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Rethinking an Afghanistan Exit Strategy

Interviewee: Richard L. Armitage, President, Armitage International L.C.
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 12, 2010

With an Afghanistan policy review due next month, the Obama administration needs to decide whether the war in Afghanistan is succeeding and, if there is no progress, should think about starting to draw down troops earlier than July 2011, says Richard Armitage, the co-chair of a new CFR Independent Task Force Report. Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of State in the first George W. Bush administration, notes there are differing assessments of progress and signs pointing to a "conditions-based" withdrawal that will nonetheless mean a continued U.S. presence. He also points out that without Pakistan's cooperation, U.S. efforts in Afghanistan will be stymied, but that until the U.S. makes its endgame objectives clear, "to the extent we say we're going to be starting some sort of withdrawal in 2011, that feeds [Pakistan's] feeling that we will run short of breath."

There were several dissenters to the overall conclusions of the Task Force Report on U.S. Strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Did that indicate a lively discussion within the committee?

It was a lively discussion--a discussion, speaking for Sandy [Samuel R. Berger, co-chairman with Armitage], and certainly for myself--that we found very energizing. We're quite proud of the dissents. When you do a report like this, the purpose is to get a discussion. If the Congress and the public had a discussion like we had, maybe we'd have some consensus on where we're going in Afghanistan.

What are the report's three top conclusions?

First is that we conditionally support U.S. policy in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. But we argue that when President Obama has his scheduled review of policy next month--or if the review takes a little longer, that's fine--absent progress, we ought to not wait until July 2011 to change directions. Third, it's quite clear that, absent a much better situation in Pakistan, we cannot prevail in Afghanistan--and that has repercussions for Central Asia as well.

That's not a very upbeat summary.

Let's face it, the Obama administration was handed a pretty poor deal from the previous administration. We're sympathetic of that. However, we're not sure--at least the majority on the committee aren't sure--that waiting and waiting is necessarily going to change things in our direction. After all, the president, rightly or wrongly, indicated he wanted to begin a withdrawal process in July 2011. This has led enemies of ours to believe we are short of breath. This has led friends of ours, particularly certain politicians and women's groups in Afghanistan, to be scared to death. So that's the hand that we were dealt from the president, and that's what dictated our discussions.

Since the Task Force Report was written, we've had a U.S. election that resulted in far more Republicans in Congress. The leading Senate Minority representative on the Armed Services Committee, John McCain, wants Obama to drop that July 2011 deadline. And some officials have been talking (NYT) about 2014. Is that date changing?

Crisis Guide: PakistanThere have been different statements from different officials. For instance, the vice president thought at one time that the withdrawal in July would be larger rather than smaller, and yet I've seen both the secretary of State and secretary of Defense suggest that it will be entirely conditions-based. And thus far there hasn't been any clarification I've seen from the president. Having said that, the 2014 date, as I understand it, refers more to some the discussions with the NATO governments involved in this endeavor. But, I don't see anywhere where the United States has said we're going to totally disengage. I did note just recently that our Afghan Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said that we're going to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in our embassy complex. That's hardly what you do if you're going to disengage.

Was it the committee's sense that the American public's support for this war in Afghanistan is very low? The polls show that, don't they?

Given that we have a weak partner in the Karzai government and only a partial partner in Pakistan, we can't keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

It's difficult to know. We started talking about the new dynamic on Capitol Hill. The one dynamic which was very disappointing was that, to my ears, there was no meaningful discussion about Afghanistan in the electoral debate. It's a major endeavor, and it's costing us lives almost every day. The actual support, for or against, depends on how we characterize what we're doing. Thus far, there seems to be some schizophrenia On the one hand, you have some relatively rosy reports from Kabul; on the other hand, you see intelligence and other reports that things aren't as good. So there is a lot of confusion in the public, and as the economic issue pinches more and more, there is going to be less and less support unless we change the dynamic.

There's not much public discussion about the war. Everyone knows it's there. But there's no draft; nobody's worried about their sons or daughters being forced to go into the war.

That was the thrust of Secretary Gates's comment at Duke University. There's a sense of separation between our military now and the public at large. He was trying to raise the debate on whether this was a good thing or not.

In the report you seem to say that if there is no discernable progress on the ground both militarily and politically in Afghanistan, the president should move to lower the threshold of American force levels there sooner rather than later?

That's correct, in short. It doesn't argue for leaving, but it means that maybe we have to change things. And look around. You've seen al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula now; al-Qaeda in Maghreb. We're fighting a difficult and flat organization. Given that we have a weak partner in the Karzai government and only a partial partner in Pakistan, we can't keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

What do you make of the major dissenting view that came from eight members of the Task Force, four of whom are former military men--as are you? They are concerned that lack of progress shouldn't be seen as necessarily an argument for cutting back, right?

They do agree with all of us that the lack of progress would be a dangerous indicator. As I recall, what they said is that we ought to reassess the strategy. They claim that we want to reflexively move to large-scale withdrawal. That was not what we called for. We called for a change that didn't necessarily call for large-scale withdrawal and didn't define it. I'm not arguing with their point, but we just think that throwing good money after bad, if there are no positive indicators, is not only dangerous--as they indicate in their dissent--but we think we ought to do something different.

With a Republican-dominated House, there won't be a big effort in the House to cut back right away, will there?

I'm not sure. I don't know which of the many faces of Republicans is going to show up. Will it be the deficit-hawk side, in which case, I think probably all funding sources might be on the table? Or will it be the John McCain side, which thinks we ought to do whatever is necessary to prevail, whatever that means. And I think it's too soon to tell. The one thing you can say with assurance is very few of these winners in the House on the Republican side had to debate the efficacy of our actions in Afghanistan. It just wasn't part of their race.

How do you deal with the problem of Pakistan, which is a U.S. ally, yet it clearly supports the Afghan Taliban, which is based in Pakistan.

After 2005, the ISI came to the conclusion that maybe the coalition wouldn't prevail, and if that was the case, they were going to make sure they had a seat at the Pashtun table in the south and the east in Afghanistan.

Yes, that's true. Since 1947, Pakistan has been led by democracy and by martial law. But to normal Pakistani citizens, it didn't make a damn bit of difference, because under martial law, or under democracy, the citizens got the short end of the stick. That has never changed. What has changed is the growth rate in Pakistan. You have a tremendously vibrant and growing population: a hundred and seventy-seven million at last count, with an average age of about twenty, who've never received any good governance and who have been inundated for years with anti-Western information and ideology. So that's kind of a background.

Second, you had a Pakistan that from 2001--our invasion of Afghanistan--to 2005 did more or less stay on the sidelines. I was looking at it from an official perch at the time when I was deputy secretary of State and found very little in intelligence that indicated much more than just a liaison between the Pashtun Taliban and the ISI [Pakistan's intelligence service]. However, after 2005, the ISI came to the conclusion that maybe the coalition wouldn't prevail, and if that was the case, they were going to make sure they had a seat at the Pashtun table in the south and the east in Afghanistan. So that's kind of where we are.

Do they prosecute the Pakistan Taliban? Some of it. They certainly have expended a lot of their own lives in Waziristan to this end. Do they prosecute the Haqqani network, which is primarily active in Afghanistan? No, indeed, on the contrary, they support it and will support it until they know what our endgame is. To the extent we say we're going to be starting some sort of withdrawal in 2011, that feeds their feeling that we will run short of breath. In addition, please don't overlook the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT]. This is a primarily Punjabi-dominated terrorist group that was previously dedicated to activities against India from Kashmir and were responsible for the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. LeT is now in Afghanistan, and they're active. Along with the Haqqani network, they hate us about as much as they hate the Indians. The reason I raise this is that I personally believe the Indian government will not absorb another Mumbai-type strike without responding. And LeT is an al-Qaeda affiliate. What could be better in al-Qaeda's mind than to have India and Pakistan going at each other? What more to further their aims?

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