The War Briefing
  • Home
  • Watch the Full Program Online
  • Interviews
  • Site Map
  • Discussion

Robert D. Kaplan

Robert D. Kaplan

Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic and author of Imperial Grunts and Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 25, 2008.

“What a lot of people don't understand is many of the people in the Taliban are not necessarily our enemy. There is good Taliban and bad Taliban.”

A new administration comes into office in early 2009, facing a roster of challenges across the Middle East. What will it inherit?

... It inherits an Iraq that's getting better and better but is extremely tenuous, and one mistake could undo it completely. It inherits an Afghanistan that needs not so much more troops -- though more troops could help -- but a situation where we don't have the politics right at all. That goes from not realizing that India and Pakistan are involved in Afghanistan for very different reasons than we are. And unless we get this Afghanistan-India-Pakistan triangle right, we're not going to make progress there. ...

Do we have the troops to handle [other] contingencies?

The United States is not overdeployed or overextended with deployments in 150 countries on any given year. On any given week we have about 65 deployments. We have some troops in small unit numbers throughout Africa. We have a big project going in the Philippines, in Colombia militarily. We can handle all this well.

What we can't handle is 150,000, 160,000 troops in one country, like Iraq. That really unhinges our whole worldwide manpower deployment situation for the U.S. Army. Now we're down to 140,000 now in Iraq, which is lower than it's been, as the surge comes down. If the next president can get those numbers responsibly lower, to, say, 80,000 or so over the next two years, that would alleviate a big manpower problem and allow us to deal with some of these other contingencies. ...

What about Afghanistan?

In Afghanistan we can use more troops, but it depends how we use them. Afghanistan will not get better if all we do is put more troops on the border with Pakistan and lob shells in every time we get shot at. All that's going to lead to is more civilians being killed and making us more enemies and leading to a greater rise of the Pakistani Taliban.

We have to do different things with the troops we put in. We have to break them up into small units, put them in villages, embed them with the Afghan National Army -- the kind of things that we did in Iraq during the surge, because remember, the surge was a misnomer. It wasn't just about more troops; it was about doing something different with those troops in a different strategy.

You're talking about counterinsurgency?

I'm talking about counterinsurgency, and counterinsurgency tends to work best at the edges where, on the one hand, you dominate the battle space; you monopolize the use of force, of violence. ... But on the other hand, ... counterinsurgency gives the civilian population a stake in the outcome. It builds schools; it improves roads; it digs water wells. It makes it clear to the civilian population that if you support us, ... there are benefits that will outlast our visit here.

That's what happened in Anbar.

That's what happened in Anbar. ... The Anbar experience in some ways is transferable to Afghanistan. And it's the Anbar experience more specifically than it is the surge that's transferable to Afghanistan.

In other words, in Anbar we recognized that these people who had been shooting at us and killing us six months earlier were not necessarily our enemies in the future, those [who] were in the past. If we gave them a stake in the outcome, suddenly their reasons for shooting at us would be reversed. They'd want to be on our side. And this is what we have to apply to the Taliban. ...

What a lot of people don't understand is many of the people in the Taliban are not necessarily our enemy. There is good Taliban and bad Taliban. There is Taliban that can be won over to our side, or to [Afghan] President Hamid Karzai's side, and there's Taliban that's irreconcilable, that we can't do anything against. We're going to have to split them up; we're going to have to play good Taliban versus bad Taliban. ...

There are Afghan supporters of Al Qaeda who have a worldview that's anti-Western, very pro-radical Arab, pro-Wahhabi. But there are many Taliban who don't have a worldview; they don't have an ideology. They're just ornery Pashtun backwoodsmen who feel they have no stake in this government in Kabul, in the capital of Afghanistan, because nobody has given them part of the spoils. It's a matter of assuaging their demands a bit in order to break them off from the more radical elements.

A kind of Afghan Awakening? That's the model?

Yeah, and I think that the Anbar Awakening is applicable to Afghanistan, in particular to the border region with Pakistan, because there are many new Pakistani Taliban who are fighting for reasons that really have nothing to do with hatred of the United States. They're fighting because in the history of the North-West Frontier [Province] of Pakistan, in the history of Baluchistan and Pakistan, the government in Islamabad ... has never built a road; it's never built a school; it's never done anything to give these people a stake in the central government.

What are the Pakistani tribal areas? Describe that region.

... It's about 1,000 miles long and about 100, 150 miles wide in most parts. This is the former border of the Indian subcontinent in Central Asia. It's where British rule ended, essentially. There was this tribal buffer state of Afghanistan between British rule and czarist Russian rule right up through the end of the 19th century.

What's important to know about this area is that no government, neither the British nor the Pakistanis who inherited it, have ever really governed this region. This is a region that's been governed by blood feuds, by tribal leaders. People say, "Why can't we catch bin Laden with all our technical abilities?" If you walked for an hour in this terrain, you would understand why you can't catch bin Laden so easily.

It's because this is one of the most twisted and rugged landscapes imaginable, where one hillside melds into the shoulder of another mountain, into the spur of another mountain. It's full of caves and outcrops, and it's perfect guerrilla country.

Can you characterize the border?

It's a border that almost isn't a border in the sense that you have to think of Afghanistan and Pakistan as one political unit. If you haven't fixed one, you can't fix the other. I've crossed that border between Pakistan and Afghanistan many times, and I've almost never done it legally. I've never shown my passport. I've always done it embedded with one mujahideen group or another, because the border is uncontrollable, essentially.

You can't have men lined up like toy soldiers all along the border. It's a border where you have the same ethnic group on both sides, the Pashtuns in the north, the Pashtuns in the south. It's a border that straddles Pashtunistan essentially, which could be a future country -- probably won't be, but is certainly an ethnically based territorial zone.

What do the Pashtuns think of the border?

The Pashtuns don't think much of the border. They go back and forth between it. I'll give you an example.

There is this Pashtun, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who's from the Khost-Miram Shah area. Khost is the Afghan side of the border; Miram Shah, North Waziristan, is the Pakistan side of the border. In the 1980s, back in the day when I was reporting on the mujahideen, Jalaluddin Haqqani used to give interviews to me and other journalists. He was the recipient of U.S./CIA aid. He was a big, fierce fighter against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan, and that's why we supported him.

Fast-forward a little bit: We neglected the region after the Soviets fell. We pulled out. Haqqani is a man of utter realism and pragmatism. He eventually allied himself with Al Qaeda, with Osama bin Laden. Haqqani stayed in the region, and lo and behold, he's now one of the most wanted people on the FBI files, or he's up there with the bad guys, all because of our neglect in a way. I don't believe that Haqqani, unlike other mujahideen leaders, was implacably anti-Western. I think he was out for the highest bidder, always.

But anyway, Haqqani and his troops -- and Haqqani is very sick now. His son is really in charge. Haqqani, I believe, has Parkinson's disease. Haqqani's people, his troops, which reputedly were involved in the Indian Embassy bombing in Kabul, move back and forth over this border as if this border doesn't exist. The border is their region of control essentially, both the Afghan side and the Pakistan side. And Haqqani is just one of these figures who's been around for 20 years or more and is a testimony to our neglect and, in [a] way, to our failure in the region.

The other is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who, unlike Haqqani, has always been implacably anti-Western, implacably pro-Arab, pro-Wahhabi, pro-radical Saudi. Even in the 1980s he took money from the U.S. via the Pakistani intelligence people, but always was very clear in his hatred of the West. Hekmatyar has a presence in Kunar province near Nuristan. He has a presence in Logar province. In these places he's liked; he's respected by the people. He has real territory with tunnels, with tree cover. It's a place where bin Laden might theoretically [be in] hiding if he isn't on the Pakistani side of the border.

Then there's Abdul Razul Sayyaf, again from the 1980s, mujahideen leader, got support from the United States, but implacably anti-Western, implacably anti-American, implacably pro-Wahhabi, pro-radical Saudi, who is, again, still active.

So it's much more complex than just the Al Qaeda and the Taliban and the Karzai government -- the good guys and the bad guys, so to speak. There are a lot of players in this thing, and unless we start breaking off the pieces, dealing with some of the bad guys who are willing to be dealt with, if the price were right, we're not going to make progress.

Before we go any further, let's just do a little history. This is a place where many great armies have come and found failure.

What I find most interesting about the Afghan-Pakistan area is that if you went back to the early 17th century and looked at a map of the region, you would see that this was all part of the Mughal Empire, which was governed from New Delhi. ...

The dissolution of the Mughal Empire, through a lot of peregrinations, led ultimately to the British rule in the region, and the British civil administration rule[d] all of what is today India. But in what became Pakistan, that was ruled by the British military, because what became Pakistan was the desert frontier zone between the India subcontinent and Central Asia.

With few exceptions, if you look at a map of Pakistan, it's desert and hills. And so people ask me: "Why didn't Pakistan develop democratically?"... I think it has a lot to do with geography and history. What the new Pakistani rulers inherited from the British was not the civil administration; it was the military administration. And then on top of that, having to deal with hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees from India meant that the military got control of Pakistan and never let up. So this whole area, to the degree that it's been ruled at all, has been ruled by the military.

And not all that successfully.

No, not successfully at all. Pakistan is a state that's never worked. It's a nuclearized Yugoslavia made up of territorially based ethnic groups. You have the Punjabis in the northeast, the Pashtuns in the northwest, the Baluch in the southwest and the Sindhis in the southeast. All of these groups have a long history of self-rule in many respects.

Islam is not enough of a glue to hold these groups together into one state. And so if you're a Baluch or you're a Sindhi, you see the Pakistan military as a Punjabi conspiracy -- the same way that ethnic Albanians and others in Yugoslavia used to see the Yugoslav army as a Serb conspiracy dominated by Serbs. …

So the military has been unable to rule it successfully. But whenever there's been democratic governance, it hasn't been ruled successfully either. It's led to instability and chaos and massive corruption.

So the British failed to sort out the tribal areas?

The British dealt with the tribes. When Winston Churchill was in his mid-20s, he wrote a book called The Story of the Malakand Field Force. Reading this book, you'd never think that someone in their 20s wrote it. It reads like someone in their 70s wrote it, it's full of such maturity and vision.

Winston Churchill wrote that the way to deal with these tribes, you couldn't occupy this area -- it's too big; it's too vast; it's too rugged. And you couldn't desert either, because you had national strategic responsibilities. So you can only deal with it by making deals with one tribe against the other or one faction against the other. And that is what we're back to. We are back to the lesson of Churchill's book, written when he was in his 20s.

What's the lesson of the Soviet experience?

The lesson of the Soviet experience is something we're learning to our heartache, which is you cannot defeat an insurgency when it has a rear base to operate from. Remember, in the 1980s the Pakistani military supported the mujahideen, who were Islamic guerrillas. The Pakistanis let them use Pakistan as a rear base to launch raids against the Soviet Union into Afghanistan proper.

Now we're in the same situation. Pakistani national interests have not changed. They're still supporting Islamic guerrillas, letting these Islamic guerrillas use Pakistan as a rear base to launch raids into Afghanistan proper, except that this time we're supporting the government in Kabul, and 20, 25 years ago we were opposed to it. But nothing has changed. And now we're bitterly learning the lessons of the Soviets, which is unless you can shut down that rear base, you can't make progress.

[What's the current situation in Afghanistan?]

Over the last year or so, the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. And it's deteriorated for one reason that doesn't make it through the strictures of hard news writing and reporting. It's that when Americans and the Bush administration in the past have conceived of the Afghan government, they see extending the rule of the Afghan government, of President Karzai's government [as] an unmitigated good; that the more the hand of the government could be extended out into the villages and in the provinces, the more stable Afghanistan will be.

But if you're an Afghan on the ground, the hand of that government, when it's extended, can often be corrupt; it can often be thuggish; it can often be incompetent. And so your loyalties are tested, and it doesn't become difficult to side with the Taliban. …

For example, we've been trying to develop the Afghan police, and we've been giving them money. But the police don't get paid by their own government. The money doesn't make it to the police. So one of the ways the police make money is to have roadblocks where they shake down people. Of course, this makes the population hate the government police.

And then, when the police really want to make a lot of money, they sell the roadblock to the Taliban, who then openly control the roadblock. This is the kind of thing that's happening that shows that the real problem in Afghanistan is less extending the arm of the central government but improving the character of the government itself.

President Karzai might be a good man in and of himself, but he's made some mistakes, and he's a very, very weak leader.

How strong is the Taliban threat that he faces?

He faces a very strong Taliban threat in the east, the southeast and the south. The Taliban is active ... in the ethnic Pashtun parts of the country, which is about a third or a half of the country. The north of Afghanistan is fairly living in peace and is developing. And in this sense, the country is splitting apart because north of the Hindu Kush mountains, which extend laterally across the width of Afghanistan in many respects -- you have ethnic Tajiks, ethnic Turkomans, ethnic Uzbeks and others. This part is developing, and there's more and more cross-border links with the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. ...

We hear a lot about cross-border raids. Talk about that a little bit in the context of this.

What's happening with cross-border raids is the more of them that you have, the more likely you can have one or two or three really spectacular raids where a significantly large number of American or NATO troops could be killed. And that immediately becomes a morale booster for the Taliban. The more that the Taliban can use Pakistan as a rear base, the more likely you're going to have spectacular cross-border raids.

But as I've said, the key to this is breaking off some Taliban from others, not launching a war against the Taliban in general. We won't win that.

Let's talk a little about the Afghan Taliban. Give me the thumbnail sketch -- how it arose out of the '90s, where its sources of strength are.

Keep in mind that when we think of Afghanistan, we tend to think of the period from 1996 onward when the Taliban ruled, when Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri came to Afghanistan, ensconced themselves, were able to use it as a base to plan attacks on the United States. ...

But that's not what Afghans focus on. For Afghans, the key period was between 1992 and 1996. That's when the Soviets left, were kicked out; the mujahideen were victorious. They marched into Kabul, and complete anarchy commenced. The cities became hotbeds of crime and chaos. Nobody was safe. The roads were taken over by bandits, and one mujahideen leader fought another mujahideen leader.

So when the Taliban initially took power -- and they initially took power with a very spectacular killing, the hanging of former Soviet leader Najibullah in downtown Kabul. When they took power, they instigated peace and order. They confiscated weapons. They made the highway safe to travel on. So it was a sort of a piece of the grave and back to the Stone Age in a way, but it was order of a sort.

Now, when the Taliban were initially overthrown, when the United States invaded, ... the people were initially very happy because they just had four years of economically deadening, oppressive Taliban rule. But the more disorderly Afghanistan becomes now, the more people compare it to the period between 1992 and 1996. So that's the big cognitive disconnect between our vision of recent Afghan history and the Afghans' vision of recent Afghan history.

Talk a little about Al Qaeda's place in the tribal areas. How do they move in that population? How enmeshed are they?

... It's become conventional wisdom that the top leaders of Al Qaeda are in the Pakistani borderlands on the border with Afghanistan. ... That may turn out to be true, but there's also another way of looking at it that's very interesting.

Let's say you're Osama bin Laden and you're in the tribal areas. What are you worried about? If you're in the tribal areas of Pakistan, you're the guest of some very notable tribal chief. And if you're the guest of a notable tribal chief, he definitely has blood enemies who will do anything to turn you in, because that's what the tribal areas are all about: blood feuds.

Also, you have to worry about Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence, which is the Pakistani intelligence agency. Yes, they've cooperated surreptitiously with Al Qaeda in the past and with the Taliban, but they've also helped the United States capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others. So do you really want to stay up at night and worry about whether ISI is going to turn you in if they find out your location or not? Also, there's a lot of Pakistani troop movement through this area. It's a very busy area in a way, militarily.

So there's an argument to be made that some people I met made that bin Laden and Zawahiri may not be inside Pakistan at all. They may be on the Afghan side. They may be in a place like Kunar or Nuristan, which [are] parts that are under the control of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, where they have access to caves, to tree covers, to generators, etc., which is a lot quieter and a lot more peaceful, and not such a hotbed of activity.

Leaving aside the top leaders, it seems that Al Qaeda does have a natural home in the tribal areas. Is that accurate?

Al Qaeda is able to graft itself onto the tribal areas because these are regions ... that have never really been in central government control, where central government troops tend to move in large numbers very ineffectively. And it's a very radicalized area, ungovernable. It's perfect for Al Qaeda.

In Anbar, Al Qaeda overplayed its hand to a certain degree. A lot of brutality really energized the sheiks to turn against them. I haven't heard that about Pakistan. Is Al Qaeda not being as heavy-handed there?

Al Qaeda has been a lot less active in Pakistan in a way than they had been in Anbar, because in Pakistan, or Afghanistan presumably, they're in the act of hiding their leaders. So they haven't been engaged in that much overt activity. They tend to specialize in high-level activity. ... They may have been partly associated with blowing up the Indian Embassy [in Kabul]. They may have been partly associated with killing [former Pakistani Prime Minister] Benazir Bhutto. They tend to do specialized raids than be active on a daily basis.

But you don't get the same sense that they're brutalizing the tribal population.

No, it would be much harder for Al Qaeda to brutalize the tribal population of Pakistan … because the tribal areas of Pakistan are much more backward than Anbar province in Iraq. Women are fairly brutalized anyway. I think women's literacy is close to zero, or it's 2 percent. Girls don't go to school. I mean, it's, from our point of view, backward, whereas Anbar province in Iraq was always more modern than that. ...

What is the history of Pakistani forces going into the tribal areas to assert control?

In the 1980s, the United States was on the same side as Pakistan. In other words, the United States was quite happy that the Pakistani forces were supporting Islamic guerrillas, making raids inside Afghanistan proper. ...

Now we're on the reverse side. We're supporting the government in Kabul, and we don't like the fact that Pakistan is supporting, in some cases, the same Islamic guerrillas making raids into Afghanistan proper 20 years later.

But the idea of getting Pakistani forces to engage against the Taliban in the tribal areas is a few years old, and it hasn't gone well. It hasn't gone well because first of all, Pakistani troops have been trained for the most part in the most staid, conventional, World War II-style tactics, not in counterinsurgency. ... So they tend to move around in large numbers, and they don't do well fighting tribal warriors who are literally part of the landscape.

And so we've pushed Pakistan to engage. They've tended to get very bloodied, and then they've tended to make deals with these people rather than get bloodied a second time. And the deals tend to open up more strategic space for these guerrillas.

What do you say to the argument that the Pakistani army can't get it done; American troops should be pushed forward?

The problem is if the United States troops get it done, it will be a temporary solution only. What we have to do is increase the capacity of the Pakistani military by not just giving them money and asking them to add troops, but to give them the kind of training in counterinsurgency that they need. Ultimately it has to be self-sustaining. And that gets into the whole question of the viability of the Pakistani state.

Let's talk about that then. What happened with President Musharraf's rise and fall?

When Pervez Musharraf came to power in October 1999, he gave a speech where he said his country, his beloved Pakistan, had descended into a muddle -- that dams were collapsing; that the education system was collapsing; that corruption was rampant; that the country was falling apart in terms of infrastructure, in terms of governance.

And he was this clean-cut, dynamic military officer. When he took power, he was supported by all the civil society intellectuals in Pakistan. He was seen as possibly Pakistan's last chance as a sort of a reincarnation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. Musharraf had lived in Turkey earlier in his life. He was an admirer of Ataturk and the Turkish way, which was a secular Islamic way forward.

And then over the last nine years, it's been a tragedy. Musharraf has not been able to change things in the way that he promised in that October 1999 speech. Pakistan is probably worse off than it was because he replaced civilian rule, which was bad enough, with state-within-a-state Punjabi army rule.

And the problem is that the problems of Pakistan are so entrenched, they're so all-pervasive, that no government is going to be able to adequately tackle them all, so that the most you can expect of any government is that at least it's perceived to be legitimate by the population. And the problem with the military government is that it's only perceived to be legitimate for its first year or two when it comes in to correct a problem. After that, it's expected to turn power back over to the politicians. Musharraf didn't do that, and that was his downfall.

Now we're in a worse situation. The new president of the United States is going to inherit a situation in Pakistan that will be in a state of sustained turbulence probably throughout his administration. ...

There are two parties in Pakistan, the Pakistan People's Party -- headed by the Bhutto family, currently by Asif Ali Zardari, the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's husband, her widower -- and the Pakistan Muslim League, which is headed by Nawaz Sharif, from a Punjabi business family, who, also like the late Mrs. Bhutto, was prime minister twice in the 1990s.

These two parties hate each other. They formed a coalition where they agreed on one thing: to force Musharraf out of power. Lo and behold, recently he resigned the presidency, and now the two parties have nothing in common anymore, so they have split up. ...

You're going to have a period of very, very weak democratic governance, which isn't going to be able to get many things done, and yet the army would not dare to intervene again so soon given the record of Musharraf's rule.

The head of the army, who is probably the most important figure in Pakistan, Ashfaq Kayani, is a former student at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. So he's been partly trained by the U.S. military. He's basically pro-American, culturally, but he's had a lot of problems with American policies in Pakistan and elsewhere. I think he'd be loath to intervene in this in so short a time.

So I think what's more naturally going to happen is you're going to have very, very weak democratic rule while behind the scenes, the Pakistani military fills the security vacuum and basically takes up policy in the borderlands. If we have any issues in the borderland, we're going to be dealing on a daily basis with the Pakistan military more than with the civilian politicians.

Is their inclination at this point to be more or less helpful to the American policy?

The military has been not very helpful in the larger scheme of things. They've been very ambivalent about going after the Taliban in toto because they feel that there are elements of the Taliban they need to win over, and we need to understand that. So they've been very frustrated with us on this, and this is likely to continue. ...

It's very important to understand this: Why is Pakistan being so obstreperous and difficult with us? … From the Pakistani point of view, Afghanistan is vital as a Muslim rear base against India. So you have an unimpeded string of states stretching from Muslim Central Asia to the Indian border that can front up against India.

India is very involved in Afghanistan because it doesn't want that to happen. It wants a more neutral, secular Afghanistan. So India is supporting the Karzai administration; Pakistan is supporting the Islamic guerrillas.

Now, in a situation like this, which has been going on for decades, the most prudent thing is for an Afghan president to be neutral between Pakistan and India.

But President Karzai has been provocatively pro-Indian. He has allowed the Indians to open consulates in Jalalabad, in Paktia, in Paktika, in Kandahar, in other places along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. And the Pakistanis are convinced those Indian consulates are being used to fuel the Baluch insurgency inside Pakistan against the Pakistan central government. So the Pakistanis are enraged about Karzai. They see this as a pro-Indian state.

Meanwhile, they see our strategic partnership with India developing more and more because of India's fear of China, because of the increased importance of the Indian lobby in the United States and because India's a democracy and many other reasons. And they feel left out, and they're very much afraid.

And in this very difficult, violent part of the world, bad things happen in this situation. The Indian Embassy [in Kabul] gets blown up. There's an assassination attempt against Karzai. It's traced back to some degree reportedly [to] the Pakistan intelligence services. Nobody knows for sure, but we have to expect these kinds of things to happen if we cannot fix the Pakistan-India-Afghanistan diplomatic triangle.

How much leverage do the Americans have at this point?

The Americans have leverage with Pakistan because we're friends with India, and that's not going to change. They know that our strategic relationship with India has to do with issues and dynamics that are going to continue into the future. So we have leverage there.

We can leverage India against Pakistan. We can leverage Pakistan against India to an extent because we still have a special relationship with Pakistan, tremendous transfers of military hardware, etc.

And we also have leverage over President Karzai because, as frustrated as he is with us, we've been, in a sense, keeping him in power, supporting his government, and he needs us. So the situation is not altogether bleak. …

When you spent time in Pakistan recently, is there a growing sense of alarm at the violence directed toward Pakistani military forces, civilians and so on from the militants?

... In Peshawar they're very alarmed ... that it will become an urban war zone, if things were to deteriorate further in the area immediately outside Peshawar, in the Khyber tribal agency, which is part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA] on the Afghan border.

But Pakistanis are alarmed over the fact that it's over 100 degrees in the shade, and their air conditioners don't work because there's no electric power; that when they turn on the nozzle of their faucets, water doesn't come out; there's no running water. These are the kinds of things that really alarm people and make them hate the government and make them feel that the government is not delivering. It has no legitimacy.

In your assessment, what is the biggest threat that the new [U.S.] administration [will] have to contend with?

The biggest threat that the new administration will have to contend with is an attack on the homeland. That could be spurred not necessarily by Al Qaeda operating from the Pakistan borderlands or Afghanistan, but homegrown Al Qaeda or some copycat Al Qaeda or something of that magnitude.

Given the level of anti-Americanism in the world, given the level of frustration with the United States throughout the Muslim world, you've got a homegrown attack or you have a nuclear explosion in the air that is not a test somewhere. Those are still the biggest threats out there.

We can get a lot more exotic about other threats -- you know, some chemical attacks, something like that. And remember, as unpopular as the Bush administration was, the new administration will be judged against the fact that the Bush administration, at least through the end of October 2008, since 9/11, has kept its country within its borders safe.

What about a failed state in Pakistan?

A failed state in Pakistan would be close to the ultimate foreign policy nightmare because there would be no military intervention scenarios. It would be a matter of managing and nurse-maiding the problem. It could lead to Indian troop movements in the region. It could seriously impinge upon the Indian economy, which would be bad for the world economy. It could lead to more violence in Afghanistan, to more threats against the Karzai government. And remember, we're talking about 165 million people without a state.

Now, I don't think it will come to that. I really don't. I've been to Pakistan nine times in recent years for at least a month on each trip, and each time, Pakistan was in some state of chaos. But chaos is relative here, and the state moves along. It bumbles and fumbles along. The middle class keeps getting larger, albeit at a slow pace. Recent elections have shown the population voting for more and more moderate figures. So at least at the ballot box, the radicals are in retreat. Lahore, Islamabad function very nicely. Karachi doesn't function very well at all, but it has a dynamic, new, young mayor in his mid-30s -- and since it's never functioned well in decades, it's fairly stable in that respect. There have been some new highways opened up in the past decade that have helped. It has an internal airline that's not too bad. There are things holding the state together.

Yes, it is true that the Punjabis dominate the army and the civil service, and the Baluch and the Sindhis and the Pashtuns don't like this. But still, there is an army; there is a civil service; there is an infrastructure of sorts. So I'm not willing to predict that Pakistan is going to fall apart.

Judging by what military officials are saying, we're going to see more troops in Afghanistan. What are those troops going to be doing?

I think in the early months of the new administration, we're going to see more troops in Afghanistan -- more U.S. troops there and maybe some pledges of more French troops and others to go along with more U.S. troops. They're going to be more involved in small units, embedded with the Afghan National Army troops in villages deeper into the countryside rather than all huddled together at these big Burger King-type bases.

They're going to be engaged in winning over the local population and giving the government some degree of legitimacy. It's going to be, to some extent, a recreation of the Gen. Petraeus surge experience, the Anbar Awakening. That's going to be the goal.

Remember that the biggest change in recent weeks has been that Gen. David Petraeus, who orchestrated the dramatic improvement that we've seen in Iraq, in recent weeks has taken bureaucratic control of the situation in Afghanistan, because he's gone from being the head of multi-national forces in Iraq to being head of the U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for Afghanistan as well as Iraq and other countries in the greater Middle East.

So counterinsurgency in Afghanistan means outposts?

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan means something similar to what it was in Malaysia, in the Philippines, in Colombia, in Iraq, and in many other places over the course of the 20th century and beyond. It means putting smaller number of troops, embedded with host country forces, far forward in towns and villages. It means engaging in civil affairs, building schools, bridges, other things; giving the local population a stake in the outcome.

And it also means hunting down ruthlessly your adversaries so that the local population sees you as the strongest tribe that it should owe legitimacy to, that it should owe loyalty to, rather than your adversaries. What it means is breaking up whatever alliance there was between the local population and the insurgents, splitting the local population off from the insurgents, to make them two separate entities so that the insurgents cannot enmesh themselves with the local population. ...

posted october 28, 2008

war briefing home page · watch online · dvd/transcript · credits · site map
FRONTLINE series home · privacy policy · journalistic guidelines

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation