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Uncertainty About New U.S. Policy Toward Pakistan, Afghanistan

Interviewee: Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 3, 2009

Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on U.S. defense policy, says President Barack Obama's recent speech on Afghanistan sketches out "what many people feel is the best available strategy." But Cordesman says it will take many months to know how the concepts outlined by Obama--on engaging Pakistan, training Afghan troops, and reorganizing aid--will be executed, how much they'll cost and "whether we could get Afghan and Pakistani support and whether our allies will at least provide more advisers and aid money in lieu of more troops." He also is dubious that Iran is able or willing to do much to help.

When we last talked in September, you said the United States was "winning the war that is unpopular in Iraq, but losing the war that is popular in Afghanistan." Have things changed?

What's been very clear from what President Obama as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense have been saying is this: Even though they haven't used the term "losing," they do say there is  a "stalemate" or "we're not winning." That is an acknowledgement that you are losing. What's changed, if anything, is that Americans now understand the stakes in Afghanistan are awfully big. And while the president's speeches have made the war somewhat more popular, at this moment, many polls show more Americans fail to support the war than support it.  So, is it still a popular war? Probably not.

The president last Friday announced a new strategy for Afghanistan that included a couple of notable things: sending four thousand U.S. troops to help train the Afghan army, and making the point that "more moderate" Taliban would be welcomed with open arms. You've been an advocate for some time now of intensive training of the Afghan army. Is this a good thing and is it enough?

The president announced a set of concepts, and they're good concepts and many other people support them. It's important to know that he was in some ways rushed into making decisions because you have to act now if you're going to deal with the 2009 military season in Afghanistan this summer and fall. Out of what he announced, one of the key points had nothing to do with troop training, it was a new focus on diplomacy, particularly regarding Pakistan. Pakistan, if not the key element in the war, is certainly equal to Afghanistan in importance.  It will take a combination of diplomacy, aid, and U.S. pressure to bring Pakistan into the war. And what he described for Afghanistan was a policy where there had to be real pressure put on the Afghan government to do its share.

"Pakistan, if not the key element in the war, is certainly equal to Afghanistan in importance. It will take a combination of diplomacy, aid, and U.S. pressure to bring Pakistan into the war."

When you talk about training Afghan troops, it's important to understand the context. It wasn't simply to have more trainers and more Afghan troops. It was to link them to a strategy where we would not only engage Taliban and other jihadists but there'd be enough forces eventually--United States, allied and Afghan--to provide the people who live in forward areas in the countryside with security. That would allow us to bring in economic advisers, strengthen the military component of the provincial reconstruction teams, and provide economic development and jobs. This is what people in counterinsurgency call  a "win-hold-build strategy." These are all concepts. Even when we have specifics--like the seventeen thousand additional combat forces Obama announced earlier--nobody said exactly where they're going, how many allied forces will be added.

As to the four thousand trainers, there are reports that many of these will be divided up into small teams that are embedded in Afghan combat units, a technique that worked inside Iraq, but these combat units will also shift their missions--as I said earlier--from simply defeating the enemy to providing local security. The president talked in very vague general terms about the Afghan police, which is one of the high-risk areas. He talked about narcotics changes we're trying to make. He talked about reorganization of the aid effort under Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton, who has since pointed out that aid programs run by the United States, the United Nations, and allied and nongovernment groups have been incompetent, corrupt, and almost totally wasteful. So far there has been talk about "reorganization" but with no specifics.

So how would you sum up? Is this a major development or is this a holding action?

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

I don't think either one. The president has outlined what many people feel is the best available strategy. Now a significant number of the people who worked on these policy-planning exercises had real questions about whether any combination of these techniques would work. Others believe they would. We're several months away from going from the president's remarks to knowing how they'll be executed, when they'll be executed, how much they'll cost, whether we could get Afghan and Pakistani support, and whether our allies will at least provide more advisers and aid money in lieu of more troops.

Let's talk a bit about the Pakistanis. You have a pretty good idea where the al-Qaeda leadership is holed up in Pakistan. You know approximately where the Taliban leadership is. But the United States has its hands tied to a great extent because we can't really send even Special Forces in at this time because of the lack of support for the Americans in Pakistan.

We need to be very careful here. We don't have enough data to send in Special Forces teams. It's easy to talk about this, but we need to remember Special Forces are small, elite human groups. If they run into trouble, and they are surrounded by enemies, as they would be, it's easy to hope for a Rambo- like success, but in the real world, what we might get is a lot of casualties. The problem we face, the one you focused on, a lack of Pakistani support, is very real. It's compounded by a lot of problems: political divisions within the Pakistani government; major political parties which are personality and ego driven, often caring more about themselves than the country; the Pakistani army, which has ties to the Taliban, manipulating them as a way of securing Pakistan's borders and avoiding any debate over the future of the Durand Line [the nineteenth-century border set by Britain separating Afghanistan and British India, a line opposed traditionally by Afghanistan]. You have Islamists in the Pakistan military.

"The whole idea that this [dialogue with Iran] is suddenly going to lead to a "Grand Bargain," that if we could solve all of our problems in Afghanistan, we'd solve our problems with Iran, is a dangerous illusion."

People often focus on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but we helped build up the Islamist extremists in Pakistan. We persuaded the Saudis to build them up. And when Pakistanis in general feel that Afghanistan is not their war, that we pushed it on them, in all fairness, we need to remember that's exactly what we did. Pakistanis have felt at least until this last year that this was not their war. What changed if anything is that these groups have now killed a Pakistani prime minister [Benazir Bhutto], have attacked civilian targets, and have begun to be a major problem inside Pakistan. That may allow us to change public opinion.

A number of Iranian experts who've been advocating a closer working relationship between the United States and Iran were pleased that Iran was invited to the [March 31 meeting] in The Hague. The Iranians talked there about trying to help stop the drug trade. Do you expect much cooperation from the Iranians?

We need to be very very careful. It's very useful to explore this, but Iran is caught up in other issues--nuclear programs, asymmetric forces in the Persian Gulf, its position on Israel, tensions with the Arab world, its search for influence in the region. There may well be areas of common ground. The dialogue that is conducted on the basis of preserving our interest while finding out how much we could share with Iran makes a lot of sense. The whole idea that this is suddenly going to lead to a "grand bargain," that if we could solve  all of our problems in Afghanistan, we'd solve our problems with Iran, is a dangerous illusion. We can hope for progress. We may well get it. It will be slow and incremental. It isn't going to change the outcome of the war. No matter what happens with narcotics in the near term, it is at best a sideshow compared to the issues that really matter.

Of course, the Afghans are having their presidential elections in the summer. What is your view of the Afghan government? Many people have accused it of corruption and being centered only on Kabul.

We need to be very careful. There are really serious problems. We did not properly support the Afghan civil service, bring it into the government we constructed. We put far too much emphasis on how governments are chosen rather than the quality of government. There are good provincial leaders. There are effective ministries or elements of effective ministries in the Afghan government. There are Afghan aid organizations which deserve to be reinforced. But the fact is that Afghan capabilities fall far far short of what's needed to help provide security, provide the level of integrity which Afghans demand. It's much better to say that there's a long way to go than that the situation is universally hopeless.

When do you think we'll begin to see how things are going? By the end of the summer?

I hope that's true, but it may well be the late fall or early 2010. We may see a change not in the sense that we're winning, but that we have achieved stalemate. That may be possible this summer. But setting deadlines there is simply unrealistic.

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