Originally published August 27, 2010 at 9:40 a.m., updated August 27, 2010 at 10:52 a.m.
What are the biggest challenges facing Camp Pendleton-based Marines who are currently serving in Afghanistan? We discuss how the conflict in Afghanistan is different, and in some ways more challenging than the war in Iraq. Plus, we'll talk about what benchmarks need to be achieved before U.S. combat troops can withdraw from Afghanistan.
TOM FUDGE (Host): I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to the Editors Roundtable. We now turn our attention to Afghanistan. July 2011, that’s when the Obama administration says it wants to start withdrawing American combat troops from Afghanistan. But there seems to be a very big ‘if’ here. Will Afghan security forces be able to maintain security in the country by then and, if not will our forces actually be able to leave? This is a major concern to San Diego-based Marines and their families, to say nothing of our nation as a whole. The U.S. has been involved in the effort to defeat the Taliban for 9 years and today the situation is still very dicey. San Diego correspondent for the LA Times, Tony Perry, who joins us today just returned from a trip to Helmand Province in Afghanistan where he covered locally based troops. And, Tony, first of all, tell us some stories from Afghanistan. What did you see and what did the things you see tell us about this question of withdrawal?
TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): There are 20,000 Marines and sailors in Helmand Province, half of those, 10,000, are from Camp Pendleton. We were pretty much everywhere, large and small bases, where our local Marines are. And what I saw is progress being made towards the winning of hearts and minds but also progress being made towards locate, close, engage and kill the Taliban. On the other hand, I saw enormous challenges, enormous disappointments in what was fairly optimistic viewpoint just a year ago. What I saw was a mission which if we think we have to influence events in Afghanistan in a certain way, the mission in Helmand Province is going to take several years, cost a lot of money, and young Marines from Camp Pendleton are going to continue to die. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, I was tagging along with him for a while, he hopscotched to various bases, talked to Marines, looked them right in the eye and said we’re not going home in July 2011. Young men, if you stay in the Marine Corps, you’re coming back here a second, a third, a fourth time. This is going to take, he estimated, until 2014, 2015. Now that decision’s up to the Commander-in-Chief, right, but the Commander-in-Chief has said that the withdrawal will be conditions-based. Well, the conditions in Helmand—if this is the policy we want—just do not justify withdrawal starting in July 2011.
FUDGE: I’m sorry, Tony, where’s Helmand Province?
PERRY: Helmand Province is west of Kabul, southwest of Kabul. It is the heartland of the Taliban. It’s where the heroin crop that funds the Taliban, and a thriving narco criminal culture, exists. It is the place where the Taliban is and has controlled for a long, long time and the thought is that Helmand is to Kabul what Anbar Province in Iraq was to Baghdad. And Anbar, you may remember, where the Marines also went, turned around first and turned around substantially. It went in 2006 from a, quote, lost cause to 2008, an example that it can work. Now, will the same scenario play out in Helmand? I don’t know. But it’s the thinking of the – a lot of smart, tough guys who are trying to make it work.
FUDGE: Well, Teresa, I know at the North County Times you spend a lot of time covering Camp Pendleton Marines and their families. What do you have to say about this?
TERESA CONNORS (Regional News Editor, North County Times): Afghanistan strikes me as having really unique challenges that didn’t exist in Iraq.
PERRY: Indeed. If Iraq was hard, Afghanistan is ten times as hard. It’s larger, it’s more diffuse, it’s got these two borders with Iran and Pakistan that are essentially sanctuaries. Iraq was difficult.
PERRY: Afghanistan even worse.
FUDGE: Yeah, Teresa, go ahead.
CONNORS: And the weapon of choice in Afghanistan, you know, continues to take a tremendous toll on Camp Pendleton Marines, the roadside bombs. So, I mean, it’s tough, and just addressing the president’s timetable for withdrawal, one Marine constitutes a withdrawal so, I mean, he’s – it’s – it’s…
FUDGE: So he can start. He can get a start in 2011.
PERRY: Sure, and General Petraeus has been trying to walk back that idea that a massive withdrawal’s going to start in July of 2011. He’s going on all the network shows. And all the Marines on the ground, the officers and the noncommissioned officers, say it just doesn’t apply to us. Now, again, it’s all up to – there’s one man who’ll make this decision and that’s the Commander-in-Chief so every Marine in the world can say a certain thing and if the Commander-in-Chief wants it, it’ll happen. I don’t see it occurring if they stick with the philosophy they’ve enumerated that it’s conditions-based.
CONNORS: What’s really interesting, I think, in Afghanistan, too, is you have the same leadership that was in Iraq. Tony, what do you hear that leadership, that is Petraeus and others, saying in terms of the unique challenges that they face in Afghanistan that they didn’t have in Iraq?
PERRY: Sure, in Iraq you had a sort of intact culture of Sunni sheiks in Anbar Province. And in ’06-’07, they cut a deal with these sheiks. These sheiks are little Tony Sopranos. They’re not religious leaders, they’re businessmen and they decided it was good business to throw in their lot with the Americans, and Anbar turned around. And Anbar influenced Baghdad, not that things are lovely there. We’ve had a lot of violence just in the last 48 hours. But that allowed things to turn around in Anbar and in Baghdad. It doesn’t exist in Afghanistan. You don’t have the sheiks that control large groups. There’s nobody to cut a deal with. You have sheiks or you have leaders and they control their house and three houses around them. So what you’re going to have to do is either kill the Taliban—and they’re about that each and every day—or convince the lunch bucket Taliban, not the jihadists, not the guy whose God has told him to kill Americans, but the lunch bucket guy who just needs a few bucks to feed his wife and six kids, convince him to come on over, lay down his arms, and maybe get a job in the civilian economy such as it is.
FUDGE: Bob Kittle, what do you want to say about this?
BOB KITTLE (Director, News Planning and Content, KUSI-TV): Well, sadly, I think the likely outcome here is some sort of stalemate after years of effort where we find – where we can create the political conditions if not the actual conditions on the ground where we can withdraw without it being perceived as a massive defeat. As Tony knows much better than I do, Afghanistan is a very mountainous country, it’s a large country. It is riven by tribal conflicts. Pacifying the whole country, uniting the country, I think, is beyond the reach of almost anybody. I mean, that’s why the cliché that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires exists. So I think, again, I say sadly, the best we can hope for is that over the years ahead we’ll find enough – we will create enough stability for us to pull the troops out but it will – but turning Afghanistan into a model democracy is even far more—I see Tony smiling here—is even far more difficult than doing it in Iraq which, again, seemed to be an extraordinarily difficult thing there, too.
CONNORS: We won’t have a grand exit from Afghanistan as we did recently from Iraq.
FUDGE: Victoria is in University Heights. She joins us. Go ahead, Victoria.
VICTORIA (Caller, University Heights): Hi. Thanks a lot. I know it’s – the geography is really hilly and everything and I don’t know how you could do this but I was just wondering, remember in Colombia, we sprayed the crop. Is there any – I mean, is it illegal? Heroin, is it illegal? And poppy crops, are they illegal in Afghanistan? Could you do some spray – aerial spraying or something like that?
PERRY: They’re quite illegal in Afghanistan and the Afghan government has toyed with the idea of eradicating the crops themselves. The U.S. has kept its hands off that for all sorts of reasons. If that’s what the Afghan government wants to do, fine. The U.S. government is not. But one figure, for example, in Helmand Province I heard was that an industrious farmer can make maybe $300 per acre for growing weed or persimmons or some other crop. He can make $1800 dollars, six times as much, growing poppy. Not only that, someone will come from the Taliban and help harvest his crop and take it to market and give him some money and that same someone, if he doesn’t play ball, will kill the farmer. So poppy is a good crop, it’s got money and it’s got safety.
FUDGE: And let’s take one more call. Casey is in San Diego. Casey, you’re on the Editors Roundtable.
CASEY (Caller, San Diego): Yeah, actually I’m in the Navy right now and I’ve been overseas. I just know that it’s totally unpredictable, as you said yourself, with what’s going on there. And how they could put a timeframe of when we’d be able to pull out seems unrealistic, as you said, too. Wouldn’t that damage the morale of the people who are over there defending us?
PERRY: Well, what the timeframe was meant to do wasn’t damage the morale. The timeframe was meant to kick President Karzai in the rear end and get him moving in terms of anti-corruption in his government, in terms of better training for his army and his police. So that’s whose ears that comment was aimed for. It was also aimed, I think, for the president’s own party, segments in it. It has had this opposite effect, however, as political comments always do in a war situation. It has, I think, to a certain degree, you can argue, emboldened the Taliban to hold on, that the Americans are leaving soon. But that’s the down side. But something had to be done to get Karzai off the dime and I think that’s what the president had in mind.
FUDGE: I hate to ask this question but what is a realistic scenario for the use of American troops in Afghanistan? Is it realistic even if we push back the withdrawal date to 2014, is it realistic to think that the United States can achieve something like a stable society in Afghanistan even if we stay that long?
PERRY: It’s dicey. I’m not putting any – I’m not going to Vegas and putting any money on it. If we get better cooperation from the Pakistanis, both their army and their intelligence service, if they cut off those ratlines that come in from Pakistan to feed the Taliban, that would be a great help. In the Hindu Kush, in the tribal areas, if they push their army there, in Waziristan and confront, that would help. Also, if they permit, as they are, the drones from targeted strikes, it can happen. Is it all going to – Again, we talk about Proposition D having all sorts of elements that you have to put together to make it work, this one has even more with deadly consequences.
FUDGE: Well, with that, I think we are done. And let me thank our editors today. Teresa Connors is regional news editor for the North County Times. Teresa, thanks for coming in.
CONNORS: Thank you.
FUDGE: Tony Perry is San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Tony, thanks.
PERRY: My pleasure.
FUDGE: And Bob Kittle is director of news planning and content for KUSI. Thank you, Bob.
KITTLE: Thank you, Tom.
FUDGE: And thanks to all of our listeners, to those who called in and to those who listened. You can post any comments about this or any other Editors Roundtable at KPBS.org/editors. I’m Tom Fudge filling in for Gloria Penner and this has been the Editors Roundtable on KPBS.