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For Holbrooke, Situation in Pakistan, Afghanistan Is 'Dim and Dismal'

Interviewee: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, Council on Foreign Relations
January 28, 2009


Editor's Note: Riedel gave this interview two weeks before being appointed to chair a White House policy review team on Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Bruce O. Riedel, an expert on South Asia, who has worked for the CIA, Pentagon, and National Security Council, says new special representative Richard Holbrooke inherits a "dim and dismal" situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan. What is needed, he says, is for Holbrooke to reverse the negative momentum in both countries. He says the Taliban's military successes in Afghanistan have to be reversed, and Pakistan must help close their sanctuaries on Pakistani territory. But Riedel says "trying to get that cooperation out of the Pakistani government in my judgment will be the single hardest test that Ambassador Holbrooke faces and in fact may be the single hardest foreign policy challenge President Obama faces."

With Richard Holbrooke being named the new special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, what's going on in that part of the world? When Asif Ali Zardari, the new president of Pakistan, was inaugurated last year, he invited Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the inauguration.  Is there better coordination between the two countries?

The good news is that the relationship between President Zardari and President Karzai is a fairly good one, and the two of them are comfortable working with each other. That has yet to translate, though, into a real productive relationship along the border. It's an opening, certainly, that we should exploit. The inheritance that Ambassador Holbrooke gets, though, on the whole is pretty dim and dismal. The war in Afghanistan is going badly, the southern half of the country is increasingly in chaos, and the Taliban is encroaching more and more frequently into Kabul and the surrounding provinces. And in Pakistan, the jihadist Frankenstein monster that was created by the Pakistani army and the Pakistani intelligence service is now increasingly turning on its creators. It's trying to take over the laboratory.

Does the Pakistani military have a strategy for the FATA [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas] along the borders with Afghanistan?

Polling in Pakistan shows that a majority of Pakistanis blame America for the country’s internal violence. Any time that you are outpolling India as the bad guy in Pakistan, you’re in deep, deep trouble.

It's of two minds about the FATA. On the one hand, it has always used the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as the place where it could create groups like the Taliban, or encourage the development of the Taliban, where it could train people to operate in Kashmir or to operate in India. But now that it sees that it's losing control of that area, it's increasingly concerned about the future. Unfortunately, the Pakistani army is not very well prepared either in training or in equipment for the kind of counterinsurgency warfare that needs to be fought in the badlands along the Afghan border. And here is another opening for the United States to offer to Pakistan the kinds of counterinsurgency training and doctrine and the kinds of equipment that would be useful in this war. Helicopters in particular. The Bush administration gave Pakistan about a dozen helicopters.  What they really need is several hundred to operate in this very difficult terrain where air mobility is really the key to battlefield success.

And is there a lot of talk about the U.S. Predator attacks on supposedly al-Qaeda targets in that area? Is there an implicit agreement that these  attacks should go ahead even as Pakistan protests?

I don't know what the discussions between Washington and Islamabad have been over that. These Predator attacks have scored some important successes. Significant al-Qaeda figures have been killed. But they also have a counterproductive element to them, which is that they further the alienation of the Pakistani people away from us. One of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest challenge we face in Pakistan today, is that the American brand image has been badly eroded. Polling in Pakistan shows that a majority of Pakistanis blame America for the country's internal violence. India comes in second place, and al-Qaeda and the militancy comes in third place. Any time that you are outpolling India as the bad guy in Pakistan, you're in deep, deep trouble.

What do you think the reaction is to President Obama, who gave an interview to Al-Arabiya, an Arab TV network, in which he talked about his great interest in improving relations with the Muslim world. Will that get much vibe, do you think, in Pakistan?

This is the kind of message that can start the process of changing opinions, not just in Pakistan, but in much of the Muslim world. The interview hit all the right points. But of course talk needs to be followed by action, and that's what people will be looking for. The American brand image suffered a big setback because of the Gaza war. The war in Gaza with American-made F-16s and American-made Apache helicopters piloted by Israelis dropping bombs on 1.5 million Palestinians was just about the worst backdrop to a transfer of power in the United States that you could hope for. Al-Qaeda called it "Obama's gift to the Palestinians," but the truth is that it was really a gift to al-Qaeda by giving them a great propaganda boost to undermine the image of the United States again on the eve of the transfer of power. But, a quick getting off the mark, sending [former] Senator George J. Mitchell out to the region to start addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict will resonate throughout the Muslim world, including in Pakistan.

Let's look at it from Ambassador Holbrooke's perspective now. I don't know where he'll go first, Afghanistan or Pakistan, but what would you say the top priorities are for him?

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

The top priorities, and they are very much linked, is first to reverse the momentum on the ground in Afghanistan. The Taliban have a sense that they're winning, and objectively if you look at the numbers--the number of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] casualties, the number of bombings--it does look like they are winning. That momentum has to be broken. And then, secondly, and quite critically, the safe haven that the Taliban and al-Qaeda and other jihadists have built in Pakistan has to be closed down. That can only happen with the cooperation of the Pakistani government. And trying to get that cooperation out of the Pakistani government in my judgment will be the single hardest test that Ambassador Holbrooke faces and in fact may be the single hardest foreign policy challenge President Obama faces.

But haven't you implied that President Zardari wants to do it?  That seems to be his policy isn't it?

Pakistani President Zardari wants to do it because he recognizes the safe haven is now a threat to him personally. His capacity to get the Pakistani state to do much about this is limited. He has only notional control over the Pakistani army and the Pakistani intelligence services, which remain fixated on their eternal enemy, India, and which believe that India wants to create a client state in Afghanistan in order to encircle Pakistan.  Breaking those kinds of perceptions is going to be very hard to do.

Is India in fact involved that deeply in Afghanistan?

It is a fact that India is very engaged in Afghanistan. In fact, this last weekend, India announced completion of a $1 billion project to build a road connecting Afghanistan's main highway to a main highway in Iran, giving Afghanistan access to the Indian Ocean without having to go through Pakistan. It's a good thing, but in the eyes of Pakistanis who are obsessed with the threat from India, it looks like encirclement. That's what makes the challenge of trying to change Pakistani behavior so complex.

Well, let's cross the border into Afghanistan. President Karzai has come under increased criticism here and elsewhere for being inefficient and corrupt. He has an election coming up this summer, and he's obviously quite sensitive about all this criticism. How do you deal with Karzai?

Karzai is a complex figure. He was certainly the right man in 2001 and 2002 during the prolonged discussions in Bonn [on the establishment of a new government in Afghanistan]. His charisma and inspiration then were very important. You're right, there's been a lot of criticism of him and his effectiveness. A question I would raise with people who say, "Let's move on from Karzai," is "Who's the alternative?" And it's not clear to me that an alternative has really emerged. At the end of the day, this is an Afghan decision and not an American decision. We ought to make it clear that we don't have a candidate in this process, and we want to see the Afghan people decide who their next president is going to be. If we appear to be picking a favorite, I don't think that's in our long-term interest.

The American policy right now is to augment the troops in Afghanistan. There's talk of as much as thirty thousand additional U.S. troops. Will this make a big difference?

It remains to be seen. We urgently need more troops on the ground, and I think we're right to send an additional force now. But the shelf life of any foreign army in Afghanistan is limited. What we really need to do is start building an Afghan army that's large enough and equipped properly in order to deal with this insurgency. We haven't focused on that for the last seven years. Now, it's very expensive in many ways to send American troops to Afghanistan, and even when they get there, they don't know the language, they don't know the culture. Our focus should be on trying to break the Taliban's momentum quickly, and then focus on building an Afghan security establishment that's large enough and well equipped for the job, and do it in a way that is much more consistent with Afghanistan's own history.

Should Holbrooke try to get the Taliban involved in the political system?

There are decades-old fears among all the parties about American intentions. The Pakistanis, for example, are convinced that we will use their country for our short-term interest in finding al-Qaeda, and then abandon it, as they feel we abandoned it in the 1980s. The Afghans feel the same way.

The Taliba , at least the Taliban core that is loyal to Mullah Omar [the Taliban leader who is now believed to be in hiding in Pakistan], is not interested in the political system, at least not now. The Taliban have been saying, and Mullah Omar in particular has been saying, "Victory is in sight. NATO's will is breaking. The Europeans already want to go home." Within a couple of years, he promises his supporters, NATO will leave and they will take over. Now he's even offered in the last month safe passage for any NATO forces that want to leave, akin to the safe passage that the mujahadeen gave the Soviets in 1989. Until you break that sense of confidence and momentum, I don't think you are going to see any serious willingness on the part of the Taliban to want to negotiate.

Is it worth trying to get a sort of regional solution to the crisis? Some experts, such as Barnett Rubin, have proposed a wide-ranging regional approach.

The tactics of how you'd do it are very important, but I think the notion of seeing this problem as a regional problem is absolutely correct. All of these things are linked together. As I said, Pakistan's concerns in Afghanistan derive in large part from its concerns about India. It can't try to deal with these problems in isolation. But you also have to deal with them with a great degree of subtlety and sophistication, because there are decades-old fears among all the parties about American intentions. The Pakistanis, for example, are convinced that we will use their country for our short-term interest in finding al-Qaeda, and then abandon it, as they feel we abandoned it in the 1980s. The Afghans feel the same way. They feel the United States has fought a war in Afghanistan twice now, and then forgotten about them, and not come through with the follow-through afterward. Restoring the sense of America's credibility and its reliability, and its consistency, is going to be very, very important to persuading them that we're serious this go around.

And how do you do that?

A lot of it is in terms of giving priority to the issue, and President Obama has made clear he intends to do that. Then a lot of it is bringing the resources to bear: more troops, but also more economic assistance; more military assistance, as I said, for the Afghan military, and the right kind of assistance for the Pakistani military; and then diplomatic assistance. You know, Afghanistan and Pakistan have a border that was drawn in 1893 by Sir Mortimer Durand, the high commissioner for British India. Afghanistan has never accepted that border. Trying to get agreement on the legitimacy and permanency of a border would be an important first step towards trying to get that border secured. After all, if we want Pakistan to provide border security, a good step in the right direction would be an agreement on that border.

Among other things that we can do is increase our economic assistance and try to use the Friends of Pakistan (PDF), a group that was formed at the end of the Bush administration to provide more help. This group would bring together the Chinese, the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union, the Japanese, and others who have an interest in a stable Pakistan that gets out of the business of being on both sides of the war on terrorism. That's a mechanism for strengthening the hand of the civilian government in Pakistan. We shouldn't identify ourselves with any individual. We should identify ourselves with the democratic process. We should make it very clear that the days of the United States dealing with Pakistani military dictators is over for good, and that we will not abide a return to military government in Pakistan, and that we support the democratic process there, whoever it produces and with whatever flaws that process may produce.

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