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

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“The good war” Pt.2

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network and our continuing coverage of the first days of the Barack Obama presidency. We’re joined once again by Nancy Youssef, the Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. So we ended the first segment talking about what are the real solutions in Afghanistan. And we’re hearing about troops, and we’re hearing about Barack Obama had a plan for awhile to have an Indian-Pakistani compromise over Kashmir that would allow Pakistani troops to move up to the tribal areas. Now, whether that was ever realistic or not, who knows? But the attack on Mumbai seems to have crashed that. But you’ve been there. So talk about on the ground what happens. You know, what’s the ebb and flow of the fighting? What role does the Pakistani bases play? And what about the villagers caught in the middle of all this?

NANCY YOUSSEF, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: Yeah, what I saw was a real shift, and you can see it in the troop death numbers, a real shift towards the south. Part of that is because [of] its weather and it’s easier to fight down south. But you can start to see the Taliban, they’re responding to the influx of troops coming in the south, or it talks about troops that are coming in the south, and they’re trying to protect their drug trafficking. They’re also adopting new tactics. They’re honing their tactics. It was that they would launch platoon-size attacks on US troops; it’s now up to company-size attacks.

JAY: Meaning what? Put some numbers [inaudible].

YOUSSEF: Sure. Well, instead of, say, 40 or 50 troops, it’s 100 troops.

JAY: You’re talking Taliban troops.

YOUSSEF: That’s right. I mean, and very conventional attacks, which is very different than Iraq, whether it was, you know, IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] and things of that sort. And when that doesn’t work, they’ll adopt things like IEDs. They’re starting to use marksmen. It’s not clear whether there are snipers yet.

JAY: So, just to back up,—


JAY: —so, instead of 40 to 50, 100, which is starting to look like—almost comes close to a conventional warfare.

YOUSSEF: A conventional conflict. They fight in very conventional ways. They clear their wounded the way the US or conventional forces do. They mount attacks. They have trenches. It’s all organized. And I think it’s a shock for the troops and those watching it, because we’re used to Iraq, where it was sort of potshots. If there was any chance of potentially killing a soldier or Marine they did, whereas in Afghanistan you’re starting to see the Taliban develop a sophisticated attack. And they launch attacks when they’re ready. They don’t take every opportunity. It’s a calculated attack.

JAY: Talk about who are these Taliban soldiers.


JAY: Like, what you know of them. What’s a profile of an average Taliban soldier?

YOUSSEF: Well, it’s interesting, because it’s someone who comes in and out of the Taliban in some cases. They’re usually—I mean, I was in southern Farah province, and you would interview Afghan army men whose brother, whose cousin was in the Taliban. And sometimes they were in it because they were pressured to go into it. And these are guys who have grown up with fighting as part of their culture and see some sort of security opportunity for themselves or an economic one and join the Taliban. And that’s who the Little-T Taliban that you’ll hear the military talk about—.

JAY: Because the image here is that, you know, all the Taliban are potential suicide bombers. There are all these fervent, ideologically extreme Muslims.


JAY: But that’s not the picture.

YOUSSEF: Not at all. And, in fact, the military, the US military, will say half of them are reconcilable, that upwards of half of them are people that could be negotiated with. You’re starting to hear discussions about negotiations and reaching out to some members of the Taliban. They really see it as sort of an elite number of people, the Mullah Omars and company, that can’t be reconciled. But the Taliban that I saw are not people who are fighting some ideological battle; it’s one for survival. You know, we were interviewing a guy from Logar province who’s a representative there, and he said, “You know how we know someone’s joined Taliban? A poor man all of a sudden has a new Toyota and new clothes and can live a better lifestyle.” It’s not because he’s sort of on some ideological fight; it’s because he wants a better quality of life. And we saw that over and over and over again.

JAY: One of the proposals, one of the analysts I talked to said that it would be one very quick way of ending this—and I don’t know if it’s realistic or not—is just offer more money. Like, just hire away most of these soldiers and give them jobs, and even if you just pay them to stay home and watch television. I mean, is that actually a reality? Possible?

YOUSSEF: Well, it’s what the Taliban’s doing. How did they get some of those former army guys and some of those police? Because they pay more.

JAY: So, then, what’s stopping this from happening? Some of these solutions seem so obvious.

YOUSSEF: Yeah, that’s a great question.

JAY: But why don’t you just buy the poppies, and if you want to go burn them?

YOUSSEF: Let’s talk about that one. And that’s one that’s been explored, sort of eliminating the poppy fields. It’s a big program going on in Helmand province, which is where, you know, two-thirds of the world’s poppy supply comes from Afghanistan—90 percent of it comes out of Helmand province—and the governor has really embraced this idea. The problem is working with those farmers. There’s been talk about eliminating, but if you eliminate someone’s livelihood, you’ve angered them and given them an incentive to go join the other side. There’s been talk about having alternative crops, wheat as an alternative.

JAY: But wouldn’t it be a fraction of the cost of sending 30,000 troops to simply buy the poppies, let them keep growing the poppies, buy the poppies, and if you want, burn it, sell it to pharmaceutical companies. We know there’s been some. The Senlis Council [now the International Council on Security and Development] in Europe did some work on this. But nothing seems to move. I mean, the drug culture seems so entrenched. Is it partly a political problem that American political allies have their hand in the drug culture till, and they don’t want to upset that applecart?

YOUSSEF: But Hamid Karzai’s brother is one of the chief narco traders. I mean, it’s corruption in the Afghan government, one that the United States is supporting. So that’s part of it. And I had the same thought when I went there: why not just pour more money in? But there’s such rampant corruption, it’s not really clear that the money would get there, to the people that it needs to get to. And, again, is it sustainable to sort of buy it off? I mean, at the end of the day, people need to be able to lead an honorable life as they see it.

JAY: But just it would be, I guess, the people who are suggesting this, it just gives you a transition to stop the revenue—.

YOUSSEF: Right. But to what?

JAY: To what? There has to be an investment in a real economy.

YOUSSEF: Right. And I think that’s the question that’s sort of being debated. And, again, so what they’re trying to do is wheat as an alternative, right, that we won’t burn it until you have a viable alternative. But wheat is harder to grow than—. I mean, poppies sort of—it grows on its own, it’s sort of on autopilot, and the return for your investment is a lot greater with poppy than it is with wheat. So there are all these alternatives that are being explored, but the sort of nexus of the problem is that it is an inefficient central government that is corrupt. And so that has to be sort of dealt with. And I think that’s the big gap in all this, that there isn’t a real political solution set that’s being considered. You know, there’s this idea that we can adopt a lesson from Iraq, that you bring security first and then governance. It’s not clear [inaudible] that’s going to work in Afghanistan. They need to be sort of hand-in-hand. And so far, from what I saw, there isn’t a real effort to sort of fix the [inaudible]. It’s a lot harder to do in Afghanistan as well.

JAY: And the other thing they’re talking about trying to bring from Afghanistan is this awakening council idea: they can pay $30 a day and create a little army that will go fight the Taliban. Is that a reality in Afghanistan?

YOUSSEF: You know, I know RC South, Regional Command South, better, and I was asking the Marines that very question: is that a viable option? No, because, again, there’s a corruption problem. We have the Afghan police working in Helmand province, right? What are they doing? They set up checkpoints. And at those checkpoints what they’re doing is taxing people coming through to keep going. So, again, like, that corruption problem has to be dealt with. There has to be some accountability so that these ideas are indeed viable. But this idea of sort of hiring along, so far it doesn’t work. We’ve in a sense tried to do that with the police, and the police have been more corrupt than anyone else. So I think that’s at least what I saw in the south, where so much money is moving. It’s a $500 million business down there. So much money is moving, it becomes harder. I think it’s easier to do that in the east. But, again, it has its issues. But in the south, which is where the United States is moving, it’s harder.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about what solutions are being proposed, what should Obama be listening to, because as far as I understand it, all the current policy seems rather doomed. 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.

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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.