Obama’s Afghan plan
Roy Gutman, Foreign Editor of McClatchy Newspapers says Obama’s announcement last week of his strategy in Afghanistan is unprecedented and is a "very good start." He says the problem has been that, "the United States has not had an integrated strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan."
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you from the McClatchy newspaper office in Washington, DC. Last week, President Obama announced his plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here’s part of what he had to say.
BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you.
JAY: Joining us to assess the Obama plans is Roy Gutman. He’s McClatchy Newspapers’ foreign editor. He was the diplomatic correspondent for Newsweek. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage in the 1993 Bosnia-Herzegovina War. His recent book about Afghanistan in the 1990s is called How We Missed the Story. He joins us today to discuss this Obama plan. Thank you.
ROY GUTMAN, FOREIGN EDITOR, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: Nice to be here.
JAY: So how do you assess the plan? Does he have a plan that’s going to make some sense of Afghanistan and Pakistan?
GUTMAN: Well, we don’t know everything about it, because it’s an outline at this stage, but it’s got the merit of being the first plan of its kind throughout modern history. In fact, even though the United States has been very involved in Afghanistan going back to 1979, they’ve never really had a strategy, and I think they have the makings of one now.
JAY: Well, certainly, there was one strategy, which to a large extent is the roots of the problem, which was the Brzezinski strategy of sucking the Russians into a war, and then I guess it’s part of a plan for the US to then walk away and leave Afghanistan in a civil war, which leads to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and so on. But in terms of a strategy in any recent sense of the word, I guess, is what you’re talking about.
GUTMAN: Well, and that’s the problem that you just outlined. The US approach that started in the Carter administration and was carried on by Ronald Reagan and blown into a huge, huge program was not a strategy at all; it was a tactical attempt to tie down the Russians and exhaust them. But there was no plan with regard to Afghanistan and its future. And so the walking away from Afghanistan, I don’t think that that was actually planned; it’s just that they had no plan. And the fact is that every war, however small, if you want it to end, has to end in a political settlement. And if the United States is involved in stoking the war, it should stick around and make sure that it achieves a settlement.
JAY: Isn’t part of the problem that Afghanistan, despite the rhetoric, is always seen either through a geopolitical-strategic prism or a military prism? The issue of the welfare of the Afghan people and the actual development of Afghan society gets a little bit of lip service once in awhile. Like, President Bush, after the 2001 attack or invasion of Afghanistan, talked about something like a Marshall Plan, I think once or twice, and then the phrase disappeared, and then we certainly saw nothing like a Marshall Plan.
GUTMAN: Well, that’s the problem, that in general people treat Afghanistan as a platform for attacking other problems, and they forget that there’s 24 million people there, that it’s a real country, real people. It’s landlocked, it’s poor, but it’s in the heart of Asia and it’s surrounded by countries that are not an awful lot more stable than it is. And if you encourage the use of Afghanistan for attacking either the Russians or, in the more recent case, the al-Qaeda people and the militants who fled, the Taliban who fled into Pakistan, but you ignore Afghanistan itself, if you don’t put it at the center of things, then things are going to get worse.
JAY: Aren’t you concerned that President Obama’s doing exactly the same thing? And let me play you a couple of clips that illustrate what I’m talking about, because perhaps President Bush wasn’t the only one who raised the flag of a Marshall Plan and then kind of forgot about it. Here’s the two clips.
OBAMA: Moreover, lasting security will only come if we heed General Marshall’s lesson and help Afghans grow their economy from the bottom up. That’s why I’ve proposed an additional $1 billion in non-military assistance each year, with meaningful safeguards to prevent corruption and to make sure investments are made not just in Kabul but out in Afghanistan’s provinces. As a part of this program, we’ll invest in alternative livelihoods to poppy-growing for Afghan farmers just as we crack down on heroin trafficking. We cannot lose Afghanistan to a future of narcoterrorism. The Afghan people must know that our commitment to their future is enduring.
JAY: That quote was on July 15, 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president. Here’s what he had to say last week during his policy announcement.
OBAMA: So, to advance security opportunity and justice, not just in Kabul but from the bottom up in the provinces, we need agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers. That’s how we can help the Afghan government serve its people and develop an economy that isn’t dominated by elicit drugs. And that’s why I’m ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground.
JAY: It seems to me there’s a long way from a Marshall-like plan and $1 billion a year of investment to build the Afghan economy from the bottom up to more investment in some American expertise on the ground. The whole idea of a Marshall Plan and rebuilding Afghanistan seems to be off the table.
GUTMAN: Well, I think the term "Marshall Plan" is used to the hilt by politicians all the time whenever there’s a problem with a country out there. And the original Marshall Plan, let’s remember, applied to very developed countries who have had a terrible war. Afghanistan’s one of the least developed countries on earth, one of the poorest, and it’s had one of the longest wars. It’s really gone on since 1979, which is 30 full years. So exactly what you do in that situation, it’s a tough call, because there isn’t that much there to start with. They desperately need infrastructure; they desperately do need training; they need better links between the towns; they need safety and security. Putting a dollar figure on it may not be the end of the game, and it may not actually tell you that much.
JAY: But in his announcement last week he did put a dollar figure on Pakistan. He said there’d be a $1.5 billion a year investment in the Pakistani tribal areas. But why the distinction $1.5 billion a year in Pakistan and some expertise in Afghanistan, as opposed to what he said before, $1 billion a year?
GUTMAN: Well, as I said before, this is an outline of a strategy; it is not actually the details of the strategy. We don’t know precisely. A lot of money has been thrown into Afghanistan over the last seven years, and quite where it’s gone is a very interesting question.
JAY: Most of the American money’s gone into American military operations.
GUTMAN: Yeah, but a lot is going into development as well, and there are huge pledges outstanding from many, many countries who have not delivered on them. So it’s a more complex picture than just simply a matter of $1 billion making all the difference. It wouldn’t be enough, you know, for a very long time to—maybe $1 billion a month, if it was well spent.
JAY: But from what you said earlier, putting Afghanistan at the center, like, the objective here, he said, is very clear and focused, to use his words. And the objective is stop al-Qaeda from using this place as a base. The objective is not the development of Afghanistan; he just says you have to do some, it seems, have more specialists there.
GUTMAN: I think that’s the subtlety of his message, in fact. He has put al-Qaeda at the very top of the list of threats there. But, as a matter of fact, the collapse of the Afghan government—and he mentions that, the fear of the collapse—is really the biggest fear, because right now al-Qaeda and the Taliban and other extremists have a base in the tribal area of Pakistan. But were the Afghan government to fall, then they would have all of Afghanistan once again, and that’s a big country with a lot of space. So it may be that he’s not actually saying it, but the essence of preventing that from happening means you must develop Afghanistan.
JAY: But he spends a lot more time talking about developing the Afghan army, Afghan police force. That’s where, in most of the plan about Afghanistan, he spends most of his time. The paragraph that we just played for you, the clip, is all there is in terms of social development.
GUTMAN: Yeah. You know, you cannot really sell the American public on a program for Afghanistan and get very far, because for most Americans it is nowhere and it’s not going to ever matter to us. The truth of it is it really does matter and it is somewhere, but it’s just one of these things. People have—you know, their eyes glaze over when you speak about Afghanistan. But it just so happens it’s one of those places that really and truly matters.
JAY: Well, it’s interesting. President Bush helped justify the war in Afghanistan ’cause he was going to go there to save Afghan women and girls.
GUTMAN: Yeah. Well, that was part of the BS of the Bush administration. He also said they were going to turn it into a modern democracy and a modern state, things that were vastly beyond anything that Bush actually intended to do or was doing.
JAY: If there isn’t major investment in the Afghan economy, Afghan schools, education, and infrastructure, do you think any military solution is possible?
GUTMAN: Well, no military solution is ever possible. I mean, military solutions are fixes, but they do not stabilize the situation, and you’ve got to have a political view, at the end of the day, based on the support of the public, and a security system which can stabilize it. Right now you don’t have any of those things. But, again, the Obama speech and the Obama policy now is to search for a settlement that will in fact bring in the Taliban. But there’s no way to have a stable Afghanistan without the education, without the commerce, without the basic industry that they need. But the point is, by setting the goals as he did, he actually allows all these other things to happen as subsets of those goals. In other words, it does not exclude development by any means. I just don’t think that the details of the development plan are just not relevant.
JAY: Well, I guess when we see it we’ll assess it. As I said, at the moment when you assess the speech, there’s a lot more in detail about development in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It looks [like] once again Afghanistan will be a staging area for Pakistan.
GUTMAN: But let’s look at the reason for this. The tribal areas of Pakistan are undeveloped. They get very, very little government money. They are rough areas at the best of times. They don’t have schools; they don’t have roads for the most part; they don’t have institutions; they don’t have courts. It’s a holdover from the 19th century that desperately needs to be improved on. And under the Bush administration, they were putting all the money, basically, into the Pakistan army and not into the development of these areas. So I think that what Obama is doing is actually getting to the heart of the problem. The tribal areas, that kind of place is a place that hosts radicals very readily, because the government doesn’t have any writ or any control or anything to offer them. So the US, in getting into the development business in this area, actually is allowing for the first time, in a way, structures to maybe develop, around which people can switch their loyalties to a government, as opposed to the radicals who now hold sway.
JAY: One would think the same argument would apply to Afghanistan. And, again, I guess we’ll see.
GUTMAN: Well, it does, but what you can’t forget is that there are hundreds of non-governmental organizations that are now spending taxpayers’ money on multiple projects there, most of which have not borne much fruit, and the big reason is because there has been almost no coordination from the side of the American government, no coordination among the groups as to what they’re doing, and almost no coordination or limited coordination between the military’s goals and the goals of security and the goals of development.
JAY: Yeah. The United Nations complains about that all the time. In fact, I’ve interviewed you and people in Afghanistan who say the Americans have simply not been interested in reconstruction. They say, "That’s your problem, UN," or sometimes they say, "That’s your problem, NATO," and "We’re here to fight Taliban." And that reconstruction’s been far down the list of the US agenda there.
GUTMAN: And that’s exactly the problem, that the United States has not had an integrated strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan and for stabilizing Pakistan. I don’t think that what Obama has stated this past week actually is going to convince a lot of people that it’s the whole story, ’cause it’s not. But so far the reactions from the leaders of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a lot of informal opinion as well, is that Obama’s made a very good start. Look, as I say, it’s the first strategy that the United States has ever had, in the sense that it’s followed a six-month review, they’ve gone back and forth, they’ve looked at their priorities, they’ve looked at their money, they’ve looked at their goals, and they’ve called it a strategy—first time in 30 years. So it’s a start.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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