Prospects in Afghanistan ’Not Looking Good’

Veteran New York Times correspondent John F. Burns discusses the declining security situation in Afghanistan and what he says are the dim prospects for fruitful peace talks between the Taliban and Karzai government.  

October 22, 2008

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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John F. Burns, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for the New York Times, recently returned to Afghanistan, after having been posted there in the 1980s and 1990s. He says that while Kabul is now "commercially thriving," the overall security situation is poor. He says that unlike Iraq, where many people wanted to withdraw, almost from the beginning, he says "there’s virtually a consensus that this is a war that we can’t afford to lose." Burns says diplomats have downplayed reports of a possible negotiation between the Taliban and the Karzai government, although he does not rule out engaging some nationalist Taliban in discussions. Burns adds, however, "it’s difficult to imagine that any faction of the Taliban would relent on the fundamental demand, which is that there has to be a total foreign troop withdrawal" from Afghanistan.

You’ve been a correspondent in Afghanistan going back to pre-Taliban days. You were there when the American troops liberated Kabul, and you’ve just been back to Afghanistan. What are the differences in Afghanistan these days?

Well, the war of course is not going well. One could even say it’s going badly, but it’s not an unmitigated picture of gloom. When you speak of Kabul, there are now 5 million people compared to 1.5 million at the time when the Taliban fell. It’s a city that is commercially thriving. There is still an enormous number of poor and impoverished people, which is part of what’s gone wrong with the war effort. In security terms, things are pretty gloomy. As you know, [the] numbers of [violent] incidents have increased by about 30 percent in a year. American military commanders are saying that they don’t have enough troops. It’s not clear where they’re going to get the troops unless the Iraq war really winds down. The Taliban own the night. They own the villages south of the Hindu Kush. They are rampant. It’s not a good picture, and, as you know, there isn’t any real significant debate in the West about withdrawing as there has been about Iraq almost from the beginning. I think there’s virtually a consensus that this is a war that we can’t afford to lose.

There’s constant talk about a possible mediation between the Taliban and the Karzai government. Is there anything to that?

Some of the fairly senior diplomats that I spoke to in Kabul urged caution on that. The specific meeting that has been cited as a hopeful sign, which was an Iftar dinner-an end of Ramadan dinner-that occurred in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, hosted by the Saudi king. But apparently, as I’m told by diplomats who’ve served in Saudi Arabia, those kinds of gatherings are fairly common and at that particular dinner, although there were representatives of the Taliban, loosely speaking, and of other opposition groups, there were no discussions, no negotiations. And it’s difficult to see what the grounds for negotiation would be. Now it’s also true that the Taliban are not the unified party they once were-if they ever were, in fact. There are different strains in the Taliban. To put it at its crudest, there is the Islamic fundamentalist stream of people who hosted Osama bin Laden and helped bring us 9/11, and then there is the nationalist stream, which is associated more than any other I think with Jalaluddin Haqqani. He’s an old mujahadeen fighter from the 1980s. He’s a nationalist. He fought the Soviets, now he fights the Americans very effectively in the south of Kabul, in the area around Khost.

So there is potential in all this for engaging with some of the Taliban, but it’s difficult to imagine that any faction of the Taliban would relent on the fundamental demand, which is that there has to be a total foreign troop withdrawal. The nationalists as much as the Islamists are intent on that. And on the government side, President Hamid Karzai’s side backed by the United States and its coalition partners, there is an insistence that there be an acceptance of the Afghan constitution as adopted in 2004, which also seems to be nonnegotiable and very unlikely to be accepted. It’s not impossible, but I don’t think this war is going to end by negotiation anytime soon.

How important do you think the situation in Pakistan is? In the United States, there’s an awful lot of discussion about the need to crack down on the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.

It’s a huge problem, and it’s not helped by the fact that you have yet another Pakistani government, this time under President Asif Ali Zardari, which is very ambiguous about its intent to make sure that sanctuary and infiltration stops. The present government of Pakistan opposes, just as former President Pervez Musharraf did, the notion of cross-border incursions by U.S. troops. It also objects, although much less so, to firing of missiles from unmanned drones against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in those Pakistani border areas, which have been very effective. And it’s difficult to see how this problem can be overcome. You’re dealing in Pakistan with a failed state, or at least a failing state, which is practically bankrupt, which is now headed once again by one of the so-called democratic parties led by Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari. I say "so-called" because you have to qualify that when talking about Pakistan. So I’m not confident that it’s going to be any better now, and I don’t see that the United States has any fixes of that.

Do you think it’s analogous to the problem the United States had in Vietnam, where the Viet Cong were kept supplied by troops from North Vietnam, and the United States was reluctant to send troops to North Vietnam for fear of getting China involved?

I think there are analogies, and those analogies go beyond that. You have the further problem that the United States has chosen as the leader in Afghanistan Hamid Karzai, who is personally, as everybody agrees, an extremely amiable character. But he is not an authentic national leader; he never was. The leaders who have authenticity in Afghanistan tend to be people who came out of the mujahadeen insurgency of the 1980s, which was against the Russians, and Hamid Karzai was a very marginal figure in all of that.

The Russian ambassador, a man by the splendid name of Zamir Kabulov, says that Moscow has no interest in seeing the United States fail in Afghanistan. Even though one might wonder about that, he says, speaking of Karzai, that it reminded him of the 1980s, when he, Kabulov, was the KGB resident [top agent] in Kabul and was instrumental in getting rid of the first Soviet-imposed president of Afghanistan, Babrak Karmal--who was put overnight on an airplane and shuttled off to Moscow where he eventually died--and in replacing him with the secret police chief Mohammad Najibullah, who proved to be much more effective. And Kabulov, who knows Hamid Karzai quite well, said, "We had Karmal, but we also had Najibullah. You only have Karmal," meaning there is no evident alternative to Karzai as Afghanistan approaches a new presidential election in 2009.

Those warlords are not good enough to run?

Some of the people who diplomats in Kabul will tell you would make much more effective leaders are people who came out of the Soviet stable, in effect. The new interior minister, just appointed by Karzai under British and American pressure, Muhammad Hanif Atmar, was a member of the secret police engendered under the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. He was a young man then in his early 20s; he’s now in his 40s. He lost a leg fighting for the Khad secret police paramilitaries against American-supported mujahadeen in Jalalabad in the late 1980s. These people are tough and effective, so the United States was getting itself into this curious position where it’s become increasingly reliant on not just Mr. Atmar, who now is in charge of the police. The whole cadre of senior officers, army officers, at senior levels of the Ministry of Defense, deputy chiefs of staff, and in combat positions were once prominent in the Afghan forces under the Russians. So history is repeating itself in all manner of ways.

When was your last time in Baghdad?

I left Baghdad in the fall of 2007, a year ago.

How would you compare the situation in Afghanistan now with, say, the worst in Baghdad?

Let’s talk about the levels of violence. American military who were killed in Afghanistan exceeded those killed in Iraq for the first time in July of 2008. It’s still the case that the level of violence generally in Afghanistan, and the level of American casualties, does not yet compare with the worst that we saw in Iraq. Something over 4,500 American troops have been killed in Iraq, and only about-it’s pretty high just the same-610 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. But it’s the trends that matter: the trend lines in Afghanistan are up, the trend lines in Iraq are down. And there has been an importing by the insurgency, particularly the al-Qaeda elements of the insurgency, of tactics that were so effective in Iraq. These are suicide bombings, assassinations, and road side bombings. The asymmetric war which was effectively deployed by the insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq is moving to Afghanistan. Indeed, some of the practitioners are moving. We have been briefed by American military in Iraq that former fighters who in the past were flooding to Iraq, mostly Arabs and Central Asians, are now making Afghanistan their war of choice, which means, in effect, that Senator Barack Obama and the insurgency in Iraq agree on one thing and that is that the front line on the war on terrorism is now Afghanistan and not Iraq.

So this is putting pressure, of course, on the U.S. military to get their troops out of Iraq as soon as they can. Of course we still have this hang up on this security agreement with the Iraqi government. I guess it is forever caught up in Iraqi politics.

Yes, indeed. General McKiernan is saying there can be no buildup of American troops of the kind that he thinks is necessary until there is a build-down in Iraq. Well, we know that that build-down in Iraq, if it is to come, is not going to begin, until-if we take Senator Obama’s schedule-sometime next summer or fall. So we may be as much as a year away from the moment when General McKiernan and General Petraeus, as Central Command commander, begin to get the sort of troop numbers that they want. The idea, of course, is to double the size of the Afghan army. But doubling the size of the Afghan army is at least a two-year to three-year project. And when you’ve done it, you’ve got an army of 134,000 people, which is a lot better than it was five years ago, but it’s not a warrior army that you might think you would be able to develop in Afghanistan.

And the NATO forces are not making much of a contribution except for the British I take it.

The Canadians are doing a very good job with the British in Helmand Province in the south, where they’ve been taking a bit of a pounding. But, as you know, some of the NATO partners that the United States had hoped to pull their weight in Afghanistan-Germany in particular-have insisted on keeping its troops north of the Hindu Kush-away from the principal Taliban areas and thus away from taking heavy casualties. Though even there the Germans are beginning to feel some pain. There are Taliban areas north of the Hindu Kush, and they have been suicide bombed up there. But the general feeling is that if there’s going to be an increment of NATO troops in Afghanistan, it’s going to be the usual suspects, namely the United States and the United Kingdom.

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