A New Interview with David C Isby

Has the death of bin Laden changed the conflict in Afghanistan?

While bin Laden was important as a symbol and for his personal links to the leadership of both the Taliban and transnational terrorism, his death is unlikely to affect either or make it possible for the US or Afghanistan to change policies.

Has not the death of bin Laden removed the US rationale for involvement in Afghanistan?

He was more a symptom of the lack of involvement that marked US policy in the 1989-2001 period. This created a policy vacuum. Pakistan’s military tried to take advantage of it, but were unable to do so. They made things worse. What emerged to fill this vacuum was bin Laden and transnational terrorism.

Is the assassination of President Karzai’s half-brother Ahmed Walid Karzai likely to have an impact?

The death of Ahmad Walid Karzai was important. He was a key part of the government’s political strategy. Karzai wants to consolidate political power his way, on the model of the Durrani leaders of pre-conflict Afghanistan. This is going to be difficult to reconcile with all that has changed in Afghanistan in the last 40 years, including the constitution and elections that have taken place since 2001. But making it work as the outside military commitment draws down is the single most crucial thing needed in Afghanistan.

What’s 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 Afghanistan’s 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, and others are fighting a long and costly war, in terms of both casualties and money. The goal is to turn security in Afghanistan over to the Afghan National Security Forces by 2014, although these forces will depend on outside aid for long after that. In many ways, this is a good thing. Minimizing outside involvement and increasing Afghan responsibility will be part of any solution, The fundamental fact is that this war is about Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s 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, we’re back and they’ve 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.