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Miscalculations in U.S. Afghan Offensive

Interviewee: David S. Rohde, Reporter, the New York Times
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
April 9, 2010

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The long-anticipated June launch of a U.S.-NATO offensive in southern Afghanistan (VOA) has raised hopes that it will rid the region of the Taliban. But New York Times reporter David S. Rohde, who has spent years reporting in the region--and who was held captive by the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal areas for seven months in 2008-2009--says any gains will be short-lived unless security improvements are followed by government reforms. The Taliban in Kandahar will likely retreat and wait for American troops to withdraw after President Barack Obama's eighteen-month deadline, Rohde says, especially if there is no purge of corrupt officials, which will make it possible for the Taliban to take up the positions they were in before the offensive. Finally, Rohde notes that a regional solution is needed to solve the Afghan crisis, one where leaders in Pakistan and India are enlisted to work toward a lasting Afghan peace.

U.S. and NATO military commanders in Afghanistan are not being coy about their planned Kandahar offensive scheduled for June. You have a unique perspective on the situation in southern Afghanistan and the nearby tribal areas of Pakistan. What's your crystal ball telling you about the pending offensive?

The American offensive in Kandahar that's expected to be carried out [this summer] will succeed militarily; it will drive the Taliban out of the area. But I don't think the Taliban will try to hold ground. I think they'll simply melt away again, let the Americans take the areas they want, and then they'll wait for the American troops to begin withdrawing when they reach this eighteen month deadline that President Obama has talked about. Then there will be the same corrupt Afghan rulers, President [Hamid] Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, running Kandahar. He will not have popular support, and the Taliban will still be able to move back into the positions they were in before the American offensive.

What's the situation in Kandahar like now?

The Karzai government has made major mistakes in southern Afghanistan that have really alienated the population and created an opening for the Taliban, and Mullah Omar, and the Quetta Shura, to move into southern Afghanistan with a lot of popular support.

The Karzai government has made major mistakes in southern Afghanistan that have really alienated the population and created an opening for the Taliban, and Mullah Omar, and the Quetta Shura, to move into southern Afghanistan with a lot of popular support. Essentially two families have benefited from the Karzai rule since 2001. That's been Karzai's own family--his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai--and then the family of Gul Agha Sherzai, who was the governor of Kandahar province [from 2001 to 2003; he is currently governor of Nangarhar province]. There's a real sense among the southern tribes that Karzai has looked out for his own tribe, and Sherzai has looked out for his own tribe, and there has not been a sharing of resources and reconstruction and contracts with other people in southern Afghanistan. There's real resentment of the Karzai government, real resentment of Ahmed Wali Karzai, and that's been an enormous mistake that's created a tremendous opening for the Taliban to destabilize southern Afghanistan.

Does Pakistan fear any blowback from this planned offensive? Any chance that fleeing Taliban fighters will become yet another threat to Pakistan's stability?

The Pakistani government's argument that somehow U.S. military operations in Afghanistan are driving militants into Pakistan is a false one. The real problem has been the Pakistani government's systematic support of militant groups. First in the 1980s, along with the United States to fight the Soviets, but most importantly in the 1990s, various groups were created to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. Throughout the 1990s, various groups were created and the Pakistani government fully supported and trained and armed them. Pakistan has now lost control. Many of them have joined the Tehrik-e Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban movement, and these same groups that were once their proxies are now carrying out attacks on the Pakistani military and the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence]. I think most Pakistanis have realized this, including Pakistanis in the army, that these militant groups have gone out of control and that they can no longer support militant groups inside of Pakistan itself and think they can simply channel them to fighting India. They can't. They've become a Frankenstein that Pakistan can't control.

The situation inside Pakistan is complicating efforts to improve security in Afghanistan, right?

The core issue in Afghanistan is the Pakistan-India rivalry. Essentially you have a proxy war being played out with Pakistan in a sense backing the Afghan Taliban and India backing the Karzai government in Kabul. As the United States leaves the region, that will probably intensify unless there's some kind of agreement to get both countries to back off. It's been enormously destructive, the India-Pakistan rivalry playing out in Afghanistan, and that's the core issue. Without solving the India-Pakistan rivalry and the way it destructively plays out in Afghanistan, you will not be able to stabilize the region.

President Obama unveiled his new Afghan war strategy in March 2009. At the time you were roughly halfway through what would be seven months in captivity. How did your captors respond to the American strategy when Obama announced it?

The reaction to President Obama's new strategy among the Taliban would be that they simply have to wait. They see it as an eighteen-month troop surge and they just have to wait for the United States to get tired and to leave. They talked to me about the Soviets spending roughly ten years in Afghanistan, and they said the Americans will spend roughly ten years as well. And here we are at roughly eight years. To be fair . . . declaring an eighteen-month deadline, it does seem to have had a positive impact on President Karzai and the Pakistani government in the sense that it's forced them to realize that the U.S. isn't going to stay in Afghanistan forever. There's much more movement toward a post-American Afghanistan now.

What are your views on the American approach?

The broader American effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001 has been very haphazard. There is no question that enormous amount of attention and resources and talent was diverted to Iraq for many years, crucial years, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a result, there is a real sense of resentment among Afghans and Pakistanis, and distrust, in that they really don't think the United States has made a serious effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the things that really leaps out at me is that the United States has trained twice as many soldiers and policemen in Iraq as they have in Afghanistan, even though the two countries are roughly the same size. And that's just a basic problem in Afghanistan, the weakness of the Afghan security forces. If that had been addressed earlier and more aggressively with more resources, much more could have been done in Afghanistan. What I'm afraid of is that this window of time when Afghans were willing to be patient with having foreign troops in their country may have closed. The magic hour in a post-conflict situation, those four or five years, were lost in Afghanistan because the United States was focused on Iraq.

Add to those concerns the great complexity of the mission in Afghanistan. Essentially, while the U.S. fights in Afghanistan, it has to cross its fingers that neighboring Pakistan gets tough on militants. This is the "AfPak" piece of President Obama's strategy.

The Pakistani government's argument that somehow U.S. military operations in Afghanistan are driving militants into Pakistan is a false one. The real problem has been the Pakistani government's systematic support of militant groups.

The basic philosophy of AfPak was correct, that you cannot stabilize Pakistan without stabilizing Afghanistan, that as long as you've got continued weak government in Kabul and insurgency in Afghanistan, that's going to encourage militancy in Pakistan. And as long as you've got the tribal areas serving as a base for militants, you'll have attacks inside Afghanistan. But the missing ingredient in AfPak is India. To me, the core issue--which has to be worked on very quietly and behind the scenes--is reducing tensions between India and Pakistan and stopping this continued proxy struggle between India and Pakistan that's being carried out in Afghanistan. It is all linked, all three countries. India can pretend that it's not linked, but it is. It's Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India that need to compromise together and bring stability to the region. It's a much broader dynamic of all three countries that is creating the tensions there.

American military influence on the Pakistan side of the border is essentially nonexistent. For the U.S. approach to work, Pakistan has to take a more active role in controlling militancy on the Afghan-Pakistan border. What's the top priority?

When I traveled through North and South Waziristan when I was in captivity, all of the Pakistani government checkpoints had been abandoned by Pakistani forces. Instead they were Taliban checkpoints. Basically the Taliban were the government in North Waziristan; there was no Pakistani presence. There were Pakistani bases in the area, but I didn't see any evidence of Pakistani forces coming off those bases and trying to enforce the government writ anywhere in North Waziristan. I did see resupply convoys that would move through the area, but I did not see any effort at regular patrolling or any effort at all to stop this Taliban mini-state that still exists today in North Waziristan. There is no Pakistani government control beyond Pakistani military bases, and this is the one area where the Pakistani army, I believe, must go into. They have done a very effective job in Swat, they've gone into South Waziristan. But all of these militants are now focused in North Waziristan, and there has to be a Pakistani army offensive to get into North Waziristan and disrupt these groups.

How likely is that to happen?

After covering the region for eight years, I am optimistic. Obviously in India, the economy is getting very strong, and the growth of the independent media there and the democratic system inherently leads to more stability and moderation in India. You have hints of that in Pakistan. There's an independent press that's playing a vital role in terms of trying to combat corruption. It has its excesses, but it's also helped make the Taliban less popular. The fact that the independent press could show news reports on Taliban abuses in Swat helped drive down popularity for the Taliban. The lawyers' movement, the effort to create an independent judiciary, has been a positive thing as well; that helps promote the rule of law and divide powers in Pakistan.

And when there was economic growth before the current recession, there was a slowly growing Pakistani middle class. There's this sense among Pakistanis that now is the moment for Pakistan to reform and the fact that President [Asif Ali] Zardari's rule, although it has been very troubled, the fact that he is still in power and might actually complete his term is a good sign as well. So there are positive signs. India [has shown] what kind of growth stability is possible, and I think that could spread to Pakistan first and then hopefully Afghanistan.

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