Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, first American journalists allowed access to Afghanistan in 1981, following the Soviet invasion and the expulsion of the entire Western press. They did an exclusive news story for CBS Evening News and produced a documentary for PBS called Afghanistan Between Three Worlds. Now they’re out with a book about US involvement in Afghanistan. It’s called Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story.
Gilles Dorronsoro, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Previously, Dorronsoro was a professor of political science at the Sorbonne, Paris, and is the author of the book Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present and the new report "Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War"
President Obama is speaking before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night in what is being described as the first State of the Union address of his presidency. While the economy is expected to dominate the agenda, Obama will also talk about his top foreign policy initiative: the war in Afghanistan. Last week, Obama ordered an additional 17,000 US combat troops to Afghanistan. The new deployments will begin in May and increase the US occupation force to 55,000. Today, we spend the hour looking at US involvement in Afghanistan with five guests: Anand Gopal, Afghanistan correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor; Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, authors of Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story; Gilles Dorronsoro, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and documentary filmmaker Kathleen Foster. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
ANJALI KAMAT: President Obama is speaking before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night in what is being described as the first State of the Union address of his presidency. While the economy is expected to dominate the agenda, Obama will also talk about his top foreign policy initiative: the war in Afghanistan.
Last week, Obama ordered an additional 17,000 US combat troops to Afghanistan. The new deployments will begin in May and increase the US occupation force to 55,000. Another 32,000 non-US NATO troops are also in Afghanistan, although at a meeting in Poland last week NATO allies seemed reluctant to contribute more than a few hundred new combat troops to Afghanistan.
The top US commander, General David McKiernan, in Afghanistan welcomed Obama’s announcement.
GEN. DAVID McKIERNAN: I am very delighted with the President’s decision yesterday to send additional US forces to reinforce our efforts in Afghanistan. I will use most of those forces in the southern part of Afghanistan, an area where we do not have sufficient security presence, an area that has deteriorated somewhat, an area where we need persistent security presence in order to fight a counterinsurgency and to shape, clear, hold and build in support of a rapidly developing Afghan capacity.
ANJALI KAMAT: General McKiernan added later that at least another 10,000 troops will be needed beyond the President’s call for 17,000 more troops. He said 60,000 US troops would have to remain in Afghanistan for the next three to four years.
Meanwhile, the US military admitted on Saturday that a recent missile strike in western Afghanistan killed a majority of civilians. Last Tuesday’s bombs hit the tents of nomads where about a hundred families lived. This is Karim Khan, a resident of the area.
KARIM KHAN: [translated] It was 4:00 in the morning when the aircrafts started bombing, and people were asleep. Thirteen people from the tents and three other visitors were killed.
ANJALI KAMAT: The US had originally said the strikes had killed fifteen insurgents but conducted an investigation following Afghan outrage over the attack. The US military now admits that thirteen of the sixteen killed in the strike were civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: News of the strike came as the UN said Afghan civilian casualties jumped by nearly 40 percent last year. US-led forces were responsible for nearly 40 percent of the deaths, killing 828 people out of a reported 2,100 casualties.
Last week also marked the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, after an occupation that lasted ten years, and was followed shortly thereafter by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, nearly seven-and-a-half years into the US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, we host a discussion on the US role there, past, present and future.
We’re joined by several guests throughout the hour. We’re going to start, though, with Anand Gopal, the Afghanistan correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He joins us on the line from Kabul.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Anand. Tomorrow, President Obama will address a joint session of Congress. He’ll be talking about the economy. He’ll also be talking about Afghanistan. Can you talk about the significance of the surge in Afghanistan?
ANAND GOPAL: Well, as you mentioned in the opening, the violence has been increasing here every year for the last two years. And so, a lot of people here in Afghanistan feel that we’re at a critical juncture. We’re at a point where large parts of the countryside are not under the control of the Afghan government or the international forces, and without a drastic policy change, that things might tip over the edge. So the surge is something that’s being debated widely here.
ANJALI KAMAT: Anand Gopal, what’s been the reaction inside Afghanistan to the rising civilian casualties?
ANAND GOPAL: This is something that’s weighing heavily on the minds of Afghans everywhere and especially in those areas where the fighting is happening. This is really bringing a lot of villagers to question whether they want more troops in the area. So, a lot of Afghans that I speak to in these southern areas where the fighting has been happening say that to bring more troops, that’s going to mean more civilian casualties. It’ll mean more of these night raids, which have been deeply unpopular amongst Afghans. And also, there’s a problem where whenever American soldiers go into a village and then leave, the Taliban comes and attacks the village. So a lot of villagers feel that they’re sort of being attacked on all sides here and don’t view the injection of more troops as necessarily a solution to that.
ANJALI KAMAT: Anand Gopal, can you explain how much of Afghanistan is under control of the Afghan government and how the Taliban, after being routed in 2001, is once again a powerful force in the country?
ANAND GOPAL: The latest US National Intelligence Estimate about Afghanistan that covered this question estimated that about ten percent of the country is under the control of the Afghan government. And this was about eight months ago, and I would suspect that that number has gone even less since then.
And the way it’s worked is, most of the small towns and urban areas are under the control of the Afghan government, but most of the rural areas, which is where the majority of people live here, are not under the control of the government. They’re either under the control of the Taliban or under the control of various warlords and militias. And the Afghan countryside has been extremely chaotic and lawless for many years. And so, the Taliban kind of rode back into power by — on a platform of law and order, saying that the Afghan government is not doing its job of keeping out criminals and then providing security, so we’re going to come in here and install sharia law and make this place safe from criminals and bandits.
AMY GOODMAN: Anand Gopal, Vice President Biden recently met with President Hamid Karzai. There has been a clear shift of pulling support from Karzai by the US government. I believe they were in the middle of a meal, and Biden just got up and left. Can you talk about Hamid Karzai’s power right now; elections that are supposed to be coming up; his brother, Hamid Karzai’s brother, the allegation that he is a drug dealer, a drug runner in Afghanistan; and what future there is for the man who’s been the US representative in Afghanistan for quite a long time now?
ANAND GOPAL: Karzai’s popularity here is at an all-time low. He’s associated with a government that’s viewed as anywhere between predatory and ineffective. And he — the Afghan government has not been able to deliver on the many promises over the last few years, and so Afghans are holding Karzai responsible for this. And as his power started eroding here, he’s lashed out against the Americans and has been very vocal in his criticism of the civilian casualties. And I think this is one of the reasons why the US administration is kind of thinking about cutting him loose, because you have his pretty open and demonstrated criticisms of US policy here.
With that being said, there is an election coming up in the next few months, and there isn’t a clear-cut alternative to Karzai. Karzai has been able to build a sort of network, patronage network, over the course of the last few years, with important tribal leaders and other such people. And there’s nobody else in Afghanistan at the moment who has a sort of national name that Karzai does. So he’s in an interesting bind, where he’s very unpopular, but at the same time isn’t really opposed by any significance either.
ANJALI KAMAT: And, Anand Gopal, the last question I want to ask you is about — what are the different groups that sort of generally are thought to make up the Taliban? In this country, when we talk about forces fighting the US and NATO occupation in Afghanistan, they’re all generally called the Taliban. Can you give us a sense of who are the different insurgent groups in this country?
ANAND GOPAL: Yeah, the Taliban are sort of a catchall phrase for three or four different groups. The one is the group that’s led by Mullah Omar. These are the people that were in power back before 2001, sort of the old guard Taliban, and they make up the core of the insurgency. But they’re also flanked by various other groups. And one group is called the Haqqani network. This is run by a warlord by the name of Jalaluddin Haqqani, who’s based in Pakistan. He was a former American ally, who’s since — he’s then turned his guns on the Americans. And he’s closely aligned with al-Qaeda and has been behind a lot of the suicide attacks in Kabul and other places. There’s also another insurgent group led by a warlord by the name of Hekmatyar. He’s also somebody who was a US ally back in the ’80s during the Soviet war and has since turned against the Americans.
And these three groups are not the same, and they sort of have differing visions. Hekmatyar is — I’m sorry, Haqqani is more closely aligned to al-Qaeda, and they have more of a vision of global jihad, whereas the Mullah Omar’s Taliban usually restrict their fight and their ideology to within the borders of Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: And would you say they have been strengthened by the US occupation, by the US troops? Do you think their power would shift if the US troops were out?
ANAND GOPAL: Well, certainly, most of these groups — or none of these groups had any power at all six or seven years ago, and they’ve been able to — they’ve been able to take advantage of the widespread disillusionment and [inaudible] with the US forces and with the Afghan government. And you have to remember, the US has come in and made a series of promises to the Afghans, and most of those promises, such as reconstruction and jobs, development, haven’t been met. And so, the Taliban and these other groups haven’t made that many promises, but they’ve been able to point out to the Afghans, say, “Look, these Americans have come here and have not delivered, so you should put your allegiance to us.” So — and they have certainly been able to capitalize on this.
AMY GOODMAN: Anand Gopal, thank you very much for being us, Afghanistan correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, speaking to us from Kabul. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll continue our discussion on Afghanistan, past, present and future, in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re looking at Afghanistan, past, present and future, on this eve of President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress. He’s expected to address the economy and Afghanistan. We’re focusing on Afghanistan today, as we’re joined in Boston by Paul Gould and Elizabeth Fitzgerald [sic.], the first American journalists allowed access to Afghanistan in 1981, following the Soviet invasion and expulsion of the entire Western press. They did an exclusive news story for CBS Evening News and produced a documentary for PBS called Afghanistan Between Three Worlds. Now they’re out with a book about US involvement in Afghanistan. It’s called Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!, Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould. Why don’t you start by telling us what you think is most misunderstood about Afghanistan?
PAUL FITZGERALD: Liz?
ELIZABETH GOULD: Well, I think the whole origin of Afghanistan’s conflict really rests in Washington. I think that is the most misunderstood issue. And when we focus on the results of what happened coming out of Washington that really affected the ability of Afghanistan to develop what really had been historically, throughout a good part of the twentieth century, a very moderate form of Islam, a government, you know, that back in the 1920s was establishing women’s rights in the form of giving women the right to vote — so you can see that in terms of these effects on the way in which a country is actually forming and its own evolution, and then, suddenly, the impact of a policy that’s determined in Washington beginning to affect what’s going on in Afghanistan. And that really goes back really to the Eisenhower administration. So I’d say that, for me, is the most misunderstood element.
PAUL FITZGERALD: And one of the things that we’ve noticed recently — and it’s the most disturbing — is just that we’ve been listening to this stuff for thirty years now, and we’re beginning to hear a lot of the same kind of misinformation and, quite frankly, disinformation, from the same people who were putting that out in the late 1970s, early 1980s, about Afghanistan and its importance to the United States. And it’s really very frustrating to hear that coming from some people, at this point, who really should know better.
ANJALI KAMAT: On that note, I want to go to former National Security Adviser under President Carter. Zbigniew Brzezinski was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last week discussing Afghanistan.
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: If you go back to our initial engagement in Afghanistan, the objective has been to create a democratic, modern Afghanistan. That’s our words for an objective that, for a decade earlier, the Soviets sought with slightly different words: a socialist, advanced Afghanistan. Both goals are unattainable, because the Afghans don’t want foreigners with guns telling them how to suck eggs, how to organize themselves.
I think we have to define our objective more narrowly. That is to say, we don’t want Afghanistan — [inaudible] it also to Pakistan this way — nor Pakistan to be the basis for international terrorist activity directed particularly to us but also to our friends.
Now, is Taliban a terrorist organization, or is it an ugly medieval-type throwback of a purely local character? I tend to think that it is, that’s what it is. The Taliban does terrible things. I was talking to someone about this last night at dinner, and this person said, “Yeah, but what about the horrible things they do to women and so forth?” That’s the painful part. But the same things happen in some other parts of the world. Are we going to go everywhere?
ANJALI KAMAT: Paul Fitzgerald, can you talk about what happened in 1979, just before the Soviet invasion, and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s role in that?
PAUL FITZGERALD: Well, one of the big problems that I have with what Mr. Brzezinski said was the fact that he was the one who was very much instrumental in bringing back the anti-modernist element in Afghan society, which had come to terms pretty much with the Afghan government, with fifty, sixty years’ worth of Afghan governments trying to slowly modernize their society after the devastation of both Russian and British colonialism in that part of the world.
So, you know, to focus on that one area — one of the things specifically that we looked at, in terms of the documents, the documentation, which is all now available, in terms of what the Soviets were up to and in terms of what the United States was up to, the Soviets specifically tried to get a non-aligned, non-Marxist government. And they actually, before they invaded, tried to get the Marxists to step down and to hold elections and to establish a Loya Jirga, that would actually bring in a lot of the other elements. The KGB station in Kabul was not happy about the Marxists taking over. They knew full well that they did not have broad support of the people, regardless of what their political outlook was. And the Russians were telling them that, and the Russians were also telling the Carter administration exactly what their plans were and what they were going to do. In fact, Secretary of Defense, who is now the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, states in his book, “If ever there was something that the United States knew ahead of time was going happen, it was the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.”
AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t it Brzezinski himself who, when interviewed some ten years ago by the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur, said — and, of course, this is before 2001, the September 11th attacks — he said, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?” — talking about the US support for the Mujahideen. Paul Fitzgerald?
PAUL FITZGERALD: That’s exactly it. As I said, you know, one of the things about — we’ve been hearing a lot of very strange talk about what goes on in Afghanistan, and that’s what motivated us to go there in 1981. We were saying, “Well, we’re getting a story from the Russian side of the coin; we’re getting a story from the American side of the coin. What is going on in Afghanistan?”
When we went there, what we saw was a country that was struggling to be independent, struggling to be democratic. And the Soviet Union, for whatever their faults are, and we know they had plenty, what they were doing was they were supporting the progressive, the more progressive elements in Afghan society. The United States had been doing that in a certain period of time, during their so-called experiment in democracy during the 1960s and the 1970s. But unfortunately, after 1973, the United States turned its back on advancing the cause of Afghan democracy and started supporting the — not the Taliban, the Mujahideen movement, which was being run by the ISI in Pakistan, the intelligence arm of the Pakistani army. And this is where things began to go terribly wrong.
And as a result of that, we wound up in the 1980s with this kind of good-versus-evil mantra, which was almost a kind of Hollywoodized version of this very complex situation, in which the Afghan government and the progressives in Afghanistan were trying to give women their rights. They were dealing — and the men were doing this, as well; it wasn’t just women’s organizations. The men were trying to do this, as well. And they were up against some very, very conservative, medieval fundamentalists who were over the border in Pakistan or up in the mountains. But this was no different than primitive groups anywhere that are anti-modernist. They did not want modernism of any stripe brought to Afghanistan. But they certainly were not the progressive movement that was actually active in the country at the time.
ANJALI KAMAT: Elizabeth Gould, I want to come back to this country and how the narrative about what happened in Afghanistan was talked about and created in this country. Dan Rather — you write extensively about Dan Rather in your book, former news anchor for CBS Evening News and now managing editor and anchor of Dan Rather Reports on HDNet. He was on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show last month discussing Afghanistan.
DAN RATHER: The ancient Greeks, the British and the Soviets tried to do a version of what we’re doing. But I do feel obliged to say, because it’s true, that they all tried to colonize Afghanistan. We are not seeking to colonize Afghanistan. The Soviets made no bones about it. They were coming in to take over the country. They wanted to run the country, wanted to be there a hundred or thousand years from now. That is not the case with what we’re trying to do.
ANJALI KAMAT: Elizabeth Gould, your response?
ELIZABETH GOULD: First of all, we have to go back and really look at Dan Rather’s contribution to the way in which the story was framed originally back in the early 1980s. After the Soviets crossed the border, Dan Rather was really the first person — the first journalist who really established the idea that this war should be viewed through superpower confrontation between, you know, basically the evil empire and the freedom fighters. And this was actually documented by Jay Peterzell, who wrote an article in the Columbia Journalism Review that was out in the — I think it was in the spring of 1981, which actually analyzed the way the reporting was happening in our country about Afghanistan and how it suddenly changed after Dan Rather had this report on 60 Minutes. This is when he had gone into the mountains in Afghanistan through Pakistan, and he had gone in to basically talk with the Mujahideen. And Peterzell’s comments, in his review, highlighted the fact that it was a very — he was very skeptical of how serious Rather was at really probing into the deeper implications of where the financing was coming from, and the fact at the time was the financing was coming from the United States. But suddenly the reporting changed after Dan Rather’s report. So he became the sort of the tone of the storytelling.
And we did our first story for CBS News, and we experienced that tone. It was very interesting to see the way they looked at the material, where we brought back a story that indicated there was a more complex story, that there was an Afghan civil war going on, that there was an issue that had to focus on the Afghan part of it. There was no interest. The only interest they had was in focusing on the amount of Russians in the street and the American viewpoint that this was a holy war against the evil empire. And then, once that was established throughout the 1980s, it continued.
And then we experienced again, in 1983, when we took Roger Fisher from the Harvard Negotiation Project to Afghanistan to assess the possibility that the Soviets could be negotiated out, and Roger’s assessment did show that that possibility exists. We brought that back to Nightline. And instead of really making it clear, the presentation really left a confusion in any viewer who would have seen that Nightline that that possibility existed. So, at the point when there was really a possibility, that’s when a lot of the increased funding really started flowing in to increase the insurgency, which actually was one of the major reasons that the Soviets claim that they couldn’t withdraw.
AMY GOODMAN: And the notion of blowback, what that means, the CIA term? You fund — you fund organizations, you fund groups, that then set their sights back on the very people that funded them, in this case, the United States. The term “blowback”?
ELIZABETH GOULD: There’s no question that there is definitely a line of connection leading up to 9/11 that is clearly connected to the original financing of what was referred to at the time as the holy warriors, the Mujahideen freedom fighters, who now have turned into international terrorists. And, of course, when we do talk about the Taliban, we do have to remember that as the ultimate expression of the financing that had started in the early — certainly very actively in the early 1980s and that really ended up producing the Taliban, which really became active in the early 1990s through to their taking Kabul in 1994. So this actually was really a direct result of financing through Pakistan’s ISI.
And once again, when we talk about the Taliban, in delineating between Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban, these are very important delineations that are very rarely talked about. We have to remember that in terms of President Zia, there was no doubt that the goal of the Taliban, the idea of the Taliban, which was articulated by Zia in the 1980s, when he was running the entire Afghan operation — all the money was flowing to Zia — Zia’s goal was to really — to create an Islamic effect on the area that he would control through Pakistan and that the desire to control Afghanistan was a part of it. So we have to be very concerned about the Pakistani aspect to the control of Afghanistan through Talibanization.
ANJALI KAMAT: I want to turn to a clip about the impact of US support for the Mujahideen on Afghan women’s rights. This is from Kathleen Foster’s documentary film Afghan Women: A History of Struggle. And we’ll be joined now by Kathleen Foster here in New York.
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: The Soviet Union must pay a concrete price for their aggression.
ALIA ZARIF: From ’79 to ’89, Afghanistan was at war. The war was not of Afghan against Russian; the war was a war of American and Russian, but with the blood of Afghan people. It was a war fought mostly in the rural areas. On one side was the army of the Afghan government and the Soviet Union, and on the other side was the Mujahideen or jihadis backed by the US government. Every day, the Mujahideen was getting stronger, getting more weapons.
NASEEMA: [translated] The Mujahideen would come and kill people — small children, women, young men, boys. There were so many dead bodies. Eighteen members of my family were killed.
FAHIMA VORGETTS: They would burn villages, burn crops, spill acid on women’s face, rape women, one way or the other force the villagers to get out of their village. The women of Afghanistan did not lose their rights under the Taliban. They lost their rights before the Taliban, when the fundamentalist Mujahideen in 1992, when they came to power. That’s when they lost their rights.
I always say that the difference between the Mujahideen and the fundamentalist Taliban is the length of their beard. All of them were raised and supported and trained in Pakistan in those madrasas and by the US, by the CIA, by the Pentagon, and by the Saudis and by the ISI of Pakistan. They are the same people.
ANJALI KAMAT: That was Fahima Vorgetts from Afghan Women’s Fund, excerpt from the documentary A History of Afghan Women’s Struggle by Kathleen Foster. The first voice you heard in the beginning of the clip was President Carter in 1979. We’re joined now by Kathleen Foster here in the firehouse studio.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
KATHLEEN FOSTER: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
ANJALI KAMAT: Your reaction? Can you explain what some of the Afghan women were talking about, in terms of how their rights — Fahima Vorgetts said, you know, Afghan women’s rights started retracting not just with the Taliban, but with the Mujahideen.
KATHLEEN FOSTER: Yes. I think she’s talking about the ’80s, the beginning of the ’80s, and she lived through the — as an activist through the ’70s, when Afghanistan was really — had a very progressive movement. There was a big movement of communist people, various Marxists, socialists, and eventually a takeover by the communists. And women’s rights at that point were one of the major — one of the major thrusts. And women were becoming — were getting educated. They were deciding their own destiny, no more forced marriages, and so on and so forth.
And as the Mujahideen, as the US funded these — what were a very small group of fundamentalists, who were also allied with the wealthy landowners, so that it was a sort of class struggle going on in Afghanistan — as the US funded these people in the countryside, where they were most — where they were really the strongest, women started to lose their rights totally. Schools were bombed. People who had any contact with the government, like government officials, like teachers, and so on and so forth, were killed. Women were raped. And so, Fahima — and then, in ’94, the Mujahideen actually took over the country, and that’s when Fahima is saying the women’s rights throughout the whole country were lost at that point, not when the Taliban took over, which is what, you know, we usually hear in the press, that the Taliban were responsible for the women losing their rights. But it was really before that.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about what needs to happen now. We’re going to go to break first, though. Kathleen Foster, photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, her latest film is called Afghan Women: A History of Struggle. She was in Afghanistan in the ’70s and then returned in 2003.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.
We’re joined by a roundtable of people around the country. Right now in Washington, D.C., Gilles Dorronsoro. He’s a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, previously a professor of political science at the Sorbonne in Paris. He’s written the book Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s take that chronologically backwards: Afghanistan today and what you think of President Obama picking up from President Bush and actually announcing a surge. He’ll be giving a major speech tomorrow before a joint session of Congress, Gilles.
Well, maybe, two things here. The first thing is that Obama decided to send more troops, reinforcement, in Afghanistan. But at the same time, there is no new strategy. That may be the most interesting thing. There is a strategic review going on, but it’s not finished. Maybe it will be finished in one month, two months. We don’t know, actually. And at the same time, it seems that the military thinks that the situation is so bad in the south that they need to send 17,000 men more. So that’s the first point, that the disconnection between the reinforcement and the strategy.
The second point, maybe, is that it’s probably a very wrong idea to send troops south. Why? Because south and east has been the place where most of the troops have been sent — the international coalition, I mean — and where the result is extremely weak. There is no Afghan state there. The population is rejecting the international coalition. And I think it’s not going to produce real results there. So, most probably, the situation is not going to improve very much in the south, and it’s going to be more and more difficult to send reinforcements like that, because it’s an open-ending process.
Gilles Dorronsoro, can you talk about — there seem to be two strategies that the US is trying out in Afghanistan. On the one hand, there seems to be a move to engage, to negotiate with the Taliban. On the other hand, there also seems to be a strategy in some parts of Afghanistan to arm local militias to fight the Taliban. Can you talk about the sort of — what’s your assessment of these two strategies? How do see them working together?
Well, I think that the first strategy is not a real strategy. I mean, it’s a discourse. But seriously, nobody is going to speak with the Taliban right now. Why? First, because they are too powerful, actually. So, to open negotiation with the Taliban right now is not a right move, because the Taliban are powerful, Karzai is very weak. So, if there is some negotiation, it’s about the withdrawal of the United States. So, it’s a non-starter.
The second thing is — could we use negotiations to split the Taliban, to find the so-called “moderate Taliban”? I’ve never seen what is a moderate Taliban, honestly, and I don’t think we are strong enough to split the movement, so it’s going nowhere. So, negotiation is not a real strategy. It’s a discourse, and I don’t see anything coming from that.
The second point is much more practical, much more interesting and much more dangerous, actually. What’s the idea? The idea is to find some local groups that sometimes you can describe as tribes, but much more local than that, small groups, and you give them money. And money, it’s arms, because — same thing, with money, you buy arms. And then you say, “OK, you’re going to protect your own village, maybe a little more. And from that, maybe we can stabilize the situation in a place.” It’s a very wrong move. Why? Because doing that, you’re reinforcing the periphery, actually. You can give money, you can give arms to people, and after that they will be much more independent from Kabul.
So, the major problem we have in Afghanistan is that we did not succeed in building an Afghan partner. We can’t negotiate, because there is no Afghan state. And what we are doing, we are reinforcing the periphery, so there is less probability to having an Afghan state working, really, somewhere. So, I think that’s a very dangerous strategy. I’m not sure it’s going to work and it’s going to be implemented in all Afghanistan, but the result could be extremely dangerous.
Kathleen Foster, when Gilles Dorronsoro said, no, that the US should not engage with the Taliban, you shook your head.
Well, I shook my head, because I think they’re trying to do that. There have been meetings in Saudi Arabia between the Taliban and US officials and Saudi officials.
And I think, you know, we have to look at why the US is in Afghanistan. Why have they been there for thirty years? What have they been doing? You know, $40 billion was spent on the secret war in the ’80s between the US and the Saudis, and what are they actually there for?
Brzezinski really stated it very clearly when he was National Security Adviser for Carter, and that Afghanistan is a key to US domination of Eurasia, which is the most important in terms of the US needing to dominate, keep their domination in the world. It’s the most important area for them to be controlling, because that means it’s the largest population. It’s 60 percent of the world’s wealth is in that area and, most importantly, all the oil. Seventy percent of the world’s oil is in that area in the Persian Gulf and in the Caspian Sea area to the north of Afghanistan. And Afghanistan stands in the center of that. And that’s part of the — it’s a vital part of US strategy to control Afghanistan in whatever way they can.
And I think one way, maybe — and this has been talked about in government circles here and in Pakistan — to actually balkanize that whole area, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the two have to be seen together. And maybe the point is some people are talking about a Taliban state, which would go across the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, so that it would — the area would be easier to control, the same way that Yugoslavia was. And you can see that that’s going on in Pakistan today.
Well, it’s interesting, the Pakistani government —
I’m sorry, but —
— and Taliban militants appear close to reaching an agreement. A headline we just had a few days ago, a ceasefire in the Malakand region of northern Pakistan. Under the deal, the government said it would allow the region to be ruled under Islamic or sharia law. The deal was announced on the same day that the Pakistani president said the Taliban is trying to take over the state of Pakistan. Paul Fitzgerald, you were trying to get a word in there?
Well, you know, this is, this is where the whole idea of the “great game” comes in. It’s not a game for me, and it’s not a game for you or the Afghan people, but there’s been this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that has occurred with Afghanistan from the very beginning. And it does appear to be happening again.
I mean, first of all, the, you know — from the time that United States went in there in 2001, they went in there with an inadequate number of troops. They certainly did not put enough money into it for development. And the money that they said they were putting in for development never got there. And so, as a result of that, now they turn around — the same people turn around saying, “Well, those Afghans, you know, they were never really ready for democracy.” That’s ridiculous. That’s not the case whatsoever. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And so, when we were there in 2002, we also heard from people that al-Qaeda — that the Pakistani ISI was recruiting for al-Qaeda in the south, in the Kandahar area, and no one was doing anything about it. And people were very curious as to what exactly was going on, what the American policy was that was happening there. We were even asked at one point by some ISAF troops, from some International Security and Assistance Force troops, what exactly the American plan was for Afghanistan.
Now, what’s interesting is, is that some information has just come forward from the RAND Corporation which indicates that the United States and the Pakistani army have not been targeting the center of Taliban control near Quetta, that they completely left them alone, which means that they’re there, their headquarters is there, and that they’re there organizing and coordinating these attacks over the border. So if they’re targeting Batula Massoud, what’s the reason for that, when they’re not targeting — they’re not targeting the central headquarters of the Taliban near Quetta?
Well, interestingly —
These are continuing questions.
— two weeks ago, I spoke with former US President Jimmy Carter. I asked him what he thought of President Obama’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan. This is what he said.
JIMMY CARTER: Well, that’s one area that I think I would disagree with Obama, as far as a surge that would lead to more intense bombing of Afghan villages and centers and the heavy dependence on military. I would like to see us reach out more to be accommodating and negotiate with all of the factions in Afghanistan.
I notice that Obama is also much cooler in his assessment of President Karzai than was George W. Bush and knows that he’s not been effective. He’s basically just governed right around the capital city, and his brother is well known to be one of the major drug dealers. So I think that to reach out to offer a hand of friendship or accommodation, not only to the warlords, but even to those radicals in the Taliban who are willing to negotiate, would be the best approach, than to rely exclusively on major military force.
And I don’t think there’s any doubt that General Petraeus and others that have made the assessment over there are telling Obama that this is a much more serious problem than Bush previously thought and also that a major surge, as was accomplished in Iraq, would only be effective if you could get the ones who are now opposed to US forces to change their position and be more accommodating to our presence, and with a future glimpse of when the United States occupation would expire.
So, are you opposed to a surge in Afghanistan, President Carter?
JIMMY CARTER: Well, if it’s a surge of a military nature only, then I would be opposed to it. But I’m not convinced that that’s what Obama wants, and I’m not convinced that that’s what General Petraeus and others are recommending. I’m not privy to their secret assessments that have been now shared between them and President Obama.
Gilles Dorronsoro, your response?
I think there was a lot of confusion in what was said just before. I mean, what is this game and world domination in Afghanistan? This is totally, totally wrong, you know? The war in Afghanistan is not producing any good effect for the United States. It’s not from Afghanistan they’re going to dominate Central Asia whatsoever. This war must finish as soon as possible, because it’s not winnable. That’s it, you know.
When I’m saying that you should not negotiate now with the Taliban, it’s because they are too strong. First we have to build some kind of Afghan state, and then exit. So, I think we should be careful about not throwing a lot of big ideas like world domination, so on. I mean, it’s much more simple than that. It’s a war that has never been funded correctly, that Donald Rumsfeld mismanaged totally. And now we’re in a situation we have to exit. So, how do we exit? And we are not going to exit negotiating with the Taliban. That’s that simple, I think.
How are you going to exit?
We are going to exit when we’ll have an Afghan state. That’s why we should not play with the tribe and militia and all that. We should reinforce Kabul. It means, if we want to send more troops in Afghanistan, it’s in Kabul, around Kabul. One hour outside Kabul, there is no security. The Taliban are there. That’s the major problem. If we are not able to secure Kabul and the area around, we’ll not be able to exit Afghanistan. That’s why sending troops to the south is a mistake. We should send troops in Kabul and around Kabul first.
Elizabeth Gould, your response? And can you also talk about what’s the message you’d like to send to President Obama?
Well, I think that Joint Chiefs chairman, General — Admiral Mike Mullen, I think summed it up when he said, “We can get rid of the Taliban, we can get rid of al-Qaeda, we can do all kinds of things, but if we do not earn the trust of the Afghan people, we will lose Afghanistan.” And I really do think that that is probably the greatest summary of the true nature of the problem. We have to start orienting what’s coming out of Washington to actually come out of what needs to be done in Kabul and stop satisfying Washington.
We will leave it there, and I want to thank you very much for being with us, Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould. Their new book is called Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story, speaking to us from Boston. Kathleen Foster, here with us in the firehouse studio — her film, Afghan Women: A History of Struggle. Gilles Dorronsoro is author of Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present, speaking to us from Washington, D.C. He’s at Carnegie Institution for Peace.
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