Editor’s Note: Bruce Riedel discusses his optimism toward the progress of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan in a recent interview with
, but cautions that the real problem is Pakistan.
DW: Is Afghanistan NATO’s Vietnam?
Bruce Riedel: No. NATO is leaving an Afghanistan that will be able to meet NATO’s key strategic objectives – prevent al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base for further terrorist attacks in North America and Europe and prevent the Taliban from being able to control the country. I think that the formula that has been agreed to in Chicago provides us with both a responsible exit for our troops and a long-term strategic commitment to Afghanistan, and an Afghan army that will prevent al Qaeda and the Taliban from again being able to take over Afghanistan.
DW: Many observers have their doubts about that. The army has extremely high attrition rates and very few units capable of operating without international support.
Riedel: I think the situation is a bit different from the bleak picture you paint. The Afghan security forces, which were neglected by NATO for eight years, have, in the last three years, grown to about 350,000 in strength. The NATO commander in the field, General [John] Allen, believes that the army’s progress – both qualitatively and quantitatively – has been better than anticipated. No one knows how well they will do after 2014. That’s the future and inherently unknowable, but there is no reason to believe that they can’t provide sufficient security to keep the major cities and urban areas, as well as much of the north and centre of the country, free from Taliban control. The Taliban are not 10 feet tall. They are basically an illiterate Pashtun army that survives primarily because of Pakistani support.
DW: Trends suggest the opposite: Civilian casualties have been rising for years, as have US casualties with the exception of 2011. And the International Crisis Group reports that the Taliban have expanded the area under their control.
Riedel: The data NATO has put out is quite different. Civilian casualties are a problem, but today more parts of Afghanistan – Kandahar, Helmand and other provinces – are regarded by NATO as being reasonably secure than three years ago. President Obama in Chicago said that the momentum of the Taliban has been reversed in the last three years and that makes possible the withdrawal of combat forces from the United States and other NATO countries. I guess at the end of the day I am more willing to put my confidence behind the president than the ICG.
DW: Admitting defeat would not have been an alternative in an election year.
Riedel: I don’t think we have been defeated. The NATO alliance is on the path to achieve its minimal security interest, which is to ensure that Afghanistan cannot be a base for terrorist operations in the future. In addition to that, the agreement that we have signed with the Afghans will allow the United States to continue to have access to Afghan military bases for the next decade in order to carry out counterterrorist missions in the region. That’s an important accomplishment as well. It provides for a long-term strategic agreement between Washington and Kabul that allows us to be certain that we can carry out missions, like the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 and drone attacks from Afghan bases until 2025.
DW: Has Afghanistan become a base for attacks on Pakistan?
Riedel: Well, Pakistan continues to harbor the leadership of the Taliban. A NATO study based on the interrogation of 4,000 Taliban prisoners concluded that the ISI (Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence) knows the whereabouts of every Taliban leader and meets regularly with them, including Mullah Omar. But Afghanistan has become a base for counterterrorist missions inside Pakistan because it has become clear that the Pakistani government will not take firm action against terrorists on its own. Three of the top five most wanted terrorists of the world are in Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed, the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba, even appears on Pakistani television every week and holds mass rallies.
DW: Obama has stepped up the use of drone attacks in Pakistan. Moral and legal questions apart: Don’t these killings destabilize Pakistan?
Riedel: I think we have a stark choice. In the absence of Pakistan being willing to control the terrorist Frankenstein it has helped create on its territory, we are going to have to take measures to disrupt and dismantle that. We don’t have the luxury of just hoping that the terrorists will be nice boys and not carry out attacks against the United States or Europe. The drone attacks have had a devastating effect upon al Qaeda’s operational capabilities. Al Qaeda is a much diminished force in Pakistan today compared to what it was when the president came into office in 2009. That is almost entirely due to unilateral American counterterrorist missions. We’ve gotten virtually no support from the government of Pakistan. Pakistan has been more of an obstacle than a friend and assistant in the fight against Al Qaeda in the last decade.
DW: You played a significant role in shaping current US policy by chairing Obama’s review of the Afghan strategy in 2009. What were the main changes you suggested?
Riedel: There were two fundamental changes. One was to recognize that Pakistan is the more serious problem and that Pakistan’s tolerance, if not complicity, in supporting terrorism is a major threat not only to the United States but to the NATO alliance and to other countries as well. And we stepped up efforts to try to deal with that terrorist problem. Secondly, the recognition that the effort to build up an Afghan army had been under-resourced and underfinanced until 2008 and as a consequence the Taliban had found a vacuum. We were in a position in 2001 and 2002 to stabilize Afghanistan with a relatively small number of foreign troops and with significant economic assistance programs. Instead, we completely failed to do that. The Bush administration was obsessed with its Iraq mission and the problem the Obama administration had when it came into office in 2009 was that it did not have a time machine – it could not go back and fix the mistakes of the past. Our solution was to focus on building up an Afghan army strong and capable enough to deal with the Taliban without foreign combat troops but with continued financial and other support from outside. This is not a perfect solution to the problem of Afghanistan. The civil war between the Taliban and the legitimately elected, internationally recognized government is likely to go on afterwards.
DW: What will Afghanistan look like 10 years from now?
Riedel: The worst case would be that the civil war continues to grind along and that the Taliban control parts of the south and east of the country. That would be a tragedy because it would mean that the horror of the war Afghanistan has lived through for 30 years would go on for another decade. The best outcome would be if the Taliban would agree to enter into a political process and you could have a ceasefire and a process of political reconciliation. And outside interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs would come to an end, as we let the Afghan’s settle their problems through political process and not through violence.
[The economy is] an issue where [Rouhani] has a greater chance of avoiding real gridlock within the system itself. It’s not nearly as dangerous as taking on issues of political prisoners or trying to open up the political space to those who feel marginalized.