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Media Conference Call: Obama's Afghanistan Strategy

Speakers: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, and Stephen D. Biddle, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 24, 2011

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OPERATOR: Excuse me, everyone. We now have our leaders in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode. At the conclusion of the presentation, we will open the floor for questions. At that time instructions will be given as to the procedure to follow if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Bernard Gwertzman.

BERNARD GWERTZMAN: Hi. I'm Bernard Gwertzman at the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm a consulting editor on the council's website. And it's my privilege to introduce the two speakers who will be discussing President Obama's speech last night on the future in Afghanistan.

We will have Leslie H. Gelb, who's president emeritus of the council and a Pulitzer Prize winner, former correspondent and colleague of mine on the New York Times. And he was also a senior official in the State and Defense Departments. And then we have Stephen Biddle, who is the council's Roger Hertog senior fellow for defense policy, and he has written a great deal and has been available to reporters and everybody else on the whole nitty-gritty of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And so I'm very pleased to have these two gentlemen with us today.

I'd like to start out by asking Mr. Gelb, what did you think about the president's speech yesterday?

GELB: I thought it was OK and predictable. I thought it was OK because it went about as far as I thought the president would go in reductions. And it was essentially a compromise between political pressures from Democrats and Republicans who want to get out bigger and faster and the U.S. military and the neocons who want to get out very slowly, if at all.

GWERTZMAN: And Mr. Biddle, what did you think?

BIDDLE: I think it -- I agree with Les that it was compromise between a variety of competing needs in tension with one another, but those were only partly domestic. I think in many ways equally important tension is between the needs of the domestic audience and the needs of the audience in South Asia -- Afghans, Afghans in the government, the Taliban and the Pakistanis.

Speeches like this necessarily have to say to the domestic U.S. audience, we're not staying as long as you fear; there are limits to this thing. But you also need to somehow or another communicate to people in South Asia that we're not leaving as fast as you think we are. The latter perception drives all the hedging behaviors that are so problematic and so undermine the prospects for success there.

I'm sympathetic to the requirement to deal simultaneously with two things that are in tension here, and I understand the administration's dilemma. I'm not very happy with the way they squared that circle. I suspect lots of other people won't be very happy with it either. My particular beef is you're going to have to do something or another that represents less than what the military wants or you're going to lose the domestic audience.

There are a variety of ways of doing that, though, and other things being equal, I would prefer that the administration give the military as much of the time it wants at the cost of giving them fewer troops than they want. And I think this acceleration of the timetable for the removal of the last surge forces by three months, apparently, relative to what Petraeus requested -- Petraeus apparently requesting the end of 2012 for the return of the last surge forces, the administration deciding no, it's going to be September 2012 -- I think sends bad messages in exchange for very little actual reduction in the cost or scale or effort of the undertaking. I would prefer that they had gone out of their way to signal messages that we're not, in fact, headed for the exits in the short term, in ways that I think they could have done but didn't.

GWERTZMAN: Les, do you think the setting the date of by September next year is directly linked to the election?

GELB: Yes. I think it's -- as I said, it's basically a speech aimed at the domestic political audience, pro- and anti-war alike.

Let me take issue with some of what Steve said. I think, in the context of fighting the war, if you think we have vital interest and we ought to fight the war to protect those vital interests, then what Steve said makes perfect sense. But I don't think that we have vital interests there, certainly any longer.

If you talk to people in the White House, they say al-Qaida is down to under a hundred in Afghanistan and it's very little in the hideouts in Pakistan. And as far as the Taliban is concerned, we have no idea whether there's any connection now between the Taliban and al-Qaida and whether they would make Afghanistan a safe haven for al-Qaida in the future.

What we do know is that there are more al-Qaida outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan in places like Somalia and Yemen than in Afghanistan. So I think it is essentially mission accomplished and that our vital interests no longer require us to have large-scale land forces in Afghanistan, nor do I think that any particular outcome in Afghanistan will affect that critical situation in Pakistan.

If the Paks really were worried about our getting the devil out of Afghanistan, just scooting -- being concerned only with exit, then they wouldn't be providing safe haven, intelligence, arms and comfort to the Taliban. If they were really worried, they would be helping us to lay the final touches on the Taliban. But they aren't. The argument that we're in Afghanistan for Pakistan holds no water to me.

GWERTZMAN: Do you want to have a rebuttal, Steve, or should we go on?

BIDDLE: Oh, sure, I'll take a rebuttal. (Chuckles.) Why not? As long as you're offering it, I'll take it.

I've argued for a long time that this war is a close call on the merits. So I mean, I think, at the end of the day, it boils down to value judgments about how much you're willing to pay to reduce risk by how much. And reasonable people can make those differently. Les and I have made them differently for quite some time; I suspect we'll continue to.

But the key issue in evaluating the value judgment on how much you're willing to pay to reduce a risk by how much is not the head count of how many al-Qaida affliates are in Afghanistan. That issue strikes me as among the least relevant to the calculus here. The number of al-Qaida in Afghanistan has been tiny ever since 2002. The issue isn't without our -- how many al-Qaida affiliates are currently planning attacks on the United States in Afghanistan as opposed to Yemen, Somalia, Quetta or someplace else.

The issue is, if we do not provide the support necessary to keep the Afghan government intact -- if we pull out and the Afghan government falls -- and if, for that matter, if we shift to a counterterrorist posture that doesn't provide much in the way of support to keep Karzai in power but simply orients us toward attacking particular terrorist targets from the skies, the issue is whether the return of Afghanistan to 1990s-style anarchy that is likely to result has downstream consequences that hurt us, either because al-Qaida reestablishes bases in Afghanistan -- which I actually think is the less consequential of the dangers -- or because chaos on Pakistan's western border destabilizes Pakistan, which, unlike Yemen and Somalia and Djibouti and all the other places around the world where al-Qaida is either is now or might in the future set up bases, Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state.

If, in fact, an already unstable Pakistan gets tipped over the brink by a problem on their western border that overwhelms their ability to cope, which after all isn't showing enormous strength within Pakistan at the moment, even, then we end up with one of the very few scenarios in which you could imagine loose nukes actually finding their way into terrorist hands. This strikes me as the primary downstream risk associated with U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

When you think about how much you're willing to pay to reduce what risk, the downstream consequences that matter are those.

And if -- and note that I'm drawing an important distinction here between the importance of conventional terrorism and WMD terrorism to the United States. I tend to think that conventional terrorism tends to be exaggerated as a threat. I think the cost of dealing with all the Yemens and all the Somalias and all the other places around the world in a way that would prevent them from becoming terrorist havens outstrips the scale of the threat to the United States.

The exception in the counterterrorism business is the almost unique situation in Pakistan in which failure to act aggressively in reducing a terrorist threat could cause nuclear weapons to be involved in the process. So I distinguish between other terrorist havens around the world, which by and large I'm inclined to at most suppress with minimum effort, and the problem in South Asia which I think is very different, much larger and, in my judgment -- although I think it's close call -- comes out in favor of making a much more forceful effort to deal with.

GELB: You know, if I believed what Steve believed about the connection between what goes on in Afghanistan and what will go on in Pakistan, I'd agree with him. But the fact is, we've been in Afghanistan for 10 years now. And the situation in Pakistan, as far as I've noticed, has gotten much worse.

In fact, in the last few years, when our position in Afghanistan has supposedly strengthened in all the ways Petraeus and Steve and others say, the situation in Pakistan has gotten worse and worse and worse.

GWERTZMAN: OK, look. Let me move it out to the correspondents eager to talk to you guys. Operator, can we have questions?

OPERATOR: At this time, we'll open the floor for questions. (Gives queueing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Chandrakant Pancholi from Overseas India Weekly.

QUESTIONER: Good morning, gentlemen. Let us take Pakistan, India and Iran, and its influence on Afghanistan, and how strong the Afghan government is now or going to be in future. Don't you think it is a faulty thinking that Pakistan will give up terrorism because it has an interest in having an unstable Afghan government so that they can run the government like previously that lead to Taliban, and increase their influence by proxy?

GWERTZMAN: Anyone want to take that one?

GELB: I think -- I think the gentleman is just right. Those are Pakistan's interests; that's why it's been causing trouble for us in Afghanistan.

QUESTIONER: So how do we --

GELB: (Inaudible) -- that's right. Those are Pakistani interests in Afghanistan, and if they were otherwise, they'd stop hurting us in Afghanistan.

BIDDLE: Well, let me shade that maybe a bit, there, really. I think Pakistan, like most countries, has an implicit rank ordering of outcomes and preferences. Their best-case outcome would be an Afghan client that they could control, and therefore they could guarantee would never become aligned with India.

Their worst case is chaos on their border that would create base camps for Pakistani Taliban groups that now aim to overturn the government in Islamabad. Somewhere in -- (audio break) -- is a reasonably stable, not-so-independent government that it might align with India in Kabul.

Now, I don't think they figure they're going to get their best case. They surely want to avoid their worst case. The interesting thing about this rank ordering is that Pakistani preference and American preference comes together on the middle.

And I think the orthodox American view of Pakistan is that the Pakistanis would cooperate with us to get the middle if they thought we were actually going to make good on our end of the deal.

The problem in this analysis is that the Pakistanis don't think we're going to make good on it and that if they proceed to help us without preparing a plan B for themselves, what they're doing is, when the United States pulls out and abandons the region, instead of getting their best case, number one, or their OK case, number two, they end up with the worst case.

So what they're doing is hedging their bets by building a plan B for themselves in the form of support for the Afghan Taliban that they're hoping to take over after the United States leaves, rather than just producing absolute chaos, in full knowledge that this reduces the odds of a really grand outcome. But it builds an insurance against the possibility of a really terrible outcome.

And again, that brings us back to the whole problem of hedging behaviors, which is related so strongly to expectations of U.S. persistence in the region.

QUESTIONER: And just (about Afghan ?) government, sir, how strong it is now? Because I don't think that Karzai's influence goes beyond Kabul. And why do we think that it will be a stronger Afghan government which can protect itself? Because again, it will be -- (inaudible) -- later on.

BIDDLE: Well, I mean, Karzai -- the Karzai government is not the Swiss government. I mean, it's not the U.K. government. But by the same token, this is a long, long way from 1990-style anarchy. And to say things like, well, Karzai is the mayor of Kabul and controls nothing outside the city, A, it's factually incorrect. But B, it implies that this is already the worst case. And I'm quite confident that this is not the worst case. This could get a lot worse than it is now, both with respect to the United States and with respect to Pakistani interests.

And again, I think in terms of the sort of dual game-playing that we find so problematic in Pakistan, if the Pakistanis thought they were already looking at the worst case in Afghanistan then they wouldn't be trying to deal on both sides of the fence at the same time.

I think they're stuck with a problem of decision-making under uncertainty, where they don't know what we're going to do, they're afraid that what we're going to do is to bug out. But they don't know.

GELB: See, what they're doing is creating conditions that make it even more likely that we will leave. But to say "bug out" is an opprobrious term to me, because after we stayed there for 10 years and sacrificed at the level we did and after it's clear we're going to stay there for several years more, I don't see how anyone could reasonably call that a bug out.

And if the Paks want to, it's just a clear indication that they do not respect our interests and they hurt us more than they help us. And however you may want to calculate their in-between goal and their maximum goal, I know what their behavior is. And I know their behavior hurts us far more than it helps us.

BIDDLE: Well, but see, inherent in any hedging strategy is that it makes the ideal less likely. I mean, the same goes for buying insurance.

GELB: But Steve, they're hedging at our expense.

GWERTZMAN: Let me stop the debate here and ask another question. What is the likelihood of any real negotiations with the Taliban, which the president discussed briefly yesterday?

GELB: We're negotiating with them directly, indirectly. We're not quite sure with whom or to what effect. Bob Gates came back from Afghanistan and said, well, we should be trying to talk to them, but don't expect too much. President Obama in his speech last night was somewhat more positive, saying that the situation on the ground has given the Taliban more incentive to talk.

The fact of the matter is, we don't know. But it's -- there's no argument against trying.

GWERTZMAN: Right. All right, Operator, let's have another question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Spencer Ackerman with wired.com.

QUESTIONER: Hi, thanks a lot. This question is for -- it's for Steve. What is the reaction that you've been hearing, and what are your own thoughts about Obama's team basically saying that a big push into the east, as the military had telegraphed for at least the past week, probably isn't in the cards?

BIDDLE: I think it's an overstatement. I mean, for starters, the expectation in the theater for a long time has been that the surge would go to the south and the southwest first. After clearance and after the defeat of counterattacks, it would then swing to the east.

My understanding is that that's still the administration's general expectation, but that they think that the campaign in the east is going to be more narrowly cast than the original expectation would have been.

I suspect, though, that the operational details of exactly what will this do to the future trajectory in the east are undeveloped at the moment. I mean, the public reporting, anyway, was that the president only made up his mind on this, like, Tuesday morning.

Moreover, the public reporting on this has been that -- has implied at least that the president didn't simply pick one of the options that Petraeus gave him, that, to some extent, they're re-engineering an option by reducing the time and changing the numbers. If that's the case, then I'd be very surprised if campaign planners have worked out the mechanics of what this means for the expected future swing to the east. I think the broad outlines are that there will still be a swing to the east. But with fewer troops available, it won't cover as much ground as was originally expected. But again, I suspect the details on this are yet to be worked out.

GWERTZMAN: Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next comes from James Kitfield with National Journal magazine.

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Thanks, guys, for doing this. I've heard some pretty smart people who are close to this situation starting to say that, you know, the situation with Pakistan has gotten so intolerable, the double game has gotten so intolerable and them helping our enemies and causing the -- you know, the death of American soldiers, of countering any number of our -- of our operations, that we should just go ahead and admit that this is a(n) antagonistic relationship and treat them as such, much like a state sponsor we would, for instance, like Iran. I know there's risk in that. I'd like to hear both of your thoughts on that.

GWERTZMAN: Steve?

BIDDLE: Well, I mean, the alternative to the consensus view on Pakistan is that they really are the enemy, that they mean us ill; they're just taking our money in the process of trying to thwart our goals; that the problem isn't they don't think we'll make good; the problem is that they just don't want us to make good.

Now whatever you think of that as a description of the reality in Pakistan, I think it's not very consistent with their behavior. But the policy prescriptions that follow from it if you adopt it are really ugly. I mean, after all, the worst-case scenario that confronts us in the whole region is Pakistani state collapse. If that's your analysis of Pakistan's underlying motives, it drives you towards containment strategies in which we try and weaken Pakistan; well, that makes it likelier than it would be otherwise that the state collapses and that their internal insurgents succeed in toppling the government in Islamabad, and that brings about precisely what you're trying to prevent. I mean, after all, the most successful containment strategy in recent memory, the West's approach to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, produced the collapse of the Soviet Union. Is that what we want for Pakistan?

So I think -- I mean, aside from the fact that I think on the empirics, this conception of Pakistani motivation isn't as consistent with what they're doing as the orthodox view, I also think that the implications that would follow from it if you adopted it are so unpleasant that I would give the benefit of the doubt to the orthodox view.

GWERTZMAN: Les?

GELB: I wouldn't treat Pakistan as an enemy, if for no reason other than Pakistan is our supply line and our lifeline from the sea to our troops in Afghanistan. And we really can't mess with that beyond a certain point.

But we ought to be very realistic about what the Paks are up to. And they are prepared to subordinate their interests in helping us to their internal politics and toward their anti-India foreign policy.

GWERTZMAN: Next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Michael Magoo with L.A. Times.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, hi. I wanted to ask Mr. Biddle about the 2014 deadline. Do you think that's workable in terms of the objectives you've identified, and is there much difference between what would happen there pre-withdrawal and what will happen now that we're having the withdrawal?

BIDDLE: Well, I mean, there's something of an implicit premise in the question that 2014 has a fairly defined concrete meaning to it. (Chuckles.) I'm not so sure I'm with the premise on that. I think there's been a lot that's been left, I think, deliberately unspecified about what 2014 means. I mean, what does "Afghan security lead" actually mean on the ground?

Well, we know some things it doesn't mean. The NATO ministerial in June 2011 produced a statement from Rasmussen saying 2014 does not mean we're heading for the exit. The Lisbon summit declaraion, on 20 November 2010, said, the Afghan security lead in 2010 does not equate to the withdrawl of ISAF troops.

My understanding of the administration's position on this is, A, they expect there will be a continued military presence and B, we're busily negotiating one in the strategic partnership agreement. There will be some declared statement about who is the lead and who is supporting.

But in terms of the concrete relationship between that and how many troops are there on the ground, what are they doing, how much combat activity is going on as opposed to training -- I think there's a lot that is left deliberately vague.

Now, has any of the kind of shading in the midst of this great cloud of gray vagueness that is the way we've talked about 2014 and the shift to an Afghan security lead changing towards a darker shade of gray or a lighter shade of gray as a result of the speech? And I suspect not.

Again, the problem is, there are multiple audiences for whom one is trying to sound different at the margins. So the way the president talked about it in the speech last night could be read to imply, oh my gosh, there won't be anything left in 2014. That's certainly not what we're doing in the strategic partnership negotiations, on the other hand.

My guess is that the rhetorical calibration might have changed some, in part because the importance of the domestic audience has probably risen in recent months. The actual policy expectation for what things on the ground will look like in 2015, I doubt has changed much recently.

GWERTZMAN: The next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell with the Mitchell Report. Mr. Mitchell?

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Am I on?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Can you hear me now? I want to ask a question but preface it with a point of view. And that's arguable too, but let me start there. It seems to me that if we narrow the focus of this discussion or other discussions to al-Qaida and Afghanistan, we are missing a much larger point, number one.

Number two, I add to that that every commentator that I've been around in the last three or four weeks -- and that's a range of people that are -- and a range of places -- comes back with either a positive or a relatively positive report on the extent to which what we call the surge but which also has other important elements to it -- positive or relatively positive reports: that poppy production in Helmand province is down by 50 percent; that the desertion rate in the Afghan police force, which was at 10.2 percent last year, is down to 1.2 percent; that we are in negotiations with the Taliban; that Ryan Crocker is there with an opportunity to replace a dysfunctional sort of civil side of the equation.

It strikes me as an interesting time to say, game over. So my question is this: If not -- if not this, which is to say, some presence in Afghanistan like the one that Obama sketched out last night, then what?

And by the "then what," I don't mean nation-building in the States. But if not that, what is -- what is the -- from both Les Gelb and Stephen Biddle, I'd be interested in knowing, what do you think the most effective strategy would be for dealing with the global jihadi syndicate, which is al-Qaida and Lashkar-e-Taiba and Haqqani and lots of other players?

GWERTZMAN: Les, take a crack at it first.

GELB: Well, the terrorist threat has morphed over the last 10 years. It used to be centered, focused in Afghanistan, and now it's all over the place. And we still have 100,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan at a great cost. We've tripled the intelligence budget; we've doubled the basic Pentagon budget and we haven't done much to think through what Mr. Mitchell is driving at here, how to deal with the terrorist threat worldwide not just in terms of hitting them with drones or commando operations, which I'm all in favor of, but diplomacy, economic power and the like. We haven't caught up with it.

And President Obama's speech really was less about any strategy in Afghanistan or worldwide to combat terrorism and more about just taking the troops out.

GWERTZMAN: Steve?

BIDDLE: Well, I mean the orthodox alternative to something like counterinsurgency the way the administration is doing it is the counterterrorism orientations that the vice president and others have proposed at various times. And people have debated that a lot. If you're interested in the pros and cons of that, we could certainly talk about it; I'm sure Les and I disagree on it, so there'd be opportunities for interesting back and forth, if you like.

But let me say a little bit, though, about, I mean, what I think the military logic of the larger war on terrorism is here, because again, I think there is too little attention to the distinction between kind of orthodox terrorism and mass-destruction terrorism.

I mean, with respect to the Yemens and the Somalis and all the rest, I think the right policy is less forceful than what this administration and the last one have in mind. I think something like suppression and containment, not rollback, not destruction, not the defeat of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or elsewhere, but limitation of it over a very long haul at minimum cost is the right way to go. Because I think the scale of the objective threat to American lives and property from that kind of terrorism is pretty modest, and the cost of countering it with anything more than relatively light suppression and containment is wildly disproportionate to the damage they can do.

The key exception to that, I think, really is South Asia because that's a -- that's one of the very few situations where you could imagine a reasonably plausible political trajectory leading to the state collapse of a nuclear weapons power. That changes all these calculations about how much damage can they do, and therefore, how much should you be willing to do in order to prevent it.

So when it comes to the Somalis and the Yemens and the rest, I think espionage, CIA efforts to penetrate, occasional drone strikes, those -- you know, reasonable homeland security precautions, those are all appropriate, and that's about the upper bound on what I would be willing to do. South Asia, I think, is different.

GWERTZMAN: OK, next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Lyles Lozox (ph) with People's Freedom.

QUESTIONER: Good morning. Thank you for doing this. How do you think the U.S. drawdown will affect NATO in general? I mean, Afghanistan is NATO's number-one job that it's doing. Libya won't be bombed forever. What kind of future do you -- do you envision for NATO in the mid-term? Thank you.

GWERTZMAN: Les?

GELB: Well, you know, to me, I'm still from the old Cold War generation. NATO is a central ingredient of U.S. foreign policy and national security policy. I agree with what Bob Gates said about NATO, European members not pulling their weight. But the fact of the matter is, they're not going to for the foreseeable future; they can't afford it.

And we can't afford it, either, to tell you the truth. And I think it's time not to dismiss NATO -- because I think it can still do very important things around the world, including in the security realm -- not to dismiss it, but to re-think what NATO means in the 21st century when it doesn't represent the kind of military punch that it did in the recent past.

GWERTZMAN: Steve, you want to add anything?

BIDDLE: Oh, well just a little bit. I mean, alliances have benefits, but they also have costs. I mean, during the Cold War, academics used to talk about abandonment and entrapment as the two sides of the alliance coin, that on the one hand, European allies were worried we would abandon them in the event of a war with the Soviet Union; on the other hand, they were worried that they'd get entrapped in American adventures. And so they were trying to constrain us.

The dynamics of that have kind of flipped, now, with the end of the Cold War, in that you take a look at Libya, for example. I mean, I think you can make a reasonable argument that the United States is involved in the Libya operation because the French and the British essentially demanded that we get involved. And you know, they were helping us in Afghanistan, so we thought we would comply. And we didn't want to destroy the alliance by stiffing them.

Well, that's a reasonable description of a situation in which the United States got entrapped into an adventurist conflict that it didn't want to be in because its allies wanted to be.

So I mean, NATO as an alliance has benefits for the United States, as it always has. I mean, it provides political legitimacy to security efforts. It helps bring a wider multilateralist resource set to bear. It has all the other advantages that we normally associate with alliances, but the costs of being in an alliance are I think becoming increasingly visible to Americans relative to what they may have been during the Cold War.

And given that the benefit of the alliance in the Cold War era, dealing with a superpower that had existential threat potential against the United States (and the West ?) are much lower, I'm not tremendously optimistic about, certainly the long-term future of NATO as an institution unless what it does is it reduces what it tries to accomplish, its ambition levels go down.

If it sees itself as a device for mobilizing Western military activity in places like Libya, my guess is, not just the United States but others are going to judge the entrapment risk as being higher than what they're getting from the institution. And its viability will go down over time. I have a feeling we're looking at a future in which NATO's efforts get smaller and what it tries to do shrinks because that's the only way to keep everybody concluding that the benefits they're getting from it are worth the costs that they're paying for it.

GWERTZMAN: Next question.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press star one. Our next question comes from Jeff Morley, World Opinion Search.

QUESTIONER: Hi, this question is for both of you. And it really has more to do with domestic politics. Is the changing domestic environment around foreign intervention going to force the executive branch's hand regardless of what policy the military and the White House want to pursue in the next couple years?

GELB: Well, it's almost always true, after a large-scale U.S. combat operation somewhere in the world, that there's a reaction and that people say, never again. But there's always been an again. The major difference this time -- and how much of an effect it will have, we're not sure yet -- the major difference this time is our economic situation.

We're in a period of serious decline, I think far more serious than we've faced since the end of World War II. And it may be long-term secular decline unless we make some rather dramatic and bold moves.

Now, that has got to be factored into however one looks at Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and the rest of it. To me, it is the number-one priority. President Obama sort of rhetorically said so last night, just as he did a year and a half ago at West Point. He made exactly the same point.

But he doesn't go out and fight for it. And unless he does, everything else is going to fall apart. All this talk we're having now about whether we're going to be in Afghanistan two more years or five or what the size of the residual force will be -- all that, it will be dictated in the end, I guarantee you, less by talk of strategy and more by the state of our economy.

GWERTZMAN: Steve?

BIDDLE: I had technical issues and didn't hear the question, I'm afraid. I came in towards the end of Les's intervention.

GWERTZMAN: The question -- you want to repeat the question for Steve?

OPERATOR: He's no longer on the line.

GWERTZMAN: OK. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ben Arnoldy, Christian Science Monitor.

QUESTIONER: Hi. President Obama seems to be endorsing the counterterrorism strategy of killing militant leaders. He mentioned that Osama bin Laden worried about replacing his deputies. Could you both please assess how much this strategy over the past 10 years has eroded the capacity of both al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban, if at all? Haven't those killed been easily replaced?

And then specifically, Stephen, what is it about Pakistan's military that makes you think a bunch of bearded dudes in Toyota pickup trucks will ever have the capability of collapsing Pakistan? The problem with Pakistan strikes me as a problem of a military that's too strong, not too weak.

GELB: Steve?

BIDDLE: OK. Let's see, I guess I'll take those in order. First of all, I disagree with the premise of the question. I don't think the administration is shifting to CT here. In fact, folks in the administration who have spoken to me about this have been quite emphatic that there's no strategy change. Resources are coming down a bit, but this is not a shift from COIN to CT. CT, after all, is part of COIN. I mean, to the extent that one wants to argue for a CT strategy, what it's really doing is keeping the CT part of integrated COIN and getting rid of the rest.

But as far as has this really weakened al-Qaida or others because, after all, the leaders were all replaced, it's a little bit like saying have injuries to the Washington Redskins really affected the team's performance. And after all, the offensive line just gets replaced when somebody goes out with a knee injury. The problem is, the replacement is never as good as the person that's being replaced, first. So the aggregate performance level of the organization goes down. They do not have an infinitely deep talent bench.

Secondly, their behavior changes. Under this threat, they end up spending a lot more time covering and concealing and protecting themselves, which makes the kind of collaborative activity necessary to organize large complicated projects like international terrorism against a hard target like the U.S. substantially harder.

So I think in general what leadership targeting campaigns do is they weaken, suppress and contain terrorist activity, which is kind of what we've seen, I think, against al-Qaida. They don't normally destroy terrorist groups, because in fact the bench may not be infinitely deep, but neither is it zero, and leaders do get replaced and organizations do carry on; they just carry on with less strength.

That strikes me as an appropriate ambition, actually, for most terrorism in most places most of the time. So I think the administration is accurate when they say that al-Qaida is a good deal weaker. They may even get lucky and al-Qaida will go the way of Aum Shinrikyo and the Shining Path and be tipped into defeat and destruction by the removal of bin Laden. That's not the way it usually happens, but it happens that way every now and then, and maybe we'll get lucky. I think we should watch and wait carefully and hope that that's the way it comes out.

Now, with respect to Pakistan and is the problem that the Pakistani military are too strong, "strong" is too aggregate a term. There are several very different things going on here within what we might categorize as a strong Pakistani military. It's politically way too strong. It has way too much influence over the state policies of the Pakistani government as a whole. Strength in the sense of its ability to control its real estate and prevent terrorist activity is another matter altogether.

First of all, if you just look at the trajectory of terrorism virulence over time since 2001 in Pakistan, it certainly doesn't suggest that the Pakistani military is such a juggernaut that terrorists can't possibly make any headway. I mean, that's not the way things have been going. Secondly, the orientation of the Pakistani military historically has been towards conventional war with India, not internal counterinsurgency activities. And what commonly happens when conventional militaries that are designed and configured for interstate war get put onto counterinsurgency problems is that they often make things worse rather than better by being too heavy-handed. And generally speaking, the Pakistani military has done just that for quite some time.

Now, the hopeful case for Pakistan is that most military institutions, although they have a hard time spinning on a dime when confronted with a new internal threat rather than an external traditional orientation, can nonetheless adapt if you give them enough time to make the switch. Military institutions are like supertankers, and they will eventually turn, but they don't do so rapidly.

The challenge for Pakistan is having enough time to gradually reorient. I think the evidence suggests that they have begun this process. They are now substantially more attentive to the dangers of people like the Pakistani Taliban who have declared war on the government in Islamabad, and therefore on the Pakistani military.

But they're slowly, not rapidly, re-configuring themselves. And they're slowly but not rapidly changing their sense of which of these two threats is more dangerous to them. And part of that gets back to the problem of the political strength rather than the military strength of the Pakistani military. A lot of their basis for claim to societal resources and prestige within Pakistan comes from their defender -- their role as defender of the Pakistani state against an Indian threat.

So the nimbleness, or the agility of the Pakistani military in switching from one problem set to another is constrained not just by the usual problems of militaries in making these kinds of adaptations, but by the political incentives of the Pakistani military to retain too long a focus on an Indian threat that they think benefits them internally within the Pakistani political constellation.

GWERTZMAN: You want to take a crack at that, Les, or should we go on?

GELB: I think Steve's answer, which is very sophisticated, shows really the fundamental difference between how he approaches these problems and how I do.

I don't think these matters are settled by sophisticated nuances. I think they're settled by clear-cut strategies and clear-cut events. In the case of the United States and Pakistan, the United States always overestimates what it can do. A lot of what Steve says is premised on the United States being able to do this or that. I don't think we can. In almost any instance he describes, our effect is far more marginal than he would -- than he says.

In the case of the Paks, I don't know their thinking because there are so many of them. And they think different ways. So I focus less on what their thinking is and more on what they do, and more on what I think we're able to do to affect their actions. And here, we've tried every which way, being nice, being tough, giving them more aid, giving them less aid. And they proceed down their own path. They're building up nuclear weapons at a faster pace than any other country in the world. And why? It's about India.

Have we been able to restrain them? No. In fact, the Paks have done us more damage than almost any country in the world through A.Q. Khan and the support of his activities by the Pakistani military and intelligence in giving away nuclear materials and secrets.

So look, I don't want to speculate about what's going on in their head or whether (we're ?) going to do more counterinsurgency or less counterterrorism, or the reverse. I look at what we do. And those are not subject to nuance.

As the head of Pakistani intelligence said on NPR this morning, he said, you know, whether the United States stays in my country one more year or four more years or 10 years, it doesn't make any difference.

GWERTZMAN: Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Sally Quinn with the Washington Post.

QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm interested in knowing what your take is on the fact that General Petraeus, who basically was the advocate of the surge, would leave at this point to take over the CIA -- still arguing for more troops, and yet essentially abandoning the fight, it would seem.

I just find it conflicting, given the kind of influence that he's had over the president.

GWERTZMAN: Steve?

BIDDLE: I'm going to say a little bit about where he's going in a little bit by where's he coming from in this context. I mean, one of the big challenges he's going to have at the CIA is, he's going to be asked to grade his own homework. His ability to be completely detached and objective about evaluating the consequences of the surge that he was this closely associated with recommending and commanding is going to be tough. I think anybody would find that difficult.

As far as the effect of him leaving on the conduct of the campaign, it's not just him. I mean, for that matter, Gates and Mullen are also leaving. So when you look at the kind of group of four that has been most influential in the policies that led to the surge, Clinton, Gates, Petraeus and Mullen, three of those four are leaving soon. And Clinton has said that she doesn't want to serve in the second term, so she might leave too.

I mean, we don't know yet what the policy preferences of their successors are going to be. But I think it's just unlikely, as a statistical matter, that any selected four replacements are going to be, A, as bureaucratically effective, B, as unified and united in a position and C, as uniformly inclined to support reinforcement and forceful conduct of the war as the four that are leaving.

I don't think this represents some deliberate conspiracy to undermine the case for waging war in Afghanistan on the part of the people who make these appointments. I think this is just a coincidence of when people reach the end of their jobs. But I think it's an empirical fact of that coincidence.

BIDDLE: Let me take a crack at Sally's question too, Bernie.

GWERTZMAN: OK.

BIDDLE: I think David Petraeus is a great soldier. He really is. And he believes that, if you follow this military strategy he has put out and you sustain it over time, we really could make a difference. And he's a serious guy. I happen to disagree not with his strategy but with what we can accomplish in Afghanistan over time, what happens after we draw down.

Now, what happened was that finally and for good, President Obama spoke with General Petraeus some weeks back and he made pretty plain that the surge troops were coming out. I wrote about this more than two weeks ago, saying that the pull-out would be the 30,000 of the surge troops.

So Petraeus saw that the strategy he had been advocating really wasn't going to be implemented. And he -- I don't think he wanted to be there to implement another strategy and that he wanted to continue serving -- he doesn't want to run for political office. He wanted to continue serving; the CIA was offered to him. And he's a man who takes service seriously and he accepted it.

GWERTZMAN: OK. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queueing instructions.) Our next question comes from Chandrakant Pancholi with Overseas India Weekly.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Suppose that we left in 2014 -- Afghanistan -- and we have a minimum presence there, and the situation worsens there. A, you think we will have political will to go back there again? And B, will the NATO countries, particularly France and Germany, will have political will to follow us? And third, the Iranians are privately financing Afghan government. So what design Iranians may have in future and whether we can figure that out?

GWERTZMAN: Go ahead, Steve.

BIDDLE: OK. I think troop withdrawals from Afghanistan are one-way tickets. I think once they leave, they're not coming back, which is one of the several reasons why I tend to be conservative about withdrawals. I think they limit your flexibility. This ratchets down.

If things get bad, it's very hard to imagine an American president doing a second surge if it looks like the first one had failed because things have gotten worse. So I don't see troops coming back. And I think NATO is even less prone to do that than the United States would be.

On the Iranians, my sense of Iranian policy towards Afghanistan is, they want IOUs with as many potential future winners as they can. So, like everybody else in the region, they're busily hedging their bets. So they provide some slush money to the Karzai government; they also provide some assistance to the Taliban; they provide assistance to various warlords. I think what they're doing is judging that A, it's very important that they not have chaos on their eastern border and a massive increase in an already serious narcotics problem that could stem from that. But they don't know what the future is going to hold there, so they're trying to protect themselves (tout azimuth ?).

And again, as Les has pointed out, any hedging strategy of this kind has some negative consequences for them, too. I mean, if you're helping both sides, the money you're spending on at least one of them is going to be wasted. But I think in an environment of great uncertainty, hedging is a sensible, even if expensive, strategy. And I think that's basically what the Iranians are doing.

QUESTIONER: That's fine by me.

GWERTZMAN: OK. All right. We have a few minutes left. How many more questions do we have?

OPERATOR: Looks like our last question.

GWERTZMAN: OK.

OPERATOR: It comes from Trudy Rubin with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

QUESTIONER: Steve, forgive me, I came in a bit late. You touched on this, but don't know if you went into it more deeply. You were talking about the Pakistani army trying to, you know, turn its aircraft carrier, or whatever. I was there very recently, and they seem to be doing not well at all. They're basically holding, but unable to move troops out, because there's nothing coming behind them. As you know, the civilian government can't build. And, you know, I was told by U.S. sources that we are dubious that -- if they expanded the fight in North Waziristan, that they could win, or that they might not indeed lose.

So given their troubles, given that they are penetrated to some extent -- we don't know how much -- by Islamists, are you worried that there is a serious challenge from within to the Pakistani army by Islamists? And if Pakistani Taliban are now as they are basing in eastern Afghanistan and setting up safe havens there, is there a risk that too-rapid withdrawal could leave a situation where Afghanistan is going to undermine a nuclear-armed Pakistan?

BIDDLE: Yes, and yes. I mean, I think that the central problem in the region is that the Pakistanis' ability to deal with threats to the stability of their own state has serious limitations to it. I think if we're going to get a good outcome out of this, it will be because eventually, over time, they respond to the incentives that an increasingly virulent internal insurgency creates for them, and they slowly develop the ability to do this. But they're not -- I don't think they have the capacity to do it rapidly.

And one of the reasons why I tend to worry more about base camps on the western side of the Durand Line undermining the government on the eastern side, rather than the other way around, is because I think the primary threat to U.S. interests in the region is that the Pakistani military fails to keep up with an increasingly virulent threat and eventually that threat topples them, quite possibly through splitting the military itself because of some other rather unfortunate strategic decisions the Pakistanis made over the last generation by building up Islamist political ideology as a way of motivating resistance to India.

So I think this is a very serious problem. And part of the reason why I think, unlike Les, my value judgment comes down on the side of I'm willing to make the sacrifice in Afghanistan is because I see so few meaningful levers by which U.S. policy can positively influence what's going on in Pakistan. I actually share more with Les, I think, than he supposes on my view of the limitations of the U.S. ability to affect things in places like Pakistan. I think what we have to do is hope that they eventually respond to their own incentives in ways that enables them to contain this insurgency short of collapsing the state. And the most we can do is probably to create a permissive environment for them to eventually make this shift themselves by preventing Afghanistan from becoming a major accelerator of the virulence of the problem within Pakistan. But I think it's a -- it's a very serious threat indeed.

And one final point on that. Among the other reasons why I tend not to be among those that are advocating pushing the Pakistanis harder to act against Afghan Taliban safe havens within Pakistan is because I agree that the Pakistani military's ability to take on yet another major clear, hold and build project, in addition to the ones they've got on their plate right now, is so limited.

The last thing I think would serve U.S. interests is if we did manage to somehow or another goad the Pakistanis into overextending themselves in a short-sighted effort to help the U.S. project on the other side of the Durand line, with the result that the Pak mil ends up so spread out that we accelerate a potential split and break up. I think that would be cutting off our nose to spite our face.

GELB: Let me just chime in here, Bernie, if I may.

GWERTZMAN: OK, last -- last comment.

GELB: The premise of Trudy's question I find really dangerous. And Steve's answer I find just too general to follow. If we push the Paks into taking hard action against the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, that's going to be bad.

Well, does that have something to do with what we're doing in Afghanistan? We're beating up on them in Afghanistan. But the problem is not in Afghanistan; the problem here is in Pakistan. It's with the Pak army. The problem is that the Taliban is growing for a whole bunch of reasons, not least of which is the corruption, ineptitude and ineffectiveness of the Pakistan government.

The problem is that Pakistan may be an unviable state, held together by an army that's no longer as unified as it used to be. These are very deep questions inherent to Pakistan, and they can't be fixed and they can't be affected much by whatever we do in Afghanistan.

GWERTZMAN: OK, we have a lot of fruit here for another discussion. But I want to thank both of you guys for a very lively and provocative debate of sorts. OK, thank you very much.

GELB: Sure, good fun.

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