Best Defense

On the whole, I’d rather be in Karachi: Ahmed Rashid speaks in Philadelphia

I have a lot of respect for the work of Ahmed Rashid, for my money the single best journalist on the Afghan war and on Pakistan as well. So when I saw that he was speaking in Philadelphia, I was pleased when a CNAS colleague was able to have a pal from War News Radio ...

Zeus Of HollYWOoD/flickr
Zeus Of HollYWOoD/flickr

I have a lot of respect for the work of Ahmed Rashid, for my money the single best journalist on the Afghan war and on Pakistan as well. So when I saw that he was speaking in Philadelphia, I was pleased when a CNAS colleague was able to have a pal from War News Radio cover the event.

I’m especially struck by his criticism of a timetable for getting out of Afghanistan, which parallels what I have been thinking about Iraq lately. 

By Emily Hager
Best Defense
Philadelphia deputy bureau chief

Ahmed Rashid opened with a run down of the situation in Afghanistan.

It was not encouraging.

Taliban influence is expanding, he said, and it has come to control a wide swath of the country, including provinces near Kabul. Last year’s election fraud undermined the credibility of President Karzai for taking part and of the West for not noticing sooner and fixing it. Afghanistan and Pakistan have become training grounds for other regional Taliban-type groups, mainly fighters from other Central Asian countries, China, Russia, and Europe. The Afghan economy is still primarily donor-driven, not a true national economy, and so it furnishes few lasting job opportunities for Afghan citizens. And though the Pakistani army has started to take on the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda still find refuge in that country. (Rashid said last week’s arrests of top Taliban leaders by Pakistani forces were more due to chance than to a major shift in Pakistani policy). Still, he says the presence of Western forces offers at least the hope of rebuilding the country with continued international interest — infinitely more appealing than the fear that he sees as still the main currency of the Taliban.

How do Obama and his administration measure up? Rashid said that for the most part, they have the right ideas: building a regional strategy that includes key players from Pakistan to Iran to Saudi Arabia; investing in the Afghan economy, especially in agriculture; improving governance; and using troops to secure population centers. But because Indo-Pakistani relations fell apart after the Mumbai bombings in 2008 and the situation in Iran has deteriorated, the regional strategy piece is falling through. Rashid said the biggest mistake the administration has made, on a foreign policy level, was to set a timetable for withdrawal. Right now the draw down of American forces is set to start in July, 2011. That leaves very little time to build up the Afghan economy and promote good governance. Worse, Rashid argued, it will promote panic in the Afghan government, encourage a wait-it-out mentality among the Taliban, and prompt neighboring countries to send in the proxies and begin sorting out potential lines of influence in a post-war Afghanistan. Still, Rashid recognized that domestic politics in the West make ending the war as soon as possible a political imperative, citing the collapse of the Dutch government earlier this week.

This brings me to perhaps the most interesting point of the talk. Given the pressure to end the war coming from Western countries, Rashid believes a true defeat of the Taliban will be impossible — so he stressed that efforts towards serious negotiation should begin now. The key partners, he said, can only be the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Why would the Taliban go for a negotiated solution, with the Western withdrawal date practically set on the calendar? First, Rashid said, the Taliban is tired. They are using forced conscription when they go into some villages in Afghanistan — a sure sign of recruitment troubles. Second, unlike the Soviets, Western forces will not abandon Afghanistan in one day. As long as there are some Western forces in the cities, the Taliban will never take them because NATO firepower is so overwhelming. That means a military takeover by the Taliban would still be far off, even if Western forces began to withdraw. Third, the Taliban has been dependent on — and manipulated by — Afghanistan’s neighboring countries for years. Rashid believes the Talibans are getting tired of what he called those countries’ "micromanagement." By heading to the negotiating table, the Taliban might get a chance to put their demands first. Case in point: note the conspicuous absence of Pakistani involvement in the under-the-radar negotiations in Saudi Arabia. And finally, just as the Afghan people do not want to return to life under the Taliban in the late 1990s (no jobs to speak of, oppressive regime, public executions), Rashid argued that the Taliban don’t want to return to a rule state like the one they controlled in 2000. Isolation and international sanction are unappealing. Rashid did point out that the more hard-line among the Taliban would never negotiate — but he thinks there’s a large enough crowd of what he calls "sensible Taliban leadership" to make negotiations a worthwhile option.

Workable negotiations would be an enormous challenge — for instance, even if the Taliban agreed to disconnect from Al Qaeda, as he believes they might, how could they prove it? Still, he argued that given the urgency on the part of Western countries to get out, it’s important to begin the process now so that negotiations might have fruit in time to leave Afghanistan and Pakistan moderately stable in the long run.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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