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Dim prospects in Afghanistan

A Q&A with former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

September 8, 2009

Nathan Gardels: President Obama has stated the US objective in Afghanistan is "disrupting, defeating, and dismantling Al Qaeda." [US Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates has said that we are not seeking to build some democratic "Valhalla" there.

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Yet, now a new surge of troops is being called for to "stabilize" and "hold" areas until effective governance can take place. Yet, the recent elections disputes clearly show that is not coming any time soon.

Isn't this, therefore, mission creep toward nation-building and a long commitment in the wrong place, especially since the consensus among intelligence officials is that Al Qaeda has now moved to Pakistan?

Zbigniew Brzezinski: The growing risk that we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan is that the Taliban – still supported only by a minority – is beginning to be viewed as a resistance movement against a foreign and especially "infidel" occupation, largely American. The Soviets came to be viewed that way within a year of their invasion. When we moved into Afghanistan almost eight years ago – and with a very small force – we were actually welcomed. If we are not careful, we could come to be viewed by the Afghans like the Russians – and that would be a strategic defeat.

Gardels: Secretary Gates has said that [NATO commander in Afghanistan] General [Stanley] McChrystal's new counterinsurgency strategy – avoid killing civilians, clear and hold – will have a year to show that it is working. As you say, we've been here before watching the mujahideen fighting the Soviets.

A year is less than a moment to the Taliban who are still fighting against the contamination of Buddhism millennia ago, not to speak of the Soviet infidels only a couple of decades ago. Surely they will wait out any new surge of troops and just return later?

Brzezinski: That is why we need to take advantage of the complex but traditional Afghan political realities as the point of departure for various local accommodations that respond to the ethnic and tribal diversity of the country – bearing in mind that not every "Taliban" formation has some sort of a binding commitment to Al Qaeda. Moreover, we have to take more into account Pakistani geopolitical interest in strategic depth, if we want a 100 percent effort from the Pakistani military in cutting the cross-border Pashtun support for the insurgency and its safe havens for Al Qaeda.

Gardels: Graham Fuller, a former CIA station chief in Kabul during the Soviet invasion, simply says that the US presence, by generating Pashtun tribal/nationalist resistance in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and driving them into the hands of the Taliban, is more the problem than the solution. In his view, more troops will only exacerbate the sense of occupation, creating more resistance. Do you agree?