An Interview with David C Isby

Whats really going on in Afghanistan?

The insurgency in Afghanistan absorbs the vast majority of coalition troops and resources. But at the same time, threats from transnational terrorism, narcotics trafficking and Afghanistans internal conflicts undercut many of the policies that an effective counter-insurgency strategy requires. All of these conflicts also are affecting Pakistan. Insurgency, terrorism, and a set of internal crises can to turn Pakistan into the ultimate bad-dream scenario, a nuclear-armed failed state. Multiple conflicts in two countries ensure policies effective against any one are likely to be counterproductive against the others.

What matters most about the current conflict in Afghanistan?

The US, the UK, Canada and others are fighting a long and costly war, in terms of both casualties and money. No end is in sight. But the fundamental fact is that this war is about Afghanistan. Afghanistans conflicts have their roots in events that took place long before the US military intervention in 2001, after 9/11. In my book, I tried to always keep the focus on Afghanistan and the Afghans and, as far as it shapes the future of Afghanistan, Pakistan as well. Afghans, rather than the White House, the Pentagon, or the Congress, will have to put together the eventual solution.

What should be the US policy objective in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is a war that needs to be won. What is at stake is much greater than preventing another 9/11 attack being prepared in Afghanistan. Losing in Afghanistan would not be like losing in Vietnam. The US forced to retreat like the Soviets would be a victory for transnational terror. It would make them the wave of the future to people throughout the Islamic world. The narrative that the Americans came after us, but they could not beat us and now, were back and theyve gone home would be a compelling one.

What should the US be doing to win the war in Afghanistan?

Even the best US soldiers or the most caring aid workers can only do so much. The most important thing Afghanistan needs from the US is to keep the neighbors especially Pakistan from fighting out their own proxy wars in Afghanistan. Aid to rebuild the infrastructure and human resources and create a functional private sector economy has too often been absent since 2001.

What do you think about the US policy debate regarding Afghanistan?

Many policy arguments are really about the US rather than Afghanistan. To some, Afghanistan is another Vietnam, an open-ended foreign war that threatens plans for widespread and expensive domestic social reforms. Others invoke the US withdrawals from Lebanon in the 1980s and Somalia in the 1990s as potential lessons. There, the local population felt the effects, rather than people in the US. In Afghanistan, Americans may not be as fortunate. People tend to make up the Afghanistan that best supports their own preferences in the highly polarized US political environment rather than trying to come to grips with unclear and often contradictory reality.

Why should Americans care about Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is a great place. The Afghans are wonderful people. Neither deserves what is happening. Yet United States policy towards Afghanistan must be considered in terms of national interest. The US disengagement from Afghanistan in the 1990s proved to be disastrous from that standpoint it helped create the vacuum Al Qaeda filled as well as for the Afghans. The US supported countries such as the Republic of Korea and Israel back when they were poor and weak. Today, they are neither. Afghanistan may never make it to their level. America fought a bloody war in Korea, while Israel has never required US forces. US commitment helps them prosper despite neighbors that are adversaries and creates a world order where conflicts do not directly affect the life of the average American. The 9/11 attacks, planned in Afghanistan, aimed at destroying this order.