Panelists discuss current U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan and explore other possible military and diplomatic options to address the ongoing conflict.
SHINN: As you finish your lunch and dessert, welcome to today’s session in this series of—Council on Foreign Relations Series What to Do About… And specifically, today is “What to Do About U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” A timely conversation, since this is the 6,025th day of the war in Afghanistan, some would say the longest and the bloodiest war in American history. So no surprise that it’s the topic of some reconsideration from a strategic standpoint, and that the CFR is not the only place where this reconsideration is taking place. Here is a letter from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that came out three weeks ago that asks, what are you—what is U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan? And is it time to reconsider? You can down this—download this, by the way, off their website, which is rather a slick—has rather a slick user interface.
So the way this series works is that we have a panel of three very distinguished speakers, who not only are very familiar with foreign policy and strategy, but all three of them—as you can tell from their bios—have had extensive experience in Afghanistan, and in counterterrorism, and in Pakistan across several different—several different agencies of the U.S. government. So we’re going to go right into the discussion for about 45 minutes, soliciting the views of our three experts kind of a—kind of a mock NSC format, where each of them will make a few points and advocate the strategy—what they see as their preferred strategy if, in fact, it’s any different than what the U.S. is currently doing. And I would reinforce the fact that there are actually three interrelated strategies which, as the distinguished panel agrees, are the things that make this such a complicated—what we call in tech a wicked problem. There’s both the civil war in Afghanistan, there’s counterterrorism, and then the big question of Pakistan.
So, finally, in addition to being on the record, we—I don’t know if this is being broadcast live, but in any case we’d like to thank HBO and Richard Plepler for their generosity in funding this series. And so onto U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I thought perhaps we’d start with the brief assessment of what that strategy is, since I’m not sure everyone in the room spends all their time thinking about this subject. And I thought we would start with the expert who has most recently been engaged in that—in that policy, which is Courtney—both engaged in formulation and in execution which, as Ambassador Neumann has pointed out on several occasions, execution and funding is at least as important as strategy formulation.
COOPER: Thank you. Well, the president announced the new U.S.-South Asia strategy in August of last year, as many of you probably know. It was the result of a very robust interagency process that took several months, beginning in the spring of last year. And it had several key pillars. The first pillar that the administration touted is that it was a move from a time-based strategy to a conditions-based strategy. So doing away with the Obama-era discussion that there would be a drawdown at a certain point or our engagement would end at a certain point, it really offered an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan, and touted that that engagement would be conditions-based going forward—although, it didn’t actually define what those conditions were.
It also was touted as an integrated diplomatic, military, and economic approach—so, really leveraging the full array of U.S. tools and power to advance U.S. interest in South Asia. It also included a changed approach to Pakistan—so very much linked our success in Afghanistan with Pakistan agreeing to play a little bit more of a constructive of a role in our ability to advance those interests. It included developing a strategic partnership with India, and also included a discussion of increasing targeting authorities for the Taliban for other groups in Afghanistan, and really delegating some of those authority to the secretary of defense to be able to effect and prosecute our military support to the Afghan government as it saw fit.
So those were kind of the broad tenets of the—of the strategy. It focused mostly on Afghanistan, though it was discussed as a South Asia strategy. And interestingly, little discussion on the regional aspect in terms of other regional players in Afghanistan. Afghan’s neighbors, China, Iran, Russia, not mentioned in the strategy, or how we would leverage those countries to advance our aims.
SHINN: That’s a good summary. Of those policy planks, which one, if any, was the most different from what had come before?
COOPER: I think the administration saw the change from a time-based approach to a conditions-based approach. Although, I would note, having also been in the White House under the Obama administration, at the end of the Obama administration we really had already started to move to a conditions-based approach. There had been several policy reviews undertaken in the last few years of the Obama administration that actually redefined and changed the drawdown trajectory that the president—President Obama had announced. So—and that was based on input from commanders, from different secretaries in the Cabinet, and as result of policy input, so.
SHINN: Maybe turn to David, with whom I had the honor of serving in the Pentagon. And, by the way, if you read Steve Coll’s wonderful book, Directorate S, that I binge-read last weekend, there’s a scene where David Sedney arrives as one of the very first diplomats in the dusty U.S. embassy in Kabul, as the war was still waging, actually—the initial toppling of the Taliban. What is your assessment, because you’ve been—you’ve been looking at this for a long time?
SEDNEY: I have. And I continue to be very involved in Afghanistan—traveled there repeatedly and lived there last year. I think the most important part of the strategy that is still playing out is that change from a time-based to a conditions-based strategy, because while some of the actions of the Obama administration were consistent with what Courtney Cooper was saying, there was no explicit articulation of that. And the repeated insistence of administrations—both the Bush administration and in the Obama administration—that the United States was going to leave Afghanistan has been this major strategic factor behind the actions of Pakistan and the Taliban.
They have believed the U.S. was going to do what it said it was going to do, and it was going to leave Afghanistan. And if that’s your fundamental strategic view, then you go through a surge of 100,000 troops and you don’t change your strategy, you just wait it out. You survive until they leave, and then you take over. I would submit that both the Taliban and Pakistan are still playing out the implications of a continued U.S. presence without a time limit. And I think that’s behind a lot of some of the—a lot of what I would say some positive progress, most particularly the peace initiative at the President Ghani announced at the Kabul Process Conference in Kabul a little over a week ago—something that is very controversial in Afghanistan.
And the second thing I would stress on that, especially, again, looking forward, is the—is the much tougher approach on Pakistan, the withholding of about a billion dollars a year of military assistance, which the administration put into place in the first week of this year. President Trump’s first tweet of 2018 was an anti-Pakistan invective that also announced that we were going to put these sanctions on Pakistan. The country of Pakistan has been through sanctions before. The U.S. sanctioned them during the 1990s for nuclear weapons development, the complete cut off of aid and assistance. And as a former Pakistani leader said, they were willing to eat sand in order to survive that. They went through those sanctions.
SEDNEY: Eat grass. Thanks, Ambassador. (Laughter.) Eat grass rather than—rather than submit to bullying by the U.S. against Pakistan’s national interest.
So will this tougher approach to Pakistan pay off? I think that’s very much an open question. You can argue that history is against it. You can also argue that history is the past and the future is not set. But it’s a big gamble on the part of the administration to take this tougher sanction. I think it’s all still playing out right now as we speak. This is that phrase, they used to joke that we have the watches, but the Taliban has all the time. (Laughter.) They used to say that, but in the Taliban—the Taliban have now recognized that the U.S. is trying to say: We have the time and the clock is ticking on you. That’s the message we’re trying to get to the Taliban.
SHINN: Well, Ambassador Ron Neumann, who I last saw when he was in the embassy in Kabul, actually, going through a policy strategy review session in the Bush administration, is also famously quoted in Steve Coll’s book, where somebody asks him—and I’ll—I don’t want to sort of put the words in your mouth. Someone says, well, what about strategy in Afghanistan? And he says, it’s easy to come up with a new strategy. What you need is the resources to execute the strategy that you have. What is your assessment of how well the strategy that Courtney described is being resourced, and resourced critically, is it proportional to the ends posited by the strategy?
NEUMANN: I think in fairness, let me say I’m fairly happy with this strategy. I wasn’t very happy with the Obama administration, particularly because of the time elements, which just defeated everything else. The gap in this strategy is the inadequate definition of what it’s all about. So Courtney has listed very accurately all the different pieces. It’s very difficult, unless you do this stuff all day, to keep all those pieces in your mind when somebody says what’s the—you know, what’s the strategy. But what they really want to know is what’s the goal, because strategy is a map for how you get to a goal. And after all, the strategy can alter while the goal remains the same. And the goal definition is not adequate.
And I lecture regularly to people at the Foreign Service Institute from all agencies of the U.S. government, civilians who are going to Afghanistan. And my first question, to make sure that I don’t bore them, is: Would everybody who feels comfortable explaining U.S. policy raise their hand. I would say, at least in the last four lectures, I have yet to get a hand. So if the people who are going to Afghanistan and putting themselves on the line do not feel they have an adequate handle on what the strategy—it’s really what the goal is, because the other pieces all derive from where you’re trying to go.
Within that, I would say that it is reasonably well resourced, if you accept what a long-term proposition this is. You look at—which, by the way, we don’t talk about adequately, which I think is a problem, because I don’t think you’re preparing the American people for what you’re really doing. So the military effort is an effort to primarily train up the Afghan forces to a much higher level, which I think is possible. I think the huge problem of the past period was we rushed in, tried to train quickly, and tried to rush out. And we were setting goals which simply could not be reasonably achieved by training in the time we were prepared to give them. Nobody thinks you can take a 10-year-old—you know, 10th grader in America and throw him into college as a junior, and if you give him enough training—enough tutors and enough money, they’ll graduate in two years.
SHINN: Was the problem there wasn’t enough resources applied to the training of the Afghan forces, or that it was done too quickly?
NEUMANN: No, the problem—the problem was you cannot get the benefit of that training in—well, it was both. Training was attached to the national guard. It took a couple of years before we actually began to train trainers before they went. There were initial things that were based on a longer-term. The term was cut short. I mean, there are all kinds of problems of which the largest was the time which then magnifies all the other problems.
So what you’re doing now is trying to do it right. But even if you look at DOD internal calculations, you see that they don’t really expect the real benefit on the battlefield to show up until well into 2019 and 2020. Now, it may or it may not. But if you don’t explain that to people, then by the end of this year the strategy’s likely to be condemned as a failure. And then when you run around and say, well, we always knew it was going to take three or four years, that’s an excuse and you get run over by a truck.
So if the timeline—if we are prepared to take the time that this is going to take, then I think the resourcing of that part’s adequate. The other two big pieces that are not resources questions—one is there is an element of the policy according to—of pressure on the Afghan government to perform, to govern better. That’s a policy management or an implementation question. It’s not a resource question, except negatively, perhaps. And then you’ve got this whole business that Dave was talking to, the pressure on Pakistan, where this has never been tried for more than a short period, and there’s a long history. My own guess is that if this is going to really be tried, it’s going to be long. It’s going to get much worse in our relations. After it gets much worse, we’ll find out if the American blink, which we always have before.
SHINN: With regard to Pakistan, you mean?
NEUMANN: With regard to Pakistan. And then after you find that out, if we don’t blink, you’ll find out of the Pakistanis move.
SHINN: Well, that is a—that’s a good point. Now we’re sort of edging into, you know, the operational part of what to do about the strategy in Afghanistan. And as you suggested, it involves Pakistan. And it involves—and we haven’t talked about this very much—the critical element of counterterrorism, which is what got us here in the first place. So what we’re going to do for the next 25 minutes or so is solicit the very well-informed views of our three panelists on what, if anything, should be done different. And then we’ll engage the members in this.
And I think one of the themes of this What to do About Series is just this question. It’s not an abstract question about foreign policy formulation, but it’s about the—you know, the tough business of ensuring that means are proportionate to ends and that the time and the patience adduced to solving the problem is realistic. And then, of course, there’s execution, right? I mean, this is—this is something—this is a set of precepts familiar to everybody in the room, whether you’ve been in government or whether you’re trying to run a corporation. You got to get those three right.
So what, if anything, would you do differently? Because now you’re on the outside, you can speak a little more freely. All of this is their views, and for that matter my views, as individuals and not attributable to whatever institutions we served for.
COOPER: First, I’ll say I think the administration, the strategy announced in August was an essential first step. As David and Ron both noted, the open-ended commitment to Afghanistan was something that was a significant shortcoming, I think, of the last administration, and something that really was needed in order to project our interest to the region, to the Taliban, to the Afghan government in a way that really helped to advance our interests. I think it was ultimately insufficient, though, in clarifying what our ultimate objective is. And we pay some lip service to wanting a negotiated settlement, but we don’t really maximize U.S. leverage to achieve that end. And so I think our best interests—or, I think U.S. interests are best secured in South Asia and in Afghanistan in particular, by prioritizing a policy for peace as paramount, in order to achieve those interests.
We have other very serious security interests in South Asia, nuclear security, reducing the risk of nuclear conflict between two states, counterterrorism, reducing the threat that any attacks emanating from Afghanistan could hit the—could reach the homeland. But I think a lot of these get lost by the wayside when we’re spending so much time and effort focused on fighting the Taliban right now, as we have been over the last couple of months. And as you know, there is a Taliban letter, that they do want to achieve some kind of dialogue that helps end the conflict. And I think that that’s an important step. I think we could look at that as a piece of maybe some nuggets of sincerity, and possibly also some propaganda. But I think that’s something worth testing.
So in terms of—
SHINN: So the first thing would be reengaging on some kind of a peace process?
COOPER: Absolutely. I think recognizing that the U.S. is party to the conflict, and we have the most leverage of any other party, any other actor in the region to bring all parties to the table.
I think that in terms of a couple of steps that we should take, one, I think we need to clarify our public stance of supporting a peace process in Afghanistan. And like I mentioned, though there was some lip service paid to this in August, really U.S. public statements kind of run the gamut of now it’s not time to talk, we’re going to be pursuing this on the battlefield, no we really are interested in a negotiated settlement. And I think that confusion undermines our interest in ultimately having a negotiated settlement. So I also don’t think that the region or the Taliban really believes us when we pay the lip service to saying that we want a negotiated settlement when headlines in The New York Times say: CIA ramping up its fight against the Taliban. That would signal to anybody that we’re actually focused on a military strategy, rather than a diplomatic strategy to end the conflict.
So really clarifying that public stance. And I do think that that would—that that would help bring about regional support to achieve our aims in Afghanistan. I think we need to resource for success in this effort. We need a consistency of negotiating team, a diplomatic team that’s really focused on this effort. When I was at the White House and this issue, reconciliation, fell in my portfolio, I was struck at times how, you know, though there was an earnestness in feeling that we would support any kind of negotiation process, when I looked at resources I had maybe one or two counterparts at DOD, at the State Department whose job it was full time to focus on this issue. By contrast, I had dozens if not close to a hundred all together direct counterparts between DOD and State and Resolute Support, other colleagues in the field, that were focused on security issues, development of Afghan security forces, political issues. And so if we say our ultimate goal is a negotiated outcome that secures U.S. interests in Afghanistan, we haven’t resourced it fully.
I think we also need to clarify the conditions. As noted, the administration called this a conditions-based strategy, but those conditions have never been defined. So what is the conditions for U.S. presence? Is it that the Taliban have surrendered? Is it that we’ve eliminated any presence of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, any presence of ISIS Khorasan? Is it that the Afghan government is fully capable of denying space to terrorist groups, Afghan security forces are fully developed? There’s so many different things that could conditions for our presence. We haven’t defined them internally, therefore it muddles our aims for the rest of the region.
And I think we also need to be a little bit more flexible in sequencing. One of the key issues that has delayed the start of the peace process is that all parties seem to have a different view of who should be talking and how they should be talking. So the Afghan government thinks it needs to talk to Pakistan in order to have peace in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban are a component of that, that they very much view Pakistan as the primary actor. Taliban thinks it needs to talk to us before it talks to the Afghan government. The Afghan government wants to talk to the Taliban. So while there’s this ambiguity about how a process should start or would unfold, it’s just one more reason why this process gets delayed.
So I think recognizing U.S. leverage, recognizing that the one thing that the Taliban has made clear it wants, which is a reduction of international troops in Afghanistan, that’s something that only we can provide, not the Afghan government. And so we do have a legitimate role in using our leverage to coax them to the table for what will be a very genuine inter-Afghan process. But it is a process that we have a lot of influence to help jumpstart, if we’re willing to use it.
SHINN: David, what’s your take on this? Since you were one of the participants in the 2010, ’11, ’12, mostly I guess 2011 negotiations with the Taliban, with Tayyab Agha, and then opened that office in Doha, which ultimately fell apart. Well, how would you put the peace—the vigorous and more clear-eyed peace process that Courtney just described in the context of a broader strategy toward Afghanistan, with its counterterrorism component and with its Pakistan component?
SEDNEY: Well, specifically on the issue of the peace process or role of the United States in peace in Afghanistan, I think you do have to look a little bit at history. And Jim’s mentioned Steve Coll’s book, where he goes into that very vigorous effort, because from that period of 2010 through 2013, the Obama administration did prioritize not only the peace process, did put huge efforts, put coming to having peace talks to the Taliban as is number-one priority. And during that period of time, these very intensive negotiations failed. And not only did they fail, I would argue that they prolonged the war and resulted in many more casualties, including of U.S. troops, and even at a greater level of Afghan civilians, because we went into those—that peace talk effort led by—initially by the late ambassador Richard Holbrooke. And if you look, a Steve Coll book and Ahmed Rashid has also written about these initial talks.
They failed. And they failed because of overweening ambition on the part of the United States. The United States believed that it could essentially impose peace upon the Taliban and the Afghan people, without really working with the Taliban and, most importantly, with the Afghan people. And these—these efforts collapsed in 2013 when then-President Karzai of Afghanistan rejected an arrangement the United States had brokered with the government of Qatar. And mainly, because we didn’t understand that peace has to be between the Afghani people, among the different factions of Afghanistan. I mentioned earlier President Ghani’s peace plan, it was announced at the Kabul Process yesterday. I think it’s actually a really clear exposition. And U.S. support for that peace plan has been unequivocal and very clear.
And having that peace plan as the number-one part, it gives a choice to the Taliban. Now, some people believe the Taliban are ready to negotiate and are sincere. There are others, article published today by an eminent scholar of Afghanistan who said it’s all fake and the Afghan—the Taliban are just trying to use peace talks as a way to achieve victory. It’s really up to the Taliban now to move and respond to President Ghani’s peace process. But the idea that the United States can be both the broker of the peace talks, can convene them, bring people together, while it’s a participant in the war, I think is a fundamentally flawed assumption. If you’re a party to a war, you can’t be the mediator as well.
And whether you want to achieve a Nobel Peace Prize through this, or whether you—whatever other ambitions you might have, you need to recognize that a peace process that’s between two warring civil war factions has to be brought about by discussions between the two. And any mediator has to be outside of the ones who are inflicting violence. So as Courtney said, headlines such as we’re ramping up efforts and sending more troops to Afghanistan—we can’t be a peace broker, and we shouldn’t even try. We should—we should—
SHINN: Well, but how do you do it, though?
SEDNEY: We should leave that for the Afghans and the Taliban. The peace process is going to come out of their decisions that peace is in their interest. You don’t start fighting a war, and you don’t continue fighting a war, unless issues are really important to you. And the people who have to make those decisions are the ones involved. We can help. We can help by the open-ended commitment we made, which I think is part of what’s allowing for the peace process opening, and by putting pressure on Pakistan because Pakistan is, in my view, the key actor in this—in this process. The support that Pakistan has provided to the Taliban, enabling them to have a sanctuary, enabling them to assemble fighters, weapons, leadership.
The Taliban just finished holding in Pakistan their yearly commanders’ conferences, setting up their—setting up their campaign plan for the next year, which they normally will announce in the next month. All of this takes place in Pakistan, with the active connivance of the Pakistani intelligence in the very top levels of the Pakistani government. The purpose of the administration’s putting greater pressure on Pakistan is to change Pakistani’s behavior—Pakistan’s behavior in this regard. During the time I was in the government with Ambassador Holbrooke, we tried another approach. We tried a carrot approach. We called—we called it creating a strategic partnership in Pakistan. I personally spent hundreds of hours with Pakistani military and intelligence officials trying to build that partnership. Again, that failed.
I don’t know if the present policy of greater pressure will work, but I do know that all our other efforts have failed. And I think it’s worth—it’s definitely worth a shot. It’s also very risky. So if you ask what we should do more, I think we could actually have more on our plate. Where I criticize this administration is that they have not been tough enough on Pakistan. If you—the United States has a law saying that we should sanction state-sponsors of terror. If you look past states that we have sanctioned as state-sponsors of terror, you look at the evidence on the ground, the evidence that’s in the public domain, and there’s much more outside of that, Pakistan meets every test the U.S. has ever set out publicly for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.
But we’ve always pulled back from even initiating a process of designating them. I think we should begin that process. Yes, it would result in very severe sanctions on Pakistan, but we need to let Pakistan know it’s serious. As long as they continue to support the Taliban and continue to support terrorist groups that carry out activities in Kashmir and in India, we should be upfront and say: If you pursue these policies, these are the consequences. So that’s what I would say, is do more.
SHINN: That’s a—that’s a headline statement.
SEDNEY: Yeah. I say do more.
SHINN: That’s a headline statement. Though, Steve Coll’s book, really the principal theme that runs through it is the duplicity and the consistency of Pakistani support of the Taliban, and its obfuscation by Directorate S, which is actually the group within the ISI that conducts the support for the Taliban and the Haqqanis.
Well, Ambassador Neumann, maybe your views on this, because you’ve had a long experience in diplomacy. And do you agree with David that if you’re going to—if you’re going to proceed, you need to find somebody else who can be a mediator or a negotiator? And if you believed with Courtney that you’ve got to set your—with some clarity, your goals here?
NEUMANN: Since we are risking at this point, because this is a very complicated subject, and I’m afraid we’re risking raising your confusion to a much higher level of detail—(laughter)—let me try to just pull out a very small number of points. One, I agree with Courtney, that it is important to have an active effort to reach peace. We don’t know whether that is possible. Two, I agree that we—and I’ve said this for a number of years—we cannot be a mediator and a combatant at the same time. I think that was—there were at least two proposals to Secretary Clinton actually to use a third-party negotiator, and she turned them down although those more intimately involved in the subject were in favor of it.
I think there is—the role of the third-party negotiator—let me talk about that for a second. Why do you want a third-party negotiator? Part of it is if you’re talking about a pre-negotiation, which is where you are now, anything that a party says—and Americans think you can say, well, if I did this, would you do that. It doesn’t work. In an Afghan context, if I’m an Afghan and you say to me, if I do—if you do A, then you do B, I hear, OK, now I know a concession he’s prepared to make. I’m going to put that one in my pocket, and give nothing, and we continue the discussion. The role of a third-party mediator is to be able to test ideas without being responsible for saying whether one party or another would agree with them. And it’s a terribly useful role. And I think we ought to have such a third party.
SHINN: But who?
NEUMANN: It would probably—it could be the U.N. I mean, normally this is a U.N. function. The difficulty here is the U.S. is itself a participant in the war. But there are a number of countries that have a record working on this, Norway and others. And the institution or country is important, probably the personality of the mediator is even more important, and probably it should be somebody not too old because they might be at this a while. (Laughter.) The place I would probably disagree with Courtney is on the signal of ramping up force. I think we have to be able to walk and chew gum. I thought this was put very well by late former Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, who was once asked: How can you negotiate with terrorists? And he said I have to fight terrorism as though there were no negotiations, and I have to negotiate as though there is no terrorism. You have to be able to do both. They are not alternatives. And you have to be able to do both very seriously.
There is a—there is an operational question, though, which we need to deal with, and it’s very tough. We have maintained all along that Afghans have to talk to Afghans. Taliban have said they want to talk to us, they don’t want to talk to the slave soldiers of the Kabul government, as they charmingly put it. This is a really critical point we have to decide. Are we going to maintain that position? And it’s particularly important now that President Ghani has laid out a very detailed peace proposal—well, fairly detailed, for starters. Said that if we are prepared to negotiate separately, we would be undercutting Ghani’s proposal. I do not—we may disagree on this. I do not believe you can have a separate negotiation without it being generally perceived—
COOPER: That’s not what I—
NEUMANN: No, no, I didn’t say—no, you didn’t. I wasn’t accusing you of it. But there are—it is a question that sort of continually ebbs and flows. Will we—and now we’ve been on it so long that for the U.S. to back off the position of the Afghans, Taliban have to engage with each other, would be a major step back, and therefore a U.S. concession without any reciprocal move. So that’s another reason to look for a third party who can test intentions, reassure both without having to deal with that. So you need a third party. You need to say you’re serious.
I don’t know whether we can engage within the U.S. government on some of these critical questions, like do you want to keep bases? The interagency fight over that question will be extreme.
SHINN: But that’s always the case, right?
NEUMANN: Yeah, but you—
SHINN: I mean, this is the tragedy—you know, the NSC basically is strategy by committee, which accounts for why it’s such a sloppy process.
NEUMANN: Yeah, but, you know, you can resolve questions like that when you have a choice. Resolving them theoretically, mark me skeptical. I would like to see us initially put a lot more effort, though, into thinking about how will you verify and how will you enforce an agreement if you ever get one. Because too much of the talk, and it’s not Courtney, but there’s a lot of popular talk about negotiations and agreement that acts as though if you had an agreement it would be followed. But there’s actually very little in the last 40 years of Afghanistan to suggest that any agreement gets followed. It’s much more like, say, medieval Europe or renaissance, where agreements were something that you kept until one side or another was strong enough to break them.
So if you’re going to have an agreement, which I agree is an important thing, we need to start thinking now about these really tough issues of verification, and what’s our role going to be in enforcement if you can—and unless your point is you just want to have an agreement so you can sign it, so you can get out, and you don’t care what happens. Well, then an agreement’s a goal. But otherwise, it’s a tool.
SHINN: So if you find an intermediary, and if you have some reasonable expectations about verification, where’s the leverage? Let’s assume you can get the Taliban—some of the Taliban to the table, what do you do about Pakistan if currently they’re—or, almost about to be declared state sponsors of terrorism?
NEUMANN: Well, you’ve got a two—you’ve got two major levers, which may or may not be adequate to the process. One is the pressure you put on Pakistan to change policy, and the other is the pressure you may or may not put on the Taliban on the battlefield. And neither one is going to be a short-term fix at the best of cases. And you can argue almost endlessly whether or not they will be sufficient. You can also argue endlessly, just to go on and on and on forever. Actually, there is a third point of leverage, and that’s the Afghan government itself. If it begins to perform somewhat better, if its troops performed better, if people begin to have more optimism about that government, then that itself is a third point of leverage on the Taliban.
Whether any of those things will happen, I’m not guaranteeing. I think they are all possible. Not a single one of them is guaranteed. And none of them are going to be fast and certain.
SEDNEY: I’d add a fourth point of leverage, which is in the international arena. Over the last two years Russia has gone from being an unalterable opponent of the Taliban to having talks with the Taliban. And according to U.S. officials who have spoken on the record, providing support to the Taliban. At the same time, Iran, which used to be an almost implacable foe of the Taliban, has opened its borders to training camps for the Taliban and has increased its relationship with the Taliban. So those gains the Taliban have made in the international arena over the last couple years could be put under pressure if the United States, in its policy, could find ways to work with two states which obviously it has very difficult—
SHINN: Wait a minute, the Russians and the Iranians you mean?
SEDNEY: The Russians and the Iranians, who may well see Afghanistan as a place where they can take on the U.S. But their support for the Taliban has helped reinforce the Taliban’s belief that they have a future as the rulers of Afghanistan.
And then finally I would add, on the international arena, China. The Chinese have risen. China is a great power now. Through their Belt and Road Initiative they’re reaching out to all the areas in and around South Asia, Central Asia. They’re Pakistan’s number-one ally and supporter, closer than lips and teeth, and all kinds of other analogies, which you probably know better than I do, Jim, how the Chinese talk about alliances. But the Chinese have never really put any real effort into this confrontation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, role of the Taliban. And if China is going to play that kind of role—global role that it seems to be, maybe working to help on this is another area. So those three countries, all of which the U.S. has difficult relationships with, are all big players here as well. And that’s a huge diplomatic challenge, but we should try it.
COOPER: Just a couple of quick points to address what my colleagues have said. One, just on the strategy, David, I agree with some of what you said, and disagree with a couple of points. One, I don’t think anybody would look at 2010 to 2012 and say: What do you think is a hallmark of U.S. strategy during that time, when we had 100,000 U.S. troops in-country and really were focused on the surge, and have the response be: I think that’s when we were trying to diplomatically end the war by talking to the Taliban. So I think there were efforts underway, but I wouldn’t say that that as a priority. I think that they were earnest. But as you saw in Steve Coll’s book, there were a lot of shortcomings to those efforts. So without using our actual leverage, because—which is troops—because we had already announced the drawdown, I think we missed out on really leveraging that moment.
Two, I think it’s important to think about the fact that starting a peace process isn’t going to get any easier with time. I mean, all of the security reports indicate that security is continuing to deteriorate. Even the Department of Defense inspector general just recently announced that since the strategy we’ve still seen a deterioration of security, even amidst this really great uptick in U.S. military efforts and targeting. We also have growing ISIS presence and recruiting in Afghanistan. We also have upcoming elections, which will really, really challenge the country politically and the internal dynamics in Afghanistan, which could weaken the Afghan government’s negotiating position even further.
And so I think ultimately a negotiated settlement is more plausible than any battlefield win. And it’s more desirable than an endless military stalemate. And if we can agree on that point, then that’s something we should really try to push forward. And then lastly, on the Taliban piece—though, as Ron did mention, I don’t think it’s prudent to open up separate channels of negotiations, but there is some rationale, I think, on the Taliban part, in thinking that there are things it needs to discuss with the United States. One could imagine that the Taliban perceive that it was the United States who really forced them from power, it was the United States who really negotiated the National Unity Government. So there was a lot of U.S. intervention there.
SHINN: That’s paragraphs three, four, and five.
COOPER: And the military strategy that’s underway in Afghanistan, heavy U.S. involvement. So there are things that we have to talk about, assurances that we could offer about our ultimate troop disposition that we’ve never actually put on the table before. And I think it’s just that engagement that could really help jumpstart the core of the discussion, which is the inter-Afghan portion.
SHINN: This is—this is extremely—this is a very sophisticated discussion of a very complex problem that we would now like to engage the members—
NEUMANN: Now that we’ve made it simple for you. (Laughter.)
SHINN: You know, after I left government, in 2010 and ’11, while you were negotiating with the Taliban, I was trotting around Pakistan and Afghanistan with Lakhdar Brahimi, in a Carnegie Century Foundation-funded study. But we talked to a lot of the Taliban leaders that I had been trying to kill in my previous job. (Laughter.) And at each meeting, Lakhdar Brahimi would say: Thank you very much. I’m still confused, but I’m confused in a much more sophisticated way. (Laughter.)
So due to the fact that it is a confusing topic, if we could please go around the room. I would ask you—first of all, I’d remind you that this is on the record, both what the panelists say and what you ask. Secondly, I would ask, please, that it be a question. And, third, if you’d be kind enough to identify your affiliation, it would help put the question in context. And please ask for a microphone, which I believe will be floating around—floating around the room. There’s a gentleman in a black turtleneck, I think.
Q: Thank you. Sorry, is this on?
SHINN: And please do speak up.
Q: Thank you, Jim. I’m Craig Charney, head of Charney Research. We took the first poll in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and more than a dozen more since.
Look, it seems to me that Courtney is right, that what we’re doing now is basically lose slowly. And doing more of the same thing seems to me to be a prescription for more of the same thing. What I’m wondering is perhaps we should try to change both the incentives and the minuses quite substantially. For example, on the plus side, by guaranteeing substantial increases in aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan, if there is a settlement, and perhaps even an alliance with the Taliban, on the ground against the Islamic State. On the other hand, rather than trying to punish an ally who happens to have their feet on the windpipe of our forces, we could make it known that if there is no accord we would support the launching of 100,000 Indian troops in Afghanistan, who have a considerably lighter supply train than ours, who we would be able to maintain and assist at considerably lower cost, and who could be resupplied both by air and through Russia or the northern countries.
SHINN: So is that—is the question is that a viable strategy?
Q: Yes, my question is, shouldn’t we be thinking about these kinds of things, about finding ways to change the plus and the minus factors in kind of out-of-the-box ways, rather than just doing a little bit more of the same?
SEDLEY: Well, let me start off by actually thanking you, Craig. We’ve worked together in the past. Your polling was very useful in devising some—in some of the discussions we had in that 2010, ’11, ’12 period. And so thank you for your work in Afghanistan there.
However, in terms of both your analysis and your suggestions, I’ll have to respectfully disagree. I do not believe—and I’m not even sure Courtney said this was a lose slowly strategy. I think the—it is more an effort in some areas, such as the military training effort, to rectify the mistakes we made in the past, as Ambassador Neumann said. And I think that—whether we can do that or not is an open question. The troops that President Trump has asked to go to Afghanistan are just arriving now. Most of them have not even set foot in Afghanistan. Their impact won’t be felt for a year. So we won’t be able to judge the effectiveness of the additional troops until we sit here a year from now, take a look, and see what they might have achieved.
But in the meantime, the situation is actually different than—I think my view, anyway, is different than what Courtney described. I would not pay any attention to the reports of the special inspector general on Afghanistan reconstruction. It’s an organization that had made a lot of very bad predictions and produced a lot of bad analysis. The facts on the ground—
COURTNEY: DNI said that too, on the security situation.
SEDNEY: OK. Then I would be happy to dispute DNI on that as well. The fact is two years ago at the end of the Obama administration, the Taliban was able to capture a provincial capital and threaten several others. It was taking more and more districts. In the last 12 months the Taliban did not capture any district—any provincial capitals for any period of time at all. Its threat to those provincial capitals was reduced. The number of districts that the Taliban—every year for the last four years of the Obama administration, every year the Taliban’s control increased. And that’s what the special inspector general is reporting, not what’s happened in the last year.
But over the last year, in fact, the Afghan government has made advances, particularly in the area of Helmand, which a year and a half ago was about ready to fall to the Taliban. And the Afghan government has recovered several districts in the last year. So in a number of areas, the Afghan government and the present Afghan forces, without U.S.—a kind of U.S. support, has made—has been making progress in the last year. And I would expect when we sit here a year from now we’ll see that they’ll make even more progress on the ground militarily.
But even more than that, when you say lose slowly, I will admit to being personally invested. I spent most of last year and the year before as the acting president to the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, Afghanistan. We have at the university, and you have as one of your members Professor Ishaq Nadiri, who’s also on the board of trustees at the university with me, we have the future leaders of Afghanistan. We interacted with them. I interacted with them on a daily basis.
These young people, and the vast majority of the polling that I’ve seen recent, Craig, shows that somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of Afghans are opposed to the Taliban. So if you’re talking about a lose situation where you give part of Afghanistan to the Taliban, as I think I understood part of what you were saying, you’re saying that 5 or 10 percent of the population that’s willing to use extreme violence should be allowed to take over 90 percent of the rest of the people. I don’t think that’s going to happen in Afghanistan. I don’t think the Afghan people will do it. And I don’t think we should be part of anything of the kind.
Finally, on your thing of—on your idea about India, I think India should play a more active role, but I think it should not be on the military side. An active role by—any attempt by the Indians to become active in Afghanistan militarily would set forth a chain of consequences with Pakistan that could lead to a nuclear war and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. And I think that’s much too high a risk to take.
NEUMANN: Could I just add a brief further complexity? By the way, I totally agree on the younger generation of Afghans. I often feel like Afghanistan has a bright long-term future, if it can only survive its short-term leaders. (Laughter.) That said, on this military—we’re going to go endlessly—probably as long as we’re in Afghanistan about how do you judge this?
SHINN: About how you what?
NEUMANN: About how you judge whether you’re making progress. I would say, first of all, there is—there is a confusion now. And Craig’s comment, I think, hits right on the confusion, because the administration is not in fact, and has not, explained what it expects to achieve in what length of time with the military. You have two different things going on simultaneously, which we are absolutely not explaining to the public. One is an effort to change long-term training and quality of the Afghan army. And as David said, that is just beginning. The other is a short-term sort of hold the line with different authorities and a few additional people on the ground. And it’s a patchwork. And, you know, so it’s—some places go forward, some places go backwards. And Afghanistan is so complex that if you have a really strong view about what’s happening, you can back it up. And if you have a strong view that’s 180 degrees out, you can back it up, which is almost meaningless.
I would say over the longer term, not the short term, there are going to be some things we should look at to tell whether your security’s getting better. One is going to be, do the army and the police work together? They don’t right now. It’s a horrible mismatch. Second will be when you have small forces, whether they’re police or local village security that are under threat, will the army and the police come and reinforce them? Which they do a terrible job of right now. Will you cut down the level of politically motivated generals who, in addition to being corrupt—you can live with some of that—are completely inefficient? There’s probably some others, but there’s three big standards right there.
If those things are looking better in a year, year and a half, two years, I would feel fairly confident about where this goes. If they are not looking better, if the politicizing and the power networks of Afghanistan continue to defeat cooperation between leaders of military and security units, then I would say the strategy is not working. It’s on a path to failure. It won’t matter how much we put into it, unless they can get past that kind of stuff. But those are the things—kind of things, at least examples, that we need to look at. There’s not much point in trying to micro-measure them now. You’re going to have to look at them a year from now, which brings me back to my original point, and then I’ll quit, which is this really isn’t a time to argue about policy.
You have no idea if this policy is working or not. And the desperate effort to change policy every six months or year is a huge debilitating failure. You can’t carry out anything in this kind of complex environment if you are constantly examining the policy. You are going to have to—you got one now. It may not be the perfect one, but what it needs now is—frankly, it needs a couple of years of serious effort. And what we do, and what the Obama administration did four or five times, which is to reexamine policy, is a gross mistake, because it stops all sorts of things, undercut everything you were doing while everybody wonders where you’re going to go, then you try to realign people and you try to realign money, and you move things around. That’s more time wasted. And then eventually, you start up again. And then within a year or something you’re navel gazing and wondering whether you ought to move the policy again.
SHINN: This is true. A lot of administrations have a high discount rate for time. The gentleman in the orange tie. I know I sound like a Sotheby’s auctioneer here. But right there.
Q: Oh, it is me. I didn’t know if that was my tie. My name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer. I’ve been in the U.S. government twice in national security positions. One in OSD and the other on the Hill.
I’d like to ask briefly, kind of there are maybe three interreacting, underlying issues that have been mentioned, but not really dealt with. And in this unclassified forum we’re in, could you say what the order of magnitude of the Taliban over in the Pakistan hills is? And second, our overarching issue with Pakistan, by far than anything else maybe, is to just to keep their nuclear weapons out of the wrong hands. And related to this is, what’s the—what would be the prospect of cross-border operations, which I know we’ve conducted some at least in the air, into Pakistan against the Taliban, where their sanctuaries are allowed? Thank you.
COOPER: I’ll just comment on the first piece. I think there’s some—I think the broad assessment is that Taliban senior leaders enjoy some level of sanctuary in Pakistan. But I think there is a difference in opinion of how much Pakistan has influence to help direct the insurgency. Broadly, I think the Taliban is an Afghan domestic political insurgency. And so you have attacks and efforts that are being—that are being perpetrated throughout the country, in a sense that it’s not clear that somebody in Pakistan is really pulling the strings for that.
So I don’t have a number for you. I think having the command and control of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan obviously really lends to the Taliban’s staying power. But I think there is local grievances in Afghanistan that are fueling the conflict. And, you know, the bulk of Taliban fighters are in Afghanistan. And there’s actually indications publicly that there’s a growing safe haven in Afghanistan, given the amount of territory that the Taliban has, you know, brought its influence over in recent years. I’ll defer the Pakistan questions to you all.
NEUMANN: There was cross-border and what was the third element?
COOPER: Nuclear security.
SHINN: Cross-border ops.
NEUMANN: Oh, the nuclear. You know, it’s not—I was willing to let David take this one—it’s not all one thing or another. The majority of fighters are local, there’s no question. The majority—to the extent we know who is captured and killed, most of them are within a fairly short distance of their own home villages. But the leadership is in Pakistan. The ability to take wounded casualties back to Pakistan to refit in Pakistan, to build up supplies in Pakistan, and the support of the Haqqani Network, which is part of the Taliban, which is the most lethal and effective in the large-scale bombs and the small suicide bombs, that is an industry that is located in Pakistan. That’s pretty important. So it’s not a be-all and end-all. But it would sure be a heck of a lot easier to deal with this thing if you cut down on that.
Cross border, I would say—if you do cross border—you’re not going to provide a knock-out blow. You know, you don’t have—we didn’t manage that in the Laotian and Cambodian operations in Vietnam, because those were—well, I fought in that war, so I still remember it. There are selective uses for cross-border operations. You know, we had a couple, like taking out—taking out Osama bin Laden, killing Taliban leader Mansour, which may or may not have been a good idea. What I would say is cross-border operations should be done first of all of—they’re going to cause political friction.
But you ought to do them when it is, one, really significant and, two, when you intend to create the political friction that you’re going to cause. One of the problems we have is we tend to do these things—we tend to think about them too often solely in military terms, which is a good starting point. There are times when we ought to—that doesn’t mean always restraint. There are times when we ought to do more cross border because you want to up the political pressure. But you want to pick a target that is politically sensitive, that’s carrying out a message you want. And we don’t connect the pieces too well.
SHINN: Gentleman with the black glasses.
Q: My name is Stephen Blank. I am not an expert. But I am interested.
The implementation of the strategy also requires resources that are political resources. The strategy that you’ve begun to see emerge here—longer term, a lot of U.S. troops—without the political markers that the time strategy provided, which suggested that there was light at the end of the tunnel, long-term pressure on Pakistan. Do you think that this government, or any U.S. government conceivable could support this kind of a strategy seriously?
NEUMANN: Yes. But I’ll—you may want to talk.
SEDNEY: Let me just say that I think you, in a sense, have hit upon a core dichotomy in the American approach to this—to this—to the effort in Afghanistan that has bedeviled us from the very beginning. We are in Afghanistan—we are in Afghanistan very clearly because of what happened here in New York on September 11th, the attack on the United States. That is why—that’s why we are there, even 15 years later. However, the way we’ve been there, as a result, has—our objective has been to kill and capture all the terrorists involved. And we have tried that. We’ve been very successful. We’ve killed a lot of people. But we haven’t eliminated the terrorist threat.
But the American people, at the same time, have elected three presidents in a row who have been very explicit that they are not interested in nation-building in general, and not interested in nation-building in Afghanistan. You go back and look at what George Bush during the campaign and as president, he didn’t want to nation-build in Afghanistan. President Obama was very clear. He didn’t want to nation-build in Afghanistan. The record is clear. President Trump was elected, saying he didn’t want to do nation-building in Afghanistan, or anywhere else.
But I would submit that to address the core issue of how do you prevent terrorism from becoming—from continuing to be a recurring problem, nations do have to be built. Nations are going to be built anyway. And the question is, what role is the United States going to play in that? And we have been back and forth on that. Sometimes we’ve been very active in Afghanistan in what you would consider nation-building and assisting efforts. Other times, we’ve pulled back. And you could argue the same in a number of other areas, from Yemen and Syria and elsewhere. But that’s a core conflict in the American political consciousness. Are we going to be active in a big way abroad? Or do we just punch back, give people a bloody nose, and think that that’s going to solve all our problems? Obviously, I don’t. I don’t have an answer for you. And I think it’s at the very core of why people don’t understand our strategy in Afghanistan.
NEUMANN: Well, yeah. You raised—the second part of that question, though, is it sustainable. And I’m going to say it is. I would say, first of all, people normally—I’m not saying you did—but it is often posed as though there’s sort of a finite limit to public patience, and when you have passed that limit, it’s like a waterfall and you then have gone over the edge and descend. But in fact, what we see is first of all it’s dynamic, so that if in a year or two you are showing some measure that can be called real success, you get more time. If in a year or two it looks worse, you get less time. Secondly, when you don’t have a lot of people dying—you know, it’s kind of crass—but in fact, if you don’t have a lot of people—
NEUMANN: If you don’t have a lot of Americans. Yeah, we don’t much care about who else dies. But, you know, I’m sorry, but that’s the reality of our politics. It’s not the reality of our heart. But if you don’t have a lot of Americans dying, it doesn’t get a lot of attention. And people forget that we had—effective, we had two years in Iraq where we had 100,000 troops on the ground. And there were hardly any newspaper articles about Iraq. It wasn’t a big issue. The main reason the Obama administration insisted on getting out was its own conception of its role, not because there was big political pressure. So the president actually has a great deal of flexibility if he wants to do this, if he wants to say.
Also, finally, I would say that the congressional mood fluctuates. The congressional mood on Afghanistan, as I’ve talked to people, up until into probably 2011 to ’12ish was beginning to push more and more on it’s time to get out of Afghanistan. After the fall of Mosul and the upsurge of the Islamic State, the congressional mood had a major change. And it was a sort of oh my God, we don’t want that to happen in Afghanistan. You say that’s right or wrong, but the fact was the events in one place influenced the thinking in another. So there’s a dynamic. There’s a lot of room for presidential initiative if the president wants to use it. This president might choose not to.
SHINN: Well, actually, you can test that by the tenor of the questions we hear from this audience of opinion makers.
NEUMANN: Which I’m sure is a—
SHINN: In fact, there’s another one. The young lady next to the wall.
Q: Hi. Brooke Goldstein from The Lawfare Project.
I’m wondering, just because it hasn’t been mentioned at all, if our government has completely given up on formulating any type of policy to deal with the theology behind theologically motivated terrorism, Taliban being an Islamist movement. And then, relatedly, what the status was of the education system in Afghanistan right now, both in the Taliban and in the U.S.-backed system, let’s say? Are we still seeing the type of incitement to violence based on Islamic teachings in both areas as well?
SHINN: Could I make a—I mean, in the interest of focus of this—I mean, those are both very interesting topics, but they’re a little—slightly tangential of the question of strategy in Afghanistan.
NEUMANN: But the question of focusing on their narrative is very much a part of what do you do. It’s a very fair question. It’s one which we have worked at assiduously and poorly. We spent a certain amount of money. There’s a new book that just came out. And unfortunately I don’t remember the title exactly, but it contrasts Taliban propaganda with American. And it’s very sad reading. They have a clear narrative. We, for all the reasons you heard, don’t. Let me keep it short.
The biggest issues of countering both the Taliban narrative and much more broadly jihadist narratives of various different ilks, is going to have to be fought out between Muslims. It’s not one on which the foreigners are going to be definitive dispositive. It is one where we can do much better, because when we do so badly you’ve got to be able to do better. But it is most important that we reinforce the voices within the Muslim world—both Afghan, Arab, and others—who are arguing against these views rather than trying to, I don’t know, the atheist Christians will now tell you what being a good Muslim means, which usually falls somewhat short.
SEDNEY: I would say that the single biggest thing we can do to address that question is to have a successful Afghanistan that is a moderate, peaceful, Islamic democracy, which is what President Ghani and the vast majority of Afghans want, including the students that I taught.
SHINN: And please weigh in on these questions.
Other questions. Steve, you had one? The gentleman right there. He’s closer to the microphone. Actually, the gentleman with the necktie who I—who I was pointing to. (Laughter.)
Q: I’m John Washburn at Columbia University.
There is another player in the Afghan confusion now. The International Criminal Court is about to decide to authorize the prosecutor to conduct a formal investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan. All parties will be under the mandate of this investigation. But as far as the United States is concerned, this authorization will constitute a decision by the judges that there is reasonable basis to believe that Americans have committed extensive war crimes in Afghanistan and in the three black sites in Eastern Europe. The U.S. response has been to hunker down and say that the U.S.—that the court has no jurisdiction, a position which is not shared by the 123 members of the court. How does—how should—in light of the strategy, which seems to be dimly emerging among all of you, how should—how should the United States respond to this? Is hunkering down and continuing to ignore it the right way do it? Or is there some other reaction which would be more positive in terms of sustaining the strategy you’ll have?
NEUMANN: I’m happy to talk about it, but I’ve been overshadowing others.
COOPER: Oh, no, please.
NEUMANN: Why don’t we try to answer crisply with an eye on the clock, since we only have five minutes. And I need to give—we need to give each participant the last word perhaps.
NEUMANN: Well, I’ll give the last word in deference to my colleagues then. But, one, I think this is a thoroughly bad—this international court approach is a thoroughly bad idea if you have any hope of a negotiated peace in Afghanistan. If you are going to say, first of all, to our allies that we’re fighting with on the ground, by the way, we are taking you to court sometime soon. And then, even worse, we want to negotiate with you, the Taliban, but when—you know, once you negotiate and we have peace and you lay down your arms, we may take you to court and try you for your crimes. You simply are trying to go forward and backward at the same time. And that’s a recipe for immobilism.
SHINN: What do you think, Courtney?
NEUMANN: The rest of the question is tactical.
SHINN: Hot potato?
COOPER: Yeah, hot potato.
SEDNEY: I think it’s a very difficult thing for the International Criminal Court to have taken this step because, as you said, it’s all parties. And your focus, and the focus from the U.S., will of course be on the black sites and the role of the U.S. in torture during the early years of the Bush administration. That’s history, unfortunately. It’s horrible, tragic history, but it’s history. But taking aim at Pakistan and the Taliban, which will also happen under this thing, will have just the kind of consequences that Ron said, of making it harder to actually achieve peace. But I think, as you said, the International Criminal Court is apparently determined to go ahead in this way. And I think it’s going to make things more complicated and make peace less likely.
SHINN: Jeff—oh, go ahead.
COOPER: Just a really quick point. I think, if nothing else, to me it underscores the fact that there is a role for the United States as a party to the conflict, as part of the negotiations, because we’ve had a role. And if we’re named in this—with the ICC, it shows that, I mean, the Taliban does have some legitimate points when they point to grievances about U.S. involvement—U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. So I think just recognizing that there are grievances on all sides. And I think that that is a necessary component to getting all sides to the table for a process. There’s no just one side that is at fault here for what has been a long conflict, that we should all work to resolve.
SHINN: Jeff Laurenti. Though, I would point out that the Taliban are the people who slaughtered, by my count, 67,000 Afghan civilians last year.
COOPER: Sure. Yeah.
Q: Thank you, Jim. Jeff Laurenti, a co-conspirator with Jim seven, eight years ago on that international taskforce on Afghanistan and its multilateral dimensions.
I think that Ron Neumann has correctly set before us why, with a limited military footprint, the U.S. can be open-ended sustainably. But David has already indicated that what we thought were fixed pieces internationally are rapidly changing—the Iranians, the Russians. This had been an international team response. To the extent that this becomes just the U.S., and we haven’t spoken about where the Europeans are. They gave at the office already. They can—and we’re now not exactly cozying up to them in other fields either with the current administration. The Japanese have been major bankrollers also of Afghan reconstruction. And even the capacity of both the Afghan government and the Taliban to continue to recruit new foot soldiers—how sustainable is an open-ended conflict at any of these levels going forward? Or are we going to be the only ones open-ended?
SHINN: You know, I think—again, with the interest of time—and, by the way, that the—we may have all the watches and the Taliban may have all the time, but the Council on Foreign Relations does not. And we have to end at 2:00 sharp. And it’s usually a courtesy to the panelists to give you the last word. To answer Jeff’s question, would you roll it into your broader comments? So maybe, again, start with Courtney, then Ambassador Neumann, and then a final word to David.
COOPER: Sure. I would say on sustainability, at the current levels of U.S. investment, that the United States, at least, could sustain this current approach. But I would flag that there is a significant cost. Maybe it isn’t in U.S. lives, but last year it was $25 billion a year, and it’s going to be more. That comes as—that’s an opportunity cost for other projects and things that we could be doing here in the United States, or elsewhere around the world. There’s a cost for the Afghan people. As you noted, 10,000 Afghans were either killed or injured last year. Recent estimates I saw puts totals at up to 140,000 people killed since the start of this conflict. That’s a huge, significant cost. So that’s something that I don’t think we should overlook.
In terms of—I wanted to circle back really quick on what Craig had said. Craig, I agree. I think it’s really important that we think creatively about how to overcome challenges to a peace process. One is the issue of financing. You could assume a world in which there is a drawdown of international troops. It’ll be far reduced appetite to continue to invest the kind of resources we’re investing now. I think any sustainable peace process will need to come with broad assurances from the United States and the international community of continued funding in order to assure all of the players, including the current Afghan polity, that they should invest in this peace process, and they don’t stand to lose economically and politically by seeing, you know, their slice of political influence in this—in this pie further reduced.
A comment just to David in terms of turning over the reins back to the Taliban, I don’t think—I don’t think anybody would suggest that negotiation means the Taliban is taking over. Negotiation isn’t capitulation. And I think that that’s a false choice that is presented often in discussions about negotiations and a negotiated settlement to say, well, we shouldn’t do that, because by negotiating with the Taliban means that we’re going to return to a terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan. And that’s a false choice. It’s an assumption that isn’t really well-founded. And so I think—
SEDNEY: And I agree 100 percent with you, so.
COOPER: OK. (Laughs.) So I think in terms of perpetuating the conflict, sure, we maybe could do so sustainably at our current cost, but there is a real human cost, there’s a cost for U.S. interests, for regional stability, and that’s something that we really need to focus on.
NEUMANN: You raised several points. I’m going to let David talk about the Afghan intro part. On the external, I think it’s important to notice that NATO has been remarkably solid. They’re not always effective, but they’re solid. During the six months or seven months in which the Obama administration was conducting a review of some kind and trying to figure out where it was going, you actually had the Italians and the Germans pushing for a more active presence. Now, when the Italians and the Germans are ahead of us in thinking we ought to stay involved in war, I would submit that you have some fairly solid support. NATO has—members of NATO nations have now increased the personnel they’re putting in. I don’t know how long it will last. But it already defies all expectations of a decade ago. But for the moment, the principal European—and I think Japanese involvement as well—is very well-sustained, despite all the frictions we have in other places.
SEDNEY: I would agree with that. And I think what you’ll find is those who have—who have the most experience in Afghanistan, the people who’ve lived there, worked there, are the strongest supporters because of what they’ve seen of the future of Afghanistan. The most recent—it was a couple weeks ago, a visit of young Afghan women leaders, people who are at the deputy minister level, people who just didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago. They weren’t talking about this being a continually losing war. They weren’t talking about giving up the rights that they’ve achieved to authority by Taliban rulers. They were talking about a future of Afghanistan, that they are putting their lives on the line every day for, that is a vision that I think most Americans and most of our allies wanted from the very day we went into Afghanistan.
We haven’t put the right resources in. We’ve engaged in our—in activities and many things that have been counterproductive. But the end result in Afghanistan now is we have an emerging set of leaders—of young leaders. Over 50 percent of Afghans are under the age of 25. Afghan—emerging set of Afghan leaders who want peace, who want an end to the war. But even more, they want to stand up and be not as good as but better than the rest of the countries in the world and their region. The vision that these—that these people have—and American—the American people, and our assistance, with our military and civilian assistance—can take credit for helping them emerge. But the biggest credit belongs to them. I really urge you, if you are interested in this area, to meet with those young Afghans, because the future of Afghanistan is up to the Afghans. We can and should enable that future. But we need to listen to the Afghans, work with them, help them achieve what they want. Thank you.
SHINN: Well, thank you for joining us in this What to Do About… Series. If you’re still confused I hope you’re confused in a more sophisticated way. Thank you. (Applause.)