BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
That was one fighting speech Barack Obama delivered Wednesday night. Plain spoken and clear, he spelled out details of his own plan for health care reform, rallied his side of the aisle, met his adversaries head-on, and shamed the partisan wrecking crew that spewed lies into the summer's heat.
BARACK OBAMA: When any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter — that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.
MOYERS: It was high political drama that would have pleased the two Roosevelts. But speeches are soon forgotten, and the atmosphere they create dispelled, and the rhetoric, no matter how dramatic or effective, challenged by reality. Now comes the fight to the finish, and we'll stay with the story as the weeks unfold.
But first, we turn to another big decision bearing down on the president: what to do in Afghanistan, a conflict Americans can no longer put out of mind or out of sight.
Once again, we have been reminded that war is not a video game. The photo of an American marine dying in Afghanistan created a controversy that threw the press into conflict with the Pentagon and the young marine's family, and it threw those of us in the press into conflict with ourselves.
On August 14th, Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard was on patrol in Afghanistan's Helmand province. An Associated Press photographer embedded in his unit. That's Bernard there, on patrol, shortly before a Taliban ambush. Hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, Lance Corporal Bernard was mortally wounded. He died later in a hospital.
The AP released the picture over the objections of his family and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and it appeared in many newspapers and on websites.
I can't even imagine how I would feel if that were my son or grandson. I do understand the reaction. I would want to remember him the last time I saw him alive, not bleeding to death in a foreign place. For so intimate a matter as death to become a public event can only add to the pain and grief.
But as a journalist, I know that one reason Americans tolerate wars as long as we do is that most of us look the other way while others do the suffering in our stead. Our soldiers have been fighting in Afghanistan longer than we fought in the First and Second World Wars combined, but just try to remember the times you've actually have seen one of our fallen there.
Yet August was the deadliest month for our troops in Afghanistan since the US retaliated there to destroy the bases from which terrorists had attacked us. 51 Americans died in August; 44 in July.
Now eight years in, the Taliban is resurgent, despite the additional 16,000 US troops. Almost two-thirds of the country is reportedly too dangerous for humanitarian agencies to deliver much needed help. Civilian casualties this year have reached more than a thousand, caused by suicide bombings and the so-called collateral damage from air strikes.
As The Economist magazine noted last month, resentment against the Karzai government, NATO forces and Westerners in general is growing. "...it seems clear," the magazine reported, "that the international effort to bring stability to Afghanistan...is failing."
And yet, consider this open letter to President Obama from some of the very same armchair warriors whose claim of expertise supported President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. They were wrong then, wrong time and again, but their tragic errors haven't stopped them from demanding that President Obama now escalate the war in Afghanistan.
Once again, their enthusiasm for war is as great as their distance from the actual battlefield.
Their letter lands as European leaders are calling for an international conference to assess the deteriorating situation and the commander of our forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, delivers a review to the White House. It's a report many believe sets the stage for an even greater expansion of the war.
But recently, the McClatchy News Service reported that some top pentagon officials fear that without a clear definition of our mission there, further escalation will be in vain.
As a reality check, with me now is one of the reporters on that story, recently returned from Afghanistan.
Nancy Youssef is the Chief Pentagon Correspondent for McClatchy news. She covered the war in Iraq for four years, including two as Baghdad Bureau Chief.
Nancy Youssef, welcome to the Journal.
NANCY YOUSSEF: Thank you.
MOYERS: Before we get to Afghanistan, let me ask you about this photograph of a young marine who died. And the AP, as you know, circulated the picture, even though the parents and Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, objected. What was your reaction to that?
YOUSSEF: You know, when that photo came out, I talked to a friend of mine, she's a colonel in the army. She served in Iraq and many years ago, she'd lost her daughter, who was a toddler at the time to an illness, so she could speak to it both as a soldier and as a parent.
And she was really angry about the photo. And she said, "No one has the right to tell me what my last memory of my child should be." And it really stayed with me. And so as I could have empathy for the family, and I felt a lot of pain, because I can only imagine having that image seared in your mind. But I'm conflicted, because as a journalist, and as someone who has to go out and see this war day in and day out, it's hard to say that these photos shouldn't be seen. In a way, I feel like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been sanitized. And that photo, as gruesome as it is, captures the reality of war. It's ugly. And it's what these troops are facing day in and day out.
So, I always -- this is -- my ultimate objective in all of this to maintain the humanity in the coverage of war. And so, I'm conflicted, because that part of me wants to preserve the rights of that family. And at the same time, I want the general public to know what's happening.
MOYERS: Does it get difficult for you to separate your role as a journalist from your humanitarian impulses and instincts?
YOUSSEF: Yeah, but I think in a way they have to be connected. I think one of the mistakes in Iraq was- and I think where McClatchy was -- and at the time Knight Ridder was able to distinguish itself, was to bring that humanity to the war. I think it's easy to reduce people to numbers, 50 killed, 20 killed, four troops killed. But it's the humanity that makes it, I think, almost relevant to the viewer, to the reader. You know, I remember a time we were covering the war in Iraq and my editor called me. He said, "How many were killed?" And I said, "50." And I just said it like it was a number. And he said, "Well, isn't that a lot, Nancy?" And it occurred to me that I was losing my sense of what really mattered.
It got more challenging and it does get more challenging as those numbers rise to make people realize that these aren't just statistics, but that they're people. And I think it's the most essential we can do as journalists.
MOYERS: As you talk I'm thinking about the time in '64 and '65 when I was in President Johnson's White House as we escalated the war in Vietnam. We never saw a photograph of a dead or dying soldier. We talked about body count and that still seemed anesthetized. Then we started talking about body bags and that became more personal and disturbing, but we never really talked about individual soldiers or saw their death.
YOUSSEF: What I think the distinction is Vietnam had an impact on the nation because of the draft, because everybody could be touched by it in some way. Whereas when I go to Iraq or Afghanistan, I come back, and I'm always struck by how little I feel the war not only in the United States, not only among my friends, but in Washington itself. You don't feel the war. And I don't know what that feeling is supposed to be, but you would think that you would feel the impact of engaging in two wars. And you don't feel it. It's so distant. It's so, almost academic. So, maybe humanizing it or putting a name on it is the wrong way. But there must be some way to make people realize what the country's asked of its serviceman. There's a solemn oath we make with the troops that we won't send them into war unless it's absolutely necessary. We own part of that decision. And so, in a way, as a journalist, it bothers me when you don't feel that in the city, in the nation's capital, where these decisions are being made.
MOYERS: What about at the Pentagon? You spend your days there, every week now. What's the sense there? Do they grasp what's happening to men like Lance Corporal Bernard?
YOUSSEF: I don't know. You know, when I go there again, it's so fortified because of security measures. During Vietnam, people would throw blood on the steps, and you would feel the anger about the war. You know, people think of the Pentagon as this big place where war plans are made. And it's really at the end of the day a place, it's a marketplace where contracts and decisions are made. And it feels like an office building. So, do you feel it? Not particularly, because people have a different vantage point. You know, it feels like at 4'o clock, the halls are empty. And I'm always sort of disturbed by this. Where is everybody? And again, I don't know what it's supposed to feel like. But I know it shouldn't feel like this.
MOYERS: What about the soldiers you personally met in Afghanistan? What do you think they might say about the photograph? Whether to show it or not to show it?
YOUSSEF: That's a good question. I think it depends on who you ask. I think a lot of them would be offended, because it's so personal. These are guys that they were sitting next to the day before. It's something to them that's not for, sort of, public consumption. It's gruesome, it's graphic. It's something that belongs to them and something that they have to deal with. But at the same time, I think many would want to see a public that's more engaged on what they're doing there. More interested in what they're doing there. More aware of what they're being asked to do.
MOYERS: Is it clear to you what our goals are there?
YOUSSEF: Well, the secretary lays it out the following way. He says that because the Taliban cooperated and collaborated with Al Qaeda, the United States must make sure that the Taliban's not allowed to return so that it therefore doesn't allow Al Qaeda to return. I guess the question that I have, and that hasn't really been answered is, that may have been true then, but what is the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda now?
Because if the premise of the strategy is that the Taliban can't be allowed to return, because they'll provide sanctuary for Al Qaeda, I want to understand what that relationship is between those two, to determine if that, in fact, will really happen. For me, it's not clear yet. And it's a very hard question to answer. Because the word Taliban, in a way it doesn't mean anything anymore.
MOYERS: Who is the enemy? Who are these soldiers fighting?
YOUSSEF: I don't know. I mean they're fighting this nebulous group called the Taliban. And some of them are fighting men who are joining because they need money. Or because they've been forced or coerced into fighting the Americans. Some Taliban are people who have no ties to the ideological Taliban at all, but are just angry that occupation forces, in their mind, are in their country. Some are people who are ideologically driven, who want an Islamic state in Afghanistan, who want to work with Al Qaeda. It's a very varied enemy. And I think that's what part of what makes a strategy so hard and what makes it so difficult for the troops. Because everyone they're fighting could be a farmer the next day, could be a local. There are no borders. There's no uniform. There's no way to distinguish one from the other. So, I think that's what makes it so hard. The Taliban that I saw, and I was in Kandahar, were people who --
MOYERS: That's the southern part of the country right near the Pakistan border.
YOUSSEF: That's right. And it's one of the most important provinces historically. And you go there and the Taliban is this bullying organization that is a form of order that at least the Afghans are familiar with. And they control the community. The local government that we've established does not. The police chief, the Taliban police chief, lives in the city. The US-backed police chief doesn't. He lives on base or he lives in Kandahar proper. And I'm talking about in the provinces. The local district leader who works on behalf of the Karzai government — it's too dangerous for him to live in the city. He lives on the base, or he lives in Kandahar. So, it's a coerced, forced order. It's sort of the devil you know versus the devil you don't.
MOYERS: And what about Al Qaeda? The guys who did attack us on 9/11. Where are they? And who are they now?
YOUSSEF: The United States believes that the leadership is in Pakistan. But, you know, something I struggle with personally is what happens if the next attack is planned in Somalia or Yemen or Europe, where they've expanded or have a presence there? What is the United States response then? I sometimes worry that we're fighting the last war instead of the next one. And I think when you look at Al Qaeda and how its spread, you start to wonder. They don't use a sanctuary anymore. It's now an apartment and internet access to start planning these attacks, and how do you defend against that? I don't know.
MOYERS: So, what do the generals and colonels on down whom you interviewed tell you remains our goal?
YOUSSEF: You know, I spoke to General McChrystal when I was there. And I think more than anything, he wants the opportunity to try this out. That if we're going to do it, let's do it. Let's really put our effort towards this. We think about this as —
MOYERS: What does that mean? More troops?
YOUSSEF: More troops. More time, more than anything else. That this is not something that can be turned around in time for a political or an election cycle. He needs time more than anything else.
MOYERS: You know, Nancy, that's what the generals kept telling President Johnson in the early days and at the peak of the escalation in Vietnam.
YOUSSEF: But, you know, we talk about Afghanistan as an eight-year war. But the truth is it's been eight separate individual years of war. So, I think that's the —
MOYERS: What's the distinction?
YOUSSEF: Because we've never gone after this in a real way. There was a strategy 2001 to 2003. And then we tried something else 2003 to 2005. And then it escalated and we tried something else. So, I think if we — to me, I think what General McChrystal's really saying is if we're going to do it, let's do it. Let's really do it. And I think that's the disparity that from the military perspective they'll tell you we haven't really been given the chance, because we were too busy in Iraq. So it's a true argument. It's a fair argument. That was an argument made in the past. We need more time. We need more time. But I think for the commanders on the ground, it feels a bit of a rollercoaster. It went from being the just war, during the campaign, and in the early days of the Obama administration, to a potential quagmire that we're not sure we want to send more troops to.
MOYERS: But now, Obama's made it a, quote, "war of necessity."
YOUSSEF: He's made it a war of necessity, but yet, there's a real debate about basic questions on this war. This war of necessity, what's happening now in Washington and all these assessments. We're trying to answer very basic questions, "What is the goal? What is the strategy? How do you implement the strategy?" So, even though we call it a war of necessity, I don't think it's ever been treated as a war of necessity, even now. That debate is just starting, in year eight of the war. It's extraordinary.
MOYERS: Things just seem to be going off the rails there. Is that your judgment, too?
YOUSSEF: I think — remember that President Obama sent 21,000 more troops, and what happened was the United States expanded its reach. Now, you ask the Afghans, they'll say that when US troops show up, more problems show up for us. Because then the fight starts.
MOYERS: They're caught in the middle.
YOUSSEF: That's right. Then they are caught in the middle. I mean, when you go to Afghanistan, the Afghans are not trying to work with Karzai, and embrace their new democracy. They're trying to survive within the confines of the district. They're manipulating the Taliban, whichever local district leader or warlord's in charge. They are not looking for some grand democratic process. That's not what's happening. So, when the US troops show up, from their perspective, it's more problems. Now, the United States will say, "Things could get worse before they get better, because we have to engage them in the fight." But I don't think the Afghans are on board with that yet. I think they feel like we — I can't tell you how many Afghans said to me, "I don't want the Americans. I don't want the Taliban. I just want to be left alone."
MOYERS: What are they like, these people who are caught in the middle? I mean, you got to know a lot of them. You wrote about them in your dispatches. What do they say to you?
YOUSSEF: You know, they're tired is what the sense I got more than anything else. There's this renewed effort in the United States to engage in Afghanistan. And they've been living with it for eight years. We talk so much about the Washington clock. And how the President —
MOYERS: The Washington clock?
YOUSSEF: Yeah. How they have 12 to 18 months by the administration's estimates, the military does, to turn things around. I think the Afghan clock is ticking a lot faster. They're tired. They're frustrated that this country has brought a corrupt central government that doesn't serve their interests. They're smart. They're savvy. And they are trying to survive. You know, so many people tell me that Afghanistan's not ready for democracy. I would argue, "Look at the democracy that they've seen. Who would be ready for that?" And that's where they are. They —
MOYERS: What do you mean? What democracy have they seen?
YOUSSEF: Well, the democracy they've seen is from their perspective a fraudulent election that's brought about a government that's more corrupt, in their view, than even the Taliban was. And by the way, they don't get any more basic services. They have to pay a lot more in bribes to get basic things done. Their warlords in some cases are more empowered under the system, not less. Who would want democracy under that? I think we have to think about how we've defined democracy in their minds. It's really become about survival.
MOYERS: I know from reading that our forces are trying to do some good things there. Roads, schools, they move into a village, get acquainted with the elders, try to establish some basis of trust and credibility. And yet, then, you know, an attack during a wedding party, I was reading the other day, will completely negate those good intentions, right?
YOUSSEF: That's right. I was in Zhari district, which is about 20 miles west of Kandahar. When the Canadians first came in, they painted schools and they built new schools for the residents. And you know what happened? The NATO forces eventually had to destroy them, because the Taliban took them over. So —
MOYERS: What do you mean the Taliban took them over? This suggests the Taliban are far more sophisticated than a lot of us think.
YOUSSEF: I don't think they need to be sophisticated. They own everything. They own the terrain. They know the terrain better than anyone. All they have to do is sort of bully their way in. Because without enough forces, how much security can you really provide that school. That's the thing. We've talked about this Taliban as they've come up with a strategy. I don't think they really had to do anything too complex. We have currently — there are 101,000 troops, US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
It's an extraordinarily small number for a country of that size and that level of complexity to it. So, why build these schools if you can't establish security? It was a problem in Iraq, too. They would brag about, "Well, we put up this new school. We provided a new electrical grid." And the next day it would be — it would be bombed. And Afghanistan's in that same place. But Afghanistan, I think, will take longer. It's just a far more complex country. And I'm not sure that the United States is ready for that yet. Or at least has been readied for it yet. It's going to take years.
MOYERS: What's your greatest fear of what might happen there?
YOUSSEF: You know, because I'm the Pentagon correspondent, someone said this to me that stayed with me forever. My biggest fear from the military perspective is that Iraq doesn't fall apart quickly, but that —
YOUSSEF: Iraq. That Iraq falls apart slowly. And that we find ourselves in a place where we're doing this with troops. That as we're slowly bringing down troops in Iraq and slowly plussing up in Afghanistan, we find ourselves in a really difficult situation in both countries.
MOYERS: So, you fear we have to reengage in Iraq?
YOUSSEF: I fear that we're going to find — I don't know that the United States will. I mean, the Status of Forces Agreement makes it very clear that the United States is not going to engage.
MOYERS: The Iraqis want us out.
YOUSSEF: That's right.
MOYERS: There's a legal agreement to get out.
YOUSSEF: That's right. But what happens when the violence starts to escalate in Iraq and starts to escalate in Afghanistan, and we're say, at 80,000 troops in both countries? What is the United States role at that point? Is the plan to sit aside and do nothing? Will the Iraqi government still feel that way? Depending on what the violence is? That's what keeps me up at night. Is that fear of that point where the United States finds itself engaged in both wars or at least heavily committed to both and not quite out of one, and not quite in the other.
MOYERS: President Obama has said that on the 24th of September, as you indicate, he will set forth his strategy. Do the officials you cover at the Pentagon have a sense of where his head is on this?
YOUSSEF: You know, that's the fundamental problem in all of this. You'll hear this. You might hear these phrases about counterterrorism versus counterinsurgency. Counterterrorism argues for a very narrow approach. We leave some drones there. We leave a few troops there. We keep an eye on things and we attack when necessary. And in Washington, that's sort of being led by Joe Biden. And then the counterinsurgency argument is we do everything. We build up a stable government so that there's no room at all for the Taliban to come back in. We build the economy.
We build better governance. And on this camp is Hillary Clinton, General Petraeus, General McChrystal. And the problem is nobody knows where Obama is on that spectrum.
MOYERS: Suppose he commits to a long war. Will the American people — do we have that kind of patience?
YOUSSEF: I don't know anymore because you see these polls come out and the majority now don't think this war is worth fighting. I was thinking about it. 60 days ago, when General McChrystal started the assessment, the political capital for this war was much, much higher. We hadn't had the health care debate the way it has; we hadn't seen the kind of troop deaths that we have seen. And the political capital has diminished so quickly. At the minimum, General McChrystal's arguing for a strategy to build up the Afghan forces to a capacity that would cost about $3 billion dollars a year. This is in a country that generates $800 million of total revenue every year. So, at the minimum, he's talking about committing the United States and Europe and NATO to an indefinite financial commitment to Afghanistan. How do you sell that in this current economic climate? I don't know how you do that.
MOYERS: And in the last eight years, there's been about $32 billion of foreign aid that's been splashed across Afghanistan. Can you see any of the effects of that?
YOUSSEF: It's very, very minimal because at the core it's security. I mean, that same number, you'll hear talked about how much has reached the Afghans. It's something ridiculously small, like 4 to 6 billion (dollars) that actually has reached the ground in Afghanistan. Do you see it? Not really. You'll see it in pieces. You know, you'll see the ring road, or a paved road of some kind there. Or you'll see a new water system, or a new school, or a new crop buildup. But there's nothing linking all those things together. That's what's missing. So, it's very piecemeal. So, it's sort of like a mirage of a big pool of water in the middle of the desert. You know, you see it and then it sort of disappears, because it doesn't have any real long term impact.
MOYERS: Your reporting depicts a very dismal picture there. So does every other bit of reporting I've seen, including the cover story a couple of weeks ago of The Economist, which reaches a grim conclusion about the state of things there. But is there — I'm not looking for a silver lining, but for a reporter's assessment, is there any good news there?
YOUSSEF: Yeah, the good news is that the United States is committed to it. The good news is that the world thinks that this is a priority. The good news is that there's now a renewed effort and that the best minds are on this and trying to come up with a solution. And that —
MOYERS: The best and the brightest?
YOUSSEF: I don't want to say — maybe. But to me, I think the question at this point becomes either the United States commits to this and really commits to it. Or it walks away. But this middle ground of sort of holding on isn't going to work anymore. And that, to me, the good news is at least we are now coming to a head. We're at least coming to that decision point. And that's a critical decision that needs to be made. And to me, that's good news, because at least it gives everybody involved some sense of where this is going. I think that's something worth looking forward to because what's been going on up until now is unacceptable.
MOYERS: But people say to me, you know, they're opposed to escalating the war. But they say, "How can we walk away from the people who joined this fight in no small part because we've asked them to?"
YOUSSEF: Right. And what happens if the United States and the coalition leaves? The Taliban invariably comes back. And there's the potential now for Al Qaeda to come back and we start it all over again. This is the problem with Afghanistan. You can't stay. You can't go. There are no absolutes in this. And it's this fine line that everybody's trying to walk. Are we prepared for the risk that comes with leaving and allowing the Taliban to come back in and potentially for that sanctuary to rise again? And now you've got a population that's more angry and more empowered in a very, very powerful and dangerous part of the region.
MOYERS: But you're going back.
YOUSSEF: I have to go back. You know —
MOYERS: Why do you have to go back?
YOUSSEF: Because I'm the Pentagon Correspondent, and I think it's really dangerous to depend on people in the Pentagon to tell you what's happening on the ground. There's no way to understand it other than to go. And I'm not smart enough to just sort of read reports. I have to feel it. I have to smell it and touch it and feel that fear in some way. I have to be in the Humvee and feel the fear of not knowing what's going to happen. Or be in the car with the Afghan, with my Afghan friends and feel what it's like to not know if that coalition soldier's going to kill you or not. There's just no way for me to understand it. And the vantage point of Washington, in some ways, doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter.
What matters is what the troops are doing. And you can't replicate anything with going there. And I really do love it. It's a beautiful country. I love the people. I love hanging out with the troops. I love understanding it. To me it's a great privilege to have a job where I can go to the front lines and really see what's happening. It's a great way to make a living.
MOYERS: But just this week the New York Times correspondent, Farrell, was held hostage. And as he and his journalist friend, who in Afghan interpreted for him, was killed. As he got away, but the Afghan was killed. And just this week, your colleague, who was in Afghanistan, Jonathan Landay of McClatchy, was in a hostile action and in a perilous situation. Why do you put yourself in that?
YOUSSEF: Because the alternative -- it's sort of like Afghanistan, the alternative is far worse to me, which is to do nothing, which is to say nothing. You know, I have a unique background. My parents are from Egypt. And I'm raised Muslim and I feel like I have something to say. I feel like I can walk that line between what the local populations are feeling. What the military is feeling. And I don't walk in blindly. Every time I go, I sort of look at my hands and feet and say, "Oh, I hope I come back with all of these." I mean, I know what's involved.
I know those risks, and it's hard. I mean, it's become personal, in a way. Every day this week, I wake up, and there's a bombing. And I worry about my friends in Afghanistan. And my colleague who sits right across from me at work is caught in an ambush. And I think, "What can I do to sort of tell people about this? What people have to know. They just have to know."
MOYERS: So, since you know what you know, and since you say we have to know, where do we come down on showing the photograph?
YOUSSEF: It's really hard. Because as I said, you know, you can't lose your humanity in war. And I feel for that father. I can't imagine that image being foisted upon me of my son in that position. I just can't imagine. But sometimes I feel like we as a public need to be hit almost violently with the reality of war. And that's what that photo does. So, I'm really conflicted about it. You know?
MOYERS: The reality of war is?
YOUSSEF: It's ugly. It's violent. It asks tremendous things of troops. And it puts troops in incredible danger. And we as a country have put these troops in that position. We have to know what that means. I want the war to be relevant. And I think that was the intent behind it. The details of how it was handled maybe weren't best. But I think at the end of the day, that was the goal. And it's an important goal.
MOYERS: Nancy Youssef, thank you for being on the Journal. And good luck to you.
YOUSSEF: Thank you.