An update on the plane crash in the French Alps. Saudi Arabia launches air strikes against Yemen rebel bases. And President Barack Obama slows U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Guest Host: Katty Kay
President Obama says Afghanistan no longer represents a terrorist threat to the United States. He announced plans to withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of this year, another 20,000 troops will leave by next summer. Afghan president Hamid Karzai called the news a “moment of happiness” for the country. Greece reached a bailout deal with the E.U. and the I.M.F. But the country must still push through austerity measures next week. Thousands of Syrians continued to flee across the border into Turkey. And outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was released from prison, after being detained for 81 days.
- Mark Landler White House correspondent, The New York Times.
- Nancy Youssef Pentagon correspondent, McClatchy newspapers.
- Michael Hirsh chief correspondent, National Journal magazine; author of "Capital Offense: How Washington's Wise Men Turned America's Future Over to Wall Street."
“So Long:” Michael Hirsh and Jamie Tarabay’s National Journal Article on Afghanistan
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us, I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane will be back on Tuesday. The EU imposed additional sanctions on Syria while Syria has moved troops to its border with Turkey where thousands of refugees have sought safety from government violence. President Obama announced a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And the government of Greece averted a no-confidence vote and approved an austerity package.
MS. KATTY KAYJoining me in the studio to discuss another busy week in international stories around the world on the Friday News Roundup, Michael Hirsh of National Journal, Nancy Youssef of McClatchy newspapers and Mark Landler of The New York Times. Thank you all very much for joining me.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHThanks, Katty.
MS. NANCY YOUSSEFThank you.
MR. MARK LANDLERThanks.
KAYThe phone number here is 1-800-433-8850, 1-800-433-8850. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us on Facebook, send us a tweet, we'd love to take your questions and comments. I will be opening the phones in just a short while. Let's start, Nancy, with Afghanistan. President Obama outlined plans for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. What exactly is going to happen?
YOUSSEFWell, he gave his nationally televised address and he said that of -- are roughly 100,000 troops there, 10,000 will come out at the end of this year and the remaining surge troops, the remaining 23,000, would come out at the end of 2012 as part of, what he said was, a successful effort -- surge effort, that Taliban efforts and power had been reseeded and that their efforts to regain control of the Southern part of the country had worked.
YOUSSEFWhat was interesting, though, is more than anything, the speech was a pronouncement by this administration that the United States is done in Afghanistan. And I think that was a little bit lost in the coverage. I think we were so focused on the numbers, we lost how adamant he was that the United States was not going to be engaged in Afghanistan much longer. And we're starting to see varying groups sort of adjusting to that.
YOUSSEFWe're seeing Hamid Karzai and threats of him aligning himself with Iran and -- and different factions and Pakistan more. We heard residents in Afghanistan say they fear that the Taliban will come back to their neighborhoods and carry out retribution attacks against them for working with the American and coalition forces.
YOUSSEFAnd we saw some NATO allies come forward and say, okay, if the United States is going to draw down its troops, so are we. Nicolas Sarkozy announced that some of the 4,000 French troops will be leaving as well.
KAYOkay, Michael, the President, when he was speaking, I thought, tried at least to paint a fairly rosy picture of what's been achieved since the surge troops came in. He talked about the transition process, the increase in capacity of the Afghan army. But what are the risks of this plan? I mean, the American troops are going to be there for another two or three years, but what happens then?
HIRSHWell, I think it's more than just risks. I mean, the back story here is that despite the declaration of victory, and of course, the President needed to do that, there was a dispute between President Obama and General Petraeus who's running this strategy, over the pace of the draw down. And that turned a lot on Petraeus' desire to take the success for what's deemed to be somewhat successful counterinsurgency strategy in the South and reorient some of those troops to the East, which has not had the full spectrum of a counterinsurgency strategy.
HIRSHWhich is, the basic approach we've taken is to try to win over the population and win back the country. And that's absolutely critical. I mean, that's effectively a declaration of withdraw, defeat, whatever you want to call it, as Nancy was suggesting. Because this part of the East, the regional command there, is huge. I mean, this is 18 provinces. It's basically -- 14 provinces. It's basically about 18 million people, more than half the size of the entire population of Afghanistan.
HIRSHVastly larger, nine times larger than the population in the South where they've had some success or so they say. So what we're basically doing here -- what Obama is basically doing here is saying, we're not going to -- you know, we're not going to succeed with counterinsurgency. We're going to maintain our presence there for, you know, a relatively brief period We're going to go after the terrorists as we're doing now with the troops we have remaining and covert operations and drone strikes and that's about it. So it's very, you know, it's quite a dramatic shift.
KAYMark, it seems to me that the fundamentals of Afghanistan are that if the U.S. and NATO forces pull out and the Taliban resumes some degree, and probably quite a fair degree, of control in the country, the real question for America, a national security question, is whether the Taliban then allow extremist groups like Al-Qaida back into the country. How confident is the White House that that will not happen?
LANDLERI'm not sure the White House has any idea whether that will or will not happen. And when you press administration officials on the prospects for a reconciliation with, you know, so-called moderate elements of the Taliban, they have very, very few hints as to whether that's going to be successful. There have been some preliminary talks between people who say they represent the Taliban and Western governments.
LANDLERBut the process is early. It's moving slowly. Defense Secretary Gates, among others, has expressed some skepticism about where it's going to go. And I think the U.S. decision here is really driven, as Michael said, by other considerations. And I'd only add one more, which is I think important. It's a domestic political consideration. President Obama is running for reelection next year against a backdrop of a weak economy and high debts. And...
KAYAnd political support for this war has tanked, basically.
LANDLERPolitical support has, as you say, tanked. You see democrats and republicans calling for a swifter withdrawal. You're beginning to see republican candidates, like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, begin to articulate a case for a much faster withdrawal which probably previews the arguments that they'll be making against the President a year from now. So I think this decision was driven, at least as much, by domestic and economic considerations as by any facts on the ground.
KAYNancy, how much does the Pentagon and do generals running this operation, to what extent did they believe that this is a real mistake and potentially dangerous for America, to be drawing down troops at this stage?
YOUSSEFWell, we heard from two of the top commanders this week, Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General David Petraeus who's commanding the war there. And in Washington etiquette, they said that there was some risk, but Mullen's said it was manageable risk. Petraeus expressed his concerns. Sort of -- we translate it here as very real concerns for them to go that forward publicly and privately, we're hearing.
KAYBut is this just generals doing their job and wanting more troops to conduct a war that they believe they should be doing? Because after all, that's what generals in Armies do. Or do they actually really believe that there is a -- that staying there for longer than two years could make a quantifiable difference to American safety?
YOUSSEFI think it's more the latter. I mean, if you talk to Afghans, there is real concern about what will be left behind. There isn't a sense of confidence in the emerging Afghan security forces, that they can, in fact, secure the country. There are concerns about a Civil War breaking out in Afghanistan, which certainly isn't the kind of stability that the United States has said it wanted to leave behind.
YOUSSEFAnd I think there's a real feeling that by putting such a firm deadline on the U.S. withdrawal, that we've set the conditions really for people to start negotiating and thinking about Afghanistan around the United States and thinking of an Afghanistan where the United States isn't as relevant. And so it suddenly lost the United States. Military has suddenly lost its influence and its ability to affect real change in the country.
KAYMichael, what's the sort of you know, play-out of that? Say we do get into a situation where the U.S. and the NATO forces withdraw and in two or three years we have, as Nancy suggested, there is a possibility of some kind of Civil War in Afghanistan. What does that mean for America?
HIRSHWell, I suppose the positive spin, the one we'll be hearing for the next couple of years and on into 2014, is that it doesn't mean a lot. I mean, it's tragic. You know, Afghanistan, obviously, had -- has had a lot of Civil Wars, 23 years leading up to, you know, the takeover by the Taliban in the '90s. So you have a tragic situation, but not one in which we are directly endangered because, as the Obama administration says, Al-Qaida is mainly across the border in Pakistan.
HIRSHWe haven't wiped them out yet, but we did get bin Laden. But that's where they are. And the relationship between the Taliban and Afghanistan and Al-Qaida is at arm's length, at best, at this point. I mean, that's, you know, generally what the belief is among experts that I've talked to. But, you know, nonetheless, there are risks. There are considerable risks that, you know, Afghanistan or parts of it could become a host nation again for Al-Qaida, as it was before 9/11.
HIRSHThe response, you know, of the U.S. military and the administration is, well, you know, this is a different situation. We're going to have our special operations guys in there, the CIA's going to be there in a much bigger way. The whole idea that Joe Biden put forward as part of this great debate in the administration whether we should do some sort of counterinsurgency throughout the country or just counter terror, which is a much more pared down approach. The whole idea that Biden had was we could just go in there and take out these guys if they reappear. I think that's, you know, that's where they're heading.
KAYMark, your paper this morning has reported, on the front page of The New York Times, that the cell phone records of a trusted courier of Osama bin Laden have been -- are being, at the moment, analyzed and have some interesting information in them. You're catching up on Michael's point about trying to get the bad guys -- how much -- what do they reveal, these cell phone records?
LANDLERYeah, the -- there's some interesting and tantalizing indications of connections between Osama bin Laden and a group called Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, a militant group that is known to have been under the protection of the Pakistani intelligence service. The Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, has a long history of tolerating and even using militant groups, both in their battle against the Indians in Kashmir and also in Afghanistan and in the border region between the two countries.
LANDLERWhat's interesting about this one, is that if it really establishes a link between Bin Laden and Harakat and through Harakat to the ISI, it provides Americans and others with something they've been asking about for weeks since the commando raid last month, which is, did Bin Laden -- was he able to take shelter in a Abbottabad through the acquiescence or even active protection of the ISI, elements of the ISI or the Pakistani military? The...
KAYSo far, the White House has said they had no evidence that that's the case. They think they had -- he had some sort of support within Pakistan, but they don't -- they're not linking it directly to senior elements of the ISI, right? But...
KAY...do you think these cell phones -- do we know whether these cell phone records are going to provide the smoking gun?
LANDLERThe article specifically says, my colleagues have reported, that they do not believe it provides a smoking gun, a direct link between the ISI or the military and bin Laden. But it does get the speculation one step closer. And this goes then to a broader issue that spins directly out of the Afghanistan troop decision, which is unanswered in all of this, is our relationship with the Pakistanis which is wretched. And if this breeds greater distrust, it raises problems for the counter terrorism strategy the administration is pursuing.
KAYOkay, more on a very busy week around the world. Mark Landler here of The New York Times. I have Nancy Youssef from McClatchy. Michael Hirsh is here as well from National Journal. We're going to take a quick break. Do stay with us.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined us for the International Hour of the Friday News Roundup. I have with me in the studio Michael Hirsh of The National Journal and author of "Capital Offense: How Washington's Wise Men Turned America's Future Over to Wall Street." Nancy Youssef, Pentagon correspondent of McClatchy Newspapers is also here. Mark Landler, White House correspondent of The New York Times is here. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. The e-mail address is email@example.com.
KAYBefore we went to break, we were talking about Pakistan and this great story that you've got. Mark, the paper has on the front of The New York Times about Osama bin Laden's courier's cell phone records, which were at the moment being analyzed and what they might tell us about whether Osama bin Laden was getting some sort of sucker from Pakistan. And I guess, Michael, my follow along question for that is, the raid against bin Laden, the killing of bin Laden highlighted really, rather than perhaps caused a real problem in the relationship between Pakistan and the United States. And I just wonder how the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan plays into that relationship.
HIRSHWell, it's all linked in a very direct way. My magazine has a cover story, it was just out today, about the problems with the counterinsurgency strategy. And as part of that, I quote the retired Marine Colonel Tom Hammes, who was an early supporter of counterinsurgency, who says the safe haven problem is so huge, so much bigger than it was, for example, in Iraq when we were dealing with insurgents coming across the border in Syria and Saudi Arabia, that it really renders the counterinsurgency strategy, you know, largely ineffective.
KAYWhat do you mean? Because there's so many places where extremists (unintelligible) ...
HIRSHBecause there are so many places where they are still hiding...
HIRSH...the bad guys, whether they're Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban who are across the border. And there are, you know, so many support networks. And this goes back to the very -- the U.S. nature of the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus and support of these kinds of groups. And the Times' story really opened a very important window on this and showed how -- you know, there are some of these groups that the Pakistani ISI has worked with over the years to create a sort of strategic counterweight, you know, to India, all the reasons that they have done -- unaffected by 9/11, and others, they've been cooperative on.
HIRSHBut, you know, there seems to be some evidence -- and this story helps us along on that point -- that elements of the ISI might have known bin Laden was there and kept him in a kind of protective custody.
KAYNancy, Hillary Clinton said in hearings just yesterday that she had had what she called candid talks with the Pakistanis about this. But, I mean, how much leverage does Washington have over Pakistan, if indeed there are elements of the ISI which are still supporting extremist groups who have the intent to do harm to American and Western interests? What kind of leverage does the West -- does the U.S. have, does Washington have, and is it managing to use it?
YOUSSEFWell, the most sort of obvious one would be the foreign aid -- military aid that the United States provides Pakistan. The flipside...
KAYRight. But the moment that Congress started talking about -- right. We should -- and there were people, after the killing of bin Laden, who -- on the Capitol Hill who were saying we should think about cutting their aid budget. And then everyone said, well, you can't do that because we don't want to end up in a situation where Pakistan...
KAY...effectively becomes Iran.
YOUSSEFWell, we've done it -- the United States has done it before. The Pressler Amendment comes to mind. And someone argued the Taliban frankly was born out of that period and the fact that the United States wasn't engaged.
YOUSSEFI wanted to go back, if I could, to something Michael said. I think something worth pointing out as we talk about what was announced this week, one of the challenges, I think, for the United States was the narrative -- the public narrative had always been about we were in Afghanistan because of bin Laden. And once -- and the truth is it wasn't that simple. The United States was in Afghanistan in part because of the instability that Pakistan provides and Michael outlined it.
YOUSSEFAnd I think the challenge for the administration was -- the administration came out this week and said Afghanistan, in a background briefing with the reporters, poses no transnational threat. Given that this war, in addition to the Iraq war, is costing 100 and some billion dollars a year to taxpayers, I think it's very hard for the administration to argue further engagement in Afghanistan because the narrative as been presented to the United States doesn't fit anymore.
YOUSSEFWe -- the United States never properly explained how much this was about Pakistan to the public. So I think for people watching this, they see bin Laden is dead, this war is costing us a ton in money and national treasure and according to the United States, there's no transnational threat. There's no reason for us to be there.
KAYBut the idea of suddenly saying, right, we'll move 68,000 troops into Pakistan I can imagine won't go down very good...
YOUSSEFYeah, that's right.
KAYLet's move on to Syria. And things seem to be moving fast. It is, of course, Friday, Mark, and that means protest day, prayer day in the Middle East. We've seen a pattern of this for weeks and weeks now, protesters coming up particularly on Friday and the government cracking down again. And it does seem to have happened again today.
LANDLERIndeed. There were clashes between the security forces and protestors. A number of people were killed. There's also this increased tension on the border, on the northern border with Turkey, where a number -- a large number of people have fled from the government crackdown. The Turks have set up very large refugee camps up there. But the Syrian military is operating up there and getting very close to that border, I think, with an eye to preventing the border area from being turned into a kind of a stronghold for the protestors.
LANDLERI think, in a way, the model that they worry about is Benghazi, which became a very effective launching ground for a broader rebellion if -- to this date's still unsuccessful. So the situation continues to worsen. One interesting point a colleague of mine made in the newspaper today was that this is -- as it did in Egypt, this is hammering the Syrian economy. And that's one of the sources of strength for the Assad regime.
LANDLERSo as you look at Assad, who is a much more effective implementer of a police state than some of his Arab brethren, the economic damage of weeks of chaos, a cutoff in trade, a complete loss of foreign direct investment, could begin to take a toll. And it's a factor that's worth watching as this plays out.
KAYYeah and, Michael, it seems absolutely clear now that the international community's not going to take any kind of action along the lines of the Libya type action.
KAYBut we did have the EU governments today have added seven individuals and, I think, four entities to its Syrian sanctions list. Is this where we're starting to look now, if we're going to see some kind of pressure on Assad, to either make radical reforms or get out of the way of them as Obama -- as President Obama has suggested he should? Is it going to come from economic threat, rather than from international pressure of another kind?
HIRSHWell, the international pressure amounts to economic threats and sanctions of these kinds. And of course, Assad knows as well as anyone that particularly regimes that are already as isolated as his was can survive a long time with that. He's also acutely aware, you know, having been educated in the West that the likelihood of military intervention by NATO or the U.S. is practically nil.
KAYParticularly after what's happened in Libya.
HIRSHExactly. And the debate that's going on right here about whether Obama was even -- you know, even needed to declare under the War Powers Act that he was intervening. So Assad reads the same news as everyone else and he's aware of that. And I think, as was suggested, I mean, he's playing a game of chicken trying to hold out, thinking that with enough of a crackdown and enough time passes, enough concerns about the economy among his own people, among his own middle class, that he can survive And we don't know how it's going to turn out.
KAYHe's not totally isolated, is he, Assad? Because he's still, of course, got the support from Iran, Nancy. He did have support from Turkey, but the Turks also now seem to be turning against him. But we have Russia saying any form of resolution that the U.N., even condemning what's happening in Syria, they would veto.
YOUSSEFThat's right. And he made reference to it in his speech. I think it was on Monday. It was his third speech. And it's interesting because Michael was talking about this game of chicken. It's also happening within the country. The foreign minister came out today and condemned the EU for threatening sanctions, calling it an act of war. And both him and Assad come out and they'll say -- they'll try to use their sort of police state tactics and then they'll promise national dialogue and reforms. And think that that promise, which they've been making for years -- in fact, Assad has been making it since he took office -- that that will lead to people coming to the table and negotiating with them.
YOUSSEFBut of course, once the uprisings stop, the expectation is that so will discussions of national dialogue. And so you're starting to see, I think, a failing effort by Syria to play this game of mixing promises of reforms and their police state tactics. And I think we saw that play out this week in some of the statements we heard from both Assad and the foreign minister and now the news is, well, we're just going to turn to Russia and some of our allies there. But again, I think it's a lot of talk and yet there's no substance behind it and people are not buying into it.
KAYMark, your economic point, do you hear that that actually is something that might push Assad out or push him to make reforms?
LANDLERWell, if he's put in a position where his own population is so restive because the economic situation is so poor, he might be pushed to go further than he would have otherwise. I mean, the Alawite minority government that he controls is just that. It's 12 percent of the population. He's always had a very difficult situation which he's managed to survive and his father survived through the institution of a brutal police state. But economic pain at a great enough level could begin to turn elements of this unwieldy coalition he has against him.
LANDLERSo, you know, look, it's a thin reed to place your hopes on given the history with Assad and his father. But, you know, one thing that was clear in the aftermath of the Egyptian upheaval is the amount of economic damage that was done to Egypt and how that's going to complicate the task of the political transition there. And Assad is obviously looking carefully at Egypt and taking note of that. And if that damage is already underway in his country as well, he has to respond to it in some fashion.
KAYAnd do you think we could have a situation -- this is something I don't understand about Syria because you've got this Alawite minority, which is the Assad family and his cohorts, running the country, but I'm assuming that a large percentage of the security forces must not be Alawite, Michael. And why -- would they not be tempted to side in a sectarian way with the people, particularly if they see these economic problems coming along?
HIRSHYeah, you would think. I don't know...
KAYThere hasn't -- doesn't seem to have been splits yet, but...
KAY...I was just wondering where they might emerge?
HIRSHWell, I mean, it's a measure of the effectiveness of several, you know, decades-worth of rule by the Assad family and its, you know, their Alawite sect. You're right. I don't know offhand what the percentage is in terms of their ethnicity. But if it became a matter of open sectarian warfare, which is precisely the fear that has driven very cautious response to Syria -- I mean, no one -- even the Western countries and the U.S. don't particularly want that -- than you might -- you know, than you could well see that the sort of defections -- high-level defections and troop-level defections that we've seen for example in Libya.
KAYHow nervous are people, Nancy? I mean, not just in Syria, of course, but in all -- I mean, how many countries does Syria border? I can't count them, but it's right there in the middle of that area. And it's causing -- the ripples of what is happening in Syria are being watched very carefully from Israel...
KAY...from Lebanon of course, from Turkey, from Iran. They must all be watching what's going on there.
YOUSSEFSomeone argued they're watching it more than Egypt...
YOUSSEF...because of how many areas it affects. It affects sectarianism. It affects Israel security. It affects the power of Hezbollah, which bleeds into Lebanon. It affects the future of the Ba'ath Party which affects the region. It affects Jordan because Jordan has been one of the few countries that's been able to so far keep the uprising, the Arab Spring, if you will, from coming into their country. So in a way, it bleeds into all those countries more than Egypt does.
YOUSSEFWhat Egypt does is sort of -- it's the nexus of the Arab world and it may set the barometer in terms of where things go. But for the immediate security considerations for those countries, I think they're watching Syria a lot more close.
KAYI'm Katty Kay. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, please do call 1-800-433--8850 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. And we are going to go to the phones now to Ivan in Tampa, Fla. Ivan, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
IVANSince Alexander the Great left 2,400 years ago, he did not have drones and he had to leave because the area was tribal. Who's the Taliban and how are they able to subdue all of these tribes that control the country over these years?
KAYHum. Michael, I don't want 2,000 years of history, but let's look at what...
IVANWell, 2,400 according to my history books.
KAYYou're quite right, Ivan.
HIRSHWell, the Taliban...
KAYWho are the Taliban? Because it's not a completely homogonous entity, right?
HIRSHNo, it's not at all. But it was kind of a reaction to the devastation of 23 years of civil war which ensued after the Soviets departed. They were -- you know, it began as a movement of largely religious and mostly Pashtun -- getting into the tribal thing, it is largely Pashtun, which is the majority tribe in the country which is mostly flourishing in the south and the eastern parts of the country, the exact areas where we're having so much trouble now where NATO and the U.S. are.
HIRSHAnd that's -- you know, that's largely what the movement consists of, these vast Pashtun tribes that exist, that cross the border. One of the reasons why Pakistan is such a safe haven is because Pashtun tribes and the Pashtun custom of being especially welcoming to visitors persists in that whole region -- the mountainous region that marks the bordered areas. So to a very large extent, the Taliban movement is a Pashtun movement.
KAYMark, why have we not been more successful or otherwise NATO not been more successful in peeling off some parts of the Taliban movement, given that there are different groups within them? And I know that they've tried to do this. There have been back-channeled conversations with some of the Taliban leadership, but they haven't gone as far as people would like. And the second part of my question to you is if we withdraw troops substantially in the numbers that President Obama is talking about, does it make the prospect of negotiations that much harder?
LANDLERTo -- yeah, to your second point, I think the answer to that is yes. Because if the Taliban believes that they can simply wait us out, it gives them every incentive to either negotiate in bad faith or not to bother negotiating at all because they can simply wait 'til we're gone and then dictate their own terms.
LANDLERTo your first question on peeling off the Taliban, the administration has a very ambitious and expensive program of reintegration where they, in effect, give cash to lower level fighters and mid level fighters to try to win them over. But it's been slow going, in part because the fighters are often terrorized by others by -- more seen by their commanders and others in the group. And so they don't yet see a huge incentive to switch sides.
LANDLERAnd these are very difficult violent areas that are run by these militias. So the program has not proceeded anywhere near as fast as the Pentagon would have liked. And withdrawing troops only reduces probably the amount of money you have to spend on this and the amount of people you have to reach out to these lower level fighters, thus bogging down the process even further.
HIRSHYeah, Mark is hitting on a really important point that goes back to the political debate here in Obama's speech this week. Just how incredibly expensive counterinsurgency is from the sort of broad based (sounds like) clear holding bill type programs which we're pouring billions of dollars into trying to secure areas that many people suspect are going to become unsecure as soon as we leave. Or the kinds of programs he's talking about, all this cash handed out to people of, at best, suspect loyalties.
HIRSHWe're spending $80 billion a year on this, so far spent nearly half a trillion, with an incredibly meager return on investment. And there are a lot of doubts about the fundamental strategy. And I think that's what you're seeing now, again, is without quite saying so, the President is backing away from that strategy.
KAYMichael Hirsh, chief correspondent of National Journal magazine and author of "Capital Offense: How Washington's Wise Men Turned America's Future Over to Wall Street." Nancy Yousseff, Pentagon correspondent of McClatchy Newspapers. Mark Landler is also with me in the studio, White House correspondent for The New York Times. We haven't got to Greece yet. We haven't got to China. We will get to all of those after this short break. Do join us with your comments and questions. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. The e-mail address is email@example.com. Stay with us.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. You have joined the international hour of the "Friday News Roundup" and during the break, you and I, Nancy, were talking about what happens in Afghanistan when NATO forces finally pull out. And it's looking like a pretty dire situation for Afghans and particularly for Afghan women, I fear.
YOUSSEFThat's right. I mean, unless the Afghan troops seriously stand up and improve, more so than we have seen in the last eight years, unless the Afghan government does so, I think there's a real threat of civil war and of groups lashing out against women who've enjoyed rights that they didn't before 2001.
YOUSSEFAgainst residents who, in any way, worked with the collation and so -- and I think those -- it's not a widespread thing, it's not a national thing but I don't think it matters.
YOUSSEFI think there'll be enough pockets that extremists, not necessarily al-Qaida, but certainly other extremists groups can exploit and use as a staging area, as a safe haven for carrying out their activities, which was the very thing the United States was trying to avoid in Afghanistan.
KAYAnd Mark, I totally understand the argument about why U.S. troops should be in Afghanistan should be about U.S. and international national security interests.
KAYThis is not about nation building but it's a very different conversation that Washington is having and the country is having from the one that it was having in 2002 where there was a lot of focus.
KAYYou know, and I think I remember Hilary Clinton wearing a burqa at some point to demonstrate the plight of Afghan women.
LANDLERWell, Hilary Clinton has talked about this repeatedly and with deep sincerity in visits to Afghanistan that I accompanied her on as a State Department correspondent.
LANDLERSo I know it means a lot to her and part of me wonders, it's clear that in addition to the military commanders, Hilary Clinton pushed hard internally to keep more of the surge in Afghanistan longer through another full fighting season and that she and Vice President Biden clashed on this issue in the debate, even in the late stages.
LANDLERAnd I wonder, I don't know, but I speculate that her feelings about what these means for the plight of Afghan women may have played into her sort of unwillingness to give up on it quite so abruptly.
KAYLet's go to the David in Little Rock, Ark. David, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
DAVIDI have (unintelligible) there's a precedence for the situation that Barack Obama is in now. And when I hear about the withdrawals and the pace of withdrawal and the pressure between the generals and the domestic pull, I think about what Lennon Johnson was deciding whether to stay or go in Vietnam and he did not stand up to his general with disastrous results.
DAVIDAnd I think Barack Obama has very wisely taken a middle course, which will result in us getting out of that opium (unintelligible) mess over there. But only as fast we can responsibility do so.
KAYMichael, picking up on what David said, I do have one question. If the conclusion in the White House is that if Afghanistan does not, in and of itself, pose a national security threat because as the president said the safe havens for al-Qaida are no longer there. Why stay another two years, too? Why not bring the whole lot home?
HIRSHIt's a good point and one that many senior Democrats are making on Capitol Hill.
KAYAnd some Republicans frankly, too.
HIRSHAnd some Republicans very interestingly because the Republicans had been traditionally hawkish and I think it's a further measure of how the debate over Afghanistan has moved to casualty rate and the traditional concerns about a prolonged war to the budget and to how expensive it is.
HIRSHAs former General Barno said to me this week, you know, the budget math has caught up to the theory about counterinsurgency and how difficult it really is. And that's, you know, I think that's what's really going on and so, yes, you can make an argument that if we're basically saying this is not working, you know, why are we going to prolong the agony?
KAYI mean, what can we achieve in two years that...
HIRSHYes. I mean, you know, John Kerry perhaps ought to be replaying, you know, his Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony from, you know, from 1971 or whenever it was when he said, "How do you ask someone to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
KAYLet's talk about Greece quickly because there have been important developments there and I know that sometimes Greece and what is happening in Europe feels a long way away but there are real repercussions for people living in this country.
KAYWe have now, Mark, got a deal for Greece between the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF to give another bailout to Greece. Is this going to save Greece from default?
LANDLERWell, it may save Greece from default in the short-term, but it does nothing to fix Greece's longer-term problem. The way that the Greek government was able to get these funds released to pass a brutal austerity program, $5.5 billion in spending and tax spending cuts.
LANDLERAnd the problem for Greece and for any country that's a part of the EU is they face this straightjacket of austerity that they have to do in order to stay within the bounds of the EU's monetary restrictions. And so what the Greeks face is years and years, like the Irish, of deep economic pain and austerity and, you know...
KAYWe should point out this means jobs being lost, public safety jobs being lost, pensions being cut. I mean, people really are feeling the pain...
LANDLERPeople's wealth being wiped out, public service is being curtailed, healthcare being affected and, you know, people in Greek have taken to the streets over this, even when the pain was less acute than it's likely to be in the coming years.
LANDLERAnd the problem that the Greeks and others face is this sort of a trap they find themselves in, where they don't get enough money to stimulate, to kick start their economy and the austerity just continues to deepen the stagnation. You get caught in this vicious cycle that's happened in other places in the world.
LANDLERIt can last a decade or more and I think that's what's causing people to question even the longer term stability of the euro zone, whether the price of remaining part of this club is so high that countries simply can't afford to pay it.
KAYMichael, why should Americans care about what happens in Greece?
HIRSHWell, double dip recession is an outside possibility. You may remember about a year ago when the euro crisis first hit the Greek debt problems. Problems with Portugal and Spain first hit the headlines and then were resolved with a big rescue package.
HIRSHThe headwinds from that debacle sort of setback American economic recovery and that's where Obama finds himself now at 9.1 percent unemployment and no easy, foreseeable prospect of doing anything to lower that.
HIRSHSo, you know, we keep getting hit with what economists call these exogenous shocks, which is outside, you know, events that are unpredictable and seem to continue to hold back our own recovery so that's, you know, one reason why we should care.
KAYAnd of course, American small businesses that export anything to Europe have seen the euro fall, which makes American exports more expensive, which means that Europeans may well be buying less than of them, which has a direct impact of course on small businesses here.
YOUSSEFAnd you know what I also find so interesting is this really led to a broader crisis in the EU about what it means to be a member of the European Union. We're now seeing the biggest opposition we've ever seen in the nine years of the EU against the whole system.
YOUSSEFAnd just the economic one but the open boarders because so many North African immigrants are now coming through to their countries and I think this crisis is only contributing to it and so we're going forward with a real question about how durable the whole EU system is? And spurred by this crisis in Greece.
KAYYes, I've heard Greece described as the next of Lehman Brothers, which I think gives -- should give everybody pause for concern. Let's go to Jim in Brick, NJ. Jim, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
JIMI just wondered if we do go to the plan endorsed by Joe Biden, a counterinsurgency or counterterrorism, would the drones...
JIMWhere are the drones based and where are they launched, their support, where would it be essential? We do have boots on the ground, can they be operated by -- from aircraft carriers and is it the same operation for Yemen operating drones?
KAYJim, interesting question. Nancy?
YOUSSEFWell, in terms of operating, a lot of them operate, frankly, out of Afghanistan. Now, in terms of the cost it would be more expensive to operate it from different parts of the world but I don't think that's the most important factor in this.
YOUSSEFShe was questioned about the importance of drones. If you adopt Biden's plan the drones become the most important part of the plan because you essentially replace your ground force presence with air power and use the drones to conduct precision strikes.
YOUSSEFSo rather than trying to build a strong, some would argue, Western style state in Afghanistan and even in Pakistan, you instead essentially go after the threat, kill it and move on. And the drones are critical to that.
LANDLEROne of the other problems the U.S. faces should they go this route, which some analysts call a fortress cobble. You have a heavily forfeited capital and one or two other bases in the country. That's what your ground troops do but nothing else.
LANDLERIs the simple question of whether the Afghan government will tolerate that over the long run? Drones are unpopular in any circumstance with host governments and the idea of the U.S. maintaining..
KAYBecause there is collateral damage.
LANDLERThere's collateral damage, it's viewed at some level as an invasion of sovereignty and so I think that the problem is this idea of setting up one or two heavily forfeited strongholds in Afghan from which you can carry out drone attacks across the border or even within Afghanistan, I'm not sure how politically sustainable that is. If the Afghans don't believe the U.S. is helping them with any of their other mired problems.
YOUSSEFWell, the truth is if the -- and it's a great point and if the United States were to do it, it'd require a huge, I think, aid package to Afghanistan to pay for the very forces that we're helping them build because as it is, the United States is training the Afghans to build an army that, at this point, they can't afford to pay for.
HIRSHI think the drones will be the very last things to leave with Afghanistan and Pakistan and, in fact, I don't think they will ever leave and they will continue to be operated from far away.
HIRSHIn fact, there's an Air Force base right outside of Las Vegas where, since the middle of the years of the 2000s in Iraq, they have been operated from literally by guys who were flying combat missions over these countries from, you know, from in Nevada.
KAYLet's go to Mark in Pensacola, Fla. Mark, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARKThank you very much. Bin Laden was convinced by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the now-leader of al-Qaida, years ago that we were the weak horse and they were the strong horse and we were the weak horse because we ran away in Vietnam, ran away in Lebanon, ran away in Somalia and that they were strong enough to -- their will is stronger.
MARKThey would outlast us and now this administration is proving them right. They're going to hand Ayman al-Zawahiri a victory and tell -- listen, North Korea, China and Russia are watching.
KAYMichael? I'm not sure about the North Korea and China and Russia are watching but I have -- but I mean, there is a PR coup that you can see al-Qaida touting when Americans leave Afghanistan, whether it makes anything in terms of recruiting, I'm not so sure.
HIRSHFirst of all, there's a lot of time between now and when we finally depart and as I indicated, I don't think we're ever going to finally depart. I think there's going to be U.S. forces of one kind or another there, you just won't hear about them or see them.
HIRSHSecond, it's a little bit hard to -- for al-Qaida to claim a PR coup when their leader is dead, you know, killed just recently...
KAYAnd actually, when you look at the poll numbers of how they've been doing in the Middle East, their popularity in many Arab countries has been declining rapidly.
HIRSHUnquestionably, I mean, what've you had -- what we've seen with this Arab Spring since January is the opening up of really an alternative channel of expression for angry, young Arab men and women that hither to was only open to them through, you know, Islamist extremists forums and so it's, you know, it's been powerful.
KAYI'm Katty Kay. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, do call. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number, 1-800-433-8850. or send us an e-mail or a tweet as well. We will, of course, take your questions and comments. Let's go to Howell, who joins us from Pelham, NJ. Howell, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
HOWELLThank you very much. I enjoy your show and I could take it daily, one of these. My call has to do with Afghanistan and one of the premises of our presence there is working with the locals to develop the capabilities of the local army.
HOWELLAnd there's a recent success story in the south in the Nigahon (sp?) Valley where a small group of Americans worked with the local police to create a security bubble. My basic question though is, regardless of our troop level how is this going to be sustained with a corrupt central government headed by al Qaeda?
LANDLERI think you raise exactly the right point. after years and years of hoping and cajoling and pushing, it's pretty clear that Hamid Karzai is not going to be a partner for the United States and to the extent that he appears to be there for, you know, for at least the short to medium term and the corruption that accompanies him will continue to be there.
LANDLERIt does raise questions about how you can do all these other things on the ground that you need to do and so the successes of things, like what you mentioned and others that exist in other parts of the country, again, you know, things have required very hard work and deep commitment from the people that have gone there in tough circumstances could easily be reversed and overrun.
LANDLERBecause you've got such a weak central government and there's really little or no evidence that the government has cleaned up its act at all in all the years and with all the money and effort and time that's gone into it and so that's really a profound problem. I'm glad you raised it, we probably should've brought it up earlier in the conversation.
KAYOkay. I want to -- we've got a couple of minutes left on the program and I just want to hit on China this week because we saw the release of the artist (unintelligible) where I was in London just a couple of weeks and I went to see his amazing sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern Gallery.
KAYHe'd been detained for 81 days. This week he was released. Do we know why he was detained and what happens to him now, Michael?
HIRSHYes, this story's sort of another interesting and just an echo of what's happening, you know, in the Middle East I think. He was detained -- he was one of the leading activist voices for what was being called a potential jazzman revolution in China, which was going to try to emulate the street protests in the Middle East.
HIRSHHe was arrested because the Chinese were very concerned that that was going to happen. We don't know exactly what happened behind closed doors, but he was released this week and promptly told reporters very politely that he couldn't say anything, that his case was, you know, ongoing. And here's this most of vocal of democracy activists in China has been sort of successfully squelched for the moment. And I think it might be evidence that the Chinese government is little easing up a little bit, is a little bit less concerned about the knock-on effects of the protests that, you know, they were so alarmed about.
KAYBecause what I've been hearing from our correspondents, Nancy, and I don't know what you've been hearing is that really the Chinese in the last couple of months since what we saw in the Middle East started have clamped down very hard and with a since of impunity on activists and the Ai Weiwei was just the most visible of this.
YOUSSEFThat's right. He was one of the most prolific tweeters, if you will. In China, he was known for his criticisms of the communist party and I think it can't be ignored that he was released the day before the premiere was taking a trip to Europe and then this was under international pressure that he be released and I think that's as much a part of it as anything else.
YOUSSEFRemember he was never charged with anything. The official reason given was that he'd evaded taxes on a company he'd owned, but he came out, Michael pointed out and promptly said he won't be saying anything. So we'll see how his Twitter account looks in the days ahead.
KAYSo Ai Weiwei is back home, clearly still charges hanging over his head and he can't talk to the media. Nancy Youssef, Pentagon correspondent from McClatchy newspapers. Mark Landler, White House correspondent of "The New York Times." Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for "National Journal Magazine." Thank you all so much for joining me. It's been an incredibility busy week again.
HIRSHThank you very much.
LANDLERThank you very much.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you all so much for listening and do have a really great weekend.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Aaron Stamper. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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