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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.3

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and our continuing interview with Nancy Youssef, who just returned from Afghanistan. And she’s the McClatchy correspondent at the Pentagon. Thanks for joining us. So the Pentagon knows how to make war, and I think they’d probably perhaps be the first one to say they’re not necessarily the ones to build peace, build reconstruction. Is part of the problem here that the fundamental mission in Afghanistan has always been in a military mindset? And if that’s the case, what solutions have been proposed by others? And what should Obama be looking at other than just upping troop levels?

NANCY YOUSSEF, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: Yeah, I think the fundamental problem for Afghanistan is that it’s always been an economy of [inaudible] as they call it, that it’s always sort of been the stepchild to the Iraq War. Iraq got more troops, it got more equipment, it got things first, and Afghanistan was always on the back burner. You have a military that’s spent the last seven years geared almost exclusively to Iraq and now has to sort of make that shift. So I think that’s one of the first things that the Obama administration will have to deal with is helping the Pentagon and taking the Pentagon along as it makes the adjustment from basic things. They’ve been teaching their soldiers how to speak Arabic, and now we’ll have to switch to Pashtun and Dari. The tactics will be different; the equipment they need will be different. So that’ll be the first challenge is really shifting the military focus to Afghanistan after seven years of neglect, frankly. So it’ll start there. There are several reviews going on right now at the Pentagon to just try to craft a new strategy. One of them’s being led Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. And he’s really advocated a regional approach, that we can’t treat Afghanistan and Pakistan separately, and that we have to somehow interweave them. He’s been meeting with General Kayani, the head of the Pakistani army, in this effort to try to come up with negotiations and ways to diplomatically solve this issue. So he sees it as a mutual problem.

JAY: There’s even some suggestion now, and I don’t know that there was a suggestion in Obama’s speech or not (some people have read it into it), that the Americans might actually be open to some negotiations with the Taliban.

YOUSSEF: That’s right. And that might be an alternative, because, again, I think they’re sort of laying the groundwork by saying that so much of the Taliban is reconcilable that we can’t treat them as monolithic. I mean, that’s been a message from the building for months now.

JAY: What’s your sense of, as much as you can, what do ordinary Afghans want? If you get out, if you take off Afghans who are making money, you know, at the elite levels of the drug business, do ordinary Afghans want the Americans just to get the hell out? Or what do they want?

YOUSSEF: I didn’t hear that. I heard, at least in the south in particular, there’s a real animosity towards the British. So they were more receptive to the Americans in the south than they were in, say, the east. But what I really—.

JAY: How about the Canadians?

YOUSSEF: Well, there’s some talk about the Canadians, though, leaving, because, you know, proportionally the Canadians have taken the highest troop death toll of any other country. So where the Canadian role is, there’s a frustration with the British and the Canadians, because there’s a feeling that they don’t fight as aggressively as the Americans do in terms of taking on the Taliban. There’s that perception in the street. I heard that a lot. But there’s a historical frustration with the British. So they’re more welcome. I think the question for Canada is what its role is going to be. I think Canada, frankly, is waiting for a call from President Obama to see what it gets in return for taking such high [inaudible]

JAY: Now, you just said that there’s a frustration amongst people that the Canadians and the British aren’t taking on the Taliban enough.


JAY: So is that what people want? They want a more aggressive approach to the Taliban or not?

YOUSSEF: Well, the thing is the feeling there is that—and it’s different than Iraq—that there’s a real respect for a proper fight. You know, the Taliban will clear areas of women and children. They’ll lose that element of surprise to properly sort of fight a force. And I think that—.

JAY: By “clear,” let’s be clear what you mean.

YOUSSEF: I mean they will tell women and children, “Leave. We’re getting ready to fight whatever coalition force.” So that’s a signal to the coalition that there’s about to be a fight.

JAY: But they do it out of respect for the women and children.

YOUSSEF: That’s right. And there’s a real feeling that this needs to be a proper fight. And I think that there’s a feeling that because there’s a hesitancy on some countries, their own procedures, they’re less apt to do that than—there’s a perception, anyway, that they’re less apt to do it than the Americans are, that the Americans will fight back.

JAY: Now, one of the things I found when I was there was that the urban Afghans—and there’s lots of them in the big cities—hated the Taliban. Like, the rural people maybe could go either way, depending on what conditions are, but urban people don’t want the Taliban back. But they also don’t want what’s happening.

YOUSSEF: That’s the problem. We’re entering a dangerous point where they’re starting to hate the government more, because the government came in promising all these things and not delivering them and, in fact, stealing. I mean, in Kabul, they don’t fear the Taliban anymore; they fear the corruption and the kidnapping that goes on that’s a function of a corrupt government.

JAY: From when I was there in 2002, that’s a real transformation. If people in Kabul are considering the idea that the Taliban are better, that’s a real transformation.

YOUSSEF: Well, it’s not that it’s better, but what you hear is not anger towards the Taliban; it’s towards the government. My sense is they resent the option the Taliban or this corrupt government. But I guess what I heard was a bigger fear from the government than it was from the Taliban.

JAY: So what kind of solutions are out there that are not being adopted but that look reasonable, look possible?

YOUSSEF: Well, we’ve got several reviews going on, as I was saying. The chairman’s got his review, and he talks about a regional approach.

JAY: Not only from the Pentagon. I mean, it could be from the UN, it could be from Europe, it could be from—I mean, outside the military mindset.

YOUSSEF: Yeah. Well, there are several. I mean, there’s talk about a more economic development, that they have to improve things like water and electricity and quality of life. There’s talk about sort of coming up with a new balance between the provincial government and the central government, that it’s too centrally focused and that there needs to be more of a provincial approach. There’s talk of training more Afghan forces and putting them in the lead and restructuring the relationship between the Afghan police and army.

JAY: Is there any talk about why are we there at all?


JAY: I mean, is there fundamental, like, zero-sum game talk, which is: Is there really a threat of another terrorist attack coming from Afghanistan? Is there any reason to be there anymore?

YOUSSEF: I think there is some. I mean, I think it’s a very quiet one, because, remember, President Obama has really sold this as sort of the good war, right, that Afghanistan’s the good war and Iraq wasn’t the good war. So it’s very quiet, but, yeah, there are questions, I think, for some people. What is the end state in all this? And I think it’s sort of extraordinary that after seven years it’s not very clear to anybody. You could ask anybody on the ground there and it’s not really clear. And if you talk to soldiers privately, yeah, they’re really frustrated, especially ones who were there, say, three or four years ago and don’t see any progress by their measure. A lot of them, remember, have done Iraq as well, and Iraq was so much more fluid and moving so much more quickly, whereas Afghanistan it was a lot slower. So is there talk about that? Yes. And I think there’s a real fear about getting more entangled in something without a clear end state.

JAY: Do think there’s a sense, either amongst the troops or amongst Afghans themselves, and particularly Afghans, I mean, doesn’t the world owe Afghanistan something in terms of what the American role after the Russians pulled out, just leaving Afghanistan to a civil war that killed perhaps as many as 2 million people? Afghanistan’s been this pawn, and the people have paid the price.

YOUSSEF: Yes, but who’s been able to really tackle Afghanistan? I mean, this is a fight that’s been going on since Alexander the Great. So many people have tried to come in and sort of tame Afghanistan and not been able to. So I think the question becomes: Can anybody do it? Can the coalition do it? This is not Iraq. I mean, it has its own—.

JAY: Well, maybe the objective of “taming” is the problem.

YOUSSEF: Maybe. Maybe. And I think that’s a debate that’s going on now.

JAY: Like, taming is different than helping.

YOUSSEF: Maybe. I mean, what is helping and what is taming? What is a stable Afghanistan? Is the United States definition different from the Afghan definition? Maybe. But to me what was shocking is that we’re still having this debate. This is seven years in, and very fundamental questions are being asked. These reviews that are going on—the chairman’s review, General Petraeus’s review—is going on very basic questions: what is our strategic goal in Afghanistan? Which is unbelievable when you think about it, let alone the tactical one that you and I have talked about in terms of what happens on the ground. If the strategic one isn’t answered, then the tactical one can’t be answered. And what we’re going to be hearing in the next two weeks is the results of these reviews, and they’re going to try to answer those very basic questions.

JAY: Well, let’s return to this in a few weeks, and we’ll find out if this good war is such a good war.

YOUSSEF: We’ll find out.

JAY: Thanks 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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Nancy Youssef

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.