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What Would You Ask Gen. David Petraeus?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Tomorrow, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have an opportunity to challenge General David Petraeus, who has supervised the war in Afghanistan over the past couple of years from CENTCOM but was nominated last week by President Obama to take direct control of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The change in command comes in the middle of what's supposed to be the decisive year in what's now America's longest war. Former commander General Stanley McChrystal instituted a counterinsurgency strategy that called for more U.S. troops, most are either there now or on the way, and tactics designed to reduce civilian casualties and win over the population.

So far, the campaign has shown little progress, and the offensive to retake the Taliban heartland in Kandahar has been postponed.

Later in the program, on the Opinion Page, an argument to elect members of the Supreme Court. But first, if you had the chance to question General Petraeus, what questions would you have? What's the way ahead? What would success look like? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sarah Chayes is a former special adviser to the command of the international troops in Afghanistan, now runs a manufacturing cooperative NGO in Kandahar. She joins us now from her home there in Kandahar. Sarah, always good to have you on the program.

Ms. SARAH CHAYES (Former Special Adviser to the Command of the International Troops in Afghanistan): Great to be here. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well, Sarah, and of course, listeners will remember Sarah Chayes used to be a reporter for National Public Radio. You've worked closely at various times with the military in Afghanistan. What I wonder, what would you ask General Petraeus tomorrow if suddenly you were a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee?

Ms. CHAYES: Gosh, you know, I probably want to hear him explain to us why this is so important. I mean, if you think about his decision to take on this command, which is pretty extraordinary given the circumstances and given his own circumstances - you know, this is someone who went through and took the military, which he loves, and the nation, which he loves, through real hell in Iraq.

I mean, it's hard to imagine what that must have felt like being there and, you know, just that process that he went through. And he's really looking at doing the whole thing all over again, taking others through it, taking himself through it.

And obviously, it's really important for him to be willing to take that on. So I'd be interested to hear what is it, what's at stake here. We've heard a lot about al-Qaida, you know, possibilities or future possibilities for al-Qaida to re-establish the type of bases here in Afghanistan that, you know, from which the 9/11 attacks were launched.

And I wonder whether there are other dimensions to it. I wonder if it's that tactical or whether, you know, this is part of a bigger picture that he sees, that he's willing to put so many resources and so much effort on the line.

CONAN: And so much of his legacy, if you will. As you said, he at great cost won what many regard as a success in Iraq and now is trying to do the same in Afghanistan. He too advocated a counterinsurgency policy when he was in Iraq and supported that idea in Afghanistan. Was there anything on the ground that you would like to ask him about, any change in tactics that he might consider in the near future?

Ms. CHAYES: I probably wouldn't ask that question if it were me. I think you can get into the nitty-gritty of how you go about protecting the population, the degree to which, you know, the behavior of the international troops here can inadvertently be counterproductive.

On the other hand, you know, there are golden means for everything, and it's been interesting to me to hear ways that the Taliban may be adapting to changes in tactics. I mean, those are really very military issues.

There are other ways that are or the behavior of international both troops and civilian officials can inadvertently make matters worse. And sometimes that has to do with inadvertently colluding with abusive activities on the part of government officials.

It's interesting the degree to which my cooperative members tell me that they feel like they're caught in the crossfire, that they're being abused by two different hostile forces, you know, one is the violent insurgency, but the other is government officials or their cronies, bent on, you know, kind of personal enrichment and things like that.

And so it becomes a very complicated task. The notion of protecting the population becomes a very complex and deep notion. How do you protect the population from all of the forces that are hostile to them?

CONAN: And you and the members of the cooperative that you work with, well, you're at ground zero. The next operation, the big deal, we're supposed to think, is going to happen there in Kandahar. And are people worried about how this is going to go? Are people worried that this is going to become Fallujah?

Ms. CHAYES: They are always worried when there are more armed people around, you know. They've just seen a lot of bad come from more soldiers, be they international troops or be they, for example, the private security contractors who, without being members of the Afghan Security Forces, are carrying weapons around. These are local private security contractors.

So, you know, there's definitely concern that more that fighting brings fighting. And so the proof is really going to be in the pudding, of course people are, I would say, anxious because they don't know what's going to happen until it happens.

But what's really interesting about working so this small cooperative that I've been running since 2005 produces, would you believe, skin care products, you know, high-end skin care products that we export to the United States.

And, you know, when from inside these walls, it is so tantalizing to think about what this place could look like. We distill essential oils for fragrances. We literally distill rose oil. If things were a little bit among others. You know, we extract oils from almonds and apricot kernels and anise and, you know, I mean, all of this incredible agriculture, which remarkably and miraculously this very arid and forbidding landscape produces.

And we had a dream, you know, going back to 2006, we signed contracts with a lot of farmers to the west of her, that they would grow roses. There's a particular indigenous variety of rose that produces rose oil, which is in all fine perfumes.

And we you know, and right now, Bulgaria and Turkey are the main producers and exporters of rose oil. This rose is indigenous to Southern Afghanistan.

With a little bit more security, you could I mean it sounds, like, it sounds crazy, but you could cover this area with rose bushes instead of opium. The returns to farmers and landowners, is about the same. The amount of labor is less.

You know, that's just agriculture. This is a place that has been known for its high-quality, high-end agriculture since the Babylonian Empire. Literally, Kandahar was sending grapes to Babylon as tribute back under the Sumerians.

And that's agriculture. Then you've got customs. This is a country that sits basically on the cusp between three gigantic and wealthy population basins: Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Iranian plateau.

There's a wall called (technical difficulties) that separates those three basins of populations. Afghanistan owns the only two doors in that wall. It's an incredible potential revenue generator that unfortunately now is largely being siphoned off through corruption.

And I think many of your listeners will have read a recent article about the mineral wealth that exists under the soil here. Now, that can make people nervous and make them say oh my goodness, we're going to have more conflict diamonds or conflict lithium in Afghanistan.

But the potential really is there for this country to be not just self-sufficient but almost you could almost think of it as, like, an exporter of stability because of the variety of the potential here.

CONAN: Sarah, you...

Ms. CHAYES: So the upside of this yes?

CONAN: I'm sorry to interrupt. We're obviously on a long delay on the phone there from Kandahar from Sarah Chayes. But you've described the upside. For a minute, I thought we were going to get your formula of 17 secret herbs and spices.

But you've described...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But you've described the upside. Is there also a downside? Do people worry that if all of this should be lost, that there will be a return to the rule of the Taliban and that the rights that were so dearly won will go away?

Ms. CHAYES: Oh, it's worse than that. I don't think many people imagine a return to a sort of stable Taliban government. I mean, there's a lot of wishful thinking about what a negotiation process could look like or could produce. But if you parse it out, and there's a lot of discussion both in the south and in the capital, you know, where I also spend some time, about, you know, what a likely, you know, kind of most likely negotiated path might look like.

And it doesn't look that good because I don't think there's any likelihood that the even if a deal could be hammered out for the south and east of this country, I think it's very unlikely that the northern part of the country, which is very strongly anti-Taliban and of largely different ethnic makeup in the south and the east, would accept a return to Taliban rule.

So you get basically at best some kind of a de facto partition with, you know, how that all would go because there's always pockets of the other populations in the partitioned areas. Just think about India and Pakistan. Think about the Balkans.

You really do almost inevitably head toward a very bloody civil war again, which is familiar from Afghanistan's recent past.

That's one issue. And another issue I think that a lot of people here talk about, my cooperative members, they say, you know, if America fails here, or if the Taliban win by negotiation or a return to power, this will be such a gigantic kind of loss of face for the United States and everything it stands for on the world stage. They don't quite...

CONAN: And Sarah, I'm afraid we're going to have to lose it there. Sarah Chayes, former special adviser to the command to international troops in Afghanistan, now runs a manufacturing cooperative NGO there in Kandahar, on the phone with us from there, a former reporter for National Public Radio News.

We'll be back with more and ask you to put on your hat as a newly elected member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. What questions do you have for General Petraeus? This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

There's little doubt about the outcome of tomorrow's confirmation hearing for General David Petraeus. The president's choice to head U.S. troops in Afghanistan has the support of many Republicans and Democrats.

Still, with growing doubts in Washington about the way ahead, General Petraeus will likely face some tough questions about the strategy that he's overseeing as the head of U.S. Central Command.

If you had a question for General Petraeus, if you were somehow instantly elected, for an hour, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, what would you ask him? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we've got two other guests to introduce to you: Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus military reform project at the Center for Defense Information. He worked in the U.S. Senate as a staff member on national security issues for more than 30 years and recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on this upcoming hearing. You can find a link to that on our website, at

Today, he joins us from his home in Hagerstown, Maryland. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. WINSLOW WHEELER (Director, Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And also with us, Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser at the Center for A New American Security. He's an expert on Afghanistan, defense affairs and development and assistance. He's been kind enough to be with us here in Studio 3A.

Mr. PATRICK CRONIN (Senior Adviser, Center for A New American Security): My pleasure.

CONAN: And Winslow Wheeler, let's start with you. If you had a question for General Petraeus, what would you ask him?

Mr. WHEELER: Well, I wouldn't think about what the question is. I'd think about doing my homework first. The sad truth is that on the Senate Armed Services Committee, they've forgotten how to do their homework, and tomorrow, you will hear people give policy speeches and then say to General Petraeus, well, what do you think of that.

Or they will have read a newspaper article or two about something and not really have much of a clue of what they're asking about, not knowing the answer to the question that would be accurate, ask General Petraeus, he won't say much in response, and they'll move on to some other question that staffers have written out and the senator will articulate but really won't understand.

CONAN: You used to be one of those staffers, though.

Mr. WHEELER: Correct.

CONAN: And did you write good questions?

Mr. WHEELER: Well, I don't know. I worked for Jacob Javits for my first 10 years on Capitol Hill. He was a liberal Republican from New York. He once lectured me, early on with my association with him, never again to ask him to ask a question that I didn't know the answer to.

We saw that problem in spades on June 15 and 16, when Petraeus earlier testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was fully in command of that hearing. He was the real chairman. The members of the committee were almost his supplicants, asking him to agree with whatever it was they had to say or throwing out some question based on some recent news article.

And in some cases, Petraeus said, well, I don't know what the answer to that is. And they just moved on. It was a really astonishing performance on both people's parts. Petraeus ran that hearing. I fully expect him to run this hearing tomorrow.

CONAN: Well, let's get another view. Patrick Cronin, would you have a question for General Petraeus that you'd like to hear answered tomorrow?

Mr. CRONIN: I would begin by asking General Petraeus how he would define success and then how he would plan to achieve it, and indeed does he have a strategy for achieving a realistic success.

One of the challenges, I think, for any general, even our best general in David Petraeus, is overcoming a more operational focus of our military leadership in trying to reach up to the strategic level and challenge that ground where the civilians definitely need to provide and set the direction.

Yeah, I just did the trip in Gettysburg this weekend, in fact, and so I'm thinking about Lincoln going through five or six generals before finding his Grant, who could actually understand that it wasn't just Lee's army that was the problem, but it was a political implementation that had to be realized.

Does David Petraeus have a plan for that? Is it indeed the same one we've heard about already in the past year or plus, or is there something that he would do?

CONAN: And let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation, Luke(ph) with us from Detroit.

LUKE (Caller): Yes, good afternoon, Sir.

CONAN: Afternoon.

LUKE: My questions come from the fact that I'm an architect by my profession, and I'm more geared towards problem-solving - identifying a problem and then correcting it.

So I would ask the general what he sees are the current shortcomings of the strategy now, and also using experience of past occupiers to that land, of which there's been several, how would he see the way to correct them. Because I believe if he were to say that, well, everything has been going well, it's just a matter of management of administration, then you would know that he's not being completely forthright. But if he were to identify actual, tangible things that have that are suffering from shortcomings, and he has a plan to implement correction of those shortcomings, then I would be more inclined to believe what he has to say.

CONAN: Winslow Wheeler, that would suggest that it would be a delicate matter to answer in a public hearing to say, well, my predecessors were wrong in the following three ways.

Mr. WHEELER: Well, I think that questioner had a good insight. Look at the past history. We're in quite a mess right now in Afghanistan, having given the Afghan government about $80 billion and having spent about $300 billion in our own exercises.

You could do the research and ask the question how did we get to where we are now, where having spent more money and more lives and more troops, things are worse.

I think also it's important to impose standards on General Petraeus rather than ask him how we should measure him. It would be important, I think, to not ask the general what his measures of success are but to tell him what the measures of success are and proceed from there.

CONAN: Metrics, Patrick Cronin, a lot of people want metrics. How are we going to measure if we're doing well?

Mr. CRONIN: In two of the core issues that I'm sure General Petraeus can talk to at length, even before he assumes this responsibility of confirmed the Afghan National Security and police forces, are they up to the task?

And we heard from Leon Panetta, yesterday, talking about that's the key issue.

CONAN: Head of the CIA.

Mr. CRONIN: Head of the CIA saying if the Afghan Security Forces can provide security it's a tautology then we will have a good chance of succeeding.

The other question of governance, and that's partly our lack of civilian nation-building capacity and our ability to deliver, but it's also the partners on the ground and how we implement this how does he see, now, in 2010 and '11, our civilian capacity, diplomatic and developmental, actually delivering on the ground in a way that he hasn't seen in the last few years, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan.

CONAN: Let's go next to Tara(ph), Tara with us from Cape Cod.

TARA (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TARA: My question, at the risk of sounding pedantic, is basically I would ask the general, what does it mean what is it that we would lose that we haven't lose already or that we would prevent from losing if we, quote, lost the war, unquote?

CONAN: Lost the war in terms of started to leave now or...?

TARA: Well, that's when could we leave? That's the question. Why are we still working on what exactly is the measure of success, as your guests were talking about earlier, and how long are we going to go before we start looking at what the balance is? How much farther are we going to go?

CONAN: Well, let me start with Patrick Cronin. The president has said starting in 2011, next year, they would shift to a new phase, where more control would be passed along to the Afghan authorities. Some, including Vice President Biden, thinks that mean a lot of U.S. troops will come out next year. Some don't think that.

Mr. CRONIN: Well, this is a good question from the caller and indeed one I've written about in a paper called "Restraint." I think that we do face a tipping point at which we cannot just pour in more forces and hope to prevent terrorism.

We've already seen that a lot of the terrorism that we're experiencing, that we're being threatened with on our homeland, is not coming out of Afghanistan. Having said that, there's still an argument that both Afghanistan and Pakistan need to be stable enough so that they're not sanctuaries for transnational terrorism.

There's obviously also the concern about our status, prestige and who fills the vacuum if the U.S. looks like it no longer is a stabilizing force in this region.

CONAN: Winslow Wheeler, do you have thoughts on that?

Mr. WHEELER: Well, yes, those are very important issues, and unfortunately, they're all going south. The more we involve ourselves in Pakistan, the worse things seem to get. We're inflaming the population there against us.

I think this is a perfect time with General Petraeus' confirmation to reassess and go back to some fundamentals about the direction things are going in in even more important countries than Afghanistan, such as Pakistan, and to consider whether it's time now, not in a year from now, to re-direct the strategy to something that shows more promise of actually working.

CONAN: Tara, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

TARA: Thank you all.

CONAN: Email from Shaheen(ph) in Corvallis, Oregon: Lindsey Graham recently said that the war in Afghanistan is too important to lose -that was a clip of tape that we had at the beginning of the program. I would like to hear the reasoning behind that statement. If it only relates to 9/11, do the resources justify the means? Don't more people die in the U.S. from car crashes every year? Can't we save more lives focusing on other issues?

Well, that gets to the point of why are we fighting at all. I'm not sure that that's - General Petraeus might say, that's above my pay grade. But what do you think, Patrick Cronin, these pieces of questions on national policy?

Dr. CRONIN: They are. We can't uninvent the role that we play in the world. The United States is the preeminent security power. We were struck on 9/11. For us not to respond would have been crippling, really, for our role in the world, and therefore for the national security. But the caller still makes a legitimate point, which is how - what is enough? How much is enough? And I think if you look just at sheer dollars, only one-third of the amount since 9/11 has been spent on Afghanistan - that is about $350 million - and most of it's been spent on Iraq, more than $750 million.

In many ways, unfortunately, we're coming on this Iraq strategy having fought both of these wars. And so, at what point do we continue to have enough political will, given the time when we know internationally from the G-20 meeting, we're supposed to be focused on deficits, in trying to reduce those over the next decade so we don't really ruin our economy and therefore our role in the world in the next decade and beyond.

But we can manage this still for the foreseeable future if the strategy seems to be working, and that's a big if. And I think this is where this December review that they're promising becomes so important. Will General Petraeus, six months from now, be able to say, I see success and we can achieve it at a realistic cost? And it's going help damp down terrorism. It's going to help stabilize the region. And it will continue to secure a strong U.S. role in the world.

CONAN: Over how much time though?

Dr. CRONIN: Well, I think that clearly the timeline that is imposed by Washington is something that is the big constraint for General Petraeus.

CONAN: Indeed, Winslow Wheeler, public patience running out not just in the United States but apparently in Afghanistan as well.

Mr. WHEELER: Indeed. By the time of December review, we will have been at it, in Afghanistan, for nine full years. Democracies aren't very good at these long, sustained, unhappy conflicts where people don't fully understand why we're doing it and have good reason to question why we're doing it.

We've already passed the, you know, the tipping point in terms of the population in this country understanding and feeling comfortable with what we're doing there. I would argue that the December review of policy is about six months too late. They should be doing it right now.

CONAN: We're talking about the way ahead in Afghanistan, questions for General Petraeus, who faces the Senate Armed Services Committee tomorrow, which is expected to vote for his confirmation. And he should probably be getting that job from the full Senate before the week is out. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me reintroduce our guests: Winslow Wheeler, director of the military reform project at the Center for Defense Information, and Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser at the Center for A New American Security. And let's go next to Chaz(ph), and Chaz with us from St. Louis.

CHAZ (Caller): Hello. Pretty much everyone now says that we're fighting a counterinsurgency. And we went in to fight counterterrorism, to go after al-Qaida, and al-Qaida has pretty much gone now and we're fighting the Taliban. So I'm wondering why can't we basically mostly withdraw from Afghanistan, leave observers in there, our CIA and everybody else, and tell the Afghanis if al-Qaida comes back, we're sending the troops back in or the Delta Force or we're turning Kandahar into sea of a glass? So why can't we go back to counterterrorism instead of counterinsurgency?

CONAN: Winslow Wheeler, among the people thinking, I'm not sure the sea of glass part, but the counterterrorism idea is Vice President Biden.

Mr. WHEELER: Your caller broke the code.


Mr. WHEELER: Leon Panetta told us there's a hundred or so al-Qaida in Afghanistan today. Maybe he had the honesty to say nobody has a clue where Osama bin Laden is.

I had an interesting luncheon in the summer of 2001. It was sponsored by Susan Eisenhower. And at the luncheon was a representative of the Taliban itself. This was right, short - not too long after they destroyed the Buddhist shrine in Afghanistan. And he was asking what can they do to make relations with the United States tolerable. And one of us suggested that they should cough up Osama bin Laden, who was then almost certainly there - or certainly there. He thought that was a great suggestion. He was going to run over to the State Department at his next meeting and talk with them about that.

After 9/11, there were some interesting reports about the Taliban being quite interested in coughing up bin Laden. We went off and did something very different instead. We started bombing inside the major cities in Afghanistan, only later did the Special Forces operation in conjunction with the close air support aircraft become much more successful. My point is that...

CONAN: And quickly if you would because I want to give Patrick Cronin a chance...

Mr. WHEELER: Sure. We need to think about what it is we want from these involvements and what we're getting out of them, and make that assessment as harshly as we can.

CONAN: Patrick Cronin?

Dr. CRONIN: Yeah, a few words. Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism are really not two exclusively different options. There is an overlap. But it's still a good point. You keep hearing the administration talk about we need to dismantle al-Qaida. Well, you don't really dismantle a terrorist organization. It dismantles itself. It loses legitimacy. That's how most terrorist organizations eventually peter out. So we need a strategy that effectively deals with that - and it may include some counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.

CONAN: But we need to look ahead and see whether the price of what we're doing is - the cost of what we're doing is worth more than the price.

Dr. CRONIN: And I agree and I think I would have been happier if we had done the reassessment months or even a couple of years ago and been at a much better position to make that judgment already.

CONAN: Chaz, thank you very much. Appreciate the conversation. You'll find out tomorrow before the Senate Armed Services Committee if they come up with better questions than you guys did. But, we want to thank our guests Winslow Wheeler, director of the military reform project at the Center for Defense Information, on the phone. Thank you very much.

Mr. WHEELER: You're very welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: And also Patrick Cronin, senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security who joined us here in the studio. Thank you for your time today.

Dr. CRONIN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Coming up, a modest proposal: Why don't we elect the justices of the United States Supreme Court? Stay with us. The Opinion page is next. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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