US Troops Surge in Afghanistan, Repetition of Mistake Committed in Iraq

Monday, October 20, 2014

Iran Review's Exclusive Interview with Najibullah Lafraie
By: Kourosh Ziabari

Afghanistan has not been a safe and stable country for several decades, and its security conditions have deteriorated gravely after the first American and NATO troops set foot into its cities. The U.S. war on Afghanistan, which was launched by former President George W. Bush with the purported aim of eradicating terrorism from the country, has so far failed to realize the dream of ultimately defeating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents.

Despite all the failures and setbacks that Afghanistan has experienced over the recent years, especially following the 2001 U.S. invasion of the country, and notwithstanding the widespread economic insufficiency and corruption that have taken over Afghanistan, it can be felt that the landlocked nation is gradually coming to a point where its path toward stability and prosperity looks smoother and more convenient. One of the most important events in the contemporary history of Afghanistan was the third presidential election that was held on April 5, followed by a runoff round on June 14.

An independent economist and political named Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai emerged victorious after the runoff round was held, despite the fact that at the beginning, his main opponent Abdullah Abdullah of the National Coalition of Afghanistan contested the results. However, he finally conceded defeat and accepted to work with Ashraf Ghani in a government of national unity.

In the first days of assuming office, President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who is seen by some political analysts as having pro-Western political attitudes, signed a Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. government that would allow Washington to maintain troops in the country following the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of its entire forces.

To discuss such issues as the establishment of the new government of President Ahmadzai, the appointment of Abdullah Abdullah as Prime Minister by President Ashraf Ghani, the future of talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban representatives, the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, drug trafficking and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, Iran Review conducted an exclusive interview with Prof. Najibullah Lafraie.

Mr. Lafraie was the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996 under President Burhanuddin Rabbani and is currently a professor of political science at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

The following is the text of the interview.

Q: What's your assessment of the election of Ahsraf Ghani Ahmadzai as the President of Afghanistan? He is a prominent economist, and as the founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness, is seen as an expert with great knowledge on the economic recovery of failed states. Will Mr. Ahmadzai be able to improve Afghanistan's economic status and address the problems it has been facing since the beginning of the war in 2001?

A: There is no doubt about Mr. Ashraf Ghani’s expertise and great knowledge on “failed states”.  It seems to me, though, that he looks at the phenomenon from a Western point of view, and that may not be good enough to solve Afghanistan’s economic problems. We should not forget that he is one of the architects of the current free market economy in Afghanistan, which has led to an unprecedented level of inequality. There may be some superficial improvements, but I strongly doubt that that would raise the standard of living of vast majority of the people.

Q: In the new coalition government of Afghanistan, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah will be serving as the Prime Minister under President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzadi. Once you were the Foreign Minister, Dr. Abdullah was also serving as the spokesman for the Defense Ministry of the Islamic State of Afghanistan. How much are you familiar with his personality and ideology? Can he get along with Mr. Ahmadzai? There's no doubt that he is an important figure and freedom fighter in the contemporary history of Afghanistan. What's your viewpoint regarding his power sharing deal with President Ahmadzai?

A: Of course I know Dr. Abdullah personally, and I believe he is a very talented individual. I still remember the trip that we had together to some Central Asian republics after the fall of Herat to the Taliban. He was in Herat at that time, and I was impressed with the eloquence that he explained the situation in our meetings – and also his mastery of the English language, despite the fact that he had not lived in an English-speaking environment. He was very close to Ahmad Shah Massoud, both in the fighting front against the Red Army and after the liberation of Kabul; so one expects that he would have acquired some of his attributes. I’m not sure, however, that Massoud would have approved the close relations that he has developed with the Americans. That relationship, as well as his and Ashraf Ghani’s desire to maintain elite unity, would mean that the two would be able to establish a working relationship. I don’t expect that to be very smooth, though. Behind the scene there may be many quarrels, which may negatively affect the effectiveness of the government; but I think they will try to uphold the façade of unity. 

Q: After President Obama took office in 2008, he ordered several additions to the already deployed troops in Afghanistan. In January 2009, for example, 3,000 U.S. soldiers moved to the provinces of Logar and Wardak. In mid-February, another 17,000 extra troops were sent to Afghanistan. However, since June 2011, the troops began to be gradually withdrawn, although the United States has won a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan to maintain a certain number of troops to assist the Afghan armed forces in counterterrorism missions and training or advising the Afghan army. What do you think about the surge in the number of troops during the first years of President Obama in office, and what's your viewpoint on the step-by-step withdrawal of the NATO, U.S. soldiers in the recent months?

A: Americans had learned a wrong lesson of their troop surge in Iraq. They attributed the relative calm that prevailed in that country in 2008-11 to the troops surge. In my view, though, the “awakening movement” was a much more important factor. The U.S. military tried to repeat that “success” in Afghanistan. Obama, who had campaigned on withdrawal from Iraq and focusing on Afghanistan-Pakistan, reluctantly agreed with deployment of 17,000 troops in the first weeks in office. Then he ordered General McChrystal to conduct a strategic review and come up with recommendations. His recommendation was deployment of at least 40,000 new troops. Reading Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, my impression is that President Obama was not convinced of the utility of the troops surge, but he could not oppose it lest the future failure would be blamed on him. So he agreed with deployment of 30,000 more American troops - the rest to come from allies - while taking a firm commitment from the military commanders that they would accomplish their task in two years and the drawdown to start in mid 2011.

The drawdown policy, which caused confusion and contradictory statements, was labeled as “exit strategy” and officially adopted by NATO in its 2010 summit in Lisbon. The recent withdrawal of troops is part of that “strategy”, which has set the end of 2014 as the end of NATO’s combat operations in Afghanistan. However, the U.S. does not seem ready to withdraw from Afghanistan completely, most probably due to its strategic location. It wants to cut its losses, while maintaining a presence, a policy advocated by Joe Biden against military’s troop surge in 2009. Thus, the push for strategic relationship and BSA (Bilateral Security Agreement)!

Q: The United States has spent around $640 billion in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013. However, it has failed to establish peace and a long-lasting security in the war-torn country. Smuggling, drug trafficking, corruption and the weakness of the local armed forces are rampant and the future is marred with uncertainty. How is the United States going to handle the situation? The continuation of the war will impose additional costs on the American taxpayers, and the U.S. government is fighting several wars on different fronts. Will it be able to find a face-saving solution that will put a lid on its failures in Afghanistan?

A: The Joe Biden policy option that I referred to above called for reliance on Special Forces and air bombardment. That will cost much less than the 100,000 troops that the U.S. had in Afghanistan at the height of the troop surge. Of course the withdrawal of the bulk of foreign troops, and ineffectiveness of Afghan security forces, would mean that the Taliban would bring more territory under their control. That may be acceptable to the Americans as long as the “government” in Kabul survives and they have access to Afghanistan bases. There are also those in the U.S. and the UK who advocate a practical division of Afghanistan. That cannot be ruled out either. As for “face-saving solution”, I think that is possible only through a peace deal with the Taliban. President Obama’s announcement in May this year that all American troops will be out of Afghanistan by 2016 seemed to pave the way for such an agreement because of Taliban’s insistence on complete withdrawal of foreign troops. The exchange of prisoners in June further raised the hopes. However, no mention of 2016 was made on the occasion of signing the Bilateral Security Agreement, so the Americans may have backtracked on that.

Q: The White House had put a great deal of pressure on Ahsraf Ghani Ahmadzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with Washington to enable the U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after the 2014 deadline for the complete withdrawal of the NATO forces. The signing of the deal means that at least 10,000 U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan. Informed sources say that the President-elect is not unwilling to accept the U.S. proposal. What's your take on that?

A: As we already know, he did sign it on the same day of his inauguration. It is interesting, though, that he did not sign it personally. My information is that General Bismillah Muhammadi was asked to sign it, but he refused; so the task fell on Hanif Atmar. Why didn’t Ashraf Ghani sign it personally? Most probably because he did not want a historical blemishment of his name. Why did he rush in having it signed? Because he owed his presidency to the Americans, and he didn’t have any other choice; and Dr Abdullah was in full agreement with him on that point.

Q: Corruption is a common and widespread concern in Afghanistan. President-elect Ahmadzai has said in a recent interview with BBC World that he will not tolerate corruption. Do you think he will be successful in fighting corruption in Afghanistan?

A: He not only said that in an interview, but he has focus on fighting corruption in his first weeks in office; and that is admirable. Unfortunately, however, he and his vice presidents and other high officials are all part of the same ruling elite responsible for the corruption of the past 13 years - although Ashraf Ghani, like Hamid Karzai, may not be personally involved. Intolerance of corruption would mean dissociation with all these people and finding new people with personal integrity and clean records. Can we expect that from someone who chose as his vice president the person whom he had described as a murder[er]? I doubt it! At best there will be some cosmetic changes and some symbolic anti corruption cases.

Q: A loyaj irga (grand assembly) was convened in Afghanistan in June 2010 by the government of President Karzai upon his reelection in 2009 to address a number of concerns and issues the Afghan society was facing at the time, including the need to engage in direct negotiations with Taliban to persuade them to end insurgency and armed attacks across the country. Since then, there were reports of many secret and official encounters between the government of President Karzai and the Taliban leaders, including the talks in Dubai earlier this year. Do you think that the Taliban are reliable and logical enough to make concessions during the talks and accept the demands made by the Afghan government to end insurgency in the country?

A: The Taliban and the Karzai government could both blame each other of entering the talks in bad faith. It seemed that the Taliban considered the Kabul regime as a puppet, and wanted to talk directly to the Americans. Karzai at times seemed to genuinely want peace with the Taliban, but other times his government’s efforts seemed aimed at dividing the Taliban. I’m not sure about the reported talks in Dubai in February this year. It seemed to have been with a former member of Taliban whom they have disavowed, not with the Taliban representative office. That office was briefly opened in Doha thanks to an understanding with the Americans, but it was soon closed due to Karzai’s objection to the name of the office and their banner flying.

As for the prospect of success of the talks, I think the Taliban cannot be expected to make all the concessions and accept all of the American-Kabul government’s demands; the same way that the other side cannot be expected to accept all the Taliban demands. I believe the most important issue for the Taliban is the complete withdrawal of foreign troops; and if that is met, most probably they will be ready to make concessions in other areas. Negotiation is a process of give and take; and if total withdrawal of troops is on the agenda, I believe it will be possible to come to some kind of agreement.

Q: As a final question, is it true that the United States contributed to the rise of the cultivation and production of narcotics and drugs in Afghanistan since 2001? The U.S. military has publicly said that it's protecting Afghanistan's poppy fields to appease the farmers and prevent them from turning against the occupation, and according to the 2013 Afghanistan Opium Survey released by the United Nations, the cultivation of poppy across the country rose 36% last year. Would you please expand more on that?

A: When I was in Kabul in late 2006 and early 2007, there were allegations –sometimes by high-level government officials—that the foreign troops were directly involved in the smuggling of narcotics. There is no clear evidence of that, but it cannot be ruled out either. What is clear is the fact that the U.S. and its allies failed to come up with a well-defined, long term, anti-drug strategy; and their ad hoc and contradictory policies contributed to the rise of narcotic production. To give an example, in the trip I mentioned President Karzai told me how the Americans’ decision to offer cash to farmers in opium producing provinces to switch to an alternative crop encouraged the farmers in provinces where opium was not cultivated before to go that route – in the hope of securing some free cash. The farmers who had stopped poppy cultivation returned to the practice once the cash flow ceased, and those who had recently undertaken that practice continued doing it. Before 2001 opium was cultivated in 13 provinces of Afghanistan, by 2006 it was cultivated in 30 provinces!

Key Words: US, Afghanistan, Iraq, George W. Bush. NATO, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Abdullah Abdullah, Taliban, US Soldiers, Bilateral Security Agreement, Corruption, President Karzai, Opium, Barak Obama, Lafraie

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