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Media Conference Call: CFR Scholars Return from AfPak Region

Speakers: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Robert McMahon, Editor, CFR.org, Council on Foreign Relations
October 30, 2009
Council on Foreign Relations

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ROBERT MCMAHON:  Hello, everyone, and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations media conference call.  I am Robert McMahon, editor of cfr.org.  And we are extremely fortunate today to be joined by two CFR experts just returned from the region, Afghanistan-Pakistan region, which is at the forefront of plans, of U.S. strategic planning right now.

Max Boot is senior fellow for National Security Studies.  And he was on the -- what's called battlefield circulation in Afghanistan and Iraq actually.  And Max met with local leaders, security personnel and U.S. military officials including Generals McChrystal and Odierno.

Dan Markey is senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia. And he just returned from a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he  met with U.S. military officials as well and also diplomatic officials and others in the region.

I'm going to start off with a couple of questions and then open up for your questions.  And my first is for both Max and Dan to answer.

We're in this period now, one week away from the Afghan presidential runoff election.  A new U.S. military strategy is imminent.  At the same time, the battlefield cost is mounting, with October now the new deadliest month on record, for U.S. troops, in the eight-year-old war.

What would you both have to say about the current U.S. role, in the region, and how it ought to change, if it ought to change?

Max, why don't you start off first?

MAX BOOT:  Obviously the United States has a vital role to play in the Af-Pak region.  We are committed to a war in Afghanistan.  I think the question now is, are we going to be committed to winning it? Or are we going to just muddle along, as we've currently been doing, with enough troops to generate casualties, on all sides, but not enough to win?

General McChrystal has presented what I think is a very compelling counterinsurgency strategy.  That to be resourced requires a minimum of 40,000 troops.

Now, unfortunately the leaks coming out of the White House are that President Obama will probably approve a much lower troop figure. And I think that would be unfortunate, because it would make it very hard for us to seize the initiative and to roll back Taliban gains, which is something that is starting to happen on the ground, in places like the Helmand River valley, Kandahar and Lowgar province, all areas that I visited.

But to build on those gains and to expand what we started this summer, I think we need a substantial troop commitment.  And that's what General McChrystal is looking for, but of course, that may not be what he gets.

MCMAHON:  And Dan, how about your perspective on that same issue?

DANIEL MARKEY:  Yeah, I'd agree with Max on the centrality of this region to U.S. national security, the fact that we are clearly engaged, and the fact that we probably do need to -- if we have any chance of sort of turning the tide in Afghanistan in the near term, will require significant commitment of resources, including more troops.

I guess what I was most impressed with in both Afghanistan and Pakistan during this latest trip was the enormity of the challenge that we faced on the political side in both places, where we are up against some very difficult problems.  In Afghanistan, our relationship with Karzai is really very difficult.  And I was there just about the time when Senator Kerry was there trying to get Karzai to agree to another round of elections, which, although we dodged a bullet on that issue, I think just demonstrated how hard that relationship is.

And in Pakistan, I was there shortly before Hillary Clinton got to town.  And as we're seeing in the news reports of her visit, it's clear, and it was clear in all of my conversations, that the level of frustration and skepticism and, really, anger with respect to the United States in the public rhetoric both of officials and also just of the public at large is really pretty stunning.

So we've got deep political problems on both fronts.

MCMAHON:  I want to follow up with a more military-focused question for Max and then a political one for you, Dan.

Max, in a piece you recently wrote for the Weekly Standard, you quoted a local official referring to the four horsemen working together, which you described as the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, the National Director of Security, and then the district government, and about the importance of them working together but also of the -- you know, bolstered by the American forces there.

What is then required of the American side of this equation to keep these types of -- these four horsemen working together?  In this case it was Lowgar province.

BOOT:  Well, we need intensive engagement.  The quote that you're referring to was something that was said to me by Lieutenant Colonel Tom Gukeisen, who is a battalion commander in Lowgar.  And we were chatting at Baraki Barak, which is a district which is under good control, where his troops have imposed security since the summer and are now working with Afghan officials to foster governance and development.

That's something that's possible, and I saw that in Nawa, in the Helmand River Valley and in other places, but it requires an intensive American commitment.  As one of the officers I talked to said, unless you're sitting on the Afghans, they're going to hell.  But if you do sit on them, if you do work with them very intensively, if you do mentor them, they can perform pretty adequately, as I saw in places like Baraki Barak.

So, you know, when people talk about the poor level of governance in Afghanistan, that's absolutely right, but that's an argument for the surge, not against it, because if we're going to improve the level of governance, we have to make a bigger American commitment on both the military and the civilian side, and it's by no means impossible.

MCMAHON:  And so the estimates that are attached to the McChrystal report is something around 40,000 troops for a surge.  Is that something that -- does that figure fit with what you think should be applied?

BOOT:  Absolutely.  I think that General McChrystal is a first-rate general.  He has a first-rate staff.  I think they've done a very careful, true-to-task analysis, and this is what they've come up with as a bare minimum.

And as General McChrystal emphasized to me, this is not an inflated estimate hoping to get less; this is really what he thinks is the bare minimum needed to reverse years of Taliban gains and expand the Afghan government's control.  And if he doesn't get it, I think it will be very hard for us to prevail in Afghanistan.  But if he does get it, I think we can make excellent progress.

MCMAHON:  And so, Dan, on the political side of the question here, the November 7th runoff elections, and really problems on both sides of the border that you touched on, you have written in the past -- in the recent past about the need for what could have been more useful for Afghan politicians to pursue is a loya jirga, second constitutional convention, to bring together the both elected and the traditional leaders to try to come up with a new structure for democratic governance.

From what you wrote in the foreign policy piece that I'm quoting from, it seems like you would take a dim view of the chances for the runoff coming up, for success.  Is that true?

MARKEY:  Yeah.  And there was very little about the kind of conversations that I had, particularly when in Kandahar, about -- there was little to give me confidence that the next round of elections are going to be a heck of a lot prettier than the first round, which means that we're going to come out of this process no matter what with a somewhat -- perhaps deeply tarnished Afghan government at the center.

You know, in conversations with U.S. officials, it's pretty clear that part of their strategy looking ahead, whether it's through a loya jirga or some other process, is an effort to try and build out relations with other members of the emerging Afghan government, to try to get beyond Karzai or -- since he's the most likely next president -- and try to find other people, whether at the local level -- really an -- at the micro-local level -- or also at the level of governors, provincial -- at the provincial level, find people that we can work with and offer them incentives and assistance, and also use coercive measures to try to improve their capacity for governance.

I still think that something like a loya jirga, something that would be a significant opportunity for constitutional reform, something that would probably reduce the powers of the presidency and give more power to the Afghan parliament to sort of spread responsibility and authority more widely, would be beneficial, although at this point it doesn't look especially likely.

MCMAHON:  Okay.  I would like to -- us to get to some more people on the line here.  So Operator, could you please let me know if there's any questions pending?

OPERATOR:  Yes.  Thank you.  At this time, we will open the floor for questions.  (Instructions not transcribed.)

Our first question comes from Garrett Mitchell with The Mitchell Report.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks.  And thanks to both of you for your -- for your report.  It's very helpful.

I want to ask a question that goes to the combined questions of rationale and strategy.  It seems to me that the rationale for our presence in Afghanistan is a counterterrorism rationale.  It's to defeat and disable al Qaeda, assure that they won't -- (audio break) -- a safe haven in Afghanistan.

And the strategy has become a -- a COIN strategy.  And -- well, it raises two questions for me.  One is, is that a fair observation that rationale -- (audio break) --

MCMAHON:  I'm sorry, I think you're breaking up.

Are you -- Dan or Max, are you hearing?

MARKEY:  No, I can't hear.

MCMAHON:  You heard the --

BOOT:  Well, I heard some, and the question, I think, was about, you know, whether we should be -- how we started off pursuing a counterterrorism strategy --

MCMAHON:  Right.  Right.

BOOT:  -- and are now pursuing a COIN strategy -- counterinsurgency strategy.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, and I think -- if I could just do a -- a -- try to complete the sentence -- I don't know if you can hear me now, but I've moved around.

MCMAHON:  Yes, that's much better.  Yes, go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  A, is that a correct assessment, to say that we have had sort of a counterterrorism rationale and we've moved to a COIN strategy?  A, is that correct?  B, does that simply mean that President Obama has got to sort of rearticulate a -- if you will, a COIN rationale?

And the final question about that is, I think Max said that -- that General McChrystal certainly didn't inflate the numbers, and I would agree with that.  Because if you look at the work that RAND has done, for example, on -- you know, in Bosnia, Kosovo, et cetera -- we're -- at 40,000, 60,000 or even 100,000, one could argue that that's under-resourced.  So I'd just be interested in the feedback from -- from both of you on that.

MCMAHON:  Okay, Max, why don't you go first?

BOOT:  Sure.  Well, I think there has been some confusion in the administration as to whether they are pursuing COIN or CT, counterinsurgency or counterterrorism.

On March 27th, President Obama unveiled what was essentially a counterinsurgency strategy, but he used counterterrorism rhetoric to justify it, talking about how our only goal in Afghanistan is to defeat al Qaeda.  And I think that -- that reflects an ambivalence and a confusion within the administration, which the president is now sorting out.

Now, for my part, I think the only way to successfully pursue a counterterrorism strategy is with a COIN strategy, because there is no way to prevent al Qaeda from coming back into Afghanistan if the Taliban grabbed control of large chunks of the countryside.

They are very closely aligned with al Qaeda.  There is very little daylight between the two groups.  The Taliban have never disavowed al Qaeda, even though it would have been advantageous for them to do so. Instead, they've talked about how closely their goals and operations are linked together.

And so if we're going to keep al Qaeda from coming back into Afghanistan, we have to exert some control over especially southern and eastern Afghanistan.  And the only way to do that is with the counterinsurgency strategy.

But it's not only al Qaeda that we have to worry about.  We also have to worry about the Taliban, who are linked to the Pakistani Taliban and to other radical groups on both sides of the border who are bent on destabilizing not only the government in Kabul but the one in Islamabad.  And remember, this -- one of the greatest dangers we face here is that Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state, could fall to the jihadists.

So by -- the greatest thing that we can do right now to prevent that from happening is to stabilize Afghanistan.  Certainly we should help Pakistan, but we have very limited capability to affect what happens within Pakistan.  We do have a lot of capability to affect what happens in Afghanistan.  And if we want to put the jihadists on the defensive and to keep them from toppling either government -- you know, Afghanistan or Pakistan -- which would be a nightmare, I think we have to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

MCMAHON:  Dan, do you see that as well, and a need for rearticulating that strategy, perhaps?

MARKEY:  Yeah, I agree that the original March report, the white paper that the Obama administration released, did try and sort of split the difference between a counterinsurgency approach and a counterterrorism one.  As Max said, the rhetoric was -- started with counterterror, but if you read the whole thing, it pretty quickly got into counterinsurgency and, you might even say, into something even more ambitious than that which looks an awful lot like nation-building or state-building.

If I could, I'd like to sort of take the discussion a little bit to the Pakistani side of the border, where what I've seen over the past years is that there is -- it may have been possible in the early days after 9/11 to pursue a more narrowly counterterror approach if we  had done so more effectively.  In other words, I think there were some greater distinctions between the local Taliban or local militants, some of the tribal leaders, and the international terrorists -- not least al Qaeda, but also Chechens, Uzbeks and others who had relocated from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

It may have been possible to treat them more surgically and to try and drive wedges between them and some of the local groups in the earlier days after 9/11.  We didn't do that.  We didn't effectively exploit those differences.

And now, I think what we see is an increasingly dense network of ties between some of those international terrorists and some of the local groups that are operating, particularly on the Pakistani side, and which, I should add, extend well into the settled areas of Pakistan to include some of the groups that were traditionally more focused, although not 100 percent focused, on the Kashmir fight.  So the problem of separating counterterror from counterinsurgency on the Pakistani side of the border has gotten, if anything, much harder, not easier.

And I think a similar logic would hold for Afghanistan.  If you were to see a return of the Taliban, the former Afghan Taliban, my sense is that, if anything, they've probably been drawn more closely together with some of these international terrorist groups and would pose a greater threat than even they might have as the Afghan Taliban of Mullah Omar and so on prior to 9/11.  So this is a troubling picture and one that really sort of makes it very difficult to see how you can do a CT-only approach looking ahead.

MCMAHON:  And Dan, just to stay on Pakistan for a second, you mentioned on your earlier comment that the trip of -- the Hillary Clinton visit -- and you know, really triggering or tapping into some of the tensions with Pakistanis in general -- she brought up the issue of whether or not the Pakistani officials know about -- and indicating they do know -- they certainly should know about where al Qaeda's located on their own territory.  Do you -- do you -- what is your take on the latest that we know about Pakistan's involvement with these groups, even as they fight their own -- their own insurgency?

MARKEY:  Well, I actually thought that Secretary of State Clinton's remark about al Qaeda was a -- was bit of an odd one.  She may believe that the Pakistanis and the ISI have ties with various groups that are working very counter to our interests.  I tend to share her views when it comes to the Afghan Taliban leadership, which is widely believed still to be operating inside of Pakistan and to enjoy a certain amount of at least passive support from elements within the Pakistani state.

But she said that about al Qaeda.

And they're -- this does not square with what my sense is, with respect to Pakistan's government response to al Qaeda.

They have worked pretty effectively where they can to try and support our efforts to take down al Qaeda leadership.  So this seemed to be an unusual statement on her part.  I was surprised by it.  And I gather that it's not being taken very well by a lot of the Pakistani leadership.

MCMAHON:  Thanks, Dan.

Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Our next question comes from Chandrakant Pancholi with the Overseas India Weekly.

QUESTIONER:  Hello.

Do you think -- okay, we are pushing Pakistan since eight years to wipe out terrorist infrastructure that is inside their border.  Do you think it was a policy mistake, and we should have gone directly and wiped them out?  Because these people are not doing since eight years.

And secondly where these terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan are getting funds and ammunition?  Can we find out the supply lines and destroy them?  And do you think that Pakistani public opinion will turn against us, rather than turning against Talibans?  Because as they get attacked again and again, there will be a public outcry. Because we are helping -- U.S. is being helped --

MCMAHON:  Dan do you want to take on the -- thanks for that question.

Dan, do you want to take on the issue of pushing Pakistan directly in there?

MARKEY:  Sure.

My sense is that yes, we have every reason to be frustrated with the slow degree of work, against a number of different militant groups based in Pakistan over the past eight years.  So I share that  frustration.  I think most people in Washington share that frustration.

That said, the alternative that's suggested by the caller, of dealing with these problems directly, in any significant way would be to my eye nearly impossible.  I mean, what we're talking about here would be some sort of a significant military invasion or directed strikes inside of Pakistan.

Now, in a limited or narrow sense, this is happening.  And that's precisely the strategy that's being used with the Predator drones. And I think that demonstrates both the narrow capacity that we do have to hit various targets -- we're -- we have done that; it works sometimes, and it seems to be working better and better over recent months, which seems to indicate better intelligence.  And whether that's coming from the Pakistanis or whether that's being gleaned independently by U.S. operators I'm not entirely sure.

But there are -- there are big limits to the drone strategy, not least that they -- the drones continue to be a point of contention for the Pakistani people.  And they probably won't work if you start to try to use them outside of that narrow belt along the border with Afghanistan.  You're probably going to get more collateral damage and more anger from Pakistanis, and it may be harder to find your target. So there's a limited opportunity for unilateral military action by use of drones, but I wouldn't want to overstate that.

The second question had to do with supply lines for these terrorists, and I have to say that this came up again and again. There are a lot of questions in Pakistani minds, not least from some of the tribal leaders who themselves have taken up arms against some of these militant groups.  They are facing militants who are, they claim, very well armed and very well financed.

And they're wondering, where do these finances and arms come from?  And there are a wide range of conspiracy theories about where they come from, but little hard evidence that I was able to find.  The conspiracy theories range from, on the one hand, that the Pakistani military and intelligence services are themselves outfitting some of these militant groups to, on the far other end, that the Indians are outfitting these groups.

I think, having been in Karachi and listening to a number of the local law enforcement and political leaders there talk about the opportunities for fundraising and for flowing resources through the port of Karachi, through the city of Karachi, up into the militant areas, it seems to me like there's a lot of money and a lot of opportunity to bring in all kinds of arms and supplies to outfit militant organizations without having to rely on either the Pakistani army or some sort of "Indian hand" theory.  So my sense is, you know, they're undertaking all kinds of bank robberies, hostage-taking, all kinds of illegal operations are going on in Karachi in order to finance militancy.

And I would imagine that there's probably a flow of sympathetic money, perhaps from the Gulf and elsewhere, that's supporting some of these militants.

The last question about Pakistani public opinion, whether it may turn against the United States:  I think that's very possible.  And I think Pakistan's political leadership and military leadership is very sensitive to this question.  They're concerned that, as bombs continue to go off in places like Lahore and Islamabad, killing innocent civilians, that the Pakistanis, rather than supporting continued army operations in South Waziristan, will begin to lose their nerve and suggest that they do not want to fight this war, which some of them still believe is, as they say, America's war.

And for that reason, my sense is that the Pakistani army has been very reluctant to accept direct U.S. assistance on these latest operations.  Whether that assistance is intelligence, operational intelligence, or supplies, the Pakistani army wants to go it alone, and is doing that because they fear the political repercussions of looking like they're serving America's purposes.  So they're -- so obviously they're aware of this problem, and they're worried about it.

Right now, my sense is that the Pakistani public is still pretty -- pretty strongly supportive of their army in these operations, and is willing to accept a certain amount of cost in terms of their own security.  But I'm not sure how long that will last.

It's -- the security situation, at least in Islamabad, is worse than -- far worse than anything I've ever seen.

MCMAHON:  I just wanted to ask Max for a quick follow on the Afghan side of things, in terms of the arming of the Taliban there; what sort of sense you might have gotten from the U.S. military officials that you had contact with about it; your concerns about IED planting, and so forth.

BOOT:  Well, unfortunately, it's not hard to get arms or explosives in that region.  They're pretty readily available on the free market.  I think there's a general sense that the Afghan Taliban do receive some support from elements of the -- of the Pakistani government, specifically from the ISI.

But they also have lots of other base -- you know, they also have lots of other areas where they can raise funds:  of course, the opium  trade, which they tax and enable.  They do lots of extortion.  They basically rake off a huge portion of the foreign aid which is going to Afghanistan.  They do protection rackets.

They also receive funding from rich Gulf Arabs.  So there's a whole host of sources that allow them to be pretty well funded.

And one of the sobering things that, you know, I found out in Afghanistan is, you know, the accounts are that Taliban fighters are getting more than Afghan soldiers and police officers, who get paid about $110, $120 a month, whereas the Taliban are supposedly getting $300 a month.  That's something that I think we need to fix.

I mean, we certainly have more money than the Taliban, and we spend, you know, countless billions in Afghanistan every year.  So it wouldn't cost that much for the foreign community to outbid the Taliban and to reduce corruption on the Afghan government side by giving security personnel and civil servants wages that they can actually live on.  That would actually go a long way towards helping to improve confidence in the government of Afghanistan.

MCMAHON:  Okay.  Operator, do we have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes.  Our next question comes from Jim Dingman (sp) with the (In ?) World Report.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, hi.  Thank you again for your report.  I wanted to just take up on what Max just said with the payment differentials between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces.  That gets into the question of Afghanization.  And some argue that we have to expand the amount of police and Afghan troops on the ground to 130(,000), 140,000, and yet they point out that these expansion scenarios come right up against the problem of the limit of the economy of Afghanistan to sustain them.

And I wanted to know what you saw on the ground that gives you confidence that the security forces that are being trained are not just simply, you know, adopting a live-and-let-live attitude regarding the Taliban, which I've heard from soldiers coming back; high desertion rates after they're trained particularly in the police forces, et cetera.

And secondly the piece that Dexter Filkins wrote in the Times a few days ago, with his colleagues, about Hamid Karzai's brother being wrapped up in his relationship with the CIA, but he's also someone who's alleged to be one of the big kingpins in the drug trade.

So while we talk about the Taliban involvement in the drug trade, this question does raise, you know, like deja vu history scenarios from the Vietnam War.  And I'm just curious what both of you take is on that politically.

MCMAHON:  Max, do you want to start out with perhaps the army?

BOOT:  Sure, yeah.  Sure.  I think you have to differentiate between the Afghan national army and the Afghan police.

The army is a good institution.  American advisers and personnel who work closely with it give it high marks.  Afghan soldiers are becoming increasingly professional.  They are becoming increasingly professional and they are fighting hard.  The problem is, the force is way too small.  There's only about 50,000 Afghan soldiers actually out on the field.

You get to the Afghan police, and that's a different story.  A lot of the police don't even get paid regularly.  They are often co- opted by the local Taliban.  They don't have the training or the weapons to stand up to this very effective insurgency.

So we certainly need to do a lot more on both sides of the Afghan security forces.  We need to expand.  And we need to give them greater capabilities.  But what we've learned in Iraq is, the best way to expand and improve the capabilities of indigenous security forces is by partnering them with American units.

And to do that, you have to have more American units on the ground as you expand the size of the ANSF, which is going to happen over the course of the next two years under the McChrystal plan.

So I think there's a good future for the ANSF.  And eventually when they get big enough and capable enough, they can take over the bulk of the fight, just as the Iraqi security forces are currently doing in Iraq.

But there's a long way to go.  And it takes years to build up capable security forces, which is why we need more American troops in the short term, to fill the gap before the ANSF can stand up and take on the bulk of the fight.

Now, the question also referred to Ahmad Wali Karzai and his reported relationship with the CIA.  And that is something that is troubling; it's something that I think was considered okay in years passed when we were pursuing a much more narrow counterterrorist strategy and essentially in league with warlords in Afghanistan, doing whatever was necessary to try to beat back the Taliban, including making deals with some fairly unsavory characters, as Ahmad Wali Karzai is reported to be.

But if we are actually going to pursue a real counterinsurgency strategy which aims to build up the legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan and to create an effective force for governance in the provinces, I think we have to move away from some of these expedient alliances we've made in the past with warlords and drug-traffickers. And obviously, Ahmad Wali Karzai's been a symbol of that expediency, and so I think we have to figure out how to sideline him without losing some of the stability that he brings to Kandahar, where he is -- you know, where he may have all sorts of unsavory alliances, but he does keep a lid on the city itself.  And so we need to figure out a way that we can ease him out without having Kandahar City itself explode into violence.

QUESTIONER:  Well, just a follow-up question here.  You raised in your presentation the question -- both of you raised the question of the vote and how that has affected things.  And of course we know that when one pursues a guerrilla-warfare strategy, the Taliban, like classic guerrilla-warfare strategy, is attempting to impose a parallel infrastructure of government.

And I was wondering what your take -- both of your takes are on this whole question of the illegitimacy of the vote, because it raises the question of, you know, what's going on down there at the district level?  Is it a complete joke in terms of what's happening in terms of governance?  We talk about governance, need for good governance.  But are we talking about some sort of absurd satire that's going on when one reads about how the entire election process was essentially hijacked, and then -- (inaudible) -- have confidence that this will happen again?

BOOT:  Can I comment on that?

QUESTIONER:  Yeah.

MCMAHON:  Sure, go ahead.

BOOT:  Because I think, from my experience just talking to Afghans, I think Westerners are more troubled by the election process than a lot of Afghans are.

I think what troubles most Afghans is not so much how the government is chosen, but what it's doing, and the lack of effective governance, and corruption and all those other issues.

So I think if Hamid Karzai can improve his level of governance, I think that will increase his legitimacy, no matter how he was selected.  Whereas if he doesn't improve his level of governance, even if the second round of voting is absolutely clean and pristine, it won't make any difference.  So we need to focus on improving the level of governance, not only in the central government but especially in the provinces.

And it's not at all unusual that you would have in a counterinsurgency situation a government that has less than complete authority or popularity, because in fact if you had a very effective government to begin with, you wouldn't have an insurgency.  And yet it's far from impossible to improve governance levels, as we've seen most recently in Iraq, and in many other countries, in Malaya and many others, where counterinsurgency have been successful.

I mean, that's the essential challenge of all counterinsurgencies, is to improve local governments.  And it's not impossible, but it's certainly a challenge.  And I think it need more American resources rather than throwing up our hands in despair and saying, "This is impossible," and walking away from Afghanistan and handing the country to the Taliban.

MCMAHON:  So Dan, just to follow up on that, you know, assuming, as expected, Karzai emerges victorious after the runoff, what needs to happen next to change the dynamic there?

MARKEY:  Well, you know, it was interesting.  I got a number of different -- very different views about how to manage this -- whether you call it a corruption problem or in some cases a warlord problem.  Some depictions of Ahmed Wali Karzai in particular place him at the top of what looks like a Mafia-like racket, where there are a variety of networks, he basically sits on the top and extracts resources from the -- basically from throughout much of the south of Afghanistan, and allows all kinds of illegal activities to take place essentially under his watch.

And one of the questions that I didn't get a fully satisfactory answer to was, you know, what if you essentially remove him, if you lop off the top of that, if you take out the Mafia don, what do you  get next?  And there wasn't a lot of certainty there.  I mean, one model would have it that that would be a significant improvement, you could put somebody else in his place and you could gradually clean up the process.  Others were worried that if you take out the top then perhaps you'd get a level of insecurity or instability that would emerge because you'd get all kinds of fighting among those who are left over.

And then others suggested that, rather than taking him out at the top, what you need to do is actually partner with him more closely, essentially wrap your arm around him, and then gradually remove the tools of his corruption from beneath him -- sort of weaken him gradually without actually knocking him out, because you don't want to court instability in the near term.

I guess what I took out of this was, there's a great deal of variation in countercorruption strategies, although, as I think Max correctly pointed out, the fundamental legitimacy of the government is based on its ability to deliver to the people and, not least, to deliver a certain degree of security.  It's not able to do that right now.  And over the past several years the public perceptions among Afghans by most measures have become increasingly dim with respect to their own government.

So it's not just the failure of the election to be credible and to be -- avoid the worst kind of fraud.  It's the quality of governance.  And I'd say we've got a pretty deep hole that we need to dig ourselves out of.  It's -- doesn't mean that we should throw our hands up and give up and walk out, but it does mean that we probably shouldn't underestimate how long this is going to take.

And that just takes me back to one quick point that was made earlier.  A number of times in this conversation we've referred to a surge in U.S. effort.  And in the Afghan -- sorry, in the Iraqi case, a surge meant a temporary surge of troop levels and then a gradual drawdown.

I'm afraid that the public perception here in the United States is that a -- an Afghan surge would also mean a very temporary uptick and then a pretty quick return to much lower levels.  And I'm convinced that if we're -- if we're really going to be serious about this, we need to increase resources in the near term and also commit to a sustained level of resourcing over a longer term, which would mean something on the order of two to five years at the very least, in terms of -- even on the military side.

Because when it comes to building up the Afghan national security forces, as Max, I think correctly, pointed out, if we don't have significant numbers of U.S. forces that are partnering with them directly, the evidence is that they revert to not particularly effective modes of operation and that they won't become more capable of protecting and defending the Afghan people.

So we need to be there.  And if the Obama administration decides to increase its commitment to Afghanistan, I also hope that they decide to make it clear that this increased commitment is not just a 12- to 18-month one; but it's going to have to take longer than that.

QUESTIONER:  And perhaps a civilian surge, alongside the military one, if there are, in fact, civilian resources to bring in --

MARKEY:  Yeah, I did get a quick briefing on that.  And my sense is that, you know, while it's somewhat better than I had thought -- I had -- I was under the impression that a lot of what was called a civilian surge, which was going to be up to somewhere around -- I guess, around 900 civilians -- I thought that none of that was taking place.  I was corrected while in-country.  It seems like they've moved up somewhere into the 3(00) to 400 range, and they're intending to be well beyond that by the end of the year.

So they expect to get a lot of civilians in.  But, of course, that number is tiny compared to the military side.  And in some cases, it's hard to figure how the -- the civilians, the U.S. civilians, are going to be particularly effective, because the security conditions where they'd be trying to operate are going to be very difficult.

So they're trying to put in mechanisms to better coordinate the civilians and the military, so the civilians, their capacities can be leveraged and that they can work very directly with their military counterparts.

But all of this is relatively new.  It builds on a model, this PRT -- provincial reconstruction team -- model, that's been in some cases reasonably effective.  But they're trying to do this down at a more and more local level, at the district level.  And it's not yet clear how that's going to take off in the near term.  I think -- I think over time it can probably work, but it's not going to happen overnight.

MCMAHON:  Thanks.

And thanks for that question.

Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Julia Marsh, with Yomiuri Shimbun.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Thanks for doing this call.

I want to just go back to what Dan said, that we've got some really deep political problems on both fronts, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I'm wondering what that says about the work of someone like Special Representative Holbrooke, who we saw was kind of replaced by Senator Kerry to work on the election problems, and any suggestions you have for fixing some of these deep political problems.

Thanks.

MCMAHON:  Dan, do you want to start out with that one?

MARKEY:  Sure.

My understanding is that -- first of all that Kerry's visit was not planned.  In other words, there was no intention on the part of the U.S. Embassy to -- no prior intention to use him as a negotiator on this.

It just happened that he was in town at a critical moment and he stepped in.  And most of the people I talked to were very pleased with the way that he was able to carry the water of the U.S. Embassy and appeal to Karzai as a politician, rather than just a diplomat.

But I do think -- so there was no -- there was no prior intention essentially to steal Holbrooke's thunder and to replace him.  That said, I think that Holbrooke has taken a pretty hard line, in fact, a very hard line with Karzai.  And this has not paid great dividends.

It's been clear since the Obama administration came in that many of its most senior members were incredibly frustrated with Karzai. This point was not lost on Karzai.  He felt that he was being pushed away particularly with -- in comparison to the way the Bush administration had interacted with him.

And unfortunately instead of this kind of bringing Karzai around and convincing him that he'd better shape up or else, it actually seems to have pushed him away from the United States and directly into the lap of a variety of really unsavory characters: some of the former warlords, who Washington had hoped had been eliminated from Afghanistan's political scene.

He basically brought them back and used them as part of his campaign effort for this election.  And of course, the massive fraud and everything ran directly counter to what Washington would have ideally liked to see.

So the political strategy that's been pursued, this kind of hard if -- possibly tough-love approach, there hasn't been probably enough love.  And also it hasn't been -- on the other hand, it hasn't been tough enough to actually eliminate Karzai.

So we've ended up somewhere in between, where he is alienated and yet he is still a fixture at the center of Afghan politics.

So I'd say, you know, by my estimate, the political strategy over the past nine months or so has been counterproductive.  Looking ahead, I think, assuming that Karzai does stick around, that he does win the next round of elections, I'd imagine that the -- they will recalibrate and recognize that the -- they will have to work with Karzai where they can, and then I think -- and try to make him more effective, try to give him tools that will make him a more effective president, and then work around him on a variety of other issues, work with other ministers, with governors, with police chiefs and so on, to try to make Karzai into less of a bottleneck when it comes to national-level governance.

I think that that was the strategy that was articulated to me, and I think it's probably as -- about as good as we're going to get. But the past year has not been good for our political efforts in Afghanistan.

MARKEY:  Max, do you want to add anything on the -- on the politics?

BOOT:  Well, I agree with Dan that the strategy of ostracizing Karzai and criticizing him publicly has been a dismal failure.  I think we need to go back and revisit that and look at what's worked in the past with Karzai.  And I think the time when he was the most successful was when Zal Khalilzad was in Kabul as our ambassador and had a very close relationship with Karzai, had Karzai's confidence and therefore was able to push him quietly behind the scenes while being supportive in public.  I think that's the model that's been most effective in the past with Karzai, and I think that's something that we need to do in the future.  We can't afford to get into a pissing match with the elected president of Afghanistan, since, by all expectations, he will probably be reelected.

So we have to work with the guy, and I think we can work with the guy.  I mean, I don't think that he is evil, and I haven't really heard any evidence that he himself is corrupt, although there are certainly allegations against members of his family.  I think in the past he's tried to do the right thing.  I think he may still be trying to do the right thing, but he's just been very weak in having to look for sources of support in all sorts of unsavory places.

I think if we give him strong support and work with him and tutor him and mentor him -- and not just him, but also working with other cabinet members, working with provincial governors, district governors -- I think we can improve the level of governance and out-govern the Taliban.  I think that is well within our capabilities.

MARKEY:  Okay.  Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Sue Pleming with Reuters.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  This sort of follows on from the earlier political questions.  Which ministers in particular have you -- did you think the U.S. government could work with in an effective way to bypass Karzai?  And were there any particular ministries where you looked and thought, well, this just won't work?  I wonder if you could be a bit more specific.

MCMAHON:  Max, did you want to start off on that?

BOOT:  I have not looked at Afghan governance with that degree of specificity.

MCMAHON:  Okay.  Dan?

MARKEY:  Sure.  You know, in the past, the U.S. government has worked closely with the minister of Defense, Wardak; with the minister of Interior, Atmar; at various other points with the minister of Finance.  In each individual case, it's depended almost entirely on the individual at the helm more than the institution as a whole.

At present we don't know who the next set of ministers are likely to be, so the real question is not so much whether we were able to see some improvement under these different ministers.  There was some for local governance and reform, who enjoyed some success.  Long ago there was Ashraf Ghani, more recently the president candidate, who was seen as successful in his position as minister.

But each time, it's been a matter of finding somebody who seemed like a capable individual and then trying to provide him with the kinds of resources that would allow him to be more effective at the head of an institution.  So this means, assuming that this continues to be the case, that the first most important step immediately after the next round of elections, assuming that Karzai wins, or even if he doesn't, is to weigh in very forcefully with him in the process of his creation of a cabinet.

We simply can't afford to have a minister of Defense who is less than very capable.  A minister of Interior will have a hard time no matter what.  The Interior Ministry is notoriously corrupt, sprawling and full of individuals who are completely incompetent, if not worse. And so you need to have an incredibly energetic, capable person at the helm there.

Minister of Finance would also be a critical player in this.  So I think the first -- obviously, Karzai will have a lot of political debts as he emerges from the election, and he'll want to pay them off by giving people ministries; which will put him directly in conflict, probably, with the U.S. and other members of the international community who are not looking to see political henchmen installed in these roles, but instead are looking to see people who can actually get things done.

So that's going to be the next challenge.  And I think it's going to be a good measure of whether the U.S. and the international community enjoy any sort of workable leverage with Karzai, as to who we see emerging in these roles.

QUESTIONER:  Another question:  Did you get any sense when you were there that Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah might be able to pull off some power-sharing arrangement before the runoff, and that that was sort of in the cards?

MARKEY:  Yes --

QUESTIONER:  That's the sense that I've been getting in recent days, that there might be something --

MARKEY:  Yeah, there were a lot of people who wondered whether the next round of elections is really going to happen.  And in the back of their minds was, yes, there could still be a deal that would emerge.

I guess anything's possible, but the -- the sort of venomous relationship between those two is not imagined.  They really do have problems with each other now.  So their ability to bring together a negotiated settlement -- I guess I was skeptical, even though, again, I think, yeah, anything's possible.

One of the things that leads people to believe that that might happen is -- is actually Karzai's lack of confidence.  Strangely, even though he did obviously win many more votes than Abdullah Abdullah in the first round, he seems legitimately concerned, or seriously concerned about his ability to pull off a victory in the second round. I found that surprising, but when you try to peel it back, it seems he's worried that he's lost momentum, that the other opposition candidates may team up against him, and that the wider public perception that the United States is not in -- not favoring him, may  really undercut his electoral chances.  So if that lack of confidence is real, he may finally make a deal with Abdullah Abdullah.

Now, the terms of the deal probably don't include a real national unity government but something where Abdullah Abdullah would be able to select certain ministers or would be able to require that some constitutional changes be made that would offer greater power to the parliament.

And if you remember there are supposed to be parliamentary elections next year.  So if the parliament becomes more powerful, then those next-year elections become more relevant.  And maybe Abdullah Abdullah can play for the longer term.  That might be a good thing all around.  That would probably -- that kind of reform would probably benefit Afghanistan over the long run.

QUESTIONER:  Did you get a sense that Richard Holbrooke is playing an important role here or that he's really, as everyone thinks, being told by the White House to sort of keep out of it for the moment, for fear that he's going to upset Karzai?

What sort of a role do you see him playing at the moment?

MARKEY:  I think he's playing an important role in terms of strategy and policy.  Certainly in Washington, he's involved in everything.

With respect to the specific negotiations with Karzai that Kerry was involved in, I agree that I think he was seen as kind of radioactive, likely to throw Karzai into a fit and likely to make chances of some sort of positive outcome, meaning another round of elections, less likely rather than more likely.

So I think he took a back seat on that, for exactly those reasons.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

MCMAHON:  Sue, thanks.  Thanks for those questions, Sue.

Operator, next questions.

OPERATOR:  Yes.

Our next question comes from Jim Lobe with Inter Press Service.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, hi.  I had two questions.

One from just the previous question which is, when you say, Dan, that we should -- we should be able to judge better or have a better measure of what the U.S. and the international community can do, with respect to leverage over the government, does that suggest that Obama should hold off until a new government is constituted?

And the second question had to do with the regional situation or regional diplomatic situation.  I don't believe you talked, either of you, yet about renewed diplomatic efforts to get more regional powers invested in either a settlement or a strategy.

I wondered if you could address that.  And specifically with respect to Iran, if this nuclear deal doesn't happen, or relations between the U.S. and Iran otherwise worsen, to what extent can Iran act as a real problem, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan?

And to the extent that we commit more in Afghanistan, to what extent does that increase our investment in better relations with Iran?

Thanks.

BOOT:  Well, I'd be -- I'd be happy to take that.  I think -- I don't see what the point is of waiting until after the election to decide on U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, because you know, I don't -- people who say we ought to wait, I don't know what they're expecting to come out of the election.  Is it going to be suddenly an Afghanistan government that is vastly more legitimate and powerful and capable than the one they have now?  That's not going to happen.  The odds are that Karzai will win and we will face exactly the same set of problems after the election that we face today.

So I think, you know, if we're going to improve -- as I've said before, if we're going to improve the level of Afghan governance, the best way to do it is not by withholding American troops and resources but by putting more troops and resources in there so we can improve governance at all levels, from the district to the province, to the national.  And that's going to remain a huge challenge, even after the election.

So you know, I think it's a bit of a copout to say we have to wait until the election to see if there's a government we can work with, because I think we have a pretty good sense it's going to be, you know, a somewhat dysfunctional government no matter what happens in the election, but one which we can steadily improve over time.

Now, the other question was about regional powers, and in particular, Iran.  I would say, from all that I know, that the Iranian role in Afghanistan has not been helpful, just as the Iranian role in Iraq has not been helpful.  In both cases, there's evidence of Iran providing support to local insurgents.  They've done that on a much higher level in Iraq than in Afghanistan, but there's also some evidence, in particular in western Afghanistan, of Iranian complicity in -- with the Taliban.

So you know this -- I don't think we're going to -- there's -- I don't think we're going to be able to strike some grand deal with Iran in which Iran will help us out in Afghanistan.  Their interests are just vastly different from ours.  They don't want either Afghanistan or Iraq -- states on their border -- to be democratic, pro-American allies.  That's the last thing in the world they want.  They don't have an interest in that, and they're going to work against this.

But I think what we saw in Iraq is that we can defeat Iranian influence.  We can make inroads against Iranian influence.  I think  we've done a pretty successful job in Iraq, where I just came from, in containing Iran and highlighting Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, which has turned most Iraqis, including most Shi'a, against Iran.  I think we need to do something similar in Afghanistan, while keeping in mind that, of course, in Afghanistan, Iran is not the major problem; Pakistan is.

And we need to do more to work with the government of Pakistan to crack down on the Afghan Taliban, who are finding support and bases within Pakistan.

I mean, it's -- it's incomprehensible to a lot of people in Afghanistan that the Quetta shura, which is where Mullah Omar Mohammed sits and the senior Taliban leadership, is allowed to operate openly, and we're not sending Predators to attack them the way that we have sent them to attack the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda and other such groups.

So, you know, I think we need to think about either -- preferably, pressuring the government of Pakistan to do something about these groups or, if they refuse that, perhaps, in extremity, acting ourselves, because we just cannot allow these insurgents a safe sanctuary.  And that's something that causes a lot of people in Afghanistan to wonder about our level of commitment and will.

There are even conspiracy theories floating around, that perhaps we support the Taliban because we're not going after the Quetta shura. That's something I think we have to address.

MCMAHON:  And to complicate it even further, you might even have Pakistani-Iranian tensions over Baluchistan.

Dan, did you want anything on the regional situation?

MARKEY:  Yeah, actually, on exactly that point.  It was kind of interesting, when I arrived in Pakistan the Iranians had lodged a complaint about groups that are operating out of Pakistani Baluchistan and into Iran.  And you know, the language sounded startlingly reminiscent of our anger over groups that are operating out of Pakistan into Afghanistan.

So actually, when I think about Iran's involvement in the region, I guess I take a slightly different perspective than Max.  I think that, while Iran certainly has no interest in helping us out, when you add -- when you tote up their various interests, in terms of not seeing a flow of drugs come through their country, in terms of not actually seeing the Taliban resurgent because they have a deep animosity against the Taliban historically, they don't -- there's no love there -- I see a kind of a strange ambivalence on the part of Iran, where they want to, you know, sort of poke us in the eye; while at the same time, basic stability in Afghanistan would probably serve  their purposes a lot more than the kind of messiness that they have experienced over the past couple of decades.

So in some ways, I think there's room for working with the Iranians, even the worst of the Iranians, when it comes to Afghanistan, even if our interests are completely opposed in many other places.

And then, just on that first point about whether we have -- our leverage with Karzai and with Afghanistan is enhanced by not actually having the Obama administration come out with a decision on troop increase and on overall strategy, I think there is -- in a narrow way, that may be true, in that the fact that the election crisis occurred at the same time that the Obama administration was legitimately considering a wide variety of options there may have given our negotiators in Kabul a better hand to play in their negotiations. They could credibly threaten that:  Hey, if you don't do the right thing, Karzai, that's going to influence the way our administration and certainly our Congress see opportunities for working with you in the future, and you simply don't want to go there.

But I do think that that is not an argument for forthrightly coming out with a decision on the timeline that the administration has said it wants to, and that eventually we're going to be in a situation where we won't have that leverage.

And what I find difficult is figuring out what other forms of leverage we will have once we have firmly committed, assuming we do, to a longer stay in Afghanistan.  We're going to have to find more effective ways of dealing with Karzai, and I do think that it's going to be a measure of inducement and incentives and convincing him that he will benefit by working with us rather than just a kind of coercive, hit-him-over-the-head kind of approach.

MCMAHON:  Thanks.  I think we can squeeze in one more question, if you can make it brief.  Operator, do we have another question?

OPERATOR:  Yes.  If you'd like to ask another question, please press star-1.  (Pause.)

MCMAHON:  In the absence of one, I will wrap it up here.  We -- just --

OPERATOR:  It looks like we have one question.

MCMAHON:  We have one.  Okay.

OPERATOR:  We actually have two now.

MCMAHON:  All right.  Let's go with -- we can do one more. Let's fit one more, please.

OPERATOR:  All right.  Our next question comes from Chandrakant Pancholi with Overseas India Weekly.

QUESTIONER:  Oh, hi.  I have a question for Max and Daniel -- another one.  Max, do you think that we should -- it would be a wise strategy to spend our military budget, part of it, in building infrastructure, roads and schools, and giving milk and bread to children in Afghanistan?  And Daniel, about this conspiracy theory that the Indians are supplying arms to al Qaeda people, logically, Indian government would like to have a non-Talibani government, because most of the Talibani government will be against India.  So where did this theory originate?

MCMAHON:  Okay, Max, why don't you take the first part of that.

BOOT:  Well, I've never heard that theory about India backing al Qaeda.  I mean, that's a crackpot conspiracy theory.  I have no idea where it would originate.

On the other question, about whether it's better -- whether we should be spending our defense budget on milk and bread and other humanitarian projects, I think we need to do some of that, especially in areas that we pacify in districts like Nawa in the Helmand River valley, or Baraki Barak in Lowgar province, which I visited, areas where our troops went in this summer, established a good level of security, the next step in the clear, hold, and build model is you have to do some development work, provide some employment projects, especially, so that young men can make money digging ditches or doing other productive labor instead of planting IEDs and working for the Taliban.

I think you need to do some of that.  That's an important part of an integrated counterinsurgency strategy.

Now, I think you can get carried away with that.  And I think in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we have tended at times to undertake grandiose development projects based on what I call the gratitude model of counterinsurgency, which is that if you give them great stuff, like you build Kajaki Dam, providing electricity for southern Afghanistan, or build hospitals and other stuff, that they will be so grateful that they will love you and defect from the Taliban; whereas in fact the reality is they may be grateful and they may like you, but they're only going to defect from the Taliban if by doing so they're not going to get killed and their whole family wiped out.

So you have to provide a basic level of security before development projects become effective.  And unfortunately, in much of Afghanistan, or at least in southern and eastern Afghanistan, we have not provided that baseline of security, so you're not going to see large numbers of defections from the Taliban, because it's not safe to defect.  We can't protect the people who come over to our side.

So the first thing we have to do is establish ground-level security, especially in the population centers.  And once we do that, then we can bring in some development aid and increase governmental capacity and do other stuff to give a more positive reason for the people to support their government.  But security has to be the first and overriding priority.

MCMAHON:  And Dan, maybe wrap up with just

MARKEY:  Sure.  Yeah, let me be clear.  I have not heard Pakistanis claim in any quarters that there's an Indian hand behind al Qaeda.  But I have heard on many, many occasions, and increasingly so over the past year, Pakistani claims or allegations that there is Indian support not just for the groups -- the separatist groups operating in Baluchistan, in the southern parts of Pakistan, and not just for Indian meddling in Afghanistan, but increasingly for Indian support directly to militants operating in Pakistan's FATA, including Pakistani Taliban.

I do not believe that this is likely.  I think that this, in my mind, sounds like a false read of Indian behavior.

But what it is based on is a sense among many Pakistanis that these groups, these militants, have significant resources at their disposal and that they don't know where these resources are coming from.

They think these resources are beyond what the militants could get from illegal activities, from smuggling, from their involvement in the heroin business or from bank robberies and so on.  And so they think there must be someone supporting them.  And who would it be supporting them?  It would be the Indians.

Now, these allegations, I think, have been reinforced by propaganda at various points by the Pakistani military operating in the FATA, over the past five years, where in some of their operations, my sense is -- based on reporting from a variety of sources -- that the Pakistani army came in and told some of the local populations that the militants were being backed by Indians and that the militants were, in fact, traitors and that the locals should fight with the army and should fight against the militants.

And I think some of that propaganda kind of got recycled back through the Pakistani military chain and on up, to the point that now some actually, fairly respectable Pakistani military officers are themselves claiming that the Indians are involved there.

I don't think that there's a basis to these allegations again. But I do know that they're widely alleged and firmly believed, even passionately believed by a number of Pakistanis that I've talked to, easily over the past year-year-and-a-half.

MCMAHON:  Well, thanks very much.

That's going to be our concluding note for this conference call. We've covered a lot of terrain certainly from Iran to India and all that is in between, especially the focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan today.

I want to thank CFR Senior Fellows Max Boot and Daniel Markey for their fresh analysis of the situation.  And for all the callers who have called in, on the show, that's a wrap on this CFR conference call.

Thanks, everyone.

 

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