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Wisner: 'Pivotal Moment' in Afghanistan

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Frank G. Wisner, External Affairs, AIG Inc.
June 23, 2003

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Frank G. Wisner II, co-chairman of a new independent task force report on Afghanistan cosponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society, says the United States is at “a pivotal moment” in its efforts to keep the government of President Hamid Karzai afloat. Failure in Afghanistan, he warns, would sharply diminish U.S. “credibility as a peacekeeper in a very troubled age, our ability to build coalitions in the war against terror, and our ability to act as a force for stability and a mobilizer of sympathetic international attention.”

Wisner, a leading expert on South Asia and vice chairman of external affairs at American International Group, says he believes that “we are going to make some of the belated commitments that should have been made earlier” to save Afghanistan.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on June 23, 2003.


The Afghanistan report says that the United States should lend more support to Karzai’s transitional government and that more vigorous military, diplomatic, and economic measures are needed to bolster the government’s hand. Can these proposals be implemented?

These are proposals that the United States can, but more importantly, must accomplish. If Afghanistan goes badly, if the Karzai regime fails, if the constitutional preparations don’t go forward, if the elections are not held in 2004, it is a huge black eye for the United States. Moreover, if the country re-descends into anarchy and drug [production], we will pay a major price.

What price?

It will be measured in terms of our credibility as a peacekeeper in a very troubled age, our ability to build coalitions in the war against terror, our ability to act as a force for stability and a mobilizer of sympathetic international attention. It’s going to be a major setback for NATO, if [the peacekeeping mission, which NATO will assume command of in August,] fails. [U.S.] failure in Afghanistan will mean it will be even harder to exit Iraq because the United States will be stalked by the ghost of failure in Afghanistan. And [Afghanistan’s] descent into chaos would mean real questions of stability in a troubled region; failure in Afghanistan is going to mean an outbreak of unsettling rivalries that will affect the United States.

You’ve made it clear that the United States can’t afford to fail. But can it afford to win?

There are very modest increments of blood and treasure involved in this. The forces in Afghanistan today are small, the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] is small. A modest expansion of those numbers, a modest expansion of the numbers of Afghan soldiers who are being trained, $1 billion a year over and above relief is not [an excessive amount] to get the economy in Afghanistan going, so I don’t think it’s a resource issue. I think it’s an issue of priority, of attitude.

Why doesn’t the United States send in more troops?

I believe the hesitancy in Afghanistan has its origins in two distinct phenomena. The first is that the United States was very unwilling under this administration to accept the burdens of peacekeeping, and wanted to preserve American armed forces for the uses of war-making, and look more to the international community to do peacekeeping. I believe that was the wrong strategy and it’s now being corrected.

In Afghanistan?

It is being [corrected] and will further be corrected in Afghanistan, in the sense that we still have 9,000 soldiers on the ground. I’m prepared to believe there are going to be more [going to Afghanistan]. We can also mobilize a larger international coalition and give it more aggressive rules of engagement and get it [to patrol] outside of Kabul. The NATO involvement gives you a command and control capability to do precisely that, so I think we’ve been learning as we make our way forward, getting beyond this sort of ideological barrier to peacekeeping.

The second problem is decision fatigue. For most administrations, one crisis at a time is hell to manage. When you start loading on Afghanistan, the Middle East peace process, and North Korea, on top of Iraq, it just becomes a nightmare to get a complicated system of government like our own to focus on the real choices. I’ve been assured in conversations [with U.S. officials] that the administration recognizes what’s at stake in Afghanistan, and recognizes that more resources are needed. I think we are going to make some of the belated commitments that should have been made earlier; I’ve got my fingers crossed.

The commitments are related to troop deployment and money allocations?

I believe that’s the case and, almost as important, [they are related to] the mission of the forces, either U.S. or ISAF.

Is Congress aware of all this?

I can’t over-generalize. But I know from contacts with key figures in Congress that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its leadership, for example, are highly sensitive to the fragile situation in Afghanistan and aware of the demands on us to correct it.

With the demand for military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, does the U.S. Army have enough troops? There are 10 active divisions right now. Is that too small a force?

Let me deal with the first part, and that is that the force numbers in Afghanistan are decidedly modest. Of course when you say that, you have to remember you have to rotate forces through, so 9,000 plus, whatever it goes up to, means you’ve got to have another equivalent amount in the pipeline, and one behind that coming along, so the demands are not insubstantial.

Overall, your basic outlook is optimistic?

I want to be careful to say that, as I said in presenting the report in the first place, we’re at a pivotal moment. We have to put the proper resources and attention behind this effort and sustain it. If we do not, we face a real setback. I hold to that conclusion. Maybe there are a few good auguries here or there: a road is making some progress. But there are also many very unpleasant signs: a slowdown in the political process to permit elections and discouraged nongovernmental organizations, some of which, in carrying out vital relief missions, have [staffers who have] lost their lives in the pursuit of their missions.

I think of it in strategic terms: this is a pivotal point. The Karzai government has to make itself credible, the warlords have to take a step back, disarmament has to take place, the writ of the government has to be extended, [formation of] an Afghan National Army has to be accelerated, the international community, particularly the regional powers, has to come around and give real support to allow Karzai to succeed. And finally, the money’s got to be available: $15 billion over five years.

Where does the report suggest the money should come from?

[Over five years,] $1 billion a year [would come] from the United States, and $2 billion a year from the international community.

Does the report suggest how long the United States should anticipate being in Afghanistan?

My own view simply stated, unqualified, is that the next five years are critical. Does that mean that the United States leaves immediately on the fifth year? Well, you like to think your force [levels] will have come down and the aid levels are sustainable by the end of five years, but the United States will be involved in Afghanistan for years to come. Look at the price we paid for disengaging from Afghanistan in the early 1990s. Look at what happened, look at the contribution Afghanistan made to the terror we faced, look at the drug problem, look at the radicalization of the regime.

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