Dim prospects in Afghanistan

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

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.

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?

Brzezinski: I generally agree with the thrust of Graham Fuller's comments. During the last two years I have been on record as skeptical about further troop deployments. Moreover, in the top-level policy discussions that preceded the US decision to intervene in Afghanistan in late October 2001, and in some of which I was invited to participate, I took the position that, while we must intervene to overthrow the Taliban regime (since it gave safe haven to Al Qaeda), after its overthrow we should not remain in Afghanistan militarily engaged in some "nation-building" exercise.

Gardels: Why not just seek to contain Al Qaeda – as we seek to do in Yemen and Somalia – instead of seeking to transform Afghanistan, a prospect that would take decades?

Brzezinski: I agree. After all, since Al Qaeda can always relocate somewhere else; are we going to wage prolonged wars in whatever countries it hides?

But we also have to face the fact that an Afghan policy of greater emphasis on progressive political accommodation and then stabilization – and less on counter-insurgency by a religiously and culturally alien United States and NATO military – for some time yet will still require both military and economic assistance from the international community, and especially from the US.

Gardels: It is already clear that, after eight years, Americans increasingly don't support this war. What is the logic of building schools in Afghanistan for a corrupt and ineffective government when, in California for example, prisoners are being let go and teachers are being fired because of the fiscal crisis?

The inconvenient reality is that the lacking will of the American public does not match the deep commitment of the Pashtun tribal mentality against foreigners that has gone on for centuries. Haven't we been here before in another war?

Brzezinski: I would simply say, very generally, that we should get off "the corruption" slogan which we usually employ as a justification for abandoning someone who has become dependent on our support. It comes in particularly poor grace from a country whose political and financial system has not been immune to quite widespread corruption.

On the larger issue of the US role in Afghanistan, the US should accept the timely proposal by German, British, and French leaders for an international conference designed to shape a strategy for shifting security responsibilities from NATO to the Afghan government. Two long-term benefits could ensue: the growing risk of the war becoming a war by foreigners against Afghans might be reduced; and our European allies might be less likely to pull out entirely, which would leave the US alone in the lurch.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to US President Jimmy Carter when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Nathan Gardels is editor in chief of New Perspectives Quarterly and the Global Viewpoint Network syndicated by Tribune Media Services and hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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