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On the Record

The Danger of Delay in Afghan Policymaking

Bruce Riedel joined CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman to discuss the consequences of delaying new action in Afghanistan. Riedel says it is vital for the administration to avoid lengthy delays in deciding on a course of action in its planning for the Af-Pak war theater.

Bernard Gwertzman: President Obama is winding up an intensive review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. You organized a similar review for the president which ended up in his speech on March 27 outlining a pretty dynamic policy towards both countries. What has caused the second review?

Bruce Riedel: The president was very clear, and correctly so, back in the winter that the policy he was going to embark on wouldn’t be on autopilot. That is to say, we will not just blindly continue to follow a course forward. He was clear then, and he’s right now, to periodically take a look to judge what we’re doing right; what we’re doing wrong; what did we anticipate correctly; what’s new that we didn’t anticipate.ga And even on the question of the personnel on the team: Have we got the right people? Do we need someone else? From the beginning the president indicated to me and to his national security team that he would want to periodically revisit those questions. That makes a lot of sense. This is a very dynamic situation. It’s a situation which has deteriorated over the last six months in several ways. First, the military situation on the battlefield has gotten worse. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that just the other day: The momentum is with the enemy. And secondly, the political situation has gotten worse with the fiasco of the Afghan elections. There’s a delicate line, of course, between rethinking and dithering. And the president and his team are aware that they have to avoid the latter at all costs.

Gwertzman: Among the ideas pushed forward is one that says that the Taliban is really not an enemy; al-Qaeda is the only enemy and so therefore it’s not that necessary to defeat the Taliban. That would undercut the whole effort of boosting the Afghan military forces and increasing the military forces in Afghanistan. Is this a real competing idea right now?

Riedel: This is a fairy tale. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been closely aligned ever since Osama bin Laden came back to Afghanistan in the mid 1990s. The Taliban leadership under Mullah Omar has been unwilling to break with al-Qaeda for more than a decade. Ever since the two had their first meeting back in the nineties–which I would remind people was set up by the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI–these two have been in a partnership. What is most remarkable about that partnership is that it has survived and endured when arguably the Taliban has been a big loser in this partnership. They lost the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. But at no point is there any serious evidence that Mullah Omar and the top Taliban leadership have been willing to give up Osama bin Laden and turn him over. And that really ought to be the bar on which we judge whether the Taliban is willing to enter into serious negotiations, not a promise that “if you leave, we’ll be good boys,” or that “we will break with al-Qaeda.”

Read the full interview » (external link)

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