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Rubin: Afghanistan at Dangerous 'Tipping Point'

Interviewee: Barnett R. Rubin, New York University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 6, 2006

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Barnett R. Rubin, one of the top experts on Afghanistan, says the failure of the Bush administration to press Pakistan to halt its support for the Taliban has put Afghanistan into a very precarious situation. He says Afghanistan is “at a potential tipping point because the expectations of people in Afghanistan and throughout the region have changed quite dramatically and they really see the Taliban as having the initiative and being on the way to victory.”

Rubin, who is director of studies and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, was the author of a Council Special Report on Afghanistan this year.

You’ve been a specialist in the field of Afghanistan and that part of the world for nearly a quarter of a century. Where does Afghanistan stand now, five years after the American invasion which led to the ouster of the Taliban government? Is the cup half full or half empty, would you say?

First, it’s much less than half full and much more than half empty, but the main thing is it’s standing on quite a rickety table and the whole thing could be knocked over. I think we’re literally, to pursue the metaphor, at a potential tipping point because the expectations of people in Afghanistan and throughout the region have changed quite dramatically and they really see the Taliban as having the initiative and being on the way to victory.

That’s what most Afghans feel, you think?

Yes, I think they do. They feel all the trends are going in the Taliban’s favor and the government and the international community are really not responding to it effectively at all. I think the predominant, overwhelming perception in the region is that the United States is not serious about trying to succeed in Afghanistan. Because what do they see? They see that we immediately turned our attention to Iraq, that the day after September 11, 2001, [Defense Secretary Donald M.] Rumsfeld wanted to bomb Iraq.

They see that we’ve spent perhaps seven times as much money in Iraq, that we put more troops into Iraq, and that we tolerate Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, while we still treat General [Pervez] Musharraf, [Pakistan’s president] as an ally. And by the way, the intelligence data is extremely clear. I am told that the Pakistani intelligence service is supporting the Taliban leadership from the Taliban headquarters in Quetta, which is not in [Pakistan’s] tribal territories. And yet President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, and Vice President Cheney did not mention the Taliban headquarters in Quetta to President Musharraf during his recent visit. Why is this?

This is because everyone perceives that containing Iran, and trying to stop Iran’s nuclear program, and perhaps destroying the Islamic regime in Iran, and perhaps changing the regime in Syria, and winning in Iraq are much higher priorities for the Bush administration than succeeding in Afghanistan. And the administration thinks they can succeed in this regional objective only if they keep Pakistan relatively quiet.

When both Musharraf and [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai were in New York last month for the UN General Assembly, Karzai said he’s given the coordinates to President Musharraf on where Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s headquarters were in Quetta. And you say the American intelligence confirms that, right?

American intelligence and NATO intelligence. I’d note that when General James Jones, the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, four-star Marine general, former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 21, he was asked by Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), “Is it true, as some allege, that the headquarters of the Taliban is in or around the Pakistani city of Quetta?” And General Jones responded, “That is generally accepted. Yes, sir.” So the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, which is now in command of the entire military operation in Afghanistan, says the headquarters of the Taliban is in Quetta and yet, the top figures in our administration did not mention this, as I understand it, to President Musharraf when he was here. They focused much more on another serious issue, which is the Waziristan [in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas] issue, because al-Qaeda people are headquartered there. It’s the al-Qaeda people whom they believe pose more of a direct threat to the United States. But this just reinforces the general perception in the region that the United States is not serious about succeeding in Afghanistan.

And this is the area where Musharraf made the deal that caused all this concern in Afghanistan?

Yes. Well I think it caused concern beyond Afghanistan. And Musharraf also systematically misrepresented the deal. He went the rounds, including at the Council on Foreign Relations, saying that it was a deal only with tribal leaders to limit the activity of the Taliban. But that actually is not what the agreement itself said. I guess he was counting on no one having read it. And apparently he told President Bush, when the Afghans confronted him with the text of the agreement at the dinner, that he hadn’t read it himself. But the agreement says quite clearly, in both the original Urdu and the English translation, that the two parties of the deal are: One, the Pakistan government. And two, the tribal elders, local mujahadeen [holy warriors], Taliban, and Islamic clergy of the tribes of North Waziristan. Note also it says mujahadeen. Now who are these mujahadeen? What are they waging jihad against? This is what President Karzai asked. Who are these people waging jihad against? Against the Afghan government? Against the United States? But the Pakistani government is recognizing them as mujahadeen, that is, people engaged in a sacred struggle. What message does that communicate?

That’s very interesting. Now let’s go back to my earlier question. You said it’s at a tipping point? Is there some way to tip it up, so it doesn’t fall?

It would require some very dramatic acts on our part, and not only by the United States, but others as well. Thus far, I see no indication that we are prepared to take such action. First of all, it would require unambiguous and very strong pressure on Pakistan to shut down the headquarters of the Taliban. But, as I said before, that issue was not even mentioned to Musharraf by the highest officials of the administration. This is a core national security issue for Pakistan, not because they’re in favor of terrorism or trying to destroy us, but because they have their regional concerns about the growth of Indian influence in Afghanistan, the fact that Afghanistan has never recognized the border, and about their ambition to be a regional power, with Afghanistan under their hegemony, and spread their influence in Central Asia.

They have ambitions which are commensurate with their being a nuclear power, if not with the actual economic base of their power. But at the same time, of course, their military is very largely dependent on supplies from the United States and, of course, being an Islamist ally of the United States was very easy during the Cold War because then Islamic jihad could be projected against the Soviet Union and on the side used against India, as it has been done in Kashmir —not that there aren’t other issues in Kashmir as well, very legitimate ones. But Pakistan has exploited it as an issue of jihad. That has become much trickier for Pakistan since 9/11 but essentially the United States has failed to use the leverage that it does have, because of the very overly broad and mistaken way that we have defined our enemy in the so-called war on terror.

What would we have to do?

It’s very difficult for someone outside of government—who doesn’t know about all the various, secret arrangements that are taking place about intelligence operations—to make very concrete proposals. But I believe that first, we have to put the military supply relationship on the table and say, “We cannot continue to build up your military while you are hosting command control of an organization that is killing Americans, NATO soldiers, our Afghan allies, and engaging in terrorism against civilians,” which is what Pakistan is doing.

Second, we should say, “We understand you’re not doing this because you hate us, but because you have some regional security issues involving India. We will try to address those.” For instance, Pakistan is concerned that the Indian consulates in cities near Pakistan and Afghanistan are centers for intelligence operations against Pakistan, including support for the Baluch insurgency in Pakistan. Again, the Baluch insurgency has its own nationalist roots in Pakistan, it has some legitimacy, but nonetheless, we can address Pakistan’s concerns about Indian involvement by asking Afghanistan and India to try to keep those consulates small, and keeping some transparency about them.

And Afghanistan should also make some moves toward eventually recognizing the border with Pakistan and recognizing the incorporation of Pashtun and Baluch terrorities into Pakistan, something Afghanistan has never recognized the legitimacy of.

What about within Afghanistan itself? Is the economy better?

First, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The only dynamic part of the economy is narcotics, which has skyrocketed this year. There may be as much as 50 percent more production this year as compared to last year, largely because of a decline in security in certain major opium-producing regions and the spread of production to every single province in Afghanistan, which never happened before.

Also, from the indicators I was able to gather during my most recent trip at the end of July, early August, it appears that even the kind of bubble economy that grew up in the cities as a result of the international pressure and the flow of aid money is starting to collapse. People are starting to say there is a decline in construction, a decline in demand for fruits and vegetables, a decline in employment. Largely again, this has to do with security. A number of Afghan businessmen who had come back from outside the country and made investments have now left again because there have been high-profile kidnappings of rich people—which people usually say are carried out by people in police uniforms—killings, robberies and so on.

There have been some NATO military achievements in Afghanistan recently, haven’t there?

Our military commanders know this is not primarily a military battle. What the military does is to move into an area, defeat the enemy, then the enemy moves somewhere else—back to their base areas in Pakistan where they’re in complete safety and shelter and can recruit new recruits, refund, retrain and so on, reequip themselves. And then what comes in after the military? We have a government that is extraordinarily weak, corrupt, and ineffective. We have a very much underfunded reconstruction effort. So it means that unless we really seriously increase our support for the Afghan government for reconstruction, there’s a vacuum after our military victory. So there’s no way to transform those actual victories into strategic success. One of the top military commanders I talked to in Afghanistan, an international commander, said his basic assumption was that we need to double our resources.

President Karzai comes across here as a very eloquent, competent man. But I gather in Afghanistan he’s not considered very highly anymore.

Of course, no one who is head of the government in Afghanistan would be considered very highly because it is a very, very weak, ineffective, and corrupt government. But in addition, President Karzai has no previous executive experience. He has some flaws as a decision maker. The vacuum of people with real administrative experience means that he and his ministries have almost no competent staff. So just the basic machinery of government is not functioning.

Now, in those vacuums, the Taliban brought a kind of very primitive or simple type of governance by using violence. That is, if they found a corrupt person, they would treat him as a thief, cut off his hand. If there was a murderer, they would hang him after a very short and summary trial. So people would say, “At least under the Taliban there was some kind of justice.” They’re not contrasting that with justice that respects human rights and so on—that they would like—but we haven’t offered them that. What we’ve offered them is nonfunctional courts, plus some training programs.

I take it at this point, you’re very pessimistic.

I wouldn’t say that. I’m trying to give a warning. There are two very positive elements here. One is that there is a very broad, global consensus that we want to support the current political structure and government of Afghanistan and stabilize it, defeat the Taliban militarily, though of course they can form a political party and join the Afghan system nonviolently if they want to do so. Second, the Afghan people still—even if they might be resigned to the Taliban coming back, or might be in despair over the corruption and incapacity of this government and its international supporters—wish this effort would succeed. So if we put those two things together, there still is something very important to build upon. But we have not given this the priority, the resources—military, economic and political—that it requires to succeed.

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