GPS: "This is a mission both politically and militarily in crisis."
September 13, 2009
In an interview recorded Thursday, Fareed Zakaria asks Michael to evaluate the American mission in Afghanistan, compare it to Iraq, and discuss the close call with the IED last week.
FAREED ZAKARIA: CNN's Correspondent Michael Ware has just spent a week in the dangerous Afghan city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. He grew a beard, wore Afghan dress, spent time with local warlords, went on night patrols with the Afghan police, all in an effort to get a real sense of how strong the Taliban is and how successful the military mission over there.
Michael, let's start with the heart of this - your assessment. How is it going?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Very, very badly, Fareed. This is a mission both politically and militarily in crisis. Politically, this nation is in limbo. They don't even have finalized results for the outcome of last month's presidential election because the result counting has been bogged down in a storm of substantive corruption allegations. That alone, no matter who is the winner, is going to strip the next administration of the legitimacy the American mission here was so desperately hoping the election would deliver.
Militarily, the entire war plan is up in the air and under review, and for good reason. On the ground, there's simply not enough US or coalition, NATO troops, Afghan troops, Afghan police to put a significant dent in the Taliban war machine. Even what we dub as "Obama's War," this massive offensive in Helmand, is doing very little to the Taliban infrastructure. The Americans and the British there combined moving into Helmand are simply taking a small bite of what is really a very big apple down there in the south, and in no way is it affecting the Taliban's command and control system or its broader bases or supply systems.
So this really is a mission in crisis - Fareed.
ZAKARIA: Michael, you were in Iraq around the time of the surge. Make some comparisons. What is the Afghan army strike you like compared with the Iraqi army in 2006, 2007?
WARE: Well, there's absolutely no comparison. As flawed or as challenged as the Iraqi army might be, it is light years ahead of the Afghan National Army. The Afghan National Army is many, many, many years away from being able to stand up on its own two feet, even if America stayed in the country to underwrite it, as we're seeing in Iraq. That's simply not going to happen any time soon.
However, we may soon see America drawing upon its lessons from Iraq. What we have here now in Afghanistan is a situation where we may look at the development of US-backed tribal militias who will go and fight the Taliban in the areas where America cannot fight. Now, militarily, these militias act as a force multiplier. They add to the projection of power of the American forces, simply by weight of numbers. In terms of local knowledge, they are unparalleled and can do far more than any foreign troops. They'll also not only have much greater ability at attacking that Taliban war machine and starting to put some kind of a crimp in it, it will also be a form of confrontation between the United States and the Pakistani Intelligence Agency that allows the Afghan Taliban to take sanctuary in Pakistan - Fareed.
ZAKARIA: Michael, I agree with you. I think that is the key here, which is to replicate that element of the surge which was to draw -- to divide the enemy, to draw some of these people into -- to start fighting for the Americans. Why hasn't it happened? It is something I've asked senior officials and I get a variety of answers. Some of them blame the Afghans, they blame Karzai. They say he wants this started by going to Mullah Omar, which is a non-starter. Some blame the Americans. They say they're sitting there waiting for strategic advantage. On the ground, what does it look like to you? Why aren't we making deals with locals?
WARE: That has been a spectacular failure here in Afghanistan, Fareed. I mean, over the past eight years America has proved particularly inept at addressing even just the tribal issue. Harnessing the power of the tribes or at least engaging in a significant way with them. Yes, America has had its favorites from the beginning, either warlords or particular tribes who were attractive to it at the time of 9/11. However, the situation pre-9/11, pre-Afghan invasion has changed dramatically -- without surprise -- in these eight years, and America has been very slow to react to that situation.
I was at ISAF Headquarters just the other day, sitting down with some of the men addressing this issue, and I have to say there has been an awakening, and I think you'll find that some kind of tribal militia solution that may include some of the old warlords from the Soviet era who defeated the Russia- - the Soviet army here in the '80s may become a part of the solution that General McChrystal offers to President Obama. Certainly, we have a senior Afghan government official, an official at cabinet level, who's confirmed to us that the program has already begun with pilot programs already underway with tribes in the south - Fareed.
ZAKARIA: Is there a danger here that these tribes will use us for their own purposes? What's the downside of this strategy?
WARE: What, you mean the tribes haven't been using the Americans since day one to settle old scores, to mark rivals as enemies, or to have those who are not in, you know, the chosen tribe's favor left out and ignored by the American attention? That's not a new thing. Of course, that's inherent in this solution. If that were to emerge. But that's inherent anyway.
What I think is the greater problem is that, tactically, in the short term, significant engagement of the tribes and the old veterans of the Soviet war, if they can be turned against the Taliban would be stunningly successful. However, there will be a high price to pay going forward in the second and third tier effects, and that's what needs to be addressed. How do you manage these guys so they don't get out of control? How do you accept responsibility? How is there any kind of accountability? How do you sell it to the Afghan people, to the international community? And eventually ordinary Afghans themselves, let alone the foreigners here, want to see a new state emerge, and how would the reestablishment of tribal forces or warlord forces affect that in the long term? So it's certainly not an easy fix, but it may be the only one or an important part of the only solution that may present itself to President Obama, Fareed.
ZAKARIA: You were talking about the Afghan army and the Iraqi army. I just want to ask you one supplementary on that, which is American commanders do tell me...
WARE: I'll take the supplementary.
ZAKARIA: American commanders do tell me that while the Afghan army is much less disciplined than the Iraqi army, they're real fighters, that they are courageous and they will charge up the hill in the way that a lot of the Iraqi forces would not. Is that your experience?
WARE: Well, I mean, I'll caveat my answer before I go on by saying I had seen incredible bravery from Iraqi soldiers, but by and large you could argue that, yeah, that's true. I mean, these Afghans, when they decide to fight, they fight. And it's on their home turf. That's an important thing, too. So these Afghans can be fierce. I mean, it's renowned as the famed graveyard of empires, this nation. And the current generations are, you know, are proving that to be true, be they on the Taliban side or on the government side.
It's about harnessing that energy, that fervor, that fanaticism, that nationalism. And that's what America has failed to do. Well, America's rivals in the region -- particularly Iran and Pakistan -- are old hands and so adept at playing the tribal game here or at playing within the Afghan culture and extracting sometimes the best and sometimes the worst of it. America has failed to even be in the game, Fareed.
ZAKARIA: Michael, I know you had a near-miss with an IED, with an improvised explosive device. First of all, did you have any -- are there any lasting effects? You can obviously hear me, but what does it feel like?
WARE: It wasn't my first IED, but it did distinguish itself. I mean, I was particularly exposed in this case. I was in the back of an Afghan police gun truck rather than encased in the armor of an American humvee or even better, an American Bradley fighting vehicle. So it was a very raw experience and watching the tape again of that incident, what struck me is how quickly it all happened. I mean, this is such a cliche from someone who comes out of an event like this, but in my recollection everything transpired much more slowly.
And yeah, that sort of thing does rattle you in body and does leave a mark upon you in spirit. But we're all fine, thank goodness, both the cameraman, Samad Qasiri, who was with me, and the Afghan police who were in that truck. Unfortunately, precisely a week later, just a couple of days ago, we received a call one evening here in Kabul from the same police unit, and one week later, on the same road, same patrol, they were hit again. Unfortunately this time it shredded the legs of two of the Afghan police and blinded one of the injured men.
ZAKARIA: Do you feel that going around on these patrols, you feel more insecure in Afghanistan than you did in Iraq?
WARE: Not necessarily so, no, because you choose who you go with. Now, the particular police commander whose men we were with on that patrol, I've known him for eight years. And that man has been a police commander in the birthplace of the Taliban, killing Talibs, since December 2001. He's survived and outlasted successive police chiefs and governors, and he's on the front line and he's still standing. And there's a reason for that. So you choose who you go with very, very carefully. But, you know, there's risk inherent with all of this. I mean, there was risk when I'm embedded with US forces, be it the Battle of Fallujah, be it the invasion of Iraq, be it the Battle of Tal'Afar, be it the Battle of Samara. There's inherent risk when I am with Afghan forces over here or coalition troops. I mean, there's inherent risk when you're operating independently, as we do. Unfortunately it's just part of the business -- Fareed.
ZAKARIA: Well, keep choosing wisely, Michael, and stay safe. And thank you very much.
WARE: Insha'allah, as they say, mate. Inha'allah.
ZAKARIA: Thank you, Michael. Appreciate it.