THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 3, 2009
A presidential election marred by allegations of fraud, rising casualties of American soldiers, even a few disturbing discoveries about the civilians hired to guard our embassy there--we figured it was about time to talk to terrorism expert Peter Bergen, who was in Afghanistan last month, to get his take on the situation there and what it will take to improve it.
TNR: What is your sense of the election’s validity?
Bergen: Of course there was fraud--the question is one of scale. I was there for the 2004 election and there were claims of fraud at that time. These claims seem to be much more serious and to have greater credence. How much fraud has there been? That’s just an impossible question to answer.
What do you think will be the impact of the fraud? Do you see any chance of a Green Revolution-style uprising?
That depends to some degree on what Dr. Abdullah chooses to do. I don’t think by nature he’s somebody who would be interested in forming a Tajik revolutionary movement. He’s a rather careful guy. But you could imagine a situation where a lot of Tajiks who voted for Dr. Abdullah feel like their votes have been invalidated by fraud. You can imagine that being a problem.
The “get out of Afghanistan” refrain is becoming more popular here in the States. What are some of the things that need to be done before that can happen?
One would be securing the Kabul to Kandahar road, which is the most important road in the country both symbolically and economically. Right now it would be a suicidal trip for anyone reading this to go down that without substantial security. If you can’t drive the most important road in the country, that says a lot about what’s happening.
The second thing is to roll back the Taliban around Kabul. The Taliban have not encircled Kabul, but they have substantial presences in areas around Kabul, and if you could roll that back, I think it could be a psychological victory.
Tied to that would be reducing the percentage of the country at high risk of attack. Right now, according to a map I obtained for CNN, 40 percent of the country geographically is at risk for Talban attack. If in nine months time the number was down to 30 percent, that could also be something that’s achievable.
We should change one of our benchmarks: acres of poppy eradicated should be acres of other crops planted. And if other crops started going up, that would be another final metric.
Do you think continuing a counter-insurgency strategy is the right way to go? Do you think there’s merit to pursuing a light footprint method?
We’ve already tried the light footprint method, and it’s been found to be wanting. Politically, it’s going to be very hard for Obama to send larger amounts of soldiers. But I don’t think it matters as much as what kinds of soldiers are sent. Competent military advisors are more important than just sending ‘X’ number more troops. Building up the Afghan National Army is critically important and having the right military advisors is more important than just numbers of new troops.
Some reports have indicated that the civilian surge led by the State Department, USAID, and the Department of Agriculture is moving too slowly. What’s your sense of this?
It’s not easy to get qualified civilians to go live in Afghanistan. Everybody agrees that there should be a civilian surge, but where are the civilians who are going to do this? There don’t seem to be very many of them, unfortunately. It’s tragic, but it’s a fact.
The number of Department of Agriculture employees in Afghanistan historically has been a handful. Holbrooke and Tom Vilsack are going to change that situation. There’s a belatedly welcome recognition that this is very important. What’s a great shame is the decades of chipping away at USAID--we’re reaping past policies.
The civilian surge is necessary, but you can’t force people to do things they don’t want to do. You can tell people in the military to go even if they don’t want to go.
What do you think of McChrystal’s comments that it will be difficult but “success is achievable”?
I think that’s correct. This was the least resourced post-WWII reconstruction action the United States has taken, at least in the first few years, and was also the least-resourced in terms of who was on the ground. You get what you pay for, and here we are.
I think now with more presidential attention, more resources, more focus, and very smart people in charge of the policy, this has a fighting chance of success.