In Conversation with Vali Nasr

By Razeshta Sethna


Intelligence estimates predict that advances made by American forces since the 2010 troop surge in Afghanistan will be rolled back by 2017, even if Kabul and Washington sign the Bilateral Security Agreement maintaining an international military contingent and guaranteeing aid after next year. They predict that the Taliban and regional warlords will become major players and Afghanistan will descend into chaos. Military analysts, on the other hand, explain that a strengthened and supported Afghan National Army could be equipped to control security in certain provinces with low-level insurgencies.

Critiquing U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan, Vali Nasr, former senior advisor with the U.S. State Department (2009-2011), explains in his new book that there was never a grand strategy for Afghanistan, with the military supporting counterinsurgency strategies and the State Department wanting to give diplomacy a chance.

Nasr, having worked closely with the U.S. Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the late Richard Holbrooke, explains in The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat that Holbrooke had argued for reconciliation in Afghanistan from the start but was unable to influence American policy in 2009 because talking to the Taliban was “taboo.”

Currently, dean and professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Nasr is of the view that American foreign policy is in retreat as the U.S. wants to play a lesser global role, explaining that “there would have been many wars in the Middle East and Asia, if there hadn’t been American intervention to prevent potential escalations.” Here are excerpts of our recent interview with Nasr:

As a member of the foreign-policy establishment during the Obama administration’s first two years, what were the U.S. policies in dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan?

In the early phase, the Afghanistan war became the single most important foreign policy issue and a big campaign issue. The question at the time was how to undo the [George W.] Bush administration’s reliance on wars and bring U.S. troops home. The objective of the Obama administration was to defeat Al Qaeda, deal with the Taliban insurgency and then get out [of Afghanistan]. But Ambassador Holbrooke saw the problem of the Taliban as one that crossed the borders of both Afghanistan and Pakistan: we cannot fix Afghanistan without fixing Pakistan and that meant Pakistan very early on featured as part of the discussion on the war on Afghanistan. Pakistan was placed with Afghanistan in a single bureau.

You worked with Holbrooke who advised the White House to look for a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war. Why did the Obama administration opt for the counterinsurgency strategy?

Initially, an attempt to defeat the Taliban using the Iraq model of counterinsurgency became the war strategy, although some like Vice President Joe Biden believed that we came to Afghanistan to defeat Al Qaeda, and Holbrooke’s view was that in the end we won’t be able to defeat [the Taliban] and we should negotiate while we had troops on the ground. Both options were not considered. In the end, it was the military option that won because it was said that COIN worked in Iraq and domestic political pressure not to disagree with the war meant the decision was made to surge troops. The Obama administration went from winning this war to abandoning the region because they were neither committed to the counterinsurgency nor to winning the war. The U.S. is leaving Afghanistan with neither victory nor a political settlement.

How would you evaluate the dealings between America and Pakistan at the height of the war? As this relationship remains unstable, is America sufficiently interested in maintaining a partnership as it withdraws from Afghanistan?

The Afghanistan war put the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in the limelight and Holbrooke’s thinking at the time was, because Pakistan’s strategy was at odds with the U.S., to give the Pakistanis new sets of interests that could countervail its own interests, distract Pakistan from the intelligence relationship [with America] and change the dynamic of the relationship through economic engagement. America, he had advised, should build a strategic dialogue with Pakistan and talk about water, energy and social and economic issues, which is what began when Holbrooke was alive. The U.S. military and intelligence were not of the view of investing in relations and wanted to force Pakistan to change its strategy. [This was followed by] continuous disengagement resulting in a suspension of the strategic dialogue and Pakistan under pressure [to “do more”] didn’t work, which means now there is a minimal relationship. Intense dialogue existed until 2011 but when things broke down on Salala it showed how attitudes on both sides differed. The two came close to battle with one another. That’s how far apart they were. Between 2009 and 2011, Pakistan was given enormous importance, but the Pakistani military and public opinion were not comfortable being asked what they were doing on extremism. There is a wide perspective that the U.S. failed in Afghanistan because Pakistan supported the Taliban without which the insurgency could have collapsed. Americans don’t have the same interests in Pakistan and came away from the Afghan war bitter. Ultimately there is that resentment among academics, for instance, largely because Pakistan’s foreign policy was not against the Taliban. The relationship demands repair and both sides must focus on changing images. When America decided to leave the region, it didn’t need Pakistan. Afghanistan is fading from the headlines and securing South Asia is not on the front burner of U.S. foreign policy as it was in 2009, unless Karzai creates a huge spectacle. Afghanistan is on page 15 of a newspaper. We are no longer attached with a live crisis that keeps the Secretary of State up at night.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, did Pakistan pull the wool over America’s eyes?

The Obama administration came to the table with eyes wide open that the ISI was helping the Taliban. We are going to call a spade a spade [they had said], and a tough-guy approach to Pakistan is needed. The back and forth between the State Department—that wanted to save the relationship—and the Pentagon that wanted a confrontational approach meant that U.S. strategy toward Pakistan operated on two tracks.

What are some of the perceptions about Pakistan that the U.S. must reconsider?

The U.S. must focus on economics not just on security [matters with Pakistan]. Pakistan has tremendous potential with its open business environment, entrepreneurial culture, geostrategic location and a growing middle class. Why should it be kept back? Every country is influenced by another, but the country and its people need to decide. Does Pakistan want to be South Korea or North Korea? Outsiders cannot push and punish you because it is a decision that the intellectual elite, government and military must make to change protection [afforded to extremists and] to grow economically.

After the drawdown, what significant challenges are likely to emerge for the region?

The two countries that matter most to the future of Afghanistan are Pakistan and Iran. At the end of the day, America will leave this region like it left Iraq. The key question is: Will the Afghan government survive? There will be a degree of instability with a decreased amount of economic injection of resources. There is potential for civil war and political turbulence if the Kabul government collapses. Since 2001, Afghan politics has operated in a particular framework, with a large number of foreign troops and an ongoing insurgency. You take the military factor out and the aid out, then it’s like you have taken off the training wheels of a bicycle. We don’t know how it will go: 1989 is also one reference point, but the Taliban have also undergone changes. And the internal structure of Pakistan is also shifting. There needs to be a national decision in Pakistan to shut down internal extremist groups.

What happens if Karzai refuses to sign the BSA?

Karzai understands that America is leaving, so he will leverage as many concessions before he signs and that’s one scenario. Afghan history has never been kind to anyone who signs so he will [find a way] to use signing to influence domestic policies. America didn’t go into Afghanistan to build the country, but to deal with a security issue. Afghanistan is a fluid situation and a lot is at stake.


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