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The Danger of Delay in Afghan Policymaking

Interviewee: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institute
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 8, 2009

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As U.S. President Barack Obama and his top aides complete a study on U.S. operations in Afghanistan, the original coordinator of that policy, Bruce Riedel, warns of the consequences of delaying new action. Riedel says at a time of squeamishness among U.S. partners and an increasingly emboldened Taliban and al-Qaeda, it is vital for the administration to avoid lengthy delays in deciding on a course of action and "convey determination" in its planning for the Af-Pak war theater. Riedel says the late spring replacement of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan delayed the release of an operational plan, and as a result, there is "some sticker shock at the size of what the operational plan calls for. That's the unfortunate reality." He also says it is a "fairy tale" to think that the Taliban can be split off from al-Qaeda. He says that "at no point is there any serious evidence that Mullah Omar and the top Taliban leadership have been willing to give up Osama bin Laden and turn him over."

President Obama is winding up an intensive review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. You organized a similar review for the president which ended up in his speech on March 27 outlining a pretty dynamic policy towards both countries. What has caused the second review?

The president was very clear, and correctly so, back in the winter that the policy he was going to embark on wouldn't be on autopilot. That is to say, we will not just blindly continue to follow a course forward. He was clear then, and he's right now, to periodically take a look to judge what we're doing right; what we're doing wrong; what did we anticipate correctly; what's new that we didn't anticipate. And even on the question of the personnel on the team: Have we got the right people? Do we need someone else? From the beginning the president indicated to me and to his national security team that he would want to periodically revisit those questions. That makes a lot of sense. This is a very dynamic situation. It's a situation which has deteriorated over the last six months in several ways. First, the military situation on the battlefield has gotten worse. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that just the other day: The momentum is with the enemy. And secondly, the political situation has gotten worse with the fiasco of the Afghan elections. There's a delicate line, of course, between rethinking and dithering. And the president and his team are aware that they have to avoid the latter at all costs.

Among the ideas pushed forward is one that says that the Taliban is really not an enemy; al-Qaeda is the only enemy and so therefore it's not that necessary to defeat the Taliban. That would undercut the whole effort of boosting the Afghan military forces and increasing the military forces in Afghanistan. Is this a real competing idea right now?

This is a fairy tale. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been closely aligned ever since Osama bin Laden came back to Afghanistan in the mid 1990s. The Taliban leadership under Mullah Omar has been unwilling to break with al-Qaeda for more than a decade. Ever since the two had their first meeting back in the nineties--which I would remind people was set up by the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI--these two have been in a partnership. What is most remarkable about that partnership is that it has survived and endured when arguably the Taliban has been a big loser in this partnership. They lost the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. But at no point is there any serious evidence that Mullah Omar and the top Taliban leadership have been willing to give up Osama bin Laden and turn him over. And that really ought to be the bar on which we judge whether the Taliban is willing to enter into serious negotiations, not a promise that "if you leave, we'll be good boys," or that "we will break with al-Qaeda."

[O]ne of the most important things that the president and the administration have to do is convey seriousness, convey determination [in Afghanistan].

The other way to think about this is: We have a terrorist problem, al-Qaeda, which has become embedded in an insurgency, the Taliban. Of course, if we could somehow disembowel the terrorist problem from the insurgency, that would be a very good outcome. But there is nothing in the history of the relationship between these two movements over more than a decade now that suggests that is imminent, or likely.

This review has been going on for some time, and you've said that the president doesn't want to really be seen as dithering. Do you expect some decision-making soon?

At some point there is a cost to delay. And that cost comes in how our partners and how our enemies respond. Our NATO partners are already a bit squeamish. The Pakistanis are already beginning to wonder about the seriousness of the American commitment. So that undue delay has a cost. Our enemies have already come to the conclusion that victory is in sight. We've had two remarkable statements from the enemy in the last fortnight. The first came from Mullah Omar, who said to his troops at the end of Ramadan: "Victory is in sight, stay united." And he said to the outside world, "Once the foreign occupation army leaves, we will settle the Afghan problem. We will recreate the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and we will harbor no grudges against you. Trust us, we'll be good boys." A few days later, Osama bin Laden came out with a message to the people of Europe, and his message was short and simple: "The Americans are about to leave. They will let you down. You will end up being caught in Afghanistan alone with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and you don't want that. So get out before the Americans cut and run."

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan

It's interesting these messages in many ways overlap. You can see a degree of coordination in the propaganda which is more sophisticated and subtle than we've seen in the past. I don't think this persuades many Europeans, Canadians, or Americans, but it's a very good insight into what our enemy thinks. They are confident that time is on their side, that they will defeat the Americans just like they defeated the Russians. And one of the most important things that the president and the administration have to do is convey seriousness, convey determination.

General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, in his recommendations has asked for as many as forty thousand more troops. Do you think it's important to increase the force level?

I find that question hard to answer in the abstract. I've looked at the request for additional force deployments on many issues in many administrations, and the devil really is in the detail. It's not a question of the bottom-line number, although that's always the headline, and understandably so. But the devil's in the details: How many troops? For what purpose? Where will they be deployed? What are their rules of engagement? More troops for headquarters' command-and-control purposes, because you want to have a better coordination of activity, is one thing. More trainers to stand up the Afghan army, is another. More combat troops to secure and protect the population, is a third. More enablers to make all those people work more effectively, is another. More intelligence assets, which is a critically important one, is yet another. I'm sure that what the president has in front of him from Bob Gates and the Defense Department is a menu that says "If we do this, we have this amount of risk that comes with it, and this amount of payoff." And unless you have those details, I'm afraid you're often talking about something you really don't understand.

There's a piece in the Washington Post today suggesting that when the policy review was agreed upon last spring, no one really knew how much it was going to cost. And a lot of the disagreement now is due to the cost factor. Do you agree with that?

The strategic review and the strategy that the president articulated in March tasked the Pentagon, and in particular CENTCOM [Central Command], to come up with an operational plan to implement it. The strategy called for a counterinsurgency strategy to be developed in Afghanistan, particularly in the south and west. The operational plan was first assigned to General David McKiernan, who was then commander. The White House and the Pentagon came to the conclusion, for good reasons, that was not going to work, and they brought in General McChrystal to fulfill this requirement for an operational plan. The cost of that change of command, which was really unprecedented--we haven't changed a battlefield commander since 1951 in the Korean War--was time. Instead of getting an operational plan in May or June, we're getting an operational plan now in September and October. The political dynamic in the United States is different. The political dynamic in Afghanistan is different. And there's some sticker shock at the size of what the operational plan calls for. That's the unfortunate reality. That delay, while probably necessary in order to have the right people, has cost us some time.

[W]e have a terrorist problem, al-Qaeda, which has become embedded in an insurgency, the Taliban.

What is this sticker shock?

It depends on which press reports you read, but somewhere between thirty thousand and eighty thousand more troops is a pretty large component. Remember that we had basically doubled the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan since a year ago, and the American component of the NATO effort has gone from roughly 50 percent to roughly 65 percent now. It is highly unlikely that we're going to get more troops from any other country so any increases are likely to only be in the direction of an even larger American percentage of the overall NATO effort.

This election held in August, everyone agrees, was deeply flawed if not phony. How do we get around that?

There's no question that this is a setback; I'd say again, it's a fiasco. And the blame can be pointed in many directions, including at [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, but the international community has to bear some of the blame here: We didn't do enough to ensure that these elections had credibility; we didn't do enough to ensure that fraud couldn't take place. We need now to have a very rigorous process that tries to come up with a vote total which bears scrutiny. We have a problem in doing that in that the UN oversight body in Afghanistan now has a split at the top between its Norwegian director, Kai Eide, and its American deputy, Peter Galbraith, who's been fired. That's a very difficult problem, and we're going to need to have some serious reorganization in the UN program. Above all, what we are going to need is intense diplomatic work by the international community's collection of special representatives and special envoys to try to make lemonade out of this lemon. They have to get in there and work with the Afghan political establishment and try to come up with a process which in the end produces an outcome which Afghans will accept as legitimate and credible.

One more thing: the view that you can win the war against al-Qaeda by just bombing al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan--you don't think that can work, do you?

No.

That's part of the fairy tale?

That's part of the fairy tale. We are doing a brilliant tactical job in degrading al-Qaeda today in Pakistan. It depends upon an intricate network of intelligence sources. At any time that network could start to dry up. At any time al-Qaeda could change operational procedures which would make it harder. Al-Qaeda operates in a syndicate of terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It swims among these groups: the Afghan Taliban, the Pak Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others. And for eight years now, it has been able to successfully operate there by swimming in this environment. The notion that you can somehow selectively resolve the al-Qaeda problem while ignoring the larger jihadist sea in which [al-Qaeda] swims has failed in the past and will fail in the future. That's what President Pervez Musharraf tried to do in Pakistan and it failed utterly. That, in many ways, is what [former President George W.] Bush and [former Vice President Dick] Cheney tried to do and it failed utterly. It's a fairy tale, and it's a prescription for disaster.

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