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The Real News Senior News Analyst Aijaz Ahmad tells Senior Editor Paul Jay that Senator Obama, if elected, needs to heavily engage in economic reconstruction of Afghanistan if the US intends to reduce the influence of the Taliban. Ahmad also says that this reconstruction should be handled by an Afghani government that is reflective of the peoples of Afghanistan. “The test of loyalty to the US should not be the criterion.”

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: Welcome back to the final segment of our interview with Aijaz Ahmad on Pakistan, Afghanistan, and what next for US policy. So if you were to advise or write a letter to Barack Obama, what would you suggest should be his Afghan policy? What it’s stated now is 30,000 or 40,000 more troops attacking actionable intelligence inside Pakistan. It’s very much a military solution. Is that the next best choice for US policy?

AIJAZ AHMAD, SENIOR ANALYST, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: Well, it depends on what you mean—right plan to solve what problems? Let me first comment very briefly on this enhanced military role that Obama is advocating. One is, I think, the simple campaign rhetoric, in which Afghanistan War is popular with all kinds of forces, both in the United States and Europe and so on. So he wants to be on the right side of it, particularly at the time when he’s talking about drawing down under a number of US troops in Iraq. So he picks up the good war. The second thing is that when he says 30,000, 40,000 more troops, he’s still talking about using them primarily for training, for bringing the Afghan army up to mark, and so on and so forth, not so much for combat.

JAY: ‘Cause clearly if they’re going to have a military operation of significant difference, you’re probably talking a couple of hundred thousand troops.

AHMAD: Precisely. That is why I think he’s not really talking about combat troops. And I think it is agreed among both the NATO and the US leadership, both civilian and military, that you cannot engage the Taliban on the ground without taking very heavy losses and committing enormous number of troops—hundreds of thousands of troops. So that kind of war is not on. Actionable intelligence and “I will bomb across the country into Pakistan,” yes, he says that, but that is turning out to be and has been for about a year the Bush policy. It has not been in the news, because the media does not want to report properly on this.

JAY: If the objective or problem you’re trying to solve is to weaken the strength or influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and have some kind of peace in the region, which is what people state to be the objective, then how do you get there?

AHMAD: Well, if that is truly the objective, then you encircle the Taliban without any illusion that you are going to smash them militarily. In encircling them, you try and separate them from that whole mass of population which is supporting them out of their own grievances. You find, first of all, a proper political solution, in which you actually create a government that is truly representative of all the social groups in the country, and without testing them for their loyalty to you. If you don’t have very major strategic interests involved in Afghanistan—.

JAY: And “you” meaning United States.

AHMAD: I mean the United States.

JAY: I can step in for the purpose of the—.

AHMAD: Yeah. Right. You know, the test of loyalty to the United States should not be the criterion, but representativeness of their own social groups should be the criteria.

JAY: And what about the network and power of the drug business?

AHMAD: Well, there are a couple of other things. Once you have had that kind of a political establishment in place, or while you are having it, there are two things I think you have to do. One is to massively pump in money for economic development, especially immediately in the agricultural sector, so that the peasantry can augment its own incomes, have decent incomes, without having to grow poppy or process that poppy. The only alternative to poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is a prosperous agriculture. But in order to do that, you also have to take on the drug lords. And the drug lords are not only outside the establishment. Since the rise of the Karzai government, a new elite has arisen in Kabul which has two sources of wealth. One is the siphoning off of–from this $16 billion or whatever the amount is that the West has poured in for reconstruction. Most of it ends up in the pockets of this new elite. Who pockets it, which one does, which one doesn’t is a different matter, but as a social group, this elite takes in most of the cut.

JAY: In Kabul and in the leadership of all the provinces.

AHMAD: Those are the connections, but it is because they have power in Kabul that they can create those kinds of patronage systems in the rest of the country. The other is drugs. The Taliban had eradicated poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. Altogether, now, most of world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan. Whether it’s 50 percent or 70 percent or 80 percent of the world’s heroin, we don’t know, but most of it comes from Afghanistan. And what has happened is there is not only the warlords outside the control of the central government, but this whole elite, very many of them get tempted by it. They want a cut in it.

JAY: And how much of a cut does the Pakistani elite get?

AHMAD: Out of that drug trade, it is not very clear, because most of the directions of that trade are actually laid through the similar mafias in Central Asian countries. And these drug mafias are connected with weapon mafias, with trafficking in women. Part of the reason why the Taliban is so very well equipped is that there’s a very flourishing weapons trade connected with the same mafias. Some of that drug trade does come through Pakistan, and part of the military elite itself is tied in with that.

JAY: A US policy that might actually have some effective solution starts with reconstruction, starts with rebuilding Afghan agriculture.

AHMAD: Paul, that is a very common argument. The problem is who is going to do this reconstruction and who is going to do this development of agriculture.

JAY: So what would be the steps to some new form of government in Afghanistan?

AHMAD: You have to first of all really figure out who really represents the various social groups in the country, truly, without testing them for their loyalty to the United States. Some of them are older, the tribal chieftains; some of them are a new sort of political elite that is [inaudible]; and so on. But precisely because Afghanistan is that kind of a society, which is both very, fragmented, but also in which lineage and loyalty is very clear, it is possible to identify such [inaudible].

JAY: Does that mean, then, shifting the power of decision-making to something like the United Nations? It’s hard to see how the United States could do this.

AHMAD: It could be the United Nations, and the United Nations itself could function through the mediation of regional powers. For example, in Afghanistan, historically, for the last 150 years, there has been an immense distrust of Europeans. Afghanis simply don’t believe by and large that these people are working in their interest. On the other hand, if you had regional powers involved in it primarily in carrying out this as a UN mission that would be a vast improvement in what it is. But the fundamental thing, Paul, none of it is doable, because the United States is in Afghanistan seeking strategic advantage. You have to give up that particular pursuit; otherwise, you can’t do any of this.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Based in New Delhi, Aijaz Ahmad has appeared many times on The Real News Network; he is Senior Editorial Consultant, and political commentator for the Indian newsmagazine, Frontline. He has taught Political Science, and has written widely on South Asia and the Middle East.