Contextual Content

The Pak-Afghan riddle

The Real News Network Analyst Pepe Escobar talks to Professor Barnett R. Rubin of New York University, a leading expert on Afghanistan, about the relationships between the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Taliban and NATO.

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Story Transcript

PEPE ESCOBAR, SENIOR ANALYST: Professor Rubin, what is NATO’s mission in Afghanistan? I went to Brussels and I asked that to the Europeans, and I got 27 bewildered countries saying, "We don’t know. We were misled by the Bush administration."

PROF. BARNETT RUBIN, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY: Well, if the NATO member countries told you that they don’t know what it is, then obviously it’s quite unclear. What is clear is that NATO is now in charge of, has the command of, the International Security Assistance Force. The International Security Assistance Force is a body, which was set up under a UN mandate, under a Security Council mandate, pursuant to the Bonn Agreement of 2001, which is the agreement about forming a successor government to the Taliban. And that provided for the multinational force, with Security Council authorization, to go to Afghanistan to help the government provide security and to help train new Afghan security forces. And originally the mandate of that security force was solely in and around Kabul, which was a compromise, because the Afghans and the UN actually wanted it to expand to the rest of the country, but the US Department of Defense didn’t because they it thought it would conflict with its military mission. At the beginning, ISAF was like—it’s not a peacekeeping mission, technically, ’cause it’s not commanded by the UN, but it was operating to provide security, and it was not a war-fighting mission. What then happened was, first, it expanded, it finally did expand to the provinces, and I think this is because the military commanders in Afghanistan, the US military commanders, told Donald Rumsfeld that, in fact, just war-fighting was not going to bring security to Afghanistan. You know, they needed development and extending governance, and that requires some security presence. And yet the US was, at that time—this was right after the invasion of Iraq. You know, the US troops were tied up in Iraq, so, therefore, they had no choice but to authorize the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force, and previously it had been under a different national command every six months, so every six months they had to scramble and find somebody, and there was no continuity. So by having NATO come in, you have an institutional command structure. You can still rotate different units through, but you have an institutional command structure. Then, as it started to expand around the country, what happened in a way is what happened to the whole operation, that is, an operation which was really set up to be a post-conflict operation and a peace-building operation with some military activity still at the margins to provide security to deal with what was then called the remnants of Taliban. So they expanded. But it kept expanding with the same structure while the war returned. So the problem with NATO in Afghanistan in a way is a part of a larger problem, which is the problem of trying to implement what is essentially a post-conflict operation while the conflict is escalating. But it turned into a war-fighting function because of the change in the situation. Now, when you say that the countries and NATO say they were deceived by the Bush administration, I don’t know what they were referring to, but not because I can’t imagine they were deceived, because there are several questions about which they could have been deceived. But one issue that I have heard about is that before sending their troops in particular to southern and eastern Afghanistan, the British, the Canadians, and the Dutch especially had expressed concerns to the United States about infiltration coming from Pakistan, and the fact that the Taliban had their bases and leadership and so on in Pakistan and appeared to operate with impunity there. And apparently, according to Ahmed Rashid, for instance, in his recent book Descent into Chaos, the United States assured all of these countries that it would take care of any problems with Pakistan. But it turned out that the problem with Pakistan was a lot bigger and more serious than the United States was willing to admit at that time.

ESCOBAR: Senator Obama has been referring to the Afghan war as the good war, in opposition to the bad war, which is in Iraq. What’s good about everything that you’re telling in Afghanistan?

BARNET: I don’t think he has actually used those terms. I think what he has said is that the war in Afghanistan—.

ESCOBAR: The righteous war in Afghanistan.

BARNET: Well, in other words, the reason he says that—and I think this is a view that is shared by a lot of Americans, and it’s also actually kind of the predominant international view—is that the United States had a legitimate right of self-defense to try to destroy the organization that had attacked it, which was al-Qaeda, which was based in Afghanistan, and, in other words, to wage war under the right of self-defense in Afghanistan, and that it needed to do so, because al-Qaeda—not just in its own interest: al-Qaeda poses a threat to the region, to the Afghan people by the way as well, and to many other countries; whereas in Iraq there actually was no legitimate casus belli.

ESCOBAR: How come nobody saw it coming, the resurgence of the Taliban and the neo-Taliban’s base in the Pakistani tribal areas?

BARNET: I don’t know that it’s accurate to say that nobody saw it coming.

ESCOBAR: They’re running rings around NATO this spring and summer.

BARNET: Of course NATO did not see it coming. The US government did not see it coming.

ESCOBAR: Exactly. [inaudible] I’m referring to.

BARNET: That’s true. And I think that is because they essentially didn’t understand the regional situation, and they seemed—. I’ll just talk about the United States, you know, the Bush administration. They were just focused on al-Qaeda and the terrorist threat. They had a very superficial analysis of Pakistan—not everybody in the government, of course. There are many professional people in the government who understand the situation. But as far as the top leadership was concerned, they had a relationship with President Musharraf, and President Musharraf was willing to use his security forces to arrest Arabs from al-Qaeda who came into Pakistan from time to time. And they really put all of their analytical resources into dealing with Iraq, and put Afghanistan kind of on autopilot, and didn’t recognize, first of all, that just having an election in Afghanistan was far from sufficient to stabilize the country, you know, just defeating the previous government and having an election. There were all kinds of governance issues, which prevented the government from really controlling the territory. And second, that Pakistan still really did not consider the Taliban to be an enemy the way that the United States did. In fact, the Pakistan military considered the Taliban to be a resource for the security of Pakistan.

ESCOBAR: Strategic depth.

BARNET: Yeah, first. And sometimes they say they don’t believe in strategic depth anymore. In other words, they’re not thinking of being able to drive their tanks into Afghanistan in case India invades, but as counter-measures against an Indian presence in Afghanistan, and also to assure that the United States continues to need Pakistan for something in order to maintain their military supply relationship, which is essential to their defense against India.

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