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Military Chief Calls For More Troops In Afghanistan

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Aired 9/18/09

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said more U.S. combat troops are needed to accomplish our goals in Afghanistan. President Obama responded by saying he will not be rushed into a decision over whether to send more troops.

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Above: The editors discuss the latest with the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Talking about kitchen table conversation, used to be about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan then as the economy took front and center, we talked less about those wars. And now Afghanistan is sneaking back into our thoughts and our conversation. On Capitol Hill, questions about our mission there are mounting. So, Tony, what exactly is our mission in Afghanistan?

TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Good question. It's what the Obama-ites are currently evaluating and they're developing metrics and they're analyzing it to a faretheewell. At this moment, it appears to be get the Afghan security forces ready to roll and so we can take off the training wheels, stabilize the Karzai government, introduce the Karzai government in Kabul to the rest of the country, strike at the Al Qaeda enclaves near the Pakistan border, shore up the Pakistani intelligence services so they're not getting in bed with Al Qaeda again. It's a whole laundry list of things, none of them quite focused as nicely, I think, as the Secretary of Defense would like and the military would like.

PENNER: Does that work against our staying in Afghanistan? I mean, we're not – obviously, we're not there to nation build.

PERRY: No, we're there to nation build.

PENNER: We are. Okay.

PERRY: Oh, yeah.

PENNER: Get it on the table.

PERRY: Yeah, let's say it like it is, we're trying to create a nation from a non-nation and we're trying to stabilize a government that is shaky at best, corrupt at worst. It is a…

TOM YORK (Editor, San Diego Business Journal): That's a…

PERRY: …daunting, daunting task.

PENNER: Tom.

YORK: The Karzai government is a puppet government of the United States. I – It has no popular support.

PERRY: I'm not sure I'd go that far down the road but it certainly lives and breathes because of the U.S. military and the NATO forces. On the other hand, he may be the lesser of two lessers. Abdullah Abdullah, the fellow who was running against him, I don't think is George Washington either. It's a very difficult situation that we're in. The brass that goes to congress and goes on the Lehrer NewsHour is pretty gloomy but since everybody plays that side of the road, I'll play the other side of the road and note that in '05 and '06 we were similarly gloomy about Iraq. We said Baghdad caught in an intractable civil war, Anbar, totally lost. Nothing good's going to come out of that government in Baghdad. Well, all three of those things turned out to be not as true as you'd think. Anbar is stabilized. Baghdad has some issues but is more stabilized. And the Maliki government is showing improvement. All of could still go straight down the chute but what I'm saying is don’t take to the bank the gloomy assessments that you're hearing. It could be changing even as we're debating, you know, whether we ought to stay.

PENNER: Well, what I'm hearing is public fatigue with the wars.

PERRY: Oh, absolutely.

PENNER: That is what I'm hearing and I'd like to check it out with our listeners. Are you just tired of the fact that we are a nation at war? A nation now in Iraq, still in Iraq, a nation in Afghanistan with military leaders considering—actually advocating—that we increase military personnel over there. I'd like to get your opinion. 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. All right, Andrew, we know the military leaders want more troops but some members of congress are balking, including California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee. She said she supported training the Afghan security forces but she called for a specific date for withdrawal of American forces.

ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, Voiceofsandiego.org): Yeah, like Tony said, this – there's a lot of similarities to what was happening in Iraq just in the last couple of years. I mean, you have an amazing debate going on right now about whether we need more troops or just to, you know, sort of start hightailing it out of there and – and there are certainly people a lot more qualified and intelligent than I that disagree on that conversation.

PENNER: Well, Feinstein also believes, Tom, that U.S. goals in Afghanistan have not been outlined clearly and that it's a tribal entity. Are we determined to change Afghanistan into a democracy?

YORK: I think we are and I think that that's the problem. I think Afghanistan, from all that I've read and seen over the last, you know, couple of decades, is it's a country that's been invaded by outside forces. Most of the upper class and middle class has fled. A lot of that population is here in California. Afghanistan is a very weakened country and the Taliban controls it for all intents and purposes. And – But on the other hand, if we don't do something there, we leave there, it's going to be a huge black eye. It will be a huge international black eye on our part…

PENNER: Well, Tony, one of our…

YORK: …of intention…

PENNER: One of our listeners called in and just sort of tying this in with our discussion on the economy, wanting to know how much the United States is spending on the wars in Afghanistan and do we know how that's affecting the national deficit?

PERRY: I don't have a – I don't have my calculator here but billions and billions and billions, and it can't be good. It's money that goes out and money that does not come back in. But let's remember we're there for ourselves. We're there…

YORK: Right.

PERRY: The debate is that we are there for ourselves and in '01 we went over there to strike out at the people who had struck at us. Locate, close, engage and kill, your basic Marine mission. Now we are there, we are told, for somewhat of a different mission and, frankly, it deals with Pakistan, the neighbor. And what we do not want is that tribal area, the Hindu Kush and that other tribal area on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to be a staging ground for Al Qaeda, Taliban, other zanies to be able to destabilize further the Pakistan government and get their hands on nuclear weapons, which the Pakis have. We're there for ourselves. That doesn't mean that we're doing the right thing. We could be destabilizing the Pakistan government by undercutting its political support from its own people because they don't like the idea that we're launching missions, with either drones or young men with M-16s, into their territory. We could be actually working in reverse towards our own interests of shoring up the Pakistan government. That's the damnable part. We – Unlike '01 where it was pretty clear, locate, close, engage and kill the bad guys, this time around it is a very debatable action about whether what we're doing is helping or hurting our national interests.

PENNER: Okay, so let's hear from our callers and see how they feel about this. And we'll start with Jim in Normal Heights. Jim, you're on with the editors.

JIM (Caller, Normal Heights): Yes. I don't see the parallel that everyone's drawing between Afghanistan and Iraq. I see the parallel with Vietnam. I'm old enough to remember Vietnam, and we were in Vietnam to stop godless communism. If we failed in South Vietnam, domino theory that all these other countries would fall, that China and Vietnam together would sweep across the rest of Asia. We had pacification programs, U.S. Aid Agency, Operation Phoenix, you name it. Now look at China. Vietnam fought a war with China three years after we left Vietnam and now look at the situation. I just think the parallel is with Vietnam and I think we're going into a really, really bad mistake.

PENNER: Okay, Tom?

YORK: Well, you know, I – I'm not so sure that I agree with that but I think we're damned if we do, damned if we don't. It's an intractable situation and, you know, as far as I can see, there's no good going to come out of this, either one way or the other.

PENNER: Okay, well…

PERRY: The lack of a parallel though is astounding in one way. There is no military draft. There is no military draft, and that's what made Vietnam what it was in terms of political upheaval in this country. That is not the case. I can't think of a politician who got ousted from the United States Congress because of his support for either Iraq, frankly, or Afghanistan. And until we sort of internalize that we're all in this even if we don't have a young son or daughter in uniform, I don't think these are going to be political issues in the way that Vietnam was.

PENNER: Tom.

YORK: Well, I look at it from a historical point of view. I'm somewhat of a student of Roman history. Rome survived for a thousand years and for most of that thousand years they had to fight wars, major wars, minor wars, expansive wars. And I think war is just part of the nature of being human and being a nation state, and this is a war we're going to have to deal with. We went over there to get revenge. We're still there eight or nine years later, and we haven't got our revenge. So what happens next?

PENNER: Well, I think that at this point we need to look at what's happening in our San Diego military community. Andrew, let me ask you. What kind of impact are these repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan having on local military families?

DONOHUE: I'm going to defer to Tony on that. I think he's the expert on that.

PERRY: Tremendous impact. I talked to a wife of a gunnery sergeant just yesterday. He's on his sixth—sixth—deployment. That's a seven-month deployment. He's been gone 42 months in their marriage. So far, they're holding up well. Divorce statistics and all that other social pathology that's being watched very closely does not show me a large uptick. We have, in Afghanistan, a battalion, an infantry battalion from Camp Pendleton. Quietly, quietly they sent over several hundred Special Forces from Camp Pendleton, the North County Times reported on that. Next week, a thousand Marines will float away on a series of ships to do a six-month deployment in the Western Pacific. They could very well end up in Afghanistan. There's precedence for that. As we have said many times, the war in Iraq and now the war in Afghanistan is a big international story. It's also a local story for us here.

PENNER: It certainly is and also the story usually has something to do with how severe the casualties are. Are we sustaining significant casualties from Afghanistan?

PERRY: Not yet. Not yet. 800 Americans, 800-plus Americans have died in Afghanistan, mostly Army, some Marine. Camp Pendleton has not yet—yet—been hit, although we did have a Marine captain a week ago, 30 years old, killed, leaving a widow who's pregnant with their first child in Carlsbad. So it hasn't begun yet in large numbers but, trust me, it will if we sustain. If the President of the United States decides this is the mission he wants to sustain, it will start hitting San Diego. And don't forget Iraq. For many months, for many years, several years, Pendleton had more dead and wounded than any other base in the country.

PENNER: Okay, well, I thank you very much. Tony Perry, who's spent a considerable amount of time in Iraq in the last few years. And Tom York from the San Diego Business Journal. Andrew Donohue from Voiceofsandiego.org. And thanks to our callers and our listeners. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner.

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