Michael Yon, courageous independent reporter and author of Moment of Truth in Iraq, has just returned to the United States from Afghanistan. National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez checked in with him about the president’s trip there this weekend and his own findings (more of which he will be writing about on his website, www.michaelyon-online.com).
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You just got back from Afghanistan with Defense Secretary Gates and I know you have a lot of writing to do. But to give us a preview: What were you most struck by there?
MICHAEL YON: Yes, there is much writing to do, but there is always time for NRO. What struck me about the trip was the straight talk from Secretary Gates — in a bit of a contrast with the administration’s typical cautiousness in discussing the situation there. On this trip, I found his assessments on Iraq entirely consistent with my observations — and I have been saying and writing for months that the Iraq war is over. Neither Secretary Gates nor Generals Petraeus or Odierno have put it so flatly, of course — and one can understand that they have good reasons for speaking conservatively. But the war is over nevertheless. At Manama, in Bahrain, I spoke for a couple hours with Fred Kagan, whose observations on Iraq I greatly respect. I don’t want to put words into Mr. Kagan’s mouth, but I suspect he would likely agree that the war in Iraq is over.
Iraq is now an ally of the United States. (Proof positive: Prime Minister Maliki tried to block that second shoe that was thrown at President Bush at their joint press conference over the weekend.) In Manama, Secretary Gates was advocating for lender countries to dismiss Saddam-era debt. The days are gone when Iraq and the United States shoot missiles at each other. The days of cooperation have already begun. I am very optimistic about our current relationship with Iraq.
On Afghanistan, I found Secretary Gates to be just as forthcoming and honest, as I am working hard to firm up my understanding of that war. But at this point, I am less optimistic about our prospects there. I’ll likely spend most of 2009 in that region, and will be watching closely.
Secretary Gates talked with me privately, and over the course of that conversation, my confidence grew that we have the right leadership team in place — leaders who will make the wise and often difficult decisions that are based on facts on the ground, rather than political realities back at home. I am confident in Secretary Gates and his top generals.
LOPEZ: In his press conference there, George Bush made reference to the potential for a flourishing democracy in Afghanistan. Is that remotely possible?
YON: Well . . . I’ve found President Bush’s recent comments on Iraq to be accurate. But I remain uneasy about Afghanistan, and my visit did not make me feel any better about the place, though it’s clear that our soldiers think they are making progress. I think this issue is one of framing: I see Afghanistan as a century-long effort, because Pakistan and the region as a whole need to be brought forward. On the military side, we’ve got the right general in charge — General Petraeus. I heard him speak last week in Manama and had a chance to ask a couple of questions, and he demonstrated a nuanced understanding of our problems there. His team is working on solutions. In the short term, I think the fighting will greatly increase during 2009, at a minimum. One thing is certain: NATO is proving largely worthless.
LOPEZ: What’s your best assessment of “Bush’s legacy” vis-à-vis Afghanistan?
YON: That Afghanistan is more akin to Jurassic Park than a modern country is not the fault of President Bush. I sounded the alarm from Afghanistan in 2006 that we were starting to lose the war, but at the time, Iraq was going so poorly that we did not seem to have the assets or attention span for the growing problems in Afghanistan. I would have blamed President Bush if we failed in Iraq, but we are succeeding. Afghanistan will be up to our new president — which is fitting enough, since Obama has expressed his opinion that that war is the one we should be fighting. Obama will have the troops at his disposal, and he’s already made a wise decision by asking Secretary Gates to stay on. So we’ll see. But Afghanistan will be Obama’s baby.
LOPEZ: What ought to be Barack Obama’s first priority there?
YON: Firstly, listen very closely to his military advisers, including Generals McKiernan and Petraeus. They don’t put lipstick on the pig, as it were. I see General McKiernan as a realistic commander and a truth-teller. Secretary Gates will tell you that we need more trainers to train the Afghan army and police, and our commanders on the ground will say the same. We need more money for infrastructure and development. We need roads, roads, roads. And more roads. We need to more vigorously address the poppy economy and find alternative livelihoods for the Afghan people. We need to work to not alienate the Afghan people because if we lose the wide approval that we still have, we likely will lose the war.
LOPEZ: Can you give us any insight into what Secretary Gates is thinking as he moves from serving President Bush to President Obama?
YON: Secretary Gates gets widespread approval from our military, and this is helpful in whatever he does. But I can say that he is definitely concerned about Iran. He is concerned about solidifying our progress in Iraq, and making a turnaround in Afghanistan. Piracy is a relatively farcical threat. Secretary Gates is concerned about getting more ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] assets in the field — and we need those badly. He did not seem concerned that budget cuts would undermine the fabric of the military, but leaders will have to make some tough decisions on big new weapon systems while we ramp up our efforts in Afghanistan while our economy continues to struggle.
It’s clear that Secretary Gates is working hard to make a smooth transition, so that there is no period when we let down our guard during the interregnum; and it’s also clear that if someone decides to test President Obama, Secretary Gates is prepared to make them wish they had not.