Afghanistan: Endless War?
Panelists look at America's longest war and examine strategies for how to bring it to an end.
This is Session II of The Future of the Middle East symposium. This event is made possible by the generous support of the Hauser Foundation.
RUBIN: Good morning. Welcome to this second session of today’s meeting on—what is it called—the Future of the Middle East, the Middle East Symposium. I’m Barney Rubin. You know—you have the names of everyone on the panel. Before I go—I just wanted to mention that Alyssa Ayres is currently in the middle of a book tour for her book, Our Time Has Come. What’s the subtitle?
AYERS: How India is Making its Place in the World.
AYERS: Thank you. (Laughter.)
RUBIN: And Carlotta Gall is far from being in the middle of a book tour but had a book a few years ago which is still quite relevant to the discussions that we’ll be having on this panel called, The Wrong Enemy. And what is the subtitle?
GALL: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014.
RUBIN: Oh, you don’t mention the wrong enemy—or you don’t mention the right enemy in the title.
RUBIN: OK. OK. (Laughs.) And Cameron is much too busy.
MUNTER: Well, no, I just sign too many nondisclosure agreements. (Laughter.)
RUBIN: That’s true, yeah. OK, so first—in discussing this, first we all agree that I would make a little comment at the beginning about the regional framing of this discussion because, as I said, this is a symposium—it’s entitled Symposium on the Middle East. But we are not talking about the Middle East. It seems that more accurately it would be called a Symposium on the CENTCOM area of operations. And in fact, part of the region that we will be talking about does not even appear on the map which is on the back, that is India, because India is not part of the CENTCOM area of operations. Parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan are also cut off.
And of course, part of the framing of the way the United States went into Afghanistan in 2001 had to do with the Middle East. Namely, the United States was attacked by an Arab-led organization whose leadership was in Afghanistan. But in fact, those Arabs left rather quickly. And we are now in an area that is between Central Asia, South Asia, has increasing economic links to China, and is much more—and which terrorism issue is embedded within a much broader set of geopolitical considerations that we—that have changed a great deal since we originally went in. And we have had difficulty adjusting our framing of the problem to those rapidly changing situations, in which two big phenomena are the rapid economic growth of China and India, and their effect on the surrounding region.
So we discussed—there are a number of issues we want to get to. But first, the last panel was about Iran. So I wanted to use that as an entry point and ask Alyssa, whose work is mainly on India, to start off by commenting on whether the Trump administration’s so-called South Asia policy for Afghanistan might be on a collision course with its policy toward Iran.
AYERS: There’s a one-word answer to that, which is yes. Let me give a 30 second background on what the Trump South Asia strategy is, because I’m not sure everybody has tracked this closely. In August of 2017, the president gave a speech announcing a new strategy for how we would pursue a success in Afghanistan. One of the things the president said, that had never really been said as explicitly at the presidential level before—this had been said at lower levels of the U.S. government—was that the United States would look to India for help and would welcome further Indian assistance on development and trade with Afghanistan. And of course, India has been one of Afghanistan’s largest development partners over the past decade and a half. It’s the number five bilateral donor, if you want to rank it that way. So this was not necessarily a new development, but the fact that the president said this was a little bit new.
What the president also said was that the United States would be looking for Pakistan to crackdown further on terrorism. We are now seeing the effects of this strategy being put in place. The administration has now suspended security assistance to Pakistan, while continuing to encourage deeper Indian economic activity and support to Afghanistan. Well, how can India do that? India doesn’t have overland access and supply chains—supply lines into Afghanistan directly, because Pakistan does not allow India access to Afghanistan through its territory. India has developed a relationship—it has had a long-standing relationship with Iran and has developed a logistics cooperation agreement with Iran in developing the Chabahar Port. We don’t have our maps here, but it’s sort of right on the Persian Gulf.
In any case, the first—
RUBIN: No, it’s not—the whole point is it’s not on the Persian Gulf.
RUBIN: It’s on the Arabian Sea.
AYERS: On the Arabian Sea, sorry. But you can see it on the map. In any case, the first major wheat shipment has successfully gone through this Chabahar Port. India is the country that helped develop the ring road in Afghanistan that allows overland road links to this port in Iran. So this really does create an alternative supply link corridor, an alternative to the supply chain links through Pakistan.
Now, the question you asked was whether we’re on a collision course with the South Asia strategy and our Iran strategy. If the JCPOA blows up, there is a big challenge then with what happens next. If certain forms of sanctions are imposed, will any logistics or support traveling through Iran be subject to that? I think there are a lot of questions that suddenly come up from thinking about what could happen with the U.S.-Iran strategy. And we’re not often talking as much about how that will impact what we are seeking to accomplish in Afghanistan.
RUBIN: And of course, right now there’s a major—there’s an agreement among India, Iran, Afghanistan, and Japan to enlarge the capacity of the port at Chabahar so that it can serve this role. And for that, they need to get tenders from companies and so on, who are reluctant to put them forward.
Now, of course, the origin of—well, the reason that the administration is trying to increase the role of Iran in Afghanistan is partially to enlarge Afghanistan’s freedom of maneuver with respect to Pakistan, on which it has been extraordinarily dependent because of its dependence as a landlocked country on the outlet to the Port of Karachi. And that has created a very complex situation for the United States and for Afghanistan with respect to Pakistan.
The title of this panel is The Endless War, which I guess is challenging us to come up with ways that it might not be endless. But I wonder if I could turn to the two of you, both of you have lived in, reported from, done a lot of work on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cameron, of course, was the ambassador to Pakistan. To just say a few words about how the current strategy might affect Pakistan behavior, what affect that might have on Afghanistan. And I’ll just start. I’ll just from—with Carlotta and then to Cameron.
GALL: I wrote a whole book about how Pakistan was driving the war in Afghanistan, supporting the Taliban. I reported that for 10 years and I saw it firsthand. It was always something that was deniable, but it’s very much there and it’s still going on. And I am one of the people who believe that you have to change Pakistan before you can make peace in Afghanistan. And if you’re going to make peace with the Taliban, you actually have to make peace with Pakistan first. So it’s critical to the future of Afghanistan.
They’re still supporting and driving the war. They’re still providing safe haven to the Taliban. And what we’ve seen in the last few years is they’re pushing to the north using the ethnic minorities, who’ve always been traditionally in Iran’s field of relations rather than Pakistan. Pakistan has been encouraging links and commanders—Taliban commanders in the north to be more and more active. So that is—if anything, it shows Pakistan is not giving up. It’s actually accelerating its commitment to a Taliban victory in Afghanistan.
So I think you have to—you have to, I think, continue what is—what is going on, supporting the Afghan government. But you have to address Pakistan’s aims for the region. And I think you have to tackle the problem of the military control of foreign policy and security policy in Pakistan. There’s a civilian government, but the military calls the shots. So you have to address Pakistan which, as Cameron knows, is a much bigger country than Afghanistan in population and size, and much more problematic. It has nuclear weapons and so on.
I might hand it over to you.
RUBIN: Well, let me just—Carlotta, you mentioned the—of course, the relationship of the internal politics of Pakistan to its foreign policy, in particular the military—the military control of security policy. I just wanted to note here that we were discussing before, there’s a very important movement in Pakistan that has just started, that hasn’t gotten much attention here, the so-called PTM, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, which is a grassroots—some people call it the Pashtun spring—a nonviolent movement of Pashtuns against the military domination of their area. Now, I don’t—let’s not—I hope we’ll have time to get back to that later. But first—
MUNTER: Yeah. Let’s turn to that then, because I think it’s an important part of what I’ll lead to. Carlotta will be surprised when I say I agree with everything she says. We have not always agreed on everything in the past. But it is true, A, that without some sort of better understanding of Pakistan, you’re not going to get past the impasse—which, I suppose, might be bearable for a long time—that we have in Afghanistan. So two quick points. One is, because we have chosen—and looking less at the internal dynamics and more at the American policy and approach. Because we’ve chosen to see Pakistan through the lens of the counterterrorism effort in Afghanistan, it has made us look, rightly, at Pakistan’s bad behavior, especially in the tribal areas, the bad behavior of the ISI. Those of you who have read Steve Coll’s new book will read this in exhaustive detail. And it’s very well-documented.
But what that’s done is it’s distorted, I believe for America, the ability to try to do what I think Carlotta—I assume, Carlotta and certainly I would call for, which is a broader aperture, a broader understanding of Pakistan and what is possible in Pakistan, and how to encourage change there. And rather, it’s been much more tactical, how do we try to cut off those people who are trying to attack, say, American or NATO troops in Afghanistan? Once you get to that tactical level, once the main link of American commitment, say, to Afghanistan is defined in, I’ll use the term, military terms—tactical, military terms, it becomes much more difficult to engage. People like Richard Holbrooke—Barney worked for Richard, et cetera—tried, and for a lot of reasons, with mixed success, to have more of a holistic approach to Pakistan. And I think when we hear about the democracy movements there, the Pashtun movement, there may be other ways of going about it.
So first, the cry by the president, you know, to say we are so frustrated we’re going to cut off aid to Pakistan, is probably not wrong. But one would like to see the second half of this, rather than policy by frustration, you’d like to say therefor we’re going to commit ourselves to understanding why it is that these people have been so difficult, why it is that we failed every time, and through ups and downs, since 1948, that we’ve had these narratives that have been dysfunctional with Pakistan. Not to give up on that and simply walk away and say we’re going to cut off assistance, because then you’re not going to get to the solution. You do have to approach Pakistan.
The second point that I would add is that you don’t do this without having some sort of attention to China. And China is now seen rightly, to an extent, by some Pakistanis as the focus of how they might—they being both the civilian government, the business community, and the military in Pakistan—how they might move forward, having not been able to address some of the more fundamental reforms, whether it’s fiscal reform or land reform or other kinds of issues that might make Pakistan a more vibrant country that has more ties and attractiveness to its Indian neighbors, et cetera. They haven’t done that.
They’re now looking to China, and the Chinese investment in the Chinese-Pakistan economic corridor as a possible way of getting ahead. Whether or not that’s possible, I would imagine—again, from an American policy point of view—it would be wise to get out of the rut of a bilateral relationship with Pakistan, how do we deal with Pakistan, or Pakistan seen merely through the counterterrorism lens from Afghanistan, and try to mix it into the discussion with have with the Chinese about whether there is a strategic vision that American and China, believe it or not, might share in the region, that could then have a salutary effect on reform in Pakistan as well.
RUBIN: Well, thanks. Thank you for bringing up China. As I mentioned, the growth of China and also of India in the past 15 years, since we’ve been there, has really changed the strategic environments in ways we have not fully taken into account, in particular in our relations with Pakistan, as you—I agree with you, we cannot deal with Pakistan solely bilaterally, as if we were Pakistan’s most important partner, which we very well may not be anymore. You mentioned possible convergence of interest being U.S. and China. However, the administration has also developed another—a concept which I do not claim to fully understand, but the concept of the Indo-Pacific, which is related to its South Asia policy in Afghanistan.
And I wonder, Alyssa, if you could a little bit about how India sees the changing environment, the role of China. India and China, according to their officials—for instance, after the strategic dialogue last year said there was remarkable convergence on certain issues between India and China on Afghanistan. What’s the balance between some common interests and competition in China-India relations, with respect to Afghanistan?
AYERS: I think there’s quite a bit of both competition as well as areas of cooperation. The cooperation tends to be more in a multilateral space. The competition tends to be when you look at some of the security questions. The Indo-Pacific concept is still, I think, being formulated. The most detailed description we have had about this framework for thinking about the region was perhaps one of his only foreign policy speeches, a speech that former Secretary of State Tillerson delivered last November, I think it was, in D.C.
RUBIN: He was not former secretary of state at the time.
AYERS: At the time. (Laughter.) At the time he was the secretary of state. And he gave this speech, which I found fascinating. He gave a speech that really detailed the importance of partnering more deeply with India in this larger space and thinking of this larger geography. When you talk about the Indo-Pacific, it really puts the focus on the maritime space as opposed to thinking about just the Asia-Pacific, or as opposed to thinking about just the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region. That kind of suggests there’s two pieces quashed together. But when you talk about an Indo-Pacific, which is a term that the Japanese use, the Australians use, this term is in use in India as well, when you talk about an Indo-Pacific, it kind of unites a much larger geographic framework. So I think that was the idea.
The Tillerson speech spoke quite a bit about China’s Belt and Road investments, and that India and the United States needed to work together more deeply to develop alternative financing, alternative types of investment structures that would be transparent and that wouldn’t lead necessarily to debt traps or, what he called in his speech, predatory economics. So I think that gives sort of one hook for what we think the administration will be further developing with this. Now, of course, the issue with China and its investments in Pakistan now, with the China-Pakistan economic corridor, this is now, I think, declared a $62 billion set of investments. I’m not sure if all materialize but, hey, if half materialize this is a huge amount of infrastructure investment. It’s also not clear when some of those loans become due, what that will mean for Pakistan’s solvency, what that will mean for larger questions along these lines. So these are the kinds of issues that I imagine are a part of the Indo-Pacific framework, should it become more fully developed. But we haven’t heard yet that much about what else the Indo-Pacific is supposed to do and supposed to encompass.
RUBIN: Right. Well, of course, the Chinese Belt and Road initiative is in many respects similar, even in nomenclature, to the New Silk Road policy that we had declared when Cameron and I were in the government, which was an attempt to strengthen Afghanistan economically through regional connectivity. The difference is, we didn’t put any money behind it, and the Chinese are putting tens of billions of dollars behind it. And if we don’t—I’ll just comment—if we don’t put money behind this Indo-Pacific concept, it will go the way of the New Silk Road.
AYERS: Same story.
RUBIN: Yes. Now, one point—you know, again, the panel is titled Endless War, as if we were going to talk about a political settlement of the war or a military victory or how to end it. It may seem that we’re not talking about that, but actually we are because the war in Afghanistan is not only—or perhaps not even mainly a fight between the Afghan government and the Taliban, neither of which could finance or organize a war without tremendous external support. And part of the difficulty of ending a war there is the large number of external actors and multiple interests that are involved. And we’ve brought in, as we discussed, China, India, the United States, Iran, haven’t mentioned Russia yet, which is, again, asserting itself more.
Another problem—another challenge, let’s put it, is that aside the multiplicity of actors, we, the United States, have a multiplicity of goals. And in particular, the original strategic reason for increasing our involvement in Afghanistan from $100 million of humanitarian assistance to $100 billion a year of military operations and state building, was counterterrorism. At the same time, there’s always a tension between—or, there can be a tension between the counterterrorism objectives and larger diplomatic goals, or diplomatic, economic, geoeconomic goals, which as you see can be quite complex in this region. I wanted to ask both the two of you, in particular, with your experience in Pakistan. But let me start with Cameron. In your experience as ambassador and elsewhere, how successful have we been in embedding counterterrorism policy within a larger strategic framework?
MUNTER: Not very, I don’t think. We’ve tried to have our efforts to get Pakistan—there are words that people use such as change their calculus, make them act differently. But we’ve done it in such a way that we’ve tried to put it on the context of change their calculus, so they will fight the people we want them to fight. If, I would argue, you want to get a very troubled and difficult country to do that, you have to spend an enormous amount of time trying to figure out what the goals of that country are. And I’m not sure we’ve done a great job of that. Now, that may sound a little bit touchy-feely. Five years, 10 years-worth of, you know, sitting down and figuring out what the different groups are.
Are there, for example, divisions within the Pakistani military between the traditionalists who seen India as the existential threat, and those in the officer corps who may have a better understanding of the threat that jihadis pose to the secular state? Or is there hope for the civilian leadership in Pakistan to pay taxes? I mean, an idea that if I ever do write a book I want to put in is that basically Pakistan what happens when the Confederates win the Civil War. Pakistan is a country that splits off from another country, has a slave-based cotton economy, and has a military cast that runs things.
So, you know, are there in this caricature, the sociology of Pakistan, are there people with whom you can work to try to reach America’s stated goals of peace, prosperity, et cetera? I don’t think we ever made the effort to articulate what those broader goals were. But rather, we were led by our need to fight a counterterrorism fight and were unable to do so. One of the nice things that may be happening now is with Pakistan fatigue in Washington, it may take a little bit of the spotlight off of the region and allow people to come up with longer-term, more deeper efforts to try to understand both the long-term interests of the United States based on what’s possible in countries like Pakistan, and in addition Afghanistan.
RUBIN: Carlotta, let me—I’ll ask you to comment on that too. But in particular, maybe you can comment on that counterterrorism itself is multidimensional, because the boundaries between terrorism and other types of violent activity are not clear, and there are many different groups with differing goals. In fact, one of the challenges we have had in Pakistan is that the Pakistani state, the ISI in particular, does have an active and sometimes effective counterterrorism wing, as well as having an active and sometimes effective pro-terrorism wing, which is Directorate S, the title of Steve’s book. And there are different parts of our intelligence agencies, depending on whom they count on for—depending on what their tasks are, therefore, in my experience, have different—very different attitudes toward their Pakistani counterparts. I wonder if you could comment on the contradictions of counterterrorism in Pakistan.
GALL: Yeah. Well, they’re divided. And one thing that came—I came across last year, I was in Afghanistan researching the drone strike that killed the leader of the Taliban, Akhtar Sheikh Mansour. And he—apparently at his funeral in Quetta, in Pakistan, a group of bearded men, clearly Pakistani special forces, turned up in tears, gave a lot of money, and expressed great condolences. And suggested that apparently there had been a betrayal. It’s—
RUBIN: You mean by Pakistan.
GALL: By Pakistan. So it suggests that within the Pakistani counterterrorism operations, there are pro-U.S. groups that are trying to ring down people like the head of the Taliban, but also a strong element who are very supportive and working with the Taliban. It’s just one of the many stories you come across that you can’t independently verify, but I think give you a glimpse of the divisions. And Steve Coll looks at this in his recent book, that the American effort to work with the Pakistanis was partly to be able to find people who are sympathetic to American’s counterterrorism aims, while fully well knowing that the Pakistani main drift of the Directorate S, which was the Afghan arm of their intelligence service, was supporting the Taliban, and working against America’s interests in Afghanistan.
So they are very divided. And that’s been clear to a lot of us. The other thing that’s very clear, which all Pakistanis in the region and Afghans will tell you, is the Pakistanis use a good Taliban and a bad Taliban description for the people that they support and the people that they’re fighting. So that the bad Taliban are the ones that fight against the Pakistani state. The good Taliban are the ones that Pakistan supports to go and fight in Afghanistan against American and Afghan forces, and the international community. That still remains very much a division.
And what’s most interesting is this Pashtun movement we heard about—we talked about a little earlier. It’s a grassroots, peaceful, local uprising, led by some students. It’s growing in force. It’s bringing in huge rallies of thousands—tens of thousands of people everywhere they’re going. It’s been going since January. It really is a Pashtun awakening moment, or an uprising. It’s peaceful. It’s constitutional. But they’re asking for their human rights. They’re asking for detained people to be released. They’re asking for land mines to be raised, and so on.
But one thing they’re also very strong on is an end to the Pakistani military campaign of supporting good Taliban and fighting bad Taliban, because they’re saying that the Pashtun public are getting killed in this very, very dirty war. And the stories that are coming out in this movement are phenomenal, and things that I didn’t even know, where people are talking about the torture, the detentions, the disappearances of their people, led by the military. But they’re very strong on we’ve got to end support of the—of the Taliban who are fighting in Afghanistan.
So it’s a fascinating moment. I think it’s a moment for the international community to show support to the Pashtun people, because it’s a peaceful democratic movement. And I think it’s the one chink that, perhaps, could start a shift in the Pakistani military attitude to their own people that they’ve been using and abusing for so long.
RUBIN: Well, if I—we’ll turn to questions first. But I—of course, the panel is supposed to be about Afghanistan. And I purposely broadened the aperture to talk about the region so that—to appreciate the context. But we should say a few words about Afghanistan itself before turning to the questions, which I expect to be about Afghanistan.
So let me—I guess I should ask Carlotta this, because you were the New York Times correspondent in Afghanistan for many years. And I often had lunch at your house at that time. (Laughter.) How do you—how do you evaluate—there are very radical different evaluations of the internal situation in Afghanistan. On the one hand, there is the narrative of tremendous progress. And on the other hand, there is the narrative of we’ve accomplished nothing. There’s a narrative of national unity and there’s a narrative of the national—you know, divisions in the National Unity Government, ethnic conflict, and so on. Could you—I know we don’t have very much time, but could you just say a few words about that? Maybe if the other two of you want to comment on it, then we’ll do that and then we’ll turn to questions.
GALL: It’s a very rough time. But I remember after 9/11 talking to—way back in 2001 or ’2—saying I felt that the American intervention was the best thing that had happened in Afghanistan in the 20 years then that I’d been following. And I still believe that. I think, you know, the Taliban was a terrible time. The Russian invasion, which I covered as a student, was the most appalling scorched-earth campaign. The rise of militancy in the 1990s and the civil war was also dreadful. And so I still think that the American intervention has been good for Afghanistan. It’s been—it’s been bloody. It’s been very tough. But it has given them a chance. And a lot of them are embracing that chance. A lot of them—you know, kids who are just coming out of school, who joined us and have now got degrees, who are independent journalists who are going on to take Ph.D.’s, I mean it’s just phenomenal to see that—the opportunity that’s been offered to a lot of Afghans. And they’re grabbing it and they’re taking it further.
I think since 2014, with the drawdown of troops, it’s been very shaky. The divisions politically are very difficult. Dr. Abdullah, who’s the CEO or the so-called prime minister, who has to—who had to share power with Ashraf Ghani, the president, he’s—it’s interesting, he worked throughout the jihad against the Russians, against the Taliban. He says that this period of sharing power has been the hardest of his life. So, you know, sharing power in Afghanistan is very difficult. (Laughs.) They’ve had a tremendous attack from the Pakistani-led Taliban the last few years. You’ve probably seen in the news the dreadful bombings in Kabul. But they’re holding the line, I feel.
And I think they can. I think it’s going to continue to be incredibly difficult. There’s a lot of Afghans who are leaving the country. They’re voting with their feet. But I think they can—they do have a vision. They do have a future. They do want a normal life. And interestingly, the Pashtuns in the south, in Helmand, one of the worst provinces, have started a peaceful movement matching the Pakistani movement. That’s an amazing sign, because that’s a sign that they’re rejecting the Taliban and violence, and they want peaceful, you know, democratic progress. So I’m still very hopeful, but I think it’s still very tough. Afghanistan is incredibly tough. It’s a cruel place. It’s—but I think it’s worth sticking with because the alternative is unconscionable. And I think I see that enough Afghans are embracing a better way. And I think that’s the future.
RUBIN: OK. Cameron.
MUNTER: And just I would hope that if that is true—and I think Carlotta knows this a lot better than a lot of us who have not been—I’ve not been in Afghanistan in the last four or five years. It would be a shame if that pattern—let’s say it’s a kind of stasis or whatever that is—if that weren’t matched by another effort to try to get at the Pakistan issue, so that the hold—if you hold the line in Afghanistan, you might come to a broader answer to bigger questions. But simply to turn your back on Pakistan and hold the line, to me seems to be sterile.
AYERS: Thirty seconds. I’m very worried that if we over-militarize what we think the challenge is in Afghanistan, we will lose the opportunity to have a much more invigorated and active diplomatic strategy. I don’t know what our diplomatic strategy is today. I haven’t heard that articulated from the administration. I learned from you that the Istanbul process is now meeting once a year, instead of its earlier more highly active level of engagement with many countries, different working groups, a lot of engagement. We need to have some way that our diplomacy takes the foreground, and the military aspect is there to try to provide a stable environment for a diplomatic strategy.
RUBIN: Well, thank you. I won’t—it’s a ministerial once a year. There are other meetings.
AYERS: OK. (Laughter.)
RUBIN: But first, it’s time. Let me invite members to join the conversation by asking questions. Here are the usual instructions. Well, in this case, reminder that this meeting is on the record, and I presume it’s being webcast as well—or, at least, it will be recorded for the website. I will call on you. Then wait for the microphone. Speak directly into it. Very important: Stand, state your name and affiliation, and then ask a concise question. And of course, I would encourage you to ask questions on all the subjects that you probably expected to hear about, like prospects of a political settlement in Afghanistan, whether we should stay there or not, and so on. So, please.
Yes, in the rear. Craig.
Q: Craig Charney, Charney Research.
Thanks, Barney. There are a couple of things I’m curious about. One is this: China has recently proposed extending the China-Pakistan economic core to Afghanistan. Does this offer some prospects, perhaps, of laying the economic foundations for peace? On the more pessimistic side—this is for Carlotta—there’s long been a faction of the Pakistan military aligned with the jihadis which has tried to be—act as a spoiler whenever there’s a move for peace, most notably, for example, with the Mumbai attack and the assassinations—assassination of Benazir Bhutto and many others. Do they not have an effective veto over moves away from the jihadi nexus?
RUBIN: Well, that was two questions.
Q: It was. (Laughter.)
RUBIN: Well, Cameron, do you want to talk about the one?
MUNTER: Just very briefly on the first one. The answer is yes. I think that if China is not only seeing this as a technical move to expand the Belt and Road initiative, but also engages and can, we’d like to think, like-minded people like the Americans into a diplomatic solution, that might be the basis of what I think Alyssa’s calling for. That is, very concrete notions how you link Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the diplomatic framework that might be necessary for us. So I can say: Go for it. And I hope that the Americans can be supportive. And Americans and other friends of Afghanistan and Pakistan can be supportive.
RUBIN: I’d just say a word about that, and then come back to you, Carlotta, about the spoiler question. The problem of peace and stability in Afghanistan has many different aspects. Part of it, which is the one we focus on the most, is trying to end the fighting in the short run, get to a ceasefire and so on, which is complex enough. But that involves Pakistan, the Taliban, Afghan government, the United States. But another equally if not more difficult problem would be sustaining and implementing any such agreement in a country with such a high level of poverty and external dependence. And it’s—China has been trying to use its influence to influence the former, but in particular the investments that China and India may be making in the region will be absolutely necessary for sustaining any peace process in Afghanistan—which is going to be a long process.
GALL: In very short, yes. I think the Pakistani military is well-capable of pushing back and of stopping any movement. I’m sort of waiting for them to start assassinating people on this Pashtun movement or at least divide it. They’re brilliant at that. They’ve interfered in every political—every election that I’ve followed. And now they openly admit to that. Musharraf admitted to effecting—you know, controlling the elections when he was in power. So I think that’s evident—self-evident. What happens, though, eventually in some countries is they do get rid of their military. So that’s what I think is inevitable as Pakistan progresses and develops and wants more economic decisions. And so I think it’s coming, but I don’t think it’ll be easy and don’t think it’ll be swift.
RUBIN: OK. Yes, Pat.
Q: Pat Rosenfield, the Rockefeller Archive Center.
I would like to pick up on Ambassador Munter’s point about touchy-feely issues, because what’s really refreshing about this excellent panel is the willingness to talk about a few touchy-feely issues, such as grassroots movements. And I wanted to ask about the strength of the NGO communities, which have been so strong in Afghanistan, and we know is strong in India and Pakistan, and the role that they will pay as a coordinated peace movement in the region. Not just an Arab Spring, but really in terms of development and sustainable development, sustaining any peace initiatives but also prompting them. And they’re also linked with U.S. NGOs and global NGOs. So I’m just wondering to hear a little bit more about what might be the third force movement for peace in this region.
GALL: I would say 100 percent the NGOs are important. And you just have to look at the Cabinet in Afghanistan to realize that many of the best ministers came up through the NGO community. And right from way back when they were just refugees in Pakistan or wherever. So critically important. But actually, I also have a personal connection here. My sister is an NGO worker and my brother-in-law, in Afghanistan. And they have been telling me recently how difficult it is. It’s now so dangerous in Kabul to drive around. It’s increasingly difficult for NGOs to work in the provinces, because the Taliban is there but also very ruthless ISIS elements and so on. We’ve seen even the International Red Cross having an assassination in one of their own centers in Mazar-e-Sharif. So they may begin to pull out. So it’s actually a very difficult time, but I would say it’s proof that NGOs are critically important to the development of the country and we should still keep supporting them or helping them do their work because I think they’re a vital element of the—of the country.
RUBIN: Yeah, Cameron.
MUNTER: For those—for those who know Anatol Lieven’s book from 2010 called “Pakistan: A Hard Country,” it’s got the theme basically that, you know, you have a very weak government and a very strong society, and by strong society it’s not necessarily a nice society in all cases but it’s a strong set of—a web of relationships, some of which are the nonprofit sector, some of which are religious, some of which are ethnic, but that keep things going.
I would argue that in the fashioning of a new diplomatic approach that we might be wise, a country that has our own very strong notions of civil society, to play that card a little more actively rather than just having, you know, as they—you know, Clemenceau said, you know, war is too important to be left to the generals.
So I would say, as a recovering diplomat, diplomacy is too important to be left to the diplomats, right—that the diplomats ought to be even more those people in business, those people at universities, those people in NGOs. A link of the United States engagement and part of a broader policy ought to have an element of that, and I think that’s what you're hinting at. It’s certainly what I think Carlotta believes in, too.
RUBIN: For the sake of transparency, I should mention that since Cameron and I have left government we have both been engaged in that nongovernmental diplomatic activity. So this could be seen as a fundraising pitch. (Laughter.) But Alyssa, do you want to add anything to that?
RUBIN: OK. Yes. Yes, sir. There.
Q: Steven Brackman (sp) of Bank of America and Merrill Lynch.
I want to ask you a bit more about the Indo-Pacific economic motives for China to be involved there. If they have loans that go for 16 percent or even more, it may never be paid back by some countries. What is the long-term vision that China has for the Indo-Pacific, also specifically for Afghanistan and Pakistan? What does it look like, say, 25 years from now when some of those loans are not paid back? Thank you.
RUBIN: Thank you. Well, first, just to clarify, Indo-Pacific is an American term which China has not adopted, and perhaps I will just say one thing because I actually discussed this question of loans not being paid back with the Chinese. I’m trying to remember if this is one of the meetings where you were present or not, Cam.
At any rate, the Chinese do not know that the loans are not going to be paid back and they—however, they prefer to keep Pakistan in a state of dependency by being in debt to them than to simply write them off or treat them as grants. So they feel that it gives them more influence to have—to still have those loans on the books. But I wonder if you wanted to comment on any of that. Do you want to say anything about the Indo-Pacific or—
MUNTER: And only that Sri Lanka is held up as the—
MUNTER: —as the example that people use that you could have the kind of repo man problem of China giving these loans and the inability of these countries with their weak fiscal structures to pay them back. Yeah, it’s a real danger. But, Barney, I’ve actually never heard the Chinese say what they apparently told you.
AYRES: The Sri Lanka example—the outcome of Sri Lanka’s inability to meet their interest payments on the loans to build the port at Hambantota—the result of this was that essentially they have traded off this debt to the—to the Chinese for the Chinese to have an equity stake in the management of that port now for the next 99 years.
So many people look at this and say, well, what is the gambit here—is this a kind of way to eventually be able to negotiate greater equity outposts across this kind of larger maritime space. I don't know what will happen in Pakistan. Pakistan is a long-standing friend and partner of China. So this relationship, in a sense, you could almost argue that it predated or was an initial test case of the Belt and Road—I mean, the Karakoram Highway, as an example.
So I don’t exactly know what the final strategy is for the Chinese with the China-Pakistan economic corridor other than to say that I think they see that as potentially another means through which they could better link their own western provinces to ocean access. It would require some more difficult overland logistics. But that is something that we have heard is a priority for them.
Q: Masuda Sultan, Insight Group.
Given that I have the opportunity to ask the experts on Afghanistan who are up there, the Taliban recently published an open letter to the American people, which I’m sure you all know about. My Afghan friends always say that Pakistan essentially controls the Taliban, which at this point, if they’re asking to speak to the U.S. directly, what impediments do you see to that and why isn’t that happening, or is it happening?
RUBIN: Well, I just—
GALL: It’s for you. Yeah.
RUBIN: I can answer that question. Well, not only did the Taliban write an open letter to the American people but, as you may know, I answered it, and I wrote an open letter to the Taliban as well in response, and then they responded to that.
The question of—here’s how I evaluate the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban. Pakistan does not control the Taliban, you know, like a robot or something, and if you look at Pakistan, they have very little control over a lot of things in Pakistan, including Pakistanis, let alone Afghans.
But what they can do is they can—they can stop the Afghan Taliban from doing things that they believe to be against the interests of Pakistan. OK. So the way one Taliban interlocutor described it, not to me but to an Afghan government interlocutor, is he said the Pakistanis have us in a box. As long as we stay in the box we can do whatever we want. But the moment we get out of the box, then they arrest or kill us.
Now, so they can write that letter. It doesn’t have to be dictated to them by, you know, the ISI and, in fact, you know, this phenomenon of the younger generation in Afghanistan is not limited to the government side. You also find this younger generation on the Taliban side—people who are more educated, media savvy, and so on. The difficulty is if you engage—when you engage with them, can they actually implement something if Pakistan doesn’t want them to do it, and the answer is probably no.
So it’s a—on the other hand, Pakistan can’t make them do something that they really don’t want to do so it’s—which makes it a very complex problem. As far as your question about the obstacle to—there’s an obstacle now about the modalities—the involvement with the United States and Afghan government in the negotiations. That was your question. The Afghan government-U.S. position is Taliban should talk to the Afghan government. The Taliban position is they want to talk to the United States.
Well, this is—this is a standard problem in every case of an insurgency and with international powers involved. It was the same, you know—and there are certain standard ways of solving it if you want to solve it. That is, you have everybody in the room at the same time. You don’t put labels. You know, you have a mediator go around and get people’s ideas until they find a way around it.
On the other hand, if you don’t really want to solve it, there’s no way to do it. So, I mean, at this point, I’m not sure that there is sufficient will or commitment on anyone’s part except possibly the Afghan government, I would say—but they don’t have the capacity to solve this by themselves—to overcome these obstacles. I can see a way to do it. But, on the other hand, all we would be talking about is having a first meeting, which is a long way from ending this endless war.
Q: Ara Karavori (ph), U.S. Central Command.
I’d like to ask the panel if you could comment on the opportunity both in the security sector and the economic sector for the Central Asian states in their role in Afghanistan.
RUBIN: That's a very good question. I’m not sure we have exactly the right panel to answer it but—(laughter).
AYRES: I haven’t worked on this.
RUBIN: Well, I can say a few words on it. First, just to put it, the general framework is Afghanistan is a landlocked country. To get there, you have to go through Pakistan, Iran, or Central Asia. To get to Central Asia, you have to go through Russia or China. OK. Now, the border with Central Asia was closed during the Soviet—was closed during the Soviet period, at least in one direction.
At this point, there’s a very major change going on in Central Asia right now, which I’m sure you are aware of—I’ll just mention it for others—which is the change of leadership in Uzbekistan has led to a very rapid reorientation of Uzbekistan’s foreign and security policy, which is extremely important because Uzbekistan was developed as the logistical node of Central Asia under the Soviet Union and that hardware is still in place.
The logistical links between Central Asia and Afghanistan primarily run through Uzbekistan. The railroad that China has started from the Pacific Coast through Central Asia with a branch line down to northern Afghanistan runs through Uzbekistan because that’s where the railhead is. So the economic potential is very strong and because, I would say, the political inhibitions and downsides of dealing with Central Asia are less than dealing with Iran or Pakistan, the Afghan government is actively trying to open those.
However, it doesn’t present as much of an opportunity for the United States because we can’t get to Central Asia except through Russia. In 2011, when Pakistan suspended our land transit because of various incidents that occurred, including the capture—the killing of Osama bin Laden—that we managed to supply our forces, one, through the air routes but also through the development of the Northern Distribution Network.
But that relied on Russian railroads, which we have now put under sanctions—not just Russia generally but the Russian railroads that we used for that network. I’m not saying the sanctions are wrong. There are very good reasons for doing that. But it means that we—it would be impossible for us to use them in the same way.
So it’s hard for—to use Central Asia—to some extent now they’re talking about going through the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan, and so on. That’s a route which is potentially there, but I think the logistics of it are extremely underdeveloped at this time. But I know that there’s a lot of interest and excitement in Afghanistan about the new possibilities in Central Asia, in particular because of the changes in Uzbekistan.
MUNTER: One comment on that. If, in fact, we imagine that things don’t change, that Afghanistan remains stable but that proper reforms are not carried out, it’s probably not realistic to think that the Belt and Road Initiative won’t have enormous impact on Central Asia.
So at the very least, even if there’s not an active today/tomorrow impact from Central Asia or role for Central Asia, the changing background in Central Asia would mean that a not frozen but a kind of a stable stasis in Afghanistan would in 10 years, 15 years be affected by what the Chinese are going to do in Central Asia. So those of you in CENTCOM, I hope you keep your eye on it.
RUBIN: If I may permit myself one other remark, also I want to mention—say just a word about the Russian aspect. I’ve been involved in a number of track IIs with Russians recently as well as years with Chinese and Iranians and others about Afghanistan. Russian interest in Afghanistan is focused on northern Afghanistan and the border with Central Asia.
They now cite the return of Islamic State fighters of Central Asian origin from Syria to northern Afghanistan or from Pakistan to northern Afghanistan as a major security threat that we are not adequately dealing with, that the government of Afghanistan cannot deal with, and they even accuse us, rather bizarrely, of supporting some of these Islamic State groups, although recently we killed the leadership of the group that we were supposedly supporting.
But, however, but Russia has become much more active and in part is trying to use that, the alleged threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, to persuade the Central Asian states to renew their security relations with Russia as well. That’s just a very—a big headline about another complex part of this game.
GALL: I think—I think there is some militant activity, though, up there.
RUBIN: Oh, yeah.
GALL: It’s always played down and I think it’s actually very serious, and you see the madrassas in Pakistan are still full of people from Central Asia and from northern Afghanistan and they’re trained up, they’re sent back, and they become very active. And so there’s definitely still an Islamist agenda to expand into Central Asia, and China, of course, has got its own problem in Xinjiang in the western—and those people were trained in Pakistan.
So it’s actually still a place of foment and the Afghan Taliban that I’ve talked to always talk about the mineral deposits, which they know China is interested in, whether it’s the copper in Afghanistan or the various mines in Central Asia, and they have an aim on it as well. And it might be all talk, but I think it’s definitely from all sides seen as an area of potential interest and expansion. So I think you’re going to see it heating up in the next decade or so, definitely.
RUBIN: Mmm hmm. Yes, please.
Q: Dick McCormack, CSIS.
There have been media reports that the Russians are actually providing military support weapons to the Taliban. Are these reports accurate?
RUBIN: Well, I think you should address your question to the representatives of CENTCOM. (Laughter.) Would be in a better position to answer it except that they can’t.
GALL: We think it is true. I mean, there are reporters who’ve actually had Taliban admit to it. The military, in fact, in Afghanistan when you ask them they say—they fudge it. But off the record, they’ll admit that it is going on, and it’s exactly as Barney said. It’s the Russians saying, we’ve got to support the Taliban to fight ISIS, and ISIS is up there but it’s not really a huge operation. So it’s seen as Russia’s attempt to disrupt or engage the Taliban just to have a stake or, you know, a gang in the fight.
But they—I think they are helping and we—I uncovered, as well, Russia was helping through Iran in western Afghanistan, having growing relations with the Taliban. So I think it is happening. You have to talk to Russia to actually know why.
RUBIN: Well, I have talked to Russia and they say it’s all nonsense. But let me just—just to clarify, sometimes it is summarized as Russia is supporting the Taliban. That gives a false impression, to quote Oscar Wilde about pretending to be a dentist when you aren’t one. Russia is not supporting—Russia and Iran may be providing some assistance to the Taliban. They’re not supporting the Taliban against the Afghan government because they want them to replace the Afghan government.
They do not. They are giving some tactical assistance to Taliban and other commanders in certain regions of the country, one, they say, because of their border security. An interesting statement I had from one Russian who’s close to—is involved with the military is that they do have relations with—direct relations with commanders in northern Afghanistan. But they say they’re not Taliban, they’re warlords, and we’re doing it for border security.
Second, they might want Afghanistan to be stable but they don’t want an American military base in Afghanistan to be stable. So their question is, is the stability of Afghanistan for the sake of the region or is it so the United States can have an outpost to project its power into the region. Until that is clarified, we won’t get an end to the endless war.
I guess we have time for one more question so let me make sure—OK, Ali, please.
Q: Hi. I wish I was there. (Laughter.) This is Ali—Ali Mohammad (sp). I used to work for Afghan government on counterterrorism issues.
I’ll make—it’s a comment. I used to—we used to talk with Central Asians and one of the things that Central Asians were telling us that for God’s sake, deal with the—this threat of ISIS because the Russians are every day knocking your doors, that their tanks are coming—we need to expand into Central Asia—just, you know, an excuse to get there to Central Asia.
And, of course, on the issue of Taliban, yeah, the BBC report that recently came out on—in October 2017 was that there was a Talib commander in Helmand having Dragunov sniper in his back. So when we—it’s like, Dragunov, you have to have proper training to use a Dragunov sniper. It’s not like AK-47.
So yeah, the Russians and the Iranians they’re jointly training the Taliban in Zahedan, in Mashhad. They have bases and everything. But to clarify that, the Russian agenda is to show to the Americans or to the Central Asians that things are bad here and we need to expand into Central Asia in order to counter China and the Indian and—Indians because of the economic projects in Central Asia. So this is—this is something that we were told by the—by our counterparts. Yeah. Thank you.
RUBIN: OK. Well, thank you. As you said, that’s a comment. I’ll just offer anyone here who would like to make any brief response to that or closing comments at all.
GALL: I would just agree. I mean, I think—
RUBIN: OK. Thank you. Well, in that case, what am I supposed to say? Oh, I invite everyone to join the coffee reception outside and the third—(applause)—the third session will begin promptly at 11:30 and it is on “U.S. Interests in the Central Region: Is Washington Overinvested?”
Thank you. (Applause.)