Full transcript of the July 30 event “Debating the United States’ Role in Afghanistan After 2014” hosted by the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
Welcome and Moderator:
Vice President and Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center,
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia,
Department of Defense
Director, South Asia Center,
Date: Monday, July 29, 2013
Federal News Service
BARRY PAVEL: (In progress) – event. Now, thanks for coming to the Loews Madison Hotel for this Atlantic Council event on the future roles of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan after 2014. This is my first event since the Atlantic Council moved and rebranded and transformed and all those buzzwords. And so I’m sure it’ll be a hundred times better than normal, but I do – we look forward to a really interesting discussion.
It’s not exactly a midsummer night’s dream, but it is a – this is a very timely and important debate. And we felt compelled to hold this forum because of what we were seeing being discussed as the various options and policy choices regarding U.S. and allied interests in Afghanistan. We at the council have paid special attention to developments in Afghanistan. And certainly the three panelists I have here today have been deeply, deeply involved, all of them, in the very issues that we are discussing. So I am really just thrilled and forgive me if I just end up watching and listening myself as opposed to moderating, but this is going to be a really interesting session.
So the Atlantic Council’s work on Afghanistan probably didn’t start in 2008, but there was a major effort led by General Jones who had just joined the council as chairman after leading NATO into command in Afghanistan. He published a very hard-hitting Atlantic Council report that I believe in the very first sentence said that the international community was failing in its efforts in Afghanistan.
Since then, Shuja Nawaz, on our panel, has been leading very intensive efforts across a number of years to continue to track events in Afghanistan and in the broader region and make recommendations to the relevant policymakers and players. And certainly the Scowcroft Center has also been following events through our work on NATO and the various ministerials and policy statements that have come out through that. And so what to do in Afghanistan after 2014 has been a major concern, certainly for NATO and for us. And this – we’ll – we will certainly address that lens in this discussion today.
NATO has been examining its options and various milestones since its involvement began. And the moment really is now for the United States and NATO to decide what are its roles post-2014, what are its interests, what should be its associated military missions and then, following that, the right amount of presence – the mix and number of forces. I, myself, do not prefer to start the conversation with the number of troops because that comes out of the other issues that I just mentioned, but we’ll certainly get to that as well today.
Many of you know the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan has been, to say the least, frosty and probably frostier over the last few months. If you’ve seen the press reports of President Obama’s video teleconference with Karzai recently was sort of one of many such very difficult discussions. You’ve seen the comments by President Karzai about the U.S., not very helpful in many – in many people’s opinion.
And in some ways all of this is diluting what should be the main topics – the topics I mentioned: interests, missions, forces, roles. That’s what we’d like to cover today. And there’ve been a lot of discussion in the press about the zero option, although General Dunford said as recently as yesterday that he is not planning against any option that looks like zero. Other options that have been discussed have been the suggested number of forces by General Mattis and General Allen, as well as the originally planned 8,000 number of residual troops.
Whichever option it ends up being, we currently have about 63,000 forces in Afghanistan, scheduled to drop to 34,000 in February and then, of course, we’ll see towards the end of the year. Many of the United States allies are awaiting this decision from the United States. Some have already made their decisions.
Denmark withdrew its forces earlier this month. And Germany and Italy have pledged to stay in terms of a training and advising role after 2014. So a wide range of players getting ready to make their decisions or already having made them. So this really to us is crunch time and hence the panel that we’re engaging today on these issues.
With that, I think I would like turn to introduce my panel. There’s a live Twitter discussion going on. The hashtag is an Orwellian hashtag, #wagingpeace. We can discuss that too, perhaps, during the – during this conversation. (Laughter.) I would have voted for other hashtags, but this is not a democracy here. (Laughter.) In any event, let me turn to my panelists.
David Sedney, a long-time colleague of mine. He most recently was former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. He stepped down in June, so we’re going to get some very fresh views and, I have no doubt, very sharp views from Mr. Sedney. He was also the DASD for East Asia from 2007 to 2009. Before that he was DCM in Beijing from 2004 to 2007. And before that, he was DCM in Kabul from 2002 to 2004.
So, all in all, an extraordinarily accomplished and wide-ranging public service career and I’m really looking forward this next set of contributions in light of his background. These will be very important policy contributions from David on a wide range of issues in Asia, in South Asia and elsewhere. So I’m just going to keep watching him and hopefully following him on Twitter when he jumps on.
Second in the middle we have Dr. Shuja Nawaz who directs the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. He has worked previously at RAND, the U.S. Institute of Peace, CSIS. He led projects on Pakistan and the Middle East at all of these organizations. One of our most important commentators on Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia, a great contributor to all of the debates surrounding this region and what’s going on in this region. He’s also an adviser for senior government and military officials in U.S., Europe and Pakistan, and a great colleague of mine at the Atlantic Council. I always love working with him and learning from him every time I engage him.
And then third, just another brilliant analyst on these issues is Josh Foust. He’s a freelance journalist who currently edits the State of Play collection at Medium which covers foreign policy issues. He was a fellow at the American security project. He was a senior political analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency and Army Intelligence and Security Command in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. He’s written profusely for – prolifically for The Atlantic, The New York Times, many other publications. I follow him on Twitter. He’s also a former young Atlanticist and attended the 2012 NATO Chicago summit in Chicago with us, the Atlantic Council, inside the perimeter where we had a range of discussions with NATO officials, and will do so, no doubt, again for the 2014 summit.
So without further ado, I’ll ask my panelists to give a few minutes of remarks each on sort of the main issues that I laid out. Then I’ll engage them a bit more. And then we want to have a conversation with you to get your thoughts, your insights and your questions for them as well. And so, David, we’d love to hear from you now. Thanks.
DAVID SEDNEY: Thank you. Thanks very much, Barry. I want to thank you, Shuja, and your colleagues at the Atlantic Council for putting on this – putting on this forum and for your very sophisticated and in-depth interest in Afghanistan over the years. Secondly, I’d like to thank all of you in the audience for coming down on a sultry Washington midsummer morning. And thirdly, I’d like to stress for all of you that while I was in the administration up until June, I am no longer. And my views and opinions are entirely my own, as you’ll – as you’ll shortly see. (Laughter.)
I agree – I agree very much with Barry that the focus should be on interest. And in answer to his question about post-2014, I think it’s really important that we all have clear idea of where we are today. And that’s really, really hard. We are all subject to a relentless, negative and false portrayal of Afghanistan in the U.S. and international media. I’ve made that point directly to representatives of The New York Times, The Washington Post, other journalists. And I think it’s very hard for the American public and for American leadership to make accurate judgments when they’re continually bombarded with what I call – with what I know is false information about Afghanistan.
Why do I say that? First of all, it’s because it’s relentlessly negative when there are huge positives about Afghanistan. And when I say that to audiences, people always look sideways at each other and think, what is this guy smoking? What’s wrong with him? Doesn’t he understand? And the answer is, yes, I do understand. The problem is that the environment around is such that it’s very hard for people to understand and to even think of Afghanistan and the events there over the last year, over the last 10 years really, in positive way.
Why do I say that? Well, let’s go back to the interest that Barry mentioned. What were our interests when we into Afghanistan in 2001? We wanted to prevent al-Qaida from ever doing an attack on the United States again. We wanted to ensure the Taliban, which had hosted the al-Qaida, was not able to take over the government of Afghanistan. And we wanted to give Afghanistan a chance to become a better society. We’ve succeeded in all three.
Al-Qaida is only a shadow of its former self. The Taliban is not now and will not in the near future – maybe even – I would say even in the medium to the long-term future does not have the ability to take over Afghanistan again. And Afghanistan has made huge progress in building its society, in building its economy. It’s been very weak on the political side. And if you focus just on President Karzai and the few high-level exchanges, the kind of things Barry was talking about, you get a negative picture.
But if you look at Afghanistan more broadly, a country where life expectancy has increased, infant mortality is sharply down, maternal mortality is sharply down, access to education has just exploded, a place where people’s economic – people economically are much better off than they were two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, a place where the U.N. says it has made the greatest progress of any post-conflict country in recent decades.
Now, of course, Afghanistan started from a very low base. Its great progress still leaves it in a very weak and fragile position. And there are huge problems. You can read about those problems every day. But going back to my first point, if all you read about is the problems, if all you hear about is the problems, if all you think about is the problems, then you don’t realize that we have made great success in Afghanistan.
Therefore, the answer to Barry’s question, in my view, is it’s absolutely vital for American national interest, the interest that I laid out and, I would add, another vital interest – the credibility of the United States. We said we were going to go into Afghanistan and prevent it from going back to the Taliban and the al-Qaida. And we need to make sure we keep that promise to prevent future movements from thinking they can take a different path and to ensure that the Taliban and al-Qaida don’t come back.
In order to do that, we need to have a continuing security commitment. We need to have a continuing economic commitment. And all the bad news about Afghanistan that you can read in today’s Washington Post, New York Times or Wall Street Journal – they all had negative stories today and I can debunk every one if anybody wants to ask – but how many people have reported that yesterday the Swedish government announced that it was going to increase its assistance to Afghanistan next year by 50 percent – to go from 20 (million dollars) to $31 million of assistance?
Sweden is an important country. They’ve had a greater long-term commitment than almost any other country. And they are making the decision that continuing to invest in Afghanistan is worthwhile because of the success that Afghanistan has had. So I believe it is vitally important that the United States make a strong commitment. I agree with Barry that other countries are waiting to see what the United States does. I believe that every day we wait makes it less likely that we’ll succeed, less likely that the Afghans will succeed over the long term.
I think the danger is greater of negative interference from neighboring countries – Pakistan or Iran – than the threat from the Taliban. The biggest success story in Afghanistan, I’ll close by saying, is the Afghan National Army. The Afghan National Army has taken almost complete responsibility for security in Afghanistan this year. And it has done so with very little support from the United States and international forces – much less support than even a year ago it was counting on.
In every encounter with the Taliban that has either prevailed or if was – suffered a temporary setback, it’s been able to push them back. That’s not a story you read in the U.S. media but it’s a story that if you go to Afghanistan, if you talk to both Afghans, Americans, or if you talk to the Taliban, they’ll tell you the Afghan security forces are carrying the load. Will they continue to do so? Only if we stay the course as well.
MR. PAVEL: Thanks very much, David. You raised a lot of issues that I’ll want to come back to you on, but I thought you hit definitely all the right issues. And I’d love hear now from Shuja on – your views on these issues. Thanks.
SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you, Barry. And I – and I should clarify that I’m the author of that so-called Orwellian hashtag – (laughter) – which is – and it certainly got your attention. And that was the whole aim.
So that is indeed the motto of the South Asia Center that we are going to violently wage peace in the region. And don’t stand in our way. (Laughter.) There is – I think, as David has pointed out, there is a cold war going on about Afghanistan. And the cold war is not just between the media and people on the Hill and people in the administration, but it’s also between the special inspector general on Afghanistan and the USAID and the Department of Defense.
I think almost every second day one gets a barrage of emails from the SIGAR office pointing out to what has not been doing and pointing out the discrepancies. And so that is really what is feeding the media frenzy in many ways. I think that’s an explanation perhaps of what we are witnessing. And this is not surprising because there is now a wave of pessimism that surrounds the Afghanistan adventure. People have talked themselves into thinking that the only way of saving the United States from any further embarrassment is to exit Afghanistan in a hurry.
And I wouldn’t surprise me if 2013 becomes the operative date given the way the temperatures have been rising between President Karzai and the U.S. administration, and how the U.S. Congress now seems hell-bent on trying to get out and focus back on domestic issues. Unfortunately, it appears that the president also is inclined to getting out and that he may well have checked out and is now focused largely on domestic issues. So Afghanistan may suffer yet again a fate of abandonment, which is what scares the daylights out of the leadership in Kabul, I’m sure.
But let’s look to the future. What after? What after 2014? The main thing really is what happens in 2014. There is an election that is scheduled. And we don’t know when that will actually take place. And if I may steal an idea from a very respected scholar and practitioner of U.S. policy in Afghan who’s in the audience, Ambassador Neumann, I think there’s perhaps a serious consideration that should be given to another surge, a surge at the time of the election in order to ensure that the election actually occurs and that it provides a security cordon in which the election can occur and in which no shenanigans occur so that the, at least on election day, regardless of what fixes have been put in prior to election day, that the elections are reasonably fair and open and competitive.
So that may be something worth looking at, perhaps even more so than reconciliation, which is going to be a very difficult task because the Taliban have known that the U.S. has set itself a very short deadline. It’s difficult to bargain when you – when you go in and say, you know, we just don’t have time. We are leaving, but we need to reach an agreement with you. (Laughter.) And they have the time. And they’re not going to reach an agreement to suit you. And so this is going to make it very difficult as we go forward.
Regional actors are going to be very critical, I entirely agree with David. It’s not just Pakistan, it’s Iran, it’s the Central Asian republics, it’s Russia, it’s China and, of course, India. You can’t minimize in any way the role of India on many fronts, particularly on the economic front. And on Pakistan, yes, there is the danger of continued sanctuary and the use of Pakistan as a base, but a senior U.S. government official has been consistently saying in Washington circles that only 10 percent of the attacks in Afghanistan are actually by the Haqqani group.
So the question really is, what about the rest of the country and the 90 percent of the attacks? Where are emanating from and how does one prepare the Afghan national forces and support them with the intelligence, with surveillance beyond 2014 so that they can do the job for which they’ve been trained? And that’s a challenge which still sits on the table. I haven’t seen any clear answers to that. Maybe David can enlighten us on what’s on the table on that front.
Economics, I think, is going to be key. Afghanistan, as you know, has a – has a GDP of around 16 billion (dollars), most of it financed with aid. It is sitting next to a country that has a GDP of – I’m referring to Pakistan – a GDP of somewhere between 200 (billion dollars) and 250 billion (dollars). That’s the formal economy. And if you add another 200 billion (dollars) from the informal economy, there is a tremendous possibility of codependence in terms of trade and development for these two countries. There is already a transit trade agreement; it’s very critical that the United States now use its relationships with Afghanistan, with Pakistan and with India to open the transit trade doors, to facilitate this corridor, because India is going to be the largest partner in this growth effort in Afghanistan. It has, after all, given well over a billion dollars already in assistance to Afghanistan. The good thing is that they are holding back on getting involved militarily, so that will help the relationship with Pakistan.
Similarly, the U.S. can help by having India and Pakistan talk to each other. This doesn’t mean a wide-open, public involvement, because nobody in the subcontinent will welcome it, but it certainly means using the power of moral suasion behind closed doors to do this.
Now, in order to achieve all of this, Barry, I don’t think the zero option is really a worthwhile option, because the zero option will become an absolute zero option. And once it starts going south, the United States is going to lose credibility and all the investment that the U.S. has made in Afghanistan is going to go down the tubes, the investment that David was referring to, in education, in the political system, in giving the infrastructure that could lay the basis for a stronger economy.
I go back to a report that the South Asia Center launched in 2009, and it’s still available at our website. It was a 10-year framework for the economic development of Afghanistan; I would say 90 percent of that is still waiting to be implemented, and it has to be implemented by Afghanistan itself. The rest of the world, whether it’s Europe or the United States, can help, but the Afghans have to get their act together; they have to work out some kind of a national compact so that the polity of Afghanistan remains intact and that any attempt to trying to divide the country along ethnic lines is nullified.
Let me stop at that and we’ll take the questions as they come.
Thank you again.
MR. PAVEL: Thank you, Shuja.
And now, I’d like to hear from Josh Faust on these issues. Josh?
JOSHUA FAUST: Thanks, Barry. I feel like I get invited to these things to be the resident naysayer.
You know, it’s –
MR. PAVEL: (Inaudible) – you’re correct. (Laughter.)
MR. FAUST: So it’s interesting talking about this rush to the exits in D.C., about how Congress wants to essentially defund the war, and how there’s this growing pessimism. And I would actually place that as the result of a considered value calculation, a value proposition, that a lot of people who are responsible for spending money in this country have made toward Afghanistan. The U.S. has spent an absolutely outrageous amount of money in that – in that country since 2001. These daily SIGAR emails are an attempt to actually follow where the money goes. And what they found is that most of it’s been wasted.
Just today, the SIGAR email that came out was talking about a huge number of subcontractors working for USAID, who have verifiable links to al-Qaida militants operating in Afghanistan. I think it’s a fair question for Congress to go back to that and say, why are we funding al-Qaida in Afghanistan through crappy contracting processes?
So when people look at the war and they see pessimism, they say, OK, we’re spending – what is it now, $70 billion a year, I think – some total – and we don’t know how much of that is going to the very militants we’re fighting. And this has been going on for many, many years and there’s been very little effort taken to address this or to minimize it in some way.
And I think at a very basic level, people look at that kind of a – of a proposition and think, well, what’s the point? Just today – Mr. Sedney referred to a story in the New York Times with General Dunford, who’s leading all of ISAF in Afghanistan. And he said there are about 75 al-Qaida left in the country, and that they’re on the run and hard to find, but 75. In 2009, Leon Panetta, when he was running the CIA, estimated there were 100. So in the last four years, we’ve spent, what, $90 billion, lost a thousand troops and gotten 25 al-Qaida fighters out of Afghanistan. I think it’s fair for people to look at that and say, what’s the point?
But beyond that, looking towards the future of Afghanistan, one thing that even Shuja, in his comments, I think, is completely skating past is the political reality of Afghanistan. And the simple fact of the matter is, it is in America’s interest to have a stable and sovereign Afghanistan, and the way you have that is by having an effective and legitimate government. And right now, the government in Kabul is neither stable, nor effective, nor legitimate, and despite all of the talk about troops and economic development and schools and medical clinics and whatever else – road construction – if we don’t have a functioning government, we will lose everything at the end of the day.
If the election next year, which is supposed to come off, isn’t seen as legitimate – which is not a function of sending troops to secure polling stations; it’s a function of how much fraud the politicians running commit during the election – if that doesn’t go off, we will lose big-time, because Afghans will have gone through, at this point, three presidential elections; all of them will have been stolen. And I’m convinced that that will permanently delegitimize the idea of a representative government in Afghanistan for the long run. And if that happens, we lose.
The biggest problem in the 2009 election in Afghanistan wasn’t violence at polling stations; it was the fact that Hamid Karzai stole millions of votes; even Abdullah stole millions of votes, and he still lost. There is this overwhelming sense that the government that’s running the country right now is not there fairly, and that they’re not treating people fairly. Over the last three years, the parliament in Afghanistan has passed almost a dozen laws that restrict various basic rights that we would consider fundamental to any kind of functioning government, and they’re doing this because that’s what they want, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. But they’re also reversing all of these chances at a better society that we supposedly invaded the country to give them.
At the end of the day, when you look at the three pillars that President Obama built his entire surge strategy on in 2009, I think – I think Dave laid these out right: They were preventing al-Qaida from ever coming back, preventing the Taliban from getting a stake in the government and keeping the government alive long enough to have some sort of legitimacy. Those are all goals with negative values attached to them. It takes one exception for any of them to be invalidated. If the government isn’t valid, then we’re failing point three. If there’s al-Qaida still operating in the country, we’ve lost point two (sic: one). If the Taliban still has a realistic chance of gaining power, at least over a certain portion of the country, which they do, then we’ve lost point two.
This is the problem with the way the U.S. has structured its entire mission in Afghanistan. It’s been based on essentially proving negatives, so that as long as you have one positive example, the goals are therefore invalid, and therefore, we have to commit to the country years and years and years of expensive, thousand-soldier commitments, just to ensure that a negative doesn’t get proven in Afghanistan.
And to come back to it, I think this is why people, especially in Congress now, looking at a crashing budget with a troubled economy where they have to cut something, they look at that, and they say, what’s the point? In the long run, what are we accomplishing? Despite all of the efforts to build up the ANSF, which I agree, has been a really stunning success – I’m genuinely surprised, especially compared to where they were in 2009, how effective they are, but they still have a 25 percent dropout rate. Twenty five percent of the soldiers who sign up each year walk off the job. If that happened in this country, we would consider it a disaster. We would think that we have completely failed in our obligation to defend the country, if 25 percent of our soldiers walked off the job every year, just went AWOL.
So at a very, very basic level, despite all of this progress that’s going on, there are fundamental structural flaws built into our mission and built into our operations that are still not being addressed. I mean, I keep coming back to the political side of this here. The U.S. response to Afghanistan’s political witness has been to send more troops. They tried to send a civilian surge with the State Department in 2009 and 2010; they got, what, a third, I think, of the number of personnel they really needed. And even then, those civilian personnel hid out on military bases, took day trips to go visit occasional district governors or village shuras and didn’t spend any concrete time building up local political institutions. Some of them have worked in some places where there’s enough security for it to take hold, but at the end of the day, the fundamental Afghan experience of American-administered government is corrupt and abusive. And that’s something that’s going to poison our long-term efforts to build any kind of a stable government.
OK, I’m in danger of going on a rant right now, but I’ll leave it there as kind of an introduction. Like, the way that I would suggest looking at this is instead of looking at it as only a security commitment, or only a security force commitment, or only a limited counterterrorism movement, is actually looking at the fundamental basic purpose of what we wanted to get done there. Despite – 12 years now? – 12 years of commitment – almost 12 years, I should say – there are still al-Qaida fighters left in the country planning attacks. They’re still going freely back and forth across the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the point to where the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan are in almost weekly exchanges of artillery fire trying to kill each other’s militants that are straddling the border. The Taliban is still powerful in many parts of the country, is actively displacing the government and is actively displacing U.S. troops, which are in the process of withdrawal.
And again, this issue of the election next year – I don’t think we can overemphasize how important it is. If it is not a broadly legitimate election, we will be in serious trouble, because whoever takes over Afghanistan after that will not have any legitimacy in the local population. And if that happens, then we’ve lost our chance to influence any kind of positive outcome in the country.
MR. PAVEL: Thanks very much, Josh.
I want to sort of plumb into these issues more directly, and the ones that David rightly raised, the question of interests, and the three that have discussed and get – just the panel’s broader sense for how to measure this, how do we know it when we see it. Even when there is success, nothing is really irreversible. And so if we indeed decide that we have been somewhat successful in preventing a Taliban takeover, you know, in the near-term future, obviously, that doesn’t have – that can – you know, as time goes on, that becomes less and less necessarily a staying, you know, status quo constant.
So perhaps, David, just giving you the next – the next word on these three issues, which I was going to ask you anyway, before Josh, I thought, addressed them directly, how do we know we’ve prevented al-Qaida from being able to mount another attack? How do we know we’ve been successful in preventing a Taliban takeover? And then in terms of bettering society, all we can ever do is give them a good head start, and it’s not only government, but government’s important. I mean, sort of – how – what’s your sense of these metrics and why they’re trending positive?
MR. SEDNEY: Sure, I’ll – I’m going to start off by saying, of course, it’s clear from what I said, not only do I think that what Josh said is 90 percent wrong; I think it’s dangerously wrong. It is very dangerous to listen to such things that are so wrong. And I’ll hit a few of them, but I won’t be able to hit every one of them.
Let me start off with the al-Qaida – the al-Qaida example. The simplistic view saying, well, some people said there were 100 a few years ago, some people say there’s 75 now, sounds like there were 100, now 75 and 25 have gone away – that’s not the situation. The situation was there were some small number, but al-Qaida’s always been a small number. There are only a few hundred really important in al-Qaida. Most of those are dead.
Now, hundreds of new people coming to join the al-Qaida, people from all over the Islamic world, fundamentalists, have come to join the al-Qaida in Pakistan, in Afghanistan. They come through training camps, they get replenished and they get killed – or they spend most of their time trying to stay alive, trying to keep their organization just barely functional.
So to answer your question, Barry, another way we can tell that al-Qaida’s not been able to carry out attacks is because they haven’t. I think the fact that they still want to is very clear from not just their past, but also from the documents and videos that were recovered when the leader of the al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, was killed a couple of years ago. It was very clear that al-Qaida’s objective of attacking the United States and our Western allies remained, and that they continued to – they continue to have that objective. They’ve not been able to carry it out – do they want to continue? Do those hundreds of recruits keep coming to Afghanistan? Yes. Do some of them go to Syria, Yemen, North Africa? Yes. But the heartland is still the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, so that’s been a success.
On the Taliban being able to take over – contrary to what Josh says, the Taliban is not making advances in Afghanistan; in fact, the Taliban has not made any advances in several years. The Taliban has been pushed back because of the troop surge that the United States and our allies put in, and this year, the Afghan national security forces have maintained those gains. And if the Afghan security forces, by the end of the year, are able to control the same areas, the same district centers, that they began the year with, that’s going to be a signal victory, because you’ve gone from a highly modern and highly mobile air-supported military of the coalition last year, to a – to a(n) Afghanistan army that is very capable, but is very challenged, as well. And if they can hold those gains by the end of the year, that would be a major success for them.
And so far, the evidence on the ground is that they are holding their ground. They are not losing ground to the Taliban. With all due respect to Josh, that’s just false. They are actually holding the ground that they have kept. And all the indications are that they are willing to take the fight to the – to the Taliban in places, such as northern Kunar , where the United States and our allies left two, three, four years ago, the Afghan army today is moving up the Kunar River Valley in places that the U.S. left three to four years ago. So there are actually some places where they are asserting control that they didn’t have before.
And the third area, the Afghan government – I agree with both Shuja and Josh that the elections are really important. I absolutely disagree with – and you need to ask Afghans this – that the present government is not seen as legitimate. Yes, there were fraudulent – there were problems with fraud, as there were in many other elections in that region. Yes, there was violence, but the Afghan people broadly saw the results in 2004 and 2009 as legitimate. Did they meet our standards? Were they the kind of elections we’d like to have? Have we created Switzerland? Absolutely not. Once you set that standard, of course, Afghanistan will fail, and those who set such false standards then come up with an easy answer to failure.
But, in fact, Afghanistan does face a huge challenge to have a legitimate change of power. Pakistan, a country that has been in existence for much, much longer, had its first peaceful civilian transfer of power from one elected government to another, this year, after over 60 years. It took 60 years for Pakistan to do that.
Countries of Central Asia to the north have never had such a thing. Iran – I’ll leave it to an Iranian specialist, but you can argue that is not the case there, either. So Afghanistan is trying to do something that is well ahead of its neighbors and well beyond what – almost any fair test you should be able to expect them to do. If they can do it in a way that’s broadly legitimate, that will be a great victory.
I do agree with Josh that we’ve underinvested in the civilian political sphere in Afghanistan. We’ve overinvested in an individual, President Karzai, and underinvested in the broader polity, and that’s something that I would agree with Shuja. That’s where we need a surge. We need a surge on the political side to support the Afghan people’s desire to have a new government that is not like the present government, that is not – that is less corrupt and that it gives them a chance, a good chance, to have the kind of future that they deserve, that they’ve suffered so long in order to achieve.
MR. PAVEL: Thanks, David.
Others, did you have additional thoughts on those three issues and sort of how do we measure and –
MR. NAWAZ: I’m sure Josh has some rebuttal. (Scattered laughter.)
I just want to mention a couple of things. One, in fact, Afghanistan has been a national entity much longer than Pakistan. And Pakistan should recognize that and stop pretending that it has a controlling influence on Afghanistan, which has been a misguided notion that has soured the relationship between these two very important neighbors. I think that change is now occurring.
I don’t know how it will hold, and particularly, with the new civilian government in Pakistan, because it’s going to be fighting a war inside, in order to reassert civilian supremacy. Winning an election is just the first step; actually being able to govern and to show an ability to bring the people along and to show the military particularly that you can lead on security and economic issues both is going to be very critical for the success of this current adventure in Pakistan, which was the re-election for the third time of Prime Minister Sharif. So I think that’s a very important factor in this.
The other element that you mentioned was the role of the Afghan national security forces. I still – you know, having studied the military in that part of the world for some time, I still worry that the United States tends to put far too much emphasis on military partners and much less on developing political partnerships and civil society partnerships in the countries that it deals with, largely because it’s so much easier to press a button and get somebody to get something done, and your metrics then rise and, you know, you say, well done, you know, we’ve moved up the chart.
The danger of creating such a large military that the Afghan economy cannot support means that you’re going to, of necessity, require Western assistance, not just for the economy of Afghanistan, but also for the military of Afghanistan, to pay their salaries and to take into account the efficient rate, which is really going to be a hemorrhaging effect on the military.
But the thing that really worries me most is the potential for a military coup in Afghanistan, because if the political system cannot be righted and if the elections fail, then the only well-organized political party is going to be the military. And so there’s always a danger that Afghanistan may follow the route of Pakistan or Egypt, and I think that’s something that we would regret.
MR. FAUST: Yeah, thanks. I mean, it – to kind of respond to something Dave said, it wasn’t just some dude who said there were 100 al-Qaida there; it was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, giving his assessment of the threat there.
But you know, it was interesting. Like, we – you were speaking earlier about how there’s this like endless wave of bad news and no one talks about the good news – this is the first time I’ve heard that there are hundreds of al-Qaida fighters going every year into Pakistan that are getting attrited by either U.S. counterterrorism efforts or by the Afghan national security forces. I mean, that’s never been in any of the 1206 reports that they put out; that hasn’t been in any of the official assessments.
So again, like, this comes back to when people look at the information available to them, and they don’t hear about apparently this massive population transfer of al-Qaida fighters in Pakistan, that – they look at the numbers of what the officials say when they’re trying to give their assessments of the war of what’s going on, that that’s what people make their decision off of.
But built into that, though, there is still no sense of how that actually stops. How do you stop hundreds of people from going to the hinterlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan? If apparently, hundreds of them are able to do so right now, in – after an enormous drone campaign attacking every al-Qaida camp that we can find in northwest Pakistan, in the midst of an incredible surge over many years, since 2006, to try to clear al-Qaida out of the northeastern Afghanistan – out of eastern Afghanistan, I mean, I think people living in Khost, Ghazni, Paktia, Zabul would all disagree that the Taliban is in retreat there – what do we – what do we do with that kind of information? How do we actually pivot from an ambiguous situation where people on the ground tell reporters openly that they’re terrified of what happens when the U.S. withdraws because they think the Taliban is coming back, because they know all of their neighbors who were part of the Taliban and put down their weapons while the U.S. was there and will pick them up again when the U.S. leaves again – how do you actually deal with that? That’s I think one of the fundamental questions that we’re trying to get at here is that despite the decade and – almost a decade and a half of effort that we’ve put into this country, we haven’t answered that fundamental question of how you actually take an insurgent force, which is the Taliban, get them to put down their weapons and adopt a political posture – which is how insurgencies tend to end is when a militant force is made political. That’s still missing, that’s still the missing part of the equation.
MR. SEDNEY: Got to respond on two points. First, the attrition rate is entirely a false argument. My job over the last four years when I was in the Department of Defense was – my primary objective, my primary task was to help build the Afghanistan security forces. The attrition rate of the Afghan security forces when it was – when there were 60,000 is about the same; the attrition rate, the percentage of people who didn’t complete their – didn’t complete their tours was about the same as it is now. With that attrition rate, they’ve grown from about 60,000 to 350,000. There are many, many Afghans who are signing up for the Afghan security forces. In fact, if you look at the turnover rate in some forces – for example, the U.S. Marine Corps has a very high turnover rate by design. So a high turnover rate is not evidence of incapacity. It depends on who is turning over. And if people at the mid-levels and senior levels of the officer corps are not leaving, which they’re not, and if you’re getting a turnover at the rifleman level, actually, you can have a pretty good security force, which is what the Afghans are doing. So again, it’s a false argument, and people shouldn’t pay any attention to it.
Secondly, on the issue that – of the al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the al-Qaida are primarily in Pakistan. That’s where the al-Qaida leadership is. That’s where Osama bin Laden was found. The fighters in Afghanistan have been fairly low-level, and their numbers have been able to be kept down by continual attacks by the United States. But the key is Pakistan. And of course, the U.S. surge has not impacted Pakistan. The U.S. has not put forces into Pakistan. And that’s really an entirely separate question than Afghanistan.
Finally, I have been to Khost. I have been to Paktika. I’ve been to all those places, and I have talked to Afghans, both civilians and military. And they do not say that the Taliban is coming back. The Taliban did make an effort to come back in 2004, (200)5, (200)6, (200)7, (200)8, (200)9, and they are much stronger now than they were then, but that’s because the United States underinvested in Afghanistan because of our need – because of our, see, political need to go into Iraq. But since we began the surge in 2009, we have pushed the Taliban back. They are not expanding their influence right now. There is no evidence for that, and it’s very important that people not leave here thinking that that is the case.
MR. PAVEL: So let me move this further a little bit towards some other issues that are – that are of interest, and let’s focus for now on the security piece. What do each of you think might be the most appropriate missions for U.S. and allied forces after 2014? And then what – I mean, what do you think the U.S. should do? We’re gathered here to sort of assess the status of where we are but also to say – to make it – to render recommendations on what should be done. So what do you think the key missions are, and what do you think the key policy choices are for a presence post-2014 in Afghanistan, if you have views on those things?
MR. SEDNEY: Well, I will start off by first of all echoing Shuja’s concerns about the future of the Afghan military. And that’s why I think there’s an absolute need for continuing train, advise and assist mission by U.S. military and by our NATO partners who have done such an excellent job in building that military. I think it’s also important to continue those activities with respect to the police and the intelligence services because the concerns that Shuja raised I think are very valid, and in order to help ensure that the concerns don’t become reality, it’s important to have that train, advise and assist mission there, important to continue the support. And it is also for our own interest that we have the ability to carry out counterterrorism operations on those targets which the Afghan military won’t be able to carry out for some period of time in the future. Although that’ll be a small number of forces, it’s an important mission.
MR. NAWAZ: Barry, I think there’s been far too much talk about the numbers and much less about the details of what those numbers will do. And from what I hear David say, you know, how do you assist? And so in my view, apart from the CT aspect, the counterterrorism, the ISR aspect is going to be critical because the Afghans don’t have that capacity. Without the eyes and ears that United States and the coalition can provide, they’re really going to be at a loss. They’re after all fighting a asymmetrical war in which the enemy has a great advantage of being able to melt into the countryside into the communities. And for that reason it’s going to be quite critical also to focus much more on the community police to be able to keep them out of the communities rather than try to roust them once they’ve entered.
MR. FOUST: Yeah, I mean, I actually agree that – building up ISR capabilities, intelligence capabilities, analytic capabilities. But most important, logistical capabilities is going to be a really key factor here. One of the big weaknesses built into the ANSF is their total dependence on the U.S. military for a lot of long chain things that we kind of internalize. But for a military being built from the ground up, they wouldn’t really think of.
But I’d extend that a little further. I’d also say that transitioning the Afghan economy off of aid should be a critical security priority. A huge number of communities are almost dependent on CERP spending for very basic tasks. And building the capacity for them to generate those tasks on their own without a huge influx of U.S. military aid should be I think a big, big priority on the security side of things.
But I’m actually going to break with both of you and suggest that the U.S. should get out of the CT game in Afghanistan. In February I was at a meeting with Afghan human rights workers in Geneva who were talking about a lot of the counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and how, in their view, those efforts were leading either to sympathy with the Taliban or at least to apathy towards the central government. And I think that’s one aspect that goes pretty understudied when we look at either the numbers or the body counts of what happens in CT operations inside Afghanistan.
And I’d even start that – I’ll make a somewhat bold assertion here and say that we should disband the Afghan Local Police immediately, take away their guns and put them under the monitoring of the Afghan National Police. And the reason for this is every time either SIGAR or journalists or NGOs or human rights groups go out and try to actually evaluate the performance of these ALP groups, they report abuse, massive rape, stealing children for sex slavery, murder, thievery, highway robbery – I mean, almost any crime that you can think of, these groups commit.
Part of that is a function of training. And training is one of those I think underremarked about the ANSF that does need to continue. But the ALP groups don’t get that. They get a couple of weeks of training, a gun and a lot of money, and they’re told to go secure their communities. And we shouldn’t be surprised if that does result in some abuse – not all abuse; they are effective ALP groups. And the closer they’re monitored by U.S. forces, the better off they do. But we don’t have the forces to monitor them all. And that’s something that has a growing number of negative consequences that we are not currently accounting for and has the long-term potential to really blow up in our face.
MR. PAVEL: Thanks very much. I’m going to ask a couple more questions and then open it up to questions from you. But let me sort of step outside Washington for a minute here and represent that view that I think, you know, we see in the heartland and just push the panel a bit.
You know, why – this has been a long war, America’s longest. We’ve spilled a lot of very precious blood of our men and women in our armed forces at great sacrifice by the families, by our – the forces themselves. In some cases these families are going to be dealing with these burdens forever, but there’s a long (tail ?) on the psychological and fiscal and other costs that our country has already borne but in particular our military families and their broader community. And this was certainly a legitimate mission in the aftermath of 9/11, but it’s time to bring our forces home.
You know, the caricature of the White House view – if it is a caricature, and you might address that – is, you know, we cannot get our forces out there fast enough because our public really does not have its heart in its mission anymore. And we could get attacked from a terrorist tomorrow from any country where there is some sense of – where a terrorist group can have some freedom to plot and train. We can come up with 10 countries sitting here in about a minute where we could end up in a similar mission. And so shouldn’t we cut our losses, bring our men and women back home and start to focus our fiscal and other efforts on rebuilding our own nation here? I mean, what do you say to that? I think it’s a really important question that in the bubble in Washington we don’t always feel compelled to address.
MR. SEDNEY: I guess since I’m sitting closest to you, Barry, I’ll begin. And I agree with you very much about the incredible sacrifice of our military members and their families and agree with you that we should only do that – that we should only put their lives at risk if it is in the essential interests of the American people.
And as I laid out before, I think it’s very clear that it is. The prevention of attacks from al-Qaida, the prevention of the Taliban from coming back and the efforts that we’ve made to build – to help the Afghans build a society that’s not going to allow what’s happened in the past to happen again are all huge achievements that go to the credit very much of those military people – those military members who have made that sacrifice, who have been wounded, who are living with those consequences, as you mentioned, every day.
We’ve left Afghanistan before. We cut our losses three times before. In 1978, after some militants killed our ambassador, we punished the then-Afghan government by pulling our aid and our assistance out, even though, of course, the Afghan government of the time didn’t really control things, the Soviet Union did, so we punished a government and a people that couldn’t – that actually weren’t responsible, and you could argue that that helped pave the way for the Soviet invasion the next year, the fact that we pulled out in 1978.
The second time we pulled out was 1989, following the pullout of the Soviet Union. We – if anyone has seen the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” you’ll have gotten I think a very good picture of the kind of effort that we put into the Afghan war then and the utter failure of our policies afterwards that I think it very clear led directly to the deaths of millions of people in Afghanistan and elsewhere and to the attacks in the – in the United States on 9/11.
The third time we pulled out of Afghanistan was actually when I was there, in 2002, (200)3 and (200)4 when we pulled huge resources out of Afghanistan, sent them off to Iraq and laid the groundwork for the resurgence of the Taliban and the losses that Barry mentioned that the Atlantic Council report a few years back so accurately characterized as us failing in Afghanistan. We’ve – we fixed that through the troop surge.
However, I want to stress one thing. We don’t need to send more troops to Afghanistan now. I agree with Shuja we need a civilian surge. Our casualties in Afghanistan are way down. Afghans have never wanted us to fight for them. They want to fight for themselves. Whether you talk to Afghan privates or Afghan generals or the Afghan population at large, they don’t want American troops fighting; they’re ready to fight for themselves, if we give them the support – and I agree with Josh on the kinds of support that are needed. So we are not going to continue to send Afghans – to send Americans to fight and die in Afghanistan. In the article that Josh mentioned this morning with General Dunford, he pointed that out. We – our commitment doesn’t need to be more lives lost, but our commitment does need to – does need to be the kind of support Afghanistan needs, militarily, economically and politically.
MR. NAWAZ: Barry, I think it’s a question of leadership. And the leadership defines the mission. We didn’t define it tightly enough when we went it. We kept redefining it as we went along. So that confused the people on the ground, and to some extent, that also confused the American public why were we there, what’s happening.
And as far as making a decision to exit, I think public opinion polls are now already showing that the U.S. public doesn’t want to be in Afghanistan. But all indications are that the president doesn’t want to be in Afghanistan and that he checked out of Afghanistan during the campaign. If you recall, there wasn’t much talk of Afghanistan in the campaign. So unless and until there is a very clear statement of intent on the part of the political leadership, the military can only do so much.
And I think it’s a disservice in many ways to the military for the kind of management of this war, particularly when you look at it – I mean, there are people in this room who know much more about the military than I do. David certainly knows the military much better than I do. When you are rotating military commanders at the rate of one a year, almost, that’s no way to run a war. And when you’re changing military leadership at a time of withdrawal, which is one of the most difficult phases of any military operation, that’s no way to run a war. So the way that we have prosecuted the war has really helped the enemy to some extent by not being able to put the full force of the U.S. military where it was needed.
So the problem still remains that – more of the emphasis on the military solution, much less on the political. And we just haven’t been able to concentrate on the political side or on the economic side. And for that we have to go to Kabul. That’s not a Washington decision. I’ll just leave it at that.
MR. FOUST: Yeah. You know, I think it’s interesting that Dave was going back to the mujahedeen. Afghanistan didn’t really enter a full-fledged collapse until the Soviet Union withdrew all of its economic aid to the Afghan government in about 1992, which was also when the U.S. aid actually took its – a serious nosedive. He’s right, the U.S. tends to get distracted and care about other things. In 1991 and ’92 it was concerned with trying to manage the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. And despite the consequences for Afghanistan, I think that was an understandable decision in the H.W. Bush administration of, wow, the collapse of the Cold War actually matters more than managing this small proxy war we’ve had for the last 11 years against a country that no longer exists.
From the Soviet side, though, the Najibullah government was actually marginally effective for the three years after the – after the official withdrawal of the Soviets and before the collapse of his regime in 1992. And one of the reasons for that was because the Soviets were essentially subsidizing the operations of his government. They were providing him weapons, they were providing a limited amount of training for troops, but it was mostly money that they were throwing into the country and that Najibullah was kind of running it on his own. If we’re really, really lucky – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – that will be what ends up happening in Afghanistan, is that Afghanistan can mostly function on its own. And there is this need by the international community, which is a more stable source of funding than the U.S. alone, to subsidize their operations. That’s at least some minimal level of sovereignty that I think we need to look at.
But mixed in with that I think it’s also a mistake to pretend like the zero option may not happen. That was an assumption that went into the negotiations with the status of forces agreement in Iraq, and those eventually fell apart, and we got stuck with the zero option. And it’s not worked out very well there. Part of that is because we haven’t planned. In that interview with General Dunford this morning he said he’s not planning for a zero option, and I think it’s a mistake to not plan for a worst-case scenario. Not planning for those scenarios is one of the reasons why we keep getting surprised by worst-case scenarios.
So at the end of the day, you know, zero troops doesn’t mean zero personnel. We’re still going to have an embassy there. We’re still going to have USAID. We’re still going to have NGOs. What those do isn’t the security. They do the economy and the politics. And I think we’re all in agreement that the political side of what’s happening in Afghanistan right now is really where the key conflict, the key struggle is going to be. And without focusing – if we don’t focus heavily, almost laser-like, on the issue of political succession in Kabul and what comes afterward as a new governing coalition tries to rebuild a legitimate government, if we’re not laser-focused on that, I think we’re going to really miss the boat.
MR. PAVEL: Thanks to my panelists. Now I would love to hear questions from the audience. There might be a few issues that have been raised that would merit – I think we have someone – a couple of people with microphones here. And I’d like to go to the second row on this side. This gentleman two in.
Q: Thank you. Ron Neumann. And thank you, Shuja, for that nice comment. I wanted to basically ask a question particularly of Josh, on the elections.
But let me just make one observation, and that is on the ALP, because I’ve just come back from spending two weeks as part of a team looking intensively at the ALP all over the country. And while I understand from the news and from the scholarly papers that have been done why Josh reached the conclusion he did, let me say that it is much too blanket and too broad, that there is far more mix; there are – there is both a correction – there are not nearly as many incidents. They are concentrated particularly – but it’s an incredible mix across the country, but it is not all one thing. And in a sense, that description sort of makes David’s point of a unidimensional public opinion – public reporting, which it in fact misses a great deal of the reality of the ground.
But my question is, particularly to Josh, you talked about the election with huge importance that hasn’t been hit by others. Is – it seemed to me I’m hearing a contradiction in a great deal of pessimism, while you yet look forward to something that has to happen, at the same time recommending that we have to focus on it laser-like. So I just wanted to ask you too, and the others as well, to broaden that. What does looking at it laser-like mean? What resources do we have, in your opinion, and what options, and what should we be pursuing beyond the rhetorical?
MR. FOUST: OK, I could – I could start that off. You know, there are exceptions to every trend, which I think you’re getting at. And there’s always a danger of generalizing in Afghanistan because there are exceptions to every generalization.
From the political side of things, though, the U.S. has an imperfect but very well-established system of organizations that are designed to promote the development of political parties, effective campaigning strategies, corruption monitoring and then also corruption and fraud response teams. They have never been empowered in Afghanistan to the degree that they need to. And I’m talking about the NED, NDI, IRI. There’s also the foundation for free elections or fundamental elections in Afghanistan, which is a local group. There’s also the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Council, which has suffered repeated political attacks by the Karzai administration, and the U.S. hasn’t stepped in to defend them from attempts either at politicization or co-optation by Karzai, who’s trying to prevent their monitoring his own government’s behavior.
Both funding the development of political parties, the support of political parties and also getting into training and mentorship about how to campaign, how to run effective polling stations and then also how to ensure legitimate counts afterwards – these are all areas where previous elections have fallen short, and they haven’t received a tremendous amount of attention, personnel, money, anything. That would be a good start.
To address your point about pessimism, I mean, despite the need, I think, to focus on the elections, I’m still actually fairly pessimistic. I’m not assured that they’re going to be clean or even seen as broadly legitimate. So that’s where my pessimism comes in. The only way that I can think of addressing that is by addressing the election issue and by trying as hard as we can to, I think first off – and this is something I forgot to mention earlier – not pick a winner. This is something that a lot of the D.C. punditry set has been fond of writing about in the op-ed pages, of the need for America to pick a pro-American winner, saying, we spent a lot of money, so therefore we get to choose. That’s not actually how legitimate elections work in a country, like Afghans need to have this sense that they can also make their own choice. They don’t have to either vote for the right person or risk losing aid or vote for the wrong person and risk something weird happening like another surge of U.S. troops to their country to support their polling stations.
So this idea of essentially getting out of the game of trying to dictate Afghanistan’s political future and instead looking at how we can support Afghans building their own political future, including accepting the fact that a lot of elites, especially among younger people, are really antipathic towards the U.S. They think we’ve screwed up and we’ve broken promises and that we have to account for that in some way. When looking at – I mean, what is it, something like 60, 70 percent of the country is under the age of 25, and there’s a huge amount of disaffectation among younger people, who are going to be running the ministries in the government that we’re supporting in the next 10 years or so. And they don’t feel like they have a very strong voice. I mean, I talk with young Afghans all the time who feel like they’re excluded because all their rich old warlords are running things, and they don’t have a say in matters.
That’s something that we can fix. We can actually work at building up either youth organizations, youth parties, looking at youth participation in elections, getting young people involved in the elections monitoring campaign so it’s not just overpaid white people traveling around to polling stations. I mean, these are ways that you end up building a legitimate political consensus in the country. And it’s possible. It just takes money and time.
MR. NAWAZ: I would just add that the elections are really not an end. They’re a part of a process. They’re a means to an end. And this is not the only election that will occur. And so what we should be looking at is this election and then the one after that. And this is not a flip remark, but I think you need many more people who are willing to look critically at the processes that occur before the elections as well as on election day. So maybe we should recall Peter Galbraith and press him into service to stir the – (dove cuts ?).
So this is really one way of focusing attention on the process. And I entirely agree with Josh, you don’t want a horse race kind of reporting on this in Washington, which tends to be self-fulfilling. And then the Afghans are plenty smart. They know exactly when the U.S. is trying to tilt the balance one way or the other, and you don’t want to be put in that position.
MR. SEDNEY: Just to add that all of us are, I think, united in the importance of the elections. I don’t know of anybody who I take seriously who has advocated a particular candidate. That’s certainly not the position of the U.S. government when I was in the U.S. government, and I’m sure it’s not now.
The – and I absolutely agree with how important it is, however, to look at the entire process. That’s already begun. The election process in Afghanistan has already begun. The candidates are positioning themselves. People are seeking support. And it’s actually real politics going on in Afghanistan right now, and it’s something that we can and should support without choosing a winner.
One final point, though, about Afghanistan overall: The Afghanistan of today is radically different from the Afghanistan of 11 years ago. When I first went to Afghanistan in 2002, Kabul was a city of about 500,000. Today it’s a city of probably over 5 million. Other Afghan cities have shown similar percentage increases in growth. Afghanistan is a rapidly urbanizing society, as many other countries that are going in – that are changing because of the increase in life span, higher survivability of infants and changes in the economy. The country that Najibullah ruled that was in the ’80s with the mujahedin is not the country that’s there today. And the Afghans who are in the urbanized areas, the Afghans who are in – the millions of Afghans who have education, a phenomenon that’s never before happened in Afghanistan, they want a new kind of country. Those young people that Josh is talking about, they want change, and we should be supporting that.
MR. PAVEL: Thanks. I have a number of questions lined up. The gentleman right there. Thank you.
Q: Hi, Doug Brooks with the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce. And my question is really in terms of commercial investment in Afghanistan. And right now there’s very little prospectus that anybody’s going to invest in Afghanistan. The security situation is so poor, and with the government taking over the private security, the companies have no security of their own to actually put their personnel on the ground. So if there is going to be a future for Afghanistan, we need to figure out some way that we can have some commercial growth. Are there any ideas how that can be fixed?
MR. FOUST: I can’t believe I’m actually mentioning this, but there was a Pentagon program a while ago called the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, the TFBSO. It kind of went away for a while when its director left to join the private sector. But last I’ve heard, they’ve been trying to rebuild their efforts, trying to come up with either, like, startup incubators in Jalalabad or an agricultural university, I think somewhere near Herat. There are efforts like that.
But you know, ultimately, if people don’t feel like they can have their own security, I mean, I think it’s hard to kind of play on someone’s patriotism to throw money into Afghanistan when they have no guarantee they’re ever going to get it back again. So I mean, beyond kind of, like, these managed investment opportunities that the government’s tried to do, I’m not sure if either of you are familiar with more recent efforts to do that. But I mean, I have no idea.
MR. SEDNEY: No, I meet regularly with Afghan business people – primarily Afghan businesspeople as well as Americans and people from other countries that do business in Afghanistan. And right now the biggest concern is not security; right now the biggest concern is the future, what happens after 2014, what’s the level of international commitment. And I think the biggest single thing that the United States and other countries could do would be to make that secure commitment, and that would lead to kind of – to increased investment. Many countries – many companies that I’m aware of are willing to take risk, are willing to invest in Afghanistan. Many Afghans are willing to invest in Afghanistan if they see the future as more assured than they do now.
MR. NAWAZ: I’d just add one point, which is that the best indicator for the investment climate of any country, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, is when you have domestic investment. Once the domestic investors put their money where their mouth is instead of moving it to Dubai, then foreign investors will also come in. And security plays a role, but there are ways in which the domestic investors find to operate in the worst of conditions because they know the country, they know the opportunities, and they can then partner with foreign investors.
So don’t expect that simply because you’ve created a wonderful plan that people are going to say, oh, this is great, and we’re going to come and do it, because businesses are there to make money, and they’re not going to go in unless there’s rule of law, that they can fight somebody in court if there’s a problem, unless there’s certainty, as David said, and unless there are local partners who are willing to invest instead of pretending to invest and taking their equity and moving it to Dubai.
MR. PAVEL: We’ll take two questions here in the front row, if we can bring the mic up. And we’ll take two at a time here, these two gentlemen.
Q: Thank you. My name is Aqab Malik. I’m an assistant professor, National Defense University Islamabad, also a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Just a couple of point – questions, very pointed, to all of you, I guess.
Realistically, the mindset that you’re dealing with in Afghanistan – I spent a lot of time there doing my doctoral research, even got embedded with the Taliban and the militants, et cetera, to fulfill that. Reduction in funding after 2014, likelihood that when the troops are predominantly out, majority of the population won’t really support much funding when it’s not on the horizon anymore – and that’s Congress, really. Funding from the Arab world especially, which is predominant as far as Taliban is concerned – we may have surge in that because that’s seen as a vested interest, as far as the Arabs are concerned, maybe in Afghanistan vis-à-vis Iran, et cetera, et cetera, and that means interference as far as peace processes are concerned.
So next, peace process – is it a peace process? Will the Taliban ever think about even negotiating before the next elections? And even if they do think about it after the elections, most likely they will only do so to a person that they feel is independent and not a puppet of the regime – of the United States, that is – in Afghanistan, which is a dominant force. That’s what it is. And on top of that, why would they negotiate? As far as they are concerned, democracy, to them, is an anathema to what they believe in. It is complete contradiction to what they think and how they – how they view the world in that respect.
And now, you were talking about the national Afghan forces. What about the Pakistan Taliban bases there who attack Pakistan from the bases in Kunar, for example? Who’s securing those?
Lastly, al-Qaida – not defeated, primarily because they proliferated everywhere in the Middle East, North Africa, and they’re setting up bases. When you’ve got Libya, one of the – the head of the intelligence, for example, is former al-Qaida – not really. How are you defeating al-Qaida, then? Just a couple of questions.
MR. PAVEL: Why don’t – why don’t I ask the panel to take any two of those five questions – (laughter) – and then we’ll – and then we’ll turn to the second question. So choose your – from the menu – (laughter) – al-Qaida’s defeat and spread and the other issues.
MR. SEDNEY: Well, again, to go back on the al-Qaida, the objective in going to Afghanistan was to ensure that we were not again attacked from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. And that has happened. There have been no more attacks from that area. Has there been a proliferation, a franchising of al-Qaida? Yes. Is it as dangerous as it was in 2001? No. Is it still a big problem? Yes, and there need to be a variety of methods to combat it. But on the core area where the – where the al-Qaida leadership is still concentrated, that is an area where we – where we have had success. But it’s going to be a long – I think, a continuing long effort on that particular question.
On the peace process, in order to have a peace process, you’re correct, both sides have to want peace. That’s important for the Taliban to show they want peace, and it’s also, I think, key that the process be Afghan-led and have buy-in from all of the key parties, including the Afghan government and the opposition parties in Afghanistan as well. And that’s a process that I know a lot of people are working on right now.
MR. NAWAZ: On the fighting between the Taliban and the other forces inside Afghanistan which may occur, I think this is probably going to shift to a political war, an ideological war, much more than a hot war. And the point that Josh made, I think, is very important. The recent National Intelligence Council 2030 report indicates that by 2030 Afghanistan is going to be the only country in the South Asia region that will still have a youth dividend. So this youthful population in Afghanistan and the urbanization that has occurred in Afghanistan is likely to create a counterforce to the ideological stance of the Taliban.
And so the success of everything that David was talking about earlier, the investments in education, exposure to modern economics and so on, is likely to hinge on how those youth, most of whom were not around when the Taliban were ruling Afghanistan, how they coalesce and how they can counter it. I don’t think it’s going to hinge totally on whatever deal is cobbled between the coalition and the Taliban or between Karzai and the Taliban. I think that reconciliation attempt is probably not going to succeed before the elections occur, and that may be a wasted effort, in my mind.
MR. FOUST: I’ll actually raise eyebrows and suggest that in 2015 is probably when we’ll see two things happen. We’ll see Congress want to cut funding for Afghanistan severely, and that’ll create big, big, big fight with the White House. But then I also think that’s when you’re going to see the first truly serious attempt at some kind of negotiated settlement because the U.S. combat forces will be gone, and at least hopefully, we’ll have a non-Karzai government in power. And I think with both of those prerequisites met, negotiations have a much greater success of – much greater chance of success, not assured by any stretch, but I think at least at that point you will have removed essentially two of the biggest irritants that I think have been real barriers to getting the Taliban to come to the table.
MR. PAVEL: Thanks. And we had another question here from the front row.
Q: Thank you very much. I am Dr. Nisar Chaudhry with Pakistan American League. As Josh has mentioned that in four years they got rid of 25 al-Qaida leaders. But al-Qaida is running all over. If you see in Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Syria, they are recruiting more and more people. The number is expanding, not shrinking. And you have just mentioned that – got rid of 75 people. And if you see in Iraq, to get rid of the weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein, what is the cost? If you calculate that cost, then you will be amazed that even U.S., it can falter and fumble sometimes, even though the – my question is that does USA has the – really, the capacity, the intellect and the power to micromanage or build other nations? This is my first question.
And part two is that since such wise people, you have done so much of research work, what specific advice you will have? Because skepticism is there between even Afghanistan and USA, Afghanistan and NATO forces, Pakistan and U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan. In every partner, every player is suffers from trust deficit. What specific advice you will have for the leaders of a country like Pakistan, Karzai and the president which can bring stability and peace in that region? Thank you.
MR. PAVEL: Thanks very much.
MR. SEDNEY: First of all, on the al-Qaida, I think it’s very important to recognize that the al-Qaida is based on ideology, an ideology of what I would call – others might differ – of Islamic extremism and extraordinary hostility towards the West in general and the United States and Americans in particular. That ideology got support from the Taliban government in the period before 9/11 that allowed the al-Qaida to grow into a force that was able to carry out the 9/11 attacks. So in answer to your question, yes, there are these outgrowths of al-Qaida elsewhere, none of them anywhere near as influential and as effective as the al-Qaida in Afghanistan before 9/11.
The most important way to address that ideological side of al-Qaida is for Afghanistan to develop into a secure, self-governing state. Both anecdotally and polls show that 90 percent of Afghans do not support the Taliban, do not want al-Qaida there. In fact, they want their own state where they are responsible for their own security, and they want al-Qaida nowhere near. So if that happens, then al-Qaida will have suffered a huge ideological defeat, which will then lead to a diminished ability to attract recruits and expand throughout the rest of the world.
MR. PAVEL: Other panelists with thoughts?
MR. NAWAZ: On the regional players, I would say not just Pakistan, but Pakistan and India need to resolve their differences in a manner where they can collaborate in creating economic and political stability in Afghanistan, because it’s going to help them, apart from helping Afghanistan. India will need every ounce of energy it can get from Central Asia. So opening those transit routes for the long run is really what’s going to happen. For the short run, some of the rhetoric coming out of Islamabad appears to be favoring noninterference, trying to assist the reconciliation process. But as I said earlier, I don’t think reconciliation is going to be doable before the elections. So I am of the view, as Josh is, too, I think, that – let the Afghans reconcile after the elections. It’s too much of an effort.
And in any case, we’ve discovered U.S. foreign policy, you can’t really concentrate on resolving two – you know, running two peace processes simultaneously; the secretary of state is very busy in the Middle East, and I’m not sure Afghanistan is getting the same attention that the Middle East is getting these days in the White House.
MR. FOUST: To address your USAID point, I think Afghanistan will benefit once we stop spending lots of money on huge projects that Afghans can’t maintain on their own, things like the Kajaki Dam, the various diesel generators they build where diesel costs more to import than they can charge for electricity. I mean, there have been a lot of really fraught projects like that that I think, once those end – when funding contracts, ultimately, Afghanistan will benefit from that, because they won’t a kind of moral hazard of this unending spigot of aid money.
In terms of practical suggestions – (chuckles) – let’s go with this. I mean, there are specific ideas that I think could dramatically lower tensions in the region; they’re not going to happen any time soon. Things like granting full political rights to the FATAH so that they can participate like normal members of Pakistan, and there won’t be room for a police-free zone where militants can gather; that would be a huge step for Pakistan. It would be a huge step for peace in the region. It’s not going to happen any time soon.
If Nawaz Sharif is able to reign in the military in some way and reign in the ISI in some way, that would be a huge step for peace in the region. It’s not going to happen any time soon. I mean, it’s easy, I think, to kind of look at these, like, big picture ideas that probably would address what’s going on, but in terms of, I mean, practical, day-to-day things, this is something that I think, without taking a long-term view of it, of – in the long run, how can you kind of say, institutionalize Pakistan’s security state into a civilian government? Those are things that are going to take much, much longer and much more work that we’re not going to address here. (Laughs.)
MR. PAVEL: Time for one or two more questions; why don’t we go to the lady here in the second row, and then – we’ll pick her up and then the lady in the back, and we’ll gather those two questions and then get final answers and comments.
Q: Hi; I’m Stacy Ravlin (ph) from Johns Hopkins SAIS. I was wondering what your thoughts on the future of the civilian side – U.S. State Department, USAID – mostly State Department. I mean, we heard a little bit about how, you know, they’re hiding in military bases and things like that, but especially with, you know, the recent passing of Ann Smedinghoff, does the U.S. have the space – will they give the space to their civilians to do the kind of public diplomacy work that we need to see, and how effective, really, is it to have the U.S. doing that kind of on-the-ground diplomacy?
MR. PAVEL: Thanks; there was a question right behind you, too, that I’d like to pull in.
Q: Thanks. My name is Tyler Duke; I just got back from 14 months in Kandahar with the Army. And I wanted to, one, address the – make a point to Josh here. You addressed your concern about the hinterlands and the civilian surge and how it failed in the hinterlands and the districts, and that’s where your concern is for the – Afghanistan going forward. And I’d like to say that I actually had the opposite experience in Kandahar – that the district support teams – this – the SOF elements and the civil affairs were absolutely fantastic in supporting district government to the point where every single district in Kandahar had a district governor and a district chief of police and these were highly-contested positions and that people were actually buying in and investing into the district-level government. And we continue to see stability there, even in the most fraught districts, including Ghorak in Western Kandahar.
But my question, actually, is something that Josh alluded to as well in terms of the potential of Karzai actually still being there after this election. And I wanted to get the panel’s take on what you assess the chances of Karzai running again or rigging the election in terms of a Loya Jirga in that context and securing a third term. And if this were to occur, how would this impact the relationship with Afghanistan and with the international community, particularly in light of the Tokyo conference? Thank you.
MR. PAVEL: Thanks. And then, Max (sp), just pick up that last question from the lady right there, and we’ll wrap it up.
Q: Hi, I’m Andrea Peterson (ph) with State. I wanted to ask about the drug trade, which is almost 10 percent of the GDP. And the rest of the GDP, as we’ve been talking about, seems as if it will eventually be going away as the aid goes away. We talk about foreign investment – trying to incentivize that in Afghanistan. We talk about the warlords – how do we keep them from retaining control? And we talk about the election of a legitimate government. How will that happen if we don’t address the drug trade, and does the U.S. and NATO – do they have a role in addressing that problem in the future?
MR. PAVEL: Thanks very much. So three questions: public diplomacy, Karzai, the drug trade –
MR. FOUST (?): Yeah, I mean, we could probably even start with the drug trade. I think when the Marines first surged into Helmand, they made a very smart decision, which was to stop focusing on the drug trade as much and focus on, first, establishing security and then trying to build up governance. Ultimately, you can’t fight a drug trade if you don’t have some marginally effective government in place as well as some marginally effective security force in place. I think Colombia is a good example of that – of how – when the government was either illegitimate or marginally legitimate, and they had a completely dysfunctional internal security and police force, they couldn’t make much headway against groups like the FARC and other kinds of drug production and smuggling operations.
I think there is something to that. I mean, for a while, William Wood was sent in as ambassador directly from Bogota to Kabul, I think, in ’07 to try to kick-start that. But again – like, this problem of not investing in the political and institutional development of the country paid dividends down the line, which is that we still don’t have sufficiently developed institutions. But, you know, that’s something where I think the State Department arguably is going to have a much bigger role to play, at least in the long run, than the military is, because it’s the State Department that’s going to be left when all of the combat troops pull out of Afghanistan. And they’re going – the embassy is going to be really the point person.
And I think this gets at your question, too. Especially since the attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, it’s kind of come to light that U.S. diplomacy – and the State Department in general – diplomats face this really nasty catch-22, where they’re the most effective when they’re out on the ground, but they also have the least effective security for themselves compared to the military, at least. And they also face really restrictive rules about when they can leave, when they can go into contested environments and when they can put themselves at risk to go do the kinds of necessary, on-the-ground work that they have. I don’t know how to resolve that; I’m just presenting it as a dilemma.
But I think, especially when we have combat troops withdrawing, and we’re facing fundamentally, like, political and economic issues like the drug trade, that’s going to be the kind of dilemma that starts really taking hold of how you can actually perform those kinds of – I hate using the word “capacity building,” but capacity building in contested areas if you also have a lot of restrictions on what you can do and where you can travel.
MR. NAWAZ: Just on the drug trade – there is a domestic element, which you have covered. But there is also an international and regional element, and the drug trade is the one thing on which I think we are probably on the same page as Iran and with the Central Asian Republics. They have a tremendous self-interest in stopping this drug trade, and that’s something that we need to concentrate on to try and build that capacity and build some coalition, but that means bringing Iran to the table. I think that’s something worth remembering.
MR. SEDNEY: A couple of quick points. The change in focus that Josh mentioned actually came about from Richard Holbrooke, my former colleague and late special representative. He pushed very hard for that change in focus. Yes, the Marines carried it out, but the direction came from the State Department and Ambassador Holbrooke. I think it was exactly right to focus on security and economic development first, because the – addressing the drug trade does require that kind of security.
The Afghan economy is not – is heavily influenced by but not dependent upon the drug trade. Afghanistan is still primarily a non-opium agricultural economy, and there is – there is a lot of room for agricultural growth in that economy in the future, along in many other areas. I agree with the comments here about the challenges for the State Department and other civilian agencies in terms of being effective, but also agree with Mr. Duke’s statement about, there have been a wide number of really incredible performers in the State Department, in USAID, U.S. Department of Agriculture and elsewhere that have had huge impacts in Afghanistan, and being able to continue to have that impact as the military footprint goes down and we have to depend on Afghans for our security, which is what we do in other countries in the world; we depend on local security forces for our security. Making that transition is going to be very difficult and very – and potentially dangerous for people, but that’s a transition we’ll have to make to relying on Afghan security.
And finally, on the question of President Karzai staying on, I think that has a huge amount to do with the amount of commitment from the rest of the world. If the rest of the world commits to Afghanistan’s future, Afghans will follow that lead and find a way to have a legitimate change of government the way we have all stressed is important. If there isn’t that commitment from the rest of the world, then I think the chances of a – of a less positive outcome go way up.
MR. PAVEL: Well, unfortunately, we’re out of time; we could probably spend the rest of the day addressing these issues, but please join me in thanking our panelists for their excellent insight. (Applause.)