Op-Ed: U.S. Isn't Losing War In Afghanistan
In a piece in the Washington Post, retired Army officer John Nagl argues that the U.S. has forgotten what losing a war really looks like. Nagl talks about what's been accomplished in Afghanistan, and the concerns that remain.
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And now the Opinion Page. Two more American service members were killed last week in Afghanistan by a gunman wearing an Afghan police uniform, the latest casualties from a series of so-called green-on-blue attacks. U.S. troops temporarily cut back on joint operations with Afghan security forces last month amid a flurry of questions about the goals of the mission in Afghanistan and the timing of the transition out. A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that six in 10 Americans say U.S. troops should be removed from Afghanistan as soon as possible. Just over a third believe they should remain until the situation is stabilized.
In a piece in the Washington Post, retired Army officer John Nagl argued that the United States has forgotten what losing a war actually looks like. Despite the miasma of discontent with effort, he wrote, the United States and its many allies are not losing in Afghanistan. We'd like to hear from those of you who served in Afghanistan. Based on what you saw, what's been accomplished? What still worries you? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl joins us now by smartphone from his home in Alexandria, Virginia. He's a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and Minerva Research professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. Nice to have you back on the program.
JOHN NAGL: It's great to be back, Neal.
CONAN: And I know Alexandria is near by the water. I hope you're dry.
NAGL: We are not dry, but we are not yet storm surged and not yet under water. So we're - the glass is still only half-full, which is good in this case.
CONAN: OK. If the United States, though, needs a reminder of what losing a war looks like, you say go back to 1975.
NAGL: Correct. So in Vietnam, of course, the United States lost, utterly and completely were forced out. And the photograph that most Americans remember is of helicopters departing from the roof of the embassy. The photos I remember are pushing perfectly good Huey helicopters off of aircraft carrier landing decks into the ocean to make room for more helicopters as the evacuation continued. And there is, I think, no risk that we will be forced from Afghanistan and that we will not be able to stay there to continue to pursue our interest in the region.
CONAN: That loss, of course, had other effects, mostly on the people of Vietnam and, of course, on the United States Army itself.
NAGL: And on the people of Cambodia, as well. I would argue that the Khmer Rouge came to power in no small part as a result of our failings in Vietnam. And so one of the points I wanted to emphasize in this article is that there is loose talk about losing a war as if we could do so, as if we could walk away from Afghanistan without concern for our interests, those of the Afghan people or those of the region. And I simply don't think that's the case.
CONAN: There is an image that many Americans have of what winning a war looks like. They think back to 1991, what we now call the First Gulf War.
NAGL: They do, and I actually was a part of that war. I had a tank platoon in the 1st Cavalry Division. And it was - it appeared to be, at least, clean and neat and simple. Of course, what historians are now beginning to recognize is that that war continued for the remainder of the decade and beyond. And so wars, I think, particularly wars against non-state actors like the ones we're facing in Afghanistan and Pakistan are unlikely to end, even as neatly as Desert Storm apparently did. These are long, protracted wars. The United States has interest. They are going to continue, and I'm afraid we're going to continue to pay a price in order to attempt to achieve them for many years still to come.
CONAN: Yet the public opinion polls we mentioned earlier, 60 percent of Americans think it's time to get out. Indeed, we should've gotten out before.
NAGL: I think one of the failings of both of the last two administrations has been a failure to explain to the American people how long this war against al-Qaida and its affiliates is likely to be, how deep and severe the problems are, not just in Afghanistan but particularly in Pakistan, and how those issues inside Pakistan in particular are going to remain a threat to the American people and to the free world for literally decades to come. So we haven't done a good job of explaining what it is we're trying to accomplish nor what our strategy is to achieve those goals.
CONAN: Yet, everybody is talking towards 2014 and the transition of the major combat role from U.S.-led forces and NATO forces to Afghan forces.
NAGL: And that transition, I argue, should happen and will happen. But what no one is talking about is 2015 and beyond. The United States and Afghanistan already signed a framework agreement which states that the United States will continue to provide security assistance to Afghanistan for at least a decade to come after that 2014 transition.
And it's my argument that that is very strongly in America's interest, that we need special forces and U.S. Air Force assets - including drone assets - to operate from Afghanistan in order to secure our interests in the region, many of them inside Pakistan, a state with which we are not at war. Pakistan is officially a U.S. ally. But, of course, we do conduct operations inside Pakistan against enemy interests both to Pakistan and to the United States.
CONAN: Yet doesn't this series of inside attacks, those green-on-blue attacks, people in Afghan army uniforms, boy, that reminds a lot of people of what the army of the Republic of Vietnam started to look like towards the end.
NAGL: I actually think that that's a disservice to the army of the Republic of Vietnam. By the end of the war in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese army was pretty strong, was capable, with U.S. assistance, particularly U.S. air power, of stopping the Easter Offensive in '72. And many people, myself included, believe that had the United States continued to provide air power, some advisors could have held in 1975, as well. So one of the points of comparison that is not helpful, actually, to those who advocate for continued interest in Afghanistan is that the Afghan army is not as good as the South Vietnamese army was by the end of our efforts there.
We started the efforts to raise the Afghan military comparatively late. We didn't put very much effort or very good effort into it for a number of years. Iraq really took all the oxygen out of the room and kept us from focusing on the war in Afghanistan. And these green-on-blue attacks in which Afghans in military uniforms attack U.S. and allied soldiers are a real threat to our strategy. So I'm not downplaying that at all. I find that extremely worrisome. I think what we're seeing now is mistakes of previous years coming home to roost.
CONAN: There is that, but there's also this - the fact that this war has already lasted longer than Vietnam. And it's not just a public opinion that's grown tired. Earlier this month, just a couple of days before you wrote your piece, the New York Times editorial argued it's time to pack up. It should not take more than a year, The Times editorial wrote. The United States will not achieve even President Obama's narrowing goals, and prolonging the war will only do more harm.
NAGL: In some ways, I published my piece in response to The New York Times piece. And I think what The New York Times failed to notice, failed to understand is that the American interests are going to demand that we have bases in the region for a number of years to come. So The New York Times knows well that Pakistan confronts a number of insurgencies, has a rapidly growing nuclear stockpile with uncertain-at-best controls over those weapons, as well the United States has real humanitarian interests in preventing Afghanistan from falling again into civil war.
Were any of those things do happen, were the United States to follow the principles The New York Times pointed out in that editorial, were the U.S. to withdraw completely, I think all of those things would happen. I think we'd see civil war inside Afghanistan. I think we'd be less able to confront terrorist insurgents inside Pakistan's borders, and I think that very, very bad things would be likely to happen as a result. And The New York Times would then write better op-eds wondering why it was that the United States' policy had failed so completely.
The fact is that we need bases inside Afghanistan. To operate from those bases, we need the Afghan government to hold together to at least a reasonable amount. And that's going to demand a continuing U.S. effort for many years to come.
CONAN: We're talking with John Nagl, who retired from the United States Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel, now a Minerva professor at the United States Naval Academy, non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. And we want to hear from those of you who served in Afghanistan: What's been accomplished? What remains to worry you? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. Douglas is on the line with us from South Bend in Indiana.
DOUGLAS: Hello. How are you guys today?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
NAGL: Hey, Douglas.
DOUGLAS: When I served in Afghanistan, which was in 2008 and - through 2009, I was stationed in Kabul. I was with a command that was tasked with training the national army and the national police. I thought it was very advantageous what we were doing. We were, I think, doing very good work. We also were training their medics. It was a good experience, and I got a better understanding of what's going on there. And I think that probably things have changed somewhat since I've been there, like, there's been the surge and so on.
CONAN: Were you, at that time, concerned about the possibility that the people you were training would turn their weapons on you?
DOUGLAS: It never once crossed my mind at that time. I - maybe I was not paying attention, but I actually don't think that's the case. But I do think that they were very - the people I talked with - and I was with a unit that actually covered as far as what we call public affairs. Every indication I had when I was - when I went around to different training camps was that people were very happy to be doing what they were doing, and that we were helping them.
CONAN: John Nagl, given Douglas' experience - and I don't think he's alone in this - the very fact that this is being wrapped up so quickly, it's causing difficulties in screening out people who may be Taliban infiltrators. As you suggest, this is a highly challenging tactic that they're using. But they're not all Taliban.
NAGL: Oh, no, by no means. And it's important to remember the time at which Douglas had his experience. He was there in 2008 and 2009, as we were starting to put resources into raising the Afghan army, but we hadn't really redoubled our efforts yet. And I think it's important to remember how bad the situation in Afghanistan turned out to be. When President Obama took over in 2009, he ended up deciding to triple U.S. forces in Afghanistan over the course of his first year in office, over the course of 2009. And that really accelerated the training of the Afghan National Army. As a result of speeding up that process, some bad apples slipped through.
But I also think we're seeing indications that the Taliban has come up with a new strategy of infiltrating the Afghan security forces and having its operatives inside kill, attack American and NATO forces. And they're finding great success with it. It's such a successful strategy that I hesitate to talk about it, because it is a real threat to the center of gravity of the U.S. effort, which is U.S. public opinion in support of a continuing advisory effort for years to come.
CONAN: Douglas, thanks very much for the call.
DOUGLAS: Well, thank you.
CONAN: John Nagl is with us on the Opinion Page. There's a link to his piece, "Not Losing in Afghanistan," which ran last week in The Washington Post, at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Jonathan's on the line with us from Cincinnati.
JONATHAN: Yes, sir.
CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JONATHAN: The main thing with the war in Afghanistan - I served from September of last year to March of this year and - and with the Afghan National Army, when we got there, they were brand new. They were new recruits. And the things that concerned us is we were fighting marijuana pretty much. They were getting high. They weren't going on patrols, and then we would - we'd give them a mission, and then we'd end up going out and doing it.
After that, we - they started giving all their uniforms over to the Taliban. They were related to a lot of Taliban, and it turns out in Helmand Province, were fighting uncles, brothers and, you know, other family members that are from the Afghan National Army or police.
And so by the end of my seven months, we actually had one really good police force in one small town called Shir Ghazi. But in other towns around that area, a lot of the police were actually Taliban, and we ended up having several IEDs planted by police and ended up killing several men in police uniforms. And it's just - it's really frustrating, because it seems like 10 years of war, you can't get any headway with them. And, you know, they're very slow to learn. They're just - they just like to relax, and it's a bit frustrating for us, because we're just taken all the weight.
CONAN: John Nagl, how do we change that situation?
NAGL: I think Jonathan is describing very accurately what happened as we rapidly expanded the Afghan security forces as we pushed into the areas in the south of Afghanistan, the south and east of Afghanistan where the Taliban is strongest, where large numbers of the population actually have relatives connected with the Taliban. And in some cases, they're hedging their bets. They've got one son fighting with the Taliban and another son inside the Afghan security forces.
And so Jonathan's experience hints at how long and how hard this effort is going to be if we're going to succeed in it, that the human capital inside Afghanistan is really severely stunted after literally 30 consecutive years of war, that the sanctuaries across the Durand Line inside Pakistan give real succor to the Taliban, give them strength and the ability to regenerate and mean that this is going to have to be a long-term effort if Afghanistan is going to stand against the Taliban.
CONAN: Jonathan, thanks very much.
JONATHAN: OK. Thank you, sir.
CONAN: And, John Nagl, you've said that the last two administrations have been - given short shrift to persuading the American people of the importance that this mission continue. How would - it's very barely been mentioned in the presidential campaign. How would you - what would you do to convince the American people? And again, looking at those opinion polls, you've got an uphill climb.
NAGL: Well, there's something quite ironic about all of this. As a former soldier myself, I strongly believe the American people should be engaged in their wars. They have been very supportive of the troops, even if they haven't understood the strategy or what's at stake. On the other hand, although the American people are not strongly in favor of continuing the war in Afghanistan - that's obviously an understatement - they aren't that concerned about it. And so the level of intensity isn't very high.
This gives whatever administration comes to power in 2013 a great freedom of action to do essentially what they want to do in Afghanistan, continue the effort there as both President Obama and Governor Romney have promised they are going to do.
So there isn't clash between the two parties on this issue. Both agree - both Governor Romney and President Obama agree with the current strategy. And my sense is that although the American people aren't happy about it, they're going to allow this to continue. They're going to focus on domestic issues, and the United States' defense establishment, the national security establishment, will be able to do what I believe it needs to do: maintain bases in the region, continue operations in the region, even understanding that it is going to continue to cost us some of our sons and daughters.
CONAN: John Nagl, thanks very much for your time today.
NAGL: It's good talking to you, Neal,
CONAN: Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl joined us from his home in Alexandria, Virginia. Again, there's a link to his Washington Post piece "Not Losing in Afghanistan" on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
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