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Media Conference Call: U.S. Policy in Afghanistan

Speakers: Stephen D. Biddle, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, and Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Jonathan Tepperman, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
March 15, 2012, New York
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR: I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Jonathan Tepperman. Mr. Tepperman, please begin.

JONATHAN TEPPERMAN: Thank you, and good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining us. This is a Council on Foreign Relations media call on the future of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. I'm Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, and I'll be moderating our discussion.

I think the reason for and timing of today's call is pretty obvious. It grows out of the horrific events of last Sunday, when a U.S. soldier went on a rampage that killed 16 Afghan civilians.

As terrible as that incident was, what's even -- (coughs) -- excuse me -- more disturbing is that it seems to be a part of a disturbing trend that include incident of abuse by U.S. troops of Afghan -- of Afghan civilians and combatants, the Quran burning and the bloody riots that followed, and numerous attacks on U.S. service members by members of the Afghan National Army and Police.

To fill in the context, according to press reports, President Karzai, as most of you know, has responded to Sunday's attacks yesterday by asking the U.S. military to pull its troops out of villages and to confine them to base, and the Taliban has announced that it's suspending peace talks.

Karzai has also talked about having Afghanistan now take over overall security control a year earlier than was planned, in 2013 instead of 2014.

To discuss where all of this -- where this is all leaves us and where we go from here, we have two of the council's best -- and indeed the country's best -- experts on Afghanistan, Stephen Biddle and Max Boot, both of whom, I'm proud to say, are also Foreign Affairs authors.

Stephen Biddle, as most of you know, is Roger Hertog senior fellow for defense policy here at the council and the author of "Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle." And Max, of course, is the Jeane Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies here at the council as well and the author of "Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power." And he's currently finishing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Both have advised the U.S. government on Afghanistan strategy as well, I should add.

I'm going to kick things off by asking a few questions myself, and then I'll open things up to all of you who have joined us. Let me start with a two-parter, and I want Stephen and then -- and Max to respond in turn, if you would.

First of all, the simple question is, was Sunday's attack some kind of a game changer, a straw that broke the camel's back? Has trust between the two sides been irrevocably severed, as Fred Kaplan in Slate and others have argued? And will Secretary Panetta's visit yesterday and his discussions with Karzai or anything the U.S. government can do now get things back on track? Stephen, why don't you start first?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: OK. I don't think the recent events have changed the objective strategic calculus of the war very much, and I'll talk a bit in a moment about what I mean by that. What it might end up doing is changing the personal decision-making of a handful of key decision-makers, the particularly important ones being President Karzai and President Obama.

The basic strategic problem of Afghanistan, in my view, is that it's a pretty close call on the merits. It's a war where the United States has real but limited interests at stake, but where most people's military analysis of the resources you would need to secure those interests involves a level of sacrifice that looks to many Americans, apparently including the president, like much more than the gravity of the stakes. That leaves you with a problem where, to secure real but limited interests, you can either overspend and invest more than they look to be worth, in the view of the administration, or you can underspend them and end up getting nothing.

What the administration has been trying to do since they came into office, really, is to try to hit some golden mean where they try to find some real but limited means to secure real but limited ends, and the trouble when you try to hit the middle in this way is you end up with a big risk of getting a more expensive version of nothing. And that's, unfortunately, where limited efforts so far look like they're in some danger of taking us.

When that happens, the decision ends up be a fairly close call for individuals as well. And what that means is as difficulties accumulate and as the stakes appear to attenuate -- for the United States in particular, with the removal of bin Laden from the scene -- you end up with a situation where it gets closer and closer and closer and less and less is needed to tip an individual over into concluding that I've had enough and I don't think this is worth it anymore.

Now for Karzai, he's tended regularly, over the last however many years, to react in extreme ways to provocations of various kinds and (stimuli ?) of various kinds, and usually what's happened around him in the palace then walk him back from these overreactions, and you end up with some more moderate, more sensible resolution downstream.

Sooner or later, it's perfectly plausible that they won't be able to walk him back anymore. Whether that's going to happen over this shooting incident or not is yet to be seen. I doubt it, but sooner or later something like that will happen.

Similarly, for President Obama, everyone has a frustration threshold. I suspect Obama's may be higher than the average person's, but sooner or later everybody's gets surpassed.

Even if the underlying strategic calculus of cost, risk and investment doesn't change very much with an event like this, it could eventually have the effect of pushing one or the other or both of these individuals cross their frustration threshold. If there's a big effect that people look back on years from now and say, you know, it was attributable to this shooting or the Quran burning of the Marine urination video or any of the rest, I think it will be because of its effect on one or the other of these two individuals more than its effect on the underlying balance of interests and stakes.

TEPPERMAN: Max, why don't you jump in? And if you would address one other part of the question, which is what does this do to the relationship between the two principals, between the leaders on both sides? Does this represent a significant deterioration in the relationship, or -- which will make things worse? Or is that either not the case or not relevant?

MAX BOOT: I don't think we've seen a significant deterioration of an already difficult relationship between the U.S. and -- leadership and President Hamid Karzai.

I think there's actually been some achievements in the last few weeks, one of which has not been sufficiently appreciated, which was, after a very long and difficult negotiation, the two sides agreed on the handling of detainees at the U.S. detention facility in Parwan province where they would be transitioned to Afghan control, but there would be checks on their release and the U.S. would have an oversight role to make sure that they're well cared for, which actually shows that the two sides are able to work together.

I think the biggest difficulty at the moment is not occasioned by the Quran burning or by the -- by the terrible slaughter in Panjwayi district by the deranged staff sergeant or any of these other incidents which get so much press attention. I think the biggest difficulty we face is that I think President Obama is fundamentally following a confused and uncertain path where he, on the one hand, more than tripled our military presence in Afghanistan up to 100,000 troops and installed first General McChrystal and then General Petraeus and now General Allen to -- who have all basically been pursuing a counterinsurgency plan which is premised on a -- on a long- term commitment. But now that long-term commitment appears to be very much in doubt with President Obama having overridden the objections of General Petraeus and decided to pull 32,000 or 33,000 surge troops out by this September. And now there is talk -- and there was a leak in The New York Times this week; a kind of trial balloon from the White House -- about further cuts in troop size coming very quickly and then of course a transition next year from a combat role to an advisory role.

All of that basically makes it very difficult for our troops to accomplish their aims, and it disheartens our allies and gives hope to our enemies, which might be one reason why you see the Taliban announcing today that they are walking away from the very early stages of peace talks because why should they negotiate when they know that our time -- that our -- that our commitment is waning and that our presence is time-limited, that they can achieve everything they want after 2014 when we have signalled we're going to be gone.

And for the same reason, it makes it hard, although not impossible, to get concessions and cooperation from Hamid Karzai or other Afghan politicians, because inevitably they are looking out, like all politicians, for their own interests and they are increasingly worried that the U.S. is not a good bet, not a dependable ally, or on the way out.

All of that is, I'm afraid, placing our very capable troops and their leaders, General John Allen and, of course, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, two of our best -- I'm afraid it's placing them in an untenable position where they are being asked to achieve very ambitious objectives with rapidly declining resources and support in Washington. That, to me, is the fundamental issue that we face right now.

TEPPERMAN: So you both seem essentially agreed that the only viable options are to go big or to go home, and that this increases the temptation to go for a middle path, which will effectively be the same as doing nothing.

Stephen, what do you think this is going to do to the withdrawal schedule? Yesterday at his press conference with David Cameron, the president said that he was standing firm, but of course there's all the talk that Max alluded to.

BIDDLE: Well, I mean, the withdrawal schedule beyond September hasn't been announced yet. I mean, there's been a widespread expectation that the withdrawal trajectory we've seen, that has been announced, will basically be straight-lined after September, but there's been no actual announcement. General Allen has been arguing for a plateau with no further withdrawals after September. Many people's expectation has been that instead of a plateau, you'll get a continued withdrawal, but there have been no decisions apparently made. The Times story that Max was alluding to earlier was widely interpreted as trial balloon to evaluate reactions, but those decisions aren't made.

It's important to distinguish, though, two separable dimensions of the presence. There's what the troop count is, and there's the mission those troops are performing. The troop count is a particularly delicate international political issue for the administration. I mean, this is a very delicate and extensive series of negotiations with all the allies present in Afghanistan that to date has produced agreement among everyone that 2014 is the date at which you can go home. And the cliche you keep hearing is in together, out together.

If the administration announces what is interpreted by the alliance as a faster withdrawal than they were expecting, there's some risk that that'll trigger a race to the exit, and the effect of the U.S. withdrawal will be larger than the U.S. troop change per se. I expect the administration, other things being equal, is nervous about triggering that kind of rush to the exit.

In -- by contrast with the actual troop count, it's relatively easy for the administration to change the mission by announcing that instead of it being a combat mission, we're going to go to a training and advising mission, which is a vague term that allows for lots and lots of possible interpretations, one of which is, we're going to restrict our troops' outside-the-FOB activities dramatically; we're not going to be as engaged in actual pacification activity; we're not going to do as much patrolling, and in the -- in the process, we would reduce, it's hoped, our casualty exposure.

That would also, I suspect, dramatically reduce our ability to improve the performance of the Afghan National Security Forces. Even if we announce that the mission is training and advising, the best training and advising is done with partnered combat activity out in the field.

If we decide we're not going to do that, we could end up leaving the troops in the country and having less of an effect on alliance solidarity, but rendering them incapable of doing very much to actually accomplish the mission.

TEPPERMAN: Is -- let's say the president does determine that, for reasons of political or policy expediency, he needs to draw down. Is there a way that that can be managed and not have the results be seriously damaging or disastrous? I mean, is there -- is there an effective way, a good way to ameliorate the damage or actually end up with -- still with a positive outcome?

BIDDLE: Well, I mean, good diplomacy can reduce somewhat the negative effect on the alliance, but it's not going to eliminate it.

I'd be careful, though, about characterizations like disaster, catastrophe. I mean -- I -- what we're talking about already in Afghanistan, given decisions already made long ago now, is a situation in which if we're going to get an acceptable outcome in this conflict, it's going to be as a result of settlement talks. And the administration talks as though there are two different ways of getting an acceptable outcome. We hand off to the Afghans and they wage the war to a finish, or we negotiate a settlement with the Taliban.

The option of handing an ongoing war off to the Afghans and having them wage it to a finish, I think, is dead in the water, and not primarily because of a kind of green-on-blue, will-Afghan-allies- kill-our-troops concerns that have been most talked about lately; mainly because the original logic of handoff was that through our own effort, we were going to knock down the viability of the Taliban insurgency pretty severely before we handed off. We would therefore be handing off a manageable job of taking the Taliban the rest of the way down the glide slope into extinction, which means that you could then go to the U.S. Congress and say, guys, yeah, we're asking you to write checks for 3 (billion dollars) to 5 billion (dollars) a year to support this enormous, oversized Afghan security force, but it's only going to be for a couple of years, and then the war will end, and it can all demobilize, and you're off the hook.

That is not a viable expectation at this point in Afghanistan.

What we hand off, when we hand off, at best is going to be a stalemate. I don't personally think there's any reasonable expectation the Afghan National Security Forces are going to be able to substantially expand the zone of control that they receive from us when we hand off. At best, they can hold what we've taken. If that's the case, what we're handing off is an obligation to the U.S. Congress to write 3 (billion dollar) to $5 billion annual checks forever. And they are not going to do that.

So the handoff option amounts to enabling the Afghans to wage the war for a couple of years after 2014 until the U.S. Congress pulls the plug. One way or another, what we're talking about now is a negotiated settlement. Therefore, what happens when we draw our troop count down is what we're really doing is we're moving the likely outcome of that negotiation in the Taliban's favor rather than ours.

Either way, what we're talking about is a negotiated settlement, and the effects at this point, given all the deadlines and the withdrawal announcements and everything else we've already had, is a change at the margin in the nature of the settlement that we can expect as a result. Now, the change is negative, but the -- nonetheless, what we're talking about is a change at the margin in the nature of the likely settlement.

TEPPERMAN: Max, do you want to jump in?

BOOT: Well, I think that the odds of getting a success -- I mean, if Steve is right and our best bet is to get a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, I think the odds of that are vanishingly small because as I mentioned before, why on earth should the Taliban negotiate when we've telegraphed that we're planning to leave?

I mean, that's -- it's crazy to do that. It undermines our troops' ability to get the job done, and it undermines our ability to negotiate successfully.

I think if we're going to have any kind of success at all in Afghanistan, if we're going to salvage anything out of this mission, we need to make troop drawdowns conditions-based rather dictated by a political timeline from Washington. Our commanders on the ground there have actually developed a counterinsurgency plan, which initially focused on southern Afghanistan, where we've had considerable success over the last couple of years. Attacks there are down considerably. The Taliban have been pushed out of many of their strongholds. There has been real success, which people did not expect in the south. But then the whole operation, the whole campaign plan was premised on pivoting the focus of operations to the east, where the Haqqani Network and other insurgent groups remain a threat, often only an hour's drive from Kabul.

However, those plans have now been thrown into jeopardy by the precipitous troop drawdown which is being taken against the best advice of our military commanders. Therefore, it's making it very hard to stabilize the situation and forcing us to hand over to the Afghan security forces before they are ready an unstable situation in which, as Steve says, they will be lucky to hold their own, much less to expand the zone of control. It boggles the mind how we plan to salvage an acceptable outcome out of this current scenario.

And many of the options which I hear being talked about in Washington, I consider to be the height on unrealism, such as this notion that we can send a small special operations contingent or we can send small advisory teams and they'll do everything that the 90,000 troops we have there now are doing. That's just not the case. Those small bodies of troops will be very vulnerable to attack if the situation becomes more unstable. They'll have trouble generating intelligence if we don't have large ground elements operating in conjunction with Afghan forces.

And they will be at great risk from Taliban attacks as well as from the kind of green-on-blue incidents we've seen in the last few weeks.

So, to me, we are not on a very sustainable path right now, and I think the only way that we can salvage a decent outcome is to -- is to do what General John Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker advocate, which is to stop the precipitous drawdown and give them a chance to stabilize the situation prior to 2014.

TEPPERMAN: But given the (political ?) -- given the political imperatives here in the United States and the campaign season, et cetera, do you think that that kind of more robust approach, conditioned-based withdrawal strategy, et cetera, is -- would be political viable?

BOOT: Absolutely. I don't see any political imperative on the homefront to withdraw. It is true that the public has turned against the war and, if you look at the latest public opinion polls, roughly 55 percent say they want an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, there is no intensity to those feelings.

You do not see a single anti-war demonstration occurring; you don't see this becoming a major campaign issue in part because -- in large part because Republicans have so far backed the president, although I think by calling for such a rapid drawdown, the president is in fact imperiling Republican support and you might see more people like Newt Gingrich jump ship. But that hasn't happened so far, and so that -- most of the opposition to the policy comes from within President Obama's own party, but he can deal with that limited opposition.

So I think that despite the fact that the public has grown disenchanted with the war, the -- President Obama actually has tremendous discretion and leeway to do whatever he thinks is right.

TEPPERMAN: Thank you, Max.

Operator, let's open things up to our callers.

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

We are currently holding for questions. (Pause.) Our first question comes from Steve Collinson with ASP (sic).

QUESTIONER: (Audio break) -- Collinson with AFP. Two questions: First, how real do you think is the danger that by handing off to a support role, whatever that means, next year, NATO sort of saddles the Afghan forces with a situation they can't handle, thereby sort of creating events which undermine the whole sort of logic and premise of being able to get out by the end of 2014?

Secondly, how do you see the president's political position on this? He seems to have got into a position where he's, on the one hand, clearly would like to be able to demonstrate that -- to voters in November that the troops are coming home in fairly substantial numbers, yet he's also had to come out this week and say we can't rush for the exits. It seems to be a kind of difficult and somewhat contradictory position that he's in, and how do you think that will affect the way he tackles this policy?

BIDDLE: OK. Well, maybe I'll take first shot at it.

TEPPERMAN: Great.

BIDDLE: On the politics of this from the president's standpoint, I agree with Max that what's most striking about public opinion at the moment is the low salience of this issue in American politics. The economy and, to a lesser extent, social issues that Republicans have gratuitously put on the agenda through their primary campaign is what's dominating the debate.

From the president's standpoint, if he were to approach this in a very narrowly partisan political frame, which I'm not persuaded that he is, but if he were to do that, I think the advantageous strategy is keep this issue of the table and prevent it from becoming a topic of debate.

And I think the way you do that is by being -- by seeming reasonable and centrist, which, among other things, makes a very difficult set of challenges for the Republicans if they want to try and make the war an issue. Romney, for example, in his earliest comments about Afghanistan, was -- seemed to be struggling to avoid agreeing with the president while essentially agreeing with the president. He wanted a moderate, slow, gradual drawdown, which is essentially what the president is trying to fashion.

I think other things being equal, the president would like to be able to say, yes, I got us out of Iraq, and look, I'm getting us out of Afghanistan, but I think the political upside of that just isn't enormous, because this isn't an issue that voters particularly care about. I think mostly what he wants to do is avoid some kind of blow- up or catastrophe or something that makes the issue newsworthy and puts it on the agenda. And I think what we're seeing is mostly an attempt to continue looking reasonable and centrist and moderate, which, if it proceeds that way, will have the effect of mostly keeping the issue off the table. And I think that's probably where he wants it, and I frankly think that's where most of the Republican candidates want it.

As far as the hand-off prospects to the Afghan security forces go, the way I phrased it is, I think, the most optimistic, reasonable expectation is that the Afghan national security forces will be able to hold what has already been taken. I don't think that's the only possible projection, I thin that's the upper bound, but worse possibilities can't be excluded.

I think in particular, we know much less than I wish we knew about the politics of the Afghan national security forces as an institution.

I think when you look across the military history of the developing world -- and what we're trying to do is essentially to create a developing-world military in Afghanistan -- what usually determines success and failure is not how many training courses an army has been through or what its equipment is or whether it has foreign advisers or not. It's normally whether the military gets politicized and co-opted by a civilian regime and then loses its ability to generate combat motivation as a result.

When you look at Saddam Hussein's military in '91 and 2003, their problem was their politics, the co-optation of the military by the Baathist regime. The Thieu regime in South Vietnam -- the same story. And I think if you look at Afghanistan right now, what you see is a society in which much of commerce, politics, economics is driven by the activity of a collection of powerful patron-client networks that work by co-opting local power sources to enable them to continue to extract resources from the international community and from the civilian economy and redirect them to the benefit of powerful actors higher in the hierarchy.

In a society that's working as a collection of patron-client networks, you can expect powerful pressures on the police and on the military to cooperate with this. And if the Afghan security forces prove unable to generate combat motivation and perform in the field, the likeliest reason for that will be less that we haven't put enough advisers in the field or we haven't run them through enough training courses or we haven't given them enough M-16s as opposed to AK-47s. It's likely to be because they have become part of a deeply corrupt political system in Afghanistan.

And I don't think we have the visibility into the politics of this institution that we need to know whether that's true.

I've often gotten the sense that there's great uncertainty within the command in Afghanistan as to how transition is going to work, how well the Afghans will perform in the field when the baton is handed to them and it really is their responsibility. And I think a big part of the uncertainties that we face at the moment is this question of the politics of the institution and whether or not it's been captured in part or in whole.

What that means is I think the upper bound is fairly clear. I don't think there's any expectation that they'll be able to expand the zone of control from whatever it is when they get the baton and it's handed off to them. The lower bound we don't know. And one of the reasons, I think, why General Allen has been hopeful that he'll be able to transition to Afghan lead while there are still a lot of American forces in theater is to limit the downside perils associated with this uncertainty about what the Afghans can actually do.

TEPPERMAN: Let's take another question.

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question will come from Gary Thomas with Voice of America.

QUESTIONER: Good morning. President Karzai is calling for the U.S. troops to pull back out of the countryside and move back, I suppose, to more urban bases or more populated-area bases. What does that do to the training component of the U.S. strategy? How much does that undercut that component given that -- I suppose that you want the training to be done out there in the -- in the countryside, in the actual combat areas, rather than in, I suppose, rear areas, for lack of a better term?

TEPPERMAN: Max, you want to answer?

BOOT: Well, there's no question that the most effective training is on-the-job training where you have Afghan and American units partner together working side by side. And that's one of the reasons why I'm very concerned about the precipitous drawdown in American forces, which will make it, I think, very difficult to actually execute the advise-and-assist strategy that we're all talking about because you need to have enough forces out there to partner with the Afghans, to actually work with them.

Now in terms of what Hamid Karzai is saying, I think it's fairly unclear. He's saying that he's -- favors a more rapid transition of U.S. forces out of the villages and into larger FOBs. I mean, in principle, President Obama and General Allen favor the same thing. It's just a question of what the timeline is.

And the other element of it is that President Karzai has long been very resistant to the Afghan local police program, which was being supported by the special operations element with which the psychotic staff sergeant worked in, in Panjwayi province, because President Karzai had seen this Afghan local police program as being something that could create a militia outside of government control. And so he may very well be seizing this opportunity to undermine a program which -- of which he has been, at best, a very reluctant supporter.

TEPPERMAN: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question will from Howard LaFranchi with Christian Science Monitor.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, pretty much I -- that was what I wanted to ask, was about Karzai. But I wonder if -- since you've given that answer, do you think -- you know, when he's coming out with these proposals or these ideas for pulling back from the rural areas and things, is it related? Is he trying to basically use this situation as the SOFA discussions go on?

And also on that, Obama said again yesterday that he wanted that wrapped up by the time of the NATO summit in Chicago. And I'm wondering if you could give us a sense of what you see -- how you see that working out, the strategic partnership agreement.

BOOT: Well, as I mentioned before, I think there has been an important milestone, in that we did reach agreement on the handling of detainees, which was one of the most contentious issues in the negotiations. The other one is night raids, which now has to be worked out. I think it would e suicidal for the coalition to stop those night raids, because they are so effective in going after the insurgent leadership, and the Afghan -- the leadership of the Afghan security forces knows that, and they themselves support the night raids.

President Karzai has grabbed it as a political issue, and I suspect that there will be an opportunity to work out some kind of face-saving compromise, as there was done over the detainee issue, because fundamentally at the end of the day it is, I think, in President Karzai's interest and the interest of the Kabul elite to have a continued American commitment, because they know that without that, there will be nothing to contain the Taliban.

But their willingness to take risks for us is going to decline as our commitment to Afghanistan declines. And we have to be -- we have to be cognizant of that and we have to understand that we're not going to get what we want from either the Afghan leadership in Kabul or from the Taliban if we're signalling that our only interest is in withdrawing as fast as possible, which I'm afraid is the primary message which is getting through to the people in the region.

TEPPERMAN: But given that -- Max -- that Karzai has signalled -- many things at different times, but certainly at moments that he wants a reduced U.S. security presence, how does -- how does enhancing that presence bring him back on board?

BOOT: Well, of course, you know, if you look at Afghan public opinion, of which Karzai is a reflection, of course people in Afghanistan want a reduced U.S. presence on their soil. I mean, who wouldn't want fewer foreign troops? But at the same time, if you look at public opinion polls and if you look at what President Karzai is also saying, at least privately, they also want our troops there long enough to reduce the threat from a Taliban takeover, which would be calamitous -- not necessarily a takeover in Kabul, but simply a major unchecked Taliban offensive, which would spark a repetition of the civil war which devastated the country in the 1990s.

So I think President Karzai, like most Afghans, is pulled in conflicting directions, and his statements day-to-day reflect different sides of his brain.

But even though he makes statements about wanting to assert Afghan sovereignty and all that, he is very well-aware that his ability to stay in office and not wind up hanging from a lamppost depends very much on the presence of U.S. troops, which is why at the end of the day he has not really made any move to force us out, which he could have tried to do, and why he has been accommodating on a number of issues when pressed.

TEPPERMAN: Are there concessions that Washington could make that would help Karzai save or build up face while not giving in on the troop-number issue?

BIDDLE: Well, we have made concessions such as, I think, the detainee agreement, which was involved -- saying that we're going to transition all of the Afghan detainees to Afghan control, but at the same time there would be a board run by the commander of NATO forces and the Afghan defense minister, which would have to approve any detainee releases, which effectively gives us a veto over any release. And at the same time there would also be a presence by U.S. advisory personnel at the detention facility to make sure that the detainees are held safely and securely. That was actually, I think, a model of how you can respect Afghan sovereignty while at the same time giving us most of what we want, and it shouldn't be that -- it won't be easy, but it should not be impossible to forge a similar kind of compromise over the issue of night raids.

I would take one small exception with something that you suggested, though, which is that Karzai wants U.S. troops gone very quickly.

I don't think that's the case. In fact, I think he's quite open to a long-term presence of U.S. troops.

But I think there's a danger in Afghanistan of repeating the same mistake that the Obama administration made in Iraq, which was signaling that we are willing to send so few troops -- and remember, in the case of Iraq, there was a leak that we were only -- wanted to send something like 5,000 troops. If we're going to send so few troops, at some point the game is not worth the candle from the perspective of our local allies because they know they encourage certain risk by hosting foreign troops on their soil, but their -- the trade-off that they want to see for that is greater security for their government and their people. But if we're asking them to host a tiny little contingent which cannot possibly deliver security for the people of Afghanistan or for the government of Afghanistan, you know, why should Hamid Karzai or any other leader in Afghanistan incur all the risk of hosting U.S. forces if they're not going to get much benefit from it? And that's something we need to be very cognizant of.

TEPPERMAN: Let's take another question, please.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question will come from independent journalist Terence Smith (sp).

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Good morning. I wonder if Stephen or Max or both can shed any light on the prospects for and the status of the negotiations with the Taliban, if you can even use that word.

BIDDLE: Well, maybe I'll start on that one. There's a tendency in the U.S. debate to say the only way we can negotiate with the Taliban is if we can show them that we're going to win and that if the Taliban think either that we're going to lose or that they can wait us out, there will be no negotiated settlement.

I think that's overstated. If you turn this problem around and you look at the war from the Taliban's perspective, so far at least, on the basis of decisions that have already actually been announced, I think it looks something like this: We can, if we are willing to do it, wait out the West and eventually get an exposed Afghan government that we can probably topple.

That's not going to happen while the Americans are in the theater, and it's not going to happen, for that matter, in all likelihood, while the Congress continues to fund an Afghan security force of today's size. As long as those two -- as either of those two things are the case, what we're looking at is an extremely unpleasant stalemate.

Now, the U.S. Congress is certainly going to fund this thing for at least a couple of years after 2014. My guess is they'll lose patience with this after they've tried a couple of years of funding and seen nothing but stalemate as a result. A reasonable Taliban expectation is that this war runs at least until 2016-ish. At that point maybe what they get is the ability to topple the government, and that will lead to a civil war. It won't lead to Taliban immediate takeover of the country. The northerners have already made it clear that they're arming pre-emptively and -- to prepare themselves against exactly this outcome.

So what this war looks like, if waged to extremists, from the Taliban's perspective, is a continued grinding stalemate until 2016, after which you get the opportunity to wage a civil war for who knows how many years after that. And in the meantime the Americans, with the night raids and the drone attacks that Max was talking about earlier, are taking a steady and increasing toll of Taliban leadership.

So I suspect that it is at least a possibility that a reasonably rational Taliban leadership of one or more of their principal factions could look at this prospect of waging grinding, stalemated war until at least 2016 and maybe, who knows, 2020, and -- all of which they have a significant chance of getting killed themselves personally before that happens, and ask themselves: Is there nothing the West can offer us that looks better than that?

Now, note that even if they think that by 2016, 2018, 2020 they come out with a victory, it can still be the case that they conclude that the cost of getting to that victory is unpleasant enough that some sort of compromise solution looks better than that and they might be willing to do a deal. And I think part of the reason why they're negotiating at all is that the prospect of fighting this thing out to a finale doesn't look all that pleasant to them and they're at least open to suggestion that there might be some sort of compromise that looks better than that.

Now, when I said earlier that what the war is about right now is it's over the terms of a likely deal, the issue at stake at the moment is how much of a concession do we have to make in order to get them to be willing to make some key concessions that are required for a deal. They have to be willing to give up violence, they have to be willing to break with al-Qaida, they have to be willing to accept something that looks like a relatively pluralist Afghan constitution, and so on.

I think over time as a function of the signals we send about how expensive we are willing to make this for them, through things like how long we're willing to keep our troops in the country and what kind of numbers and so on, what we're doing is we're changing at the margin their willingness to make concessions and how many concessions they're willing to make, and there are going to be all sorts of bumps and grinds along the way where we see things like we're seeing right now, where, for probably tactical reasons, the Taliban announce suspensions of participation, they try and isolate the Afghan government to a bilateral discussion with the United States, and so on and so on and so on.

I think all of this suggests to me, at least, that the prospects for a negotiated settlement are a long way from perfect.

I don't think there's anything like an 80 percent probability that this produces a successful result, but I don't think it's zero either. And I think given all sorts of decisions that have already been made and are not conceivably going to get reversed -- even if a Republican gets elected president, we are not bringing back a hundred thousand American troops in Afghanistan. That's water over the dam at this point.

Given where we are, I think the best prospect is negotiation. Negotiation is going to involve compromise on both sides, including ours. It might fail even so, but it's not hopeless, and I think the conduct of the war should be directed at this point towards improving the prognosis in those talks.

TEPPERMAN: We have another question, please.

OPERATOR: Yes, our next question comes from Paul Adams with the BBC.

QUESTIONER: Oh, hi. Thank you very much, gentlemen. And actually, that last answer covered an awful lot of the ground I was going to ask you about. I just wondered if you could -- I mean, in the light of the Taliban's apparent statement today on negotiations, if you could just give us a sense of where you think right now those nascent negotiations, if you can call them that at all, were. What was going on? What, if anything, are we learning about the talks or the talks about talks?

BOOT: I think what we're learning is that the Taliban don't have much incentive to negotiate. And I -- and I disagree with Steve here because he talks about the Taliban want to avoid years of war. But remember that the people who call the shots within the Taliban and the Haqqani leadership are not themselves on the front lines. They have secure sanctuaries in Pakistan. They're not being targeted or very rarely are being targeted by American attacks. So they can continue fighting endlessly using the money that they have from various sources, from the drug trade to Gulf Arabs and other sources, to recruit relatively low-cost fighters within Afghanistan itself.

So I don't think that there is such pressure on the Taliban that they actually see a peace deal as being in their interest unless the kind of peace deal they strike would be along the lines of the one that North Vietnam struck with the United States in the Paris Peace Accords, where they basically provide a fig leaf to allow a faster pullout by American forces, which then allows them to restart their offensive without interference from us. That's the kind of peace deal I could see them actually taking.

But if we're talking about them negotiating in good faith and actually being willing to give up their war and participate in a political process in Afghanistan that respects basic human rights, I would say the odds of that are very small and getting smaller as we signal that our primary imperative is to leave, and by the way, one of the things that we're also contemplating doing is not only drawing down our own forces, but we also want to cut funding for the Afghan National Security Forces dramatically, which will require a vast reduction in their ranks.

There's been talk about cutting the size of the Afghan security forces by about 120,000 personnel from their current level of 350,000. Nothing has been decided, but if you do that kind of cut, you're going to dramatically decrease the level of forces that the Taliban face at the same time you're going to set loose a bunch of armed and trained men without many prospects of employment. Many of them would probably join the drug dealers or the Taliban. You could see a collapse of confidence within the Afghan national security forces.

So I see a lot of scenarios here that are favorable to the Taliban. And as I see our will to secure a decent outcome, as I see our will decreasing, I also see the prospects of any kind of acceptable negotiated outcome decreasing as well.

TEPPERMAN: Max, why do you see them having gotten involved in the talks in the first place? Was it because at the beginning the United States seemed more resolved, or was it precisely to engineer this kind of fig-leaf deal that you're referring to, that hastens an American withdrawal?

BOOT: Well, it's hard to know. I mean, we've certainly dangled a carrot in front of their faces, which is offering to release something like half-a-dozen senior Taliban commanders from Guantanamo, which I'm sure they'd love to see happen. There's also -- one can also theorize -- and again, nobody really knows -- one can theorize that the Taliban have been hammered in their southern strongholds over the last couple of years, and they would like some breathing room in order to reconstitute their capabilities. That's a possibility as well. But is there any evidence that they've actually been hammered so hard that they're willing to give up the fight? I haven't seen any -- any evidence of that.

TEPPERMAN: Can we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. (Gives queuing instructions.) We have a question from Garrett (sic\Garrick) Mitchell with the Mitchell Report.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks. And thanks for doing this.

A two-part question, the first having to do with the debate we're having about Afghanistan, and we had it about Iraq, about whether public announcements or leaks, or both, of force structure and strength in conflicts like Iraq or Afghanistan, aside from the sort of two dueling perspectives, which is, if you tell them, they'll wait you out, to the other perspective that doesn't see it that way. Is there any scholarship around that that suggests that doing it -- that making announcements public actually is against the interest of the United States, in this case, or whether it ultimately doesn't make any difference? I'm just wondering whether we can sort of get above the two dueling perspectives and whether you know of any research, any scholarship that sort of gets at that.

The second question I want to ask is about this business of negotiating with the Taliban, which is not unrelated to the first part of the question. I wonder -- question mark -- for both of you, when we speak of the Taliban in conversations like this, we speak as though it's a single entity, and I'm wondering whether what we really are dealing with is something more like the situation in Palestine, where, if one says can we get an agreement with the Palestinians, one has to say, well, there's Hamas and Fattah, and you might get agreement with Fattah but you won't with Hamas. I'm wondering if there isn't something like that bifurcation that we're dealing with with the Taliban which makes both negotiating with them an uncertain proposition at best and a sort of rhetorical exercise at worst.

TEPPERMAN: Thank you. so we're running a bit short on time, so let me try and summarize the question into a briefer form so that both Max and Stephen can get in.

The question -- the first part of the question is, should we be having these debates on strategy in private because doing it publicly gives comfort to the enemy?

And second of all, is there a single unitary Taliban to negotiate with?

TEPPERMAN: Stephen, you want to start?

BIDDLE: OK. Should we be having these debates in private? Certainly military strategy is normally (best ranged ?) in private for all sorts of reasons. You're telling the enemy things; you're also creating difficulties in alliance management with this sort of public deliberation.

I think what's going on is the administration is trying to gauge -- I suspect -- is the administration is trying to gauge public reaction. Now, that, in itself, is not illegitimate. I mean, part of the job of national leadership in time of war is it's the responsibility of the commander in chief to maintain a domestic consensus sufficient to keep the war funded.

Now, in an ideal world, part of that is counting votes, judging public reaction, reading tea leaves, and some degree of running things up the flag pole of this kind might in principle be supportive of that. It -- quite frankly, I don't think that's necessary at this point, at this moment, in this war.

I think, again, the dominating feature of public opinion on this -- and this is demonstrated both by polling results and by observations in the conduct of the primary campaign and the recent midterm elections -- is that this is not a sufficiently salient issue among the public to constrain decision-makers. I don't think they need these kinds of trial balloons, therefore, and what we've got instead is a situation in which we're accepting all the costs associated with signaling lack of resolve to the opposition and changing the likely bargaining space in the talks and in complicating our relationship with our allies in exchange for no meaningful improvement in the ability to sustain a domestic funding coalition, which I think is essentially there anyway, given that no one's willing to accept large political costs over Afghanistan one way or the other.

As far as the unitary Taliban is concerned, certainly they're not. I mean, there are three major and lots of minor factions: the quite assured Taliban (center ?) Mullah Omar (ph), the Haqqani network and the Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin in the north. The interesting thing, though, and the complexity of these talks, because of the fact that the Taliban is not a unified alliance, is one more reason to be concerned that the talks might not yield a successful conclusion. And again, I'm more optimistic on this than Max, for a variety of reasons, but I'm not suggesting that the probability of a -- of a successful negotiation is anything like 1.0 for this and other reasons.

It's interesting to note in this context, though, that the Haqqanis have, on several occasions in the last year, gone to substantial pains to suggest that there is no daylight between themselves and the Quetta shura on the issue of talks. And the formulation they've tended to adopt has been we will agree to a settlement if the Quetta shura does. And I think what that's designed to suggest is, A, if the Americans think they can drive a wedge between us and Mullah Omar (ph), think again, we -- you can't, but, B, that they're not closing the door on negotiations.

And I think for -- with respect to both the Haqqanis and the Quetta shura and everyone else in the Taliban side of this problem, they bear substantial costs in beginning talks. If they had no interest in a negotiated settlement, I think their self-interest lies in stonewalling these kinds of negotiations. When they begin talks, especially in an organization that is not a unified command structure, which the Taliban certainly is not, they create all sorts of uncertainty within their own ranks about what kinds of deals are being made behind their backs. And I think there's substantial reason to believe that, in fact, by being willing to participate in talks at all, the Taliban are incurring a cost in terms of the degree of confidence that their own field leadership has and what the senior leadership back in Pakistan is doing behind their backs. I think they're -- and they're aware of this.

I think their willingness to engage in talks anyway suggests that there's some nonzero, not a 100 percent, but some nonzero interest on their part in getting some kind of a deal at the end of the process. It's not going to be surrender instrument, that it's going to be at best some kind of a compromise.

TEPPERMAN: We have time for about one more question.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our last question will come from Alexander Gasyuk from Russia Gazette.

QUESTIONER: Good morning and thank you for doing this. Pentagon buys Russian-made helicopters, MI-17s for Afghan National Army. But, at the same time, American lawmakers, several of them, urged the Pentagon to stop doing this.

Do you believe this is something -- what's going to happen? And if yes, where does it leave Afghanistan in terms of its security needs? And more generally, if you could elaborate on the role of Russia in Afghanistan settlement, it would be highly appreciated.

Thank you.

TEPPERMAN: You may want to touch, in answering, on the announcement today that the Russians may allow American use of an air base --

QUESTIONER: Yes, exactly.

TEPPERMAN: -- (inaudible). Yeah.

BOOT: Well --

TEPPERMAN: Max, you want to take it?

BOOT: I mean, I don't really have any opinion about which helicopters we should be buying for the Afghan security forces. I mean, I think they're used to Russian helicopters, but I don't think it much matters whether they're Russian, American, French, whatever. I think Russia can have a marginally useful role, especially as it facilitates logistics lines in and out of Afghanistan. I don't think it has that much sway in terms of a negotiated settlement or final outcome in Afghanistan.

The point I would like to close on is that I think, ultimately, a lot of the outcome here is still in our hands, and a lot of it is really dependent upon the will and the ability of the -- of the White House to see through a war effort into which it has invested considerable resources of both blood and treasure.

And unfortunately, I see that will wavering at the moment. I think what I see is that President Obama is really caught between two dueling imperatives. One is the imperative to go into this election in the fall by saying that I ended a war in Iraq and I'm ending a war in Afghanistan; the tide of war is receding; I am the peace president. I think he very much wants to campaign along those lines.

But at the same time, he's aware that it -- his long-term legacy, especially if he wins a second term, is going to depend to some extent on what Afghanistan looks like. And if history judges that an overly precipitous American pullout set the stage for a calamitous civil war and a resurgence of Afghanistan as a -- as a staging ground for international terrorists, then that will be a major blot on -- not only on the U.S. and our interests, but also on President Obama and his standing in history. So I think he's caught between these two dueling imperatives between presenting himself as the peace candidate whereas at the same time preventing a disaster from occurring in Afghanistan.

And like most politicians, I think he's been trying to split the difference by pursuing a somewhat ambitious strategy, but making it time-limited by not sending quite as many forces as the generals would like, pulling them out faster than the generals would like and so forth. And unfortunately, war is a very unforgiving environment in which half-measures and compromises often don't achieve half of what you want; often they achieve none of what you want and set the stage for a calamitous defeat. And I'm afraid that may be where we're heading, even though I think President Obama may want to avoid that, but I'm concerned that his split-the-differences approach is not producing a coherent policy that would allow us to salvage our core interests in Afghanistan.

TEPPERMAN: Thank you, Max.

Since we let Stephen start the conversation, it seems only fair to let Max conclude it.

Thank you all so much for calling in and joining us, and thank you especially to Stephen Biddle and to Max Boot for this spectacular briefing.

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Don't Go Wobbly

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Despite the last week's setbacks, Max Boot argues for a firm commitment to a future U.S. presence in Afghanistan.