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What would an alternative strategy for Afghanistan look like? Paul Jay with Reese Erlich

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you from Washington. Joining us again from Oakland, California, is Reese Erlich. He’s a freelance foreign correspondent working on a book called Talking with Terrorists. Recently he’s been in Afghanistan, was in Iran during the elections, just came back from Israel and Palestine. Thanks for joining us, Reese.

ERLICH: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: So President Obama, Tuesday night in his speech, laid out three core elements of his strategy. Here’s what he said.


PRES. BARACK OBAMA: These are the three core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition, a civilian surge that reinforces positive action, and an effective partnership with Pakistan.


JAY: So, Reese, I’m particularly interested in number two, a civilian surge, because it got almost no attention at all in the speech. Now, I remember candidate Obama clearly saying that the real solution to Afghanistan would be something like a Marshall Plan, that there needed to be real emphasis on reconstruction, building the economy from the ground up. He drops some of that when he went back to the—after he was elected president, but he still had some of the rhetoric about a civilian surge. Now we seem to be down to completely about a military solution, not a word about reconstruction, and not a word about the real issue, which is we’re now dealing with the biggest narco state in the country and the headquarters for heroin production, which means there’s a heck of a lot at stake for all the parties involved.

ERLICH: The problem with a civilian surge is the massive corruption. And the corruption is not simply with the Afghan government and Afghan officials; it’s on the US side. I did a story for The San Francisco Chronicle in which I actually examine a program that cost $145 million to build market centers in Afghanistan. They were basically sheds to store agricultural products before they were shipped out of the country. And there were exactly 100 of these sheds built that would have cost the equivalent of $1 million a shed, for literally tin sheds with brick sides and so on. There was massive fraud and waste on the US end in Washington. Most of the money for all of these aid programs gets spent in Washington, not in Afghanistan; then it’s contracted and subcontracted and subcontracted, with nobody doing any actual work but taking their cut as it goes through various levels of American and Afghan people, until maybe seven subcontracts later somebody actually builds the shed for $1,000, or for maybe a maximum of $30,000.

JAY: I think in one of your articles you talked about the salaries being paid to some of the American contracts. What was that?

ERLICH: Just outrageous salaries, $500,000, you know, between $250,000 and $500,000 dollars for every expat manager dealing with Afghanistan. And that’s how much is allocated.

JAY: The corruption that takes place in this kind of reconstruction pales next to the kind of corruption that’s taking place in terms of the drug industry. I don’t understand how any strategy for Afghanistan can’t talk about what they’re going to do about heroin and the poppy.

ERLICH: Right. Well, there was a myth propagated first by the Bush administration, and then later continued under Obama, that the Taliban controls the drug trade, and oh my gosh, we’ve got to wipe out the drug trade because it’s funding the Taliban. Well, if you look at the actual UN figures and the CIA figures, the Taliban and the insurgents control about 3 percent of the heroin trade; 97 percent is controlled by criminals and by US allies, including members of the Karzai cabinet. I’ve been writing about this for several years, but it’s so embarrassing that it certainly—only recently, maybe in the last year or so, has some of this information made it into the major media. To stop the drug trade, you have to arrest cabinet members in the Karzai government, including the president’s brother, one of his brothers. So you’re not going to clear up the drug problems in Afghanistan when the people at the very highest levels are making tremendous profits and they’re using it to fund their warlord—their warlords are using it to fund their militias and buy votes, and a lot of the fraudulent election practices that we saw in the last presidential elections were funded with the drug money.

JAY: McChrystal has talked about and some of the other American officials have talked about telling Karzai he has to get out of the grips of the warlords. Is there any practicality to that? I know I was in Afghanistan in the spring of 2002, and in general Afghans saw Karzai as not really quite the same as the other warlords but dependent on them. Is he now just one of them? Or is his dependency on them so much that it doesn’t make much of a difference?

ERLICH: I don’t think he personally has a large militia. He’s got the Afghan army, but all [inaudible]

JAY: Well, no, he’s got the largest militia in the country, hasn’t he? He has the US army.

ERLICH: He’s not a traditional warlord like some of these mujahedin leaders were and some of his members of his cabinet, but he’s so closely allied with them that it doesn’t make any difference. Fahim, his vice president, is a famous warlord. [Abdul Rashid] Dostum I mentioned. Wali Karzai. I mean, there’s a whole slew of these people who have private militias funded by drug money who are strong supporters of Karzai, and they are staunch allies of the United States. So maybe, maybe we’ll hear/see one of these warlords taken down or demoted if we’re lucky, but meanwhile that will simply allow the others to continue business as usual.

JAY: So in 18 months what’s likely to be is that the US is going to find, you know, Karzai and whatever section of warlords they’re going to decide to keep in power, and they’re going to try to get an army, which will be their army, but it will be the army of a narco state, if they do stand up, this Afghan army. So in 18 months you might get a government, a narco state government powerful enough to at least stay in power in Kabul and some of the major cities. Maybe they cede the countryside or make some kind of deal with the Taliban, and that’s now what they’re going to call Afghanistan without al-Qaeda, and get out. Is that, like, maybe [inaudible] best-case scenario?

ERLICH: [inaudible] the best-case scenario. That’s a version of what’s happening in Iraq. You know, Iraq is often talked about as the model, and we had the surge, it worked, and now get to pull our troops out. Well, the surge didn’t work, and Iraq is slowly descending into chaos, and the result is not going to be a pro-US government, which was the objective of the war from the very beginning, but a pro-Iranian government, or possibly even a split Iraq, split into several pieces because the US never solved the underlying political problems that gave rise to the insurgency. Well, the same thing is on the agenda for Afghanistan. As you describe, they might be able to pour in enough troops to lessen some of the violence, maybe the number of US deaths will go down, and a victory can be proclaimed. But the results for the people of Afghanistan is they’re going to be worse off than they were under the horrible conditions they had under the Taliban.

JAY: Well, that’s debatable, whether it’s worse off or not. The conditions of the Taliban were rather despicable.

ERLICH: [inaudible] horrendous.

JAY: Horrendous.

ERLICH: But, you know, for most people, it’s not abstract questions of democracy. They want to know that when they go out at night or when they go to their fields during the day, they’re not going to get shot at or bombed by foreign [inaudible]

JAY: It’s possible with 100,000-plus troops. And, you know, if they do build up the Afghan army, it is possible there will be sections of Afghanistan that are relatively safe, and I don’t think that’s out of the question.

ERLICH: That’s true, but the US can’t sustain that forever.

JAY: Well, not without 100,000 US troops. But let’s talk about what is the objectives here. So Obama’s objectives, now that he announces 18 months, let’s say he believes in that. Is that really what the Pentagon’s objectives were? A lot of analysts have said that the real objective, the real game here, for the Pentagon at least, has been a very long-term presence with long-term bases. And even if he’s talking about pulling troops out, he’s certainly not talking about pulling all troops out. So in 18 months from now, are we in a situation something like what’s happening in Iraq right now, where there’s American bases, maybe Americans who kind of come back into the bases, but with a real long-term presence?

ERLICH: Theoretically, all the US troops will be out of Iraq. We’ll see if in practice it’s actually carried out. But, no, after 18 months, I think what President Obama did was give political cover to the Pentagon’s long-term plans for staying in Afghanistan. The president is smart enough to know that the American public is becoming increasingly disillusioned with the war, the increasing number of casualties, the high cost of the war. So he’s giving the illusion that it might be over in 18 months. But you notice it was a very loosey-goosey definition. There was no commitment to withdrawing a specific number of troops. There was no commitment to having all the troops out or all the military bases gone by a certain time. All it is is we’ll get to 18 months and they’ll say, well, you know, the insurgency is still strong, so we’ve got to keep the 100,000 troops and the permanent bases there, because we’re fighting al-Qaeda still.

JAY: Well, one can understand this. Even as a message to the Afghans, it may sound good, at least. It sounds less like a long-term occupation, if you talk that way.

ERLICH: Right. I think at the moment there are absolutely no plans for the United States to significantly wind down its troop strength in Afghanistan, because the US would lose yet another war.

JAY: Now, if one does care about what happens to the Afghan people—and it seems to me that the United States, more than anyone, owes the Afghan people a lot. It was American policy that armed these jihadists in the first place. If Americans got out tonight or tomorrow, there would be a civil war probably at the same scale as there was after the Russians left, which led to the deaths of perhaps more than a million Afghans. There needs to be some kind of position that the US takes that could be constructive. I mean, I think it would start with giving up the objective of being the dominant power in the region. But if one does give that up, then what would an alternative strategy look like?

ERLICH: Well, I had this discussion with NGO people in Afghanistan who are deeply committed to the people of the country, who don’t particularly like US military policy but certainly don’t want to see a return to the Taliban. What they said was you’ve got to wind down the military presence, encourage negotiation between those insurgents and the government, who can negotiate to make a serious commitment to NGO-led economic development. There are some models and there are some groups there, not the huge USAID projects that are full of corruption and waste, but targeted economic development that actually gets to Afghan people.

JAY: But if you just wind down the military operations without some other kind of strategy, the Taliban come back, the warlords get into a war amongst themselves and with the Taliban, and there’s a lot more to fight about now than there was when the Russians left. You’re now fighting about the world’s biggest opium trade, heroin trade. So this is not going to be peaceful just because the US decides to wind down the military operation.

ERLICH: You’re right. There are no good options. You can continue to escalate the war, claim that you’re bringing peace and democracy, and kill a lot more people, and then allow the Afghan people to resolve the issues themselves, or you can take that position from the very beginning and save yourselves a lot of deaths along the way. But in either case, Afghanistan is not going to emerge as a budding democracy under US tutelage.

JAY: But it’s not about a budding democracy. But it’s also about the world, which has played with the fate of Afghanistan, not throwing the Afghans under the bus, because just dropping out is certainly that. I mean, there easily could be a million to two million Afghans dead at the end of a civil war over this kind of a drug trade.

ERLICH: We’ve heard the same argument every one of US wars of occupation. In Vietnam, “Oh my God, we can’t pull out of Vietnam, because the communists are going to take over and massacre the people and set up internment camps and blah, blah, blah.” Today we have tourists going to Vietnam and trading normally—.

JAY: Yeah, but just because something not true in Vietnam doesn’t mean that it—.

ERLICH: The same argument was made in Iraq. And now [inaudible] the US cannot determine the future of Afghanistan.

JAY: It’s not about that. I’m saying—. Yeah, I’m not arguing that it should.

ERLICH: [inaudible] US should not simply pull out tomorrow, you know, leaving the seeds for destruction of Afghanistan. But if the US announced a firm and quick timetable for withdrawal, it would force the Afghan parties into negotiations to create a government controlled by Afghans, not by the United States.

JAY: I don’t see that it does just on that, just by announcing they’re leaving; I don’t see how that resolves the conflict over drugs. We know what drug wars are and what a country looks like. You can see what’s happening to Mexico, which is supposedly a modern state. It’s descending into a country of drug wars. Afghanistan would be that times tens of thousands. The piece I’m trying to get at here is that Afghanistan, for decades at least, has been a regional conflict. It’s not just been what’s going on in Afghanistan. It’s always been about India; it’s always been about Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran. Even some of the ‘Stans, like Uzbekistan, Russia, of course, have all had their proxies in Afghanistan. It’s always been a point of regional conflict and regional intrigue, which means the solution also has to be regional, not America. I mean, doesn’t there have to be some kind of solution that brings all the bordering regional countries together, and develop some kind of plan for Afghanistan, and give up this making it an American show?

ERLICH: I agree with you. I think that’s going to be even more difficult than getting the Afghans to negotiate among themselves. But, yeah, that’s a laudable goal, which is that the US could put a lot more pressure on India and Pakistan, for example, to resolve the issue of Kashmir, which India has occupied for many years, stop the ISI support for terrorist forces, the ISI being the intelligence services of Pakistan. That would go a long way to help resolving issues with Iran as well. Yeah, there are lots of regional issues where the US could play a very positive role if it stopped trying to be the numero uno superpower, economically and militarily, in the region.

JAY: Which goes back to the framing of Obama’s speech from the very start, this idea that United States has always been the liberator of the world, and according to him, I guess, it should continue to be so.

ERLICH: That was the part, frankly, that it sounded like President Bush all over again. Suddenly everybody else in the world is an evil human rights violator interested only in commercial interests and securing oil supplies, but somehow the United States is different—we only operate for purposes of spreading democracy and hope and economic free markets. I mean, he’s just reiterating all the arguments that have been used for the last 50 years to justify every one of the US wars of occupations around the world. It’s baloney. US should just, you know, stop trying to pretend that somehow it’s not an empire and that it has pure intentions.

JAY: Well, he said it all through the election campaign, but a lot of people didn’t want to hear it. Thanks a lot for joining us, Reese.

ERLICH: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Reese Erlich is a best-selling book author and freelance journalist who writes regularly for the Dallas Morning News, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio and National Public Radio. He has won numerous journalism awards, including the prestigious Peabody (shared with others). He is the author of several books, and is currently touring across the country promoting his most recent one called: Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire, published in September 2010. Reese Erlich received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his reporting from