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Afghanistan--A View from the Battleground

Speakers: Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, and Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Robert McMahon, Deputy Editor, CFR.org
November 24, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR:  Excuse me, everyone.  We now have our speakers in conference.  Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode.  At the conclusion of today's presentation, we will open the floor for questions.  At that time, instructions will be given as to the procedures to follow if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Robert McMahon.  Mr. McMahon, you may begin.

ROBERT MCMAHON:  Thank you, operator.  And welcome, everyone, to this Council on Foreign Relations conference call.  I'm Robert McMahon, deputy editor of CFR.org.  And today we're fortunate to have two Council experts, senior fellow for defense policy Stephen Biddle and Daniel Markey, senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia.

We are here to discuss Afghanistan, which both of our guests have recently visited at the invitation of U.S. commander General David McKiernan.  Experts are increasingly calling this a hyphenated area in that you can't discuss the front in Afghanistan properly without taking into account Pakistan's roil in tribal areas, which are heavily armed and heavily allied with Taliban militants.

It's also the situation that Afghanistan is seen in reports coming back to Washington as an increasingly grave conflict, bad news every week about it somehow taking on the character of

But our two guests are going to bring their perspectives, their different perspectives, into the issue.  Steve Biddle comes to this front after analyzing strategy in Iraq, most recently in a Foreign Affairs article where he discusses a strategy for a U.S. troop drawdown linked to stability in Iraq.  Dan Markey has written frequently about Pakistan's internal turmoil, which actually offers daily possibilities for analysis these days.  His Council special report on Pakistan's tribal areas should be required reading for understanding what's happening there.

I'm going to ask a few leadoff questions before getting to our callers, and I wanted to start off with Steve.

Steve, there is a great deal of pessimism in Washington about--in terms of reports coming back to Washington about Afghanistan.  But can you tell us a little bit about what you saw up front there in terms of both the mission, as it was defined, and the feeling there in terms of what kind of progress they were making?

STEPHEN BIDDLE:  Well, for starters, I think the view within the theater is substantially more optimistic than the view here in Washington.  Segueing to my own assessment of the situation, I think I tend to be more optimistic than many in Washington about the short term in Afghanistan, but less optimistic about the long term in Afghanistan.

I think the extreme weakness of the opponent--we're blessed by having a very weak opponent with limited potential in Afghanistan.  That's a great, great advantage.  I think that, combined with a proper appreciation of the context of some of the increases in violent statistics that we've seen over the last year, which I think suggest that the underlying issue is less grave in the short term than many now suppose, leads me again to be a bit more optimistic about the short term.

The long term, on the other hand, I think, is more problematic than is often thought.  The standard analysis of the long term in Afghanistan is you solve this problem by deploying enough security providers to protect the population and suffocate the insurgency, and the way to do that is by building up the Afghan national security forces.  The Afghans are willing to do it.  They're cheap, relative to the foreigners.  It doesn't generate the resistance to foreign occupation that coalition forces do.  What we really need to do is build up the Afghan security forces, hand the problem off, and then gradually build down our presence in the longer term.

That recipe would work if there was a plausible chance that the Afghan economy could support the kind of Afghan security forces that will be necessary in order to secure their own population.  And I can't see how they're ever going to be able to do that.

Plausible estimates of economic growth in the long run in Afghanistan leave you radically short of an economy that can support a security force of the scale that's traditionally thought sufficient to secure a population their size.  I think that poses some serious downstream challenges for allied strategy in the theater.

MCMAHON:  And the theater we're talking about, we're talking about at this point primarily south and east portions of the country?  Are you focusing on that area when you talk about the force needed for Afghanistan?

BIDDLE:  Yes.  And one of the serious limitations on the Taliban's ability to perform as the communists did in Vietnam, for example, is that they have a very, very limited base anywhere outside the south and east of the country.  Their ability to get any foothold or headway in the north, for example, is very, very limited.  There are other issues in the west having to do with the Iranians.  The Taliban's relationship with the Iranians is problematic in many, many ways.

So I think the security problem in Afghanistan for at least the mid term is the south and the east.  That makes the problem a bit easier.  But even if you just look at the south and the east, the kind of scale of security effort you would need in order to protect those populations is probably behind the long-term ability of any plausible Afghan state to support.

MCMAHON:  So let me focus on your short-term scenario a little bit.  There's been a lot of talk about the sort of Iraq dividend that Afghanistan will benefit from, especially with the incoming Obama administration, and, all things being equal, Iraq staying relatively stable.

What are those extra forces--let's say a couple of brigades' worth--where are they deployed?  Are these more forward operating bases that will stabilize some of these restive areas?  What is the--can you give me a little bit of an idea of what this is going to play out as?

BIDDLE:  Well, I think near-term reinforcement in Afghanistan is going to be directed very heavily at road security.  Most of the increase in violent incidents over the last year or so in Afghanistan have been on the roads, especially IEDs and other bombings of both civilian traffic and military convoys.

So I think near-term reinforcements are going to be directed at providing a greater density of checkpoints and patrols on the roads to complicate the ability of Taliban insurgents to secretly place IEDs there.  And a good argument can be made that a modest near-term reinforcement will pay disproportionate benefits on that.

The ability of the Afghan theater to absorb much more than a couple of brigades over the course of the next year has real limits to it, however.  And there remains a very serious ongoing need for U.S. troops in Iraq to continue to stabilize what is, at the moment, a still perilous condition of cease-fire and security there.

So I think the whole question of the rate, the scale and the tempo of resource transfers from Iraq to Afghanistan is a big issue that needs some serious careful thought.  For my part, I think the case for a rapid or deep transfer of resources from Iraq to Afghanistan is weaker than is sometimes supposed.  Some transfer in the near term makes sense, but a limited transfer.

In the long term, there's going to have to be a resource swing from Iraq to Afghanistan in order to bring about success in Afghanistan, given the limits that I see in the ability of Afghan security forces to solve the problem themselves, but I think that swing needs to occur later than is sometimes imagined.  I think we need several more years of essentially peacekeeping provision by U.S. and western forces in Iraq before a large-scale swing of resources begins to make sense.

MCMAHON:  One more question, to follow up one of your points.  So the standing up of an Afghan army, a robust enough Afghan army, part of it, as you say, is suffering because of the severe economic problem of the country and even being able to pay these troops.  I mean, is one approach to be able to do some sort of international fund that can help pay them as part of some sort of uber-training effort?  Is that one way to maybe try to attack this?

BIDDLE:  Yes and no.  I think foreigners are willing to pay for a substantial increase in Afghan security forces.  And in the context of what the United States, for example, in Iraq or Afghanistan is a drop in the bucket, so that makes a great deal of sense.

The problem is, what happens if it succeeds?  To build up Afghan security forces sufficient to solve the security problem requires probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 to 500,000 or 600,000 Afghan--security providers of some stripe.

The cost of maintaining in steady state a force of that size can plausibly be shouldered by foreigners while there's a war going on in Afghanistan.  But what if it's successful and there's a peace, there's a settlement of some kind, and there's no longer an ongoing crisis in Afghanistan?  The ability of the international community in steady state for perpetuity to provide the operating cost for a half-million-provider security force in Afghanistan, I don't see continuing after you get a peace.

The trouble is you then have this huge security instrument that the state can't pay and that the economy can't absorb, if demobilized, and which, by then, is probably the single most respected institution in the society.  I think that's a serious risk of instability.  And taking that approach to solving the Afghan problem therefore creates a risk of creating a self-defeating prophecy.  The instrument you create to solve the insurgency destabilizes the state after the insurgency.

For that reason, I think solutions that involve a smaller indigenous Afghan security force are probably going to be necessary, regardless of outsiders' willingness to pay the price of building an Afghan security force during the war.  And I think what that probably means is a larger non-Afghan military presence to drive a negotiating strategy in the longer term.

I don't think the prospects for near-term negotiation are all that great, but to drive the negotiating strategy in the longer term that brings about some sort of power-sharing settlement that can create stability in the country with a smaller indigenous security force to police it.

MCMAHON:  So let's move closer to the border, the Afghan-Pakistan border, and to Dan Markey.

Dan, what was the sense you got from the Afghan side of that border?  You've been on the other side, obviously, and seen quite a bit of that terrain.  But how are you seeing the impressions from the Afghan perspective on how Pakistan is dealing with what seems to be this sort of untrammeled entry into the country of militants?

DANIEL MARKEY:  Well, I have to say that maybe the single most surprising feature of my conversations in Kabul, and also closer to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, was the sort of revelation that the relationship of Pakistan-U.S. or Pakistan-NATO military-to-military relationship along that border is, in many ways, significantly better than has been reported here in Washington, and I think globally, up until quite recently.

I've been following the news out of Afghanistan pretty closely since my return a couple of weeks ago and have seen a small uptick in positive reporting of stories of cooperation between NATO and Pakistani forces in patrolling and hitting targets, militants crossing one way across the border or retreating back across the border.  There have been a trickle of stories, positive stories, about that.

But these are significantly reinforced by some of the meetings that I had there, where I was told that at a tactical level--not everywhere; this is not a uniform story--but in a number of important instances, they have actually been able to coordinate fire with their Pakistani counterparts, that they have essentially gotten calls from the Pakistani side identifying militants that were getting ready to cross across the border and that they have identified those with Pakistani help and that they have called in fire from U.S. or NATO forces.

This is not the story that we were hearing for months, if not years, beforehand.  The normal story is militants come to the border; the Pakistani Frontier Corps, which is officered by Pakistani army, essentially looks the other way and allows them to cross over, sometimes even provides them with covering fire.  We've heard as much as that.  This is quite different.  That's at the tactical level.  So I was surprised to hear that.

When I pressed a little bit, I got the line, "Well, this isn't true everywhere, but this is what we're seeing in our neighborhood, and it's very encouraging, and it's different from what we used to see."

At the strategic level, in terms of commander relationships, relationships between NATO Command in Kabul and the army chief in Islamabad, similarly very positive kind of feedback in terms of a great deal of optimism that General Kiyani, who's the new army chief in Pakistan, is doing the kinds of things that he should be doing and is communicating fairly effectively and getting a fair amount of praise from his American counterparts.

And not to take too much away from Musharraf, but that level of confidence is going up, despite the fact that we're hearing a lot in the way of news stories about a negative U.S.-Pakistan relationship along the border, typically related to the Predator drone strikes and at least one instance of a commando raid, a helicopter-borne commando raid, into Pakistani territory.  But overall, despite that--and that was definitely not a good point in the relationship--but despite that, the level of positive interaction has been pretty high, and surprisingly so.

MCMAHON:  Now, this interaction, it's regarding efforts against Taliban that are based on Pakistan typically ending in Afghanistan?  Are we also--there's this al Qaeda stream that we're seeing.  Sometimes I think there's some conflation of the reporting on those.  Are you talking about both?

MARKEY:  Well, I'm actually talking in this case more about militants who are crossing over.  Now, those militants, you can call them Afghan Taliban.  You could call them part of the Haqqani network of fighters who are essentially opposed to the government in Kabul, opposed to the international presence in Afghanistan, but may not all be operating under the same unity of command within Pakistan.  You're right; there are a lot of different networks.

The al Qaeda story, I'd say, is somewhat separate.  And there the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has actually, for a long time, been relatively positive in terms of statements out of U.S. officials about the kind of coordination and cooperation they're getting from the Pakistanis has long been positive on al Qaeda in particular.  There we don't get as much push-back.

MCMAHON:  What sense did you get on the political front in terms of trying to reach out and find, let's say, for want of a better term, moderate Taliban elements that can be engaged in some sort of reconciliation process?

MARKEY:  Well, when I was there--that was a few weeks ago--the stories were coming out thick and fast about the potential for a deal, a so-called deal with the Taliban.  There had been an Iftaar dinner in Saudi Arabia where proxies from the Taliban and from Karzai's government had met apparently and had discussed the prospect for some sort of reconciliation.

I got a pretty uniform downgrading of the prospects for this kind of deal from everybody that I talked to.  And when I pushed a little bit, the answer was essentially none of these talks were especially serious; they were all being conducted by kind of second-tier individuals, first of all.  And nobody could really figure out what would motivate the two sides to really come to some sort of a breakthrough.

The Taliban are feeling a little too powerful, a little too successful.  They don't quite feel the motivation that would bring them to the table at this point to deal with a relatively weaker Karzai government.  And the international community, the United States, NATO, and, by extension, the Afghan government, can't really come to some sort of deal that would really bring the old Taliban back without ruining the project of a new Afghanistan.

And nobody can really square that circle quite yet.  And so I guess the big question mark then was, "Well, then why is this getting so much attention?  Why is this story of reconciliation so much on the minds of the international media if it doesn't have much in the way of a prospect?"

And there I got different motivations, that there was a desire by Karzai to push this in order to try and win greater unity within the Pashtun community to help him in his re-election bid to the presidency, that there was a desire by the Saudis to look like they could be better unifiers of the Sunni community in Afghan, and so to have an ongoing war between Pashtuns didn't look particularly good for the Saudis and certainly benefits the Iranians.  So that's another concern on the Saudis' part.

And then there are those within the international coalition, some of them Europeans, who are looking for a way out of this conflict and are grasping at straws and are pleased to hear any prospect of reconciliation, because that may end the conflict sooner.  But nobody who was serious that I talked to thought this could possibly be a magic bullet and get us out of this problem any time soon.

MCMAHON:  On the magic bullet front, I want to ask one more question and then we'll open it up to the broader questioners.  The magic bullet was mentioned in Iraq with the Sons of Iraq scenario.  There's been talk in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, to some extent, of trying to engage tribal leaders in particular, you know, in pursuing their own best interests, to find a way to secure their regions and their areas and to work against militants, and in so doing, bring about stability that might even mushroom, to some extent.

Could you take on both?  And I know we're talking about two different scenarios, two different set of circumstances, but I believe this type of thing has already started in Pakistan and Afghanistan; there's sort of discussion about it.

MARKEY:  Yeah, I'll pick up on the Pakistani piece, where what you have are ongoing, pretty intense Pakistani army operations in the northern part of the tribal areas in the Bajaur Agency, which is the northernmost of the tribal areas within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas--intense, heavy battles ongoing, hundreds of thousands of refugees from the region, some of them even going into Afghanistan to get out of the fighting.

And on the margins of this area--sort of in the agencies that are surrounding it--what you've gotten is in many instances, the creations of lashkars, or tribal militias, brought up by the locals themselves in an effort, in many instances, to hold territory, which is on the edges of this active military fighting or army fighting and to try to keep out the Taliban--the Pakistani Taliban or other militants--from their home territories and to push back against them.

This in some ways has been seen as very much an encouraging sign, because up until quite recently, a lot of these locals were not motivated to fight against the Taliban, were essentially allowing the Taliban movement through their areas, were looking the other way or were even actively playing host.  So in many ways it's being interpreted as a positive turn of events.

But at the same time, some of these lashkars are not even remotely capable of defending themselves against the hardened fighters that they may run up against and are being slaughtered. And so that's one of the bad news stories.

And the other question is if you see the creation of local militias--and this has some bearing on the Afghan story as well--what you're seeing is the recognition that the central government and the central security providers cannot provide security for that area.  You're granting a certain amount of legitimacy to these local authorities and allowing them to--you're essentially reeling out state authority.

And the question is, over time, whether you can reel that back in or whether you're creating again--or allowing to grow--new localized operations that then you will have to beat back in the future in order to impose the writ of the national state.

Now, in Pakistan, it happens that this--especially in the tribal areas--this has always been the case.  So there aren't too many people who are all that concerned about it.  The state hasn't had much of a writ of authority into these areas.  In Afghanistan, I think you have a separate question -- and I'd be curious to hear what Steve has to say--but I think you have a separate question, because there is an open issue about the extent to which anybody thinks you're going to be able to extend the writ of Kabul out into the provinces.  And by reeling out authority and giving legitimacy to tribal militias in the short term to fight Taliban, essentially, the question is whether you're reeling out too much that you will then again have to reel back in later or whether this is just something we should accept:  a more radically decentralized power base within a country like Afghanistan, because that's all they've ever known.

And I would say that's just an open issue--one of the many significant open issues that I think the Obama team, as they come in, is going to have to grapple with in terms of their overall assessment of where this mission is going, whether they accept Afghanistan to be in the next 10 years or 20 years a modern, centralized state or whether we're dealing with a place that will have to continue to be radically decentralized in order to be effective.

MCMAHON:  Steve, did you want weigh in or should we just open up--go ahead and open up?

BIDDLE:  Well, just very, very briefly.

I think in Afghanistan, my sense is that here's increasing willingness to consider more decentralized forms of government.  The challenge people see is whether or not the tribal structure is strong enough at this point to bear very much of the load.

The Taliban, in particular, have been going out of their way to decapitate the tribal structure, because it's a competing form of local legitimacy to them.  So they've been trying to gut this structure for years.  The civil war before the U.S. removal of the Taliban had much of the same effect.

So although the tribal structures vary enormously from locality to locality--it's an extremely variegated phenomenon in Afghanistan, to a much greater degree even than Iraq--there's a lot of concern in theater as to whether or not there is enough of a surviving tribal structure to be able to provide the kind of local legitimacy that we're hoping that it can provide.

MCMAHON:  Okay.  Well, thank you.

Operator, we're ready to open this up now to callers.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

At this time we will open the floor for questions.  If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the one key on your touch-tone phone now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.

If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, press star two.  Again, to ask a question, press star one.

Our first question comes from Spencer Ackerman for The Washington Independent.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks very much.

I was hoping, both Steve and Dan, you could expand upon your comments about the prospects of negotiations with the Taliban.

A lot of people--smart people who study counterinsurgency and who have been in Afghanistan over the last couple of weeks have been debating this intensely, as you know.  And some of them have come to the conclusion that perhaps if not what you might call Taliban Central--I think was General McKiernan's phrase--can't quite be reconciled and that's not the horizon, then some of the other less important--but still in the kind of what you might call Taliban coalition in the insurgency--is ripe for peeling off.  And I wonder if people you talked to had a similar impression of that.

And then similarly, on your last point, Steve, about the tribal structure retaining its kind of ballast force or what it can in fact support, if people are starting to think of ways in which they can use that tribal structure to cleave certain areas away from the Taliban insurgency.

BIDDLE:  Well, let's see:  Starting with the tribal structure, I think the idea is very much to take localities and create the form of local legitimacy that can substitute for Taliban administration of justice, for example, which is a principal service, if you want to put it that way, that the Taliban seems to be able to deliver.

Again, I think the concern--and the concern is very, very widespread in Afghanistan.  I detected very little enthusiasm, actually, for tribal outreach.  In fact, the term "tribal outreach" is almost verboten in theater.  The preferred term of art in theater is "community outreach", because they don't want to overemphasize a tribal structure that they think is weak, whose legitimacy is questionable in their mind and which, in their view, frequently commands very little local following in particular areas.

But again, it's a tremendous patchwork quilt.  So although as a solution to the problem overall, I didn't get the sense there was much enthusiasm for community outreach within Afghanistan.  In particular places, it may very well be quite helpful.  But in terms of a way to extract us from this challenge as a whole, my sense is that people thought it was at most a niche opportunity.

Similarly with respect to peeling factions, I think certainly, the enthusiasm that there is--such as there is--for reconciliation at the moment is very much along the lines of taking particular warlords who are aligning with the Quetta shura and Mullah Omar as a matter of tactical convenience or economic advantage and peeling them.

Even there, though, I think the problem at the moment is figuring out what incentive an individual warlord has to switch sides.  What can the Karzai government offer somebody like that, that can compete with the kind of status, prestige, money, power that they enjoy by virtue of being an anti-government actor at the moment?  And I think there's a lot of skepticism that what we have to offer can compete with the status, power, prestige, money and so on the key warlords enjoy by being on the other side.

I think to the extent that there's optimism about this--even with respect to peeling factions, much less going after Mullah Omar and the ideological core of the Taliban--I think the view tends to be that that's going to be after a military buildup begins to change the facts on the ground.

In the near term, the problem is too many of these factions see the trends running against the government.  And to the extent that that's the case, their willingness to ally with somebody that they think is a loser is very, very limited.  The cost to them of getting stuck on the wrong side, if it turns out that way, are very high.

So again, my sense of the prospects for reconciliation is that it's important, but further out than is sometimes supposed.

MARKEY:  Yeah.  I would just add that the strong message I got from U.S. government officials was that they were willing to fight and negotiate at the level that you've described.  In other words, to peel off some of these lower level or second-tier Taliban now oriented fighters, but could be switched over, but the emphasis was on continuing to fight in that negotiation--and as Steve suggested, in order to negotiate from a position of greater strength rather than weakness.  There was no sense that talking meant a cease-fire or slowing down.

And in some ways, that would play directly into the hands of the Taliban.  And that may be why some of them are more interested in talking at this time, that they can seek a tactical advantage by talking and trying to get -- what they've seen in Pakistan is sometimes, you know, it's all different groups, but when they talk, the government pulls back so that they talk.  That gives them breathing space and allows them to regroup and there may have been some thought to that.  But the message I got loud and clear from the U.S. officials I talked to was there would be no slowing down in the fighting when they talk.

One thing I would just add:  at the level of community outreach, as Steve put it, was I had a number of good conversations with people about the topic of sub-national governance structures really going very local in terms of kinds of development--political development that the international community is trying to do.

The World Bank is certainly reaching out to communities and working directly with villages.  And beyond that, I think to the extent that the United States may bring in a surge on the civilian side, it may be to try to bring U.S. officials -- State Department and USAID officials down to the district levels, sort of a sub-provincial level to the local level so that there are more people on the ground, you can work directly with those local community leaders, because what they're finding is, they need to address the problem of a governance vacuum at that level, which has been exploited by the Taliban.  And so the only way to do that is to work at that grassroots level, rather than keeping the civilian projects up at the higher end of the national and provincial level.

So that's a sign of, I think, a likely direction that we would see if we saw a significant injection of greater civilian-side resources in the country.

MCMAHON:  Thank you for that question.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Our next question comes from Robert Barnes with the Associated Press.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  My question's for Steve.

In your opening remarks, you mentioned the limitations on a rapid transfer of U.S. resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.  And the first thing I was wondering was, when you were there, what did you see in terms of the extent of the U.S. laying the groundwork for accommodating more forces there?

And secondly, you used the word "peacekeeping."  You thought that a rapid buildup might be better done later, and in the meantime, there should be a focus on peacekeeping.  I'm wondering if you could elaborate on that.

BIDDLE:  Well, starting on the peacekeeping side, that's in reference to Iraq.

QUESTIONER:  Oh, I'm sorry.

BIDDLE:  Yeah.  There's not much peace to be kept in Afghanistan at the moment.

QUESTIONER:  That's why I was wondering why you said it.  Okay.

BIDDLE:  My feeling is that there is a substantial ongoing demand for U.S. troops in Iraq not to wage a war, but to police a not-inherently-stable system of cease-fire.  So that's what that was in reference to.

With respect to preparations in Afghanistan, a lot of preparations will be required.  This is still a pretty austere theater.  And any -- because the base is so small, there are so few U.S. troops there now, even sending a couple of brigades is a substantial percentage increase in the U.S presence.  So one of the limits on our ability to shift forces rapidly--even if we decided we could afford to and the situation in Iraq would permit it--is the logistical maturity of the Afghan theater and our ability to accommodate those incoming forces and especially to keep them supplied.

So I think there's a lot of attention and some beginnings of construction going on for bed down and ramp space, for helicopters and fixed wing air, for the buildup of depots to house incoming supplies--especially fuel--and increasing attention for route security for the lines of communication that a dramatically increased logistics flow will bring with it as we begin to build forces up.

So as is often the case of any campaign of this kind, the actual arrival of combat troops--trigger pullers--has to be preceded by a lot of preparation to enable it.  And that preparation is only beginning and it will take some time to complete.

MCMAHON: Thank you for the call.

Next call, please--question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Trudy Rubin with The Philadelphia Enquirer.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.

Steve, I'd like to ask you how you would describe the purpose of the increase in U.S. troops.  In Iraq it was to buy time -- well, as part of the strategy that emerged, the surge strategy, it coalesced with the rise of tribal militias and it bought time for the further development of Iraqi security forces.

If it's not really feasible to build up a very large Afghan presence, and if the tribal strategy is iffy--dubious--then are those troops merely to hold territory while the Pakistan piece gets sorted out or what?

BIDDLE:  Well, let me be careful to separate what I think about the situation from what the theater command thinks about the situation.

So to begin with, the theater command, I think--and most of the people I talk to in theater--really are committed to the view that the long-term solution is building up a very large Afghan national security force.  And I think the question of can the Afghan state support this in the long term isn't an issue that I think has gotten very much attention yet.

That's a concern that I have.  It's shared by some other analyst types outside the theater.  I didn't run anybody in the theater who had given very extensive thought yet to just what can this society and this economy bear in the long term.  So I think as far as the way the people in the theater think about the role of a reinforcement, first of all, there's some degree of immediate stopping of the bleeding involved.  And that's route security.  So I think the near-term reinforcements will be used disproportionately to secure the roads.  Partly, again, because that's necessary to provide the infrastructure for further reinforcements to come, but also because road security has a disproportionate information effect in Afghanistan at the moment.

The perception in the theater is very much that security is pretty good through the country as a whole.  And there's some very interesting issues in the polling results for Afghanistan about security.  When you ask people, do you feel secure in your neighborhood, the answer is substantially higher than when you ask them, what about security in the country as a whole?

And the perception in the theater is that what's going on is that people in their homes are reasonably secure.  The trouble is when a convoy gets blown up on the road, it makes news throughout the country and throughout the world and it generates a tension.  And the result is that it has a disproportionate affect on the perception of Afghans that security in the country as a whole must be terrible.  And as a result, they're scared to travel to visit relatives.  They're scared to use the roads.

So the view in the theater is that at the moment, this perception of insecurity on the roads is wildly outstripping actual insecurity on the roads, but that it needs to be addressed in order to get sort of the momentum, if you like, in the information war.  So I think the near term reinforcements are going to be used disproportionately to help secure the roads.

Now, speaking for myself now--as opposed to what people are saying in theater--my own sense is that the way to get to a solution in the longer term is some sort of a negotiated deal that isn't ripe at the moment, but that what's necessary to make it ripe is a serious change in the military incentives for the actors.  And that's going to require, I think, a major Western buildup--not because the Afghan security forces aren't proficient.  They're actually pretty good.  There's a surprising, to me, consensus that unlike Iraq--where it took forever and a half to get a proficient Iraqi security force--that the Afghan security forces are generally pretty well thought of and nobody doubts their willingness to fight, which was a big issue for a long time in Iraq.

I think the problem with the Afghan security forces, again, is the long-term ability to sustain a large one.  What that means, though, is if a negotiating strategy is your ultimate way --is your ultimate theory of victory--if you're going to negotiate some sort of power sharing deal downstream--you have to create incentives to participate.  The only way to do that is military.

We can't afford--the Afghan state can't afford to change the military balance with indigenous forces; therefore, it's going to require upwards of 100,000 outside Western security forces who are willing to fight, A.  And B, it may require thinking differently about the way we use those security forces.  The traditional counterinsurgency--the classic counterinsurgency strategy is you use military force to defend the population, not to attack the enemy, per se.

The trouble is that pins your military assets down to the neighborhoods that they're protecting.  I think we may need to think increasingly about coupling a traditional counterinsurgency approach that pins forces to the static defense of populations, with a more offensive orientation, than is normal in counterinsurgency, that's designed to create real costs to the specific factions that we're trying to flip in a negotiating strategy in remaining on the other side.

MCMAHON:  Thank you for the call.

We're in a conference call with Steve Biddle and Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Next question, Operator?

OPERATOR:  Again, if anyone would like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the one key on your touch-tone phone now.

MCMAHON:  I'll ask one in the meantime.

Something both of you touched on, which was--I think Steve may be alluding to it, Daniel more directly, the change in mission, in terms of--I'm seeming to hear a little bit of a, maybe a suggestion that they ramp-up or redefine what a provincial reconstruction team is, in some cases--in terms of, this is where this thing was invented, that civilian military working arrangement where you get out into the areas where civilians can work alongside military with a shield of protection, conceivably, and then start building schools, and infrastructure and other things, and the military can work out security arrangements, perhaps.

But are you--did you hear much in your visit about provincial reconstruction teams--I'll start with Dan first, and then Steve.

MARKEY:  I did.  And what I was alluding to was the idea that the provincial reconstruction team is good, but it doesn't go down to the local level enough.  And the concern is that the numbers of teams that we're talking about, in a country nearing 30 million people, are still quite small.

The numbers of U.S. civilians--either State Department, or USAID, or even Department of Agriculture officials is actually still quite small and can be helpful in assisting at the governor level of provinces, but isn't able to get down to the district level and closer to the populations where the competition is, essentially, for filling in the vacuum of governance that has always been there -- that was opened, as I think Steve mentioned, by decades of civil conflict where traditional governing authority, the tribal system, in many cases, were destroyed, and which the Taliban was able to fill and now is seeping back into.

 

So, it's really -- you know, the fight in Afghanistan has always been against a -- between a very, very weak state and a not-particularly-strong insurgency.  And right now the not-particularly-strong insurgency is beating the weak state, in many of these places, and filling in that vacuum.  And so the idea is that you really need to -- in order to plug that, you need to bring in more in the way of individuals who are smart about politics, smart about development and can think about state-building at that local level, particularly, again, as Steve said, in terms of the judicial side--because the Taliban can provide a rough-and-ready justice that is otherwise lacking in people's lives; gives them greater legitimacy, greater authority; they're the only resort, they're the only place where people can go.

So, that's where I see it.  I think what's encouraging is that, at that local level--I mentioned a conversation I had with a World Bank official, they've got come community development programs--essentially, block grants, to local villages that empower these local villagers to make decisions about the kind of development projects that they want to do; and then they follow through, essentially, with grants, with cash; and that they've found that these have been relatively successful at that level, and that this is the kind of project that can be reinforced.

More broadly, I would just say, there were a number of instances of programs like that.  Police training was another one where I had heard a lot of bad-news stories up until this visit.  And I heard that they feel that they have a model that can be--that is workable, in terms of training local police by yanking them out of their districts, bringing them all together and doing some training, and then depositing them back into their districts after they've been trained with embedded trainers.

They feel that this works.  They have some data that suggests that the local populations are pleased with the progress there.  But, what they haven't found is a way to ramp this up yet--that they don't have the resources, they don't have the embedded trainers.  And that's where I think a surge on the civilian side, in terms of civilian police trainers, and so on--military could be, but also you could bring in former police, and things like that, to do the job--that's where I think a lot of the attention should be, looking out into the future.

MCMAHON:  Steve, does that jibe with what you heard?

BIDDLE:  I think Dan is exactly right on that.  The only thing I would add is that there's a widespread perception, in the theater, that the problem is less the Taliban is getting--is strong or getting stronger, and much more that the government is weak.

MCMAHON:  Okay.

Operator, do we have an other questions on the line?

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir.  Our next question comes from Katrina vanden Heuvel, with The Nation.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  Two questions:  One, are there any U.S.-NATO coalition surveys of popular support on the part of Afghans for the U.S.-NATO occupation?

And second--a more granular question, in terms of there's been talk about logistics, I believe--but, you know, the Russians had a quite secure landline into Afghanistan; the U.S.-NATO has none.  And I don't think you can fly in all the military, and even other equipment, just reflecting on the massive scale of this intercontinental shipping challenge.

I'd be interested in the expert's thinking about:  One, how incredibly expensive, and, perhaps, sustainable or unsustainable the logistics piece effort of this is.  I know you aren't military planners, but it would be of interest.  Thank you.

MCMAHON:  Steve, you want to take that?

BIDDLE:  Sure.  Well, on the logistics side of this, yeah, you can't, in steady state, fly in enough logistical support to keep the military, even the size we have now in Afghanistan, going, much less a reinforced one.

Roads are critical.  At the moment, the key roads run through Pakistan, and that raises some, you know, long-term issues about the security of those routes given the whole question of stability in Pakistan.  We are in the process of trying to open alternative routes into the country from--especially from the north, through the Stans.  And, certainly, anything we can do on that score would be a useful supplement.

In the long-term, though, all of these--none of these routes are sacrosanct and perfectly secure.  They all require a substantial degree of attention to keep secure.  And one of the more important--one of the many important arguments for thinking about Afghanistan and Pakistan as tightly interrelated theaters, is our ability to sustain military operations in an Afghanistan without a Pakistani supply route, has some serious limitations to it.

MCMAHON:  Do you want to add anything to that?

MARKEY:  I think Steve's got it.

MCMAHON:  Okay.

Operator, any other questions on the line?

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir.  Our next question comes from Trudy Rubin, with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

QUESTIONER:  Steve, just to follow up on a point you just made -- or, actually, both you and Dan, if you were evaluating what percentage of a success on an Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy depends on the Pakistani side of the border, than one on the Afghan, how would you put that balance?

BIDDLE:  That's an interesting question.

I'm not sure that speculation, you know, would be useful in an on-the-record conversation,other than to say that, obviously, it's very, very hard to succeed in Afghanistan when a Pashtun --an important Pashtun homeland in Pakistan is alien, hostile, and actively supporting and abetting the insurgency.

But, in many ways, Pakistan is much the more important of the two theaters anyway, so, in a sense I'm less worried about, can Afghanistan be stabilized when the FATA is a support base for Afghan insurgents; I'm more worried about the other way around.  If Afghanistan can't be stabilized in a plausible period of time, what does that do for the stability of Pakistan, where al Qaeda central is based--they're not based in Afghanistan; and where there are actual real-live, honest-to-goodness nuclear weapons that could fall into a condition of uncontrol in the event that the state collapses?

And just to raise one issue that hasn't been raised before, but I'll toss into the mix at the last minute, the whole question of air strikes against leadership targets in Pakistan to benefit ongoing operations in Afghanistan, I think needs serious rethinking.  The people I talk to in Afghanistan about this, generally speaking, would end the conversation by saying something like, "But, of course, the larger consequences of this for Pakistan are above my pay grade."  Well, yes, that's right.  (Laughs.)

One of the profound priorities for General Petraeus, coming into CENTCOM, is to take a view of this that's larger than either one of these theaters taken alone.  I think the tendency to look at things like leadership targeting, through an Afghan-centric lens, has a tendency to create a higher volume of strike activity than probably makes sense in the larger context, given the destabilizing effects it has on Pakistan.

That's not to say we should shut it down, but it's to say that we need to think about the interconnections between these two theaters from the larger perspective of the region as a whole.  And I'm optimistic that with a new commander in CENTCOM--who is an extremely able officer, and with some luck will have the confidence of the new president, is a wonderful opportunity to think creatively about the trade-offs between these two theaters and the interconnections between them.

MCMAHON:  Dan, I'll let you wrap up.

The new CENTCOM commander, a fairly new Pakistani commander, as well as a new civilian government--the time of opportunity, perhaps?

MARKEY:  Yeah.  And I want to echo something that Steve said, which is that we have essentially backed into--at least politically, and in some ways strategically--we have backed into Pakistan by way of Afghanistan.  And this is precisely the opposite of what I think any objective analysis of the strategic priority should be.

You start with Pakistan--it's much larger, 170-so million people, and expanding every day, going to be the fifth-largest country in the world, with nuclear weapons; and, a not particularly effective--strong state, at this point, that is able to maintain only a minimal level of security within its own borders.  That's the problem.  It's globally interconnected.  It has obvious terrorist bases within its territory.  And then we have Afghanistan, a small--or much smaller, land-locked, very poor country that is on--is more of an appendage, in some ways, of the Pakistani problem.

So, we need to start with the Pakistan problem, and get into Afghanistan.  I think Petraeus having a handle on both of those will be important.  When I look at the predator strikes, and I look at air strikes within Pakistan, what I see is a calculation that's almost impossible to make from the outside, which is, is it very difficult to ascertain the value of the individuals who are being eliminated in these strikes--whether they're al-Qaeda, whether they're Pakistani-Taliban, or Afghan-Taliban.

It's very hard for somebody working outside of the classified intelligence world to know how important they are in the day-to-day planning of attacks on the West, on London.  I mean, Rashid Rauf was just apparently killed in a predator strike--an individual who was related, allegedly, to terrorist strikes that were aimed at England.  How important is that, and his killing--relative to the local dislocation that's involved in the killing, probably, of civilians who are living in the same village, and the messaging that that sends to the Pakistani tribal areas, and then, of course, to the broader, bilateral U.S.-Pakistan relationship where it's clearer that, nationally, Pakistanis are against the idea of U.S. air strikes on their territory?

So, you know, measuring those things is a nearly impossible calculation for somebody who's outside of government.  I hope that at least the calculations are being made in that context--the context of the importance of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, that I think should outweigh a tactical gain in the Afghanistan theater, that may not be a long-term strategic gain for the broader Pakistan-Afghanistan theater.

MCMAHON:  Well, we need another hour--maybe another 10 hours, but we have to wrap it up here.  And I want to thank the Council's senior fellows, Stephen Biddle and Daniel Markey for this briefing.  And thank you all for your participation.  That wraps up this conference call.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  This concludes today's presentation.  You may disconnect at this time.

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