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Renewed Focus on Afghan-Pakistan Region Includes Broad Policy Review

February 18, 2009 at 6:30 PM EST
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The Obama team is casting a renewed focus on the Afghan-Pakistan corridor, including a broad review of policy on the region. Special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke outlines efforts to define U.S. goals for the region.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In his first major military decision as commander-in-chief, President Obama yesterday ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, increasing U.S. forces there by almost half, to a total of close to 55,000 by this summer.

It underscored the concern he raised throughout the campaign: his intent to stabilize a deteriorating situation.

Today at the Pentagon, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, welcomed the move.

GEN. DAVID MCKIERNAN, U.S. commander in Afghanistan: I am very delighted with the president’s decision. 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One hundred and fifty-five U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan last year, making 2008 the deadliest for U.S. forces since 2001. More than 20 have died just since the start of this year.

GEN. DAVID MCKIERNAN: But even with these additional forces, I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And insurgent attacks have increased and spread throughout the country. Just last week, Taliban gunmen with explosives-packed vests killed more than 20 Afghans and wounded dozens in a brazen attack on government buildings in Kabul.

As that incident happened, the Obama administration’s new point man for the region was across the border in Pakistan. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke was on a diplomatic mission aimed at redirecting the course of the Afghan struggle, one he called “a more daunting challenge than Iraq.”

Holbrooke next stopped in Afghanistan, and then India, where he was met with news of a cease-fire deal between the Pakistani government and a pro-Taliban Islamist group.

BADSHAH SARDAR (through translator): Sharia law will be implemented and, after this, peace will be restored.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Militants in Pakistan’s restive Swat Valley agreed to stop fighting in return for some autonomy. Similar agreements in the past have allowed insurgents given sanctuary in Pakistan to regroup and led to increased cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.

Another thorny issue: the long-simmering India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, something President Obama has suggested the U.S. might get involved in.

But from India’s leadership last week came this message: Stay out of it.

ANAND SHARMA, minister of state for external affairs, India: There’s no question of any outside mediation. It’s bilateral. Even Pakistan agrees. We have agreements between the two countries, and we need to talk. But as far as Kashmir for us is concerned, even vis-a-vis Pakistan, Kashmir is an internal matter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One more reminder of the complexity the Obama administration faces in trying to address any part of the problems in this region.

And Ambassador Holbrooke joins me now.

You just returned yesterday. Thank you very much for joining us.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, U.S. Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan: Great to see you, Judy.

Additional troops in Afghanistan

Richard Holbrooke
U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan
Both delegations, the Pakistanis, headed by their foreign minister, Qureshi, and the Afghans, headed by their foreign minister, Spanta, will both be coming to Washington next week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Ambassador, we just heard General McKiernan say, yes, he's pleased with these additional troops, but even with them, 2009 is going to be a tough year for Afghanistan. Why?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The Taliban are resurgent. They have an increasingly large sanctuary in Pakistan. The events in Swat only highlight that. And the government's inability to regain governance in a lot of area, particularly the south, which General McKiernan mentioned is going to be where he's going to send a lot of the troops, all combine to make the decision President Obama announced yesterday an absolute necessity. And it will help the troops enormously.

One might add that the area that the troops are going into is an area under -- where there are a lot of Canadians and where the Canadians have done heavy and valiant fighting, as mentioned in your previous piece.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Mr. Ambassador, the Bush administration's stated goal in Afghanistan was roughly to keep al-Qaida out and to try to build a democratic government. How is the Obama administration goal in Afghanistan different?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Well, broadly stated, the way you defined it, it falls within the same framework as any American government would do, particularly one inheriting the very difficult situation which President Obama inherited in the last month.

The policy review that President Obama put into place, which is going on very intensely right now, is going to examine in greater precision just what it means. It goes beyond what you say, but it's not -- we're not ready yet to discuss where we're coming out, but I will say that we had five hours of very intense meetings today, General Petraeus, myself, Bruce Riedel, Michele Flournoy, the new undersecretary of defense, about 30 other people spent four or five hours just discussing these issues and beginning to focus in on them.

In addition, Judy, the Pakistani government and the Afghan government both sent a message to President Obama asking if they could form similar parallel teams and participate in the review, making input and getting ideas from us.

And I can tell you now -- we haven't announced it previously -- but both delegations, the Pakistanis, headed by their foreign minister, Qureshi, and the Afghans, headed by their foreign minister, Spanta, will both be coming to Washington next week. They will both meet with Secretary of State Clinton and interagency teams as we work together with them to formulate this review.

Defining victory in Afghanistan

Richard Holbrooke
U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan
We then went into Peshawar, a city of millions of people, and talked to citizens who felt under siege. They couldn't walk their dogs anymore. They couldn't drive to Islamabad without risking their lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying it's too early at this point for the Obama administration to define how it sees victory in Afghanistan?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Well, first of all, the victory, as defined in purely military terms, is not achievable, and I cannot stress that too highly. What we're looking for is the definition of our vital national security interests, which included the point you made earlier about al-Qaida.

But denial of the Afghan territory to al-Qaida is not, in my view, anything beyond an interim necessity. After all, al-Qaida is operating freely in the tribal areas of western Pakistan.

What you see here -- and my trip and these two very important delegations that are coming to Washington next week -- and which I will say once more I'm discussing publicly here for the first time tonight -- are a manifestation of a new, intense, engaged diplomacy designed to put Afghanistan and Pakistan into a larger regional context and move forward to engage other countries in the effort to stabilize this incredibly volatile region.

You mentioned the tribal areas of Pakistan. I went into them last week, went up to Bajaur, was unable to land because of the fighting, but saw the flattened villages, and then we insisted that we land, and we landed in the next tribal area just south of it and talked at length to the people on the ground, an unannounced stop, about the war.

We then went into Peshawar, a city of millions of people, and talked to citizens who felt under siege. They couldn't walk their dogs anymore. They couldn't drive to Islamabad without risking their lives. A national assemblyman was killed the day we were there.

Then we went to Lahore. Even in faraway Lahore, the Pakistanis were traumatized, in a state of real near shock at the fall of Swat, which is, after all, a resort they all went to for vacations.

So we have a situation in the area which is very serious. This is what we inherited. During the campaign last year, both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton and Senator Biden, all three of them said we had to turn more attention to this neglected area, which was under-resourced in the last few years by the administration that preceded ours, and we are now turning to it to figure out how to proceed.

Divisions in Pakistan

Richard Holbrooke
U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan
It is our hope that India and Pakistan, who have faced off against each other and fought several wars in the last 60 years, are now going to find the common cause to reduce this threat by taking it on head on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you -- since you have turned to Pakistan -- President Zardari of Pakistan has said repeatedly that he supports -- he's committed to getting rid of these terrorist sanctuaries, these insurgent sanctuaries in the western part of his country.

But how convinced are you that his military and his intelligence agencies, which have in the past supported the Taliban, are committed in supporting him in this?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Well, this is a very important question which we're exploring in depth now. I've rarely seen in my years in Washington an issue which is so hotly disputed internally by experts and intelligence officials as the one you raised.

Let me just say for purposes of this interview that we are engaged in very intense discussions with the military leadership of Pakistan and the ISI about this particular issue. We're troubled and confused, in a sense, about what happened in Swat, because it is not an encouraging trend. Previous cease-fires have broken down. And we do not want to see territory ceded to the bad guys, and the people who took over Swat are very bad people.

So it's a little early to come to final conclusions. The military will be represented on Foreign Minister Qureshi's delegation, and you can be sure that this issue will be pursued at very high levels in our dialogue next week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's a new book by David Sanger of the New York Times in which he reports that the Pakistani military's support of the Taliban stems in large part from their fear of India, their longtime enemy, which many in the Pakistani military believe is gaining a foothold in Afghanistan.

Do you see this whole thing, then, as part of a regional competition? And if it is, how does the United States deal with it?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: This is an interesting point. I went to New Delhi after going to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where we were welcomed and we had very excellent consultations, and the Indians are also sending senior officials to Washington, but not next week, a couple of weeks down the road.

This is the first time since the independence of Pakistan and India, over 60 years ago, that India, Pakistan, and the United States share a common threat from the terrorists. The people who did 9/11 in the United States, the people who attacked Mumbai, and the people who seized Swat all come from the same roots and all are located in the same area.

It is our hope that India and Pakistan, who have faced off against each other and fought several wars in the last 60 years, are now going to find the common cause to reduce this threat by taking it on head on.

As everyone knows, the Pakistan army has been focused on India for decades. Most of us believe that they ought to reorient their attention much more to the west. But in order to do that, there has to be much more confidence between Pakistan and India.

The terrorist attack in Mumbai was conducted by very shrewd, ruthless murderers. The terrorists who launched that attack were trying to upset the improving relations between Pakistan and India.

The Indians did not play into their hands. The Indians restrained themselves. And the Pakistanis did not move troops to the border. But we have got to understand that to get the Pakistanis to focus on the west, we have to have a reduction in tensions between India and Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and, in fact, as we mentioned in that report that preceded the interview, then-candidate Obama said right before the election that he thinks the U.S. should probably get involved, try to resolve the Kashmir crisis, and we just now heard Indian officials saying they don't want the U.S. involved. Which is it? Is this going to be an Obama administration goal?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: You said the U.N. or the U.S.? I didn't...

JUDY WOODRUFF: U.S.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Yes, it is not part of my mission to work on Kashmir.

Democracy in Afghanistan

Richard Holbrooke
U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan
It's already longer than Iraq. It's the second-longest military engagement in American history, and no one should expect a quick success here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me bring you back to Afghanistan. Based on what you said earlier, do you believe a democratic government is possible in Afghanistan?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The current government was democratically elected by the people of Afghanistan. It is, in fact, as I was told last week in Kabul, by President Karzai, the first democratically elected government in Afghanistan's history.

The Taliban didn't like that. They fought back. And because of shortcomings in the process, inadequate resources, the Taliban had a resurgence, particularly in the south. But it is a democracy -- flawed, yes, but a democracy, also, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's, I guess, a lot of questions being raised today about the fact that President Obama I guess just yesterday called President Karzai for the first time as president after calling, I think, something like 27 other world leaders.

The question is, this is a country the United States is committing troops to. Why didn't he call any sooner?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I really don't understand the criticism. President Obama sent me to Afghanistan immediately after the inauguration, as soon as we could organize the trip, carrying messages.

I then reported back to him and Secretary Clinton and their colleagues in three teleconferences. I carried messages from the president to President Karzai. President Obama then called President Karzai, and they had a terrific conversation. I talked to Karzai right after the president had talked to him. And I just don't see the issue, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the sense that the Obama administration may not support President Karzai as much as President Bush did is...

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I never understood this criticism, because President Obama as a candidate and Secretary Clinton as a candidate both said they would increase their efforts in Afghanistan. And yesterday's announcement, plus many other indications, show that he is going to do that.

It's a difficult process. As you quoted in your opening piece, I have said that I think it will be more difficult than Iraq. It's already longer than Iraq. It's the second-longest military engagement in American history, and no one should expect a quick success here. But the president made clear our commitment, and I see no reason to question it.

But, you know, Afghanistan is a complicated place. It's a rumor mill. And a lot of people thought up a lot of crazy things recently. Yesterday should clear a lot of that up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke just back from the region, we thank you very much for talking with us.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Thank you, Judy.