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Assessing America's Longest War

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent and associate editor for "The Washington Post," photographed while on assignment in Afghanistan in 2010.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent and associate editor for "The Washington Post," photographed while on assignment in Afghanistan in 2010.
Assessing America's Longest War
We'll hear a front-line assessment of America’s entanglement in Afghanistan from journalist and author, Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

SDSU Lecture Series

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, will be the featured speaker at SDSU's lecture series on U.S. foreign policy on Monday March 7 at 5 p.m., he will talk about America's Entanglement in Afghanistan. The event is free and open to the public but reservations are required. For more information call Anna Marshall at (619)594-8569.

For years, many critics of the invasion of Iraq claimed that the US was fighting the wrong war. They argued that Afghanistan was where the Taliban and al-Qaida were located and our brief takeover was not enough to secure the region from future terrorist activity.

Now 10-years later, America is still in Afghanistan and the fighting has increased in intensity. How that happened and why is the subject of a lecture tonight at SDSU part of a series of talks by international foreign policy experts.


Veteran Journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran will discuss "The Longest War: A Journalist's Front-line Assessment of America's Entanglement in Afghanistan."


Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Senior Correspondent and Associate Editor of "The Washington Post" and author of "Imperial Life in the Emerald City."

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: For years, many critics of the invasion of Iraq claim the U.S. was fighting the wrong war. They argue that Afghanistan was where the Taliban and al Qaeda were located and our small occupying force in Afghanistan was not enough to secure the region from future terrorist activity. Now, ten years later, America is still in Afghanistan. And the fighting has increased in intensity. How that happened and why is the subject of a lecture tonight at SDSU. Part of a series of talks by international foreign policy experts. I'd like to welcome my guest, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. [CHECK] emerald city. His lecture tonight is called the longest war, a journalist's front line assessment of America's entanglement in Afghanistan. And Rajiv, welcome.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Good to talk to you today.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, as I say, you call this a frontline assessment. How often would you say that you've been back and forth to Afghanistan over the last few years.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, by my count about a dozen times over the past two years.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wow. So indeed, you've been looking at this war for quite some time. You've seen how it's changed. Can you explain to us how this war has evolved in front of your eyes?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Are, you know it has literally mushroomed, both in intensity and in the size of the American presence there, are in the amount of dollars we're pouring into it. I remember traveling through parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan in early 2009, just after President Obama had been elected. There were now more than a couple hundred American troops in southern Afghanistan. Now we have somewhere on the order of 30000, 30 to 40000 troops down there. [CHECK] international security force presence. Now, membership people argued back then that that paucity of resources was the reason why violence was worsening over there, and what this administration needed to do was to embrace a comprehensive counter insurgency strategy along the lines of what general Petraeus had implemented in Iraq during the troop search there, which is widely credited with reduce, not solving the problem, but at least reducing some of the violence in Iraq during the bleakest stays in Baghdad. So that was argued to the president by the military, and by others, that, you know -- that needs to be done in Afghanistan. Of and he went in that direction, as we all know, and I sort of saw with my own eyes every month or two this change with more and more U.S. forces arriving, more American civilians, and ever more ambitious American co construction projects. At the same time, violence has increased. It hasn't really [CHECK] the argument made by military officials is that any time you get more troops in, yes, the violence does go up in the short term, but they are of the belief that over the long-term, all of this will improve. But there are plenty of other opinions out there, and as I travel about, it certainly in my mind is an open question as to whether the counter insurgency strategy will work as hoped. Now, I think it's too early to say that it is a failure, but it's also too early to proclaim success.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Rajiv, many people must be familiar with your book, the imperial life in the emerald city about American occupation of Iraq, most particularly in Baghdad. And you focused on the kind of strange dichotomy, this empire, almost, that America built in Baghdad. It's this city that separated itself from the rest of the populace of Baghdad and the rest of the country of Iraq. Do you see anything like that happening in Afghanistan?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Indeed. Many of those same echos. In Kabul, the Afghan capital, American diplomats and American mill stare personnel are in many ways cloistered from the Afghan population. They live in a [CHECK] swimming pool and bars and what not. I think one key difference however is that in the current phase of the Afghan mission, the individuals who are being selected for deployment out there, both on the civilian and military side, are being chosen because they possess relevant skills or at least they've raised their hand and want to go. They're not being picked because of political reasons, not like those early days in Iraq, as I chronicled in imperial life, where you had people literally asked for their views on things like roe versus wade and capital punishment, as a test of their political fidelity before being dispatched out to Baghdad. Of now, of course, back then the political leadership here in the bush administration thought that fixing Iraq would be a walk in the park, and as such, wanted to reward young Republican loyalists and campaign contributors with what they thought would be a nice line on their resumes, that they served in Baghdad. Afghanistan is a much tougher challenge, and the State Department, the Pentagon now recognize that they need good people out there. But part of the challenge is just finding people in the tenth year of a war to go out and serve out there, and serve out for there for meaningful amounts of time. And one big problem is that you've got military officers as well as civilian dip plats who will any for six months or 12 months, and then cycle back, and in many ways, it's reinventing the wheel, and as I traveled out there over a longer period of time, I meet the replacements and the replacements of the replacements. And it takes them 3, 4 months to finally start to understand a little bit about the area they're in. By the time they finally sort of get their stripe, it's time to go.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Rajiv, you had a couple of very telling articles at the end of last year about, assessing the counter insurgency that we're conducting in Afghanistan. And a number of people told you either on or off the record, people who have been in the country of Afghanistan, U.S. military officials, that until the safe havens in Pakistan are eliminated, the gains that we make against the insurgency in Afghanistan are eradicated. Tell us more about that.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, this is like trying to address a cancer patient's tumors in simply going after the places where the cancer has metastasized to, and not dealing with, essentially, the host tumor. So we can pour in thousands of troops into Kandahar, for instance, the second largest city in the country, and pour in billions of dollars in development aid. But so long as new crops of insurgents are being nurtured and trained and equipped just over the boarder in Pakistan and coming on over, you're never gonna fundamentally address that problem. The hope all along has been that the Pakistanis would crack down on their side of the border. And the Pakistani military has engaged in operations in some areas, but in all, and particularly, in southern Afghan, which is the currents focus of U.S. military operations. The areas in Pakistan just across the border are areas that the [CHECK] drone attacks on. So any significant congregations of Taliban leadership over there essentially have a free pass from the United States. And so you've got a number of American civilian officials as well as military commanders down there in southern Afghanistan saying well, I think we're making this progress, but how can we actually engage in anything that feels like it's permanent, that it will lead to lasting change so long as every spring and summer hundreds, literally hundreds and thousands of new fighters stream across the border to plant roadside bombs, to conduct ambushes, and perpetrate roadside bombings.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is it your understanding that our military has enough knowledge of this region to set effective policy?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, that's a very good question. I think that one could argue that the military went in to the surge in Afghanistan believing that certain dynamics would be the same as they were in Iraq. But there are fundamental differences. In Iraq at the height of the civil war there, the conflict was fundamentally binary, it turned into a civil war between Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, and both sides, eventually begrudgingly turned to the United States [CHECK] threat. So the United States was able to deploy its military forces as referees and to keep warring factions in society apart. In Afghanistan, you don't have that dynamic. You have a very murky difference between people who support the government, or nominally support the government, and support the Taliban. There's a lot of shades of gray there. And what the United States is trying to do, true both military action and civilian assistance, is to try to convince people in Afghanistan to cast their lot with the government and stand against the insurgency, but because of a host of problems that have received lots of ink in newspapers, things like rampant corruption, that the sheer lack of government capacity and political will, meddling from Pakistan, and what not, it becomes very difficult to do that. So the ability to try to use some of those lessons from Iraq and transplant them to Afghanistan has not been a particularly good transition.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, Rajiv, here in San Diego, we have a lot of -- we see a lot of marines based in Camp Pendleton go over to Afghanistan, some of these battalions suffering really very, very devastating casualties. What is your sense of how well the American public in general really understands what's happening in Afghanistan?

CHANDRASEKARAN: I don't think very well at all. I think that we essentially have two Americas when it comes to this war. The military communities around the country, places like Pendleton, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and other parts of our country, fort Campbell in if Kentucky where the army's hundred and first airborne division is from. [CHECK] then you have other places where people can go weeks, months without thinking about it, and I think in part this all started from the very beginning when the American public was told, you know, the best thing you can do is go out shopping. And you have people who just have not focused on it and don't really pay much attention to it. You know, I have a colleague who noted to me the other day that for those who don't have a direct connection to the military, the one place these days where they're most likely to see a member of the service system in an airports, as they are sort of coming or going from Afghanistan. And that's one of the few places you see men and women in uniform, and you're very right, the Marines from Camp Pendleton, many of whom are in Afghanistan today with the Marine first [CHECK] force, I've spent a lot of time with them over the past year, and they've taken [CHECK] Helmand province that's lost more than two-dozen marines as they have fought to try to clear a Taliban safe haven up there. It's been some pretty tough fighting, many marines say they feel like the tide is turning, that they are improving security in Helmand province, and that things are going to start to look better. But it's been at an enormous cost, and I know one of the enduring questioning from all of this is, the United States can go in with awesome firepower, with lots of money for development projects, and other resources. But ultimately, how much of a lasting impact can we have in a place like that where the needs are so dire, the capacity is so lacking, and in southern Afghanistan, in Helmand province, 90 percent of the population is illiterate. So it becomes very difficult, for instance, if you're trying to recruit and train police officers to find people who can actually read enough to understand basic laws or to write reports. So the challenges are incredibly basic and incredibly daunting.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, recently you reported a strange story about a psychological operations possibly being used on U.S. senators by the U.S. military when they were visiting Afghanistan in order to get them to continue to fund this war. Now, the U.S. military has denied it, general Petraeus is investigating. But the one thing I got from that was I wonder what the military's concerns are about continued funding for this war. Is there a great deal of concern that the spigot just might be turned off.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, that's a very, very good point and question because the calculus that everybody has sort of assumed about funding, I think, is in the process of changing here in Washington. The Afghanistan war is very, very expensive. And thus far, most Republicans have been supportive of it. But we're starting to see some cracks on the Republican side with new questions being raised about, you know, the sheer cost, not just this year and next, but ongoing. We talked about security force training, the budget, what the Pentagon wants this year to train Afghan security forces is $12 billion. And then what they project is over the course of the next many years a sustainment cost of $8 billion a year. That's an enormous amount of money. By my back of the envelope calculation, the United States spent in one little district of 75000 people, a district of farmlands and mud huts, which I've spent a bit of time in down in Helmand province, we probably spent more money to sustain a military civilian presence there last year in one little district of Afghanistan, sort of the equivalent of an American county, than we spent in the entire -- that we gave the entire nation of Egypt last year. So as we look forward here, I think one of the questions that members of Congress and others in Washington will wrestle with is the sheer cost of the presence in Afghan and what we're doing there, given the other challenges that the United States faces globally, and the real economic challenges we face at home. Is it worth it?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering in the minute or so we have left, Rajiv, what is -- I know the topic, but what do you want to get across tonight in your lecture at SDSU in.

CHANDRASEKARAN: I want people to better understand just the sheer complexity of all of this, how this is not a black and white issue. That our troops there, our civilians there are making progress, but it is a very fragile progress. And I want people to come away just thinking more seriously about it. And also starting to ask that question, well, yes we can do a lot of this stuff, but should we? And is it really in our national interests? And I'm not trying to jam an answer down anybody's throat, but what I wanted to do is share some stories from thigh travels there my observations and insights on the ground, and peat gem to think a little bit more about it, and a little more detailed than we sometimes get from reading a story in awe newspaper or on a website.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Rajiv, thank you so much for your time.

CHANDRASEKARAN: A real pleasure to talk to you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Rajiv [CHECK] America's entanglement in Afghanistan of that's at 5:00 PM, it's free and open to the public, reservations are required though. For more information about tonight's lecture and up coming SDSU lectures on U.S. foreign policy, you can go to your website, that's Days. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.