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Thousands Of Local Servicemembers Expected To Deploy To Afghanistan

Audio

Aired 12/4/09

Obama's new plan to control al-Qaida and the Taliban will have an acute effect on San Diego with thousands of Camp Pendleton-based marines expected to be stationed in Afghanistan by mid-2010.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today, local response to the president’s controversial plans to beef up the military in Afghanistan in preparation for a 2011 pullout, the Mexican drug cartel’s vendetta against the Tijuana police chief, and the mayor’s latest proposal to rein in San Diego spending. The editors with me today are John Warren, editor and publisher of the San Diego Voice & Viewpoint. John, it’s good to see you again.

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Good morning, Gloria. Thank you.

PENNER: Good morning. And Vicente Calderon. He’s the editor of Tijuanapress.com. Vicente, welcome back to KPBS.

VICENTE CALDERON (Editor, Tijuanapress.com): Thank you always for the invitation.

PENNER: Oh, anytime. And Ricky Young, government editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Welcome to you, Ricky.

RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Thank you, Gloria. Nice to be here.

PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Well, this week President Obama delivered a speech on his Afghanistan strategy that stirred debate and controversy from high level U.S. politicians and foreign leaders to people on the streets and the troops themselves. This is what he said… Well, we don’t have the clip but that’s okay. I’ll tell you what he said. He said, as commander-in-chief, I’ve determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan. That’s straight from his speech. So Obama’s new plan to control Al Qaeda and the Taliban will have an acute effect on San Diego with more than 10,000 Camp Pendleton Marines expected to be stationed in Afghanistan by mid-2010. The pullout could begin a year later. So, John, let’s start with reaction from Obama’s own Democratic supporters, who seem quite cool to the plan. What’s their disappointment?

WARREN: Well, I, you know, when you start talking time tables and putting people – more people in, obviously many of them are concerned. A number were reserved before the speech. There is still some apprehension but the reality of it is that in spite of how the party wants to view this, it’s a necessary move at this point. I think the president made the case in an admirable fashion for the strategic necessity of sending additional troops because it’s not just a issue of Afghanistan. There’s such a close connection to Pakistan and we cannot afford to have Pakistan as a nuclear power fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or the Taliban or any other such element. And so people understand that and that reality is in conflict with their political postures that they want to maintain based on old campaign promises.

PENNER: But, Vicente, is there an irony about President Obama, who was critical of former President Bush’s strategy, increasing our military presence in Iraq, essentially doing the same in Afghanistan?

CALDERON: Well, but I think the scenario’s very different and we – I think he’s facing the fact that Afghanistan was a neglected war for a long time since all the resources were going to Iraq’s military strategies that were proving to be not as successful until they decided to go with the surge and change a little bit. And now I think it’s a necessary evil to go and recover the progress done at the beginning with Afghanistan.

PENNER: But many people are saying, Vicente, that this is going to be as long a struggle as we’ve had in Iraq, if not longer. You cannot – you cannot change the way a society behaves just by going in and occupying it.

CALDERON: That’s probably true but I think it’s they are already there. The U.S. military has already did this mess, it’s not this administration’s responsibility but they – their responsibility’s for them to clean a little – as much as they can. And I think—I’m not an expert in these matters but the fact that they are tackling this problem, I think, is a very courageous position on the part of the President Obama.

PENNER: Well, you know, of course, Ricky, it’s going to affect San Diego keenly. The numbers that I’ve been reading are that there are 1500 Marines from Camp Pendleton there now. 5,000 more are headed there as replacements in early 2010. And as many as 4,000 are expected to be among the additional troops that Obama will order to Afghanistan. Is Afghanistan fighting more dangerous than the Iraq battles?

YOUNG: I don’t know how much more dangerous it is. I mean, war is war. I think to address some of what you were saying earlier in terms of whether people knew we were getting into this. I know that Obama, during the campaign, tended to say we should have gone into Afghanistan instead of Iraq, should have finished the job there. I don’t think it was necessarily clear to his supporters that he intended to go and follow through on that. But I guess we have new president, new surge. I would like to say General Petraeus gave us an – exclusive access to the San Diego-based aircraft carrier, the Nimitz, during Thanksgiving, and what he emphasized about the efforts in Afghanistan was that it’ll be nation building as much as it will be war. Healthcare access is at 85% for Afghanistan, it’s up from 5% in 2002, schools are up similarly as is access to electricity, and he said he wants to continue those efforts. So, you know, it’s as much about trying to get a stable government there and keep the Taliban from resurfacing as it is about war…

PENNER: Okay, our number…

YOUNG: …or occupation.

PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. I’ve been reading some local comments online about the troop surge and they range from Marine spouses who say we have to stand by our troops no matter who calls the shots from the Oval Office, to those who say we didn’t get the change we voted for. I’d like to hear from our listeners on this. What is your reaction? I would like local reaction to the president’s determination to escalate the U.S. presence in Iraq (sic). Again, our number’s 1-888-895-5727. And, John Warren, you wanted to respond to Ricky.

WARREN: Yeah, I want to make three points.

PENNER: Okay.

WARREN: First in response to Ricky, the president made it very clear that we are there to be their partners and not their patrones as – and he – So we’re not there to finance and take care of Afghanistan, we’re there to bring them up to a certain level. And this war is being fought from the standpoint of integrating the people knowing that they have to go back and build relationships with tribal chiefs as opposed to just going in, as in Iraq, with more emphasis on military force. It is, number two, a different war. The mountainous terrain, the landscape, all of it, we can’t just send any troops there for the most part. Those that we’ve sent so far have been Rangers and mountain-trained troops and it’s made a tremendous difference. But remember, the people we’re fighting in Afghanistan there are the same people that we financed as the mujahadeen against Russia. And so those people now have become the enemies in the scenario and there is a great deal more to it than just putting soldiers in, and I think the president has made that very clear.

PENNER: And our number again, 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Reggie in Chula Vista is with us now. Reggie, thank you for calling in. You’re on with the editors.

REGGIE (Caller, Chula Vista): Yes, I really feel strongly against sending 30,000 troops. I felt strongly about sending one Marine there. The way it’s structured is very confusing because during the day, you know, they’re fighting against the Taliban and, I mean, during the night they’re fighting against the Taliban but the people who are living there, they shelter them, they shelter the Taliban. And then when it gets too rough and when they’re on attack, you know, they go into Pakistan and they have a haven. They have a place of refuge there. The people that Afghanistan – the people in Afghanistan are actually – It’s like a two-sided coin. You really can’t fight them, you know, they don’t want – they had a chance to get Osama Bin Laden but what happened was that the Afghan government didn’t want us to go get him so we backed off. So…

PENNER: Okay.

REGGIE: So it’s like it’s really hard to fight them. You can’t really fight them. They really don’t want us there. They say they do but they really don’t.

PENNER: Well, Reggie, that’s interesting because the president implied—and I’m going to turn to Vicente on this—in his speech that the difference with the approach that former President Bush took was that we did not ask for this fight. That’s what he said in his speech. Does that justify increasing troop numbers and placing more American lives at risk?

CALDERON: Well, the thing is, I don’t see any other options. Again, I’m not an expert in these matters but these guys are – The main reason the U.S. is there is because those were the guys who really provoked the attack on the U.S. of 9/11. And they were very successful at the beginning. That’s why they have all the support of the international community. The only place with a big difference in the case of Iraq. And the thing is, they haven’t – they neglected – This was the forgotten years, the forgotten war for many years because everybody was sending all the resources to Iraq, which is a very complicated issue in – by itself. And I don’t think there’s another option, and I don’t think that the administration is seeing other option. I don’t think that it’s something that they like to do but I don’t find any other possibilities.

PENNER: John.

WARREN: Well, you know, Duncan Hunter—and I think his comments are respected, he was a Marine captain. He served two tours in Iraq and one in…

PENNER: You’re talking about the current…

WARREN: The current, the son.

PENNER: Yeah, the current, yeah, the son.

WARREN: Yeah, the son, not the senior. And he certainly was in support of troops being disbursed. I think for the American people, there’s too much detachment. I have a son who’s a former Marine and I’m former Army and I remember being at Camp Pendleton with my son and looking at these young men being deployed and my heart was really saddened that they were being sent into battle. But the reality, as the president said, is we either fight them there or we fight them here. Osama Bin Laden launched his attacks from Afghanistan. There’s – They have caught people here in recent time, intercepted them coming in from those havens. We are no longer standing back from Pakistan; we are going into Pakistan when necessary to pursue them. And so this is not one of those situations with rules of engagement that are going to limit us like we were in Vietnam or in some other areas, and I think that makes a big difference.

PENNER: There’s another aspect to this, Ricky, however, and that is that people in San Diego are worried about the economy and the job market. You know, our unemployment rate is up even though the numbers today, nationally, were a little bit better. So how enthusiastic are the people about a costly strategy to gain control over terrorists in Afghanistan? I mean, this is expected – three hundred – 30,000 troops is expected to cost $30 billion.

YOUNG: Well, I don’t know, I think the, excuse me, the discussions of war and the discussions of the economy tend to go off on different track. I mean, for a long time the war budget was not even included in the federal budget. It was off in a – the black budget or something they called it. And so I think people don’t think of it in those terms although, you know, as awful as it sounds, certainly a military buildup is good for San Diego’s economy. But…

PENNER: Good for our economy but the areas surrounding Camp Pendleton, for example, John…

YOUNG: Well, military contractors…

WARREN: No, because what happens, the more we deploy, the greater the unemployment is in that area, the fewer soldiers there are that are spending money. Even though families, many families, leave here. They go back home to their parents or wherever they come from in terms of comfort level during the periods of deployment, so it has a depressing impact in terms of the economy. The buildup that you’re talking about in terms of supplies and the logistics of it, we don’t do that much of that business here so that we would benefit in the same way that Bush looked out for, you know, his fellow Texans when they started giving out contracts to contractors for Iraq.

PENNER: Okay. Let’s hear from Alan in North Park. Oh, Alan, you know what, I think I’m going to hold you until after the break because I don’t want to cut into what you have to say. So hang in there and we’ll be right back. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. We’re talking about the president’s decision to increase the troops in Afghanistan. We’ll continue talking about that and we’ll take your calls when we return.

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. We’re talking about Afghanistan and the president’s speech this week. At the table with me is Ricky Young, he’s with the San Diego Union-Tribune, John Warren with San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, and Vicente Calderon with Tijuanapress.com. And you, of course, and I promised Sam in Escondido that we’d get right to him after the break. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Hi there, Sam, it’s your turn.

SAM (Caller, Escondido): Hi. Yeah, I have to say that I’m a registered Democrat and I was against the war in Iraq but now I see Obama making the troop surge, I have to say for Afghanistan that I agree with it. What I want to remind people of is just that this is an inherited war for Obama, and people seem to forget that. Whether or not he decides to do this, he’s going to receive criticism one way or the other from Republicans and Democrats. So I just want to say that I’m one Democrat who does support this decision.

PENNER: Okay. Well…

SAM: Thank you.

PENNER: Thank you very much, and it’s always good to hear the wide range of opinions in our community. It’s interesting to me, too, that Republican lawmakers support the troop increase but they object to the 2011 timeline for bringing the troops home or beginning to bring the troops home. Is there something for everyone to hate in this plan, John?

WARREN: Well, everyone has to find something to hate, which is really more important than there being something for them to hate. Republicans can’t start agreeing with the president even if he, you know, levitates and walks on water, they can’t agree 100%. I think the big flaw in this whole scenario is that we do too much discussion of logistics. I know we have a first amendment right to information but all the Taliban and Bin Laden has to do is sit back in their war rooms and watch CNN and they can plan their own troop scenarios to counter what we’re doing. They say 18 months, so let’s hold back 18 months and after they leave, we’ll gear up. I think we go too far and the American people don’t seem to understand the nature of security in terms of a conflict. And I think that the president is going to have to be strong on this and the Republicans, just let them cry. They’re going to cry anyhow, and then they’re going to vote for it because they can’t afford not to.

PENNER: All right but, you know, those among our listeners and even here perhaps in the studio might see this timing of the withdrawal, 2011, start the withdrawal, as politically motivated because it will be the start of the president’s expected 2012 reelection campaign. Ricky, is that fair?

YOUNG: Well, I think there’s certainly a political way to view all of this. Even the numbers seem like Clinton style triangulation where you’ve picked a number that’s too high for Democrats who don’t want to see more war, except for the caller who we just had, and then the Republicans don’t think you’ve done enough, complicated by the fact that General McChrystal said we needed more troops than the president has sent. So you’ve got a number that almost splits right there in the middle so you’re not upsetting either side too much, and then, yes, the timing certainly just leading up to the president’s reelection of pulling out looks -- you know, could be suspect. It could also be the right thing. I don’t know, so…

PENNER: Okay, well, back to the telephones and let’s hear from Carlos in Chula Vista. Carlos, you’re on with the editors.

CARLOS (Caller, Chula Vista): Hello. Good morning.

PENNER: Good morning.

CARLOS: Thanks for allowing me to speak.

PENNER: Of course.

CARLOS: I am in favor of the Obama plan and especially because we need to put a timetable to this whole scenario. I’m a Vietnam veteran. I spent a whole year over there in Vietnam fighting in the jungles. But one thing is that we need to support our president. I was against the war in Iraq, the invasion of Iraq, not the war, because that was totally unjustified as far as I saw it. We needed to focus on the Afghanistan conflict. I have a bachelor’s degree in political science and I know about all these conflicts. I saw where this situation – I couldn’t believe that we were doing this total.

PENNER: Okay, well…

CARLOS: A mistake.

PENNER: Thank you, Carlos. And there are those, Vicente, who tend to compare what’s going on now in the Middle East with Vietnam, saying these are unwinnable wars and we are just losing – we are losing people. We are killing our sons and daughters over there.

CALDERON: Well, I think that’s an automatic comparison that everyone wants to make, first the Iraq war then the Afghanistan war. But I think one of the reasons – I’m not in favor of any war but the thing is the situation, the number of casualties in Afghanistan was growing in a bigger number than the ones we were seeing in Iraq. And that’s one of the reasons that they were forced, I guess. Since they were not putting their resources at the right time, they are now forced to do this. And I think makes sense that this surge is part of a plan to eventually move them out of that. I don’t think they can just leave. Nobody wants to send the troops there because they know that their risk is way higher for them to be – come back – or, not come back, come back injured or not come back. But this is the thing that – People need to realize that the situation here is very different than the one in Iraq, and Iraq is too much in their minds when they are trying to see this new scenario.

PENNER: Okay. Last, final comment, John.

WARREN: Well, I got – We have to remember the history of Afghanistan, the people, the extent to which drugs have come from that country, the extent to which there are other dollars competing for the same people that we’re trying to win the hearts and minds of. And I think the president should be supported. We should be standing as a united front. And, yes, some of his decisions will be political. Well, newsflash, the office he holds is political, and so he should be. But I think that he’s doing an excellent job in terms of balancing it and I think we should look very closely at the criticisms that arrive.

PENNER: Okay, thank you very much. Thank you, gentlemen, and now let’s turn to the battle that’s going on across the border.

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