they've never been asked. They've been asked repeatedly. They've had a series of elections. The elections haven't always been fair, but nearly all the candidates supported the American presence, including the candidates who lost. Nearly all the voters voted for candidates who supported the American presence.
BENNISThey have no other choice.
DOBBINSThey're also asked every couple of months, in polling, and they repeatedly say that the majority of them want the NATO presence to continue. Those numbers have gone down from 80 percent of the population to 60 percent of the population. And it hasn't been a few months. It's probably down further as a result of some of the latest civilian casualties. But the fact is they're asked all the time.
REHMAll right. To Rockford, Ill. Good morning, Mark.
MARKGood morning. My question is, several times, comments have been made regarding Afghans in outrage by civilian casualties as a result of NATO and American air strikes. I'm wondering why the American people aren't outraged by children being killed. Personally, I am outraged. And comparing the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan to the number of homicides in New York City is ludicrous. I don't sanction homicide by anybody, and especially by our military in my name.
DOBBINSWell, first of all, most of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, according to the U.N. figures, are inflicted by the Taliban. There are 5- or 600 that have been inflicted by accident by NATO and American forces over the years. And one could change the tactics to reduce those numbers, although you could probably never reduce them to zero unless you surrendered. But in doing so, you increase the risk to American troops. You increase the risk to Afghans.
DOBBINSIf we were less successful in repressing the Taliban, they would be killing more Afghan civilians. Civilian casualties would actually be going up, not down, if we adopt the tactics that were more restrained. So it's a difficult balancing act.
BIDDLEThe humanitarian calculus of this war also depends in what you think will happen if we leave. The war will not simply stop and peace descend on Afghanistan and its women be educated and its civilians not, you know, die early anymore by virtue of our departure. In all likelihood, our departure will produce a civil war that'll be far bloodier than what's going on now and involve vastly higher civilian tolls.
BIDDLEIf you -- at the end of the day, that still involves a decision about whether you think it's worth spending what we're spending now to avert -- but the idea that humanitarianism is served by a U.S. withdrawal, I think, needs serious consideration. It's a lot more complicated than that.
REHMHere's an email from Kurt in Byron, Ill. He said, "Your guest said the costs are about equal to the benefits. How does he figure? He is speaking in macro terms. Does he have anyone in his family at risk of losing a life? The costs of this war are born very unequally. If you ask a family that's lost someone or has a veteran physically or mentally handicapped for life, the answer might be quite different. If we stay another 10 years, will Karzai or the election be any less corrupt?"
BIDDLEHorrors are about the loss of innocent life, and they are, therefore, tragedies. This whole calculation is about the loss of life, either way. The case remaining is reducing the likelihood that there's a mass casualty terrorism event that kills enormous numbers of Americans, too. This isn't a question of, do we want to save life or do we want to lose life? It's a question of making a decision that we're willing to sacrifice lives now and then to avert the laws of lives later with some probability.
BIDDLEBecause you don't know the probability, it's a hard calculation. But you can't escape it by ignoring it.
BENNISI don't think it's that hard because, I think, what we're talking about is -- overwhelmingly, we're talking about Afghan lives to protect maybe, someday there might be an attack on us. Afghan lives are not worth less than our lives. And I think -- well, that's the ultimate calculation that we're talking about here. What is true from this caller and an earlier one is that the vast majority of people in this country do not have someone in harm's way in the military.
BENNISOur military is made up of people who have been forced by lack of other opportunities, lack of money for school, lack of jobs, into the military, and coming largely from tiny towns and rural areas these days. That's why we're not hearing as much about it for those of us who live in the media centers on the coasts.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." James Dobbins, President Obama's nominated Gen. Martin Dempsey to be chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That came after Gen. James Cartwright had been assured, I gather, that he was, in fact, going to be given that position. What's the difference between Dempsey and Cartwright?
DOBBINSWell, there's been a lot of gossip and, really, at this stage, just gossip about the decision to select Dempsey as opposed to Cartwright. So I think we'd have to be cautious about attributing motives to the president at this point. One of the main differences is that Dempsey has much more experience with Afghanistan and dealing with it than Cartwright does.
REHMAnd isn't the other thought that, because Cartwright really wanted to get us out of Afghanistan and the generals came up against him that...
DOBBINSNo. Cartwright proposed a smaller increase and proposed to get out.
DOBBINSHe proposed a smaller increase in forces than others in the military did.
REHMAnd the generals went up against in there.
DOBBINSAnd Obama ultimately decided against that. Whether or not that was a factor, as I said, we have gossip, gossip attributed to unnamed sources about this. This may well have played a part in it.
REHMSo what difference is it going to make that Dempsey is now going to be in there in terms of looking ahead?
DOBBINSI think it probably means that you have an individual in that position who didn't participate in the last debate, doesn't have a record derived from the last debate and thus isn't, to any degree, sort of imprisoned in having stated at a particular view last time around.
REHMPhyllis, what difference will Gen. Dempsey play?
BENNISI think that it would have been very important to have a general in that position who had come out ahead of the game, ahead of the other generals and acknowledging that sending more troops is not always the right approach to this and looking at other alternatives. The idea that we're going to have decisions like this made ultimately by generals is problematic in its own right.
BENNISThis has to be a decision that's made by the political echelon. And I would hope that the real accountability would be to the American people of whom 64 percent say this war is not worth fighting.
REHMWhat difference will Gen. Dempsey's presence make in the future of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Stephen Biddle?
BIDDLEDempsey is not on the record about Afghanistan, so I don't think we know what his views are going to be. I think, apparently, Gen. Dempsey's relationship with the other chiefs of staff seems to be stronger than Cartwright's, to the extent that part of what the administration wants to do is generate a consensus among the military about the way to go forward.
BIDDLEApparently, Cartwright would have had a difficult time manufacturing consensus among the rest of the military, to the extent that one of the things you want from your chairman of the joint chiefs is someone who can mold consensus. Perhaps Dempsey will be better at doing that. I think there's a lot more that we don't know than we know because Dempsey has such a limited paper record on what he thinks we ought to do about Afghanistan either way.
REHMSo what kind of troop withdrawal do you expect in July?
BIDDLEWell, as we began the show with, my expectation is that it will be modest. My preference, as Phyllis reframed a question earlier, would also be that the withdrawal be modest. I think there is universal agreement that there is no military solution in Afghanistan. I'm unaware of anyone in any senior position who thinks there is. The combined military-political solution that looks most feasible is a negotiated settlement for which the U.S. presence is a necessary component.
REHMStephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, Amb. James Dobbins, former special envoy to Afghanistan, currently at the RAND Corporation, thank you all so much.
BENNISThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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