22 July 2010

Cordesman on Afghanistan

Below is the official ABC transcript of an interview between ABC TV’s Tony Jones and Anthony Cordesman, co-director of the Middle East program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. It went to air on ABC TV’s Lateline program and is reproduced in full because it contains a number of important insights into how the situation in Afghanistan came to be as it is, what current US policy really is, and how it might evolve from here. Rather than attempt to summarise it, and risk putting words in Cordesman’s mouth, I give you his views as he stated them.

The original transcript can be seen on the ABC website here.

ABC Transcript

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: David Cameron and Barack Obama may be on the same page when it comes to an Afghanistan exit strategy, but according to our next guest, the conduct of the war has ramifications which will continue long past the 2014 date set for Afghans to take over their own security.

Anthony Cordesman is the co-director of the Middle East program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and his latest assessment on the war in Afghanistan is a scathing indictment of US policy. He joins us now in our Washington studio.

Thanks for being there.


TONY JONES: As strategists argue over whether the war in Afghanistan is winnable, you've described the conduct of it as one of the worst examples of war-time leadership in American history. Tell us why.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Well first, let me be very careful. What I described was what happened between 2001 and 2009. The fact is that the United States did not have a strategy. It did not resource the war, it did not provide the troops it needed, it didn't put the proper pressure on Afghanistan, it did not manage the aid effort.

It basically flooded money into the country in ways which were a primary source of corruption. It never provided the resources or the trainers to create effective Afghan forces. Now beginning in the middle of 2009, a lot of that changed, and part of the problem we face is those changes take time.

You can't waste eight years in a war and suddenly turn things around overnight. So we're getting all kinds of deadlines that aren't really deadlines. We're really creating an experiment in civil military operations now for which, in many cases, we have no clear precedents. So I think we need to make a very careful distinction. We made very serious mistakes in the past. We've made a new beginning. That beginning will take more time than many politicians like, and we really don't know the outcome yet.

TONY JONES: Do you blame - obviously, the majority of that eight years was under George W Bush, but do you blame both presidents for mismanagement?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think it's difficult to blame presidents. A lot of these problems occurred because of weaknesses within the Department of Defense. There is failure, almost a complete failure, of leadership within the State Department to even engage in the war in realistic terms at the top, not in the field.

And there were very serious weaknesses in the National Security Council which focused on Iraq. You can't personalise this. It was a broad failure in the United States' national security structure.

But it is a failure which in many ways has been corrected, and you now have a level of leadership, particularly in the country team in Afghanistan, which offers significant hope, that you can turn this war around.

TONY JONES: Do you regard president Obama's chief sin, if he has one, in the conduct of the war, as his setting of this arbitrary deadline for withdrawal of American troops beginning from July next year?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think we need to be very, very careful. The president had a speech written which put that deadline in largely for domestic political purposes to deal with his own party. From the start, that deadline said it was conditions based - that there might be almost no meaningful reductions in 2011 - but it has been misinterpreted virtually all over the world as some kind of deadline for significant US withdrawals.

And it's been misinterpreted in spite of the fact the secretary of state, secretary of defence, national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, all clarified it within 48 hours of the speech. Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, you send the wrong signals, and the president did that.

But he also has made repeated efforts to correct it, and when president Karzai came to Washington, he referred again and again to an enduring strategic partnership; he made it clear this was not a deadline in any rigid sense.

The problem we have here is there is a large scale desire on the part of many countries to leave as soon as possible, and many see the American signal as what they would like to have happen, and not what the president said.

TONY JONES: We've just seen Afghanistan's first major international conference. President Karzai, who's been backed largely even though he's a beleaguered president, says his own deadline for Afghan security forces to take over is now 2014. Is that a realistic deadline?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: There's no real way to know at this point. One thing we have to understand is at the start of this year, having set all of these goals to expand Afghan forces, we had exactly 23 per cent of the trainers and partners needed to train that force.

Now the number has sharply risen, largely as a result of US deployments, but we're still chronically short, not only of trainers, but of the resources and facilities. A lot of those won't be fully operational until this fall. Can we meet the goal?

First, it's not a real goal in any sense. You're talking about a formal transfer of responsibility in which there will still have to be very significant US and allied forces, and where virtually all of the money to pay for Afghan forces will still have to come from the outside.

It's like the other goal: the idea that somehow 50 per cent of the aid goes through the central government. It's a nice goal, but the fact is that depends on an anti corruption drive that hasn't begun, and in the real world what's actually happening is you're putting significantly more aid money into honest Afghans at the provincial, district and local level and bypassing the central government.

So this was a nice exercise in political symbolism, but to make it real is going to be something, at best, that's going to take several years.

TONY JONES: Here's another recent quote, a quote from your latest assessment: "It's time to stop demonising Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda and focus on the broader threat." What are you getting at?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think part of our problem is we keep looking at Al Qaeda, but everyone knows that given the demographics, the poverty, the lack of effective secular government, in much of the Islamic world, Central Asia, the Gulf, North Africa, there are going to be continuing Islamist extremist movements, which will have a violent terrorist character.

And those are not going to disappear when you get rid of Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. You have to look at what is a mix of different movements, some of which are affiliated with Al Qaeda and some of which are not. You have to look at the causes behind this extremism and terrorism. If this turns into a hunt for Bin Laden, and to some extent it has, it's a little like the hunt for Aidid in Somalia.

You miss the point. Even if you win, you haven't done enough with the broader threat to really contain or limit it.

TONY JONES: It's interesting to hear the language, though: "It's time to stop demonising Bin Laden and Al Qaeda." Could you imagine having even gotten away with saying that in the years straight after September 11? Have things changed enough that you can now reconsider policy to that degree?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think many counter-terrorism experts made it very clear from the start that the political tendency to focus only on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda missed what the real threat, the real set of forces affecting this part of the world, really were, and if you go back and look you'd find, for example, that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in describing what he called the long war - and this was back in 2001 - warned that these threats would be enduring, that they weren't tied to Bin Laden, that they weren't tied to Al Qaeda.

If you look at virtually any report on terrorism or counter terrorism, you see that this talks about a host of movements scattered throughout the world and not simply Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. I think the problem has been political; it's far easier to communicate in terms of one name, and in terms of media, where you take a complex story and you pin it down to one set of names, rather than covering what's really happening.

TONY JONES: The Taliban are also a complex story. Is it time for the United States to stop simplifying that issue and to allow serious negotiations with elements of the Taliban?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think we need to be very careful. The United States has never opposed negotiation with elements of the Taliban. What it has done is press hard to not negotiate with extreme elements of the Taliban like the Haqqani network or Sheikh Omar. It's also pushed hard in Afghanistan, as has Australia and every member of ISAF, that if you're going to talk about reconciliation, you have to have facilities in place, you have to have programs in place - this can't be a matter of words or paper agreements which basically end up empowering an enemy which still thinks it's winning.

So the real question is not whether we should negotiate with the Taliban; it's negotiate effectively and to clearly distinguish between the elements we can deal with and the elements which are so extreme that no matter what happens, they will never honour an agreement.

TONY JONES: To go much broader, your conclusion is we have to get to grips with the sheer scale, as you put it, of the US mistakes in Afghanistan that led to the rise of the insurgency there, because we're likely to see a century of wars just like this in failed or failing states.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think that's a grim conclusion. I wish I could say that we had the ability to reverse all of these structures country by country, but the fact is that sheer demographic pressure alone means that much of this will continue to get worst in at least some countries through 2050.

The people, in some ways, are already born; the models are already there. We look at places like Yemen or Somalia, we look at countries where the population pressures, the economy, the failure of secular government threatens the State, and they extend from essentially North Africa into Sub-Saharan Africa, across Central and South Asia into East Asia.

We have to understand that this is not just one or two countries or movements, and if we're going to deal with this we have to be willing to work with the moderate states and moderate regimes. We have to look beyond counter-terrorism to the problem of a broader approach to dealing with foreign aid, with helping these countries develop and cope with these population problems.

The history of things is that we have often paid lip service to these kinds of issues and focused on narrow counter-terrorism. If that happens, then we do face an almost indefinite future with one extremist movement after another.

TONY JONES: Briefly on this point, do you think this president and this state department are capable of doing what you want them to do?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think this president has made a beginning. I think secretary Clinton has attempted for the first time to actually reorganise the State Department in ways which would actually enable it to cope with these issues.

But the exercise that she has initiated, which has a rather peculiar acronym: the QQDR, is so far not really producing any clear plans for action. We made progress inside Afghanistan in the country team there - in Pakistan - we are now attempting to reorganise part of the effort in Iraq.

But in broad terms, has the State Department come to grips with this, or the National Security Council? The honest answer is I don't think anyone in Washington believes they have.

TONY JONES: We're nearly out of time, and for a very big question I'm about to ask you: on war in Afghanistan you say there are still two big questions: is it worth fighting? Can it be won? Do you have answers to both of those?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think if we fully implement the strategy that the president and NATO recommended; if we really concentrate on anti-corruption, on civil military operations, on ensuring we really have a population-orientated strategy, we properly resource it, we do not support corruption and power brokers, and we deal with Pakistan effectively, the answer is this is still winnable.

But if we only focus on the threat and we don't correct the broader problems that built up over the last eight years, then this is not a winnable war.

TONY JONES: Anthony Cordesman, we'll have to leave you there. Once again, we thank you very much for joining us tonight.


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