The Obama administration last week acknowledged that NATO had facilitated the passage of at least one Taliban leader to Kabul for talks with the government, though these are being called preliminary discussions. The talks occur against the backdrop of increased military pressure on the Taliban, which CFR defense expert Max Boot argues is necessary before negotiations can be "viable." Boot says President Barack Obama’s stated goal of starting to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 would likely make the war a "mission impossible." But he believes Obama is, in fact, committed to a strong counterinsurgency strategy and understands that his administration will be judged by the outcome in Afghanistan. Once Afghans and their neighbors are convinced the United States is not going to pull out in July, Boot says, "that could convince people in the region that we are a force to be reckoned with." Boot adds that the Obama administration should pressure Pakistan to take a stronger stand against terrorism and reassure Pakistan that the United States will be a steady partner.
Everyone says the current talks are not negotiations, but just a preliminary phase. How do you see the likelihood of a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan?
Negotiations are going to be viable in the long term, but it’s premature to expect a successful result from the negotiations going on right now. The best perspective I’ve heard on the subject came to me from a NATO officer I talked to in Kabul a while ago. He said, "First you gotta knock ’em on their backside, and then you can offer a helping hand up." But we’re only starting now to knock them on their backside. And you’re seeing it happen. You’re seeing coalition troops surging into insurgent strongholds. You’re seeing coalition airstrikes and Special Operations raids up sharply. All that is designed to put pressure on the Taliban and make them realize they can’t win at gunpoint and that their best hope would be negotiating with the government.
But that process is just beginning. We have not yet applied enough pressure to get most of those guys to crack, and I’m not sure that you’re ever going to have a high level of surrender by the Taliban. Our best bet is to put enough pressure on a lot of the lower and mid-level guys, who are not necessarily ideologically motivated and will simply decide that that there are easier ways to make a buck and they’ll stop fighting.
How much of a problem is President Obama’s stated starting point for withdrawal next July?
If we do start to withdraw in a serious way next July, it’ll be "mission impossible." I don’t think there’s any way we can win by next July. But I’ve seen a lot of indications that President Obama has backed off that deadline since he announced it last December, and whenever he’s been given an opportunity, he’s consistently opted for a more ambitious counterinsurgency strategy, even though he doesn’t use that word. There’s a lot of expectation on the part of the Taliban and others in the region that we will start withdrawing next July. Basically they’re telling people, "You can’t count on the Americans." But if next July rolls around and we don’t start withdrawing in a major way, and there’s only a small, symbolic withdrawal, that could convince a lot of people that the Taliban claims are not to be believed and, in fact, we are a force to be reckoned with, as I think we are.
In fact, CFR’s Stephen Biddle was saying that right now no one believes we’re not going to leave in July. But when they see we’re still there next summer, they’ll have a rude awakening.
Absolutely, if Obama would come out and say, "No, we’re not leaving next July," I think that would be helpful, but he’s clearly not going to do that. There’s a sense in Washington that he has backed off the deadline, but that has not communicated itself to places like Afghanistan or Pakistan. So, all the talk right now is futile. What really counts is action. If we continue fighting and continue making gains on the ground, that will change the psychology both in Afghanistan and also on our own home front.
Is it important whether the Republicans come out of the upcoming midterm elections stronger in Congress than they are now? Will that have any impact on the Afghan situation?
It could have an impact, certainly. So far Republicans have been pretty stalwart in backing President Obama in Afghanistan. Most of the opposition comes from the Democratic Party. If you have more Republicans, presumably that will mean more support for the war effort, which is a good thing. It will also signal American strength to the region and to lots of people who are in places like Afghanistan or Pakistan. If you see big Republican gains, that will be a sign of American seriousness and commitment, which will be helpful.
Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, describes the in-fighting that went on in the administration over the question of size of troops and whether to announce a withdrawal timeframe. Obama made it clear that he wanted a withdrawal date to keep the Democratic Party in line.
Our best bet is to put enough pressure on a lot of the lower and mid-level guys, who are not necessarily ideologically motivated and will simply decide that that there are easier ways to make a buck and they’ll stop fighting.
But it’s not clear what all that means. I think he said that "in July 2011, we’ll begin a transition to Afghan responsibility," but how much of a transition will actually happen is very much conditions-based. And the reality is, I think, he goes all-in in Afghanistan. The most telling comments from that book were when Vice President Joe Biden says to him, "if you don’t back down from the [then commanding officer General Stanley] McChrystal strategy, you’re going to own this war." And Obama said, "I already own it." That to me is the reality of the situation. And that’s something that Obama recognizes. A lot of the way in which Obama’s presidency will be judged will be on the outcome in Afghanistan. And he doesn’t have the option of saying, "It’s not really my war." It’s his war. It’s on his watch. He understands he needs to have a decent outcome.
The American public’s view of this war is increasingly sour. Is that simply because it’s been going on for so long?
It’s because we’re not seeing obvious results on the ground. I don’t think the American people are really opposed to fighting a war. What they’re opposed to is fighting a war we don’t seem to be winning. They want to see us start to win. And if we do, you will see the same kind of turnaround that we saw in the case of Iraq, where the war was very unpopular by 2007. The surge happened. We saw progress on the ground, and all of the sudden, opposition to the war melted away. Afghanistan is not as unpopular as Iraq was in 2007. People are basically up in the air. They’re looking for results. If General [David] Petraeus and the troops under his command can deliver those results, I think you will see a sea change in public opinion.
What is General Petraeus’s strategy right now as far as you can tell?
It’s a multifaceted strategy that includes both what’s known as counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. The counterinsurgency part is pushing troops into populations in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where there have not been a lot of coalition troops before, and that’s the traditional heartland of the Taliban. He’s pushing troops off the large bases into communities to provide twenty-four hour/seven-day protection to the people and create some law and order where none has existed before.
A lot of the way in which Obama’s presidency will be judged will be on the outcome in Afghanistan. And he doesn’t have the option of saying, "It’s not really my war." It’s his war. It’s on his watch. He understands he needs to have a decent outcome.
At the same time, he is ramping up Special Operations raids and airstrikes. That’s the counterterrorism part of his strategy: to take out a lot of mid- to high-level Taliban facilitators and leaders, hurting the insurgency in that way. Another part of his strategy is trying to increase the level of governance in Afghanistan and trying to cut down on the corrosive levels of corruption, which alienate people from their own government and drive them into the arms of the Taliban. He’s trying to work with the leaders of the government of Afghanistan to weed out the most corrupt officials and end the most abusive practices.
Those are the key planks of his multifaceted strategy, and what he realizes is that you can’t do any one of those things in isolation. You have to have multiple elements to attack all levels of the problem at once, along with some of the other things that he’s doing that include creating the conditions under which Taliban defectors can come over to the government’s side [and] the reintegration programs for them. And that goes back to the issues I was talking about. I doubt he thinks that the talks are going to work overnight. But he and the forces under his command want to create the conditions so that if and when the Taliban starts to crack, they’ll be able to come over and be welcomed and provided with jobs and security so that defecting will seem like a sensible option.
Has Pakistan been helpful to the United States in dealing with the Taliban?
Pakistan has been helpful and unhelpful at the same time. They certainly do cooperate with us, for example, in facilitating the drone strikes on Taliban, even though they don’t publicly acknowledge that. At the same time, there’s a lot of evidence that they continue to provide aid and support to the Haqqani network [pro-Taliban guerrillas] and other elements of the insurgency, which is deeply troubling and very unhelpful. I don’t think anybody has any good idea about how to turn around the government of Pakistan. We pretty much have to keep doing what we’re doing, which is on the one hand applying pressure through the drone strikes on the terrorist networks, and on the other hand, offering aid and assistance to the government of Pakistan to try to nudge them in the direction of taking on some of these terrorist and guerilla groups with which they’ve been affiliated. It would be helpful in that regard if President Obama did a better job of communicating that we have a long-term commitment to the region, and that if Pakistan does do some dangerous things we will be there to support them, that we’re not going to leave them in the lurch. They are very much concerned that we will do again what we did in the 1990s, which is to leave them holding the bag.