Cole/Goodman Interview on the Obama Drawdown and the Afghanistan War

Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow! interviewed me Wednesday on the significance of President Obama’s announcement of a significant drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan.

Here is the video (it may display also the day’s headlines; if so, move the black line at the bottom about two-thirds over to find the segment on Afghanistan):

And here is the transcript (making transcripts is not cheap, please help out):

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AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, I wanted to go to the issue of today, President Obama addressing the nation around the war in Afghanistan. And I wanted to go to Robert Gates, who just returned from his farewell visit to Afghanistan, the outgoing defense secretary, recently acknowledging for the first time that the U.S. has been involved in preliminary talks with the Taliban to seek a political solution to the nearly 10-year war. Despite the start of the talks, Gates warned against a fast drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: My own view is that real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter. I think that the Taliban have to feel themselves under military pressure and begin to believe that they can’t win, before they’re willing to have a serious conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaking on CNN. Professor Juan Cole, if you can say what you believe President Obama should be saying today?

JUAN COLE: Oh, well, it’s been leaked, apparently, to CNN that President Obama will call for a relatively large withdrawal over the next year, as you mentioned earlier, 5,000 next month, 5,000 by the end of this year, but perhaps as much as another 10,000 or 20,000 next year. So, he’s starting the process of the winding down of the war. And I think, politically speaking, it’s necessary for him to do that now that the war is extremely unpopular domestically, and even now, a majority of Republicans are saying they want out, that some of the Republican presidential candidates are campaigning on ending the war and critiquing Mr. Obama for having escalated it, which is quite ironic because originally most Republicans supported the escalation of the war. I think that was a big mistake. I think that the idea that you could put an extra few tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan, and even if you used them in a very smart way in counterinsurgency, that you could pacify a country of that size and complexity with those resources always struck me as highly unlikely. And in fact, there was always the danger that it would provoke more negative reaction than positive.

You know, the U.S. leaders often are just not good on history. And being a history professor, I’m sorry to nag. But the British started trying to pacify the Pashtun tribes of what are now northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, and were worried about the fanaticism of the akhond of Swat, and they sent tens of thousands of troops up there. They fought the Third Anglo-Afghan War. They fought engagements against the Mahsud tribe way back in the Teens and ’20s. And by 1947, as the British rule was ending in that region, it was more in turmoil and less under control than it ever had been before. So the full might of the British Empire was unable to bring order to those regions. And the idea that a relatively temporary American and relatively small expeditionary force can go into some of these provinces and shape them up for the long term, I always thought that that was just very unlikely.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say it’s a significant drawdown—5,000 now and 5,000 by the end of the year—Obama’s plan would leave about, what, 67,000 troops, plus who knows how many contractors—it may be as much or more than that—the same size as before the troop surge last year.

JUAN COLE: Yes, but as I understood the leaking information—and of course we have yet to see whether those leaks are correct—this is a 12-month program of drawdowns, not a six-month one. And so, there are more envisaged next year.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course, the question would be: will, in fact, it happen? I mean, it’s an intense time of political rivalry right now. You have Jon Huntsman saying he wants a drawdown in Afghanistan, Romney suggesting it. You have this odd repositioning in the Senate. Senator Joe Manchin is attacking the war in Afghanistan, and John McCain is defending President Obama, his former opponent. It’s quite something to see these realignments.

JUAN COLE: Well, it’s the longest war in American history, and its purposes are still a little unclear. You know, the counterinsurgency doctrine that President Obama was more or less boxed into adopting by the Pentagon assumes that you would have a reliable partner, you would have somebody that you were building capacity with, who could take over gradually. They’re planning to turn these provinces over to the Afghan National Army and the Hamid Karzai government. But, you know, Karzai is famously erratic. He keeps threatening to join the Taliban. He accused the United States of being on the verge of being occupiers recently. His supporters and relatives have been involved in massive embezzlement from a major bank in Kabul, which has threatened to destroy the financial system of the country. They’re fighting with the International Monetary Fund. They embezzled millions of dollars to Dubai. And the Afghan National Army officer corps is widely viewed as inept and corrupt. There’s not good evidence of Afghan National Army officers and troops taking the initiative of taking territory and holding it against the Taliban by themselves. So, you know, they have to tell us, if they’re going to keep doing this, what exactly are they trying to accomplish and when would it be done.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about the talks with the Taliban. I mean, we’ve been reporting this for quite some time. The administration is just beginning to admit this. But the significance of this?

JUAN COLE: Well, the U.S. has, for some time, denied that it was involved in direct talks with the Taliban. They always made the distinction that, you know, there were talks with the Taliban, but somebody else was doing that. And of course Karzai himself has met with not just Taliban leaders, but other guerrilla groups. You know, Amy, what the U.S. calls the Taliban is four or five different groups, and they’re not necessarily all Mullah Omar people, and some of them have met with President Karzai. And so—but this is a new development that the U.S. is now talking directly to representatives of Mullah Omar. And a lot of the European allies in NATO are very skeptical that these talks would produce any particular breakthroughs, that there is a common ground here between a departing U.S. and a shaky Karzai government and then a renewed militancy on the part of the Taliban. Mr. Gates said that he thought that if the U.S. brings the hammer on the Taliban again and again through the next year, that then they may be able to force them to the negotiating table in some sincerity sometime over this next 12 months. But how likely is that, really?

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, tremendous domestic pressure, from Joe Manchin saying, “Why are we building roads in Afghanistan and not at home?” to the Conference of Mayors—you know, Mayor Villaraigosa now the head of it—speaking out and saying precisely that: how can we afford war abroad when we have no—when we are suffering from lack of jobs here at home?

6 Responses

  1. I’m not really convinced that the purpose of the surge was to pacify the country, so much as achieve a few other goals:

    1> Buy time for the ANA and Afghan police to be recruited and trained up to a level where they can start to take over.

    2> Deny the Taliban control of those areas where they were most successfully collecting revenue — opium — and recruiting locals to fight.

    It does seem to me that Afghan troops have become quite measurably more effective over the last year, albeit usually when put on the defensive. They performed well in defending several bases over the past couple months, successfully ambushed many Taliban soldiers in Nuristan, held all key government facilities on the Taliban raid of Kandahar, etc.

    The Taliban wanted control of those key regions back. Instead, they’ve had to readjust their tactics, avoiding large formation combat actions, increasingly targeting weak — oftentimes civilian — targets, rather than NATO or the ANA. Most notably, they’ve been doing considerably worse when it comes to targeting ANA and police recruitment and training centers. That’s extremely important, as that, combined with significantly increased wages, greatly helps with ANA retention.

    Where the Taliban do seem to be concentrating lately is Nuristan and the surrounding environs, which is very difficult territory for NATO to control. Indeed, in that province, the rough terrain has allowed the Taliban to coordinate actions with a couple hundred troops at a time, sweep into small towns, and take control. However, it should be asked: does that matter? Is that region of economic value to the Taliban? Have they been able to effectively recruit there? Are they able to effectively project force out of there against important targets, without taking heavy casualties?

    I’m not convinced that they’re gaining much there by occupying it, any more than the US might gain by having FOBs there. What they are doing, apparently, is pissing off the locals and falling victim to the occasional attack of opportunity, losing 50-100 fighters at a time, blunting the success of their offensive.

    From what I can tell, the goal is to contain the east and hold the south, while increasingly recruiting, training, and equipping more troops, while letting the special forces go after enemy leadership. To me, that seems pretty realistic.

  2. I’d say Obama is just making a re-alignment of forces, now that he has to rush thousands of new troops to different theaters– Syria (staging in Turkey); Yemen (off shore probably); and Libya (off shore; in Egypt). The “metrics” for “success” in Afghanistan are so bogus that they can take the same set of stats and spin it as progress or regression, so what does it matter how many troops he has in Afghanistan? That’s not the gravamen of the conflict anymore anyway– it’s in Pakistan, and now on these other peripheral areas as the entire security web set up by the banks becomes unraveled. So what withdrawal? From one imperial trouble spot to another? Har dee har har har.

    • Obama announced in September 2009 that this drawdown was happening. Casting about for reasons why he’s carrying about a drawdown like you’re doing here seems to ignore the elephant in the room.

  3. The “Afghan surge” wasn’t intended to “pacify” Afghanistan. It was meant to deal a military blow to the insurgency – in Gates’ words, to put pressure on them.

    The withdrawal, and the political changes it brings about, is meant to “pacify” Afghanistan, in the same way that the Iraq withdrawal has gotten the Mahdi Army to put down its arms and the Sunni insurgents to disavow their alliance with the foreign jihadists and join the political process. The military surge was just setting the table for the withdrawal and political solution.

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