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What's At Stake In Hotspots Across The Globe


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. The anxious eyes of world leaders are now focused on three areas. In Mali the French continue their airstrikes in the northern part of the country in hopes of stopping the advance of armed Islamist rebels. In Syria, the death toll rises, and the conflicts between the government and opposition enter what the International Rescue Committee calls a staggering humanitarian crisis.

And in Afghanistan, questions about the ongoing transition of power remain as troops withdraw from that country and the threat of militant activity remains. All three countries have prompted debate over whether or not the U.S. needs presence there and why the conflicts matter to the American people.


So if you talk with people in Mali, Syria or Afghanistan, what are you hearing about what's going on? Is it different from what you hear in the news? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on in the program, self-tracking technology, it's complicating even the most basic question of all: How are you? But first, what's at stake in Mali, Syria and Afghanistan? J. Peter Pham is with the Atlantic Council, where he directs their Africa Center. He also serves on the senior advisory group of the U.S. Africa Command. He joins me here in Studio 3A.

And also with me in studio is NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thanks to both of you for being here with me.

J. PETER PHAM: Good to be with you.



HEADLEE: And also with us from member station KUOG in Norman, Oklahoma, Joshua Landis, associate professor and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He also runs the blog Syria Comment. Josh, nice to talk to you again.

JOSHUA LANDIS: How are you, Celeste? It's good to be here.

HEADLEE: So let me begin with you, Peter. Let's begin in Mali. The French government has said they will increase the number of troops that they send there. What's the current state of the conflict?

PHAM: Well, the French deployment last week and the bombing runs that they've had over rebel positions have stopped an offensive that the Islamist rebels in - who have controlled the northern two-thirds of Mali since last spring were making into government-held Southern Mali.

However, the - at the same time the Islamists have shown that it's a whack-a-mole situation. Overnight a different column of Islamists went, bypassed the French and Malian government positions, and came to within 200 miles of Bamako, the Malian capital.

They're not going to be able to hold that town that they took, Diabaly, but they made their point, that the deployment so far has not been sufficient to stop them and in fact may have stirred them up.

HEADLEE: You've had a lot of criticism for the French intervention into what's going on in Mali in terms of whether or not it could be successful. And yet if no one intervenes, what happens?

PHAM: Well, let's be clear about a couple things, Celeste. First, the presence of the Islamists in Northern Mali is a security threat. Not...

HEADLEE: For the world.

PHAM: Really for the - yes, for the world, and especially for the countries in the region, and we cannot forget the people who are being - having this brutal Islamist rule foisted upon them - brutal amputations, stonings, floggings, destruction of centuries-old Muslim shrines. All this is taking place, not unlike Afghanistan before 9/11, one might say.

But all that being said, the threat could have been contained because the threat really grows out of a pathology in Malian society, a crisis that's political, social, as well as security. And it cannot be sustainably solved with purely military means.

HEADLEE: Meaning that diplomatic means have to be brought to bear, even though the government that's in the capital of Mali right now is not the elected government.

PHAM: And that's part of the problem. The French have intervened in support of a government that's not an elected government. And there's been no progress made and no incentives made or pressure to reform that situation. So without a legitimate government in Mali, you're not going to get anyone rallying to the colors to fight for an illegitimate government.

You're not going to be able to put proposals on the table that are credible to people who might be peeled away from the Islamists. And then the neighboring countries themselves are hesitant. They've put together a supposed plan that was approved by the U.N. Security Council last month to deploy 3,300 African troops, but 3,300 troops to take an area the size of France, the size of Texas, it's an - it's delusional at best and possibly a very sick joke on the poor soldiers who'd be sent there.

HEADLEE: That's Peter Pham, who's with the Atlantic Council. Let me ask, direct a question to our Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. I mean some of the Islamist groups that are in the northern part of Mali have ties to some people who threaten the United States. In fact they may be tied to the group that assassinated the U.S. ambassador in Libya. What is the appetite in the Pentagon for intervening in Mali?

BOWMAN: Well, there's no appetite in the Pentagon for intervening in Mali. They will offer, it looks like, the French some sort of assistance. The French need cargo aircraft, C-130s, and other aircraft that would carry French troops and supplies into Mali. They're also looking for refueling planes for French warplanes.

And they're also looking for intelligence gear, basically either satellite imagery of some of these locations in the northern part of Mali or signals intelligence intercepts of some of the, you know, radio and phone conversations.

But you know, they've repeatedly said there will be no U.S. troops on the ground here, and it looks like, you know, the American military was somewhat taken by surprise by the French going in so quickly. Just last month General Carter Ham, who heads African Command, was in Washington, speaking at George Washington University.

He talked a lot about Mali, about the concerns about the groups there with ties to al-Qaida. And there's really a rim around the northern part of Africa with a lot of terrorist groups, al-Qaida affiliates up there. And General Ham was talking about how they're all coming together.

They're sharing information, weapons and tactics, and there's a real concern there about them just kind of, you know, coordinating much more than they did in the past. But it was interesting - when General Ham was here he talked about hopefully some sort of a negotiated settlement in Mali and maybe, possibly there would have to be some type of military intervention.

He talked about the French taking a lead here, actually - I'm sorry.

HEADLEE: Maybe a NATO intervention.

BOWMAN: Well no, he talked about France assisting an African-led operation at that time, and the Americans may or may not help, maybe some logistics help like I just mentioned. But the sense we got when General Ham was here was this is down the road a bit. Some talked about maybe even into the fall of this year.

And all of a sudden we see the French jumping into Mali quickly and now calling for U.S. support.

HEADLEE: All right, well, let me turn to Joshua Landis, turn away from Mali for just a moment and talk about Syria. Maybe you could give us a quick update on Syria as well. I mean we know that the casualties are rising. Where does that conflict stand?

LANDIS: Well, it's - the big debate is how long is this going to go on. And many people, me included, have suggested that it could go on into 2014. The death rate is well above 60,000 people so far. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled out of the country and are in these terrible camps, particularly the ones in Jordan, which are underfunded.

There was just flooding weather that swept away many people in the camp, and they had to pull back their - get their tents up again. It's freezing cold. There's snow in some of these camps. There's no money. And the country is locked in this brutal conflict.

Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, gave a major speech the other day in which he said - he called the opposition terrorists. He said he would speak to people who did not have blood on their hands and that they could have some dialogue, but anybody who had been fighting, he said, are terrorists, and they're agents of foreign countries, and he's going to destroy them.

So he was pretty - pretty unbending, and the opposition...

HEADLEE: Meaning, Joshua, that all of the diplomatic outreach to him has done nothing. I mean he basically said I will stay here, period, I'm not going anywhere.

LANDIS: Right, yes, he has said he's - he was born in Syria, and he's going to die in Syria. And the opposition, for their part, for the most part, say that they're not going to have any dialogue with Bashar al-Assad except for about how long the rope is going to be that's going to hang him.

So he's under no illusions that he's going to - you know, he's going to fight to the end. And his system, his regime is very brittle. It's very narrow at the top. If the family goes, the regime probably falls apart. He knows that. And there are about 2.34 million Alawites who could face revenge if this regime collapses.

And in the meantime, the Sunni majority is being, is being just pummeled with this air force. And it begs the question of, you know, should America go in and take out the air force or get involved in Syria, and that's the big question.

HEADLEE: Yeah, and that's the question I have, and again, the same question here, but this time in Syria: What is the appetite on the part of the American military? You're shaking your head already, Tom Bowman. Any possibility of military intervention?

BOWMAN: The same appetite they have about Mali. They don't want to get dragged into Syria. And one of the reasons is they look at the ethnic makeup of the country, and military officials you talk with privately say: Do you see any connection here? It's similar to that of Iraq. And what happened when we went into Iraq? We threw out that government, and then we spent a decade there trying to rebuild the place.

So there's no appetite for intervening in Syria. What the military has done so far is offer humanitarian assistance in Turkey, in Jordan, and also what they call non-lethal assistance to the rebel groups: communications equipment, radios and so forth. No arms at all at this point.

And you know, there is a lot of talk about what can the U.S. do. Could they basically, you know, create a no-fly zone? But as Defense Secretary Robert Gates mentioned for the Libyan operation, you have to understand creating a no-fly zone means going to war, because you're taking out radar, you're taking out missile defenses and so forth.

And the problem for the military is also is that Syria has one of the strongest air defense systems in the world, maybe third to Russia and China, they say. So it took weeks if not months in Libya to take that government down. They say it would be as long if not longer to deal with that situation in Syria.

The big concern for the U.S. military and some of the allies in the region are the chemical weapons that Assad has. He has tons of Sarin agent, the nerve agent. And they're worried about that either being used against the population, against the rebels, or frankly what's more concerning is that stuff leaking out of the country and getting into the wrong hands, wrong hands of course meaning al-Qaida.

HEADLEE: Right, if there's chaos, someone picks it who shouldn't.

BOWMAN: The other concern they have - we can talk about it...

HEADLEE: Yeah, we'll get right back. We're going to take a short break, and we'll have more with my guests, Peter Pham from the Atlantic Council, Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman.

We want to hear from you. If you talk with people in Mali, Syria or Afghanistan, what are you hearing about what's going on? 800-989-8255. Or send us an email, I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Mali, Syria, Afghanistan, three countries enduring various levels of conflict. In Mali, a French-led bombing campaign may soon be followed by troops on the ground. In Syria, deadly explosions at the main university in Aleppo are just the latest violence in a war that's been raging for nearly two years now.

In Afghanistan, the role of U.S. troops going forward is still uncertain. Today we've invited our guests, Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council; Joshua Landis of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma; and Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent for NPR, to talk about what's at stake.

And we want to hear from you, especially if you hear from people in one of these countries, Mali, Syria or Afghanistan. What are you hearing about what's going on? Is it different from the media coverage you hear? 800-989-8255. Our email address is And right now we have a phone call from Zach(ph) in Damascus. What are you hearing from people in, I guess, Syria?

ZACH: I need to clarify. That's Damascus, Oregon; not Damascus, Syria.


ZACH: Yes, I would say I'm hearing about the exact opposite that's being told on the radio.

HEADLEE: In what way?

ZACH: As far as the violence and the terrorism that's going on, I think - I was just at my mother's house a half-hour ago and she told me there's about 100 people who were gunned down in the line to buy bread. This just happened yesterday. And also recently there is an old crusaders' castle, it's called El Hisn(ph), I think in French is called Krak des Chevaliers, and right now it's besieged by Islamic terrorists, and the army has surrounded it.

And this is actually pretty close to a lot of the Christian villages in the area. They have surrounded it, but they have refused to fire on it because it's a national historic monument. So their plan is just, is pretty much just to hold out as long as it takes, that hopefully they'll run out of food and simply surrender with no bloodshed.

HEADLEE: Zach, are you wishing that the U.S. or NATO or the U.N. would intervene?

ZACH: The problem with that is that everybody needs to know - I mean, changes need to happen, but the way they're going about it with terrorism does not work. So when the U.S. wants to intervene, it just concerns me that they just want to put up a government, which they don't really fully understand their agenda and so forth.

And it's a lot of the Christian seculars that are afraid in that country because they don't want to live under Islamic law. Women there right now are afforded many, many rights, in my opinion not even close to what they should be, of course me living in America, but they're especially afraid.

You know, women can go to college, they can fly airplanes, they can drive cars, and all of that life would come to an end, and everybody there knows it. And that's one of the biggest fears of all.

HEADLEE: OK, thank you so much, that's Zach calling from Damascus, Oregon. Let me get your response to the things that Joshua said there - I mean to things that Zach said, Joshua.

LANDIS: Well, it's true that the United States has been spooked by the rebels that they are allied with, and many of the - there are at least 1,000 militias in Syria today that have emerged. There are a number that are quite big. There's a lot of little ones. But many of the most competent militias, like Jabhat al-Nusra, which is allied with al-Qaida and was recently proscribed by the U.S., called it a terrorist organization, they're the best fighters and often they're seen as the most honest militias because like Hezbollah in Lebanon, they have not stolen from people.

They've understood that the way to win hearts and minds is to set up soup kitchens and to try to be honest with people. And so increasingly, these Islamic militias, some of them quite Salafist, are winning the popularity game, and many of the more secular militias are turning out to be not so good.

So the United States is confused about what to do because they want to destroy the Assad government, but most of the minorities, the Christians, and I could tell that your caller was very worried about what's going to happen to Christians and these minorities in Syria once the Sunnis win.

And so I think America has been paralyzed in a sense. They want to destroy Assad because he's a friend of Iran, and he's been an enemy of Israel, but at the same time they don't really want the rebel militias to win. And they're worried about chemical weapons getting into their hands. And so I think America's become paralyzed.

And many people in the region believe that America has abandoned them.

HEADLEE: Well, let's move to Mali because that's what this caller here, Jeff(ph) in Madison, Wisconsin, wants to talk about. Jeff, you lived in Mali for a while, right?

JEFF: I was a Peace Corps volunteer 1,000 years ago but had occasion to return just last year with the United Nations. I was there - well, it's a year now, it was last March. I was there literally four days before the coup in Bamako and left just before it.

While there I had dinner with a friend, a Malian friend who's been in the government for a long time, not in the security part of the government but another part of the government. And he told me quite unequivocally that the Malian military would never be able to defeat these northern fighters. This was four days before the coup in Bamako, so four days before the Malian military shot itself in the foot, before it was divided by this coup.

So he was saying even when it was still an institution somewhat together, they - it was impossible that they would be able to defeat these northerners. The outside intervention, I hate to say it, is likely the only way things will be changed there. It's highly unlikely that West African countries, although there's a lot of talk about that in the media, will be able to send forces to do anything constructive.

They do not have the experience fighting in those conditions. Probably the only ones who do are the Chadians, and they're unlikely to send anybody just because of internal reasons. So it is, unfortunately, outside intervention that would change things there. The French have started it. I have no idea where it's going, but that was just my - yeah.

HEADLEE: Well, let me put that question, Jeff, for you. Thank you very much - that is Jeff calling from Madison, Wisconsin, who clearly pays very close attention to what's going on in Mali. But let me put that to you, Peter Pham. Your response to Jeff saying that there has to be outside intervention?

PHAM: Well, Jeff's points are very well made. I would add to it - not only was the Malian military ineffectual before the coup, but the political establishment itself was becoming increasingly rotten from dirty money coming in from drug smuggling. In fact some members of the government that was overthrown were actually in business with the Islamists, encouraging them because they were business partners in narco-trafficking.

That's how bad the situation has become, which is why it will take time, it would take time to rebuild the Malian military, but in order to do that, you have to rebuild a government people will trust in, will fight for. And that - time is required.

And he's absolutely right: The West Africans have not stepped up to the plate here. The plan they put forward is not a realistic plan. However, that's - if we want African-led, that's what we're going to get. So the question is going to be the political will.

France has stepped in, but unfortunately they don't seem to have the wherewithal to finish what they started. And now the pressure is going to be on other members of NATO and other partners to do something, because France's timetable that the French government is still speaking about is really not serious. The timetable will be gone in a few weeks.

They're actually going in. They've got 750 troops on the ground now. They're saying they're going to bring it up to 2,000. That's not enough to retake the north. But they also can't leave. The African troops will not be ready to deploy any time in the next few weeks.

HEADLEE: Doesn't that sound familiar to anyone who's covered Afghanistan? I mean, there is one other big elephant in the room here, which is the longest war the United States has ever been into. We have to talk about Afghanistan. It's what our next caller wants to talk about, is Paul in Sun Valley, Idaho. And Paul, you actually have a brother serving in Afghanistan right now.

PAUL: I've got a brother who's a POW too. His name is Beau(ph). Where is he? You know, what Hegelian principles have we started across the world, and why are things working out so bad, to secure a pivot for a pipeline? How can you fight an enemy when he's really not there?

HEADLEE: Well, this is the problem anywhere. I mean the problem with all these three conflicts that we're talking about, Tom Bowman, let me put this to you, is - I said earlier that there's a common thread here, extremism and terrorism. This is one of the reasons that NATO might be interested. It's one of the reasons the United States might be interested in these conflicts.

And it appears to me, correct me if I'm wrong, that very often the strategy of extremist groups is they find a government that's weak in a nation where perhaps the citizens don't have a lot of resources, and they try to establish a home base. It is like whack-a-mole.

BOWMAN: That's right, and that's a concern they have particularly in Africa with some of these areas, as General Carter Ham said, the head of African Command. He's worried about this rim of states in Northern Africa and some of these terrorists, al-Qaida affiliates, coming together, organizing, sharing information and weapons, and having this whole part of Africa just become basically a huge failed state region.

But, you know, if you look at Syria - if you look at Mali, if you look at Afghanistan, in some respects, you know, they have parallels that you basically have a government that people don't trust, or a failed government, and you have to rebuild the military. I mean, it's something you're seeing in Afghanistan right now. The reason you have insurgencies is because you have a government that's either nonexistent or predatory, or just, you know, just isn't there for people.

That's what we're seeing in both Mali and Afghanistan. You still don't have a lot of support for the Afghan government. That's one of the particular problems with building security forces in the country, in getting your average person in the country to support the Karzai government, which is widely viewed as ineffectual and corrupt. Now, of course, Syria is a different story.


BOWMAN: You have a government that, you know...

HEADLEE: The United States supported heavily.

BOWMAN: Absolutely. Supported, yeah, for a long time. And now you have a huge effort to oust the Assad government, and the United States, rather than wanting to intervene, is basically looking to Russia to help out in this situation, to push...

HEADLEE: But both Russia and China are remaining obstructionist in the U.N. Security Council.

BOWMAN: ...Assad aside, which is clearly not happening. And so, as a result, people I talk at the Pentagon say things are going to get worse before they get better.

HEADLEE: Let me go back to you, Joshua Landis, because I'm interested in what the caller Zach said about the fact that he is not sure Syrians would want any outside intervention. This is something we've heard argued between Syrians. Do they need outside help? Do they not? What do you think? Is it more like the caller said about Mali, that at some point, there has to be outside intervention - whether it be the Arab League or somewhere else - in order to resolve it?

LANDIS: You know, Syrians are very divided, and unfortunately, Syria - like most of these other countries we're talking about - are not really - is not really a nation. There are many different groups. They have very starkly different ideas on what they want to see for their country. And that is at the heart of the problem. That's why it's crumbled, and that's why the opposition in Syria is so fragmented and hard to help in many ways. But there are - there is a large section of the middle class in Syria that would pray for anybody today to put boots on the ground and to provide them with food and electricity and just some safety, because the country is falling apart.

The economy has collapsed by half. There are 24 million, 23 million people trapped there, and they're beginning to starve to death. There's no electricity. They're freezing. There's no heating oil. It is - you know, we are seeing a failed state, you know, just popping up in front of us. And there's going to be millions of people - there are already half-a-million people who've fled. There's almost two million displaced internally, but many of those people are going to begin to flee out of Syria, particularly as this winter goes on. And there's no food.

So, you know, unfortunately, I fear what we're getting, to a certain extent - there's been a lot of good news in the world in a sense that China, India, the Brit countries are growing at close to 10 percent. It's extraordinary, but there are countries that aren't making it. And we're adding about a billion people on this Earth in the next decade, and the competition for resources is phenomenal...


LANDIS: know, and we know how commodity prices have been screaming up, whether it's oil, whether it's wheat. Oh, there are many other things. It's becoming more expensive to live, and there's a lot more competition. And the countries that have ineffective governments that cannot provide and that don't have growth rates that can keep up with this are going to turn into failed states. And I think...


LANDIS: ...we're going to see - what we saw in the Arab Spring, I think, we're going to see is just the canary in the mineshaft, to a certain degree. We're going to see this with other African and Middle Eastern countries...

HEADLEE: As we have.

LANDIS: ...that just cannot make it economically.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let me bring this back to you, then, Peter Pham. How much of this do you recognize? When he's speaking of Syria, how much of this is also true of Mali? If there is no outside intervention, if the military there is not able to cope with this, if the government is not stable enough to cope with it, then what?

PHAM: Well, I think the international community - and in particularly the United States - needs to ask itself the question which, by the way, the French did not address in their intervention: What are the objectives? What are our national security interests? Certainly, the national security interests of the United States and France in Mali and - by, you know, linkage analogy, perhaps - Afghanistan, certainly to prevent extremists from gathering and creating a safe haven. But is it necessarily to also - that objective is limited, and can be achieved.

But does it require restoring Mali's territorial integrity? Does it require getting a constitutional order back in place in Bamako? And if one is being frank - and this has to be part of the dialogue and conversation - we can secure our security interests. We can prevent Northern Mali from being a safe haven without necessarily putting Mali back together again.

HEADLEE: Ah. Yeah. All right. Well, let's bring it back, as we begin to close this conversation to Afghanistan. We have a call here from Wolfgang in Princeton, New Jersey. And you wanted to talk about the long war in Afghanistan.

WOLFGANG: Yes. Good afternoon. The issue I hear from Kabul and - well, I've lived there, in Mazar-i-Sharif - is that our ongoing discussion about an accelerated withdrawal and the withdrawal of the Afghans experienced already from - by the French and by other ISAF members has unbelievable economic ramifications. And that is that any - even weak - direct foreign investment or, you know, other international initiatives on a private base to build up new businesses is basically dying off now. And...


WOLFGANG: ...people pack up and leave, and will stop their programs. And the (unintelligible) what was not discussed at all in our ongoing debate here in the States and in other ISAF members is that the PRTs, the provincial reconstruction teams, which have been on 30 or 40 old cases, major investment vehicles are stopping and shutting down the office. And so it leads to an even more far-ranging unemployment and really despair...


WOLFGANG: ...on the behalf of many of the young Afghans.

HEADLEE: Which is understandable. That's Wolfgang, calling from Princeton, New Jersey. Let me give the last minute to you, Tom Bowman. Maybe Afghanistan is what, in some way, also makes the United States and other countries hesitant to intervene in a place like Mali or Syria.

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. And clearly, you know, the United States signed a 10-year security agreement with the Afghan government. So there will be some presence, certain amount of money sent to Afghanistan in the coming years. But there's absolutely no question that the Obama administration wants to, you know, fairly quickly move out the bulk of the U.S. forces, have some sort of a small mission there. You're not going to see the kind of money thrown around that we've seen in the past 10 years, and that could have a huge ripple effect across the economy and a brain drain, a lot of young people basically saying: I'm getting out while I can.

HEADLEE: That was NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. He was here with me in Studio 3A, as was Peter Pham, with the Atlantic Council. He also serves on the senior advisory group of the U.S. Africa Command. And Josh Landis joined us, as well, associate professor and director of Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He runs the blog Syria Comment, and he joined us from member station KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma. Thanks to all three of you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

PHAM: Thank you.

HEADLEE: After a short break, we'll talk about all the ways we break down our days into hours deep sleep, steps walked, calories consumed: the quantified self. Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.