Conflict & Justice

How to succeed in Afghanistan

This story is a part of a series

This story is a part of a series

President Obama is to announce his long-awaited decision on Afghanistan on Tuesday. It’s still not clear what he’ll say in his prime-time speech to the nation, from the military academy at West Point. But yesterday the president said he will “finish the job” in Afghanistan. And today the White House indicated American troops would not be there in 8 or 9 years. We hear from Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, Monica Toft at Harvard University, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation.

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    MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman.  This is the World.  President Obama plans to announce his long-awaited decision on Afghanistan next Tuesday.  It’s still not clear what he’ll say in his prime-time speech from the military academy at West Point.  But yesterday President Obama did say he intended to “finish the job” in Afghanistan.  And today the White House indicated that American troops would not be there in eight or nine years.  So, what does it mean to finish the job?  It’s a question we posed to four experts on war and security.  We start with Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation.

    PETER BERGEN: Depending on how you define what the job is done to mean, one definition is, bringing security to the Afghan people, securing the main roads, rolling back the Taliban from Kandahar.  These are doable things that might take a year or two, are an also measurable, observable.  For instance, if you can drive down the Kabul to Kandahar road without being kidnapped or attacked, which is the case right now, in a year from now that isn’t the case, that’s one measurable effect of having more security.  After all, the Kabul to Kandahar road is the most important road in the country, both economically and politically.  So that would be one indicator I’d be looking for, and the other indicator, which is also very measurable, is which districts do the Taliban control and which districts are at high risk for Taliban attack?  The end state is the Taliban recognizing that they have no future in Afghanistan, and either laying down their arms and becoming part of the political solution, or being captured or killed. I mean, the point of all this is to make sure the Taliban don’t return.

    STEPHEN BIDDLE:  I’m Stephen Biddle from the Council on Foreign Relations.  As far as how we’ll know when the job is done, the problem with counterinsurgency is that the endings to these things are ragged and usually unsatisfying. I think in many ways the best analogy is the situation we’re finding ourselves in in Iraq right now, where the violence is way down but not zero.  The country is better off politically than it was in 2006 and 2007, but far from perfect.  And what we have is a tentative, gradual draw down of US forces and influence which we hope doesn’t make things worse as we draw back from protecting the population.  But it’s a slow, gradual process where there’s no moment at which everything turns off, we declare victory and we go home.  And it’s not likely to be tremendously satisfying.

    MONICA TOFT:  I’m Monica Duffy Toft at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  I teach and research on civil wars, inner state conflict, religion and violence.  I’m a little bit pessimistic about whether there is going to be a satisfactory end state in terms of western and American interests, and whether we’ll even know whether that end state has been achieved, assuming we can define one.  The reasons that I’d like to raise for why I’m a bit pessimistic or skeptical, one is just basic topography.  As a student of civil wars, I have actually worked on looking at this settlement pattern geography, where people live and how they live.  The topography of Afghanistan is not amenable to a centralized state, which is one of the end points the United States and its allies would like, is a centralized state that has governance and control.  The second issue is that the best counterinsurgency strategy is the hearts and mind strategy, and it requires at least three things:  time, which we know is quite precious.  It requires many troops, but not just many troops.  Troops who are informed in the local culture, so that they can win over the hearts and minds.  And then the one that we’ve been dealing with quite regularly lately is a less corrupt government.  And without all those three, it’s very difficult to institute a hearts and minds strategy and we’re short on all three.

    ANDREW BACEVICH:  This is Andrew Bacevich.  I teach at Boston University.  It seems to me that President Obama is rather clearly lowering the bar as to what will define success in Afghanistan.  All the talk about liberal democracy or defending the rights of Afghan women is pretty much gone by the board. I think the focus will be on trying to create an Afghan state that is able to hold its own against the Taliban, and that if the Obama administration can get there, it will be more than happy to declare victory and get out.  My own view is that even that more modest objective will be exceedingly difficult for the United States and its allies to achieve for two reasons.  The first is the clear weakness and inadequacy of the Afghan security forces.  The second reason is the absence of an effective and legitimate Afghan government.

    WERMAN:  That was Andrew Bacevich of Boston University offering his view of what it means to “finish the job” in Afghanistan.  Before him, we heard from Monica Toft of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Stephen Biddle for the Council on Foreign Relations, and we began with Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation.

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