The South Asia Channel

Steve Coll on strategy in Afghanistan

Every week or so, the New America Foundation and Politico host online chats on a variety of hot topics. This week’s featured New America Foundation president and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steve Coll talking about Afghanistan on the day of President Obama’s long-awaited, much anticipated speech on a new strategy for the region. Excerpts of the ...

Every week or so, the New America Foundation and Politico host online chats on a variety of hot topics. This week's featured New America Foundation president and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steve Coll talking about Afghanistan on the day of President Obama's long-awaited, much anticipated speech on a new strategy for the region. Excerpts of the chat are below; check out the full transcript here.

James: Given that most of the al Qaeda leadership are in Pakistan, do you expect that this surge of troops in southern Afghanistan will have any effect on Pakistan?

Steve Coll: It will definitely have effects on Pakistan. The question is what kinds of effects. Some Pakistanis worry about blow-back of more Taliban and refugees pouring onto their side of the border. That is a risk. On the other hand, American commitment to the Pakistani state and to the reduction of the revolutionary threat posed by the Taliban might reinforce those in Pakistan -- in the army and the civilian government -- who think the time might have come to abandon their "Frankenstein"-like policy of supporting Islamist militias.

Every week or so, the New America Foundation and Politico host online chats on a variety of hot topics. This week’s featured New America Foundation president and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steve Coll talking about Afghanistan on the day of President Obama’s long-awaited, much anticipated speech on a new strategy for the region. Excerpts of the chat are below; check out the full transcript here.

James: Given that most of the al Qaeda leadership are in Pakistan, do you expect that this surge of troops in southern Afghanistan will have any effect on Pakistan?

Steve Coll: It will definitely have effects on Pakistan. The question is what kinds of effects. Some Pakistanis worry about blow-back of more Taliban and refugees pouring onto their side of the border. That is a risk. On the other hand, American commitment to the Pakistani state and to the reduction of the revolutionary threat posed by the Taliban might reinforce those in Pakistan — in the army and the civilian government — who think the time might have come to abandon their "Frankenstein"-like policy of supporting Islamist militias.

Jonathan Broder: Could you talk a bit about how success or failure in Afghanistan will affect the situation in Pakistan?

Steve Coll: The Pakistan Army has historically supported groups like the Taliban because it sees them as essential, along with a nuclear deterrent, to an assymetrical defense against much larger India, which Pakistan regards as determined to weaken or destroy Pakistan. Now sections of the Pakistani elites, faced with their own revolutionary Taliban, are questioning whether the benefits of allies like the Taliban are outstripped by the costs. Here the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and India actually have a common interest — to persuade Pakistan to abandon its support for these groups and pursue its legitimate security goals by other means. American failure in Afghanistan would almost guarantee failure of this project in Pakistan.

Steve Phillips: Will the Afghan population ever recognize the power of the central government? If so, what actions must the central government take to gain this recognition? How long will this take? What are the potential pitfalls in effecting the associated changes to reach that point?

Steve Coll: Afghanistan’s most successful period of modern politics occurred between the late 1920s and the late 1960s. The country was very poor but it managed a sustainable, multi-ethnic system of governance that included a role for a weak central government and diverse regional powers — some tribal, some other — backed by a national Army. The present circumstances are different — huge flows of international money and support tend to seek and even require a strong central government. But the model I elude to is probably more plausible. It’s a balance between central and local authorities. That’s more plausible than wishing for a central government that can deliver presence and justice in every nook and valley of this mountainous country.

Tired Soldier: Won’t increasing numbers of U.S. troops lead to more contact (combat) and further alienate the civilian population? In my experience in Afghanistan, more contact has always meant more fire support gets used, which means more civilians get killed, which turns the local tribal elders against us and multiplies our enemies. General McChrystal hasn’t been able to break that cycle yet. Any sense that the new strategy avoids this trap?

Steve Coll: It’s a good question. The McChrystal report suggests that he expects more contact and more violence initially, but then hopes to "hold" and "build" in a more passive manner in the major population centers, once they are cleared of Taliban cells and networks. The level of violence in the big cities even now is not very intense, but that may change as international forces try to make themselves more felt in places like Kandahar. Apparently the new strategy will also recommit to rural Helmand province, a poppy-growing region. I’m not sure whether the Taliban will see it as in their interest to go all out there, given that they have other targets that will be less heavily defended, but in the short run, I would expect violence in Helmand to rise for the reasons you suggest. Already, however, the international community has some tribal and other allies in Helmand to work with on their side of the conflict.

Gary H. Johnson, Jr.: Is President Obama’s focus on an exit strategy rather than a victory strategy in Afghanistan warranted at this stage of operations?

Steve Coll: I worry that it’s hard to send two messages at once — on the one hand, signaling resolve to fence-sitters and adversaries in the region, and on the other hand, signaling weary American voters that you have a plan to come home. But I recognize that American politics offers the President little choice in this respect. And I am hopeful that the "exit" rhetoric and signaling can be used to leverage positive behavior by Karzai and other Afghan participants in the conflict. There is no exit strategy for Pakistan, and as long as the president makes that clear, he might be able to finesse this communications challenge over the next few years. But it’s a worry.

Colin Cookman, CAP: I was struck by a line in a recent Washington Post article on relations with the Karzai government that seems to almost perfectly encapsulate the basic incoherence in our Afghan strategy to date: "While Biden and others pressed Karzai to remove his brother [Ahmed Wali Karzai] as the chairman of the provincial council in Kandahar because of allegations that he is connected to drug trafficking, the CIA continued to pay him for sharing intelligence and assisting with counterterrorism operations." The same I imagine can be said for a number of other less high-profile figures in Afghanistan throughout the country. Do you see any indications that Pres. Obama, in his speech tonight or in policy going forward, intends to seriously resolve the countervailing tensions in our policies between our own short-term security concerns and the longer-term project of state-building and decisively move towards one approach or the other? If not, where do you think the balance of the approach will fall, and what will be the effects?

Steve Coll: A critical question and a big vulnerability for the U.S., I’m afraid. There does not seem to be a unity of view in the U.S. government about how to balance the expediency of warlords and "security" verses the imperative of a sustainable Afghan politics. I think on balance the election and the appalling corruption in Karzai’s government has shaken assumptions in Washington on this score, but at the same time, nobody is going to punish Gul Agha Sherzai, for example, the lord of all he surveys in Jalalabad, because his methods fail to conform to political science textbooks. So the contradictions you describe are likely to persist, and they may undermine U.S. strategy.

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