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Federal prosecutors in New York have opened a criminal probe against a brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai: Efforts to curb corruption – and the risks for U-S military and diplomatic strategies in Afghanistan.
- Yochi Dreazen senior national security correspondent, National Journal magazine.
- Paul Pillar director, graduate studies at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former CIA National Intelligence officer
- Max Boot senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "War Made New" (Gotham Books)
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is recovering from a voice treatment. U.S. and NATO forces are launching a new push in Afghanistan near the southern city of Kandahar. A brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is being investigated for possible financial misdeeds, and Gen. Petraeus reports that Taliban leaders may want to talk. Joining me to discuss all the latest developments and the overall outlook for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, Paul Pillar, Director of graduate studies at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, Yochi Dreazen of National Journal magazine, and by phone from New York, Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Gentlemen, thank you all so much for joining me.
MR. PAUL PILLARGood morning.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENThank you.
MR. MAX BOOTThank you.
KAYIn just a while we will be opening the phones. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number here. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can send us a question on Twitter or on Facebook as well. We would love to take your questions and calls, and we'll be opening those phones in just a while. Yochi, let's start with you and the news from General David Petraeus yesterday that Taliban leaders may be trying to start talks with members of the Afghan government. This morning in The Washington Post, a story that the Afghan government has announced that it will have a 70-member High Council for Peace which will oversee any negotiations with the Taliban. How significant is all of this?
DREAZENIt's very hard to know at this stage. I mean, it's worth remembering that it was only a few months ago that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had said that he would hold what he referred to as a peace jirga that arose a lot of American skepticism. Defense Secretary Bob Gates said on the record as did Gen. Petraeus that they thought this was premature, that lower-level Taliban fighters, mid-level Taliban fighters might be willing to lay down their weapons, especially those who are fighting for money as opposed for ideology, but that they didn't think it was time yet to try to reach out to the senior-level Taliban leaders. In that, nothing much came of the program in April. Money was pledged and not delivered. Very few, if any, fighters have actually laid down their weaponry.
DREAZENSo I think there's reason for a lot of skepticism. It's also interesting to note that in Iraq -- which Gen. Petraeus oversaw a somewhat successful reintegration program -- there, too, it wasn't with a high level leadership. It wasn't the leaders of al-Qaida and Iraq. It wasn't the leadership of many Sunni fighting groups. It was again the mid and low-level. So if this worked, this will be both a difference from the historical pattern in Iraq and also a change from a failed attempt to do as earlier in the year by President Karzai.
KAYWell, Paul Pillar, reading between the lines of what Gen. Petraeus was saying yesterday, do you see any differences and any calls for more optimism than we saw we the peace jirga back in April?
PILLAROh, not more optimism. We should make it clear when we're talking about reconciliation, we're really talking about a whole spectrum of possibilities from individual fighters being reintegrated coming out in the field. And that is very similar to what we saw in Iraq. Too, at the other extreme, you know, wholesale political accommodation with the leadership of, and in this case, the Afghan Taliban.
KAYAlthough what Gen. Petraeus seemed to be suggesting was that these were talks with senior members of the Taliban.
PILLARWell, he left it vague. And I -- what I read between the lines of the general's comment, is that he still has in mind something closer to the first end of the spectrum, lower-level integration, which -- when he used words like, and all insurgencies end this way -- well, all end with some kind of laying down of arms of fighters. They don't all end with a coming to the terms with senior political leadership.
KAYMax Boot, it's a fairly tricky proposition for all involved, isn't it -- this beginning of the process of negotiation with the Taliban?
BOOTAbsolutely. And in fact, when I was Kabul in July, I heard a lot of disquiet from Afghans, particularly those from Tajik, Hazara or other ethnic groups who are very suspicious of the Taliban. They were very worried that President Karzai would in fact strike some kind of deal with this fellow Pashto in the Taliban, which would allow the Taliban a way to take some degree of power and perhaps spark a civil war. I think that's overblown. I don't think that's going to happen. I don't think President Karzai is going to slit his own throat by reaching a deal with the Taliban. But I think that is the way that other ethnic groups have, and I share the caution that Yochi and Paul have expressed.
BOOTI don't think we're at a stage right now where you're going to see large -- some kind of large scale deal reached with the Taliban. I mean, the greatest wisdom on the subject I've heard came from an officer in the NATO headquarters in Kabul who said to me, first, you've got to knock them on your backside, then you can offer them a helping hand up. You have to inflict some defeats on these guys before you will start seeing large scale defections. And we're only now starting to make the kind of serious military effort we should have made years ago to push back the Taliban. And until we have some more success on the ground against these guys, they don't have any incentive to switch sides.
KAYYochi, would you agree with that, that you have to, in a sense -- and that's what we're seeing -- a stepped up drone campaign in Pakistan as well as the efforts in Kandahar, that you have to be killing them on the one hand in order to be able to talk them on the other hand?
DREAZENYes, I would agree completely. I mean, that's what you saw in Iraq. For all the talk about counterinsurgency being a somewhat softer, gentler approach to war, that belief which has taken root kind of publicly is not really based on fact. I mean, there was an enormous amount of killing in Iraq by U.S. regular troops, by U.S. special operations troops, that coincided with many of these groups and being willing to talk. It's also worth noting that we talked about the Taliban as a monolith. And with Gen. Petraeus who understands these (word?) of dynamics very well, would point out is that it is not a monolith. I mean, the Taliban itself is divided. Its allied groups like the Haqqani group that operates along the border of Pakistan and is thought to be sheltered in Pakistan, is a separate group that has its own operation, its own way of fighting.
DREAZENAnd there are some interesting stories about the Haqqani group, and particularly in the last few weeks. There's been a stepped-up American campaign against the Haqqani group. U.S. military officials believe they're making real serious headway in killing enough of them that the Haqqanis may be either knocked back on their feet a little bit or are willing to talk. The Pakistani ISI have also communicated -- and again take this with a heavy shaker of salt, not just a grain of salt -- a willingness to bring the Haqqani group to the table. So it isn't just that the Taliban, as we think of them controlled by the Quetta Shura in Pakistan, Taliban writ large. It's also these allied groups that you could potentially -- if things break right -- potentially splinter away one by one.
KAYOkay. Paul Pillar, let's talk a little bit about these drone attacks because that's the other sort of military piece of this puzzle that has been dominating the headlines in the last couple of days. What do we know about the pace and, more importantly, the significance and the effect of these drone attacks, these CIA drone attacks in Pakistan?
PILLARWell, the pace clearly is much greater than it was under the previous administration. The Obama administration has been relying on this rather technologically impressive tool, partly because they've got no other way -- or few other ways to reach out toward the part of the (word?) that's on the Pakistan line of the border. We've had a few exceptions. In fact, there was this cross-border helicopter borne raid that was in the news just within the last day or two. The objectives seem to be mixed. It's partly a matter of going after strictly terrorist targets, al-Qaida types in North Waziristan. It's partly groups like the Haqqani group, and it's partly an extension of the fight against the Afghan Taliban. So it's an overall effort to accomplish multiple purposes, keep true terrorists off balance, and also do some of that whacking away against the counterinsurgency for the Afghan Taliban.
KAYMax Boot, if you had to kind of allocate the level of importance between the drone strikes in Pakistan and what's happening on the ground around particularly the moment the surge against Kandahar, which is the more important piece of the puzzle? Or, you know, are they -- do they just have to go together and both are equally significant?
BOOTWell, there's no question that the ground operations in Afghanistan are the centerpiece of our strategy. That is, by far, the most important thing that we're doing over there. And the drone strikes are really a supporting effort and they're an attempt to keep al-Qaida and some of these other groups in Pakistan off balance. But they are, you know, basically the only tool we have, but they're not a great tool. And we've seen this repeatedly time and time again, in Afghanistan itself, in Iraq, in Somalia, Yemen and other countries where you can have these drone strikes. And you can achieve some results, keep some of these terrorist groups off balance a little bit, but you're not going to defeat them from the air.
BOOTThey can always replace the people that you kill. The only way to achieve decisive results against them is to put boots on the ground where they live, where they terrorize the population, protect the population and thereby turn the population against the insurgents. And that's what our troops and allied troops and Afghan troops are now doing or trying to do in places like Kandahar or Helmand Province. That's going to be where the war is won or lost. You know, we still need to continue the drone strikes. I believe they're vitally important, but we shouldn't have any illusions that they will somehow magically win the war for us without a massive commitment of ground forces.
KAYOkay. Well, let's talk a little about that trying to do. How much success do you think that ground operation is having in defeating the Taliban and protecting the Afghan population? Max.
BOOTI think it's early days yet. You know, keep in mind that up until 2008, we only had 30,000 American troops in Afghanistan, a country of more than 30 million people and more spread out than Iraq. It's only in the last few months that we've actually had the arrival of 100,000 American troops to make a real counterinsurgency push in Southern Afghanistan. Now, there are areas where you can see, going back to last summer where the Marines went in into certain districts in Helmand Province, areas like Nawa and Garmsir, where there is actually a fair amount of progress. Those are areas that I visited several times over the course of the last year, and they are pretty secure.
BOOTThe Marines have been able to create a bubble of security and push it outward. They're not as far long in Marja, which was a much tougher nut to crack. We're the only one -- and earlier this year they're still battling there. They are making progress. It'll take time. And they're not nearly as far along in Kandahar, where it's only now that we've started to encircle the city and to press on the insurgents who have been surrounding the major city in the south. So, you know, we have to be realistic and realize that these kinds of operations can take time. In Iraq, it took years. That doesn't mean we're losing. And unfortunately during those years, you're going to see increased casualties, which we are seeing in southern Afghanistan. But I have to emphasize, that doesn't mean that we're losing. That may be the unfortunate cost of making progress against an entrenched insurgency, which is out of free run of the countryside for a number of years.
KAYOkay. Yochi, the other headline that we've had at the moment is more of a political headline, the news yesterday that federal prosecutors have opened a probe into the possible financial misdeeds of one of President Karzai's brothers. What can you tell us about that?
DREAZENThis is a -- it's interesting. This is a probe into Mahmoud Karzai, who is an American citizen, who pre-war in Afghanistan ran a Afghan restaurant near Baltimore, postwar in Afghanistan, is one of the richest man in Afghanistan, which is itself remarkable. He had been on the board of the Kabul Bank, the bank that had nearly collapsed and caused Iran, basically an entire Afghan financial system, which is now being propped up either indirectly or directly depending on who you ask by either U.S. assistance or U.S. help. This probe looks at corruption, embezzlement, fraud, tax evasion. Since he's a U.S. citizen, the U.S. has more reach than they do to the other problematic Karzai brother in Kandahar, Ahmed Wali Karzai.
KAYOkay. And we'll be talking more about that in just a minute. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." The number is 1-800-433-8850. We're going to take a quick break. Stay with us.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of BBC World News America, sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined our conversation this morning on the latest developments in Afghanistan, political and military. I'm joined in the studio by Paul Pillar. He's the director of graduate studies at the Center for Peace and Security at Georgetown University. I'm also joined by Yochi Dreazen. He's senior national security correspondent for National Journal magazine. Max Boot joins us by phone from New York. He's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "War Made New." The phone number here is 1-800-433-8850, email@example.com is the e-mail address. Of course, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter as well, and we will be taking more of your questions and comments later on in the program. Paul, we -- just before the break, we were having a brief update on the probe against Afghan president Hamid Karzai's brother, not the brother who had been in the headlines before. To what extent is this complicating U.S., Washington's relationships with Hamid Karzai?
PILLARWell, the whole story of corruption in Afghanistan has a huge complication, not so much with Mahmoud -- the U.S. citizen who's the subject of the current case, which has to do more with tax evasion, apparently -- but with Ahmed and with the larger pattern of corruption. It embodies what is, in my view, one of the inherent dilemmas or contradictions that we simply can't avoid in this counterinsurgency. On the one hand, on the short-term, we have to work with the Karzai government. As Donald Rumsfeld once said, you go to war with the army you got. Well, in this case, we're going to war with the Afghan government we got. And the Obama administration seems to have backed away more recently from some of its pressing on the corruption issue precisely because they saw it as causing frictions with the Karzai government that was getting in the way of the counterinsurgency. But over the long-term, as a question of legitimacy and building political order in which people have confidence in their government, you do have to do something about the corruption problem. So I see this as an inescapable dilemma and one of the things that makes this mission extremely difficult.
KAYYochi, I think a lot of Americans listening to this program might be forgiven for thinking, isn't this mission creep? I mean, what are we there to do? Are we there to try and get out by next July or at least start getting out next July? Are we there to try and stop al-Qaida from having a base from which to attack us again? Or are we there to try and make a non-corrupt Afghanistan?
DREAZENAnd I think that's -- you've hit on the head exactly the fundamental tension between, realistically, the military on the one side -- although I'm always hesitant to lump all military together, but in this case, the chain of command for Afghanistan, the one side -- and the White House. I mean, this is what Bob Woodward was describing in many pages of his book, which I was speed-reading for the last couple of days on my Kindle. But you did see mission creep. If you think back to when the president, with Michele Flournoy from the Pentagon, Richard Holbrook, when they announced the previous iteration of the strategy in March of last year, they said it'd be a very narrow mission set to prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a base again for transnational terror groups like al-Qaida.
DREAZENThen when they put in place Stan McChrystal and gave him the resources he'd had asked for, the mission, as he defined it, grew and grew and grew. It was Stan McChrystal who described government in a box for Marja, a phrase that made his advisers roll their eyes and never has come about. He was, obviously, since fired. When you talk about economic development and some of the other things Gen. Petraeus is doing, these are important, one could argue, to the overall mission of stabilizing Afghanistan. They are not the core mission of killing terrorists to prevent it from becoming a terror base. I think there is mission creep. My sense all along has been that the mission as defined in March and the mission that's being implemented by the military are vastly different things, related -- you could argue the merits of either -- but not the same.
KAYMax Boot, we're already getting a lot of e-mails and calls coming in from people who basically seem to be saying, is this worth the money? What are we still doing there? When can we get our troops home? What have we achieved, which gets to Yochi's point about mission creep?
BOOTI don't see mission creep at all. I see still very much the objectives that were uppermost in our minds when we first went into Afghanistan in 2001 after the attacks of 9/11. But what the reality that Gen. Petraeus recognizes, and that I think the administration has come to realize, is even if you are trying to achieve only the narrow counterterrorist objective -- which is to deny Afghanistan as a safe haven for al-Qaida -- the only way you can do it is with an expansive counterinsurgency strategy which builds up a responsible and legitimate government in Afghanistan, which is able to police its own borders with its own army, its own minimal degree of legitimacy which will prevent this insurgency from taking over.
BOOTThe only way you can achieve the counterterrorist goals -- and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about the limits of drone strikes. You're not going to defeat the terrorist with drone strikes. The only way you can do it is by establishing authority on the ground, boots on the ground -- not necessarily our boots -- but we certainly have to act as a stop-gap. All the Afghan national security forces are being trained, and part of that is helping the people of Afghanistan to establish government which will be legitimate and which will drive people away from the Taliban and not into their arms. I mean, that's a very difficult task, but it's something that Gen. Petraeus has had experience doing in the case of Iraq where, remember, he was fighting not only the Sunni insurgency but also a Shiite insurgency which was closely linked in to Prime Minister Maliki's government.
BOOTSo one of the things that Gen. Petraeus had to do in Iraq was to wean the prime minister and his government away from the extreme elements on their own side, which is something he did pretty successfully in 2007. Likewise, today in Afghanistan, even as we're fighting the Taliban, he has to wean President Karzai away from some of the worst corrupt actors within his own government, some of whom may be relatives of President Karzai. And that's a tough challenge, but I think it is something that's doable. And if we don't achieve that, we will lose the war. The Taliban will take over a substantial part of the country. There will be a civil war. This will be seen as a massive victory for the Jihadists, a massive blow against the United States. It will destabilize the government of Pakistan. It will have severe repercussions for our standing around the world, and that's something that we need to avoid.
KAYOkay. Paul Pillar.
PILLARWell, Max has just laid out things that would take a half hour to comment on, but, of course, we've had huge mission creep. You know, the initial intervention in the fall of 2001 was a direct and just response to the terrorist horror of 9/11. A counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has become a separate objective in itself and end in itself, which has been divorced from the counterterrorist objective. You know, Max keeps talking about we need the boots on the ground in Kandahar and elsewhere in Afghanistan. That's not where the terrorists are. They've got a safe haven in Pakistan. And if that's not good enough, they've got other places to go.
KAYOr Yemen or Somalia...
PILLAROr Yemen or Somalia, and most of them -- most important preparations for terrorist attacks, just like 9/11, don't even take place in those spots but in places like Western cities and U.S. flight schools. We've made the counterinsurgency an end in itself and forgotten what the initial end was, which was keeping Americans safe from terrorism.
BOOTCan I just jump in and respond...
BOOT...to that, Katty?
BOOTYou know, Paul and a lot of other people talk rightly about the terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. But I don't hear a lot of solutions being offered in terms of what we do about that. I don't hear anybody suggesting that we should take our forces out of Afghanistan and put them into Pakistan. I mean, that would be crazy, and I know Paul is not suggesting that. But what I am suggesting is that, given our limited leverage over Pakistan, one of the few ways in which we can actually influence developments there is with our presence in Afghanistan, which allows us to conduct surveillance, which allows us to conduct Predator strikes, which allows us to do various other things and to fight the Afghan Taliban which are very closely linked to the Pakistani Taliban, to Lashkar-e-Taiba, to the al-Qaida and various other Islamist groups which are destabilizing both sides of the border. Whereas if we pull out of Afghanistan precipitously, that will be seen as a major victory for the Jihadists, and what little leverage we have now over Pakistan and our ability to target the Jihadists in Pakistan, will decline very rapidly.
BOOTSo being in Afghanistan is one of the few ways in which we can positively influence what happens in Pakistan.
KAYYochi, I take Max's point that this would be seen as a major victory for Jihadists. But there is a debate, isn't there, about even if we withdraw, even if the Taliban were to retake key areas of Afghanistan, whether they would actually allow al-Qaida back in again in the same way that they did before?
DREAZENCertainly. It's also worth pointing out that the Taliban never left Afghanistan, have never disappeared from Afghan society and already have tacit, if not actual, control of fairly significant swaths of the country. If you look at virtually any map put together by NGOs, any map put together by the military and look at Taliban-held areas, those have continued to grow, not shrink, since the surge started. Taliban -- the Taliban operate courts. They operate -- they appoint governors. They operate ways of mediating land and real estate disputes. So the idea that the Taliban -- even though I, again, want to stress that it's not a monolith -- but even if we perceive it as one, the idea that the Taliban were ever kicked out of Afghanistan by us...
DREAZEN...and are now coming back is just fundamentally false.
KAYDo we know whether a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan devoid of U.S. and NATO troops would be a home for al-Qaida from which al-Qaida would launch strikes against the West?
DREAZENWe don't. If you ask people from the military and the intelligence community that same question, their answer is that the Haqqani group is the group that they're most concerned about. The fear is that if the Taliban retook power in any significant way, the Haqqani group would be given control of eastern Afghanistan and that the Haqqani group -- which maintains active ties to al-Qaida, sheltering al-Qaida leaders, adopting al-Qaida tactics -- that that would be the place, if any, in which al-Qaida might be allowed to reclaim some sort of foothold within Afghan soil.
KAYOkay. Let's go to the phones now to Ann in Longwood, Fla. Ann, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
ANNYou know, I keep hearing all of these actions that we're doing. And the whole point of this, again we -- I think we can all agree it was --- is to keep America safe. Okay. Seventeen out of the 20 people who were responsible for 9/11 were Saudis. We're not going off after the Saudis, and I'm not saying we should. But what I am saying is we have to start thinking about how we keep America safe. And it isn't by going in by drones or spending a million dollars per soldier to have our kids over there blowing up everything that moves. What keeps America safe -- if any of you folks have gone overseas recently -- is America's goodwill, and you don't get that by blowing things up. This country -- we're leaving these countries back in the Dark Ages when we do pull out, and we will pull out because we can't afford to be the police department for the world.
KAYOkay, Ann. I'm going to put you...
ANNLet me just make one little...
KAYOkay. Go ahead.
ANN...one more comment. If this was so important to do, why are we the only country doing this action? Where is the United Nations?
KAYWell, actually, I mean, of course, there are NATO forces as well. Paul, aren't there, in the activities, in the mission in Afghanistan although some NATO countries have recently -- have pulled out and have said that they're going to pull out? But, you know, Ann reflects a frustration I think of a lot of Americans -- and you have talked about looking at Afghanistan in the context of a cost-benefit analysis. What's the cost, and what's the benefit?
PILLARAbsolutely. And that extra margin of a more favorable settlement we may get by, you know, whacking the insurgents a little bit more before we come to terms. We have to ask ourselves, is the cost worth it? But Ann's question also underscores two other important points. One is Afghanistan is not some kind of special ground with regard to terrorism or Islamist terrorism against the United States. Of course, we associate it with that because of the past history of al-Qaida and 9/11 and everything. But the Arabs in al-Qaida, who are our main concern, that's not even their home. And going back to your earlier question about, will the Taliban welcome them back? Probably not given what happened to the Taliban the last time.
PILLARAnd the other thing that Ann's question underscores -- and she uses the term goodwill, that's extremely important. Unfortunately, we're causing a lot of ill will with our military operations in Afghanistan. And one of the measures of progress or lack of it that Max didn't mention before is just the increase -- the substantial increase in the Taliban forces. You know, our status as an occupying, shooting force has been the biggest recruitment tool for the Afghan Taliban and...
BOOTCan I just reply to that briefly?
BOOTTalking about American goodwill, you know what's going to cause goodwill for the United States to dry up? If we abandon Afghanistan. After 9/11, we and the international community -- I mean, Ann mentions the U.N. There are multiple U.N. resolutions sanctioning what we're doing. We are there with over 30 countries who are our allies. If we -- we have made a solemn commitment to the people of Afghanistan that we were going to build a better government for them and to protect them from the Taliban. If we renege on that commitment, if we leave the people of Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban people who cut the noses off of girls, who stone gays, who perform every atrocity known to man -- if we leave Afghanistan to those people and allow Afghanistan to once again be consumed by tyranny and by a horrible civil war -- the kind they saw in the 1990s -- what is that going to do to the goodwill of the United States? What is that going to do to our moral standing around the world? I would suggest that would have some pretty serious repercussions, not only for the people of Afghanistan...
BOOT...but for the United States.
KAYI think everybody sympathized with the plight of Afghans, and particularly with the plight of Afghan girls. As a woman with two daughters, I find what the Taliban have done to girls and are doing to girls odious, but if we take by extension that rationale that you've just laid out -- what about people in the Congo? What about people in Somalia? What about people in Sudan? You have -- Somalia is a case in point.
BOOTWe were not attacked by terrorists from the Congo. We are -- make no mistake about it. We are in Afghanistan because we were directly attacked from there. The United Nations and NATO sanctioned our involvement in Afghanistan and still sanction it today, and it's still supported by a majority of the people in Afghanistan. Yes. We can't fight everywhere where there is human rights abuses, and we are not in Afghanistan primarily because of the human rights abuses. But we need to keep that in mind because -- the caller brought up the issue of goodwill and our moral standing. And I would suggest that reneging on our commitments to the people of Afghanistan, betraying them, would have serious repercussions for our moral standing around the world just as, in fact, we had, you know, allowing the genocide in Rwanda to pass unchallenged. That also had serious repercussions for our moral standing.
DREAZENI just want to say very briefly that we were talking before about mission creep. I think we're seeing, you know, answer creep as we discuss this to the question of why are we there. The initial -- as we all agreed, the initial answer was to defeat al-Qaida, to respond to 9/11, to prevent them from coming back. Now, we're talking about a solemn commitment to the Afghan people. When President Obama announced this new strategy, he very explicitly did not mention solemn commitment to the Afghan people. He very explicitly did not mention building up a new Afghanistan. In fact, his officials have said the opposite, that this will not be the Switzerland of the Hindu Kush -- is a phrase they use often -- that this will not be some Jeffersonian democracy.
DREAZENWe can do one of two things. We can either define it as it has been defined previously, which is a counter-terror mission. Or we should be honest about what we are committing to when we say we're going to do what Max wants to do. And again, morally, as -- I don't think anybody would disagree with what Max just said. But the question is can we afford it as a basically bankrupt country? Can we afford it when our closest allies, the British, are not only pulling out of Afghanistan but drastically cutting their military? The Canadians are pulling out of Afghanistan. Most of the other NATO allies that are there are so small to be insignificant. Can we afford to do the kind of generational conflict that rebuilding Afghanistan, from along the lines Max suggests, the amount of time that would take? And that's a very different question. It's a debate that is not being heard right now.
PILLARAnd on the issue of living up to commitments, this was exactly what we heard during the Vietnam War as the main justification for plowing ahead even when the policymakers in the Johnson administration had come to see it as a losing proposition. The fact is, our adversaries, other governments, do not judge our credibility that way. If we back away from losing our unfavorable enterprises, that does not mean we are seen as any less determined to protect our core interest and core security.
BOOTYou know, Paul, respectfully, I don't think that's the case. If you look at the writings and the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and other leaders of al-Qaida, they were greatly cheered by the fact that we were chased out of Lebanon in the 1980s, out of Somalia in the 1990s and also by our defeat in Vietnam. All of those are cited in the jihadist literature as evidence that we are a weak horse that can be attacked with impunity. And if we conform to that stereotype by being driven out of Afghanistan, I think the consequences will be calamitous because -- okay, we could afford to…
KAYOkay. Max, I'm going to -- we have to take a quick break, Max. We will get back to you. Hold that thought. After this quick break, the discussion on Afghanistan will resume. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined our show, and we are talking about the situation in Afghanistan, the latest developments and what it means for the U.S. mission there. Paul Pillar is with me from Georgetown University, Yochi Dreazen, from National Journal magazine. Max Boot has joined us from the Council of Foreign Relations by phone from New York. I want to go to the phones, to Michael in Jackson. Michael, you have a question for my panel.
MICHAELYeah, a couple of questions.
MICHAELOne, I hope this is relevant, but I really like the BBC...
KAYWell, thank you very much.
MICHAEL...because you're not deferential towards authority. And you're not afraid to ask hard questions like the American press. I love -- you guys ask -- you're not afraid to ask...
KAYThank you, Michael. But do you have a question on Afghanistan for our panel?
MICHAELYes, yes. And number two is, what is it that the Taliban want? Well, why are they throwing acid on little kids' -- little girls' faces? What is it? Are they doing it in the name of their God? What are they -- what do -- what is it that they want?
KAYOkay. Paul Pillar, what do the Taliban want? That's just very fundamental question Michael's asking there.
PILLARThe Taliban want to rule in Afghanistan on top of a harshly organized -- their version of a harshly organized Islamic society. Most important, for the purposes of our discussion, is the Taliban are not an international or transnational terrorist group. They are in interested in us, the United States, or the rest of the West, only insofar as we interfere with or get in the way of their plans for Afghanistan. And that's directly relevant to your earlier questions, Katty, about the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida and what they might do to welcome them back or not welcome them back. But they are focused very narrowly on the social and political order inside Afghanistan.
BOOTYou know, I think it's really extremely optimistic and not based on the evidence that suggest that if the Taliban come back into power, they will somehow exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan. In fact, they have had repeated opportunities to break with al-Qaida. If they had broken with al-Qaida in September and October of 2001, if they had delivered Osama Bin Laden to us, we would not have invaded Afghanistan, and Mullah Omar could have remained in power. Instead, they saw al-Qaida as being their brothers in this ideological Islam struggle.
PILLARAnd al-Qaida was...
BOOTAnd since that -- since -- and since then, the ties between al-Qaida and the Taliban have become much deeper as they have both spent years in the Pakistani tribal areas. So the notion that somehow the Taliban can come back into power, and we can convince them to behave and not to have relations or not to support other Islamist terrorist groups, to me, is simply naïve.
KAYOkay. I want to go an e-mail from Frank who writes to us, "We have no money to carry this war on. We have no money to keep ourselves employed, repair our roads and infrastructure. We are broke. There is no enemy as great as our national debt and the failure to control it or pay it off. We will ruin ourselves more quickly than any outside army will." Yochi.
DREAZENWell, you know, it's worth pointing out that earlier Max had pointed out correctly that Osama bin Laden has talked for a long time about the U.S. pullout from Beirut after the Marine barracks bombing there, and about what he saw as similar examples of U.S. weakness. It's also worth noting though that he and other al-Qaida leaders have talked much more recently about how this has been from their point of view, this being the Afghan war and the Iraq war alongside it, an enormous victory because they are very well aware of the economy of the U.S. They have talked explicitly about the 9/11 attacks having cost them $50,000 to carry out but having caused us trillions of dollars in response. And they talk again and again and again about their belief that this type of war will eventually bankrupt the U.S. economy. So it isn't simply that it's a domestic concern here about the economy. It's that our enemies explicitly cite the economy and the cost of these wars as a reason -- they hope these wars continue...
DREAZEN...because they are very well aware of the cost.
KAYAnd, presumably, if we were to commit the resources that it might take to rebuild Afghanistan in a model that was more democratic, less corrupt for a long time, then something else has to go from our budget.
BOOTWell, keep in mind -- let's keep in mind the overall perspective on the budget here. Defense is still only about 4 percent of GDP -- 4 cents on the dollar of our economy is spent on defense. Less than 20 percent of the federal budget is devoted to defense, even with all of our spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So we should be concerned about the fiscal health of the United States, but we are being bankrupted by entitlements. We are not being bankrupted by our defense burden, which is much lower as a percentage of the economy now than it was throughout the Cold War.
KAYOkay. I want to bring in one of the news element that has been in the papers in the last couple of days. Paul Pillar, this story about a few U.S. soldiers in Southern Afghanistan going rogue, as it's called, and killing Afghan civilians. What's your -- how much do you know about this? And how much does it affect the U.S. mission there?
PILLARWell, I know what I read about in the newspapers, and this is the same kind of sickening thing as we saw with the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq. And the first thing we have to note is...
KAYComplete with photographs and videos apparently.
PILLARAbsolutely -- is that, of course, this was in no way sanctioned by or a direct response to orders of high command. This really was a matter of rogue criminal or alleged criminal behavior by people farther down. But two other points, one, it's part of the image that we convey. And we've speaking -- and Max and Yochi have both referred to this -- about, you know, what kind of behavior on the part of the United States plays into or does not play into the extremist narrative. This plays into it in a big way even though it's rogue and not something we're doing as a matter of official policy.
PILLARAnd the second point is, when you have major military operations and putting of hundreds of thousands of young people out in places like this, as Donald Ramsell said, stuff happens. And despite the best efforts of our military commanders to discipline and police this sort of thing, these sorts of incidents will happen when we conduct these kinds of operations.
KAYAnd -- but, Yochi, how much impact will they have on the effort of the U.S. military and the NATO forces to win over the Afghan population and to make Afghans trust them and trust that they will protect them and not allow Taliban to return and take revenge against those civilians who side with NATO forces or help NATO forces?
DREAZENYou know, strangely and perhaps, counter-intuitively, I was talking by phone a couple days ago with my Afghan translator. I'm heading back there in two weeks, and we're setting up last details for the trip. And I asked that question. He said that -- at least in the Afghan press that he sees in Kabul in both print and television, this was not a big story. And, in fact, relative to military operations, the bigger story there were Kandhar and civilian casualties when they're happening from air strikes. But this was not (word?) a big deal, and he said that the tone of the Afghan coverage, a lot of it was surprise and kind of -- delight is the wrong word and convey is -- something I'm not trying to convey -- but surprised that when soldiers kill civilians that there was stuff happening to those soldiers because they would expect, cynically, that if a soldier -- an Afghan soldier, for instance, shot up a house, nothing would happen.
KAYThey would do so with impunity.
DREAZENSo the fact that there is as much of a hubbub about it here was to them sort of remarkable.
KAYThat's very interesting.
DREAZENIt is -- I want to point out very briefly though that I -- you mentioned how this was a -- you know, rogue troop, which is true. But as with Abu Ghraib, this is a very, very troubled unit. It wasn't just that these five guys or six guys had gone rogue and everything else is, you know, is hunky dory. This was a unit that the brigade itself that they were part of had been abruptly pulled from its mission and given a different mission because of unease with the brigade leadership. This was a battalion that had to fire a very popular company commander that had to have other officer shift, so this wasn't just a perfect unit where suddenly six people went rogue. This was a very, very troubled unit, top to bottom, which raises the question of, why was the colonel, for instance, left in charge? Why was the lieutenant colonel left in charge? Why were the other captains left around them, and at the end of that chain, were these six or seven people who carried out these horrible crimes?
KAYYochi, more broadly, how successful is the effort at the moment to win the confidence of Afghan civilians? And how critical is it to our mission there?
DREAZENIf I can answer in reverse order, it's certainly critical. I mean, it's -- Petraeus referred to it in Iraq sometimes as the man-on-the-moon issue, where Iraqis would say to him, you put a man on the moon, why can't you give us electricity? Why can't you fix our sewage system? And there's a similar dynamic in Afghanistan. Afghans are very savvy people. They know how wealthy a country we are. They know how powerful a country we are. And there's a frustration that sets in when they say, you can do all of these wonderful things. Why can't you defeat guys in sandals and AK47s in the mountaintop?
DREAZENSo to the criticality -- it's very critical. It's hard to gauge the first answer -- to how to answer the first question, excuse me, from a distance. I hope to answer better when I'm there. I would point out, though, that occasionally there is really bloody, unintended consequences. I did a story recently about how in Marjah, USAID had a very well-intentioned plan to buy water pumps for the farmers of Marjah. Given these water pumps would help them increase their crop fields, it would be win-win for everybody. The problem is these were very distinctive-looking water pumps. So the first farmer who took them was killed. Second farmer who took one was killed. The third farmer was killed.
KAYFor having taken something from NATO forces.
DREAZENExactly. And so suddenly they have hundreds of these water pumps sitting in Marjah that they can't find anybody willing to take. So it's difficult to win the hearts and minds when the bodies themselves or the people pertain -- holding those hearts and minds are being shot, stabbed, beheaded by the Taliban.
KAYMax Boot, you were there over the summer as well. What was your assessment of that part of the mission?
BOOTWell, my sense is that the Afghan people are actually remarkably supportive of the mission, considering how little we managed to achieve in nine years. I mean, you've seen support decline for the American-led NATO mission, but it's still well over 50 percent of the population which supports it in spite of the fact that we've done a terrible job of keeping the people safe from the Taliban. That's a sign, I think, of how much they hate the Taliban, whose rule they have seen. But there's no question that our failure to deliver law and order as we promised is undermining the confidence of the people, and that's something that's only now starting to perhaps turn around if we can make some gains on the ground.
BOOTBut one of the obstacles we face -- remember also -- is President Obama's so-called deadline for starting a pullout next summer. You know, when I was there, I actually had long conversations with a number of Afghans who were deeply worried about this who thought that we were going to abandon them again. They have the sense -- you know, they've been abandoned before by the West in the 1990s. They think this is going to happen again. And I was trying to tell them, no. I don't think we are -- you are going to be abandoned. I don't think we are going to begin a massive pullout next summer. I think that President Obama is actually fairly committed to the mission, notwithstanding his talk about a timetable for withdraw.
BOOTBut that message that I was trying to convey has not been communicated to the people of Afghanistan. I think they are very, very worried that we are going to leave them in the lurch. And the fact that President Obama has not done a better job of communicating his commitment undermines our forces' ability to win the confidence of the people. That's a huge obstacle they have to overcome.
KAYOf course, meanwhile, the Taliban, they're telling civilians that the U.S. forces and the NATO forces will be pulling out starting next July and not to trust them because we're going to be the people who are running the show. I'm Katty Kay. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, please do call 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's go to Jeff in Orange Park, Fla. Jeff, you have a question for my panel.
JEFFYeah, in general, there's -- it's axiomatic in governmental systems that -- a government of a population will be the one that the population can support. And schematically, we have an understanding that a government by the people that is 700 years in the making since the Magna Carta where the people control the government -- the Afghanis don't have that. So the question becomes what kind of a government are we going to install that the Afghans support? Because the Taliban is not -- is a home-grown group. It's something that came internally. It wasn't externally imposed. So something in their culture is -- somewhere is supporting that level of understanding of what a government is like. So in general, how can we expect a democratic process in -- to establish itself in Afghanistan that doesn't -- they don't have the understanding of what a democratic process is? The reason we can't install the bridges and the roads and stuff is because we have a population that will support a government doing that.
JEFFAnd I'll take my answer off the air.
KAYOkay, Jeff. Thank you very much. Fair point. Yochi Dreazen.
DREAZENI think Jeff hit several things there that are...
KAYSeveral nails on several heads.
DREAZENExactly, with several hammers all the way from Florida. One thing that is often, I think, lost for people who have never been to Afghanistan is just how incredibly, incredibly isolated various parts of it are. If you're in the east, for instance, where it's mountainous and full of valleys and deep gorges, it's very common to meet people who have not only never been to Kabul but have never left that valley in their entire lives, where leaving that valley to go to the next valley would be the sort of trip they'd be talking about with their children decades later.
DREAZENSo, you know, Afghanistan did want to have a stronger government. It does still have remnants of a somewhat more educated middle class, a somewhat more educated professional class. In the cities, in particular, it's not a wasteland in the way that we might envision from the outside. At the same time, as Jeff points out correctly, when you have vast swaths of the country where there is nothing electric, no water, no sewage, no roads, no way to leave one village for another village, one valley for another valley, this is not a system where they're used to a government in a city they've never visited or seen having sway over their lives. What they're used to is village control, valley control, tribal control.
DREAZENAnd I think what you're seeing, frankly, with some of the moves Gen. Petraeus has made of late to build local village defense forces who are meant to be tied back to Kabul, but in point of practice and aren't necessarily going to have that connection, is a recognition that what we need to do, at some level is to strengthen what is there already, which is village control, tribal control, not try to knit valleys to Kabul when they will never see Kabul or connect to Kabul in any way.
BOOTRight. I agree with that.
KAYYeah, go jump in, Max. Yeah...
BOOTBut I think that there is a tradition of Afghan self-governance that we need to remember, and we need to tap into. And remember that prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan actually enjoyed many decades of relative stability and relative prosperity when it was fairly peaceful. And there was a fairly weak central government under King Zahir Shah, but there was also a lot of decentralization. And Afghanistan has a long tradition of local assembly, shuras and jurgas, which represent the will of the people and act as a check on executive power. That's something we need to empower.
BOOTAnd we've -- by our presence over the past decade -- have actually skewed a lot of the landscape in Afghanistan because we've thrown around huge amounts of money. And for years, we didn't think we were going to make a massive commitment to nation building. We didn't think we were going to send a lot of our own troops. So what we did instead was, we gave suitcases of cash to a lot of powerbrokers and warlords and said, here, you guys look after our interest. And as a result of that, we created this super corrupt class of political bosses intimately tied in to the highest levels of the government who rip off aid money, oppress the people and drive the people into the arms of the Taliban. A lot of this misgovernment that you're seeing in Afghanistan today is our own creation. And because we ourselves created it, what we can do is we can change the financial incentives. If we are more careful with our contracting practices, if we watch where we put money, we can defund some of these bad actors and try to empower the people who have these traditional assemblies. It's not...
BOOT...you know, a democratic government in the way that we know it. But it is a form of representative government that is indigenous to Afghanistan.
KAYOkay. I have to jump in there. We just got a minute left on the program. And, Paul, I wanted to have a quick look at where we go from here. There's a review due in December and then, of course, the possibility of starting to withdraw troops in July. What are we looking ahead to?
PILLARWe're not looking ahead, in my judgment, to any major alteration of the current course. And there have been plenty of signals already given by the administration that this review in December is not going to reverse things or re-steer things. And as far as the July 2011 date is concerned, you know, this was part of the political compromise, basically, that President Obama reached to try to assure the American people we weren't going to be there forever. I expect -- again, the signals are that we will see little more than a token withdrawal beginning in 2011.
KAYOkay. Paul Pillar from Georgetown University, Yochi Dreazen of the National Journal magazine, Max Boot has also been with me from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining me. Fascinating discussion.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you all so much for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is email@example.com, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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