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Obama's Afghanistan-Pakistan Strategy: 'A Reasonable First Step'

Interviewee: Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 30, 2009

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Stephen Biddle, an expert on defense and counter-insurgency policy, says President Obama's decision to add four thousand troops to train Afghan troops is "a reasonable first step," dictated in part by the military's concern about military resources in Iraq. He says Obama's emphasis on defeating al-Qaeda is an effort to keep the U.S. public and military focused on the ultimate objective accomplished by subduing Taliban forces in Afghanistan--reducing the potentially-grave threat to neighboring Pakistan's stability. Biddle says: "Our primary influence over what happens in Pakistan is arguably by preventing Afghanistan from collapsing and becoming a haven for the destabilization of Pakistan, where al-Qaeda is currently operating."

President Obama gave his long-awaited report last Friday on how his administration plans to attack the troubling situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  What was your impression?

I think it's a reasonable first step in Afghanistan. I say this because I think it's more useful to see it as a first step than as a final once-and-for-all strategy. In part, this is because there continues to be important other demands on those troops and resources in Iraq; therefore there are limits on the rate at which one can safely shift these resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. Obama has so far committed seventeen thousand new troops for combat and other activities to Afghanistan, as well as four thousand for training Afghan troops. So I think what we're looking at now is an initial step, limited, among other things, by the demands for resources in Iraq. The two commands will reevaluate the situation over time and may very well end up deciding that they need further reinforcements on the Afghan side as those become available.

What struck me was the emphasis in the president's Afghan speech on how we were fighting al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has its headquarters more or less in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Why do you think there was so much emphasis on al-Qaeda and not on the Taliban, with whom the United States and Afghan troops are fighting?

I would not interpret the president's comments to mean that our military activities are going to be limited to al-Qaeda or even disproportionately directed at al-Qaeda, per se. The way I interpret what the president said was that the ultimate purpose of being involved in Afghanistan against an enemy, which is mostly Taliban, is because that effort is necessary in order to pursue the more important, underlying objective of reducing al-Qaeda's global threat to the United States. I think what he's trying to do is keep the public focused, and for that matter, keep the military focused on the ultimate objective.

The reason we muck around with the Taliban is because if we don't, we're afraid that failure in Afghanistan will enable al-Qaeda … and especially make it more likely that al-Qaeda and its allies could topple the government of Pakistan and get access to Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

How closely do the Taliban and al-Qaeda coordinate, do you think?

Only partially, at best. There are a number of different actors involved in South Asia that are kind of loosely affiliated with one another, including the former Taliban government of Afghanistan, based primarily now in Quetta, in the province of Balochistan in Pakistan, still led by Mullah Omar. There is the Haqqani father and son terrorist network located in North Waziristan. And they include, of course, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization. Connections between those groups are imperfect. One of the reasons to be relatively sanguine about the prospects for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan is the difficulties these groups have in coordinating their activities. The issue with respect to the focus on al-Qaeda has to do with the difference between intermediate and ultimate objectives.

Talk first about these objectives.

In the intermediate term, a lot of our military activities are focused on Taliban organizations that are not literally al-Qaeda. They coordinate imperfectly with al-Qaeda; they are sympathetic to al-Qaeda in a variety of ways, but they are not al-Qaeda literally and their cooperation with al-Qaeda is incomplete and imperfect. The trouble is that most Americans, for example, don't understand why we care so much about the Taliban or about Afghanistan per se. They're interested in Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda because those are the people that attacked us on 9/11 and that's understandable and appropriate. The reason we muck around with the Taliban is because if we don't, we're afraid that failure in Afghanistan will enable al-Qaeda, strengthen it, create bases for it, and especially make it more likely that al-Qaeda and its allies could topple the government of Pakistan and get access to Pakistan's nuclear weapons. That's all one or two steps removed from roadside bombings and ambushes on the road between Kabul and Kandahar. I think the president is trying to show the link between sending brigades to Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda is not, and preventing another 9/11 by al-Qaeda.

It must be very frustrating to the American military knowing the al-Qaeda leaders, including their Pakistani collaborators, are there in Pakistan and our troops aren't supposed to go in there because of pressure from the Pakistani public opinion. Do you think this can be turned around?

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

I think there are some hopeful signs but the main point with respect to Pakistan in the near term is that we have very limited direct influence. Because we are politically so unpopular in Pakistan, there are real limits on what we can do directly to try and stabilize the Pakistani government or to fight al-Qaeda in its Pakistani base camps. That goes back to the question on why all the emphasis on al-Qaeda in the president's announced strategy. I think the reason for that is that our primary influence over what happens in Pakistan is arguably by preventing Afghanistan from collapsing and becoming a haven for the destabilization of Pakistan, where al-Qaeda is currently operating. Afghanistan is important, but indirectly so. It is important much less for its own sake than for its effect on something else, i.e. stability in Pakistan.

You said there were some hopeful signs that we could turn things around in Pakistan. What did you mean?

Our ability to destroy al-Qaeda or the Taliban or even really seriously undermine their effectiveness by killing their leadership has real limits to it.

The basis for optimism would be that as Islamist terrorist groups within Pakistan ramp up their violence against the Pakistani government, the Pakistani government is likely to focus on them more. The central problem in Pakistan right now is that the Pakistani government is more worried about India than they are about al-Qaeda. And it's very difficult for us to persuade the Pakistani government to shift its attention from the Indian threat that they worry about to the Islamist threat within their own borders that they worry less about but we worry more about. If Islamist terror groups within Pakistan get stronger and become a bigger and bigger threat to the Pakistani government, there is some chance that this will focus the minds of the Pakistani government.

It's not clear to me how much cooperation the United States gets from the Pakistan military because we do continue these drone attacks and they do seem to succeed in killing al-Qaeda operatives. Is there an unofficial understanding?

Many people have reported that the Pakistani government is less opposed to these attacks in private than they are in public. But whatever one thinks of that, it's obvious that these attacks are unpopular in Pakistan. And the central interest for the United States in the region is that the Pakistani government not collapse and lose control of its nuclear arsenal in a way that might allow al-Qaeda to get a hold of one of these weapons. The effect of these air strikes on Pakistani public opinion and the stability of the Pakistani government is absolutely a central consideration here. I don't think that many people believe that the right number of drone attacks is zero. The real issue is how many more than zero is the right number, and I think you can make a strong argument that the current number is too many. Our ability to destroy al-Qaeda or the Taliban or even really seriously undermine their effectiveness by killing their leadership has real limits to it. Both the Taliban and al-Qaeda know they're under attack, and they know they're under pressure so they develop a bench of second-string and third-string leaders who can step in if the first string gets killed.

Today you had this attack on this police training center in Lahore. Many people got killed. Pakistani forces eventually took it back. Is this the kind of thing that would help turn the tide? This is clearly a Taliban or al-Qaeda-style operation, right?

It's one of these situations where there are good and bad signs. Obviously, it's a bad sign that Islamist terrorist groups are expanding their activities and violence within Pakistan. But if you're eventually going to change the focus of the Pakistani government, that requires the Pakistanis themselves making the decision that they're more threatened by internal Islamists than they are by external enemies like India. Generally speaking, Islamist terror groups have tended to overplay their hand in ways that have ultimately helped us a lot. Al-Qaeda in Iraq's excessive brutality proved to be a tremendous resource in our campaign in Iraq. It would not be untypical of Islamist terror activities if they overplayed their hand in Pakistan, too, and galvanized a strong response by the Pakistani government. The question is will the Pakistani government respond to this quickly enough? Or will Islamist violence expand so much faster than their response that their government is undermined in the process?

Obama and some experts have talked about the possibility--thinking of the example in Iraq---of wooing elements of the Taliban over to the government's side. Do you think there's an analogous situation here?

You have to change the underlying military dynamics in the country before you can make very much headway with appealing to individual warlords.

The literal analogy to Iraq isn't going to work because the way that process of wooing the enemy over to our side worked in Iraq required the Sunnis' prior defeat at the hands of the Shiites. The surge had a lot to do with it too, but the Sunni defeat was necessary to cause it. The problem in Afghanistan at the moment is that no major elements of the Taliban have been militarily defeated either by indigenous opponents within Afghanistan or anybody else. One way it might happen in Afghanistan is if we manage to peel off particular warlord factions within the polyglot, disunified militia that is the Taliban. That's kind of a leadership-oriented approach. You convince the warlord at the top to change sides. The other method is if we can wean Taliban foot soldiers away, with or without a decision by their leaders. The argument there is that there are lots of low-ranking Taliban foot soldiers within Afghanistan who are doing this essentially for the money that really don't care about the ideologies. If we can change their incentives, there's no reason why they're going to be committed unto death for the Taliban, per se.

There are opportunities and serious problems associated with both of those approaches. On weaning- the-foot-soldiers approach, in principle, we could outbid the Taliban and pay them more to provide local security than the Taliban is providing them to plant roadside bombs. But the trouble is that if this happens without serious government security present, the Taliban are going to return and cut off the hands of people who take that money. The Taliban are going to retaliate and counterattack and probably very brutally. So to persuade poor soldiers that they should side with us and not with them, we also have to persuade them that they'll survive the exercise. This kind of approach will work best if there is a general increase in government security forces to provide protection for people realigning and at the moment, we don't have that.

The problem with the leaders approach is that right now the Taliban thinks it's going to win. And if the Taliban and its constituent warlord parts think they're going to win, they're not going to switch sides and go with the loser, because that means they'll be swinging at the end of the noose when the Taliban finally takes over. You have to change the underlying military dynamics in the country before you can make very much headway with appealing to individual warlords.

These four thousand American troops that are going into Afghanistan are supposed to help train Afghan military. What is the impression you have of the Afghan military from your visits there?

I think they're tactically pretty proficient, and especially their will to fight is very strong. This was a big, big problem in the early years in Iraq, and it's much less of a problem in Afghanistan. The biggest problem in Afghanistan has to do with whether the government is going to have the revenue stream to support a military that's big enough to succeed. If we build an Afghan security force that's big enough to beat the Taliban, will it also be too big for the Afghan government to pay? Right now, that's not such a big problem. Afghans are a lot cheaper than Americans. We will obviously pay the salaries of Afghan security forces as long as there's a war to be waged. The problem is what if it works? If it works, and this large Afghan security force produces an end to the war and peace in Afghanistan, are we going to be willing to continue to pay $2-3 billion a year to support this enormous security apparatus in an Afghanistan that is now at peace? I think that's much more problematic.

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