US in Afghanistan: neither success, nor failure

Interview with Daniel Serwer, Professor with John Hopkins University, US.

I do not think Mr. Karzai really wants NATO to leave immediately. What he wants is for them to stop killing Afghan civilians, and he wants them to leave eventually. But clearly there is a really divergence between what the Americans think is necessary to down the insurgency warfare, and what Karzai thinks is necessary, and that causes some real problems between Americans and the Afghans right now.

So what does Karzai think?

Karzai thinks that the operations are hitting civilians too frequently and that it should be done without night-time raids and such kind of things. The problem is that you know, it is easy for him to tell the Americans how to behave, what would he do if he was in charge of the war against the insurgency. And I guess this is the solution too. I mean in the end it’s going to have to be Afghans to meet the insurgencies, not the Americans.

He seems to have indicated that the real war against terror is located on the Pakistani side of the border, so is that really so?

Well, there is certainly a perspective that the Afghans are oppressed for a very long time now, and I think the Americans are convinced up to this point that they are not going to be able to stabilize Afghanistan without cooperation on the Pakistani side of the border. It doesn’t mean that everything is coming from Pakistan, but it means that something is coming from Pakistan. I think there is a greater agreement now than perhaps ever before on that subject between Americans and Afghans.

But how does Mr. Karzai feel in his country, what is his current position? Could those words be explained by perhaps his fear for his own life?

I don’t know, he has lived with the fear for his own life for a long time, I think what explains what he is saying is politics, and politics inside Afghanistan doesn’t favour killing Afghans.

Oh, obviously. But who are his supporters now?

Very difficult to tell. He clearly though, you know, has a good deal of support of the population especially on this point, on the importance of non-killing Afghan civilians. I think that’s why he insists on that.

Are there any more points he would like to insist on?

You know, I think, yeah, I think he wants the Afghan security forces to take over, nobody on the American side thinks it can happen quickly, but they are beginning the process, and I think, you know, it is contradictory, but I think that he also wants Americans to stay maybe longer than the Americans want to stay, he is nervous about the withdrawal in 2014.

He should be.

Well, he is, and it is contradictory with his statements against NATO, but the fact is that he wants some more permanent presence, and I do not know if he is going to get it or not. And that affects his judgments as well, because if he cannot anticipate a more permanent presence that drives him in the direction of striking as good deal as he can, with whatever insurgence will strike a deal.

And if you remember there has been some talk about negotiations between Karzai’s government and the Taliban, sometime in the autumn, and then all of a sudden no more news about that.

I think it is because it is happening, there are clear signs that it is happening. We will see what they are able to produce from that. I do not believe there will be a global agreement that includes everybody, but maybe they will succeed in bringing over at least someone of the Taliban to the government side.

Do you think that what was happening in the Middle East now could have some repercussions in Afghanistan?

I haven’t seen any echoes of the Middle East reaching Afghanistan, but it doesn’t mean they couldn’t.  I do think that what is happening in Japan has an impact on Afghanistan, because in the year when we are anticipating the economic recovery, what is happening in Japan, is going to sharply raise oil prices and make recovery much more difficult. You know, Americans have already been suffering very severe budget constraints, the question is will they become much more severe if we can’t anticipate recovery, and that could have an impact on the war in Afghanistan, there is no question, it is a war that straining us in significant ways.

Do I get it right that still the international coalition has not achieved the goals it was after when it entered Afghanistan, is that correct?

Well, I am not sure that is completely correct, to tell you the truth, because they certainly took down the Taliban regime, there is no question about that, they liberated Kabul, they installed, you know, a regime, that is not perfect, but is relatively open and democratic, it is all focused in Kabul; Karzai is President, because of the elections, but these elections were painted with fraud. I mean it is a mixed picture now. But I think that it is fair to say that you know, if you look at the map of violence in Kabul or in Afghanistan, the map of violence is not wounded with insurgencies, I mean most of violence occurs in relatively few places, and many Afghans live a more normal life than certainly they lived under the Taliban. Though I am not sure it is correct to describe this operation as a complete failure, it is certainly not a complete success either. In particular if the Americans withdraw even in 2014 the question rises: will Al-Qaeda return to safe haven in Afghanistan?

And will it?

Well, will, if the government in Afghanistan does not prevent it from happening. If I were a talib, I would be very cautious about allying again with the Al-Qaeda, but you know, it is very difficult to predict what they will do; the Taliban I think is much more concerned about governing inside Afghanistan, and they are always setting up a caliphate, which is Al-Qaeda’s objective, so I do think it is a distinction to be made between them. The question is whether the Taliban will again host Al-Qaeda; I think we do not know the answer to that question, I think that part is to be found out at the negotiations. 

To find out more on the issue, read or listen to our Burning Point program from March 15, 2011 in Radio section.

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