NOW with Alex Wagner | August 17, 2012
>>> earlier today, a newly recruited afghan police officer shot and killed two u.s. troops on a base in western afghanistan . the incident's the latest in a growing number of green on blue insider attacks. 39 coalition members have been killed during such incidents. the deaths come a day after 11 people were killed, including seven u.s. service members, when their blackhawk helicopter crashed in kandahar province . officials say it happened after the helicopter had dropped off combat forces to help fight taliban insurgents . violence in afghanistan remains a significant problem. in fact, last month, 42 american troops were killed, making it the deadliest month for the u.s. this entire year. earlier this week, defense secretary leon panetta tried to refocus public attention on the ongoing conflict .
>> i realize that there are a lot of other things going on in this country that can draw our attention, from the olympics to political campaigns, but i thought it was important to remind the american people that there is a war going on in afghanistan , and that young men and women are dying in order to try to protect this country.
>> joining us now is nbc chief pentagon correspondent, jim miklaszewski . thanks for being with us. do you have a sense of what accounts for this rising violence?
>> there are a whole number of factors. first of all, we are deep into the fighting season here in afghanistan and if you listen to u.s. military officials, they believe that the taliban are increasing some of their operations in an attempt to regain some of the territory that was lost. at the same time, you know, american forces are under a little bit of pressure because after all, defense secretary leon panetta has said he expects all combat forces to be out of afghanistan by sometime next year, as early as the middle of 2013 , so they've got some ground to gain and some actual advances to be cemented. they have to make sure that whatever territory is gained in the meantime can be held. so there are some of these attacks being initiated very aggressively by u.s. forces . now, while the overall number of green on blue attacks has doubled so far this year, more than doubled over last year, the overall number of american dead is actually at a much lower pace than the few years before during the surge operation.
>> on troop levels, under the previous administration, the highest deployments were somewhere around the 30,000 level, 34,000. with the increases under this administration, it went up to about 100,000 and is now back down into the 80s. obviously the debate through this entire period has been how much you can correspond the deaths that we're seeing to the presence on the ground. are your sources and folks in the pentagon worried that as you go back down from the 80s, as is under the plan, that you are going to see increasing violence like this?
>> well, certainly the key to this strategy as you know is the training up of afghan military and police forces , so they can take over security operations. but here's the problem now with this alarming spike in these attacks by so-called friendly forces within the afghan security, both army and police, is that if there is a loss of trust between the u.s. military , who's training and arming them, and those afghans that are now killing them in increased numbers, turning guns against their own mentors and trainers, then that strategy is doomed to failure, according to some military officials. you just can't make that work if the u.s. military cannot trust the very afghans that they're training and arming, particularly if some u.s. military are expected to remain behind in training roles and advisory roles and the combat forces all leave by the middle of next year, if they're getting killed by the afghans, again, that undermines the critical strategy of the obama administration.
>> right. jim, i want to bring in our panel. when we were looking at this presidential campaign just last cycle, four years ago, iraq and afghanistan were really both big issues, and here, secretary panetta specifically invoked the campaign to say essentially it's not on the table and that he wants americans, he thinks it would be better to make sure people are aware of this. ben, why is this war which as i mentioned has more troops on the ground today than it did in 2007 and '08, why has this war fallen off the radar?
>> there are two reasons. one is americans aren't focused on it and the candidates tend to go where the action is but that was true in '08 with john mccain , when he wanted to talk about foreign policy . it's something he cares about and something he felt he had a real difference to express. georgia and russia, which nobody here cared about, became a big issue then. this time it's not something romney knows a lot about. he certainly didn't pick a running mate who knows much about it, and he doesn't have clear differences to draw. he -- i think his impulse and a lot of his advisors would like to run on hold the line , stray strong in afghanistan , keep american troops there. i'm sure they looked at poll numbers and know that's unsaleable.
>> i take a totally different view. with bush and cheney you had two individuals who constantly reminded us we were at war, who constantly put the afghanistan conflict and the iraqi conflict in context. we had the surge. it was part of our psyche because the administration forced it into our psyche. i'm not sure the obama administration does that in the same way the bush and cheney administration did.
>> jim, i want to go back to you. how about that? obviously there's a big difference between what the secretary of defense says and he has regular appearances anyway, versus that sort of presidential level focus. what do you make of that?
>> you know, we have to go back and review the history of this, too. you'll remember that afghanistan was largely ignored as the bush administration turns its attention to iraq , even senior military leaders said the kind of resources and attention was not paid to afghanistan while the u.s. was waging war in iraq , and it was only until after the end of the war , u.s. involvement in the war in iraq , that the focus was shifted and president obama surged additional forces, much to the chagrin of many of his constituents, who thought we should pull out of afghanistan , but the president did take the steps to ensure that there could be not a victory, necessarily, but some semblance of success down the road, and -- but this goes back to even secretary of state -- secretary of defense robert gates , who said you know, only a small portion of america is at war, when we were both in afghanistan and iraq . in some sense, that's reassuring, and do the american people have confidence in their military to do what's necessary. but in the other, of course, the military, the pentagon, both administrations have felt that america's support for those wars has not been as robust as they thought it should have been.
>> that's an important point. thank you for sharing with us your views from the pentagon.