Speaker: Stay Afghan Course
The best course for America in Afghanistan is to press on with more troops, a Ruth Pauley Lecture Series audience was told Wednesday evening.
The speaker was Peter Bergen, CNN terrorism analyst and author of two books on Al Qaeda: "The Osama bin Laden I Know" and "Holy War Inc: Inside the Secret World of bin Laden."
This first lecture of the series at Sandhills Community College is sponsored by The Pilot in the memory of Sam Ragan, the paper's former editor and publisher. Editor Steve Bouser made the introduction.
"Too often on cable news these days," Bouser said, "you see either bimbo broadcasters with long, blonde hair and provocative necklines -- not that there is anything wrong with that (laughter) -- or opinionated blowhards like Lou Dobbs or Bill O'Reilly.
"How refreshing it is, by contrast, to get to listen to a soft-spoken analyst who knows what he is talking about on an important subject, keeps his politics to himself, and offers insights gained from years of academic study combined with boots-on-the- ground experience."
Bergen laid out three choices the United States faces in Afghanistan: leave now, do less, and do more. America, he said, has tried the first two without success.
It is time to try pouring in more troops and working rapidly to increase the number of native Afghan soldiers and police, he said.
This is a country that has seen three decades of war, he said. Its various tribes and ethnic minorities were united by their hatred of Russian invaders from the former Soviet Union and battled to throw them out. Afterward, the country was plunged into a civil war with the Taliban emerging as the force in control.
Time was when Afghanistan was a tourist mecca, a place where people from neighboring Pakistan went on vacation. Even today, its northern and western areas are relatively safe. The notion that Afghanistan could be "Obama's Vietnam" is a myth, Bergen said, pointing out that at the height of that war, a 500,000-man Viet Cong army had both Russian and Chinese support. There are, at most, some 20,000 Taliban fighters.
For most of them, soldiering is a job. It pays $300 a month, where working as a policeman pays only a third of that.
Currently, the biggest danger is a veritable blizzard of suicide bomb attacks. This is a technique the Taliban learned from watching what Al Queda was doing in Iraq.
A Taliban that once banned television now uses TV. If the U.S. can put the expected 60,000 to 80,000 troops in the country by the end of the year, the tide could turn, Bergen said.
In laying out the three exit strategies as pulling out tomorrow, doing less, and Obama's plan to do more, Bergen clearly sides with the president and the commander in the field.
"The reason I am in favor of Obama's plan?" Bergen said. "We tried the other two already."
First, he said, the United States needs to build up the Afghan army. Not doing this, he said, has been our biggest failure. "The commander there, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, would like a surge of 240,000 U.S. troops.
Next, with more troops inthe country, the United States should reduce the Taliban-controlled areas. Then, make travel on the main roads of the country safe.
"I suppose I sound like an optimist," Bergen said. "I am an optimist. I visited Afghanistan in 1993. It was a different universe."
Afghans remember that world, he said. After the beginning of the Iraq war, four million of its people fled, and almost none have returned.
"In Afghanistan, almost five million returned," Bergen said. "There are two million boys -- and girls -- in school. The Taliban ran the Afghan economy into the ground. In 2007, Afghanistan's GDP (gross domestic product) increased by 15 percent. Now, one in six Afghans has a cell phone. If you ask here at home about Afghanistan, only 17 percent say they are optimistic about the future.
"If you poll Afghans, 40 percent are optimistic. After living through invasion, civil war and Taliban rule, the bar is very low for most Afghans."
Money can do much, he said. The United States spent 12 times as much in Bosnia. Hiring more Afghans as soldiers in a national army will bring double results.
"Putting 100,000 on the payroll is like adding 200,000," Bergen said -- because they will be leaving the ranks of the enemy."
After the lecture, Bergen signed books and answered futher questions at a reception.
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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