AC: "It will be a responsible withdrawal, and it will be based upon the conditions on the ground."

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Anderson Cooper talks with Michael, Chris Lawrence, Peter Bergen, David Gergen, and Robin Wright (from the US Institute of Peace) about the withdrawal date of July 2011, whether we are doing nation-building, and whether corruption really matters.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Selling the strategy -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and top commanders rolling out and selling President Obama's so-called troop surge for Afghanistan and the date he set, about 20 months from now, for starting -- starting -- to bring them home.

Today on Capitol Hill, tough questions for Secretary Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen and Secretary of State Clinton, pushback from Republicans over the conditional deadline, and from Democrats for not pulling out now.


REP. GARY ACKERMAN (D), NEW YORK: My president sold me a clunker, and I paid for it with my children's and my constituent's children and grandchildren's cash.

I guess the question I would ask is this. As of 8:00 last night, do we have a new war, or do we have an old war under new ownership?

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I think we have -- we have inherited the same war, but is it a dynamic war. And -- and, frankly, the situation is getting worse. The fire is getting hotter.


COOPER: Over on the Senate side, John McCain, who favors sending more troops, took issue with the 2011 deadline.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: When conditions on the ground have decisively begun to change for the better, that is when our troops should start to return home with honor, not one minute longer, not one minute sooner, and certainly not on some arbitrary date in July 2011.


COOPER: General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, joins us now.

General, your take on what Senator McCain said? I mean, is this just an arbitrary date?

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: That date is when you start the transition of tasks to Afghan security forces.

And the pace of that transition, the pace of the drawdown is conditions-based. Those were words in the speech last night, and, frankly, I think very realistic and quite reassuring.

COOPER: Why that date? I mean, Defense Secretary Gates indicated today the date was at least in part a response to U.S. domestic politics.

PETRAEUS: Well, I think there are a number of audiences, actually, for that kind of date. One probably is a U.S. public, after eight years of war. Also the Afghan people, they also want their forces to take over. Perhaps even some of us. You know, get on with it. We have to get going with this effort. And having that mark on the wall out there, I think, is -- has that purpose, if you will.

COOPER: But, you know, I mean, every village I went to with the Marines in Helmand in September, the local elder would say to the Marine in charge, when are -- how long are you guys going to be here? Because the Taliban is going to be here an awfully long time. They're going to wait you out. What assurances can you give me that you're going to be here for a long time?

And the Marines could basically say, well, look, we know when we're being redeployed. We know who is replacing us. Beyond that, we can't tell you.

Now are we going to say, well, July 2011?

PETRAEUS: Oh, I don't think so at all, Anderson, actually.

I think, again, if you go back to the words of the speech, what that said is, that's when you start to transition. And I think that's a realistic goal to have out there. With 18 months more of quite substantial forces on the ground, I think it is reasonable. I think it is doable to be able to begin to transition to Afghan security forces.

COOPER: Well, let's dig deeper now with our panel.

Joining us, Michael Ware, Chris Lawrence, both who have spent considerable time in Afghanistan. So has national security analyst Peter Bergen. Also with us, senior political analyst David Gergen, and Robin Wright, a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and author of "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East."

David Gergen, you just heard Petraeus trying to couch what the president said last night. The bottom line, though, I mean, the president did in fact announce a date. Was that the right thing to do?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Anderson, I -- it was -- I think Fareed Zakaria said last night he had been at the White House for that luncheon yesterday with columnists. And he concluded that the day had a lot to do with politics and a political calender.

But I think it's important to understand, what the White House is trying to say is, the public won't sustain, won't support an open-ended war. And they had to -- and this worked out to be a logical time to begin the drawdown.

The danger, of course, is -- and people have immediately said, no, this has a lot more to do with President Obama's reelection and trying to save Democratic seats than it does with the situation in Afghanistan. So, it is -- I think it's going to be a subject of deep debate in this country, and it's going to cause the conservatives in particular to question the president's strategy from here on out.

COOPER: Michael Ware, what kind of a message does it send to the Taliban, who watch this kind of stuff very closely?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, obviously, as everybody openly concedes, that assists the Taliban, to know that America is setting a deadline, no matter how firm or fixed or not.

They will play the waiting game. There's absolutely no question about that. However, I dare say that this date is not set in stone. I mean, even the president last night said it will be a responsible withdrawal, and it will be based upon the conditions on the ground.

COOPER: And just the start is 2011. And that doesn't -- the start means the actual withdrawal could take years.

WARE: Exactly. Exactly. And it could be a long drawn-out process. I think, you know, it's right. Let's not joke about this. This withdrawal date, however real or not it is, is simply about American domestic politics. It's about keeping the left in the Democratic Party vaguely happy. And it's about leading up to a presidential election in 2012. Militarily, it doesn't serve a great purpose.

COOPER: Robin Wright, I read one blogger saying today, well, so what if the Taliban just try to wait us out. Then it will basically be the responsibility of the Afghan forces, who presumably, by then, will be more able to take on the Taliban directly.

ROBIN WRIGHT, FELLOW, U.S. INSTITUTE OF PEACE: Well, that's assuming that the United States is unable to accomplish anything in the 18 months.

And I think that, unlike the previous eight years, that this is going to be a time of really intense confrontation and trying to carve out new space. And if the Taliban steps back and goes underground during that period, that just leaves more room for the United States and its allies in NATO to take greater control on the ground, create a different reality economically with the new project on agriculture for the Afghan people, that that strategy could backfire for the Taliban.

COOPER: Peter, your take on having some sort of a date?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I mean, I agree with everything that's been said, but there's another audience, which is the Afghans themselves, which is to signal to them that it is a not an open-ended, you know, just long-term commitment with no deadlines.

COOPER: You're talking about the Afghan government as kind of a wakeup call?

BERGEN: Yeah. Yeah.

And I think -- but, clearly, it's -- it's conditions-based. So, there's very few places right now where the Afghan army or the Afghan police can really take over in any meaningful way. That's not going to change very dramatically in 18 months, but it could -- obviously, it could be better. The Afghan army is pretty ineffective right now.

That was true of the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, now both of them much more effective.

COOPER: How come they're...

WARE: That's the exact point I was thinking of. We heard this before from the Bush administration, setting a date to force the Maliki government in Iraq to step up and hurry up and get ready to take responsibility. That really didn't happen. Their troops and their police didn't really get that much better in an accelerated way. We just learned to accept them doing it in the Iraqi way.

COOPER: I want to talk to Chris Lawrence, who just got back from Afghanistan, on the other side of this break about morale of U.S. forces that he found on the ground.

We're going to have more with our panel in a moment.

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COOPER: Thirty thousand more troops to Afghanistan, now, the first may arrive in the next several weeks. They're going to be heading into Taliban hot spots, trying to protect civilians, clearing the area, building physical structures, governance capabilities, and trust.

The White House, though, saying the mission is not nation-building.

I asked General Petraeus about the apparent difference between what's being said in the White House Briefing Room and what the mission looks like on the ground.


COOPER: The Marines I was with would talk about their strategy, clear, hold, and build. I assume that is still the overall strategy for commanders on the ground.

And they talk about build, they talk about building governance capabilities in villages. Isn't that, in effect, nation-building?

PETRAEUS: Well, what they are really doing there is trying to help reestablish the traditional social organizing structures in Afghan society that in many cases have been damaged or literally torn asunder by the Taliban, by this 30-plus years of war that Afghanistan has experienced.

COOPER: Well, that sounds like nation-building.

PETRAEUS: So, it is trying to provide security -- it is trying to provide security for local communities, so that the traditional structures can once again be the organizing feature, if you will, in those villages, in the valleys, and that they then tie into the district and provincial and ultimately national structures.

COOPER: But how is what we're doing not nation-building?

PETRAEUS: I'm not saying that it's not nation-building. I'm not sure what you're getting at here.

But, I mean, what we're doing is a comprehensive...



PETRAEUS: ... counterinsurgency campaign plan.

It is -- it has focused objectives. One of the products of this deliberation that has taken place over the last several months, which has tested and retested all the different concepts and ideas and assumptions, is indeed quite focused objectives.


COOPER: Back now with our panel.

Chris Lawrence, you were just in Afghanistan. No one in Washington wants to say it's nation-building. But it's nation-building.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, but the thing is, Anderson, I think, when you talk to these troops on the ground, they're not throwing around terms like that, you know. And I think we have talked so much about when we're getting out and this date to getting out. Talk about getting in. When President Obama announced those 30,000 troops going in, there were a lot of happy Marines.

WARE: Oh, yes. Heck yes.

LAWRENCE: There were Marines saying: We want to fight.

You know, we get so caught up in the exit strategy and like that, you....


COOPER: But in Helmand Province right now, Peter, as we just saw on the ground, I mean, there's not a lot of kinetic activity, as they say. There's not a lot of confrontation with the Taliban. There's IEDs going off. People are getting killed, but it's a lot of going to villages, having tea with people.

BERGEN: And, interestingly, you know, there are 11,000 Marines and there just seem to be a handful of U.S. government officials. I mean, if the idea is that this is supposed to be largely a sort of political, nonmilitary -- everything is being done by the military, which is just the way the American government is organized right now.

And it's very, very clear in Helmand. The civilian surge which is supposed to be part of this..

COOPER: It's not happening?

BERGEN: It's happening very, very slowly.

COOPER: Right.

WARE: Yeah, yeah. It's almost nonexistent.

And the building block of power in Helmand Province haven't changed. It's still...

COOPER: And Helmand Province here and Kandahar, I mean, this is the main area where -- of Taliban activity.

WARE: Absolutely. This is what we're talking about, southern Afghanistan here.

I mean, yes, you have got Kabul, but you have not got a history of a strong central government in this country. There are -- so many questions that have local answers to them. And we haven't been addressing them on that level.

COOPER: If -- I mean, the Afghans did pretty well fighting the Soviets.

WARE: Right.

COOPER: How come we're having so much trouble training the Afghan army?

WARE: But they didn't do that -- they didn't do that as a national army.


COOPER: It was local forces.

WARE: They did that as...

LAWRENCE: ... modeled as an American police force or an American army.

WARE: Right. They did it as bands of guerrillas.

COOPER: But you hear from people saying, well, look, the Afghan forces are illiterate. But they were illiterate when they were fighting the Soviets, Peter.

BERGEN: Right. I mean, actually, in Pashto, the word for cousin and enemy is the same word.


BERGEN: So, I mean, low-level endemic warfare is just a way of life in Afghanistan. These people love to fight.

COOPER: Are we trying to train them in a way that's not appropriate?

BERGEN: I think that's right.

WARE: And we're enforcing our expectations, our models, our values.

COOPER: David Gergen, I mean, it is nation-building when you look at it on the ground.

GERGEN: Anderson, I think it's nation-building-lite.

Yes, of course it is a form of trying to get some fundamental organizations together, to get security forces into villages, to get some order, and try to leave that behind. But what the president explicitly rejected in his councils was that there were some in the Pentagon who called for a very significant buildup. And they wanted to have a five- to 10-year commitment.

That was the true nation-building proposal. And it was to leave a lot of Americans in there for five to 10 years, put in a lot of money, with contractors contracting out, build up the civilian side. And what the president said was, no, I'm not going to do that. It's too open-ended. The country won't pay a -- spend a trillion dollars in Afghanistan. We're going to have to start pulling the plug.

And he's come up with this compromise plan. It's not pleasing anybody. It has got a very small number of people in the middle. But I do think -- I don't think it's appropriate to call it the true nation-building.

COOPER: Right.

GERGEN: It's nation-building-lite.

COOPER: Robin, can the Taliban be co-opted?

WRIGHT: Oh, I think that's a very good question.

I think this is not like Iraq, in that the dynamics are very different. There may be some that can be peeled away, but I'm not sure we're going to see an awakening, like we did in Iraq.

COOPER: I mean, the -- the military is saying 60 percent to 70 percent are not hard-core ideologues and may be folks that can be dealt with in one way or another.

WRIGHT: Well, it depends on what the alternatives are. And this is why what -- this whole idea of nation-building is really so important. And what the administration is talking about is not nation-building in the classical sense of propping up a strong central government.

It is, as you've been discussing, dealing with the local environments, with the provinces, and trying to help them take over. And that's where we're looking for a similar kind of awakening, by making the local agents, the local leaders, the traditional powers strong enough that they can take on the Taliban, and that some of the Taliban may be lured away from the Taliban to side with their traditional leaders.

COOPER: All right, we are going to have more from our panel after this break.

We want to tackle the question of corruption, how important that is, whether it puts the entire mission in jeopardy, or whether it's a red herring, whether it's not as important as a lot of people say it's been.

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COOPER: During a discussion earlier about nation-building, General Petraeus said we're not trying to turn Afghanistan into another Sweden, which would be a miracle. In a recent study, Sweden ranks as one of the least corruption nations on Earth, Afghanistan second worst on the planet.

But if building another Sweden is impossible, is building any kind of legitimate government any easier? I asked the general about it.


COOPER: How important is limiting corruption in Afghanistan? The White House says it was looking for promises from President Hamid Karzai before making a decision on troop levels. He gave reform lip service, certainly, in his inaugural speech.

Whether or not they're able to deliver on that, can we win in Afghanistan without limiting corruption? Does it matter?

PETRAEUS: Well, clearly, it matters enormously, Anderson. As you know, clearly a government has to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people for them to support it. And popular support for, again, the government at whatever level is a necessary component to achieving progress in this kind of endeavor.

We did hear, as you noted, some encouraging words from President Karzai, clear recognition of the importance of combating the corruption that has characterized some of the governmental institutions in Afghanistan, some in quite a severe manner.

And, in fact, in recent weeks, actually, there have been some arrests, charges brought against some fairly senior governmental officials, a border police commander, some ministers, and so forth. And we will have to see if this now follows through, if indeed this is a commitment that is really turned into action and is operationalized, if you will, because it is a very important element in the overall way ahead.


COOPER: Let's talk again with our panel, many of whom -- all of us at this table -- have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan over the years.

Peter, do you agree with that? Does corruption really matter?

BERGEN: Well, it matters, but I think order is more important than corruption. I mean, bringing security is -- that's what Afghans want.

There's been quite a lot of polling on this issue. The last government really that brought a lot of security to the country was the Taliban, which is hardly a very legitimate government, but they did bring security. And, so...

COOPER: So, it doesn't matter changing the essential nature of the Afghan government; it doesn't matter, necessarily, to eliminate the opium trade?

WARE: Oh, no, that's not going to change at all. I mean, that's the oxygen that the economy is breathing.

And, I mean, no matter what government is in place -- for example, Spin Boldak, which is just south of Kandahar, is a border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you're made the police chief or the border patrol chief of a border checkpoint, you are now a rich man. And that's how it works.

COOPER: Because you're taking taxes. You've got a cut of everything that goes through.

WARE: That's how it works. Why on earth would you want to be a district chief of your village, when you have got all this responsibility, you have got to protect people, unless you are getting something for it?

COOPER: But -- but...

WARE: That's what -- that's what runs this place.

COOPER: Robin, do you agree with that? I mean, doesn't that undercut the legitimacy of what the U.S. is trying to do there, if they're trying to instill a sense of trust in a local government, governor, and in the national government in Afghanistan?

WRIGHT: U.S. strategy is today almost as vulnerable politically as it is militarily, because of the central government, because of the widespread belief that President Karzai and many in his government are engaged in, not only corrupt practices, but the drug trade as well.

I disagree with Michael a little bit on the impact of the drug trade, in that -- on the average farmer in Afghanistan. They don't make that much. And many of them -- I have walked through those poppy fields many times and heard from many that they would rather grow something else, but that this was more profitable.

Now they have found studies that pomegranates and there are other commodities that could create alternatives. The key here is creating security, so that you can begin getting some of those farmers to look at alternative crops, and not get -- not have their whole lives wrapped up in this corrupt practice.

COOPER: One of the problems, of course, the thing that promotes opium is that it's something that can just be stored for long periods of time, doesn't go bad. So, if there's a bad season one year, if the market is bad one year, it can be still sold the following year.

WARE: And you can warehouse it for that bad season.

COOPER: Right.

WARE: And the price is going to go up. I mean, we saw the Taliban actually did that. When they stopped people growing, they had massive stockpiles, and they profited enormously.

COOPER: Let's take a look at the map in terms of strength of the Taliban and where they are. I mean, where is the -- where are the biggest hot spots?

WARE: Well, obviously, the Taliban, you know, has always come from and always shall have its power bases in the south. Principally, this is the heartland of the Taliban.

COOPER: Kandahar.

WARE: That's where it was born. That's where it was born bred. And, from there, that's where it spreads.

COOPER: And it's a major city, Kandahar, in this region, which is not really under control of U.S. forces.

WARE: Oh, absolutely not. I mean, there's a token Canadian presence there, but I was just in Kandahar, what, about eight weeks ago. And Kandahar itself is divided into, you know, 14, 17 neighborhoods.

There's a couple of neighborhoods the police can't go into.

COOPER: And we're seeing...

WARE: And every -- every district around it is controlled by the Taliban. The capital, Kandahar, is under siege.

COOPER: And if you look at the American flags, this is where American forces are. And it's in the heart of the battle zone.

LAWRENCE: Yes. We went to one police checkpoint in the Arghandab River Valley where...

WARE: The Arghandab, perfect example.

LAWRENCE: Yes, where the Taliban control, where the police literally are afraid to leave their police station, because they get shot at when they leave.

WARE: And Arghandab used to be denied to the Taliban. But the ancient -- or the elderly tribal leader who controlled the area died. Now, during the three days of mourning for his funeral, the Taliban literally flooded back in. But, while he was alive, he kept them out.

COOPER: David Gergen, I want to -- I know I cut you off -- David.

GERGEN: No, I just wanted to add one thing, Anderson, about where we are domestically 24 hours after the president's speech, because I think a couple of important things have happened.

You talked last night a lot about this started the president's selling last night with the speech. Anderson, the last -- the last 24 hours already have been his best shot, with his speech and then the testimony today.

Starting tomorrow, the -- you know, the picture starts becoming more cluttered. He has a jobs summit Thursday. Then he has jobs numbers Friday. He goes to Copenhagen for climate change on -- next week. Then he goes to Oslo.

He -- they have now had their best shot. And I think two things have emerged. First, I think it's relatively clear he has not achieved the unity in the country that he is seeking that he spoke of last night. People are still -- you know, there's a lot of skepticism about it.

But, very importantly, for him, it has emerged now on Capitol Hill that it looks like the Congress will support him, a majority will support him financially, so it will give him permission to go ahead. And that was a big achievement for them today, that they could hold the Congress.

COOPER: I have got to leave it there.

David Gergen, Robin Wright, Peter Bergen, Michael Ware, Chris Lawrence, appreciate all of you being with us. Thanks very much.