December 10, 2010

The Challenges Of Training Afghan Forces


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In 2014, the U.S. and NATO hope to hand security control in Afghanistan over to Afghans. To prepare, NATO will train many thousands of Afghan soldiers and police, but skeptics note that many thousands have already been trained over the past nine years and, despite improvements, significant problems persist, including corruption, desertion and illiteracy.

Independent Afghan forces will also need better leaders, better equipment, better logistics, and the mission also needs more trainers from various NATO countries.

Later in the hour, the cyber-war over WikiLeaks and the rise of hacktivism, but first training Afghan forces. If you've been involved in NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, or if you've served with Afghan troops or police, what did you learn?

Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we begin with Lieutenant Colonel Brian Lamson, chief strategist for police development for NATO's training mission in Afghanistan. He's been kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Lieutenant Colonel BRIAN LAMSON (Chief Strategist for Police Development, NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan): Thanks for inviting me.

CONAN: And Colonel Lamson, that sounds like a daunting set of challenges. Is there one in particular that keeps you up at night?

Lt. Col. LAMSON: Not anything in particular. I would say collectively, that's what keeps me up at night. There's a lot of things that we have to deal with, an extremely complex problem set, probably the most challenging thing that we have to deal with in the 21st century with training police especially with the security forces in Afghanistan.

CONAN: And why police especially?

Lt. Col. LAMSON: Well, what I would say is that when you look at the security force in Afghanistan, you've got police that have not been trained over its history for a significant period of time.

This is a challenge in that police, they have a history of corruption and not just in Afghanistan, but around the region there's a history of corruption. And we didn't focus on police for a long time. I would say we're focused on police now.

CONAN: One of the big problems with corruption is that police tend to be underpaid and augment their incomes.

Lt. Col. LAMSON: That's right. That's the history here, and that's the thing that we're challenged with is that even now that we are really putting an emphasis on police training, we still had problems with those police that were in place and had been in place even before we arrived.

So the challenge was: How do we ensure the training that we're putting in place with police is staying with them, and they're not becoming corrupted themselves by the older generation that had operated this way and sustained themselves for decades that way.

CONAN: So they could emerge from training and then be assigned to the Kabul police force or the Mazar-e-Sharif police force and meet with older cadre who are - operate the old way.

Lt. Col. LAMSON: Right, and what we've done now, and this is just a very recent thing, and you would think that this wouldn't be a big deal, but what we've done is we've established the means for them to retire.

You know, there was no formal way for them to retire in the past, and so you had a lot of graybeards that stuck around, and these people had no formal training. And now we have a way of moving them in a very civilized way, with dignity, to a place where they can, you know, continue to function within the society but not influence the younger generation that are here for all the right reasons: nationalism, to do the right thing for their country.

CONAN: And whether you're talking about a police force or a military force, leadership tends to come from non-commissioned officers and junior officer ranks. Those are the critical areas. That's going to be difficult to get done.

Lt. Col. LAMSON: Absolutely. That mid-level leadership really is where we're focusing now. Now, I think we have a good set of leaders in place at the highest level, starting from - with the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of the Defense, the ministers themselves, very professional, a lot of experience.

Minister Mohammadi in the MOI has made some significant changes in the ministry, and I'd be happy to talk about that in detail at some point.

CONAN: All right, let's see if we can get some callers involved in the conversation. We want to hear from those of you who have served with Afghan forces, army and police. What have you learned about what they do and how they do it? 800-989-8255. Email us, Brian's(ph) on the line calling from Ann Arbor in Michigan.

BRIAN (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Brian. Go ahead, please.

BRIAN: Yeah, I just wanted to comment. I did two tours in Afghanistan, working with both the local police and the national army. And I agree that the NCO corps that they have, especially in the army, is just not well-trained and have the leadership training that, you know, they do for instance in our military.

And it's a real problem. I mean, you can see it. A lot of the higher leadership recognizes it, and they realize that that's a major limitation for them completing their missions. And I don't know what the solution is, but, you know, that's a very real problem, and I think it's right that we need to focus on that area of training.

CONAN: Let me ask another question, Brian. A lot of people say the equipment that the Afghan forces have is not good enough and particularly their logistical capabilities.

BRIAN: Yeah, their logistics are light years behind ours. They just don't understand a lot of times that, you know, they need to think ahead and, you know, as part of working with them is getting them to realize, well, if you need supplies in the future, maybe you should, you know, think about getting plans in motion to get those because transportation of supplies is difficult in the terrain, and working with the people, they're, you know, they're not quite as industrious at times. And it's just the nature of the culture. It's nothing against them, but it's a real challenge.

CONAN: Do they lack for courage? Do they lack for morale?

BRIAN: They lack morale. That is for sure. They have a real problem, a lot of the soldiers. They don't have a real high sense of nationalism. They don't -aren't fighting for Afghanistan.

There are some that do. I've met some great soldiers over there. But there's other ones that are there just for the paycheck.

CONAN: Brian, thank you very much for the call, appreciate it.

BRIAN: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Colonel Lamson, is that an accurate description, do you think?

Lt. Col. LAMSON: Well, Neal, first I'd like to thank Brian for his service. He obviously has been places where a lot of people don't want to go, and he's worked some very difficult issues, hand-in-hand with the Afghans.

And what I'd say is what Brian was doing is what we feel is critical to success in Afghanistan, and that's the partnering piece. His - the fact that he was there working hand-in-hand with the Afghans I think is very important, and that goes a long way towards our overall goals in Afghanistan.

I would tell you that I agree with him, what he said that the army NCO corps is weak. The NCO corps is weak, and I think what we have to do is take a step back here and think about where we are and where we've been.

Now NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan stood up on the 21st of November, 2009. So we're just over one year old. Now, that's not to say we haven't been training the army prior to that, but what we had was, especially in the police corps, multiple countries working bilaterally without any coordination.

The goal of NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan was to bring all these countries together and have a coordinated, synchronized way of training the ANSF forces.

Now, in the last year, we built the foundation of the systems that need to be put in place. We haven't even started to professionalize this force. Our goal this year is to start that process. And it includes things like developing professional education courses, follow-on education, which is what I think is important towards the professionalization of the force. So I agree with Brian.

CONAN: Let's bring Tom Bowman into the conversation, NPR Pentagon correspondent, who's been in Afghanistan, embedded with Marines and Army units. And those units work closely with Afghan forces, and you've seen the Afghan police in operation, as well, and I just wonder: Are things getting better? Are things improving? Is there a prospect that in three years' time they're going to be ready to accept the handover?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, that's a big question: What will they be able to achieve in three years' time? They hope to transition to the Afghan security forces by 2014, turn over the lead role to them, but it's an open question what it's going to look like at that point.

I was in Kandahar province in Southern Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne and also next door in Helmand province with the Marines. Now, when I was with the 101st, they were with a company of Afghan soldiers, 120 soldiers. They lost 80 of those 120 soldiers; they just walked away. And the ones who were remaining were really pretty green troops. I mean, they weren't really doing anything. They were standing around watching the 101st Airborne soldiers destroy IEDs in this stretch of dirt road.

Next door with the Marines, it was a little better story. They had a small Marine training team working with Afghan soldiers, and from all accounts, talking to the Marines and seeing these Afghan soldiers, they were pretty squared away, had a lot of initiative. They would go out on their own patrols, wouldn't need too much supervision.

But we were talking earlier about logistics with the caller Brian. Now, these Afghan soldiers didn't have their own water. So they were drinking out of the canal, and the Marine who was there basically said: Listen, I'll get you some water because we don't want you guys getting sick drinking out of the canal. And the Afghan soldiers said, well, can you bring the water down to us from the main base?

And this Marine said: No, listen, you go get it on your own. You should have your own supply people who can bring it down to you. But I'm not going to bring it down. I'll provide it to you, but you have to get it on your own.

So serious problems with resupplying themselves, which is clearly going to stretch into a number of years.

CONAN: And Colonel Lamson, as you look ahead to this, you know, obviously we're talking about training problems. The corruption problem, this is something that is endemic and, as you say, not just in Afghanistan, this part of the world, not just that part of the world, either but nevertheless a real difficulty.

Lt. Col. LAMSON: Right. Well, first, I'd just like to follow on with what Tom said, and he was talking about logistics. And what I would say is that last year, there was a conscious effort made to grow the force. So we had plans in place where we were going to build enablers to include the logistics system and several other systems.

But the logistics system was put on hold so that we could increase the number of the forces, and this coming year is when we're going to build that. So obviously, we're going to have problems with logistics. What I would say is that as we move forward, I think we should see gradual improvements within the logistics system to the point where it will be self-sustained, and that's our goal.

CONAN: We'll get to the corruption issue when we come back from a short break. So stay with us if you would, Colonel Lamson. Lieutenant Colonel Brian Lamson, the U.S. Army chief strategist for police development of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan. Also with us, Tom Bowman, NPR Pentagon correspondent. We're going to be joined, as well, by John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security and a retired lieutenant colonel himself from the U.S. Army. Stay with us, 800-989-8255. Email It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

The White House assessment of the war in Afghanistan is expected to wrap up in the next week or so, in advance of the president's promised drawdown of troops, which is expected to begin, gradually, next July. Any pullback likely depends on the ability of Afghan forces to step up and take responsibility for security.

We're talking today about the challenges of training those Afghan forces. If you've been involved in NATO's Training Mission in Afghanistan, if you've served with Afghan troops and police, what did you learn? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, also Lieutenant Colonel Brian Lamson, who's chief strategist for police development at the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan. And also here with us in Studio 3A is John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security and a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army. And Colonel Nagl, nice to have you with us as always.

Colonel JOHN NAGL (U.S. Army, Retired; Center for a New American Security): It's good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And let me ask you a question. We're going to get back to this corruption question, but let me ask you a question. Nine years after the United States went into Afghanistan, why are we so late, it seems, catching up with this training issue, which everybody knew from the beginning was going to be key?

Col. NAGL: The war in Afghanistan took a back seat to the war in Iraq, even before the invasion of Iraq started. We were already shifting forces, resources, in 2002, away from Afghanistan toward Iraq.

And the real priority switched back from Iraq to Afghanistan only last year, during the Obama administration. And a good quick snapshot of this fact: From 2001 until 2008, the international community spent $20 billion on developing the Afghan security forces. In 2009 and 2010 together, those two years, the U.S. will match that total, $20 billion, just in two years. So we're finally starting to put a priority on this mission that frankly should have been there from the start.

CONAN: Well, was that first 20 billion wasted?

Col. NAGL: An awful lot of it was, I'm afraid. The international effort to rebuild Afghanistan was divided up among a number of countries. Different missions were given to different countries, and I don't think any nation's efforts could be given an A grade, but an awful lot of them I think would be in the failing grade, and in particular I think the effort to raise, equip, train the Afghan police force was money very poorly spent for the first five years or so.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Brian(ph), Brian with us from Tulsa.

BRIAN (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BRIAN: Yeah, I was an embedded trainer over there with the Afghan national army for almost three years, two tours, '04 and '05 - '03 and '04, '05 and '06.

Our biggest problem was the corruption in the officer corps. They would get food money, a lot of them, through the NATO, the U.S., and I think at that time, it was eight or nine dollars per day per man to feed these guys three meals. Well, by the time it got trickled down to the company-size element that I was working, they were trying to buy food for three or four dollars a day per man.

CONAN: Traditionally, another way of manipulating the system, so-called ghost soldiers. You have a - you may have 100 men there on the ground, but you're putting in chits for 250.

BRIAN: No, no, that wasn't the case. It was a case that the higher-ups that got the money, as the money was supposed to be handed down through the channels, they just kept a little bit for themselves.

CONAN: So by the time it got down to the person who's actually providing the food, they had just $3 per man as opposed to the $9 they should have had to begin with.

BRIAN: Exactly, and, you know, and another thing is we kind of crippled them a little bit because they expected the Americans to pay for everything over there, you know. If they needed a truck part, we were supposed to go out and buy that for them. If they needed - they had no initiative to try and fix stuff on their own because we had made it too easy for them by that time.

CONAN: Colonel Lamson, we get back to the corruption issue through the agency of Brian's call from Tulsa.

Lt. Col. LAMSON: That's right, and Brian raises a legitimate point, that as you're dealing with a force in its infancy, you're going to have these frustrating moments. And there weren't just a few of them. There are a lot.

I think there are a lot of things that we've put in place now to mitigate a lot of the corruption that's taking place. From my perspective at NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan, one of the biggest is ensuring training takes place. You know, that initial training wasn't a guarantee in the police until recently.

One of the reasons for that is that the recruiting was decentralized. So commanders all over the country could recruit on their own. Once they identified a recruit, they could - they had the luxury of determining whether he could go to training or whether he should actually start working before training took place.

We now have requirements in place, and it seems like a little thing, but it's actually pretty big, where every person who is recruited in the police, it's mandatory for them now to receive their full training before they're put on duty. That's a small thing.

Now, there's a lot of other things that are involved with countering corruption. Leadership is really important, as we talked about. Professionalization of the force, the overall institution building that we're doing within the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defense.

But in my opinion, the most important thing is partnering. We have got to partner. We have to show them what is right, out in the field - not only the army, which we're doing really well with, but also in the police. We have to show the - and there is a - there's strong evidence, a lot of data that supports that when you are partnered at that lowest level, that you show progress.

CONAN: I wonder, Brian, given your experience, would you be encouraged that three years from now significant changes will have taken place?

BRIAN: Well, I really hope they do. I think three years is a really short time to get all that implemented.

I mean, one of the other problems we had over there was - which I consider corruption, is hey, this guy's uncle was the governor of this province, so he's now the company commander of this unit, even though he's had no training for that. And, oh, and my brother-in-law, he's now the sergeant-major.

CONAN: Yeah, that's the nepotism.

BRIAN: (Unintelligible) and, you know, and us, we kind of had our hands tied. We couldn't really do anything about it. I mean, the only thing we could do is withhold their pay if we didn't think they were doing their job.

And that was another thing. The privates over there were making the equivalency of $70 a month U.S. currency, 3,500 Afghani at the time. And they had no leave schedule in place. Every time they got paid, half the company would disappear to take money home because they don't have a banking system set up to where they can transfer funds and stuff like that.

So you know, we would go from mission capable to mission incapable at critical points, during some of the heaviest times of the year when we needed those men there. But they didn't care. They had to go take care of their families. And I may be way down in Lwara, and they've got family up in Mazar-i-Sharif. They put these guys to where they can't really have a good functioning area to work in around where they live. That was another problem we had.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much, interesting points.

BRIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: This email from Rick: I served two tours of duty with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan and worked with many AMA - that's Army personnel. Yes, there are many challenges in the Afghan military, but they are able to be dealt with.

Until we stop trying to impose our own version of military culture, Western military culture, and allow the Afghans to organically develop its own cultures, traditions and values, we will experience what Afghanistan has always experienced: mission failure.

The country of Afghanistan was cut off from the world for the better part of half a century and the damage that was done during that time of neglect will not be undone overnight.

And John Nagl, I think that's a point that a lot of people would agree with, beginning with the argument that you hear a lot of the time, that the Afghan army and the police don't have to measure up to American standards, they have to measure up to Afghan standards.

Col. NAGL: The fine art of Afghan good enough. And I think we're figuring out not just as a country but as a NATO coalition what good enough looks like, what we can learn to live with and what we can't.

But I do think we have to admire for a moment the resilience of the Afghan people, who suffered under almost 10 years of Soviet invasion and then many years of Taliban misrule. These are people who take a licking and keep on ticking, and the courage, I think, of the Afghan soldiers is not in doubt. We have to teach them how to operate at least efficiently enough to defeat the Taliban.

CONAN: Tom Bowman, I wonder what you think.

BOWMAN: No, I think that's right. And, you know, Afghan good enough is a term you keep hearing when you're over there. How much training, how much support will they need before we can start backing away and they can start taking over for security for their own country.

But you know, another question is, we keep focusing now on 2014. It used to be July 2011, when U.S. forces would start to leave Afghanistan. Now it's 2014. And as we get closer to that date, it's going to be: Well, how many U.S. forces will have to remain, 2014 and after, to help them, continue to help them with everything from training to logistics that we were talking about, helping supply them. And I don't think anybody knows the answer to that question. My guess is it's going to be a - you know, tens of thousands.

CONAN: We talk about military culture. The American way of war in Afghanistan is conducted by helicopter. Do the Afghans have any helicopters?

BOWMAN: They have a very small number of helicopters, Russian-made helicopters, and they're starting to train an Afghan air force. But right now they only have a small number of helicopters and a small number of pilots.

Col. LAMSON: They currently have about 40 helicopters. They are all Russian-made. Russian helicopters are designed to work in - at those elevations.

Interestingly, during the flooding in Pakistan earlier this year, they actually sent an Afghan mission - no American advisers, no American support - into Pakistan. It conducted a number of relief missions, flew the Afghan flag in Pakistan and really provided a bright ray of hope that these are people who can make things happen. We're going to have to give them some time.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Mike(ph), and mike is calling from Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

MIKE (Caller): Yes. We talk about corruption enough, but one of the problems we had - I was a - in special operations, still am, and I've been to Afghanistan on four different rotations, one being that I was the commander of Camp Morehead where we train the commandos. And the problem we had was the ethnic issues between the Pashtuns, Hazaris, Tajiks and all the other different ethnic tribes out there - the Pashtuns being the largest.

It was such a problem because all the Pashtuns were in charge, and when we tried to make a, you know, push up a Hazari to fill a void, maybe he was an officer or a major, we'd get a lot of pushback because they want all the Pashtuns to have all the power, and all the lower tribes to be just the -basically, a solider.

So we had a lot of problems. And I can't stress enough how bad corruption was. It was at a level that the American people just don't understand. And it was really disheartening sometimes to see how much money we are spending over there with getting zero results gained and looking for where the equipment was at and coming up with zero. So it was just a - it was a logistical nightmare to say the least.

CONAN: Mike, four rotations, it must be nice to be home for the holidays.

MIKE: Yeah. I got - well, I've been back a year so it's pretty good, but Afghanistan, it's a - it needs a lot of work. I don't know exactly what the end state is, but it's going to take a long time if we want to get them where they really need to be.

CONAN: If you're in Special Forces, I think you can probably anticipate going back?

MIKE Oh, yeah. That's a given. That's a given. We're - we have guys there now. It's just a matter of time till I rotate back. That would be my fifth rotation, and I got one rotation by Iraq, so I kind of seen it all. It's getting kind of old.

CONAN: I bet it is. Mike, take care of yourself.

MIKE: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Tom Bowman, what don't we understand about the level of corruption in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: It's endemic. And it's not only just money changing hands. Sometimes it's one official, as somebody mentioned, your brother-in-law is on the payroll or a friend of yours, and then, of course, the Karzai family is deeply involved in this corruption. And some of the WikiLeaks cables that have been released show that. That there's one instance where the governor of Kandahar province, Governor Toor Wesa, tried to get rid of a local police commander that he didn't want, and Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's brother and head of provincial council in Kandahar, stepped in and tried to keep his guy on the job. I mean, it's a real problem.

CONAN: And, John Nagl, this - the difficulties with ethnic separations or ethnic differences, this is again nothing new, but this is something that is not going to be easily solved.

Mr. NAGL: That's correct. This is a problem we faced in Iraq with the Sunni-Shia split, which actually escalated into a near state of civil war. We haven't seen that level of conflict by any means in Afghanistan, and it's important, I think, to keep that perspective and remember that bad as things are in Afghanistan, they were far worse in Iraq.

The efforts to raise and equip both the army and police forces from the Pashtu south are continuing and improving. There are some cultural concerns we have to overcome. There are language difficulties. This is a problem we didn't face in Iraq, where everybody spoke Arabic. Now, we've got an additional language problem between Dari and Pashtu, but we are making some degree of progress. And I think you're going to see, as we continue to put pressure on the Taliban through some other operations that we haven't talked about here, I think the Afghan security forces are going to continue to get better as we simultaneously degrade the Taliban.

CONAN: Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, now president of the Center for a New American Security. Also with us, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Lamson, chief strategist for police development at the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, and NPR correspondent Tom Bowman, who's done a few tours in Afghanistan himself. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line and let's go to - this is Ezra(ph). Ezra calling from Fort Drum.

EZRA (Caller): Hello. How are you doing today?

CONAN: I'm well. That's upstate New York. Are you buried under snow up there?

EZRA: You know, you get - you learn to live with it after a bit, and the roads are clear today, so we're doing all right.

CONAN: All right.

EZRA: Yeah. You know, I want to thank you for having me on, and I want to be able to speak positively because, you know, I like to think that our time spent there was working towards the positive end state, but I do want to say that I was involved in an incident where an ANP soldier, whether he'd be an infiltrator from the Taliban or not but he turned on our unit and killed two of my comrades in the incidence we were doing once. And - but I want to speak with a - speak, I guess, towards that and how do we avoid that, how do we maybe train our people to spot those infiltrators or spot things like that and what is being done towards that? I know a week later it was when the five British soldiers were killed last year, and there's been a lot of incidents on that, just to speak towards that.

CONAN: ANP, the Afghan National Police. And, Colonel Lamson, let me ask you about that.

Lt. Col. LAMSON: Well, yeah, anytime something like that happens, it's tragic, and there are instances of this happening. Now, my - the analysis that's been done on this shows that anecdotal information, several instances, but it's actually, you know, it's fairly low over the course of a number of years. Anytime it happens, though, it's bad. We're - obviously, everyone is traumatized by something like this.

Now, what I would say is that, especially within the police, you know, in some cases, you know, years ago, we had no way of tracking the police who was trained, who was not trained, and I think that was a problem. We now do a thorough vetting. We track these guys through training. We've actually noted some insurgents that have infiltrated the police during training. We've caught them. And I think we're moving in a more positive direction on that.

But I'd just like to emphasize that you're not going to stop this a hundred percent of the time. There's - there will be an incident that happens again.

CONAN: Ezra, we're very sorry for your loss. I know that's a tough thing to take.

EZRA: And yeah, no - and thank you. But - and I do want to speak to that and just say that, yeah, I had - in the year that I was there, I did see a great improvement through the quality of the police force, and I saw training centers go up and their involvement in our missions went up. And so I think it was moving in a good direction, and I want to thank the colonel for his service and everything he's doing. I appreciate it.

CONAN: All right. Stay warm, Ezra. Appreciate your phone call.

EZRA: All right, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And thanks to our guests. We were speaking with Lieutenant Colonel Brian Lamson, a chief strategist for police development at the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan; Tom Bowman, NPR Pentagon correspondent; and John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security. Thank you all very much for your time today.

When we come back, a group of WikiLeaks supporters, well, blocks up websites for Visa and MasterCards, among other companies. We'll find out how they do it and why. This is NPR News.

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