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Should The U.S. Speed Up Afghanistan Withdrawal?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you've no doubt seen your share of crime dramas where the suspect feels the need to confess. Our next guest, the author of a number of books about faith and spirituality is going to join us to tell us why a confession in real life is a lot less dramatic, but more accessible and useful in the long run, than the TV version.

That conversation is coming up in a few minutes but first we want to turn to a story that is both intimate and remote, both personal and political for many people. That story is Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been engaged in military conflict for a decade now. The week began with the news that a U.S. soldier had shot and killed sixteen Afghan civilians, sparking outrage and prompting Afghan President Hamid Karzai to question the U.S.'s role in Afghanistan and many people in this country are asking the same question.

So, we decided to bring two perspectives from two people who have thought deeply and are writing about this issue. John Soltz served two tours in Iraq as a captain in the U.S. Army. He also co-founded the organization VoteVets.org, which advocates on behalf of the needs of soldiers, both at home and abroad. It describes itself as nonpartisan but also as the largest progressive organization of veterans in America.

Also with us is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana." She's also a contributing editor at large for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She's the deputy director of the council on foreign relations women and foreign policy program, and as you might imagine, she's spent a lot of time, in recent years, in Afghanistan. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

JON SOLTZ: Thanks for having me.


MARTIN: Afghan President Hamid Karzai, just yesterday, asked the United States to withdraw its troops from Afghan villages and to confine them to bases. So, Jon what's your reaction to that? And I also want to mention that you've been writing about this for Huffington Post and you have a very strong view about what you think the way forward should be for the U.S. so you?

SOLTZ: Yeah, I mean it's the counterinsurgency operations that we're involved with in, you know, at times in Iraq and now Afghanistan, is an idea that if we project U.S. forces and create a security blanket that we can eventually train up the Afghan military and embed them into those areas where we've pushed back the insurgency, creating a security blanket. And one of the reasons, you know, we didn't really like that theory at Vote Vets several years ago was because it requires a partnership with the foreign government.

It requires a partnership with Pakistan. It required a partnership with certain entities that weren't reliable to the sacrifice that our American troops are going to make. Unfortunately, there's a narrative in Afghanistan for the past three months that hasn't gone well, between burning Qurans, urination on dead soldiers. These are equivalent to losing battles in World War II - losing the Battle of the Kasserine Pass. This is how we lose, because we turn the population against us. And so, when you have the president of a country out there saying that he doesn't want U.S. forces out in the villages, essentially he's telling the president that the current tactic the United States Military's using - which is counterinsurgency embedded in the villages to provide security - is over.

The question for the public to understand is: what is the mission that the presidents asking his troops to conduct? And the mission they're currently being asked to conduct and counterinsurgency operations cannot be successful without the support of the Afghan government. So, that mission should be adjusted to one that can be acceptable, one that is important - such as drone attacks on terrorist targets; raids where we have a high value targets, like Osama bin Laden. And that mission can be accomplished with a much more limited footprint.

MARTIN: Gail, you are among the writers who have raised concerns about what happens to the women, to put it bluntly. And the other evidence that we've talked about have also happened against the backdrop of the Taliban announcing that they're suspending peace talks with the United States. As a person who spent a lot of time on the ground with civilians, what's your sense of the way forward at this point?

LEMMON: I think that immediate withdrawal is not the answer. I think creating a Somalia in your wake is not the answer, because the power vacuum in Afghanistan will be dangerous. And what you hear from people, from Afghans who are far from power all over the country, is that in Afghanistan abandon to itself will not remain its own problem for long. And that's the issue. We don't want to have to go back. And so, while we are there and while we are investing in helping people to create more stabile communities on their own, I think that the idea of withdrawal or even going immediately to ten or 15,000 troops is really dangerous - and not just for Afghans.

And I think the real issue is, we've come to see this as a zero or one conversation, right? Either we withdraw tomorrow or we stay forever. And I don't think that's the option. I think that if you talk about strengthening institutions on the ground, civil society, people who are already there fighting for their own community, to get to 2014, to have an election that is - has everybody at the table - I am including Taliban or Taliban friendly forces, and including, as Jon mentioned, Pakistan and all the other regional players.

Then you can get to some sort of position where you will not have a perfect nation state, but you will have something stable enough that you will not leave a vacuum in your wake.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Gail Tzemach Lemmon, author and journalist, and Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and veteran's advocate. We're talking about the way forward in Afghanistan after recent unsettling events there. So, Jon, you know, President Obama was asked if he would alter strategy in Afghanistan earlier this week in the news conference - in the joint news conference that he held with British Prime Minister David Cameron who was making an official visit. I'll just play a short clip.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are going to be multiple challenges along the way. In terms of pace I don't anticipate, at this stage, that we're going to be making any sudden additional of changes to the plan that we currently have.

MARTIN: Jon how do you hear that statement?

SOLTZ: I think the president - and it's hard for me to say this because I support him on a personal level. I don't think he fully understands what's going on in Afghanistan. Even if we go to a counter terror mission, we are not stopping strategy. Our mission in Afghanistan and Iraq are the same. We are supporting a democratization process. So, because of the Quran burning and the deaths, the Taliban - the only way to have been successful would have been to bring the Taliban into a negotiated settlement.

We're not going to get there. We don't have the time within the time table the president set. The plan was - it was dead on arrival. You can't use force to project leverage in a political negotiation and put a timetable on it and expect to be successful. And so, what we're arguing here, is a change in tactics. A change in tactics that is something that's applicable and doable. And I agree with Gayle, when you put the U.S. military on the ground great things happen in regards to security and hospitals and these types of things, but success in Afghanistan will never be defined in our presence, it'll be defined when we leave.

And there's nothing that's going to drastically change in the next 18 months that's going to leave a better enduring footprint. It is the fact that American blood and NATO blood has lead to an Afghan democracy, which is directly leading to the arguments that we're facing about getting out of their villages. You can't call this freedom. You can't call this counterinsurgency when the elected leader of that country doesn't want your U.S. military doing certain types of operations.

MARTIN: Gayle what about Jon's point?

LEMMON: I would take a bit of a different perspective on the Karzai comments. I do think that, obviously, President Karzai is under enormous pressure and he has been walking a tightrope between conservative forces in his own country, and popular will in his own country, and the international community and its mandates on the other side. And so, I would I don't put as much stock, I think, as Jon does in this being as hopeless as it sounds. I do agree though, that the president has struggled in terms of finding a way to explain this mission both to people here at home and also to the Afghan people, who wonder, you know, about this mission and 2014. Because the real challenge that you hear on the ground - and I was there in December talking to a lot of people - who said what is 2014 to the Americans? And what does it mean?

Because you have a lot of people who have made progress - and I'm not just talking about individuals, I'm talking about in terms of securing communities - who really do fear that a power vacuum that has left in its wake a full return to civil war, a return to Taliban, and then whoever they bring with them.

MARTIN: We only have a couple of minutes left. So, I wanted to hear a final thought from each of you. I wanted to hear what are you most concerned about in the next couple of months, and is there anything that you're optimistic about? And Jon, I'll start with you and then I'll give Gayle the final word.

SOLTZ: I'm optimistic that there's the dissenting view within the Obama Administration that is now justified.

What am I most concerned about? I'm concerned about the sergeant who's out in a valley in Afghanistan tonight who is being asked to conduct a mission of counter-insurgency to provide(ph) a security blanket for an indigenous government that doesn't want that mission to be conducted.

And I would ask everyone who listens to this show, I would ask the president the same question: Do you want to be in his shoes? Do you want to be in her shoes? Are you asking them to do something that is not achievable under those demands and do you need to refine your mission so their sacrifice is justified?

I really hope that we find a policy rate tactic that's worthy of the sacrifice of these great people on the ground and that the president - you know, he is our commander-in-chief. He is not the commander-in-chief of the Afghan people. He is our leader and that he has our interests at stake more than anyone else.

MARTIN: Gayle, what are you most concerned about and is there anything you're optimistic about?

LEMMON: Yeah. I'm most concerned that, in the rush for the exit, the sacrifices of American treasure that have already been done are lost in the sense of a mission that could be left with some level of stability is not. And I also worry that people who have fought for progress in their country will be banned into a Somalia-like vacuum that is left behind if, in the rush for the exit, the thought about the country's future in terms of power and who has it and who exercises it is not settled before international troops leave, and that full civil war, a bloody civil war happens, and that that includes, obviously, half the population being sent back indoors and being sent away from schools, away from offices, away from their chances to contribute to their own society.

What am I most optimistic about, is actually people themselves who, I think, when you are in Afghanistan, you meet so many people, quiet heroes who are very far from cameras and notebooks who spend every day fighting for a country that is stable and secure and a little bit more prosperous than it was. And I think meeting them, meeting the next generation of kids who are on Facebook and who are really fighting to have some level of a modern society and who want their country to be secure and to not be a safe haven for terror - I think that is what gives you hope that a better future is possible.

MARTIN: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana." It's a story about how women survived the Taliban years in Afghanistan. The paperback edition is out next week. She's also a contributing editor-at-large for Newsweek and The Daily Beast and she's the deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations, Women and Foreign Policy Program. We caught up with her in Los Angeles.

Jon Soltz served two tours in Iraq as a captain in the U.S. Army, and Jon Soltz, let me thank you for your service, if you don't mind.

SOLTZ: My pleasure.

MARTIN: He also cofounded the organization VoteVets.org, which advocates on behalf of the needs of soldiers, both at home and abroad, and he joined us from NPR West.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SOLTZ: Thank you.

LEMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.