Shashank Bengali: Pakistan alliance on the rocks, Afghan economy crashing and Taliban not weakened


Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Shashank Bengali is the national security editor for the McClatchy newspaper chain, and he just recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan. And he now joins us from our studio in D.C. Thanks for joining us, Shashank.

SHASHANK BENGALI, NATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR, MCCLATCHY: Good to be with you.

JAY: So give us a sense of your overall impressions of this trip. I know you’ve been there several times before. As we head toward, supposedly, a 2014 drawdown, what did you find there?

BENGALI: Well, the Afghans certainly are preparing for the American presence in their country to be over. I was struck by the way the housing market is dropping. The overall economy is in a depression. You know, the last ten years have been a boom time for some in Afghanistan, the huge influx of American contracts and, you know, a lot of money going into road construction and transportation for American supplies, and of course the huge presence of foreign aid organizations coming in. There have been a number of people who have gotten quite wealthy off of this, and not much of it has trickled down to the masses. But certainly there is a feeling in Kabul that the economic boom that accompanied this American occupation is ending. And that’s really one of the main ways you see Afghans preparing for the end of the American occupation there.

JAY: One of the examples you wrote about is the bust of the Afghan housing bubble, which I guess would have been partly because of American money, but it’s–also must be partly ’cause of drug money. So, I mean, there’s a lot of drug money washing around Afghanistan.

BENGALI: That’s true. There’s this huge neighborhood in Kabul, the capital, called Sherpur, which is home to all these what they call poppy palaces, these massive kind of mega-mansions built–really gaudy architecture, built one on top of the other. The traffic there is terrible. You know, the streets are basically stone and rutted and jammed, but the houses that are built alongside them are beautiful. And this just speaks to the amount of money that’s available in the private sector for people to build these palatial homes, and yet nothing available in the overall national economy to improve the roads that connect these homes. So, really, it just speaks to the fact that very little of this boom, both in illicit money and real money, has trickled down to the overall economy of the country.

JAY: Now, do you actually see any physical signs that the U.S. is actually withdrawing? I know that’s the commitment, but I have to say personally I find this hard to believe after such a decade of investment in Afghanistan, with it having such enormous mineral wealth and strategic importance. It’s really hard to believe the U.S. is simply getting out. So what did you see?

BENGALI: We shouldn’t call it a withdrawal. You know, it’s really a drawdown. It’s a drawing down of 33,000 troops that were surged into the country after Obama took office. You know, the goal was to replicate the surge in Iraq that actually is credited with having brought down a lot of the levels of violence there. They aim for a similar impact in Afghanistan, and they surged in 33,000 troops. Now they’re bringing out a similar number between now and next September. That’ll still leave sixty-seven-or-so thousand troops in Afghanistan, and that’s not including another thirty-odd thousand international soldiers from other countries, part of the NATO coalition. So there’s still a large presence. You don’t see them, you know, when you’re walking around the streets. You don’t see them really on patrol or anything like that. They’re really hunkered down in bases. They’re involved mostly in training missions, training local Afghan forces, border police, Afghan national police. You do occasionally see them and hear, certainly, about major missions going on in the eastern part of the country to really rid the Pakistani border areas of Taliban and allied insurgents. But you don’t really see any show of the Americans pulling out. You see them really recalibrating their forces toward the east, where the battles are heaviest these days.

JAY: So I know the plan’s supposed to be to hand this war over to Afghan troops. But when American troops are having relatively little success, at best a stalemate, is there any sign that an Afghan army, within two, three years, is actually going to take this over with any success?

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BENGALI: Well, the Americans say that they’ve had some success in dismantling and dislodging and really, you know, putting off-balance the Taliban. They say that they’ve busted up a lot of the networks that plant roadside bombs, which were made the number one killer of foreign forces there in Afghanistan. They’ve–through drone strikes and other–you know, these night raids and kill-and-capture campaigns they’ve actually decimated a large number of Taliban leadership, mid-level leadership and senior leadership. However, those ranks are being very quickly replenished, and they typically are being replenished from these madrasahs and tribal areas and really kind of lawless regions of Pakistan, where the ethnic Pashtuns, you know, straddle both sides of the border. So the mid-level and senior Taliban who were commanding Taliban forces are now being replaced by younger, more radicalized, more extremist Taliban. And we’re finding that the Taliban violence is actually becoming harder to predict. You know, they’re now going after U.S. forces. They’ve gone after the U.S. Embassy. They’ve attacked U.S. military convoys in Kabul. You know. So in some ways the Americans are making gains against the traditional networks of Taliban, but they’re finding an enemy that’s very adaptive, you know, has a huge pool of disaffected, poor extremists to draw from. So I think stalemate–it may not be, you know, the definition of a stalemate as the military textbook [incompr.] would say, but certainly it’s a war that can grind on for many years to come at this current rate.

JAY: Now, the linchpin of the exit strategy was supposed to be–if you go back to President Obama during the elections of ’08 and just–and afterwards, was supposed to be this whole new rebirth of relationship with Pakistan, and that Pakistan would be won over. There was even–at one point, Obama was going to negotiate a peace deal over Kashmir with Pakistan and India that would free up Pakistani troops to get more involved. Anyway, you couldn’t have more the opposite situation right now. Pakistan’s actually talking about whether they should–what life would be like after ending of U.S. aid for the Pakistan military, although it’s hard to believe they really would. On the other hand, they just did joint military exercises with China in the last day or two, and there’s talk about, well, maybe we can get the money from China. So, I mean, the situation couldn’t be more unsettled from an American point of view, could it?

BENGALI: It’s true. You know, there’s so much brinksmanship and so much saber rattling. You know, when I was there, the Afghans had just signed a strategic pact with India that also included a provision for Indians to train Afghans security forces. Now, of course, that’s a red line for Pakistan. India’s Pakistan’s sworn blood enemy, and the idea of having Indian forces training Afghan forces on their neighboring soil, it’s just anathema to Pakistan. Of course, you’ve got the role of China trying to, you know, keep America off balance and also maintain a foothold in Afghanistan. You’ve got the influence of all the ex-Soviet states, the Uzbekistans and Tajikistans of the world, trying to, you know, maintain their influence there. And it’s just a chess board in this region right now. And from the American perspective, as you said, Paul, Pakistan was really the linchpin of this. And since May, when the U.S. raid killed bin Laden in Pakistan, we’ve just seen a steady deterioration of relations between Washington and Islamabad. You know, the State Department is now saying that they’re moving to a strategy called build, talk, and fight. And–or, actually, I believe it’s fight, talk, and build. Anyway, the point is they have a three-pronged strategy to fight the Taliban, to negotiate with some insurgents, and to keep building and reconstructing Afghanistan. Now all three of those pillars are crumbling. You know, the fight is, as I mentioned earlier, going on, but not producing a sustainable victory at the moment, and certainly you can’t expect Afghan forces in the next couple of years to step up in a huge way to continue that.

JAY: Now, the other thing President Obama talked about, you know, not long after being elected, was not just a military surge, but what he called a civilian surge, a reconstruction surge. Do you see any of that?

BENGALI: There certainly has been a civilian surge in terms of personnel. You’ve got a lot more civilians working on reconstruction teams around the country. The U.S. is spending a ton of money, and it’s going to only increase. I mean, they’ve got to look at creating–in the next 2 to 3 years, before 2014, when our combat forces are meant to step down, the U.S. has got to be looking at creating tangible victories. And in the absence of a military victory or the absence of, you know, talking, as I mentioned, that second pillar, talking not going anywhere, either because of the failure to engage with Pakistan and insurgents on Pakistani soil, the building aspect is where they’re going to have to put a lot of their money. I think they’re going to be throwing money at the problem and hoping that they can create, you know, new roads, you know, beef up the Afghan ministries, the Ministry of Mines, the ministry of roads and housing. So we are seeing a major civilian surge. However, I visited the site of one road project in eastern Afghanistan where it’s–three years ago they began to build this 28 kilometer road at a contract of $10 million. Well, three years down the line, four U.S. reconstruction teams have come and gone, and they’ve spent $4 million, and only 1 kilometer of the road has been paved. Finally, the Americans,–

JAY: Why?

BENGALI: –they pulled the plug on the contract. They said, you know, we can’t throw any more money down the drain. And yet this very contractor who they’ve now tried to blackball from future work is involved in a handful of other major projects that the U.S. is funding: a major road between two provincial capitals in the East, other sort of minor roads within this province of Ghazni that I went to. It just goes to show that the partners we have out there are still just as problematic as they’ve always been. And so this surge of money and civilians is going to face the same, you know, major uphill struggle they faced since 2001.

JAY: Now, just finally, do you get some sense of what urban Afghans want? I mean, rural Afghans, from my experience when I was there and as I follow it, are kind of mixed feelings about all of this, but they’d rather have an end to the war, even if it means some form of the Taliban. They’re just sick of war, I think, if you talk to rural Afghans. But urban Afghans hated the Taliban. They must be a little bit more caught betwixt and between what they want to happen next. What did you find?

BENGALI: I think most people in Kabul want the Americans to stay on as long as they possibly can, frankly. You know, as you say, there’s a real divide. And Kabul has been a place where the war hasn’t really come in a major way. You know, you have the major example of Iraq, where Baghdad was a battle zone from the early days of the civil war. You know, in Afghanistan, Kabul has been relatively exempt from the worst fighting. Now we’re seeing sporadic attacks on U.S. and Afghan targets, including some quite high-profile ones, and of course assassinations as well. But sort of, you know, perplexingly or sort of perversely, the U.S. presence serves as some sort of an insurance policy on the economy of Kabul. As long as–the feeling is that as long as American forces are there, it means that there’s going to be this whole cottage industry of foreign aid organizations and foreigners coming in with dollars to spend and euros to spend, and that’s going to have some sort of a calming effect on the Kabul economy. You know, once that money and those people leave, Kabul really believes that it’s going to be kind of–you know, it’s going to be open season on who controls the capital, and they really expect that civil war along ethnic lines could break out, you know, within moments of the Americans departing. So from the urban standpoint, even this current, very unsettled, and often violent situation is preferable to the free-for-all that might happen once that’s over.

JAY: And did you hear any kind of proposals on a way out of all this?

BENGALI: Well, the only proposals we keep hearing, you know, is this strategy I mentioned. You know, they’re going to keep the fighting up. They’re really going to–.

JAY: No, I don’t mean American proposals. I mean from Afghans.

BENGALI: Afghan–well, you know, they’re trying to build their infrastructure and their capacity. You know, they’re trying to build a government almost from ground up. And there have been huge problems in the financial sector, as you know, a huge corruption scandal with the Kabul Bank and with the Azizi Bank, another–a major bank in the country. The mining sector is supposed to be the way that Afghans are going to finance this 400,000-strong security force in the future. That is now beginning to get off the ground, and many Afghans have high hopes, but it could be years before the money really begins to flow in from there. So, you know, they are really hoping that 2014 is not the redline date for American forces. You know, most Afghans have–still have a ten-year time horizon a decade into the war already.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Shashank.

BENGALI: Okay. My pleasure.

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

End of Transcript

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Shashank Bengali

Shashank Bengali reports for McClatchy from more than 25 countries and covered conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Georgia. Before moving to Africa in 2005, he was a roving correspondent for The Kansas City Star. Originally from the Los Angeles area, Shashank studied at the University of Southern California and at Harvard University, where he earned a Master's degree in public policy. He speaks French and broken Kiswahili.