HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: The war in Afghanistan is now the longest in American history. It’s been almost 17 years since the United States invaded in retaliation for the September 11th terrorist attacks carried out by al Qaeda, the terrorist group harbored at the time by the Taliban-led government.
To date, 2,396 American military personnel, along with 1,136 coalition soldiers have died in the war. So have an estimated 170- thousand fighters and civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Now, with the Taliban having regained control of 40 percent of the country, the Trump administration is contemplating a surge of 5,000 U.S. troops to add to the more than 8,000 still there.
Joining me here to discuss this is Barnett Rubin, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. He previously worked in the Obama State Department.
Thanks for joining us.
So, how do we get there? Why are we still 17 years out and we’re talking about our adversary controlling 40 percent of the country?
BARNETT RUBIN, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY’S CENTER ON INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION: We never really defined what we were trying to accomplish. We had a long list of goals which were capturing and killing terrorists, and we were never exactly what are the boundary around that category was and trying to stabilize Afghanistan. Those two missions got in their way. We were distracted by Iraq. We never really had an adequate understanding of what the problem was, and we did not pay attention to the region around Afghanistan which has changed very radically in the 16 years or so that we have been there.
SREENIVASAN: It seems like there’s almost sort of two goals now that are countering each other. I mean, you can either stabilize the country or you can root out the terrorists.
RUBIN: You can have a permanent U.S. military presence there to try to strike at terrorists and other enemies and so on in the region or you can try and stabilize the country, because the country cannot be stabilized with a permanent presence of U.S. troops because most of the countries of the region don’t want us there and they let us know that by supporting the Taliban.
SREENIVASAN: What did the Obama administration get wrong?
RUBIN: Well, of course I was there. I would — I would, in my opinion, the big mistakes were, one, when Obama announced a troop surge, he should not have given a date for withdrawing it. And two, when he announced the troop surge, that was the time when he should have made very far-reaching offers of a negotiated settlement. Unfortunately, our military and many others in the government believe that you shouldn’t make any offers of negotiated settlement until you have already succeeded militarily. But that is too late. You have to do it when you are — when your capacities are increasing.
And I’m afraid they are about to make the same mistake now. They’re going to — they want to add administer troops and then they say once when they are stronger, they will make some — they will make some kind of offer of negotiation.
SREENIVASAN: Wouldn’t the 5,000 troops make a difference?
RUBIN: Of course, 5,000 troops will make some difference, but they will make only a marginal difference. They might stop the erosion of the stalemate as it is now as if you say, these estimates are all very dubious, but let’s say the Taliban control approximately 40 percent of the population. Well, maybe with 5,000 troops, we could get that down to 30 percent or 25 percent. That would not be decisive in any way.
And then, of course, our troops are not going to be there forever. No matter how many times we tell people that we’re committed, everyone knows that we are not going to be in Afghanistan longer than the Afghans. So, they can wait us out.
So, there is no alternative to working towards a political settlement not just with the Taliban but with the countries of the region now, immediately.
SREENIVASAN: We have been talking about policy, what about the people in the ground that are somehow living through this? I mean, this kind of seesaw between a local or provincial government control and then back and forth to the Taliban control?
RUBIN: From the point of view of the people in Afghanistan, this war has been going on for almost 40 years, since there was a coup d‘etat in 1978. And you gave numbers about the numbers of people who have been killed and injured — again, that’s the last 16 years. People believe a million or more people may have been killed over the last 40 years, including the period of the Soviet intervention. So, this has really — it’s been a terrible agony that the people of Afghanistan have gone through for a long time. Of course, they have become very resilient and those of them who aren’t killed, find ways of adapting but it’s becoming more and more difficult for them.
SREENIVASAN: All right. Barnett Rubin, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation — thanks for joining us.
RUBIN: Thank you.