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Author Anand Gopal discusses why a US strategy of arming 350,000 Afghan men will only perpetuate endless war

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. President Barack Obama has decided to leave some 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of his second term. Many do not see this news as much of a surprise given recent advances by the Taliban in Northern Afghanistan cities like Kunduz. But what path is President Obama putting America on? And after 14 years in this conflict, are we looking at endless war? Here to help us answer some of these questions is our guest Anand Gopal. He is a writer covering Afghanistan and the author of the book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes. Thank you so much for joining us, Anand. ANAND GOPAL: Thanks for having me. DESVARIEUX: So Anand, I love your book title. I mean, I think we are going to kind of have the interview go through those different perspectives that you mention. Let’s start off with America. Do you feel that right now America has a clear objective? And if so, what is that objective? GOPAL: No, the U.S. doesn’t really have a clear objective. Starting out in 2001 the objective was to defeat Al-Qaeda, and actually they achieved that objective very quickly. Within six months of the invasion Al-Qaeda was essentially no more in Afghanistan. And to this day Al-Qaeda barely exists in the country. But what started as a war against Al-Qaeda quickly morphed into a war against local farmers, local Afghans, many of whom know nothing about 9/11. In fact when you talk to Afghans and you ask them why is the U.S. in your country, very often they don’t know the answer to that. And so for the last 13-14 years, this has been a war essentially against a local insurgency. And it’s almost like a sunk cost. People are, they’re sort of pouring money into this war just because they’ve already poured so much money into the war, not because there’s a clear objective to it. DESVARIEUX: What do you make of the argument that now that the United States has sort of renewed engagement in Afghanistan that they can actually get all the players to the table? We’re talking about Pakistan, the Taliban, warlords, et cetera. What do you make of that argument? GOPAL: Well, it’s going to be difficult just because all of these players have interests that aren’t necessarily aligned with peace. For example, you mentioned warlords. Warlords are only warlords if there’s a war to fight. And the moment there’s peace they will lose their money, they will lose their weapons, and they will cease to be powerful. And so this is a major problem. It’s also a problem with the Afghan government. The Afghan government is being supported almost entirely by international funds. And government officials in Afghanistan know that if there’s no fighting, if there’s no Taliban and if there’s no ISIS in Afghanistan, then the international community’s not going to fund it. If the international community doesn’t fund them, then the state will collapse. So there are entrenched interests that want to see the perpetuation of this conflict, unfortunately. DESVARIEUX: The American media has also portrayed this conflict, at least when it comes to the Taliban, as not really wanting to engage in a political solution. How accurate is that portrayal, Anand, and is the Taliban ready to negotiate a peace settlement? GOPAL: Well, the thing we have to keep in mind when we talk about the Taliban is that they’re not–there’s no single entity called the Taliban. It’s not a monolithic entity. In fact it’s so many different currents and factions and tendencies that really are only united by one fact, and that fact is that they oppose foreign occupation, foreign troops. So you know, there are elements within the Taliban who realize that really they’re never going to take the country again and are never going to see a 1990s regime again, and therefore they think that a peacefully negotiated settlement is the best path. There are other elements of the Taliban who think that, you know what, the U.S. only have 5,000 troops on the ground., and maybe they’re going to leave in 2017, so we should just stick it out and fight. So there’s no coherence between those two sides, unfortunately. DESVARIEUX: And they also have an office in Doha, is that correct, where they’re starting to negotiate some terms? GOPAL: So this is an example of the sort of, the factionalism of the Taliban. They have a political office in Doha, and the people who are based there want to negotiate. But then there are people on the ground in places like Kunduz who are fighting and risking their lives and dying, who are saying we don’t want to negotiate, you know, we just took a major city, we want to keep fighting. DESVARIEUX: And we can’t talk about the Taliban without talking about the role of Pakistan in all of this. Some may not know this but the Taliban was actually created by the Pakistani government back in the ’90s. And there are some sections of the Pakistani government that have been really loyal supporters of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Anand, can you just talk about this? Because President Obama will have an opportunity to discuss all of this with the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his upcoming visit to Washington. Explain, why is Pakistan so reluctant to get on board with pressuring the Taliban to call for a ceasefire, at the very least? GOPAL: Well, you know, right now Pakistan has changed its tack a little bit from previous years, where they are trying to get elements of the Taliban into peace talks. But the thing is that Pakistan wants to [make] control over that process. So the biggest nightmare for Pakistanis is if the Taliban were to go and strike a peace deal with the Afghan government and leave the Pakistanis out. So they view the Taliban as sort of their insurance policy to ensure their interest in Afghanistan. And so they are very reluctant to have any sort of independent politics taking place in Afghanistan. And so that’s been a major problem, that’s been a roadblock to peace over the years. There’s been cases where Taliban leaders and commanders have tried to initiate peace talks, and Pakistan didn’t like the fact that they were doing it on their own. They got arrested, in some cases they got killed. So this is sort of a very nefarious game that Pakistan is playing, it has essentially played for the last 30 years in Afghanistan. DESVARIEUX: Can you just quickly outline some of those interests that Pakistan has in Afghanistan? GOPAL: Well, the biggest interest stems from the post-2001 regime, the Karzai government, which tilted very heavily towards India. And so Pakistan wanted a counterweight to what it saw was increasing Indian influence in Pakistan. So India was closely allied with the Northern Alliance. If you remember, they were the force that was fighting against the Taliban in the ’90s. So they were, India was also allied with Karzai. And so Pakistan saw the Taliban insurgency as a way to at least pressure the Afghan government, and to see if Pakistani interests could be maintained vis-a-vis India, Indian influence. That’s the main sort of interest. The second is that there’s many, many millions of Pashtuns that are living in Pakistan. In fact, more Pashtuns live in Pakistan than Afghanistan. And one of the reasons why Pakistan likes the Taliban is because the Taliban is not a Pashtun nationalist force. They’re not calling for, sort of, the ending of the Durand Line, which is the boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a united Pashtunistan. Instead they are calling for Islamic State in Afghanistan. So it’s something that’s very safe from the point of view of Pakistani elites, compared to what existed before in the ’60s and ’70s, which were strong Pashtun nationalist movements that actually were looking to break Pakistan apart and absorb the large Pashtun population into Afghanistan. DESVARIEUX: All right, Anand. Let’s pause the conversation here. In Part 2 we’ll look at the war from the Afghan perspective and understand what the interests are on the ground. Thank you so much for joining us, Anand. GOPAL: Thank you. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

Part 2

DESVARIEUX: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. We’re picking up our conversation with our guest Anand Gopal. He is a writer covering Afghanistan and the author of the book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes. Thanks for joining us again, Anand. GOPAL: Thank you for having me. DESVARIEUX: So Anand, in the first part we discussed the possibility of a settled peace agreement with the Taliban playing a role, I mean, potentially in the government. Would this type of settlement be acceptable to the majority of Afghans, considering the Taliban’s dismal human rights record when they were in power? GOPAL: Well, in the same way the Taliban are divided and are not monolithic, you can say the same about Afghan society at large. You know, there are parts of Afghanistan that today are extremely violent, in which people are desperate for peace even if that means peace with the Taliban. There are other parts of Afghanistan which are much safer, much more secure. And in those places where the war is not being fought there’s much less of an appetite for peace with the Taliban. So it’s a very complicated situation. But I think overall most people would prefer to see a negotiated settlement of some sort even though there is skepticism, and rightfully so, amongst civil society activists and human rights organizations whether in the course of such an agreement that sort of basic rights would be maintained. DESVARIEUX: And we should mention the current Afghan government does not have clean hands at all. There are allegations of corruptions and a sense of leniency towards military personnel sexually abusing women and children. The New York Times recently reported that American soldiers have raised the sexual abuse issue within their chain of command, but were then told that these practices were part of their culture, and not real consequences have been dealt to Afghan military leaders. Do you see this sexual abuse and corruption potentially leading people back into the arms of the Taliban, and if the Taliban were to gain some power? And if so, is that not troubling news for women’s rights groups that you mentioned earlier? GOPAL: Well, we should be clear, I think there is actually no distinction in terms of human rights between the Afghan government and its proxy forces and the Taliban. And so the choices that people have to face come down to which community do you live in, who’s the stronger person there. And so yeah, a lot of people–not a lot, but there are communities in which people support the Taliban because they see them as a better bet, or at least not engaging in some of the activities such as the rape of boys, which is very prevalent amongst commanders. So for example in Kunduz in the north, which fell to the Taliban a couple weeks ago, one of the major reasons why that city had fallen is because there are so many pro-government militias, many of which had been created by the United States, who are notorious for raping, for keeping sex slaves, and so the Taliban have sort of used this, exploited that grievance, to rally people to their cause. And this has been a long-standing problem. This is actually one of the reasons why the Taliban emerged in the first place in the mid-90s when the country was torn apart by warlords and there was people being raped on the streets. The Taliban sort of emerged and said, we’re going to purify this country through Islam and get rid of all these practices. DESVARIEUX: Okay. Where do the drug lords fit into this picture? Because one of Afghanistan’s largest industries is opium cultivation. So who are they looking to prop up in terms of power? GOPAL: The drug lords are in the afghan government and they’re in the insurgency. And often people in the insurgency are working with people in the Afghan government in doing poppy cultivation [inaud.]. And so I–it’s actually accurate, I think, to describe Afghanistan as a narco state. It’s a state in which its main export is opium. I think if you actually count it as part of the GDP it accounts for the majority of the country’s GDP. The people that the U.S. and the CIA in particular have allied with in the south of the country are major notorious drug traffickers and drug lords. And usually they will use the American forces to destroy the fields of their rivals while keeping their own fields, and by doing so driving up the price of opium so they can sell it on the market for a higher price and make a killing. So this is a problem that sort of pervades the Afghan state, and the insurgency. DESVARIEUX: All right. Let’s turn the corner, Anand, and talk about solutions. If we were to advocate for policy that would support a stable Afghanistan, with human rights as a central pillar, what would U.S. policy really look like in Afghanistan? And which groups should we be supporting in Afghanistan, and where should we invest? GOPAL: Well to start with, the American policy over the last 12-13 years of supporting strongmen and warlords I think needs to stop if we’re going to get to any sort of peaceful settlement. There are, if you count it up, something like 350,000 men under arms that are being paid for by the U.S. or by the international community. Some of them are Afghan army and Afghan police, but there’s also many, many, many irregular militia forces. Warlords and strongmen. These are, many of these people were taxi drivers or ordinary, had ordinary jobs before 2001, and then for one reason or another had contact with the U.S., who got very rich and very powerful. And these were some of the major drivers of the grievances that lead to the insurgency. So that sort of support needs to stop. Secondly there does need to be I think a push towards a negotiated settlement. Even if there are a lot of moving parts and it’s very difficult to get everybody on the table, if you try to talk and fight, which is the strategy right now, all you end up doing, essentially, is fighting. Which is what we’ve seen. So a negotiated settlement and ceasing support for notorious warlords I think would be a place to start. DESVARIEUX: All right. Anand Gopal joining us from New York. Thank you so much for being with us. GOPAL: Thanks a lot. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Anand Gopal has served as an Afghanistan correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor, and has reported on the Middle East and South Asia for Harper’s, The Nation, The New Republic,Foreign Policy, and other publications.