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  November 3, 2009

What's US objective in Afghanistan?

Youssef: Pentagon officials are going public with plan to set up indefinitely in the region
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Nancy Youssef is McClatchy Newspapers' chief Pentagon correspondent. She spent the past four years covering the Iraq war, most recently as Baghdad bureau chief. Her pieces focused on the everyday Iraqi experience, civilian causalities and how the US' military strategy was reshaping Iraq's social and political dynamics. While at the Free Press, she traveled throughout Jordan and Iraq for Knight Ridder, covering the Iraq war from the time leading up to it through the post-war period.

Real News Senior Editor Paul Jay sits down with Nancy Youssef, the Pentagon Correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. They discuss the debate over US objectives in the region and the disagreement, at least on the surface, between the Pentagon and Obama's White House on what is to be done in Afghanistan, and what that means for the strategy moving forward.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay. And joining us from our offices at the McClatchy bureau in Washington, DC, is Nancy Youssef. She's the McClatchy Pentagon correspondent. Thanks for joining us, Nancy.


JAY: So there's been a lot of news this week coming out of Afghanistan and out of the Pentagon. Give us the headlines.

YOUSSEF: Well, this week we heard more leaks from the White House about some of the options that the president's considering. The Washington Post reported that the White House has asked for a detailed province-to-province report. The Associated Press reported that the president will definitely send more troops. And in the middle of all this, 22 Americans, 11 soldiers, and 3 civilians earlier in the week, and the following day 8 troops in the south, were killed, making October the deadliest month of the war for US troops in this eight-year war.

JAY: Now, there's been a lot of talk over the last couple of weeks about Dick Cheney and a lot of the Republicans talking about Obama dithering about his decision about whether to increase troops in Afghanistan. There's been General McChrystal very publicly demanding more troops. And then there's some suggestions from some analysts that the Pentagon's practically threatening the Obama administration that if they don't get more troops, they're going to go public, and a kind of thing that apparently Lyndon Johnson faced in his early days as president, facing the same or a similar decision in Vietnam. How real is this that the Pentagon is kind of threatening the White House? And what the heck does the Pentagon want out of all this?

YOUSSEF: Well, I think there is an expectation, particularly after the president announced his strategy in March and then fired General McKiernan and brought in General McChrystal and said, "This is my man," that what General McChrystal wanted, General McChrystal would get. And then he submits his request and says, "This is what I need," and suddenly it's a weeks-long debate about what the strategy's going to be, what the United States wants to accomplish, how it's going to go about accomplishing that. And I think it caught some people at the Pentagon off guard. Remember that under the Bush White House, particularly towards the end, what General Petraeus wanted in Iraq, General Petraeus got, and there was an expectation, I think, among some that this sort of stand would continue now. The counterargument is that this is a civilian-run military and that the decision lies with the president, not with the military. And I think you're starting to see a balancing, a correction for this, so that the relationship is clear.

JAY: But do you think that there is actual threats being issued, that the thing kind of thing they talked about Lyndon Johnson facing, that the military might go public, there might be resignations, is there any sense that this is happening behind the scenes?

YOUSSEF: Well, I don't know if it's happening behind the scenes. I would argue a lot of it's happened out in the public. General McChrystal's spoken very forcefully and openly about what he needs to accomplish the mission as he's been told it is. He went to London last month and was very critical of what's been called the Biden plan of using less forces and depended more on drones and Predator strikes, the sort of "counterterrorism options", as it's called around here. I think it's been quite public. Some would argue that the leak of the assessment happened from inside the Pentagon, again, as a way to pressure the president to make a decision, because that assessment called the situation in Afghanistan quite dire and one that needed immediate action. I would argue that it's been quite public.

JAY: Now, it sounds like the Pentagon's establishing to some extent its own objectives. President Obama earlier, for better or worse, said the objective is much more narrow a few months ago: it's just to keep al-Qaeda from having a base in Afghanistan. General McChrystal's objective seems to be far broader than that. They're talking essentially about occupying, holding the country for quite some time, reconstruction, rebuilding, nation building, and all of this, which also leads one to think we're talking about long-term American bases in Afghanistan. And perhaps that's the real objective. That's something that's not been articulated by the White House. So who is it setting the objectives in Afghanistan?

YOUSSEF: Well, that's a good question, and I'm not sure that it's clear. I think what's happening in this assessment is the administration's attempt to make sure that it's the president's objectives and that the resources match it. I think that gap where they laid out what their goals were but then never assigned the resources to it, the Pentagon impetus was to then fill that gap and say, well, this is what we think we need, in the absence of any sort of direction anywhere else.

JAY: Well, one of the British newspapers, I think The Telegraph, reported that there's negotiations going on with the Taliban. In theory, if the objective is just make sure al-Qaeda doesn't have a base, then there's no reason not to make a deal with the Taliban, as long as they agree they won't give al-Qaeda a base. So you have a whole different set of tactics and strategy comes out of that objective. McChrystal's objective is long-term occupation. And we know there's a sort of status of forces agreement in Afghanistan which allows long-term American bases in Afghanistan. So the Pentagon seems to have this very far-reaching geopolitical chessboard objective in Afghanistan which has not been articulated by the White House. So either the White House isn't telling us what they really think or we have two sets of policies here.

YOUSSEF: Well, I would say two things to this notion of negotiating with the Taliban. Number one, the United States has nothing to offer. What's the bargaining chip?

JAY: Well, I suppose make a deal or we'll send, you know, another hundred thousand troops.

YOUSSEF: But if I'm the Taliban at this point, one could argue the Taliban thinks they're winning. They're winning. They're gaining more ground with every day. Why do they need to negotiate with the United States at this point? That's an argument that can be made. And, secondly, no one has sufficiently answered the question about what the current relationship is between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. If you believe that they would allow al-Qaeda back in, then that's less of an incentive to negotiate with them. If you believe that they're separate entities and that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is not a threat to the region, then there's more of an incentive to negotiate. But that question, that central question, hasn't been answered yet, and until it is, I think talk about negotiating with the Taliban is premature.

JAY: Now, from when I was in Afghanistan in the spring of 2002, at the time I was in Kandahar and there was no lack of clarity on the people I talked to that Mullah Omar, at least, and al-Qaeda, bin Laden, had practically merged in terms of how they operated. One, do you think that's true? And do you think that may have changed?

YOUSSEF: Well, the reason I think it's worth asking is that there are concrete examples of why they don't need to work with each other as much anymore. In 2001 and 2002 and in the run up to 9/11, financially al-Qaeda was subsidizing the Taliban. Today it's the other way around.

JAY: And this was because of the Taliban's ability to tax or make money out of the drug trade.

YOUSSEF: Well, that's what they're doing now. And then, before, it was al-Qaeda that had the money.

JAY: Now, what I was getting at earlier is that there's kind of two levels in the way one can look at this. There's sort of the short-term, I would say even tactical considerations: the Taliban; what role al-Qaeda plays. But there's the geopolitical strategic importance of Afghanistan: the amount of natural gas in the 'Stans and the issue of a pipeline going through Afghanistan; the importance of what's going on in Pakistan; the overall kind of long-term role of particularly China in the area. This kind of geopolitical chessboard thinking would lead one, if one wants to maintain sort of traditional American view, that America has to remain dominant in these kinds of regions, that kind of foreign-policy thinking leads to "We'd better have control over Afghanistan, a pro-American government, and long-term bases," and you throw whatever troops necessary to get there. Now, the Pentagon seems to have already settled on this. Is it Obama that hasn't settled on this policy? Or he just hasn't come out in the open with this? Or are they still deciding whether they're going to buy into this kind of traditional chessboard view of the world?

YOUSSEF: You know, it's a hard question to answer, because, you know, unlike the debate in the run-up to the surge, this has all been very secretive. Remember in the run-up to the surge, we knew exactly what President Bush was debating: whether to adopt the [Frederick] Kagan plan. You could read the plan. You could meet with the Kagans and ask them about this plan. We don't even know what they're debating. From what I can tell, it's a wide array of options that are being explored. I think from the Pentagon perspective there's a concern that an unstable Afghanistan potentially turns that country into a proxy war between Pakistan and India, that it leads to a sort of dominoes of instability throughout Southeast Asia. Is the president on board of that yet or not? I don't know.

JAY: You were in Afghanistan just a few months ago. Malalai Joya, who was a member of the parliament in Afghanistan, a young woman who was thrown out of the assembly for her very public critique of the warlords there, she's been doing a North American tour, and she's been saying the American troops should just get out.


JAY: She says the Taliban are fascists, but that the Afghans need to fight those fascists, and the Americans are just—presence is making it worse. From the time you were there just a few months ago, do you get a sense in terms of overall Afghan public opinion where things are? And what do people want?

YOUSSEF: You know, it's very hard to sort of assign one view, because each village is different. That said, I think there's a growing frustration with the United States, because when US forces show up, from the Afghan perspective, violence comes into their communities. You know, I try to stay away from Iraq comparisons, but, you know, in Iraq the majority of violence wasn't against the US troops; it was Iraqis fighting one another. And in Afghanistan the majority of the violence is targeted at the coalition troops, and the Afghans find themselves caught in crossfire between the Taliban and the coalition forces. And the return for that is not better security or better resources or better infrastructure. You know, we heard this week from Matthew Hoh, who is a former captain in Tikrit who went as a foreign service officer, and he sent a letter of resignation arguing this very point, that the presence of the United States brings more instability than stability to Afghanistan. So it is a sentiment that's been sort of voiced out as this debate goes on.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Nancy.

YOUSSEF: Thank you.

JAY: That's Nancy Youssef from McClatchy Newspapers. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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