Gideon Rose celebrates the winners of this year’s Arthur Ross Book Award: Carter Malkasian, Mary Elise Sarotte, and Nicole Perlroth. The program will include an award ceremony and conversation with Malkasian on the twenty-year American war in Afghanistan.
ROSE: Hi, everybody, and welcome to the latest 19th Annual Arthur Ross Book Award ceremony. My name is Gideon Rose. I am the Mary and David Boies distinguished fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy in the David Rockefeller Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. I say all those names because it’s not just that the institution honors the names, like the Council honoring these authors tonight; it’s that the names honor the institution.
We’re here tonight for the Arthur Ross Book Award presentation. Arthur was a man who loved books. Cicero had a line in a letter: Si hortum con bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil (sic)—“if you have books and a garden, you don’t need anything else.” It’s a loose translation. (Laughter.) And Arthur spent his life doing many things, but among them were celebrating books and celebrating gardens. This is a man who gave New York not just major parts of Central Park that are wonderful, not just wonderful gardens at Barnard and elsewhere, but who has given numerous book awards. This is not the only. Arthur, his books—his love of books came from his mother, Estelle. And all his life he was not just a reader, but a celebrater of books.
And so this award is special. We’re here with Janet Ross, representing the family and Arthur. And it’s—it really is something that is special because of who Arthur was as well as the books that get the award that bear his name.
The times are not great times. And American foreign policy over the last couple of decades, during the nineteen years that the Arthur Ross Book Award has been in existence, has not really been a time of distinction in American strategic or geopolitical efforts. And it’s kind of interesting because the work has been good even if the—the written work has been good even if the practice has not been. And this year in particular, we have I would think it’s fair to say the strongest pool of semifinalists and finalists we’ve ever had. There are always great books to give a prize to. All the winners are really good and they’ve always been really good. But the bench strength of the ones that the jury was selecting from and the ones that we were sending to the jury to select from was better this year than ever before. And it’s a real conundrum in some sense. It’s heartening and it’s really wonderful to think that there is a strong, serious community of people writing books. Whether anybody reads them, who knows? But certainly, the people producing the work are—there are enough of them and they’re doing good stuff in ways that is as good as if not better than it ever has been. And that’s the world that we celebrate tonight.
The award was endowed by Arthur in 2001 to honor nonfiction works in English or translation that bring forth new information that changes the understanding of events or problems, develop analytical approaches that offer insight into critical issues, or introduce ideas that help resolve foreign policy problems. This year, the finalists were extraordinary.
Meenakshi Ahamed for A Matter Of Trust: India-U.S. Relations from Truman to Trump, one of the first serious studies of U.S. relations with the subcontinent, bringing it up into the visibility of the strategic community in a way that will be of lasting value.
Rush Doshi’s The Long Game: China's Grand Strategy to Displace American Order. If you want to be really scary and you don’t read Nicole’s book, read Rush’s book. You’ll be scared the bejesus out of that one too.
Fiona Hill for There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century, a remarkable book about her experiences not just in the Trump administration but in growing up and how deindustrialization has led to populism and malign consequences across the world. Fascinating book.
Colin Kahl and Thomas Wright for Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order. It’s remarkable that almost an instant book on an ongoing series of events like the pandemic could still be so good and to have managed to produce something of lasting value on such a short term.
Walter Pincus for Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. It’s a wonderful and depressing book about one of the less-edifying chapters in our history.
And our three award winners tonight: Nicole Perlroth’s This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race; Mary Sarotte for Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate; and Carter Malkasian for The American War in Afghanistan: A History.
I really want to thank all the jurors who, as always, gave their hearts and souls, read these books, discussed them, and approached their task with the moral and intellectual seriousness with its deserves. Lisa Anderson, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Sumit Ganguly, Michelle Gavin, Paul Golob, Calvin Sims, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Sue Mi Terry, all of them join me in congratulating the winners and all those nominated. And really, it’s one of the highlights of our year. You would think getting a series of doorstops in the mail to while away your summer with would not really be something you would look forward to, but these days it actually is because it’s a respite from the horrors that are in the paper every day and it’s an opportunity to journey into wonderful new intellectual lands with incredible guides, the authors that we have with us.
So the bronze winner tonight is Nicole Perlroth, whose book This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race is a fascinating and terrifying study of cybersecurity and the problems and dangers with it. And we have Nicole with us remotely. Cue for Nicole. Nicole there. Good to see you. Congratulations. We will give you your bronze medal remotely. And I want everybody to join me in congratulating Nicole. (Applause.)
PERLROTH: Thank you so much, Gideon. Thank you so much to the Council on Foreign Relations and to the jurors. So many of the semifinalists are my heroes, like Fiona Hill, and I think the gold and silver winners were very well-deserved and couldn’t be more relevant this year.
I spent ten years covering cybersecurity issues for the New York Times, and to the New York Times’ credit they would put several of my stories on the front page and gave them great play. But this is such a beast of a technical subject matter I knew at some point it was going to have to take someone who is non-technical like myself to grab a reader by the hand and walk them into the world that is the underground market for cyberweapons and where this is all headed.
And one thing I would just say is that if cybersecurity was a technical problem, then the cybersecurity industry would have solved it twenty-five years ago. But it is not a technical problem. It is in some regards—it is really a whole-of-society problem. It’s a leadership problem. It’s a resource problem. It’s a culture problem. It’s an education problem.
So I’m just thrilled that you are sort of elevating this book with this audience because I think it’s so important that we don’t all get cyber fatigue. And actually, I think the threat level has never been higher. And so thank you so much for giving this subject matter the attention it deserves.
ROSE: Thank you for writing this book. It’s not just that you grabbed us by the hand; you grab the reader by the lapel and shout in their face until they wake up and see the danger. And I guess on that, you know, all these books speak not just to the past, but to the present in very deep ways. And you know, you wrote this before the war in Ukraine, and yet Ukraine-Russian cyber issues are crucial to the book. A lengthy part discusses it. So tell us how what has happened this year in the war has affected or changed how you thought of or borne out what you thought about the subject.
PERLROTH: Well, I think the sharpest thing—the sharpest sentence I wrote in this book was a—was a throwaway line where I said “The Ukrainians are a resilient bunch,” and they have proved me right every single day.
I think there is a dangerous misdiagnosis that cyber has not played any role in Russia’s war on Ukraine, and I think it’s important because I think cyber tends to get lost in the headlines and it will never be able to compete with just the sheer horror of what we’ve seen on the ground from Russian soldiers and the attacks on critical infrastructure, et cetera. But cyber has played a role.
You know, in the early days of the Russian invasion, they did infiltrate Ukrainian substations, power stations. They did try to wipe out and paralyze Ukrainian banks and government ministries with wiper malware. They did hack Viasat, this internet satellite broadband company, ostensibly in an effort to disconnect Ukrainians’ connection to the internet. And we did declassify a tool that we’re calling the Swiss army knife of critical infrastructure hacking tools that appears to be designed by someone—no one has made any formal attribution to the Russia yet—but appears to have been designed to specifically hack and take out pipelines.
And the magic, the thing that I really didn’t expect was the level of public-private collaboration that we would see at every step of the way. So when Russia hacked Ukrainian power stations, a private company called ESET and Ukraine’s own Cyber Defense Agency, together with our own, rooted it out of Ukrainian power systems. When Russia hacked Viasat, well, in walked Elon Musk, however you think of him right now, walked in with Starlink and they kept Ukrainians’ connection to the internet alive, and arguably has kept Ukraine at the forefront of the information war. And we’ve seen this at every step. There’s been this sort of almost miraculous public-private collaboration on cyber defense.
So in the book I start with Ukraine and I say: Pay close attention to what Russia is doing in Ukraine because this is Russia’s test kitchen for its cyber offense. And now what I didn’t expect is that, actually, Ukraine has become the petri dish for what a true Western collaboration between public/private-sector cyber defense can look like, and we will be much better off if we take these lessons close to heart and we apply them to the next conflict, say, in Taiwan or somewhere on the horizon where we’re not looking.
ROSE: I’m going to press you on that point because that’s a great point and I was actually going to raise that exact thing, which is you start with the aftermath of the 2019 devastating attack on Ukraine. Was being hit by Russian cyberattacks early, before the war as it were or in the middle of the ongoing longer war, a blessing in disguise because it allowed the Ukrainians to see what was coming and realize they had to prepare for the even bigger one that might come? And were they able to—has cyber played less of a role now in this conflict than it might have because the Ukrainians understood that they needed to defend against it because of what happened in 2019?
PERLROTH: Yes, it was actually a 2017 attack. I just didn’t go to Ukraine until 2019 to survey the damage and interview those who picked up those attacks.
But you’re right. You know, Ukraine has had its biggest adversary breathing down its neck on its border. It’s countries like Ukraine that have that, like Japan and South Korea, that are showing us what cyber defense should look like. They are not connecting their elections, for example, to the internet. They are making some of their most critical infrastructure as hard to reach from the internet as possible.
And the message I wanted to send in the book is that we are not acting like that. We in the United States still act like we’re an island protected by two oceans from our adversaries when those oceans don’t exist on the internet. And so, yes, you know, Ukraine is much better prepared because of the 2017 NotPetya attacks and a number of other attacks on their power systems, on their elections in 2014. The problem is that we in the West, and specifically in the United States, weren’t paying close enough attention to some of those attacks as early as we should have.
And so you know, we are still in some ways blissfully unaware. But I will say that I, again, have been really impressed by the response among American companies to—their awareness and their readiness and willingness to put their shields up because of this conflict. I think, you know, the more we tighten the screws on Putin with sanctions, with the ban of Russian gas and oil, the more likely he is to respond directly to the West. And I am watching everything he is saying about nuclear threats very carefully, as we all are, but I think despite the bluster on nuclear threats I still think the most likely avenue or a response is a cyberattack on our critical infrastructure. And I think it could be a very powerful political tool when you think about it.
You know, when we had the attack on Colonial Pipeline, we saw what happened. People were panicked. They were panic buying at the pump. They were in explicably putting fuel into large plastic bags. (Laughs.) And I think right now you can imagine what the aftermath of a significant attack on a major pipeline network in Germany, Italy, or even the United States, what that would do for our appetite to continue to support Ukraine in this war. So I’m watching that very closely. And I think the biggest threat right now, cyber-wise, is just cyber fatigue. That we inevitably let our shields down at some point.
ROSE: So you wrote this book pretty clearly to scare people. Do you think they’re scared yet?
PERLROTH: I mean, I’ll—sometimes I’ll be on the street and someone will walk up to me and say: You scared the bejesus out of me. And sometimes those people on the street are board members of major critical infrastructure operations. So I think, you know, mission accomplished.
But it was more about—you know, there’s a lot of cyber alarmists out there. And there was a reason why I called the book, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, not “this is how it ends.” Because I still think there is room for optimism. There is a lot that we could do to limit our attack surface, to make smarter decisions, to be less vulnerable. But right now, you know, the tragedy remains that the United States is now the most targeted nation on Earth—maybe second now to Ukraine, I haven’t checked the numbers recently—but the most targeted nation in Earth when it comes to significant cyberattacks.
And in many ways, we are also among the most vulnerable—more vulnerable than Ukraine, because we have been automating our system, our economy, our health care, our hospital networks, our grid, our homes, our cars, at a rate that no other country has really competed with us on. And we’ve been doing so without this imminent threat in our minds. And so, yes, the goal was really to scare everyone into rethinking whether digital connectivity at all costs is the right way to go.
ROSE: The Internet of Things that will come and bite you in the ass. (Laughter.) Bronze Medal, the Arthur Ross Book Award to Nicole Perlroth for This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. (Applause.)
PERLROTH: Thank you so much. Thank you.
ROSE: Thank you so much. Now, Mary, would you come up, please? This one we’ll sit down.
SAROTTE: All right. Hello. Hello.
ROSE: Our Silver Medal Award winner is Mary E. Sarotte, for Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of a Post-Cold War Stalemate. When I was a little pitcher, there was a field called diplomatic history. And it was a well-respected, serious field with lots of people doing lots of really good work. And that field has basically vanished over the course of my professional lifetime. You could probably put the serious diplomatic historians in not just this room, but in a corner of this room, working today. And it is really wonderful that Mary has carried the torch forward into the 21st century of a truly great tradition of serious diplomatic history, that is not in evidence much in the academy these days.
She has—this is the third in a trilogy, right? Is that a fair way to putting it?
SAROTTE: An unintentional trilogy.
ROSE: An unintentional trilogy, that essentially traces what happened after the Cold War and how the superpowers dealt with the end of the Cold War, how NATO expanded, and how we got into the situation with Russia we’re in today. It is both the definitive work on, in effect, the superpowers at the end of the Cold War and how they got to the post-Cold War world. And it’s also an argument that things didn’t have to play out that way. So this is not just a record of what happened, definitively answering questions such as did we promise that we wouldn’t do something? Did somebody break those promises? How and why did the Clinton administration do X or Y or Z? Why did the Russians do that? But it’s also a counterfactual argument about U.S.-Russian relations and how history could have turned out differently.
And I want to press you on that for a little bit because why don’t you explain briefly why you think things could have worked out differently, and how they might have worked out differently.
SAROTTE: Sure. Sure, sure. Let me just steal a few minutes to say thank you to the Council and thank you to the donors. It’s really—it’s an honor to be here, honor to be on the podium with Nicole and with Carter. And I just have to say a special shoutout to my friend of thirty-five years, John Nichols, who didn’t realize he had to read every word of every book I was going to write for the rest of his life. And also, my husband, who also has the same burden. So thank you to them, and to my family members who are watching on Zoom.
All right. So to answer your question, I’m going to quote a wonderful book I recommend strongly called How Wars End by somebody named Gideon Rose. I don’t know what happened to him. And you pointed out in this book that wars have two parts. So one is negative or coercive, which is the fighting. And one is positive or constructive. And as you said, the constructive aspect involves figuring out what it is you actually want and how to get it, right? So after the war ends, how do you, you know, get what you want?
And I was reminded of this sentence often as I was writing the book, because the book is a lot about being uncertain what you want after victory, right? Well, the Cold War ended. And the big play, I argue, would have been to achieve three things. This would have happened in three locations. The first would be to allow the new emerging markets and democracies in Central and Eastern Europe to fulfill their desire to join NATO, number one. Number two, to provide a birth for Ukraine, a large democracy in Europe—to provide a birth for it in a European security system. And, number three, to keep strategic disarmament with Russia going, to keep the process of dismantling these civilization-ending weapons going.
And the big play would have been to square the circle of all of those demands or, to be more precise, to square the triangle, because those are three key locations—Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Ukraine. Now, unlike circles, triangle can be squared. And I argue in the book that the United States, amazingly, was actually on the way to squaring that triangle. That there were policy decisions in the early 1990s, I argue, that had they been maintained it wouldn’t necessarily have meant everything would be peace, love and understanding now, but I think would have put us onto a better timeline to the future. And I argue that in great detail in the book.
ROSE: And is the core of that PFP?
SAROTTE: And the core of that is something known as Partnership for Peace, which still exists but is now a mostly forgotten institution. But was an alternative way to expand NATO.
ROSE: Explain what—yeah, what PFP was.
SAROTTE: Sure. So the book is, I should say, not an anti-NATO enlargement book. I am not opposed to NATO enlargement. I do not blame it for everything that has happened in Ukraine.
ROSE: This is not Mearsheimer with footnotes.
SARTOTE: Exactly. I am not—in case you haven’t noticed, I am not John Mearsheimer. (Laughs.) I think that NATO enlargement was something that Central and Eastern Europe wanted. It was perfectly justifiable. The problem was how it happened. There was an alternative method of enlarging NATO, the Partnership for Peace. Again, it still exists, but it no longer has this role. And the Partnership for Peace did not immediately draw a new front line through Europe after the old Cold War front line had disappeared. And it did not leave Ukraine in the lurch.
But, as I describe in the book, for various reasons—many of them originating in Moscow—the United States changed its mind and led NATO in drawing that new front line, thus leaving Ukraine in the lurch. Even though at the time people up to and including the president knew that Ukraine—and I’m quoting here—was the, quote, “linchpin of peace in Europe.” It amazed me how much Ukraine was central to the thinking in the 1990s. And so I talk in the book about how that happened. It’s important to say there’s agency on both sides. This is not a blame America book. What really drove that shift were self-harming choices in Russia.
Boris Yeltsin started to use violence to fight what should have been political battles. In October 1993, he had tanks fire on his own parliament. There were 800 casualties. And even worse, in 1994 he started a brutal war in Chechnya, which later he handed over to Putin. And as a result of these—this bloodshed, suddenly a whole bunch of countries said, you know, we understand the point of Partnership for Peace. It provides options for Ukraine. It provides options for post-Soviet states. We need Article 5 now. We need to be in NATO now. So the way—the paths start to part between the post-Cold War futures of Central and Eastern Europe and Ukraine, and the strategic arms cooperation with Russia starts to be a further casualty of that.
So of those three things that I describe—letting Central and Eastern Europe into NATO, finding a birth for Ukraine, and keeping cooperation going with Europe—only one of those happens. And we start to be on a much darker timeline towards the present day than we had to be on.
ROSE: So let me play devil’s advocate for a little bit. Wasn’t something like that always destined to happen when the question of who would control the security, fate, of Eastern Europe came into question? In other words, what you—you describe what happened, and you describe the pace and the changes that occurred. But wasn’t something like that eventually going to happen anyway when there was some kind of security crisis? Because they would come running to us, and the Russians would say, no, you can’t do it, and eventually you’d precipitate something like this? How could you ultimately in the long run square the circle of East European security?
SAROTTE: Hmm. Well, the beauty of the Partnership for Peace was that it was ambivalent and ambiguous. Now, I should add, that it was not popular, right? NATO expansion was, in a way, sexy, right? Countries wanted to be in NATO. Partnership for Peace was a waiting room. Partnership for Peace was not sexy. Partnership for Peace was something that the Poles, in particular, deeply disliked when they heard about it. They said, we want to be in NATO. We want Article 5. Article 5, is of course, the guarantee that an attack on one will be treated as an attack on all.
The problem there, as I was mentioning before, is if you just start giving out Article 5 you draw a hard line. And so the Partnership for Peace provided a way to fudge that. In other words, you could still make countries NATO members. The idea is that they would become partners, become interoperable with NATO, become better future allies. And then, if need be, could be rapidly added to the alliance, which by the way is exactly what is happening right now with Finland and Sweden. Finland and Sweden, because they have been in the Partnership, have been able to become interoperable, get to know NATO commanders. And now that they’ve decided they need to be in NATO, they can join in an expedited fashion, right?
That option could have been held open for a whole host of states, right? It would have given us a better ability to manage contingency which, given that we now have a major land war in the Eurasian continent, would be very welcome. Because all we’ve got now is Article 5 or nothing.
ROSE: Strategic ambiguity plays a role in other areas of American foreign policy. Is the implication from your analysis that forcing clarity on strategically difficult dyads is not a good thing to do? And does this—can one draw the implication from your work on Europe that we should desperately try to keep kicking the can of the Taiwan Straits down the road with strategic ambiguity as long as possible, rather than trying to tidy up things by clarifying them?
SAROTTE: Well, if I can push back a little bit, you’re damning strategic ambiguity with faint praise by saying “kicking the can down the road.” I would call strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan a successful example of managing a problem. As Richard Haass likes to say, there are some problems you can’t solve. There are some problems you need to manage. And the relationship between China and Taiwan is firmly in that category. And strategic ambiguity has been a successful way of managing that problem. And the ambiguity, I think, could have helped in this situation as well.
I’m guided in this thinking by former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, who I interviewed for the book. And Bill told me that—all the quotations are in the book. But he went to President Clinton. And he said, you know, President Clinton, I admire the Central and Eastern Europeans. I understand why you want to put them in NATO. But I, Secretary Perry, I am the secretary of defense of the United States of America. And my job is to make the United States of America safer. And I am currently doing an absolutely amazing job. Why? Because I am working hand-in-glove with Moscow to destroy strategic nuclear weapons pointed at our cities. And this is not just in our interests. This is in the interests of the world. These are civilization-ending weapons, right?
The Soviet Union is the only—Soviet Union/Russia is the only entity with a civilization-ending capabilities. This is an unprecedented moment since the dawn of the atomic age to remove this threat not only to America, but also to the world. So anything we do that irritates the Russians and makes them back off of this is wasting this precious moment to take the nuclear factor out of future international conflicts. So let’s try to find a way to kind of fudge and smooth NATO expansion out, so it doesn’t irritate the Russians, because there’s so much more at stake. We’re never going to have a moment like this again to get rid of strategic nuclear weapons. And I found that very compelling, when Secretary Perry said that to me.
ROSE: So let me push back again as a devil’s advocate from the Kyiv side. OK, that was—that big success was great. And we always think about Nunn-Lugar and we think about the bad things that didn’t happen with loose nukes. And twenty years later, I’m strategically naked and Moscow comes in and rapes my country because I don’t have nuclear weapons. Would it have been better to allow the Ukrainians to keep the nuclear weapons on their soil, if possible, and therefore preserve strategic deterrence in the region, which might have prevented the war that we’re seeing now?
SAROTTE: Yeah. So this is—this is analytically slightly different than providing a birth for Ukraine and security system. So what Secretary Perry was arguing, and I think he was right about this, he was saying: Let’s not irritate the Russians right now. And as a bonus, the Partnership for Peace is like a halfway house. We don’t have to give people Article 5, but we can start to get them ready to be allies. And if it looks like they need it, like Finland and Sweden, then we can rapidly make them allies. And so that will give Ukraine an option to suddenly have this very strong Article 5 guarantee.
Now, because of a host of factors—you know, Yeltsin’s use of bloodshed in Russia, because of domestic political pressures—Clinton decided, having set up the Partnership for Peace, to back away from it, which I think was a mistake. And Perry later said: I came this close to resigning, and I wish I had. He said in his memoirs, if I’d known how that destructive that decision was going to be to the cause of disarmament, I would have resigned. Once you back off the halfway house, now you really don’t have good options for Ukraine, right? So now you’re looking at, you now, the best of bad options, right?
And so the Ukrainians—(audio break)—should we try to keep our nuclear weapons? The problem is, our economy is in freefall, we need aid. We need IMF aid. We need World Bank aid. We need the United States to open doors for us. If we keep these weapons we will be a pariah state, like North Korea, and our country will just disintegrate economically. So, you know, it’s easy to say, oh, Ukraine should have kept the nuclear weapons. The problem was that economically that was not really a viable option for that state at that time. And so given that the country would have been isolated and bankrupt, it would have been a very, very weak state. It would have perhaps been more vulnerable sooner, right? So that’s, again, why you come back to the fact that it’s good to have a birth for Ukraine, because that option of just keeping nuclear weapons on its own was really not a viable option.
ROSE: How do you write serious diplomatic history about—this is a question I’ll ask Carter as well—about such recent events, without access to the full archives, without all the kinds of scholarly stuff that you could do if it were something about World War I?
SAROTTE: By spending years of my life getting documents declassified and creating my own archive. I spent so many, so many years filing Freedom of Information Act requests, mandatory review requests. And it was so tedious. (Laughs.) And I’m so grateful for this award. All those days—my husband knows, all those days of filing requests and filing appeals. But it started to work. I started to get documents declassified. And the more I got declassified, the better I got at asking for documents to be declassified. And I’ve—I started to have really unexpected success, particularly with the Clinton Presidential Library.
So I just kept working. I kept filing and I kept filing appeals. I kept working with the archivists. And finally, I got all of the paperwork associated with every meeting between Clinton and Yeltsin. So they had eighteen meetings, more than any leader in Washington and Moscow before and probably for a long time ever again. And I got all the prep documents, the briefing books, the transcripts of the conversations, the after-action reports, the correspondence between them. It’s thousands and thousands of pages. And when that happened, the Kremlin complained. Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, complained. And said the Clinton Library should not have released this information because, among other things, it contained information about current politicians—meaning, Peskov’s boss, Putin.
And I thought, my God, if the Kremlin is complaining, this must be good. (Laughter.) And it was. And that gave me the ability to get more documents declassified. And so it’s kind of like—it’s kind of like doing a giant puzzle. You know, if you imagine a good old-fashioned puzzle, like you might do over the holidays with your family. At first, you know, you don’t really know what’s going on. But then you have enough pieces that you can see the picture. So it’s true, there are still gaps in my puzzle. You know, I didn’t get everything. But I know what the picture looks like.
ROSE: And now it’s like one of those puzzles with no edges, because the borders are in flux again.
SAROTTE: The borders are in flux again.
ROSE: We could talk all night about this, and sometime hopefully you’ll come back and we’ll do even more of the same.
SAROTTE: Absolutely, yes.
ROSE: One last question on this, which is this is deep, serious, scholarly stuff. But it’s on issues with great immediate relevance for policy, for understanding what’s going on. Have you been connected—have people in power expressed interest in your findings? And have you briefed officials on it? And is there any sort of connection between the scholarship and policy on these issues thanks to your work?
SAROTTE: Yes. Yes. (Laughs.) The list includes many governments. There have been many, many requests for briefings, including recently in Finland and Sweden. Last week I spoke to people at both the Danish and Estonian embassies. I’ve spoken to State Department the NSC, the German government, people who work in Northern Virginia. It has been a little surreal, as someone who was, you know, basically toiling away in the archives, to find how much interest there is in this. In part because it’s become aware—and this I actually find somewhat chilling—that Putin is obsessed with many of the events I describe, because he sees them as emblematic of humiliation. And he has been repeating the phrase “not one inch” at press conferences, which causes my inbox and Twitter feed to explode.
And so it has been very chilling to realize that these incidents which I describe are things that really wound him personally, and that has—it has been surreal, but it has meant that I have to been able to give briefings on the details of what is driving him with regard to NATO.
ROSE: Well, that is—that’s music to our ears, because we love to see the scholarly work actually affect the policy. Although, who knows, given the policies that we’ve had. Silver Award, the Arthur Ross Book Award, to Mary Sarotte for Not One Inch. (Applause.)
SAROTTE: Thank you. Do I actually get a medal?
ROSE: Yes, you actually get a medal.
SAROTTE: This is so exciting! Wow.
ROSE: We have like a photo. You can put it on.
SAROTTE: Wow, this is exciting.
ROSE: OK, and then we actually pose.
SAROTTE: I actually get a medal, this is so exciting.
ROSE: You got to pose. And then we pose for a shot here.
ROSE: Oh here—OK, we’ll get a pose. Excellent. OK.
SAROTTE: OK. Thank you so much.
ROSE: Excellent. Thank you very much, Mary Sarotte. (Applause.)
Carter Malkasian, come on up.
SAROTTE: You get an actual medal! Congratulations! I got an actual medal.
ROSE: Now, that—Carter is having déjà vu right now because eight years ago he was in that position getting a silver medal from the Arthur Ross Book Award for his extraordinary first book on the Afghan War, War Comes to Garmser. And now I guess he was ambitious and eager to come back and get the top prize, and so it produced ambitions, extraordinary book, The American War in Afghanistan: A History, which is getting the gold medal this time, to add to your silver. You’re going to be like Mark Spitz eventually with all these different kind of, you know, medals.
A really crappy war has at least produced two really good books. (Laughter.) So—
MALKASIAN: There’s some other good authors too. (Laughs.)
ROSE: So I was joking in the green room that an alternate title for this should have been The March of Folly two. Because what is really remarkable about both of these books—and The War Comes to Garmser, which is based on a—or, recreates one of the greatest books on Vietnam, The War Comes to Long An, is also a fabulous book. Coming away from these books, I just have this burning question. If there’s one thing that we, that my generation, and that American national security community participants learned in the last quarter of the 20th century, it was how not to do Vietnam again. And to repeat literally every single thing, down to the helicopters at the end, as if there was no memory, no analysis—how could smart people do such stupid things, not just once but twice?
MALKASIAN: I have some answers for that. (Laughter.) But, Mr. Rose, if I could thank you, and for the fund and the award, like, specifically. And if I could walk back to when I got the Silver Award for War Comes to Garmser, which was the book that came out before this, I received—I got notification that I was going to get that award when I was in Afghanistan. And I was working in Kabul for General Dunford then. It was—like, that was my third extensive time in Afghanistan. And I was about a year into seventeen months that I was going to be there. And being in Afghanistan is always hard. It’s always busy. Now Kabul is not as difficult at all as living in Garmser, but it still was extremely difficult, away from the family.
And then, like, to receive that, that I was going to be nominated—that I was nominated to receive that award, an award that my supervisor at Oxford, Professor Robert O’Neill, had told me about, and told me what an important award it was. And he’d met Arthur Ross a few times. And my supervisor had served in Vietnam. And so that uplifted me when I was out there. And then when I received the Silver Award—because I looked at the list and I was, like, oh, there’s no way I’m getting—you know, I’m not getting anywhere with this. And then—
ROSE: There were jury members who felt that way too. (Laughter.)
MALKASIAN: I didn’t want to know that. (Laughter.) To get the Silver Award was tremendous. And it kind of gave me this—so I very much like walking around universities, and reading books in gardens, and things like that. And the university I’ve gone to, other universities, I take tremendous pleasure in that. But having received that award made me feel like I deserved to walk around, like I’ve earned it. And so it really means a lot to me in my career, having received that. So thank you.
ROSE: What did you learn between the books? Why did you have to write a second book on Afghanistan?
MALKASIAN: (Laughs.) What Gideon would like me to say is that the first book was a little bit on the optimistic side. (Laughter.) I don’t think it was horribly optimistic by any means, but it left a chance that something good could happen in Afghanistan. This book is much more pessimistic on it. And this book lays out much more in the lines of a tragedy, and that there were fewer chances to make a difference. And how I came to be more pessimistic, besides becoming older, is that when I served—when I moved from serving in Garmser to being in Kabul, what I saw in Kabul was it is so difficult to create change.
And the recommendations that I had given coming out of Garmser—which were perfectly practical, and I would stand by them, that could have made a difference in Garmser. When you saw at a higher level how much work it would have taken to implement them, how little time decisionmakers have, how what the priorities that are set by Washington and the White House, how that then dictates what everyone is going to do, because, again, there’s only so much time in the day, that made me become much more skeptical in terms of what the chances were differences.
ROSE: OK. That’s interesting. I’m going to press you on that.
MALKASIAN: Do you want me to answer about Vietnam, or you want me to hold on?
ROSE: No, no, we’ll get to Vietnam in a second. But that—so there’s—what you just said suggests that, like Mary, you think there was an alternative path that, hypothetically at least, could have been followed that might have led to a different outcome. That this was a tragedy of the road not taken, as opposed to a tragedy, like a Greek tragedy, in which it was just shot through with idiocy from the beginning and it was going to fall apart. Do you actually believe that there was some alternate part of the metaverse in which American officials take your advice, do things differently, and we don’t end up with the helicopters, you know, escaping at the end?
MALKASIAN: I’m afraid you may be underrating the pessimism that I’ve now acquired. So I think in Afghanistan there were some slim choices to make a difference. They tended—they came—most of them came earlier on, when we had the latitude to make different decisions. So early on, we could have dealt more with the Taliban. We could have brought them into the Bonn process. There were some particular occasions when the Taliban reached out to either surrender, be a part of the government, and we flatly said no. So if we had done that—I’m not sure, if we had done that, that it would have brought peace. I do think it’s a mistake not to bring the defeated party into a negotiation.
Another mistake we made is we didn’t work hard enough, fast enough to build either a high-quality military or a large military. We waited too long. We delayed. Once we started, we didn’t fund it as well.
ROSE: You mean the Afghan military.
MALKASIAN: The Afghan military. That’s right. Yes, definitely the Afghan military. And so by the time the Taliban were surged in 2006, there’s only 26,000 forces on the ground. Now, we’ve built armies far larger than 26,000 in a matter of three years in Korea, hundreds of thousands were recruited and trained to become quite effective. We weren’t able to do that in Afghanistan. Now, again, if we had done that, would that have resulted in victory? That’s a little bit far to say that. We’ve seen how they performed after we had built them up to a greater extent and spent years training them.
However, if you went and said—if we had had a large military put in place, plus we had—we had reached out to the Taliban, or accepted the Taliban reaching out to us, brought them onto a diplomatic process—if we had done that, it is realistically possible that there would have been fewer Taliban who wanted to fight. And when they did decide to fight, they would have faced greater resistance. Does that mean peace? Not necessarily. Does it mean fewer casualties, less costs, violence maybe happening later rather than sooner? Yes, I think those are reasonable possibilities. So I guess what I’m pointing to is more the war could have been run better at less cost. And there were opportunities to do that.
ROSE: OK. So let’s press on this, because I’m even more skeptical than you, to a certain extent. And I—we look at Ukraine—first of all, what you said. Oh, we could have helped them build a better army, a bigger army. We could have done better. We look at Ukraine, and the Ukrainians are fighting off the Russians, and they’re running towards the battle rather than away from it. They have raised their own forces, with our help. Our help was crucial to the outcome, but there was something on the other side of our help. When Zelensky was offered the chance to leave, he famously said, I don’t need—I need ammunition, not a ride. And he’s still there and is inspiring his country and the world with his resistance.
Six months earlier, before that happened, Ashraf Ghani was given the same choice, and he’s now living the high life in the UAE while his country suffers. Was there some fundamental difference between Afghanistan and Ukraine that meant that our efforts to build an actual, effectual fighting force was never going to work in the same that it didn’t work in Vietnam, the same way that it didn’t work in Iraq? And is that—is the issue that we just didn’t try enough or that we had no materials with which to build?
MALKASIAN: I have a slightly humorous answer and I have a very serious answer. The slightly humorous answer is that President Ghani was cursed with a Ph.D. President Ghani knew the history of his country, knew that Najibullah had been hung by the Taliban after—sometime after he’d actually lost power. And President Ghani was—and he also knew that every leader of Afghanistan other than Karzai, either ends being exiled or ends being killed. So he was very—and often, has a coup against him. So in those days on 15 August 2015—2021. He doesn’t know what’s happening in the city. He’s unsure of what’s going on in his own palace. He’s worried—he has fear of what—about what’s happened in the past. And he decides to leave.
Now, OK, the serious answer. Two things. The Afghan forces and the people fighting on the side of the Afghan government themselves had a variety of shortcomings. And there were, in general, a variety of challenges facing the government, all of which were extremely difficult to turn around. So one of them is there was a lot of grievances, and the government was fairly corrupt. And that turned various people to turn with the Taliban. Second one, the government had a lot of divisions within it. Some of these were related to the tribal aspect of Afghanistan and its kind of long history of some ethnic divisions, that made it much more difficult for the government forces to come together and fight as one, compared for the Taliban to come together and fight as one. The Taliban had a more cohesive doctrine and ideology behind them.
Third is problems with leadership, somewhat also can be tied to corruption. The fact that their leaders didn’t want to put themselves at risk. Often, they didn’t want to fight very hard. And the soldiers could see that. And that could also make them not willing to fight very hard. But my fourth reason is the one that I push the hardest on in the book. And that’s that the Taliban had another very significant advantage in this. We could also put Pakistan as an advantage, but I want to focus on this other one. And that’s that they were—the Taliban were fighting against occupation.
The Taliban were fighting against an occupier who was not Islamic. And that gave the Taliban an advantage in motivating their forces. And their forces did some very dramatic things—suicide bombing, just laying an IED inside of a city that is well-controlled by the government, that takes a high degree of morale. We don’t see similar acts on the part of the Afghan forces doing that. The Afghan forces, because of the situation, are more conflicted. They’re fighting on the side of the occupier. They’re going home in their villages to hear from mullahs and leaders who will talk about Afghan’s history of jihad against occupation. They’re read poetry about jihad and about fighting occupiers, and about the value of Afghanistan being independent. And so that sapped the willpower of their—of their forces.
And so those are all things that are hard to get around, all things that are hard to resolve. And that’s part of the reason why there was a tragedy in Afghanistan, because those factors aren’t easy factors to fix. So the main—one of the main advantages that the Ukrainian forces have is that they are fighting against an outside. They’re fighting against occupation. And in some of that, they may actually be assisted by the fact that we’re not there, because it makes the argument that Zelensky has to make all the more credible. Now, there may become a point where the Taliban military superiority is such that that won’t be enough. But I think it helps explain the differences we see right now.
ROSE: OK, so these things are not shocking, new revelations. They’re not recent developments. They were there plainly for anybody to see. You could look at the geography. You could look at the strategic situation. You could look at the correlation of forces. So now let’s get back to the Vietnam question. Why does this require two decades worth of crazy unsuccessful war at millions and trillions of dollars of cost and hundreds of thousands of deaths of various kinds, when we could have seen the same things and realized this was going to end in disaster earlier? And why did we repeat Vietnam, literally to the letter, knowing why it was going—how it was going to play out again?
MALKASIAN: So the first thing is that they also—something that very much helps us understand how we forgot about Vietnam is the quick success in 2001. So it’s a little bit different from Vietnam. But the fact that we overturned the Taliban so quickly, and in—and you know, praise, high regard for the Bush administration. When they were planning on going into Afghanistan, they realized they could be getting themselves into the Soviet Union’s trap. They realized they didn’t want to go in with a lot of forces. They realized they needed to bring the Pashtuns in. And they realized the government has to be able to run things on their own. And they’re very cognizant that they could get themselves into a tar baby.
But when success happened quickly, a lot of those fears and those concerns went away. You know, militaries learn from defeat. Learning from victory doesn’t have as good of a history. (Laughter.) And So they forgot about the dangers. They discounted that the Taliban could be growing in Pakistan. Thy discounted the need to bring them in. They discounted the need to build—to build a military. And because the Afghans were so welcoming at the time, and possibly because we had too much limited access, we didn’t realize that there was actually an undercurrent of resistance that was growing to us, especially, like, after 2005-2006. So we tended to forget some of those lessons.
But I think there’s more to it than that. We can also see in Iraq and Afghanistan—or, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, we overstated the threat. We worried too much about what would happen if Saigon fell. We thought that that danger would, in that case, lead to the domino effect. In Afghanistan, as we get more into the war we started worrying too much about—that the Taliban are about to take Kandahar, that the Taliban are going to get—are at the gates of Kabul. These are the kind of things that got the—got people worried about the surge. I mean, Obama worried about the surge. Made McChrystal, Petraeus, everyone worried if we don’t act right now, the Taliban will gain momentum and they’ll be able to take parts of the country and we’ll be in an even worse position. Or maybe they’ll be able to take the country on their own.
And in that particular case, we didn’t realize that, you know, after 2012, we basically fight—actually, after 2014 we basically fight the war with about ten thousand troops on the ground for the rest of it. We surge up to a hundred thousand. Pretty much everything that was won in the surge was lost. So in other words, we could have done this strategy from 2001 onward with ten thousand troops and endured any of the problems that were going to occur, the loss of any kind of territory. And obviously we know in Vietnam that we were able to endure just fine actually with the loss of Saigon itself. And in both cases, we thought the threat was so great that we would have to put more troops in, suffer more, when in actuality that probably wasn’t necessary.
ROSE: Was Donald—were Donald Rumsfeld and Feith and others right that we should have just essentially gone in, bombed, changed the government, and then left? Was the light footprint that seemed so irresponsible at the time actually a smarter strategy than the more serious let’s go in and do it right one that we ultimately adopted, and then had to walk away from after two decades?
MALKASIAN: I think the light footprint in retrospect—because I wouldn’t have argued that at the time—the light footprint in retrospect would have been the better choice. And I also have to caveat that with saying that Rumsfeld, everyone else, they may have said initially we should go—Rumsfeld’s instinct was to go in and get out. When faced with the choice, he was not willing to get out. So going light I think was possible. I think going in and getting out, when we talk about that and it seems so attractive today, so alluring. We are putting ourselves out of the situation of that time. There was incredible concern about another attack. In 2002, 2003, 2004, 85 percent of the American people were worried about another attack.
For President Bush to have decided, I’m just going to get out now, he would have opened himself up to a great deal of criticism. Osama bin Laden was still out there. Anthrax attacks had occurred. 2005, there’s attacks in—there’s attacks in London. 2003, there’s the Madrid attacks. So there’s lots of reasons to stay—to stay in. That threat of terrorism is part of the tragedy of this war. It’s not a war where there’s easy ways to see, if we just did this better, we would have won. Or we just should have gotten out, and then things would have been OK. It’s more like a trial. It’s more like something that there weren’t any easy choices on, and it was highly inclined to us having to muddle through in one way or another.
ROSE: So but, again, this is—this is great stuff. And this is the key question. And let’s bring this back up to the present, which is, I mean, the Russians are finding this out again. We found it out in several different wars. There are a lot of smart people in the military. There are a lot of smart people in the Council on Foreign Relations. There are a lot of smart people in the White House and the Pentagon more generally. You’re a very smart guy. How could so many smart people be so wrong so often for such high stakes? And is there any reason to believe that we’ve learned any lessons and will be less stupid and—you know, in the future?
MALKASIAN: So people did learn over time. And people did change strategy over time. And so President Obama was much more interested in looking at different options on what to do. And then eventually he drives the strategy down. He drives us down from a hundred thousand. He takes us to ten thousand. Eventually our key military leaders start—they stop saying that we are going to be able to succeed in the war, and they don’t say we’re going to be able to enable the Afghan government to stand up on its own. Leaders like General Dunford or General Miller, they say we are in here to stop threats—terrorist threats to the United States.
As long as we are there, we can prevent that threat. If you remove us, that threat will reemerge. Or there’s assessments that say that threat will reemerge. Furthermore, if you remove us, we do not think the Afghan government will be able to stand on its own. We do not think putting more forces in is leading us to victory. We do not think it’s leading us to a government that’s going to be able to do amazing things. All we’re saying is if you put something in right now, you’ll be able to cover it. And so eventually you have the ten thousand number that I mentioned, fewer forces, more dependent, more using more with airstrikes, drones, technology. So there is a change that occurs there.
Why do these changes not occur earlier? Why is it that that strategy isn’t adopted? Why don’t we avoid the surge? Why don’t we confront this in a better way? Well, the military in that sense—and we all heard about the military boxing in President Obama—and I think that is—I think there’s truth there. That did happen. He didn’t receive enough options. At that time he didn’t get enough options from the military. The military—President Obama makes a great quote in his book, The Promised Land. And he’s talking to General Petraeus. It's before he becomes president. He’s going to Iraq. And he sees General Petraeus.
And he says, the job of a president isn’t to focus on one thing. The job of a president is to understand all the problems and interests of the American people and to decide what to do about those. And I’m not quoting it perfectly. But in other words, the job of the American president isn’t to win in Iraq, and it’s not to win in Afghanistan. It’s to understand how health care matters, how the economy matters, how military items matter, how the climate matters, and to balance against those.
So the military and many people in the military, fighting the war is the most important thing. Why is it the most important thing? Well, because they’re willing to sacrifice their lives, other people’s lives, for it. And they understand the damage losing a war can bring upon a nation that’s defeated. So they care about it a lot, as they should. But if you talk to other Americans, other Americans may not care that much about it. A doctor or a lawyer has different opinions than that. They may think other things are more important for the American people. So it’s not that I think the military always purposefully means to box people in or to deny options. It’s that they naturally think something is important and they’re worried about what happens if you don’t address that. So that has the effect of limiting options.
But it’s not just the military’s fault that we don’t look at options. What happens on the civilian side, what happens in the White House, what happens in the Pentagon also tends to start cutting down the number of options that are realistically looked at. Instead of considering—instead of considering, you know, three or four options to surge, you know, we basically considered one. Maybe one and a half, if you take Biden’s CT Plus, which didn’t have much of a difference between the surge. Later on, at the times when the military wasn’t playing a large role, we can see we became very fixated on withdrawal and didn’t look at possibilities. Well, we want to withdraw, but what if we can’t? What if we’re going to be there for longer? What if the decision point turns out that we don’t withdraw? How should we best insure against that? What small policy changes should we make—should we do to make sure that doesn’t happen?
Or President Trump, very determined that we were going to leave. And lots of planning was done in that regard. And the negotiations, the settlement with the Taliban, was highly pressurized to get out fast because of what President Trump was trying to do. When in reality, we probably should have looked at different ways to handle the situation, different options that could have been taken.
ROSE: Well, let me press you on that again. I mean, if we’re saying that in some ways Donald Rumsfeld and Doug Feith were right, rather than the supposed smart money back in the day twenty years ago, was—given what has happened since last summer, was Trump right to bite the bullet and pull us out because it was essentially something that we should have done a long time ago, but couldn’t bring ourselves politically to do because of the domestic political costs, and sunk costs involved? And essentially, did Trump ultimately do us a favor by creating a situation that was untenable and forcing a withdrawal?
MALKASIAN: So withdrawal or staying, I’d argue, both were viable strategies. If you wanted to stay with a small number of troops because one is concerned about a terrorist threat, which may or may not have materialized yet, staying is a perfectly viable strategy. It was low enough cost that you could keep doing that. Withdrawal as also a perfectly viable strategy. So by that—by that standard, yes, if Trump wants to get out, then getting out is a viable strategy to do that.
Did he help us do that? Did he set it up strategically—to put Biden in a place where he could get out, he could leave, therefore we’ll be in a better strategic position in the future? I don’t know. I don’t know what the future—I don’t know how the future is going to look at that aspect. I do know that by the way he did it, we ended up with a worse settlement. And he made it—it made it very difficult to get out in a way that wasn’t going to have that Saigon look to it.
ROSE: I find this all so unutterably depressing—(laughter)—given how many hours—how many hundreds of hours many of us have spent in this very room and others like discussing these questions over decades, literally. And to have it end, and then have it be sort of be sort of—be, OK, oh, gee, that was—we were in Afghanistan for twenty years. Who knew? In the same way that sort of people, oh, we were in Vietnam for twenty years? Who knew? Anyway, it’s just it’s still amazing. And it really poses really interesting questions for all of us about foreign policy decisions going forward, because the fact that we’re wrong so greatly and so repeatedly, really—and things look so different in retrospect—should be a real bit of humility and self-awareness to all of us.
MALKASIAN: General Eikenberry in 2007, he sends a note to President Bush. And he had been—he had finished his second tour in Afghanistan. He had commanded all U.S. forces in Afghanistan. So he was leaving that position. And he sends a note to Bush. And he says that the challenges, from corruption, problems in the government, and by our very presence, are such that we will not attain a military victory here. So, you know, there were people who said things and pushed that forward.
ROSE: And it took a long time for us to—for the country to accept that and be willing to bear the political costs of getting out. So in some ways, it really is kind of like Gelb and Betts all over again: The irony of Afghanistan is the system worked. As long as people thought there was a chance it went up, and then eventually they got depressed and realized it wasn’t going to have a chance, and it gradually went down.
MALKASIAN: But there’s a structural aspect to this too. There’s the aspect of the perceived threat from terrorism, which may have been overblown. It was very palpable at the time. There was the domestic costs of deciding you were going to ignore that problem. And the moment in which terrorism disappeared—when it became less important, when Osama bin Laden is killed in 2011, there’s then a chance to get out and do things. And Obama exploits that chance. And he tries to set a date to get out. What happens in June of 2014? The Islamic State rises up. The Islamic State appears, and the threat of terrorism is back. And Iraq had basically been lost. So now again, a domestic political cost to deciding that one is going to get out. So it took time for that threat to disappear palpably, plus it took time for new threats to come up. Climate change, China, Russia, COVID to make it that Afghanistan really isn’t that important. And we have far more important things on—
ROSE: So it took a lot of events to push Afghanistan off the strategic top spot of the agenda.
MALKASIAN: Well, it wasn’t in the top spot. (Laughs.)
ROSE: Or, even anywhere near the top spot, enough to make the political costs acceptable of getting the hell out. And even then, you had to box the next administration in by giving them no choice to go forward. That’s just, again, incredibly depressing. Not the way national security is supposed to be—play out.
We have a wonderful audience here. Let’s bring you guys into the discussion with Carter. Yes, over here. Hold on. Wait. We will get a microphone. Identify yourself and ask a question.
Q: Thank you for this discussion. Sonya Stokes, Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine.
Since the withdrawal in August last year, what has been the impact on humanitarian operations in Afghanistan? In the months or even years leading up to the withdrawal, what was the planning for continuing support for humanitarian infrastructure in the country? And since we are now in the winter months, what are the ongoing support mechanisms in place for aid operations, for example medical aid, in Afghanistan? Thank you.
MALKASIAN: So because some organizations were well set up to continue operating under the Taliban, because they had already been operating there for a while. And so certain things were able to transfer over to the Taliban easily, like clinics and education, because clinics and education had been funded by the international community even when they were under areas of Taliban control. So some of that was able to be turned over.
But in terms of humanitarian aid continuing to a large extent in Afghanistan, that’s been complicated by the fact that there’s less funding coming on, the Taliban want things going through them not through other direct systems to NGOs to provide things. And so that’s reduced the amount of assistance that’s provided. And the Taliban, now with international aid going away, it’s questionable even things like clinics or education will be able to continue for a long period of time. And when I say education, I wasn’t referring to girls’ education there. So girls’ education has dropped dramatically, because that’s not what the Taliban want to see happen.
In terms of what will happen this winter, I actually do not know the exact, specific things that have been done for this winter to prepare for—to prepare Afghanistan for this coming winter, which really has already started there, for the ongoing winter in Afghanistan. I know the Taliban are conducting more taxes. They’re reaching out to as many different organizations as possible in countries to get assistance. But the United States is largely not working with them on that front, because the Taliban haven’t met various conditions and requests that we have. And I don’t terribly think they will meet those requests or conditions.
ROSE: Yes, back there. Hold on, wait for the mic. Yeah.
Q: Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist.
I wonder how far back you go? Because at the time of Carter there is now—Brzezinski gave an amazing interview to the Nouvel Observateur, in which he said that the Carter administration gave arms to the al-Qaida in order to bring in the Russians to create their Vietnam in Afghanistan. And Afghanistan, they stayed there for about ten years and then got out. But the whole crisis, Najibullah was a modernist, except he was pro-Russian so the Americans didn’t like him. Women wear normal clothes. They went to the universities. The Americans created the whole crisis that has led to what has happened in the decades after this. It was all started as Brzezinski says in this interview—it was all started by the Americans because they wanted to bring in the Russians. And do you deal with that? Because we would never have this problem in Afghanistan if the Americans had not gone in and destroyed the Najibullah government.
MALKASIAN: So on, I think, the history, I’m very taken by a statement that John Lewis Gaddis makes in his book Landscape of History. In that part of the purpose of history is moral. And history is meant to help us navigate between the poles of liberation and oppression. And so I think as we look at Afghanistan, we should be reflecting about how much harm we did versus how much good we did. And so the points you’re making there about intervention is one for us to take very seriously.
Afghanistan’s forty-year civil war can be very strongly tied to repeated foreign interventions. Can very strongly be tied to the Soviet invasion. It can be tied obviously our support of various groups that ended up turning into al-Qaida, that was not helpful. It can be tied to Pakistan’s intervention and support for the Taliban and other groups later on. It can be tied to the role of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and the rest of them supporting things like suicide bombing, which is a plague upon the Afghan people. It can be—and you can ask a very hard, very painful question to say: Would the Taliban have lasted longer in 2001? And are the Afghans better off from our intervention?
Q: Can I ask you a question? That the fact is that Brzezinski said they gave weapons to the al-Qaida to start a war to knock out Najibullah and that’s how the whole thing started. Why don’t you deal with that question?
MALKASIAN: All I can say is that repeated intervention has been something that’s been—we can argue, has done damage to the Afghan people. You have to look at that against good that was done. And there was good done in the freedoms people had for the period that we were there. But then you also have to think that there was twenty years of war in which people faced IEDs, suicide car bombings, our own errant bombs, our own bombs that were targeted in the wrong place, so.
ROSE: It’s worth saying that Milt Bearden, who was one of the CIA officials who ran the mujahideen against the Soviets, we turned to him for an article in Foreign Affairs right after 9/11 about the upcoming Afghan campaigns. And he wrote the most pessimistic piece. It was called The Graveyard of Empires. He was like this is going to be a disaster. No one should do this. And I thought, gee, I’m so glad we have Milt doing this. Pretty soon after the quick success this went into the memory hole, and we were all very embarrassed by it. And then, like, twenty years later it was like, oh my God, this was so prescient.
And it’s really interesting because it just goes to show that it’s really hard to judge which insights are going to be valid, because it’s not just an immediate timeframe. Because something can look very different at ten years, at twenty years, at thirty years. The last couple of decades of American foreign policy have been filled with disasters. It is at least comforting to know that there are some spectacular books and research and thinking that have come out of it. And I want to thank Carter not just for his service in the field, but his service with the pen and the computer. And it is my great pleasure to wrap this up by giving the Gold Medal, the book award from the Arthur Ross Book Award to Carter Malkasian for The American War in Afghanistan. (Applause.)
MALKASIAN: Thank you, Gideon.
ROSE: Thank you. (Applause.)
With that, I bid you all farewell. We can have drinks over there. (Laughter, applause.) Good to see you.