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Afghan Expert Riedel Weighs Obama’s Strategic Options

October 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Former CIA officer and terrorism expert Bruce Riedel discusses his book, "The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future" and his work chairing an Afghanistan policy review for the Obama administration.
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JIM LEHRER: That follows more on Afghanistan. And we go to Margaret Warner for that.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to thank Bruce Riedel — Bruce is down at the end here — who has worked extensively on our strategic review.

MARGARET WARNER: When President Obama unveiled his first strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan last March, Bruce Riedel was there. He chaired the high-level review that recommended a broad counterinsurgency campaign in the region against al-Qaida.

Riedel spent a lifetime studying that terrorist group and its roots through three decades at the CIA, with postings to top jobs at the Pentagon and the National Security Council. Last year, he released a book, “The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.”

I spoke with him today at the Brookings Institution, where he’s a senior fellow.

Bruce Riedel, thank you for being with us.

BRUCE RIEDEL, former CIA official: It’s a pleasure.

MARGARET WARNER: You chaired the interagency review that led the first Obama Afghan/Pakistan strategy. It appears now that Afghanistan may be going to a runoff election. Do you think that is a good thing, or does that further complicate things?

BRUCE RIEDEL: I think, on the whole, it is a good thing, because a second round offers the opportunity to put legitimacy into the Afghan political system. But it’s got to be a second round that fixes the mistakes of the first round, no more ghost polling stations, no more fraud, no more corruption.

And that means the U.N. and the international community needs to be far more involved in this runoff election than it was in handling the first election.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how does, meanwhile, the intensified violence in Pakistan, how does that further complicate the picture for the president?

BRUCE RIEDEL: Well, the situation in Pakistan today is extremely volatile, very combustible, and very fluid. The good news is that the Pakistani people seem to have finally recognized that the jihadists are a threat to their freedoms.

And the good news is also that the Pakistani army is now taking on the jihadists in a real way. It’s critical, with the Pakistanis finally doing these things, that we send the signal of resolve and determination across the border.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean in Afghanistan?

BRUCE RIEDEL: Exactly.

Fighting one war from two sides

Bruce Riedel
Former CIA Official, Author
We fought an insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s, brilliantly, from a safe haven in Pakistan. Now we face an insurgency in Afghanistan fueled by a safe haven in Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: You were at the CIA when the CIA armed the -- both the Afghan mujahedeen and foreign fighters to oust the Soviets in the '80s.

What did you learn in that period about Afghanistan that is sort of special and particular about Afghanistan that you think should guide the president's thinking, U.S. thinking now, as it is reviewing the strategy?

BRUCE RIEDEL: It's an important question.

Rarely, in one lifetime, do you get to fight the same war from two sides. And that's what we have done. We fought an insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s, brilliantly, from a safe haven in Pakistan. Now we face an insurgency in Afghanistan fueled by a safe haven in Pakistan.

The one thing we know from these two wars, as long as the enemy has a safe haven in Pakistan, you cannot defeat them.

MARGARET WARNER: But what about Afghanistan itself? I mean, there are historians and experts who say, both by history and geography and culture, they just regard any foreigner as an invader, and they will always ultimately repel that invader. Are we now in that situation ourselves?

BRUCE RIEDEL: There's a lot of talk about graveyard of empires, that Afghanistan is inevitably a place where everyone fails.

Well, first of all, it's bad history. Alexander the Great didn't fail in Afghanistan. He created Kandahar. The British didn't fail in Afghanistan. They got a protectorate, which is what they wanted. The Soviets did fail, because they faced a nationalist uprising of virtually every Afghan.

We don't face that. We face an uprising among a minority of Pashtuns. This is not a hopeless cause yet.

Afghanistan versus Pakistan

Bruce Riedel
Former CIA Official, Author
The Taliban has staged one of the most remarkable military comebacks in modern history in the last seven years. Why? Because we mismanaged this war. We failed to produce enough resources into it.

MARGARET WARNER: If the real enemy, as the president says, is al-Qaida, as we all know, most of the al-Qaida leadership is now in Pakistan. So, why is it -- is it still important to have a huge effort in Afghanistan?

BRUCE RIEDEL: You know, I think we need to be careful here. We don't know where the most important al-Qaida leadership is. Anyone who tells you they know where al-Qaida is should answer the question, where is Osama bin Laden?

So, before we throw around things saying they are all in Pakistan, let's bear in mind the limits of what we know. What we know is that they have traditionally operated in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, going back and forth.

Afghanistan remains important to them, if, for nothing else, as a symbol. If they can defeat us in Afghanistan, they will trumpet that this is the second superpower that they have defeated in the same place. It will have enormous resonance throughout the Islamic world.

MARGARET WARNER: So, are you convinced that, if the U.S. had less of a presence in Afghanistan, and if the Taliban were -- one, that the Taliban would be resurgent? Let's just start with that. Do you think so?

BRUCE RIEDEL: I think the evidence is there.

The Taliban has staged one of the most remarkable military comebacks in modern history in the last seven years. Why? Because we mismanaged this war. We failed to produce enough resources into it. We didn't put enough troops, enough money into it.

MARGARET WARNER: And then what is the nature, do you think, today of the relationship, actually, between the Taliban and al-Qaida?

BRUCE RIEDEL: I think the relationship between these two continues to be one of a strong bond, particularly among the top leaders, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden continues to swear allegiance to Mullah Omar on a periodic basis. If you look at these two, what's remarkable about their relationship is not friction, but that, for 13 years, they have hung together. Now they think they are on the verge of victory in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They're not going to break apart now.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in your book, you said that Afghanistan in particular is very important to al-Qaida, and not just for the sort of public relations reason that you stated earlier.

Explain that.

BRUCE RIEDEL: Afghanistan is the place where bin Laden, Zawahri and many of the other top people in al-Qaida had their formative experience. This is where they began to think about politics, about life. It was in the struggle against the Soviet Union, a conflict which they believe they were the critical, decisive player in, and the agent of God.

For them, Afghanistan is the bleeding place where they destroy their enemies.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning where they make us bleed.

BRUCE RIEDEL: Exactly.

Investing in development

Bruce Riedel
Former CIA Official, Author
We don't have to build a modern state in Afghanistan to improve it. Simply building roads, so that farmers can get their crops to market, will fundamentally change the dynamics of this country.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in the strategy review, and also in your book, you advocated and advocate massive investment in development, in economic security, in governance.

There are again many who say Afghanistan's never had a strong central government, a strong functioning operation like that, and that it's really a fool's errand for us to get mired in that.

BRUCE RIEDEL: Afghanistan shouldn't be measured against the standards of the United States or Western Europe. It should be measured against the standards of the region it works in.

We don't have to build a modern state in Afghanistan to improve it. Simply building roads, so that farmers can get their crops to market, will fundamentally change the dynamics of this country.

MARGARET WARNER: And, if you compare what we have been doing and what you think we should do in Afghanistan with, say, what the Soviets did, they did some infrastructure building. Why did that go so awry?

BRUCE RIEDEL: The Soviets, while they did make some investments in infrastructure, basically took an attitude of: We're going to drive the population out of the country.

They forced a third of Afghans into refugee status in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and Iran. They carpet bombed cities like Kandahar. To compare these two is to compare not apples and oranges, but steel and sand. This just not at all comparable, in terms of the way we're operating vs. the way the Soviets were operating.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that the United States has any kind of moral obligation to stay in Afghanistan until it's set right?

BRUCE RIEDEL: Well, we have certainly asked a lot of the Afghan people over the last 30 years.

We asked them to fight the Soviet Union. We have asked them since 2001 to help us fight al-Qaida and the Taliban. Yes, I think we do have some moral obligation here.

But, above all, it's our national security interest to do this. The threat to the United States that was posed by al-Qaida remains serious and dangerous. We just have seen, this fall, that al-Qaida was trying to carry out another mass-casualty attack in the United States by recruiting an Afghan-American to do some kind of damage.

The point here is that al-Qaida saw in him an opportunity to strike again inside the United States of America.

MARGARET WARNER: And you don't think that, actually, our being in Afghanistan makes that kind of thing more likely?

BRUCE RIEDEL: No, I don't.

I think, as long as al-Qaida has its principal stronghold, safe haven along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, that poses the existential threat to the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Bruce Riedel, thank you.

BRUCE RIEDEL: Thank you very much.