Print Friendly, PDF & Email

GVS News Desk |

Former director CIA, General Petraeus, in an interview with PBS in June 2017, stated that the war in Afghanistan will be a generational struggle and compared that with the continuing U.S. involvement in South Korea (US is engaged in Korean peninsula since 1953). Petraeus words were:

“This is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag and go home to a victory parade.”

If on one hand, President Trump gave his approval for a troop increase in Afghanistan, then on the other, right wing news media stories suggest that a removal of all troops from Afghanistan is potentially on the cards. Currently, reports out of Washington suggest that the initial strategic plan that was presented to President Trump in July was dismissed by him and the team was told to go back to the drawing board and return with fresh ideas.

The Trump administration’s vacillation on the Afghanistan policy is occurring as hundreds have died this year alone from terrorist attacks in the country. But with the current rise of tensions with North Korea, it now looks that the strategic thinking, in Washington, on Afghanistan may not reach any conclusion in the near term.

Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia, at the Wilson Center, recently wrote a piece in the National InterestTrump’s Afghanistan Strategy is Simply Old Wine in a New Bottle’ with regard to the Trump administration’s  troop increase announcement. His piece emphasizes that it is the broader political strategy that is more important and which needs to be expanded upon.

Najma Minhas, Managing Editor, Global Village Space (GVS), currently in Washington, took the opportunity to sit down with Michael Kugelman at Wilson Center, and discuss what he thought about the roller coaster messages emitting from the Trump administration on Afghanistan.

(Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center)

Najma: General Petraeus recently called the mission in Afghanistan as being a generational struggle which he compared to the US sitting in Korea for 50-plus years. Do you think the US is going to stay in Afghanistan for a generation?

 Michael Kugelman: Well I certainly hope that US forces are not still in Afghanistan fifty years from now, given the fact that after sixteen years, the situation on the ground is arguably worse now, than it has been at any other time since US troops first entered in 2001. I do think that there is an acknowledgment and a realization within the US military and certainly among US policymakers that there are no easy solutions in Afghanistan.  There are no silver bullets or one solution that could make all the problems go away anytime soon.

Let’s face it US troops based in South Korea is a very different context from US troops in Afghanistan, the comparison is really apples and oranges.

But, I think that even those in the US government or the US military that think we need to stick it out in Afghanistan and remain there for the foreseeable future, would not want us to be in a position where we still have to be there so many years from now. Let’s face it US troops based in South Korea is a very different context from US troops in Afghanistan, the comparison is really apples and oranges. I think both as an American analyst and as an American citizen, I think it would be a terrible mistake to keep troops in Afghanistan for a number of years.

Afghan

Najma: Okay so just to take this analogy slightly forward. We were mentioning that the US is now sitting in South Korea because of North Korea and its nuclear weapons. A similar scenario exists where you can sit in Afghanistan to monitor Pakistan’s nuclear weapons; especially, given there are always questions being asked about the stability of nuclear weapons in Pakistan.

 Michael: I don’t agree with this view that seems to be held by a number of folks in Washington, that the US needs to be in the neighborhood so to speak, to ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons remain safe. I have always thought that was sort of overplayed. My sense is that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are in a pretty secure position. I am not one of these alarmists and fear mongers that think that the US needs to be in the region to make sure it can go in there and “help secure” [the weapons] if there’s a problem. I think that is a very outrageous and really a rather alarming thought for some US analysts to have.

I don’t agree with this view that seems to be held by a number of folks in Washington, that the US needs to be in the neighborhood so to speak, to ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons remain safe. I have always thought that was sort of overplayed. My sense is that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are in a pretty secure position.

The relationship between the US. and Pakistan is not the best relationship in the world, but I don’t think that we need to worry about Pakistan using nuclear weapons against the US interests in the region. Whereas with North Korea it’s a very different situation, we can’t rule out the possibility of North Korea being in a position where we want to, not necessarily use nuclear weapons, but engage in military operations that could affect US troops in South Korea or in Japan.

Najma: On Afghanistan, there are conflicting signals coming out of the White House. The president has given the go-ahead to send 4,000 additional troops, yet recently we’ve also heard that the president was presented with a strategy plan on Afghanistan on the 19th of July or thereabouts and wasn’t happy with the plan presented to him. Analysts are now even suggesting that maybe he’ll take the troops out altogether. What do you think’s going on right now and what in your mind should be the approach the US. takes?

Michael: I think there is simply total indecision in the Trump White House. The President and many aides close to him simply don’t understand Afghanistan and the broader region. So it’s very difficult for them to formulate the policy because they need to learn so much and that takes a long time. Also, there are some very well-documented splits and tensions within the Administration about the best direction on Afghanistan. This is not just related to Afghanistan but on many levels of foreign policy. So, I think what we have, is competing factions of the Trump White House, essentially trying to get the president’s ear. I think that for some time Trump was sold on this idea that the US needs to send more troops to Afghanistan and maintain a long-term presence in Afghanistan. This is a position that has been held by both McMaster and by Mattis, former military men, but I think that there also are very powerful factions in the White House led by Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner who are isolationists and do not want the U.S. to be involved in foreign wars. I think that President Trump is now coming around to the latter point of view. 

I think that for some time Trump was sold on this idea that the US needs to send more troops to Afghanistan and maintain a long-term presence in Afghanistan. This is a position that has been held by both McMaster and by Mattis, former military men, but I think that there also are very powerful factions in the White House led by Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner who are isolationists and do not want the U.S. to be involved in foreign wars. I think that President Trump is now coming around to the latter point of view.

In terms of my own feeling for what should happen, my view is much different now than it would have been four or five years ago. While I do not support the idea of a very long term open-ended military commitment in Afghanistan, my view is that we should send several thousand more troops to Afghanistan to supplement the existing training mission. I call this sort of a status quo plus plan. I think it is worth one more attempt to try and get it right. But it also should involve a political strategy which is even more important than the military strategy. There need to be efforts to have a plan to engage and improve the capacity of the Afghan government to deliver and also a plan to really seriously pursue the idea of reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Najma: Recently at a seminar on Afghanistan at a US think tank, I heard several senior individuals who had been in government including Laurel Miller, the last US Special Rep for Afghanistan & Pakistan, arguing that we need to sit down and talk to the Taliban. Yet, the message that seems to be emanating from current Administration is that ‘no talks with Taliban’.

Michael: I am very skeptical about the idea of reconciliation and talking to the Taliban. However, I think that the U.S. should try to come up with a plan to bring the Taliban to the table, which I don’t really think it’s done before, to see what the options are for reconciliation. This does not have to necessarily involve the U.S. itself talking to the Taliban, but it could be a plan where other players; such as the Pakistanis, Chinese and certainly the Afghan government talk to the Taliban. Once again it’s worth trying just for the sake of doing it so that if the U.S. decides that it’s time to withdraw, they could say well we tried this best as we can and since it didn’t work we need to withdraw.

The Afghan government does not want the U.S. to withdraw. But even if the US were to withdraw, theoretically to meet the main Taliban precondition to talks. We still don’t know whether things would then move forward. The Afghan Taliban has never been involved in peace process so we don’t know whether we can trust them. When I talk about the need to think about developing a formal reconciliation plan; I think that plan would need to look into many types of contingency. There would need to be efforts made and studies done, which would involve talking to experts on the Taliban. Understanding as to how serious we could take that pledge by the Taliban, that if US troops were to withdraw, would the Taliban really talk or would it simply just laugh and you know chuckle about how silly and gullible the Americans and the foreigners are and then ramp up its fight in an even bigger way in which case it could overthrow the government in Kabul.


Najma: U.S. went into Afghanistan after 9/11, for OBL and Al-Qaeda. The majority of U.S. analysts now say that al-Qaeda is extremely weak in Afghanistan and in fact it’s dispersed to many other countries, Yemen, Libya so on and OBL is dead. In which case why is the U.S. in Afghanistan?

Michael: The US had very clear objectives in Afghanistan in the early days of the war; eliminate the al-Qaeda sanctuaries and remove their Taliban hosts from power. Both objectives were achieved very quickly, ever since that happened, successive US governments: Bush administration, Obama administration and now the Trump administration have struggled to articulate why US troops are still in Afghanistan.

Let’s face it I’ll be very frank, to the average American if they’re told that you know their troops need to stay in Afghanistan to build up the Afghan security forces or create stability, it’s not going to play very well. But focusing on the terrorism aspects and the need to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a breeding ground for terrorists that plot attacks against the United States that will get the attention and support.

However, I personally think al Qaeda is not as weak as it is believed; it wasn’t too long ago when the US military discovered this huge al Qaeda training camp in southern Afghanistan. I think that for the Trump administration when it comes out with a strategy, it needs to clearly articulate why the US needs to stay in Afghanistan. I would suggest that rationale includes a very clear focus on counter-terrorism. I think there needs to be a focus on the fact that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan would continue to fight against the new and very resilient ISIS faction in Afghanistan. But also, that it’s there to fight against what is been an extremely resilient al Qaeda, because I think the biggest fear for many Americans both in Washington and outside is that if the U.S. left Afghanistan then Al Qaeda would return and it would resume its sanctuaries and they would start planning attacks on the US again.

It seems like a pretty far-fetched scenario, but it’s by no means impossible. Contrary to what many including President Obama said, Al-Qaeda has not gone away, it’s still there. Let’s face it I’ll be very frank, to the average American if they’re told that you know their troops need to stay in Afghanistan to build up the Afghan security forces or create stability, it’s not going to play very well. But focusing on the terrorism aspects and the need to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a breeding ground for terrorists that plot attacks against the United States that will get the attention and support.

Afghanistan

Najma: If counter terrorism and radical Islamists are the reason the US should continue to stay in Afghanistan. Why is the US not playing ball with the regional players who also fear the growing presence of ISIS? The Russians held a regional conference on Afghanistan in Moscow in April and invited the U.S to participate, but the invitation was turned down. Is the US interested in working with other regional players on this issue?

Michael: There are many tragedies in Afghanistan, but one of the main tragedies is that there are a number of key countries and stake holders that think very much along the lines of the US;  when it comes to how to move forward and bring some sort of stability to Afghanistan. Russians, the Chinese to some extent the Iranians, and although complicated but to some extent the Pakistanis as well; but the US simply does not have politically good relations with these countries.

There is a tendency in Washington and in Kabul for sure and also in New Delhi and some other capitals to simply blame the events in Afghanistan on external factors certainly Pakistan

There is no mutual trust. The U.S. and Russia, clearly have a very troubled relationship, even though the U.S. president likes the idea of a strong relationship with the Russians. Its relationship with Iran is very troubled, with China its very complicated and of course with Pakistan its now very troubled. But, its not just counter terrorism they all see eye to eye on, they would all like to crack down on drug production or figure out a way to reduce the flow of refugees from Afghanistan. There are a lot of ways the US can work with these countries but it doesn’t happen simply because they don’t get along.

Najma: So on these other issues that you mention; the drug issue, the counter terrorism issue don’t you think the Afghan government also needs to up its game to some extent? Should the US focus on the capacity building of Afghanistan government to deliver to its people, economically deliver livelihoods and so on?

Michael: I think there is a tendency in Washington and in Kabul for sure and also in New Delhi and some other capitals to simply blame the events in Afghanistan on external factors certainly Pakistan and others as well. I totally agree that a big reason why Afghanistan finds itself in such a difficult spot now is the fact that the Afghan state and certainly the government have simply not been in a position to take ownership of all of these problems and move forward in a meaningful way.

One of the main tragedies is that there are a number of key countries and stake holders that think very much along the lines of the US;  when it comes to how to move forward and bring some sort of stability to Afghanistan. Russians, the Chinese to some extent the Iranians, and although complicated but to some extent the Pakistanis as well; but the US simply does not have politically good relations with these countries.

The current government in Afghanistan is hopelessly dysfunctional, it’s a national unity government that is united only in name and there are deep levels of personality disputes that have made it very difficult for the country to carry out even the most basic forms of governance such as providing basic services and the idea of developing a comprehensive plan to deal with the Taliban is not there. The Afghan government is working with the US and others in this regard, but I do think that if you look at the Afghan government and see how dysfunctional and unpopular it is, then you understand that Taliban is ultimately strengthened by this. Its very easy for the Taliban to say to potential recruits that look your government does not have your back, it is illegitimate. It was founded through a US led negotiation, which is true. The Taliban can promise them delivery of, justice and a paycheck.

I think that tends to be an under-appreciated aspect of the problem in Afghanistan. Under-appreciated here in this town (Washington) which tends to throw the blame on Pakistan, which quite frankly does deserve a lot of blame but the fact of the matter is the Afghan government itself has really struggled to do what it needs to do on a very basic and a very complex level.

Najma: What do you think the US can then do to enhance that capacity in Afghanistan?

Michael: The first step for the US is to develop a political and diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan. So far much of the talk around Afghanistan has been about troop levels and military issues; there is a need for the US government to come up with a plan for deep levels of engagement with the Afghan Government, which should entail above all else, the US Ambassador. But its not yet in place; he has not been nominated or approved. The US ambassador will need to look into the factions in the Afghan government, in addition, there need to be high-level visits by US officials to Kabul, to make sure that the government manages to work through its problems in order to get things done. I think that’s the first step. There needs to be a constant high-level presence to reassure Afghanistan that the US is there and will be willing to do what it can to provide support.

Najma: Last week, Senator McCain presented his Afghanistan strategy to the defense bill. What are your thoughts has it proposed anything new?  Or more old wine in an old bottle it seems?

Michael: What’s striking about McCain’s plan is that just about everything it proposes has been considered by the Trump administration or implemented by the Obama administration. So there is really not much that is new about it. What does stand out about it is: how comprehensive it is–all of the things that have been considered in recent weeks or used in the past are featured. It’s about as comprehensive and “all-in-One” a strategy as we’ve seen for quite some time–and for that reason, I doubt that Trump would implement something like it.

I think that the Trump administration will take a harder line against Pakistan and by that, I mean there will be significantly cut offs in aid. I do not think that the Trump administration will go as far as some hawks suggest as to call Pakistan a state sponsor of terror.

All this said, I don’t think McCain announced this policy with the hope that Trump would adapt it. My sense is that he meant this move to be more about politics than policy: In essence, he wanted to pressure Trump to move more quickly on the White House strategy review. And what better way to do so than by preempting Trump with his own strategy.

Given how bad things are going in Afghanistan, and given how slow the Trump administration strategy review has been, I actually think McCain’s move here is a good idea and makes good sense.

Najma: The Secretary of State has mentioned that there is going to be an inter agency review in the region including Pakistan what do you think is going to come out of this review with regards to Pakistan.

Michael: Well this is a review that’s been going on for several months and the hope was to have it done several months ago. It’s been a very slow process my sense is that quite frankly, the Trump administration’s policy will be not too different from the Obama administration’s policy in its last few years in power. The Obama administration was taking a very hard line against Pakistan. It was threatening aid cut-off, and it was not willing to work closely with Pakistan, in areas that went beyond security cooperation. I think that the Trump administration will take a harder line against Pakistan and by that, I mean there will be significantly cut offs in aid. I do not think that the Trump administration will go as far as some hawks suggest as to call Pakistan a state sponsor of terror.

I think that if the US were to do something really drastic with Pakistan, then it would be to revoke the non-NATO military ally status that Pakistan enjoys; simply because that would not be as devastating and stinging as if it were declared a state sponsor of terror. It would still be damaging to Pakistan and there wouldn’t be as much security cooperation for instance, but even that is something I think would not happen straight away.

If you want to talk about very concrete, hard steps the US could take in the short term, you will have to look at its increased use of the drone war, once again.  As you know the drone war has calmed down over the last few years, you don’t have as many drones as during the height of the drone war, during the beginning of the Obama administration.

I do think that given the Trump administration view on counter terrorism there will be a very strong desire to ramp up the drone war. Perhaps also to expand drone targets to Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, areas that have only rarely experienced drone strikes. And I think that these drone strikes will be meant to go after the leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network who obviously are the main threats to the US troops and US interests in Afghanistan.

Najma: Pakistan is the world’s second largest Muslim country, it’s a nuclear country and it’s in one of the world’s most volatile regions, why doesn’t the US have a Pakistan specific policy?  

Michael: It’s a fair point, for so long Pakistan has been an independent country, the US has decided to regard Pakistan through the lens of Afghanistan or India, though certainly Afghanistan. Quite frankly, I think that many in Washington choose not to view Pakistan in its strategic significance in itself, they choose not to acknowledge or pay attention to the fact that it is one of the largest countries in the world, one of the youngest countries in the world with a very significant geographical location, I think these things, these aspects tend to be downgraded (in Washington)

Setting aside any other issue, the fact that an elected official was held to account for a misdeed even if it wasn’t the most outrageous misdeed that’s ever been committed by a Pakistani elected official, the fact that he was held accountable and made to pay the ultimate political price that in my view is democracy in action. I mean that is accountability.

In terms of why the US does not look to Pakistan as a key lynchpin for US interests and US policy in South Asia or in the Middle East. I think it’s very simple that there’s not enough trust, not enough goodwill in the relationship. There’s a fixation on the fact that Pakistan has relations with militant groups that threaten and continue to threaten the US directly, in Afghanistan and in India and in around the world.

I think the possibility that the US develops a deep strategic partnership with Pakistan is simply very unlikely given that so many people are so angry about the relationship between Pakistan and the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban. It will be very hard to find an American in Washington who believes that they don’t get sanctuary in Pakistan and that within itself is a game ender so to speak when you want to talk building a deeper relationship.

I just don’t think that we could realistically look to the day where the US would be looking to pursue a deep relationship with Pakistan, a strategic relationship which would involve more trust than what the US has at its disposal now.

There have been efforts made to really build up this relationship; as you will recall when the Obama administration first took office, there was an announcement of a strategic dialogue that Hilary Clinton led and I think that was great there were a lot of discussions about areas of cooperation that went beyond security like water, energy, education, healthcare and some of them looked at Pakistan with a wide lens that went beyond security and I understand that the US could play a remarkably useful role when it comes to cooperation in those non-security issues but unfortunately such is the level of mistrust and unhappiness here in this town, I just don’t think that we could realistically look to the day where the US would be looking to pursue a deep relationship with Pakistan, a strategic relationship which would involve more trust than what the US has at its disposal now.

blame-games

Najma: Given the current events that have taken place in Pakistan do you see democracy being threatened in Pakistan with the ouster of Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court?

Michael: I sent out a tweet right after Nawaz was disqualified that the ‘decision is a blow to the democratic process but a victory for democratic principles.’ Setting aside any other issue, the fact that an elected official was held to account for a misdeed even if it wasn’t the most outrageous misdeed that’s ever been committed by a Pakistani elected official, the fact that he was held accountable and made to pay the ultimate political price that in my view is democracy in action. I mean that is accountability.

Nawaz

But I think that what has happened since the disqualification that points towards a democratic progress in Pakistan, you look at how you had a leadership transition announced almost immediately after Nawaz was dismissed, that’s important, I think that we are well past the days in which the army would just come in and take power on the justification that it needs to restore order. No reasonable observer would have expected the military to take over and I think that that is a sign of democratization right there.

I think that what has happened since the disqualification that points towards a democratic progress in Pakistan, you look at how you had a leadership transition announced almost immediately after Nawaz was dismissed, that’s important,

Where I think the concern is about the verdict itself and how it arrived at you know many people were in the view that there might have been selective justice because Nawaz was sent packing basically because of a technicality, a relatively minor offense being accused of not disclosing a modest amount of income that according to Nawaz he did not even receive. There have been so many military and political leaders who have done so many more serious things and they haven’t been sent packing for those that’s I think where you have to worry about blows to democracy but I certainly think that there’s a lot to be happy about.

Najma Minhas, GVS Managing Editor had this discussion with Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director, Woodrow Wilson Center, in Washington. Transcript has minor editing, by GVS Desk, for clarity

Comments & Discussion