JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I’m Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I’d like to thank you for joining us for this discussion on the Taliban and, by extension, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Our speakers, Peter Bergen and Anand Gopal, make for interesting reading. Peter is a man of many talents. He is a widely acclaimed author and recognized expert on the Taliban, Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden. He is co-author of a new book entitled Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders between Terror, Politics, and Religion. This is a volume of essays that offer an unparalleled assessment of the Taliban and the embattled territory along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Anand Gopal is a journalist who is very familiar with Afghanistan and the Taliban. He is one of the contributors to this book.
I wonder what comes to mind when you hear the word “Taliban.” Perhaps Afghanistan? Maybe Pakistan? Per chance Islamic militants or extreme religious ideology? It is possible that your associations lead to one and conceivably all. No matter, for they all have one thing in common: none of these are easy problems to solve.
As many of you may know, the Taliban first burst on the scene in the 1990s and, for all intents and purposes, took over Afghanistan, imposing an unforgiving version of Islam on the Afghan people.
However, after the September 11 attacks, the Taliban seemed inconsequential to American interests, as our focus turned more toward al-Qaeda and finding Osama bin Laden. We’ve dismissed them as defeated and unpopular. But as we now know, this was shortsighted, as the Taliban have made a strong comeback and are engaged in increasingly militant activity, posing threats that have far-reaching consequences, not only across Afghanistan but in neighboring Pakistan as well.
As Washington begins negotiations about our military withdrawal and decides the nature of its military presence there, it is clear that Obama’s goals for the U.S.-led effort are significant. He wants the country free of al-Qaeda, the Taliban out of power, and the Afghan security services to be able to handle the country’s internal security on their own. But knowing how troubled and complicated this region is, are these realistic goals? Can he accomplish what he aims for?
For a more penetrating look at this troubled region, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our very knowledgeable guests. Peter and Anand, thank you for joining us this afternoon.
PETER BERGEN: Thank you, Joanne, for the introduction. Thank you, Oxford University Press, for publishing this book. Thank you to Carnegie for inviting us. And thank you to Anand for writing by far the best chapter in the book.
I’m going to make some opening observations, and I’m going to turn you over to somebody who I really think is probably the world’s leading expert on the Taliban. You’ll see why.
In the recent election, Afghanistan was the war that dared not speak its name. In fact, Vice President Biden, in the one vice presidential debate, actually said something that he must have known was wrong, which is that we’re leaving Afghanistan in 2014, period. He repeated this. He said, “We’re leaving Afghanistan in 2014, period.”
That is not the case at all. In fact it’s a good thing that we aren’t leaving. As many people in the audience know, the United States has negotiated, at considerable effort, a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghans extending the U.S. presence in Afghanistan until 2024. Now, what is the shape of that presence likely to look like? The numbers that have come out in The New York Times recently suggest that around 10,000 American soldiers and 6,000 from other NATO countries would remain into 2015 and beyond, helping the Afghans with training the Afghan army, intelligence, counterterrorism, and other matters that they need help with. That’s a good thing.
I was recently in Afghanistan. I think neither in Afghanistan nor in Pakistan have people absorbed the fact that the United States is not leaving at the end of 2014.
We are almost 3 years exactly to the day that President Obama went to West Point and announced the surge of troops into Afghanistan: December 1, 2009. The surge, as you may recall, was 30,000 active troops. All those troops have now left. I think that a mistake was made in that speech, which was saying that the surge would begin to end in July of 2011. That overwhelmed every other message that the president was saying in the speech. After all, he was committing to troops in Afghanistan until 2014. He had authorized essentially a tripling of the number of troops in Afghanistan. But the July 2011 date was the big take-away.
I work at CNN, and we get copies of the President’s speech in advance, and the crawl that day on CNN at 3 pm about his speech was simply “U.S. withdrawal in 2011.” That was the way it was understood in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the region, and by the Taliban, by the way, and it was seen as we’re heading for the exits.
So it is good that we’re not heading for the exits. I think we have a moral obligation to the Afghans to not leave their country in chaos after we’ve overthrown their government. There are other things that Joanne mentioned, preventing a safe haven for al-Qaeda and all sorts of other jihadic groups that the Taliban gave shelter to when they were in power. So it’s a good thing that we are going to be there for some extended period of time.
Given that we will be there for some period of time, what are the chances for the civil war? Many of you may have read Dexter Filkins’s piece in the New Yorker basically laying out the case why an Afghan civil war would resume or would continue at an amplified pace in the post-2014 era. I don’t think there was anything factually wrong with that piece. Dexter Filkins is one of the best reporters in the United States. But I think the analysis was wrong.
I was in Afghanistan during the civil war, and it was a very, very, very bloody affair. Kabul was destroyed by the Afghans not by the Soviets. militias were fighting street to street, block to block. It was like Mogadishu. In Kabul today you can go out and have fun. This is one of the maybe less-well-understood facts, is that Afghanistan is basically pretty safe.
Let me just lay out the numbers for you. You’re more likely to be killed in Iraq today than you are to be killed in Afghanistan. Last year 4,000 Iraqis were killed; population of Iraq, 25 million approximately. Last year in Afghanistan about 3,000-plus Afghan civilians were killed in the war; population around 30 million. In fact, you’re more likely to be murdered in my hometown now of Washington, D.C., than you are to be killed in the Afghan war, which is not to say that it isn’t a serious problem. By the way, you’re five times more likely to be murdered in New Orleans—my wife is from Louisiana—than you are to be killed in the Afghan war.
The point is that there is a misunderstanding. Because it’s framed in the same frame as Iraq, people tend to think of this as as violent as Iraq was, which it simply isn’t.
There was a very interesting poll recently conducted by the Asia Foundation. The kind of classic polling question is, “Is your country going in the right direction?” When I checked just before the U.S. election, in a Rasmussen poll, 37 percent of Americans said the country is going in the right direction. In the Asia Foundation poll, 52 percent of Afghans said their country is going in the right direction.
There are problems with polling in Afghanistan; it’s a conflict zone and all of that. But those caveats aside, Afghans have a sense that what is happening now is better than a lot of things they’ve lived through: the Soviet invasion when a million were killed, a third of the population was forced out of their homes; the civil war in which hundreds of thousands more people were killed; the Taliban, which brought peace but at a huge price.
There have been substantially a lot of good changes that we’ve seen. We know all the bad things that have happened, but there are many good things. Most obviously, millions of kids in schools. The World Bank stopped measuring the Afghan economy during the Taliban era because there was nothing to measure. Obviously, it’s an aid economy, it’s a drug economy, but Afghans are naturally entrepreneurial. One of three of them now have cell phones. There was no telephone system at all under the Taliban. I could give you a whole series of indicators that life is better.
One of the big questions, which maybe also Anand can address more directly, is: Did the surge work? After all, this was essentially President Obama’s biggest foreign policy gamble, if you want. More American soldiers have died under President Obama, by considerable numbers, than died under President George W. Bush in Afghanistan. So this was a very big gamble in many ways.
I think it was designed to do three things. I think we can debate how well they succeeded. One was to blunt the Taliban’s momentum, which I think it did to some degree. There is no doubt that in Kandahar and in Helmand—I was in Nawa, which was held by the Taliban in early 2009. I went there in September of 2009. Frankly, it was boring. I mean there were several Taliban present. The Marines had gone. Helmand now is much, much safer than it was previous to the Marine occupation of the province. Similarly, in areas around Kandahar, the Taliban have been rolled back.
Now, the thought experiment we can do, but we cannot do it in reality, of course, which is what if the surge hadn’t happened? Would the Taliban momentum be even larger? I would welcome Anand’s thoughts on that.
The other thing that the surge was designed to do was to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. I spoke just recently to Matt Waldman, who like Anand, has spent a lot of time talking with the Taliban. I was skeptical that it brought the Taliban to the negotiating table. Matt Waldman, who is now at Harvard and who has spent a lot of time talking with the Taliban, said in fact that in his view, it has helped bring them to the negotiating table. There is sort of an understanding that this has gone on for a very long time and we need to think more carefully about negotiations.
The final thing I think the surge was designed to do, and I think everybody agrees did not happen, was to get the Afghan government to have more space and get its act together. Clearly, that did not happen.
Before I turn it over to Anand, I just wanted to quickly address five or six quite common myths about what’s going on in Afghanistan.
The first myth, a very common one, is that it’s the graveyard of empires. This needs to be put in the graveyard of clichés. Clearly, the United States and its allies are not being defeated in Afghanistan. The Soviet occupation was a very, very different matter.
Levels of violence I think I have already dealt with. They are much lower than people believe.
Another common belief is that Afghanistan is not really a genuine nation; it’s just a bunch of warring tribes that happen to be in one country. Despite the title of our book, Talibanistan, or a sort of independent Pashtunistan, everybody in Afghanistan has a very strong sense of Afghan nationhood. There is a very good reason for that. The modern Afghan state has been around since 1747, which makes it older than the United States.
Another common view is that there is no model for a successful Afghanistan. Well, Afghanistan in the 1970s was a tourist destination. It was at peace with itself and its neighbors. So I think there is a model for a peaceful Afghanistan.
Afghans, I think, generally speaking, are very worried about 2014. They haven’t absorbed the fact that the international community isn’t abandoning them, as has happened in the past. The United States closed its embassy there in 1989, something most Americans have forgotten about, but it is on the minds of many Afghans.
I think, just to go back to the idea of would there be another renewed civil war, there are so many differences. Feckless as the Afghan national army may be, and the Afghan police, they are quite large ogranizations, 350,000 strong, and you do have 40 countries involved. I think once the United States signals that it is going to keep 10,000 soldiers for a protracted period in Afghanistan post-2014, other countries will want to be part of that in some shape or form. International attention, attention of the international media, all of that makes the post-2014 Afghanistan look very different than the Afghanistan that I recall visiting in the early and mid-1990s.
With that, I will turn it over to Anand.
ANAND GOPAL: Thank you.
I am really glad that Peter brought up the myths of Afghanistan. I share with him annoyance at the frequency in which people bring up these myths, particularly the idea that Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires. I agree that it is actually not. I would like to try to explain a little bit why that is the case today.
But first, by way of prefacing, if I were in the audience six or seven years ago and listening to somebody saying what I’m about to tell you today, I would probably think that the person was crazy, because my background was that I was living in New York in 2001, not too far from the Twin Towers, and I had friends who were killed in the attacks. So my orientation towards Afghanistan and my understanding was very particular to that experience.
Later on, I moved to Afghanistan and spent a lot of time in Kandahar, for instance, which is what my chapter in this book is about. In the course of doing that, I changed a lot of my preconceived notions. With that, I want to discuss a little bit about where we are today, and how we really can understand what the Taliban is all about.
Something I am often asked, when talking about the Taliban, is are the Taliban really interested in negotiating, or is there an interest in a negotiated settlement? Of course, nobody really knows, nobody can get inside the heads of the Taliban, but we do have somewhat of a guide in this insofar as we can look into history and see how the Taliban has behaved previously.
This is an example of how, before I started the research on the paper which became the chapter in this book, I had a very different set of ideas than what I have now. At that time I thought that the Taliban were dead-set against negotiations and, by their very being, were the sorts of people who were opposed to settlement with the U.S. forces or with the Afghan government. But having gone to Kandahar and spent a lot of time talking with Taliban leaders and Taliban commanders and tribal elders, et cetera, I’ve shifted my views somewhat.
The chapter in the book focuses very much on the period from 2001 to 2004. I think that is actually a really important period and that we can draw from what happened in that period to try to understand what is going to happen in the next few years.
In 2001, of course, as you probably know, the U.S. invaded and the Taliban were overthrown. You probably were watching, like I was, on CNN in December when Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were holed up in Tora Bora—you remember that name, Tora Bora—and shortly thereafter, bin Laden escaped into Pakistan, and actually Peter has written incredible stuff about how that happened. Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda members released statements and videos calling for jihad against the crusaders who were occupying Afghanistan.
I had assumed that the Taliban response, although I didn’t know it, would probably have been very much the same. However, it was actually quite different. The Taliban at the time—we are talking late 2001—had in fact taken a very different tack than al-Qaeda had. What they did is they more or less surrendered wholesale to the Afghan government or to the Northern Alliance or to the various other warlords who were coming into power.
The Taliban had quit, and the leadership of the Taliban, which was probably 40 or 50 or 60 people who had constituted the core of the Taliban movement for the last 20 years, engaged in a series of deals, or attempted to engage in a series of deals, with members of the Afghan government in which they renounced the rights to engage in political activity, in which they acknowledged the legitimacy of the Afghan government or even the American presence on the ground.
In fact in that time, in late December 2001, early 2002, there was a movement in Pakistan amongst clerics to try to raise funds for the Taliban to try to get them back on their feet and reconstitute themselves. One of the leading Taliban members, Agha Jan Motasim, who is a son-in-law of Mullah Omar, released a statement to reporters at the time. I will just read the statement to you. He said, “We want to tell people that the Taliban system is no more. They should not give any donations in the name of the Taliban. If a stable Islamic government is established in Afghanistan, we don’t intend to launch any actions against it.” This was sort of the modus operandi for Taliban leaders across the board, in which they rejected any attempt to reconstitute themselves in the first part of 2002.
I will just give you a couple of examples. Before that, I want to explain that the reason they did this is not because of anything specific to the Taliban themselves, but this is really how Afghan politics has worked over the last three decades. As Peter has talked about, there have been civil wars and the Soviet occupation, and you’ve had a whole array of groups who have allied with each other, who have stood against each other.
When it was pragmatic and profitable to them, they switched sides. It was the exigencies of survival which really drove people’s political decisions. You can chart all the various factions, including the Taliban, over the last 30 years, and you will see that at every step of the way, when they had no other choice, they would switch sides. The Taliban were no different because they were a defeated and spent force in 2001 and 2002.
Just to give you an example of the types of people who had attempted to cut deals with the Afghan government: the Taliban minister of interior, the Taliban minister of defense, the minister of information, the minister of justice, the minister of foreign affairs, health, commerce, industry, members of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s Inner Shura, key frontline commanders, even some of the most ideological members of the Taliban.
One of my favorite examples is somebody named Mullah Turabi. He was minister of justice at the time. He was one of the people who had instituted the most draconian measures of the Taliban that we associate with the Taliban today—the sort of whip-wielding religious police who would go around and arrest people who didn’t have long enough beards, et cetera. Even he tried to cut a deal with the American-backed government after 2001. Along with them, thousands of their subordinates, their foot soldiers, also did the same.
So, effectively, in 2002 the Taliban ceased to exist. I went back and I looked at the incidence of violence in 2002 in Kandahar, and there was almost none. There were a few lone wolf attacks. Some of them could be chalked up to tribal rivalries or whatever. If you talk to people who were in Kandahar at the time, in 2002, you could travel anywhere in the province. Today you can’t do that so much.
These settlements existed across the board. If those settlements had held, I think the history of the last 10 years would have been very different. But they didn’t. I think the reason was the Taliban as a defeated and spent force was ready to negotiate. But we, the United States, as a victorious force, was not, and the elements in the Afghan government, which was the Northern Alliance, were not ready to negotiate.
Just a couple of examples. I mentioned Mullah Turabi, who was the head of the ministry of justice and the whip-wielding religious police. Turabi turned himself in to the governor of Kandahar in January of 2002. He cut a deal with the governor in which he said, “I renounce all rights to partake in politics. I will live at home and I will give you the right to surveil me and monitor that I’m staying at home, turn over all my weapons, and agree to live an apolitical life.” So he did.
But within a few days, the news leaked that he had surrendered to the Afghan government, and folks here in D.C., particularly Donald Rumsfeld and others, were very, very upset by this. You have to remember the mood at the time, which is either you’re with us or you’re against us, and if you’re against us, you’re always against us. It’s a mark on your personality; it’s not a position that you’re taking.
So the U.S. government put immense pressure on the governor of Kandahar. The governor of Kandahar reached out to Mullah Turabi and said, “Look, I’m getting in a lot of hot water for allowing you to surrender and stay at home. You should leave. You should leave the country. And if you don’t, we’re going to have to arrest you and turn you over to the Americans.” So Turabi fled to Pakistan where, years later, he re‑engaged with the other elements of the Taliban.
Another example is Khairullah Khairkhwa. He was at one time interior minister of Afghanistan in the Taliban and also a very important political figure in the Taliban. He has tribal and kinship connections to President Karzai and Karzai’s family. So after the U.S. invasion and after the fall of the Taliban, he was looking to make a connection to Karzai and see if he could renounce his Taliban past and join the American-backed Afghan government.
So he arranged a meeting with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of President Karzai, in Pakistan. The Pakistanis caught wind of this meeting, and they weren’t happy, for very different reasons, with the Taliban who were reconciling. So they told the Americans that this was happening and told the Americans this guy was a Taliban. So the Americans caught him, arrested him, and sent him to Guantanamo, where he exists to this day.
This is the logic that existed at the time. It was the logic of the War on Terror, which was that there was no conception of reconciliation. All of these people, by the way, if they had come forward today, we would have welcomed them with open arms. What they were offering in 2002 is exactly what the U.S. wants to happen with the Taliban today, which is renounce political life, sit at home, and support—morally, ethically or verbally or whatever—the Afghan government. That was an offer in 2002.
Once this logic was put in place—that once a Taliban, always a Taliban; there is no reconciliation—the set of actors whom we have supported in Afghanistan—in Kandahar this is, for instance, the governer Gul Agha Sherzai, who was one of the main beneficiaries of U.S. patronage in the early years—they exploited the system to their own ends.
I will give you an example. There is a Taliban frontline commander by the name of Mullah Ahmed Shah. Post-2001, like most of the other Taliban, he surrendered; he pledged allegiance to the Karzai government; he handed over all of his weapons to the Afghan government; and he retired and stayed at home as a preacher. The Afghan governor that we were backing at the time went and arrested him after all of this, and this was after the Mullah Turabi incident, where this was a new logic at work, where there is no reconciliation. The Afghan governor went and arrested him and took him to a private jail in Kandahar City.
When this happened, a lot of the community, the tribal elders, et cetera, were really upset, because here was somebody who had renounced the Taliban and had supported the new order but was arrested. So the tribal elders sent a delegation to the prison to try to secure his release. I talked to one of the elders, who described what he saw when he went there. He said, “We met them in jail and saw that their hands and feet were swollen. Their hands and feet had been tied for days. They also used cables. They were begging us to tell the guards to kill them so they could be put out of their misery.”
Now, Ahmed Shah was arrested ostensibly because the government claimed he didn’t turn over all of his weapons. But he did turn over all of his weapons, and he had no other weapons to turn over. So they had kept him in prison until he would cough up more weapons, but he had none. So his family members went and actually bought weapons on the black market and turned them over to the government and said, “Here you go,” so the government released him.
That would have ended there, but then two weeks later the Afghan government arrested him again and brought him back to prison. This time they beat him really badly, tortured him. They said, “You have more weapons.” He said, “I don’t have any weapons. I have nothing to give you.” But he realized at this point that what they really were after was bribes. So his family went and sold all their livestock and pawned a lot of their goods and raised money and gave it to the Afghan government, and they released him.
They came back a month later and arrested him a third time. This time he knew exactly what to do, and so his family borrowed money from people, and they came and they released him.
A couple of months later, he got wind that the Afghan government was coming again a fourth time. So he fled to Pakistan, where he reconnected with his erstwhile Taliban comrades. Today he is one of the important commanders in that region of Kandahar Province.
This is the story across the board, in hundreds of villages in Kandahar but also in other parts of the country. The Taliban, ex-Taliban, who had renounced for expediency, for whatever reasons, had renounced the previous regime, felt that there was no space, politically or otherwise, to exist in the new state of affairs, and so they moved to Pakistan. Mostly they coalesced around Quetta [capital of Balochistan Province], and the leaders established what we heuristically call now the Quetta Shura, which is the leadership of the Taliban.
As they were doing this—and this is the leadership I’m talking about, which is only 40 to 50 or 60 people—as this process was happening, at the same time there was concomitant process going on with what would become the insurgency’s rank and file. I will just give you a couple of examples of that.
There is a very important tribal elder in Kandahar named Haji Bergert Khan who was one of the leaders of the Ishaqzai tribe, which is a tribe of hundreds of thousands of people that spans Kandahar, Helmand, and various other provinces. Bergert Khan was very instrumental, in the first days after the Taliban had fallen, convincing his fellow tribespeople, as well as Taliban foot soldiers, to support the new order, to support the Americans and to support the Karzai government.
He was very instrumental in getting a lot of Taliban rank-and-file commanders to turn over their weapons. In fact if you go back and look at the press reports, there’s a lot of well-publicized incidents in which Taliban commanders handed over their weapons to the Afghan government and to the Americans. So he was very important in that he wielded a lot of influence. I would say he is probably one of the most important people in Kandahar Province.
Nonetheless, in May 2002, in the middle of the night, U.S. forces raided his compound and his village. They killed him. In the course of the operation, they arrested 55 other males in the village. They took all these 55 to Kandahar airfield, which was the main military hub in southern Afghanistan. There is a lot of evidence. They claim that the Americans tortured them, stripped them naked, and there is also a lot of evidence that corroborates that. In my book—not in this book but in the book that I have coming out—I go into some of the details about that. So they did all this and then they released them because they found that they had nothing on them; they were just everybody in the village.
But the reason this happened is because the U.S. military forces were fed false intelligence. The reason they were fed false intelligence was because they had allied with certain warlords and commanders who wanted to see Haji Bergert Khan’s influence diminished because they wanted to establish themselves in that area. That, combined with the logic of the War on Terror in 2002, in which anybody who somebody says is a Taliban is a Taliban, led to these sorts of circumstances.
The incident is infamous today. I only learned this in researching this chapter; I would go to Kandahar and ask people, why is there Taliban here? I went to one particular cluster of villages in the Maywand District, which is completely controlled by the Taliban, and in this village there are no adults anymore. The women have all fled to Pakistan. The men either have joined the Taliban or have been killed or are off doing drug smuggling. The children run the village. I thought it was like a Lord of the Flies frontier version or something.
I was really struck by how could this come to be. So in researching this and asking people what was the background of this was how I uncovered Haji Bergert Khan. He was just the first example in this village. He is from that village.
But after that raid, there was another raid shortly thereafter in which the Americans came in and arrested 95 of Bergert Khan’s police officers. So after the Taliban had fallen, Bergert Khan had established a police force to fill the vacuum. He was elected in a tribal election to do so. So the Americans had come in and arrested all 95 of these police officers. The reason they did so was because another warlord they were aligned with wanted their police officers in that region. Today, the regions where Bergert Khan had influence have been taken complete control of by the Taliban.
One last example. This is a friend of mine. His name is Sharif Hudeen [phonetic]. He is a baker in Kandahar City. I came to know him because he lived down the street from where I was staying when I was in Kandahar. He was arrested by the Afghan government in 2002. Now, let me just emphasize again, these are people our tax dollars are supporting, these sorts of people. He was arrested by the Afghan government and handed over to the U.S. forces.
He claims that he was tortured by the U.S. forces. This was a common claim in 2002 and 2003. It doesn’t happen so much anymore, but in that period we have a lot of allegations of torture. He claimed that the U.S. forces put hooks into his mouth and forced him to speak and say that he had Taliban connections, which he did not. Then the U.S. forces turned him over to the Afghan government, and the Afghan government, particularly the spy agency of the Afghan government, took him to a secret prison which is in the basement of a private office in Kandahar City. They hung him upside down for 18 days, and they whipped him with steel cables. For one hour a day, they would let him down. Other than that, he was hung upside down, and they would whip him in his face and his blood would pour into his eyes.
Again, the ostensible reason is because they said that he knew some guy who became a Taliban, but he knew this guy in 1985 or something. But, really, what it was substantively about was bribes. So his family raised money and secured his release.
A few months later, the government came back because, of course, once you pay a bribe, they know that you are able to pay a bribe. So they came back, they arrested him, hung him upside down again, and he had to pay a bribe again. This happened with regularity up to the point where he started wondering if he should just preemptively pay the bribe to escape this.
So these were the sorts of processes. I mentioned the top-level processes of the Taliban leadership and the processes amongst ordinary people, which led a section of the population—and one thing I haven’t mentioned here, and you can read it in the book; it goes into more detail—this wasn’t done arbitrarily; it was done based on tribal allegiance, based on plans, based on all sorts of complicated factors. But what it did do was it essentially closed off the public sphere of political space to a section of the population. The leadership of that section went to Pakistan and reconstituted the insurgency and recruited these people to become insurgents.
That was all done in the name of counterterrorism. In the book that is the first half of the chapter, and in the second half I go into once the Taliban has reconstituted itself, how does it operate, how does it function? I won't go into that here, but I think it’s worth reading because the Taliban are, in a lot of the rural areas of Kandahar, the ruling power and they exert a de facto control of things. The chapter goes into a little bit of detail about how they do that.
This is all by way of saying that I think that this history is important, because if we were looking today and trying to understand, are the Taliban open to any sort of negotiated settlement? If you map those people, those actors who sought out a negotiated settlement in 2002, many of them are the same people who have exhibited the most openness toward settlement today. The U.S. government has been in on-again/off-again backchannel talks with the Taliban leadership. Some of those same people they are talking to are the people who had tried to reconcile in 2002.
So there is a space there for reconciliation. Reconciliation, I think, needs to happen for there to be some sort of substantive peace in Afghanistan.
With that being said, the longer we wait and not engage in full-fledged reconciliation, we run the danger of the creation of cliques and groups within the Taliban who benefit more from perpetual insecurity than they do from a negotiated settlement.
I actually have a paper out in the CTC Sentinel this month in which it discusses this a little bit, and talks about splits within the Taliban leadership on this question.
This is not just unique to the Taliban. There is a whole set of actors that we support on the Afghan government who actually, I think, benefit more from perpetual insecurity than they do from a settlement. There are probably actors in D.C., defense contractors. So it is a very complicated issue.
I think the important point to bring home is that a negotiated settlement probably is more urgent today than it has ever been.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Sonia Bachman [phonetic]. I myself lived in Kandahar from 2002 to 2005, working for the UN at that time. I have an interesting question for you. Looking a little bit forward, fast-forward to 2014, what do you sense is the change in dynamics the Taliban would have with regard to the Afghan government, keeping in mind the early attempts at reconciliation and, as you mentioned, how they ended? But how do you sense the dynamics will change now, and also what is the potential for engaging Pakistan?
ANAND GOPAL: As I mentioned, I think there are elements of the Taliban that think they can just wait out the U.S.
It is interesting, because to me the question of troops on the ground isn’t the most important question. What’s more important is the patronage flows, the flows of money. There’s a whole set of actors in Afghanistan who owe their very existence to the fact that we are supporting them. As long as we continue to support them, troops or no troops, I think the system will hold.
It is interesting because the Russians withdrew in 1989, but the civil war didn’t start until 1992. The reason is because in 1992 is when the Americans and the Russians cut off their respective proxies, cut off paying them, and that is when the system collapsed.
In that regard, I think there are elements of the Afghan government that will hold even post-2014. Within the Taliban, there is one group, probably a minority, that thinks that it can coexist with the Afghan government. There’s a larger group that probably thinks they don’t need the Afghan government. Frankly, for the last 4 or 5 years, they feel like they can just—they’ve gone from success to success, in their eyes; they feel like they can replace the Afghan government and bring it back to the 1990s. That is probably not very realistic, but that’s the tension there.
PETER BERGEN: And on the issue of Pakistan, Pakistan has released a number of lower-level members of the Taliban, which is actually the first concrete sign of Pakistan playing a more positive role. They have not released Mullah Baradar, who is the number two in the Taliban, who is in their custody, whom they basically took into custody because he was negotiating with the Afghan government in a way that Pakistan didn’t want.
But I think it is Pakistan’s position that all of this is sometimes hard to decipher, but I think the bottom line is Pakistan understands well that a civil war in Afghanistan and/or the return to power of the Taliban over the country is not in their long-term interest.
In fact, if you go back to the pre-9/11 era, the Pakistani government was asking the Taliban to close down training camps for their own purposes. They were concerned about training camps in Afghanistan for people who were bringing violence into Pakistan.
So I think they are aware of that dynamic. They want to have a non-Indian-aligned government in Kabul. They don’t want a civil war. To make this soufflé come up in the way they want is actually pretty difficult, because there are a lot of different moving parts. But the bottom line is I think there are some encouraging signs from Pakistan right now on the issue of this Taliban reconciliation.
QUESTION: Allen Young.
Mr. Bergen, you said that we, the United States, have a moral responsibility not to leave after 2014. I think you appreciate that there are many people in this country who would argue that whatever moral responsibility we had has been discharged because we’ve had troops in that country for 10 years. What do you think the U.S. presence of, say, 10,000 troops would mean in a country of 30 million people?
PETER BERGEN: Let me try to defend my observation about a moral obligation. I think that if we overthrow—this is certainly not a realistic argument, or a realist argument, in national security terms— but I feel that when we overthrow somebody’s government, we can’t leave the place a total mess, or shouldn’t, and of course it is in our national interest to make sure that Afghanistan is not a total mess. One of the questions I have for Anand is we know what the United States has done wrong, so many things. The question is, what did we get right, which may be a more interesting question.
But in terms of 2014, yes, 10,000 is not a large number in a country of 30 million. But, really, it’s about signaling to the Afghans and to the Pakistanis and everybody else in the region that we’re not turning off the lights. If it were 2,000 troops, it doesn’t make sense. You might as well just do nothing. But I think it does send a signal that we are planning to remain there, which is the signal, I think, that most Afghans of almost any description want. Except maybe, obviously, some hard-core Taliban.
By the way, one interesting quandary again for the Taliban, and again to ask Anand this question, as we draw down to something close to zero—because 10,000 is obviously not 150,000, where we were at not too long ago—once we throw in other native troops, what does that do for the Taliban? At the end of the day, their principal goal is the eviction of international troops. So when that is more or less achieved, what is it that they actually want?
That is an interesting question, because we kind of know what they’re against. One of the problems that I have with the whole Taliban negotiations is we know what the Taliban don’t want, but we don’t have a very clear picture of what they do want. They certainly haven’t outlined a particularly convincing picture about what they see as the role of women in terms of jobs and education. So these are the devil in the details about this reconciliation.
ANAND GOPAL: It’s a good question. I don’t know if the Taliban know what they want exactly. They’ve been defying the opposition for 12 years, 11 years at this point.
However, with that being said, and this is a little bit of what I got into in this paper that I mentioned for CTC Sentinel, there is a sense amongst a group of Taliban—and these are typically nonmilitary commanders but they are sort of political figures—that whatever they want to achieve, it can only be done in some settlement with the rest of the actors in Afghanistan. Then there is another group which thinks we’ve been more or less successful for the last seven years, and to hell with the rest of the actors, and the troops are going to leave in 2014 and we’ll just take over.
At the same time, I don’t know if it’s clear to me what other actors in Afghanistan want either, the people that we are allied to. It is unclear. The question of women, for instance, is one in which there’s a lot of oppression towards women that’s coming from people both who were against you and people we are allied to. To me it’s a much deeper problem that perhaps will take years or generations to fix.
QUESTION: Sondra Stein.
I have two questions. First, in terms of us continuing to give financial support, can we require anything from that? Can we set any criteria or any effect other than giving the money?
The second is, what do you see the influence as we go on from Iran and India?
ANAND GOPAL: One thing I would say about financial support, there’s a great paper by Anthony Cordesman that you should all read which looks at the role of aid in Afghanistan. The economy of Afghanistan is completely dependent on foreign patronage. The government doesn’t collect taxes and it exists purely because of military aid and humanitarian aid, mostly military aid.
This is a very poor country. It doesn’t really have the capacity to absorb the billions of dollars that we’ve been throwing at it. What it has done is created a whole set of perverse incentive mechanisms into which, as I mentioned before, people exist purely to continue the flow of patronage.
Just as an example, there is a commander in Oruzgan Province who makes a million or two million dollars a month purely from protecting military convoys who are going to supply a U.S. base in Oruzgan. The road from Kadahar to Oruzgan is like 80 miles long, and it’s infested with Taliban. So the Americans are paying this commander to protect this route.
You have to ask, where would they be if the Americans weren’t there, if they weren’t paying him? He is the most powerful person probably in southern Afghanistan. He’s a chief of police today, but for many years he held no official position. If the money is cut off, what is he going to do?
When we are pouring in money to these sorts of actors in the periphery, in the center in Kabul they have to compete, so they start trying to get ties with these warlords. So it corrupts the whole system. So I actually think our money does more ill than good in many ways, even if it is meant well.
So I don’t know if the question should be what conditions should we put, but rather how much money are we spending, and should we scale back what we’re spending or think about how we’re spending it?
PETER BERGEN: It would have been better to have just given the money directly to Afghans, as it turned out. But it’s going to be very painful. I’ve seen estimates of a contraction of the Afghan economy, and the optimistic projection is 12 percent, which was the size of the contraction of the Great Depression in this country, and the pessimistic projection is 40 percent. So it’s going to be a very rough period when the aid is no longer there. That said, in the long term I think it’s a good thing.
On the question of Iran, I think Iran has basically played until very recently an either mutual or even positive role in Afghanistan. After all, one of the best cities to live in in Afghanistan is Herat, which is essentially sort of an Iranian satellite city in a sense and very much in that sphere of influence.
If you look at Ambassador Dobbins, who was our ambassador at the Bonn conference, he says that it was the Iranians who said, “What about elections in Afghanistan?” The George W. Bush administration at that time didn’t have a position on this, and Dobbins said it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. So, ironically, it was the Iranians who suggested elections in Afghanistan.
On India, it’s the third-largest donor of aid to Afghanistan, $1.2 billion last time I checked, and plays a big role. Of course, in Pakistan’s view, the four Indian consulates that exist in Afghanistan are all massive, several hundred people working to basically advance India’s interests in encircling Pakistan. I don’t think that’s true, but the aid that India gives is a big part of the way that Pakistan perceives a big Afghan government as an Indian-aligned government.
QUESTION: Don Simmons.
I understand your saying that Afghanistan is not yet a graveyard for American policy. A similar argument might be made about our not having lost the war in Vietnam. We entered the country with various objectives, which would include breaking the Taliban, stopping terrorism, creating some peace and order in the countryside, trying to build a decently democratic and decently honest government, and trying to build an economy that doesn’t depend on U.S. aid and heroin. Toward which of those would you say some significant progress has been made?
ANAND GOPAL: When I said that it’s not a graveyard of empires, what I meant is that—you know, when we used the term “graveyard of empires,” there’s an idea that there’s something inherent in the Afghan DNA which leads them to resist foreign occupation or foreigners, and I don’t think that’s the case. I think that the failures have been failures of policy, specifically— there are things that we’ve done wrong — as opposed to just sort of the general way things go in Afghanistan. In other words, it could have gone well if we had done whole sets of factors differently. So that’s what I mean by that.
I think this relates to Peter’s question about what we’ve done right in Afghanistan. Everything I mentioned is really about half of the country, roughly speaking. In Afghanistan, a lot of people don’t understand this, but the war in Afghanistan is really only in half the country. In the other half of the country, it’s more or less peaceful. There are a lot of advances in the other half of the country. For instance, schools that are being built; the Afghan Parliament has more women that most parliaments in other countries. But I think that the things that we’ve done wrong shape what we’ve done right in a fundamental way, meaning that the advances or the gains that have been made are very ephemeral because of the things we’ve done wrong.
PETER BERGEN: On the question of advancing democracy in Afghanistan, turnout in the 2004 presidential election was 70 percent. The last time there was a 70 percent turnout in an American presidential election was in 1900.
In terms of breaking the Taliban, clearly, that happened. They are resurgent, but it is interesting to me, the Taliban hasn’t taken a single large, even medium-size, town for even a day. Correct me if I’m wrong on that. Obviously, they control good chunks of the countryside in Kandahar.
So I think you’re right to raise all those observations. But I think there are some things that have gone right, and I think that—let’s do a little tour of the actual environment that Afghanistan sits in. Much as Karzai is criticized, let’s compare him to his immediate neighbors: Ahmadinejad; Karimov, who boils people alive as a forensic technique in Uzbekistan; Mr. Zardari, who is Mr. 10 percent and maybe Mr. 20 percent in Pakistan. I mean this neighborhood is not the easiest.
The United States has had a pretty poor record of choosing its designated person to run a country. Think about Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq or others. Karzai by these standards is actually not too bad.
Again, we’ve got a lot of things wrong, and Afghanistan is a very complicated country. But what we have brought to it is orders of magnitude better than what the Taliban brought, in my view, what the Afghan civil war brought, or what the Soviets brought. That’s the standard that Afghans themselves are conscious of, and that’s why 52 percent of them say the country is going in the right direction. Their bar is very low. They’re not expecting Belgium to be recreated in the Hindu Kush.
QUESTION: William Verdone. Thank you.
Five years ago, the king died. That was Mohammed Shah in exile in Italy. Does anyone miss a monarchy?
Secondly, some five years down the road, what are some educational opportunities that will evolve, particularly for the children in this village, which distressed me so, and especially for women?
ANAND GOPAL: I think a lot of people, if you would ask them, probably miss the king. The reason is because—I think this gets to the core difference between Afghanistan and the surrounding countries —there is no functional state in Afghanistan. There is in Kabul, absolutely. But state formation in the sense of a body that has a monopoly on the means of violence doesn’t exist in Afghanistan. I think that is a sine qua non for any sort of progress.
So the question of what have we done in Afghanistan cannot really be answered today. It can be answered 50 years from now when we see what Afghanistan looks like.
But, so far, the most fundamental issue is we have not succeeded in creating, or helping to create, a viable state in Afghanistan beyond certain cities, and that’s where it’s different from elsewhere. So for that reason, I think people would love to have a king back because the king is the last time that Afghanistan has actually had something like a state. Since 1979 it has been in war essentially, and there has been no state. So I think that’s what people look at, stability and a state and that sort of thing.
PETER BERGEN: This is a question for Anand. There were many problems with the Bonn conference that basically set up the Afghan government. I think one of them was trying to exclude the monarchy from part of the solution. That’s one impression I have.
Secondly, no Taliban representation. I mean if the Taliban had been present at Bonn and in a way sort of said, “Hey, we surrender”—and, of course, part of any negotiation involved somebody agreeing that they really surrendered, then maybe we would be in a different situation than we are in now.
Then the other big problem, I think, at Bonn, going to what Anand is saying, is that we created the most centralized government in the history of any constitution in history in the most decentralized place. So Karzai can appoint not only every governor but every district governor in their 400 districts. So it would be like if President Obama could appoint every county commissioner in the United States. It was forcing this incredibly centralized state down the throats of a country that had never experienced that.
In a way, maybe the Taliban’s desire for more representation would have been achieved if we had, say, local district elections that would in certain places throw up a Taliban representative. But, in a way, that can’t be undone at this point; it's the constitution.
ANAND GOPAL: Just to add to that, as well—I go into this a little bit in the chapter in this book, and this is a paradox—because at the same time as you created this hypercentralized constitutional state, the military was supporting actors and empowering actors who were on the periphery, who were outside the state.
In Kandahar, for instance, the governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Sherzai, exists because of our patronage. He got hold of some land that he leased to the U.S. forces and made million of dollars, which today is the main military base in southern Afghanistan. He was the main player in the economy, in politics. He also had private militias who were funded by the U.S. and working with the Special Forces at the same time as the U.S. was trying to create a police force. So as the U.S. was trying to create this centralized state, they were undermining their very efforts by creating these peripheral actors.
And so today we are living with that in the sense that you go to Kandahar, you go to Oruzgan, and there are these warlords who derive their power from the fact that they have a patronage relationship with the U.S. over 10 years. At the end of the day, you’re getting millions of dollars from the Special Forces versus I don’t know what from the Afghan government. Who are you going to side with? And how can you build a state under those circumstances?
JOANNE MYERS: Unfortunately, the hour has come to an end. But I just want to say one thing. I know 52 percent of the Afghan people say that the country is going in the right direction, and I would think that 100 percent of this audience would say that the Carnegie Council is going in the right direction by inviting the two of you here. So thank you very much.