YouTube video

Nancy Youssef reports on her recent assignment in Afghanistan and on Obama’s plans for the country Pt 1

Story Transcript

“The good war”

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network and our continuing coverage of the inauguration and first days of President Barack Obama. We’re now joined by Nancy Youssef, who’s the Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So you just got back from Afghanistan. So give us a sense of what’s going on now.

YOUSSEF: Sure. Well, there’s a real adjustment happening as the US talks about sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan on the ground among the soldiers and the Marines there, where those troops are going to go, how that will shift the US mission, how they’ll work with the NATO countries that are there. So you’re starting to see a real shift in concentration in terms of what needs to happen in Afghanistan and how to utilize those troops.

JAY: So what are some of those questions and answers? What’s being talked about, quite specifically?

YOUSSEF: Well, what’s happening is right now the United States has 33,000 troops there, there’s an additional 30,000 NATO troops representing 40 countries, and General David McKiernan, who’s the top military commander there, has asked for an additional 30,000 troops. And while I was there, the US military indicated that he will in fact get those troops and that most of them will go down to what they call Regional Command South—Helmand province and neighboring Kandahar. And that’s a big deal, because up until this point the United States focus has been on the east, on the border, on the Taliban leadership. And by pushing so many troops in the south, they’re now going to be focusing on narco Taliban, which funds a lot of the Taliban activities. So it’ll go from going after leaders, going after the border, to stopping the drug trafficking that’s funding the Taliban.

JAY: Now, a lot of people I’ve interviewed, analysts, journalists that cover the area, especially who come from that region, I keep hearing the same phrase over and over again: there’s no military solution to this. And how is 30,000 more troops? I mean, what difference is it going to make? You have a flow across the Pakistani border; you have a fight; they flow back again. What is the point of this?

YOUSSEF: Well, that’s the question, and I think it’s a really important one, because the US military answer is, “We’re going to move troops into trouble spots and create security,” as they did in Iraq, that that will lead to local governance, and that there can be a sort of bottom-up governance, that if they learned how to govern in the provinces, that maybe it can help guide the central government, which so far has proven to be pretty ineffective and corrupt. I think the problem becomes: it’s not clear that that link can in fact be made, that by moving that many troops in, that that will lead to security and that that will lead to a new kind of government. But that right now is the US strategy. But you’re absolutely right: it’s not really clear how more troops gets there. And is 30,000 really enough? The United States has 142,000 troops in Iraq. Iraq is smaller, and the terrain is not as difficult. That number—.

JAY: And now they’re fighting a force that has a base.

YOUSSEF: That’s right. And this is a much more complicated and intricate fight. So is a total of 90,000 NATO troops enough? Probably not. The United States argument is, though, “We’re going to be training and doubling the number of Afghan forces to 120-some thousand by next year, and that that will be the supplemental force that comes in, because if we have too many foreign troops, that that will antagonize the local population.” So that’s their answer. But you’re absolutely right. The question is: what’s the link between building up forces in the south and a more stable Afghanistan, and can bottom-up sort of governance work? And I think that’ll be the question of 2009.

JAY: I interviewed Susan Rice, who’s going to be the new ambassador to the United Nations during the election campaign, and a lot of the interview was about Obama’s Afghan policy, and it was all about troop movements, it was all about getting Pakistan to be more active with their troops in the tribal areas, and it was all about troops. And I said, “Well, do you really think this is just about troops? What about reconstruction? What about if you don’t transform the lives of the people of Afghanistan? Are you really going to solve anything?” And she says, “Oh, yes, yes. And you know there’s a reconstruction program,” and she kind of rhymed off some numbers. But do you see on the ground? You’ve just come back. Is there reconstruction taking place, American reconstruction, money, with real determination? Or is it really still mostly about the military?

YOUSSEF: I mean, if it’s there, I didn’t get a sense from the people that I talk to that it was tangible to their lives. I mean, I think there’s a real frustration with Hamid Karzai’s government, which the United States backs, and I think there’s elections that are supposed to happen as late as next fall, and right now it’s not clear who the alternative to Hamid Karzai is. There’s a real frustration with the government. So I didn’t hear talk about reconstruction; I heard, “We don’t like the man that your government is backing.” But the problem is: who’s the alternative? The name that you hear most recently is Ashraf Ghani, but his health is poor, and, again, he’s sort of seen as an American friend, and I think there’s a real hunger for a local person, a Pashtun, someone from Kandahar like Hamid Karzai but who doesn’t bring the corruption that Hamid Karzai brings. So I didn’t hear talk about reconstruction and the impact that that’s having on people. I think there is some reconstruction going on there, but, again, people have less water, less electricity, less quality of life. So even if those things are happening, it is not reaching people.

JAY: I was there in 2002 making a film, and there was a tremendous openness to reconstruction. People wanted to go to schools, and women wanted jobs, and they wanted a life, and I think they were quite happy, whether it was the Americans or NATO who were helping. There wasn’t too much problem with it. I understand now that the loya jirgas, the councils, the tribal councils of elders, met about eight, nine, ten months ago and actually invited the Taliban to come back. Tell us about that.

YOUSSEF: Well, the problem is that I think people are sort of, whatever label you put on—it’s a democracy, it’s NATO forces, it’s whomever—it’s now become a security issue for people, and whoever can provide that security is welcome. And in some cases for them the Taliban is a viable alternative. They know the Taliban, they can work with that system, they can negotiate with the Taliban in a way that some would argue that they can’t with foreign forces that are sort of controlling their neighborhoods on roads that were built for the last occupying force, the Russians. So I think it’s sort of a sign of desperation that there’s been such a lack of order that people are grabbing onto anything they can, and in some cases the Taliban is a viable option. Remember, when we talked about the Taliban, you know, the military will talk about Big-T Taliban and Little-T Taliban, the sort of irreconcilables and the reconcilables. It’s a complicated web, and it’s not as monolithic as I think we portray it here. And there are elements of the Taliban that can provide for residents what its government can’t. In some cases, you know, they can pay better than the Afghans pays its army for security. They can provide better services.

JAY: Thanks, Nancy. And thank you for joining us. And please join us for the next segment of our interview with Nancy Youssef.


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

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

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.