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Broader Approach Needed to Resolve Afghanistan Crisis

Author: Barnett R. Rubin, Director of Studies and Senior Fellow, Center on International Cooperation of NYU
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 19, 2008

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Barnett R. Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan, says to spur a political settlement there the United States should reach out to other parties such as Pakistan, Russia, India, and Iran and even support dialogue with Taliban insurgents willing to cut ties with al-Qaeda. As to dealing with the Taliban, Rubin says, "I think what you have now is some dialogue, mostly indirect and a little bit direct, between the Afghan government, some foreign governments, and the various forms of leadership of the insurgency, which is not a negotiation."

You've co-authored a very interesting piece in Foreign Affairs that calls for broadening the approach for resolving the crisis in Afghanistan and the neighboring areas.  Could you summarize what you would like to see happen in that part of the world?

Basically, what we advocate is revisiting the politics of Afghanistan. On the one hand, we advocate something which has started by reaching out to the insurgents including the Taliban to see to what extent they would be willing to join an Afghan political process and cut their ties with al-Qaeda. The United States should talk to them, or the Afghan government should talk to them. Second, we really need to work on the interests of the regional powers and other great powers in the region because they have the capacity to destabilize or accelerate Afghanistan's destabilization.

We call for a multilateral approach to Pakistan, which had been totally lacking, but which is now starting. After we wrote the article, the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, convened a meeting of a group called the Friends of Pakistan during the UN General Assembly, which is very similar to the contact group that we recommended in the article. Of course, we should also reach out to Iran and engage in a dialogue there. This has been one of the approaches advocated by President-elect Barack Obama during his candidacy and will presumably be one of his policies as president.

Obama, of course, has called, as McCain had called, for an increase in U.S. forces in Afghanistan as they leave Iraq. But, you're saying the actual increase in force levels is not necessarily a winning strategy?

Well, first, I think that actually the two positions were quite different from each other. Obama said that Afghanistan and Pakistan was the location of the "real war on terror" and that should receive a higher priority than Iraq. Therefore, his position was: withdraw troops from Iraq and send some of them to Afghanistan. McCain's position was Iraq is the center of the war on terror: let's win there and as we can let's transfer some troops from Iraq. So actually, while the implications for Afghanistan might not be very different in terms of troops, they are extremely different in indicating what priority they give to the issue. I know that President-elect Obama and the people around him understand very well -- obviously so do the people around Senator McCain -- that it is not primarily a military problem and cannot be solved solely with troops. And nobody understands that better, I might add, than the U.S military. It might be useful to have some more troops in Afghanistan in the coming year to try to provide more security for the national elections that are scheduled next summer.

"What you have now is some dialogue, mostly indirect and a little bit direct, between the Afghan government, some foreign governments, and the various forms of leadership of the insurgency, which is not a negotiation."

Let me come back to one of the main points. I've gotten different opinions from different people. It's this question of negotiating with the Taliban, who are not affiliated with al-Qaeda. Have there really been serious contacts?

Well, first I think the general principle with any insurgency is you look for a political solution. And your military activities are aimed at promoting that political solution. It sometimes happens, but is rare in a domestic insurgency that it can end simply through a full military victory by one side. Now, in this case, it's very much of an overstatement to say that there are negotiations going on with the Taliban. I think what you have now is some dialogue, mostly indirect and a little bit direct, between the Afghan government, some foreign governments, and the various forms of leadership of the insurgency which is not a negotiation.

The insurgents want some guarantee that foreign troops will be withdrawn. Of course, their rhetoric right now is [withdraw] 100 percent of foreign troops out of Afghanistan, but I don't think that's the bottom line. Their bottom line is no hostile military action. But most Afghans recognize some forms of international presence. They need guarantees for their security. And in the past, many leaders of the insurgency have actually approached the government asking for security, especially when they were in a much weaker position. But the Afghan government was never able to give them adequate security guarantees for a number of reasons, partly because they couldn't protect them from U.S. detention policy. So, I think that is the evolving framework for negotiations. It cannot be just domestic negotiations, and not just United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban. After all, the insurgency is based in Pakistan and there are political groups in Afghanistan who have been supported by Iran or Russia. Also, it's worth noting that the only country that has denounced the initial dialogue in Saudi Arabia as "appeasement of terrorism" has been Iran.

This was the dinner meeting at the end of Ramadan that the Saudis held that the Afghan government and the Taliban were at?

It wasn't a two-party type of dinner. Let's just say there were some representatives of various parties involved [that] met in Saudi Arabia and that's what I'm referring to. The Iranians are the only government that has actually criticized it. They see it as potentially part of the U.S. policy of allying with Sunni groups to surround Iran.

Afghanis are by-and-large Sunnis, right?

Yes, it's about 85 percent Sunni although, of course, the country is more evenly divided ethnically into Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns than it is in terms of sect. And the non-Pashtun groups, who are also the ones the United States armed the most in 2001 to fight against the Taliban, are also supported by Iran regardless of sect.  The Iranians are not against the peace talks per se but they want to be sure that it is on the basis of achieving a national peace.  Russia has its own concerns as well. So, it's very complex. It involves a lot of international actors and of course the insurgency is not a unitary actor either, neither is the government.

Let's talk about Pakistan now. I noticed that President Zardari invited Afghan President Hamid Karzai to his inauguration, which I guess was a symbolic gesture. What's going on now between those two governments?

What's happening in Pakistan now, however, is that the government of Pakistan -- meaning the elected civilian government, which is something relatively new in Pakistan -- and the government of Afghanistan led by President Karzai are, as they say, very much on the same wave length regarding issues such as terrorism. However, military and security policy, including policy towards Afghanistan, Kashmir, and so on in Pakistan has never been under the control of civilians. The Pakistani parliament received the first intelligence briefing in the history of Pakistan a couple of weeks ago as part of the debate they're having on how to respond to internal militancy. The military's view of national security threats to Pakistan is very much still focused on India. And the government has a very different view and there's quite an important political struggle over the definition of Pakistan's national interests and national security threats going on inside Pakistan itself. It's unclear how that will turn out -- [whether the] internal conflict within Pakistan itself is greater than that between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"First, I think the general principle with any insurgency is you look for a political solution. And your military activities are aimed at promoting that political solution. It sometimes happens, but is rare in a domestic insurgency that it can end simply through a full military victory by one side."

I've been reading that the Pakistan army has been trying to crack down on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) or at least bordering on the FATA areas.

I think both the military and the civilians in Pakistan believe that the problems they are having on the border are the result of pressure put on them by the United States and that they could solve these problems politically if they weren't under so much pressure. They also know that the reason they are under so much pressure is because Osama bin Laden is there. We're putting pressure on them to do it quickly and militarily because of the presence of international terrorists who attacked the United States and attacked a number of our allies and are trying to do so again.

To some extent, the Pakistan military point of view is that they need to cooperate with the United States but they've had a very bad experience in actually succeeding in achieving goals that the United States wanted in the past, mainly the collapse of the communist regime in Afghanistan. Because when that happened, in their view, the United States abandoned them, put them under sanctions for their nuclear program and stopped the aid relationship. What they want to do is keep the aid relationship open, which means continuing to help the United States solve this problem of terrorism but never quite solve it. The civilian government, I think, would much prefer actually to solve it because that would weaken the military within Pakistan and actually force the military to go to a more legitimate national defense posture. The fighting that's lately going on in the Bajaur area of the FATA now looks very much like it is aimed at the leadership of al-Qaeda. I talked to a senior Pakistani politician that happened to be in the United States. He's saying tunnels being built [in the area], that's not tribal Pashtuns who are doing that. It looks more like they are making another Tora Bora [where Osama bin Laden escaped in 2001].

Do you think it is possible to get a meeting together with Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, among the major players? They could solve a lot of problems.

Yes. But, if they could agree on these things, we wouldn't need to have a meeting. The problem is if you have a meeting like that, well first, Pakistan will say India has no business in Afghanistan since it doesn't border on India. And India will say Pakistan has no business in Afghanistan; Afghans are sovereign they should talk to whom they want. So unfortunately, the process has to be much more complex. You need someone who can act as a mediator, or maybe that's not the right word. If you say mediator, than the Indians won't talk to this person. But someone should be there to talk separately to each of the parties to get an idea of what they might be willing to do and encourage them to do it and maybe provide some additional resources or security to help change the situation so that they no longer fear the consequences of reaching an agreement on certain issues.

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