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Veteran diplomat talks hurdles in enacting stable political leadership in Afghanistan

August 13, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
James Dobbins has just ended his second stint as the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He joins chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner for a conversation about the consequences of the deadlocked election in Afghanistan, the looming drawdown of American troops and lessons from the Iraq war and other conflicts in the Middle East.

MARGARET WARNER: Veteran diplomat James Dobbins just retired from his second stint as the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He presided over the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2001. It was the latest and last of a career as point man for post-conflict situations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and then Afghanistan.

Among his books, “America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq.” He’s now back at the RAND Corporation, where we spoke today.

Ambassador Dobbins, thank you for joining us.

JAMES DOBBINS, Former Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan: My pleasure.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start with Afghanistan, where you spent so much of your career. Despite two interventions by Secretary Kerry, that election is still deadlocked. What are the consequences if this isn’t resolved soon?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think the consequences could be a schism, with two people claiming to be president, and a three-way conflict between two factions and the Taliban.

I don’t think that’s in either of the candidates’ interests. I think they both recognize that and I think they will both work to avoid it. But there are forces within both of their campaigns, if you will, that push them in that direction.

MARGARET WARNER: What does this say about the efficacy of our more-than-10-year effort there that the political leadership isn’t up to this test?

JAMES DOBBINS: You know, I think we have to put this in some perspective.

We have been in Afghanistan for 10 years. Afghanistan spent the previous 30 years in the midst of a civil war, and it’s made remarkable progress over the last 10. It’s not yet a Jeffersonian democracy. Indeed, the democracy is faltering. But they did have an election. Millions of people turned out. There was genuine enthusiasm, and they are trying to work their way through a process which will produce a legitimate result.

MARGARET WARNER: And then with the U.S. drawing down to 9,800 troops by the end of the year, ultimately zero by the end of 2016, do you think that the Afghan security forces are up to the job of maintaining security on their own?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think if we get a legitimate outcome to the election that’s widely accepted by the Afghan people, by their neighbors and by the international community, if international assistance thus continues to flow, I think the Afghan security forces will continue to improve, as they have by everybody’s measure over the last several years.

The Taliban will be kept at bay, and the country’s social and economic and political progress will be further consolidated.

MARGARET WARNER: But that was predicated by some ifs.


MARGARET WARNER: Senator John McCain and others have said that by announcing a troop withdrawal at the end of 2016, a total troop withdrawal, that essentially it’s inviting, first of all, the political leaders to revert to their old ways and the Taliban to just bide their time, not negotiate a solution.

JAMES DOBBINS: I have done a lot of work on countries like Afghanistan.

My view in these stability operations is, more is better. More time, more money, more troops produce better results. So if I was only responsible for Afghanistan, I would want more time. I would want more troops. I would want more money.

But the president and the Congress both have wider responsibilities and they have to measure their commitment in Afghanistan against the demands of a lot of other crises and a domestic constituency that wants some reconstruction at home.

So I think that it was a perfectly rational decision to limit our commitment without abruptly withdrawing. That said, whether or not it could succeed, whether Afghanistan can stay on a positive track, which it’s been on for the last several years, through our — the diminution of our presence and then its ultimate removal, I think is still an open question.

I would note that 2017 will have a new administration, and they will have to reexamine these issues and make their own decisions.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, if you look at what’s happening in Iraq, where four years ago the expectation was, much as it is here in Afghanistan, that they were ready to take everything on their own, and you see it’s all unraveling, what are the lessons of that?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think the lesson of Iraq is that nation-building is difficult, that invading a country and overthrowing a regime is comparatively easy for a country as powerful as the United States.

But making sure that something better takes its place in an enduring fashion is an expensive, time-consuming, and very difficult enterprise that has to be undertaken with extreme caution. We have succeeded. We have succeeded in Bosnia. We succeeded in Kosovo. We succeeded in Panama. And, of course, we succeeded in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, in South Korea after the Korean War.

So it’s not as if it never succeeds, but it is tough, it is expensive and it’s something that should only be embarked on after careful thought.

MARGARET WARNER: But 9/11 taught us that if we let problems fester in the wider Muslim Middle East that they can come back to bite us here at home.

Yet, when we try to intervene, we often make a mess of it. So how do you square that circle?  How do you answer that conundrum for future presidents?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think we have to be careful, discriminate about where we intervene. But we have to avoid going in the opposite direction of saying sort of never again, because the fact is that a number of these interventions do serve their purpose. They do enhance our security.

In the case of the Middle East, clearly, we overburdened ourselves by invading Iraq only a couple of years after going into Afghanistan, before we had stabilized that country. The result was to deplete our resources and to make us unwilling and possibly unable to follow through with the air campaign in Libya or to become more engaged in Syria.

I think that we were able to sort of take and surmount one hurdle at a time, we’d have a better chance of succeeding. Taking on a number of commitments and minimizing the commitment to all of them is a formula for just an ever-accumulating series of crises.

MARGARET WARNER: But there is the argument that the world is just a lot more complicated now, that you have got crises exploding all the time.

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, you know, the ’90s is now thought of as a golden era, but really we faced as many challenges and as frequent new challenges throughout the 1990s as we do today.

I think the difference is that the administrations then were successful in successfully addressing each of these seriatim, rather than allowing them to accumulate. And that’s the difficulty with making minimal commitments that prevent problems from boiling over, but don’t resolve them.

And so eventually, as problem — that you simply begin accumulating more and more problems, until you are at the point where you don’t have the resources or even the time and attention to actually turn and solve any one of them.

MARGARET WARNER: And you think that is the lesson for future presidents?

JAMES DOBBINS: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador James Dobbins, thank you.

JAMES DOBBINS: My pleasure.