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Can the U.S. Withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq?
December 9, 2009
Ivan Eland, Peter Galbraith, Charles V. Peña


  • Dr. Ivan Eland, Senior Fellow and Director, Center on Peace and Liberty, The Independent Institute
  • Peter Galbraith, Former Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to Afghanistan and Assistant Secretary-General of the U.N.; former Ambassador to Croatia
  • Charles Peña, Senior Fellow, The Independent Institute

Ivan Eland

Let’s get started. Our third speaker, Peter Galbraith, is on the way. His flight was a little late, and he says he’s about five minutes away. I told him we’d start the program, and he can just come in. He won’t be speaking first anyway. He should be here in a couple of minutes, but I think we ought to go ahead and get started. We don’t want to start too late. Welcome to the Independent Institute’s policy forum on Iraq and Afghanistan. You undoubtedly will hear a different point of view from the Democratic administration or the Republican opposition here today. Our panel today consists of Peter Galbraith, a former Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General of the U.S. to Afghanistan and former assistant secretary general of the U.N. Also, he is the former ambassador to Croatia. That’s a lot of titles. Chuck Peña, who is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and myself, and I’m Ivan Eland the Institute’s director of the Center on Peace and Liberty. I’ll also speak first because I’m standing up here, and I’ll moderate the question and answer so you’ll be seeing a lot of me, maybe too much. After the program is finished, everybody is welcome to stay for the informal lunch, which we’ll have right in this room.

Now, of course, what prompted this forum was that the President recently gave a John Kerry-like speech last Tuesday that essentially said we will escalate the war before we deescalate it, and the President, who was against a surge in Iraq, is now imitating that same surge in Afghanistan. The plan seems to be surge, stabilize the cities, and win time to train the Afghan security forces. The hidden message there is we’re going to contain but not defeat the Taliban.

Now, the President’s Afghan plan has some problems as I see it. Number one, he is assuming that the surge in Iraq worked, which everybody seems to think happened or at least many people do, and that this same type of surge can be duplicated in Afghanistan. Now, of course, it was this surge that is perceived to have stabilized Iraq. Yet a similar surge of a similar number of troops during 2005 didn’t quell Iraqi violence at all. The U.S. military doesn’t like to admit that it simply paid the Sunni tribes to change sides and that this was the real factor and main reason for the reduction in violence in Iraq, which I believe will be temporary. Of course, there was also the fact that there was so much ethnic cleansing that the warring ethno-sectarian factions were separated.

Now, my prediction in Iraq is that the violence will return. There have been periodic large multiple bombings like yesterday that indicate that all is not well. Now, the strategy in the short term was a good one, paying off the Sunni Awakening, which successfully divided the opposition and got the awakening to attack Al Qaeda instead of the United States. Now, this same strategy of dividing the opposition has actually worked before to win counterinsurgency campaigns. Now, there have been very few counterinsurgency campaigns that have been successful in the 20th century, but the defeat of the Philippine rebels after the Spanish-American War at the turn of the last century, the U.S.-backed Greek government’s defeat of the guerrillas in 1947 and the British defeat of the Chinese insurgency [in Malaya] in the 1950s all had the thing in common: they split the opposition. However, in Iraq the ethno-sectarian fissures are still great, and I don’t think the show is over yet. In my book Partitioning for Peace, which is on what to do about Iraq, I go through some of the other ethno-sectarian conflicts in world history and find that violence sometimes ebbs but usually always returns unless the underlying issues have been resolved, which they haven’t in Iraq. They don’t have an oil law, which is their bread-and-butter commodity, so you can see the level of disagreement in the society, and of course they’ve struggled even to get a date for the election. That didn’t happen until recently.

Now, even if the surge had been the deciding factor in the reduction of Iraqi violence, the question is can you transplant that to Afghanistan? Afghanistan is a much different country and a much harder fight to win. Here are some of the reasons: The Taliban has a more zealous insurgency than Iraq. Afghanistan is a bigger country, has more people than Iraq, and there are fewer forces there. According to the U.S. military’s own rules of counterinsurgency warfare, the U.S. would have to have nearly 600,000 troops in Afghanistan to be effective. Now, of course that’s a rule of thumb, but the basic principle is that we’re way under that and there’s no hope that we’ll ever get up that high. So, I think we see the daunting task ahead. Iraq is flat. Afghanistan is mountainous, of course, making it much easier for the guerrillas. Unlike Iraq, the Afghan Taliban have a sanctuary in Pakistan, which is supposedly our ally, but which only goes after the Pakistani Taliban and not the Afghan Taliban. Now, the Afghan Taliban is always useful to the Pakistani government to counter the Indian influence in Afghanistan, especially when the U.S. is likely to leave as the President signaled his intention to at least start pulling out troops by 2011. So that was I think a message to elements of the Pakistani military that they should keep supporting the Afghan Taliban. Now, in Iraq the insurgency was primarily urban whereas in Afghanistan it’s rural. Because of the war, the civil war, and the assassinations, in addition, the tribal leadership is weaker in Afghanistan than in Iraq and there is no Awakening Movement in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are Afghans who for the most part don’t target civilians where as Al Qaeda in Iraq is led by foreigners and does purposefully attack civilians to stir up ethno-sectarian hatred. That, of course, has alienated many Sunnis in Iraq, and of course in Afghanistan we have the corrupt Karzai government who stole the election and rules only Kabul so much of Afghanistan is effectively run by the Taliban. In addition, we’ve had eight years where the U.S. has oscillated between a kinetic counter-terrorism strategy and a counter-insurgency strategy that tries to protect people, and we’ve seen the last oscillation of that. This happened during the Bush administration, and now it’s happening again in the Obama administration that we’re moving back to a counter-insurgency strategy.

Now, besides Afghanistan being a much harder nut to crack than Iraq, we now have a lot of domestic factors affecting U.S. policy. The American public is war weary after two wars stretched out over many years, and I think it’s politically perilous for any politician in a democracy to escalate a war that is already unpopular. Even LBJ didn’t do that when he escalated the Vietnam War. U.S. spending in Afghanistan is more per year than any other military spends on the planet so we’re dumping a lot of resources into Afghanistan. The Afghan war is expected to cost another trillion dollars over the next ten years, and of course we’re still racking up the bills in Iraq.

At the same time, the U.S. is running a trillion-dollar annual budget deficit per year during a recession, will probably undertake an expensive healthcare program that will cost between $1 trillion and $2.5 trillion over ten years, and not to mention the massive solvency problem looming over the Social Security and Medicare systems coming down the road. It is really questionable whether the U.S. can afford to fight two wars simultaneously under these revised circumstances.

Now, the U.S. military has backhandedly admitted that it can’t win in Afghanistan but hopes the surge will allow it to “disrupt and degrade” the Taliban, which really means containing the Taliban in urban areas until the Afghan security forces are up to speed. But, of course, all of the surge troops will not be in place until the fall of next year giving them only nine short months until the withdrawal supposedly begins. The Afghan forces are small, corrupt, incompetent, and drug ravaged, and it will take much longer than even the five years that Karzai has specified for them to be able to secure the country by themselves. The problem in Afghanistan contrary to what people believe is that you can’t conquer Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been conquered many times. The problem is subduing it and controlling it, which it rarely has been. I think you have to go probably back to the Persian Cyrus to find anyone who has actually controlled Afghanistan, and one of the reasons for that is there are disparate groups living spread out. It’s very difficult to control this type of a collection of different people. Now, of course, we’re only going to train 240,000 Afghans instead of the 400,000 that McCrystal proposed, and the more U.S. troops we put in there the less incentive the Afghans have to train forces themselves.

Now, it’s not clear to me what stabilizing urban areas will do for the fight against Al Qaeda since any training camps would probably be in the Taliban-controlled countryside anyway. You don’t usually put a big training camp in the middle of downtown somewhere.

Now, I’ve painted an awful portrait of Afghanistan and predicted that Iraq will again erupt into civil strife when the U.S. begins to pull out. What should the U.S. do in each conflict? In my view, in Iraq the U.S. should sponsor a national conclave and try to decentralize Iraq even further into a loose confederation of very autonomous regions. With Iraq’s history of one group’s controlling the central government and using it to oppress the other groups, the central government should be made so that the ethno-sectarian groups don’t fight over controlling it. Most government functions including security, the judicial systems and social services could be in the newly created ethno-sectarian regions, and those regions should not follow the provincial boundaries of Iraq that it has now. This would allow people to be policed and judged by people in their own group. The central government would only be allowed to create an open market among the various regions and do representation over seas. Now, of course, some oil revenue or oil sharing agreement would have to be hammered out to get the Sunnis to accept the devolution of power to the regions. You might have to even move the boundaries around oil fields, etcetera, but an imminent U.S. withdrawal, which we don’t have yet, might just catalyze the end of a stalemate on the oil law.

Now, contrary to conventional wisdom, my research shows that if countries are partitioned the regional boundaries don’t have to perfectly go along ethno-sectarian lines. To avoid ethno-sectarian violence, you just have to avoid a large minority on the wrong side of the line, which threatens the majority. For example, in Kosovo the Serbs still represent a little less than 10 percent of the population, and there really hasn’t been that much violence against them since Kosovo became independent because their numbers don’t threaten the Albanian majority. That’s one example.

Now, although the U.S. should try to negotiate such a decentralization to a loose confederation on its way out, if the Iraqis don’t want to do this, that’s fine, but I think the U.S. should pull out anyway because I think this will be Iraq’s last hope of more ethno-sectarian violence. Certainly Bush’s arming and training of the Sunni Awakening was a good short-term strategy to reduce the violence, but in the long term it may make the civil war more intense because there will be a third side armed. The U.S. already armed the Shiite and the Kurds and trained those forces.

Now, contrary to conventional wisdom and in spite of its oil, Iraq is not really strategic to U.S. interests. This is a subject that we really can’t get into too much in this seminar, but I don’t really believe that we need to defend oil with armed forces because the market will deliver the oil. That is the subject of my next book.

Now, as for Afghanistan, and I know most people are interested in Afghanistan because it’s the war of the weak, we forgot about Afghanistan while we were doing all of this stuff in Iraq, and now that the violence in Iraq has lessened, our short attention span is back to Afghanistan. Now, I think that the U.S. should also get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. It seems as if Obama in this speech is giving it one last college try before the withdrawal begins, but the question remains whether the U.S. security bureaucracies can convince him to stay longer. They always seem to make arguments that he can’t refuse to stay longer when U.S. forces get involved.

I think that the U.S. needs to realize that Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan. Now, there is some vague awareness of that in this administration, especially on the part of the White House staff and the vice president. Yet for right now I think they’ve lost the internal battle. Obama seems to have been persuaded that the U.S. escalation in Afghanistan was needed to convince the Pakistani government to fight the Taliban, but Pakistan has its own incentives to fight the Pakistani Taliban, an insurgency that aims to overthrow the Pakistani government but not the Afghanistan Taliban, which elements of the Pakistani military use to counter the Indian influence in Afghanistan. Of course, you can’t restructure Pakistan’s security priorities. India is a nuclear-armed power, and that’s Pakistan’s major enemy. Fighting terrorism I would say maybe even in their own country is secondary to Pakistan. It is certainly secondary in the mind of the Pakistani military.

Now, Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country that is being challenged with new militancy that is being fueled in my view by the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and attacks into Pakistan just as the presence has fueled the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. If you examine the timeline, the Taliban resurgence didn’t seem to begin until 2006. Now, in 2005 U.S. forces moved out of Kabul into the countryside. So, I think something similar is happening to what happened in the Soviet period where the more troops that the Soviets put in just created more Mujahideen fighters against them. Now, Obama has recently said that drone strikes outside the tribal areas and special forces raids to hit Afghan Taliban targets in Pakistan will be used or at least threatened if the Pakistanis don’t do something about it. I think this will drive Pakistan public opinion crazy, and of course I think these sorts of strikes should be limited to getting Al Qaeda with the lightest footprint that we can possibly have. Now, of course, Pakistan does provide or at least people think it provides shelter for Osama Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda central leadership. Somebody in the Pakistani military probably knows where he is, and the Pakistanis certainly avoid fighting the Afghan Taliban or trying to capture or kill its leaders. So, the Pakistanis have their own agenda, and I think one of the reason that Gates and Clinton were walking back Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in mid 2011, which of course is designed to prod Karzai to make reforms, was the realization that the Pakistani military if they know that the U.S. is going to leave would have no incentive not to accelerate the helping of the U.S. enemy, the Afghan Taliban, to forestall Indian influence. Now, of course, McCrystal said yesterday that this withdrawal date wasn’t important to his strategy, which basically blows the message to Karzai that we’ll be leaving so they’re sending sort of a muddled message.

Obama doesn’t necessarily have to say that the U.S. is going to withdraw because the Pakistanis have already experienced the U.S. inherent limited attention span, which we don’t ever really acknowledge too much in the United States, but which has happened time and time again. So, our chief ally in the region will probably continue supporting our chief enemy in the region, which is kind of a bizarre thing to have happen if you know what I mean, but that’s what is going on. The Taliban will not be defeated, and it will out wait the United States. What if the Taliban weren’t our enemy? What’s my solution to this problem? What I would say is that we need to distinguish between the Taliban, which is a local insurgency, and Al Qaeda, which is a worldwide terrorist group that is targeting the U.S. That’s a big difference because when you’re a guerrilla group you hold territory, and when you hold territory you can be deterred a lot more than you can be if you are a terrorist group and you can’t be threatened. We don’t want to repeat what we did in the Cold War, but that seems like what we’re doing. Remember when we thought that all Communists were the same? But then, oh, there were the Chinese Communists and then there were the Soviet Communists. Then there were, of course, Communists like Tito and those types of Communists, the Chinese and the Yugoslav Communists, which we sort of made friends with at least to some extent to prod our Soviet enemy. In fact, Richard Nixon made friends with the more radical Chinese in not an alliance but a loose alignment to counter the Soviets. We have to distinguish. All of these people aren’t the same, and a lot of the rhetoric even that we’re getting from the administration seems to think that they are.

What do we do? Well, I would try to buy off what Taliban you can as a way to minimize casualties and lower violence so that we can get out. You have to accept the eventual reality that the Taliban will help govern or govern Afghanistan. I would rely on the Afghan Taliban’s chief support of the Pakistani military to make sure that they don’t harbor Al Qaeda.

The Taliban should have learned its lesson that harboring Al Qaeda will bring the U.S. hammer down. Of course, we still have options. We could invade again although this time we wouldn’t remain. We could use the threat of periodic air strikes, something that any Taliban government would like to avoid if they’re trying to govern the country because they do hold territory and we can hold them accountable. If the Taliban plays ball with us and doesn’t harbor Al Qaeda, then we leave it alone.

Now, the British press has reported that in prior negotiations with the Taliban it recognized U.S. interest in not having Al Qaeda sheltering Afghanistan, and of course in the vast Taliban-controlled part of Afghanistan the Taliban hasn’t been harboring Al Qaeda in training camps, which gives some cause for hope. People do learn their lessons. When the Germans and the Japanese had their countries bombed into rubble, they changed sides. I’m not saying that the Taliban would necessarily do that, but certainly they may be much more pragmatic than we think.

Now, to give the Pakistanis an incentive to pressure any Taliban government not to harbor Al Qaeda we could offer to mediate what Pakistan wants most, and that is a resumption of the talks with its much more powerful rival, India. Now, if the Pakistanis do this and they also produce the Al Qaeda leadership the U.S. could even offer to pressure India to make a permanent peace with Pakistan. If Pakistan doesn’t play ball and doesn’t pressure the Afghan Taliban not to harbor Al Qaeda, the U.S. could simply re-align with India, end all bilateral aid to the Pakistanis and end all U.S. support for World Bank and IMF support for the sagging Pakistani economy. Also, I think the Pakistani insurgency will be attenuated when the U.S. leaves Afghanistan because what drives the Islamists crazy is non-Muslim occupation of Muslim soil, which of course is what the U.S. has been doing and the exact opposite of what we should have been doing after 9/11.

Finally, the Al Qaeda central leadership, of course, could move to Yemen or Somalia so Afghanistan is not any more important than the other countries as a potential shelter. Now, the administration just made the argument that winning in Afghanistan where the 9/11 attacks emanated from will embolden the Islamic militants and harm U.S. prestige. I think these are similar to some of the arguments that were made during the Vietnam War. If Vietnam went to the Communists, all of these bad things would happen, which never really happened. I think we can continue to use law enforcement intelligence, air strikes and special forces to contain Al Qaeda in any of those potential sanctuaries including Afghanistan and Pakistan if we have to, but containing the Taliban instead of just containing Al Qaeda actually makes the problem worse because you have the foreign occupation. I think we need to pressure Pakistan and get them to do what they can. Now, if they don’t do what we can, then we need to keep Al Qaeda contained with the least footprint available. Doing no harm should be the first U.S. objective, and I’m afraid we’re not doing that.

We actively encouraged Islamic militancy in the Cold War years as a bulwark against atheistic Communism, but we’re still doing that inadvertently by occupying Muslim soil. Bin Laden must be pleased by both Obama’s surge and Bush’s excursion into Iraq. I think we need a lighter touch and to concentrate on counterterrorism and drop the counterinsurgency and we’ll be much better off. Now, there’s no perfect solution, but that’s what I have in mind. We’ll go now to our second speaker, Peter Galbraith.

Peter Galbraith

Ivan, thank you for that presentation. I apologize for being a few minutes late—the vagaries of the shuttle in this weather, which in the northeast is less good than it is here. Let me just begin by picking up on the broader theme that you raised, which is the question that has intrigued me, I suppose, having worked in so many divided states and observed the policies that we follow. Almost invariably the United States has an extraordinary commitment to the continued existence of every state that exists. This was most prevalent in 1991 when George H. W. Bush did everything he could to hold the Soviet Union together including going to Kiev on the first of August of that year to warn the Ukrainians against nationalism, a speech that became known as the Chicken Kiev speech. It was an extraordinary commitment of U.S. prestige and diplomacy, at a time when it was just unrivaled in the world, to a cause that was totally hopeless, in which we actually had no interest because within the month Ukraine was independent. The same error was made with very tragic consequences in Yugoslavia. where James Baker went on the 21st of June, 1991, to warn the leaders of the six republics of the then Yugoslavia that if they broke up the country, those who broke away could expect no sympathy from the U.S. At that point in time, the people of Slovenia and Croatia had already voted overwhelmingly for independence. The leaders’—Tudgman in Croatia and Kuchan in Slovenia—whole being was about independence. The date was set for the 25th. Four days later, and of course they went ahead. It was not possible at that time or indeed many months in advance to have saved Yugoslavia, and there was no point in trying to save Yugoslavia. The world is not worse off, in fact I think it’s better off, that there’s no Soviet Union. It’s not worse off that there’s no Yugoslavia, but the tragedy of the Yugoslav situation was not the break up of the country but the violence. The violence was definitely preventable in the spring and early summer of 1991.

Holding Yugoslavia together was not a possibility, and we continue with this commitment to the unity of every state that exists so that, for example, in Iraq one of our major objectives, as stated by the second President Bush, was the unity of Iraq. Yet there is a part of the country, Kurdistan, in which every single person there, at least everyone that I’ve met—and this was also expressed in a referendum that was held at the time of the first Iraqi elections—favors independence. That includes those who hold prominent positions in the central government in Baghdad, and in a referendum that the Kurds held at the time of the January 30, 2005, elections they voted 98 percent for independence. It was obviously a non-binding referendum. Again, I would say that the interest that we have in Iraq is not in the unity of the country but in avoiding violence.

Now, there are obviously circumstances where the continuation of a state may also be related to avoiding violence, and to some degree that may be true in Iraq. Certainly, had Kurdistan declared itself independent in 2003 that would have produced a very violent reaction from Turkey, but as the situation has evolved in Turkey’s thinking, you had an extraordinary statement by General Kenan Evren who is the last military dictator of Turkey and staged the coup in 1980 as military men do and made himself president. He was the guy who launched the crackdown on the Kurds in southeast Turkey. This was a time when to describe the people of southeast Turkey as Kurds was illegal. They were Mountain Turks, but recently he said, “What is this business about an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq? Of course it exists. We have to get used to it, and incidentally it’s not a threat to Turkey.” Now, again I’m not saying if Kurdistan declared itself independent tomorrow that Turkey would be very enthusiastic about it, but there’s a clear evolution in that situation.

The other frame with which we discuss these problems is that we tend to describe the people of these areas by the state. The number of times that I heard the phrase “Yugoslavs” from people? I can assure you, I never met a Croat that ever accepted that he was a Yugoslav. Now, there were a few products of mixed marriages who described themselves of Yugoslavs. You’re not going to contradict me on that one. I’ve met some Serbs who would describe themselves that way but not so many, and a certain number of Bosnians, Muslims. But fundamentally this isn’t how they looked at it. This was really a construct that we had. We also referred to Soviets and Czechoslovaks, and we refer to Iraqis. Again, virtually every Kurd, if you call him an Iraqi he or she is offended. This sort of break describes how we view the country. I listened to you describing Iraq as flat. Well, that’s true for the part of Iraq that thinks of itself as Iraq, but if you look at the map that isn’t strictly speaking true.

Ivan Eland

It’s flatter than Afghanistan, right?

Peter Galbraith

Parts of Afghanistan are flat, and incidentally the flat parts, at least in the south, are where much of the problem is. If you then sort of stop at the filter of looking at existing states and also consider nationalities, it gives you a rather different picture. It shows why we were never going to lose the Iraq war in the sense that there was never going to be a moment—well, we were going to lose it if our objective was the unity of Iraq or a stable, peaceful, democratic, unified Iraq. But we weren’t going to lose it, and the picture that was painted by former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld who said, “Imagine what would happen if we pulled out and Al Qaeda would be taking over in Baghdad.” The image evoked was from Vietnam, the north Vietnamese tanks knocking down the open gates of the presidential palace in Saigon. That wasn’t going to happen in Iraq—simple demographics. Sixty percent of the population were Shiite, and they were in control of the army. It’s of course a Shiite army. There was no way that the Al Qaeda/Baathist insurgency was going to be able to defeat them, and the Kurds—who had certainly earlier, a few years ago, and maybe even still today the strongest military in Iraq—weren’t going to be defeated by the Al Qaeda element. There was obviously no support among the Shiites for Al Qaeda or the Salafis who view the Shiites as apostates and people who should be killed. There was virtually no support in Kurdistan, so really we’re talking about a problem that existed in about 20 percent of the population. Of course, the problem solved itself when the fundamentalist element, the local power structure, the Baathists, were very happy to have them come as long as they were joining in killing Americans. That was great. As long as they were killing Shiites, that was fine even if a big mass occurs of Shiite civilians. Then they began to shake down the sheikhs for money. They began to demand their daughters in forced marriages, and they began to kill the local tribal sheikhs. At that point these guys said, well, we’ve had enough, and they asked the Americans for money. They didn’t need to ask for weapons, and in a very short period of time they were able to defeat them. That, I think, is the situation in Iraq. I don’t know whether after U.S. withdrawal it will dissolve into violence. Actually, I think there’s a certain innate stability to what has happened precisely because Iraq does already have an extremely decentralized constitution in which it is a confederation. At least it’s a confederation between Arabs and Kurds, in which Kurdistan has all the trappings of an independent state including its own army, its own legislature, its own flag. Only recently when the Iraqi flag was redesigned did they allow it to fly there. Its own immigration—you need a visa to go to Iraq, but you don’t need a visa to go to Kurdistan. The fact that it has all the trappings of an independent state frankly reduces the incentive to go for formal independence. As between the Sunnis and Shiites, they do think of themselves as Iraqis, and I don’t think you can think of a symmetric devolution of power in that country.

Basically, the Iraqi system allows those who really want to govern their own affairs and be independent to be independent, and those who don’t, don’t have to. At the center with the supermajority system and the allocation of positions, each of these groups is represented in the central government. So, while a Shiite is going to be the prime minister, he doesn’t choose the other ministers. If there are 20 ministers, ten of them will be Shiites, five will be Kurds, but it will be the Kurdistan nationalist parties that choose the Kurdish ministers and the Sunni parties choose the Sunni ministers. So the bargaining takes place within the cabinet. Quite often issues are not resolved, but on the whole I think it’s not a bad system, and I think I’m more optimistic that there will not—that the real danger of violence in Iraq, which is violence among these organized “statelets” if you will, the Kurdistan, Shiistan, Sunnistan, I think there is a very good chance that will not happen.

Let me turn to Afghanistan, which has obviously been at the center of my thinking for the last year. One of the problems of Afghanistan is that it has a government structure that is completely unsuited to the country. There are a lot of similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq you have the three groups. In Afghanistan there are four, the Pashtuns at 45 percent, the Tajiks at 25 percent, the Hazaras, who are Shiite, at 10 percent, the Uzbeks at 5 percent, and both countries have some Turkmans. You have the more violent south and the relatively more stable north. But whereas in Iraq you have a high degree of local self-government and a system that entrenches power sharing at the center, in Afghanistan you have a Napoleonic constitutional structure, highly centralized in the sense that the central government appoints the governors. All the ministers, the education department at the local level, is controlled from Kabul. There’s not a local authority. The provincial councils are effectively just advisory bodies, and there is also a winner-take-all system at the center. You have an election for president. Somebody wins, and that person then exercises basically all power. There is quite a weak parliament. The president controls the Supreme Court. The president controls, and this turned out to be critically important, the independent election commission and the other structures of government. Now, at least that’s how it works in theory.

In reality, of course, since it’s a very diverse country both ethnically and geographically, what this really means is that the president doesn’t control large parts of the country. The Tajik areas are on the ground significantly self-governing. That’s true of the Hazara regions, and when you get to the Pashtun regions, and one of the points to make here is that we talk about the Taliban. It is almost exclusively a Pashtun movement. It operates only among the 45 percent of the country that are Pashtuns, and thus the central highlands and to a lesser extent the north are relatively stable. One of the things, and this was proposed by Dr. Abdul Abdullah who was Karzai’s principal challenger, interestingly a man who was one of the few true Afghans in the sense that his father was a Pashtun and his mother was a Tajik, but in spite of that he was actually thought of by everybody as a Tajik. There was no shared identification among the Pasthuns with him, but what he proposed and what I think makes sense is that there be entrenched power sharing by taking significant powers away from the president, having a prime minister and cabinet chosen by the Parliament with the same kind of bargaining that takes place in Iraq. In truth, what Afghanistan needs is an Iraqi-style constitution also with elected local government.

Now, I want to emphasize in the case of both Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s really not for the United States to impose any solution, and so, yes, given the significant investment particularly that we have in Afghanistan, we’re transitioning out of Iraq, ours was an unwelcome invasion of Iraq except by the Kurds. The dynamic is very different. The way we’re viewed is different. Our ability to shape events, political events in Iraq, is much less, and I would very much urge a lower profile there, but in the case of Afghanistan we’re ramping up. It’s very much welcomed. It’s essential for the Karzai government to its survival, and it’s not unreasonable to say, well, we have 100,000 troops there. There are an additional 30,000 from NATO. We’re spending all this money, and we expect something. What is it that we ought to expect? Well, we ought to expect a credible partner, and the problem is that credible partner does not exist. The Karzai administration has for the last eight years been characterized by ineffectiveness and toleration of corruption. Now it is in office by virtue of massive fraud, and it is seen as illegitimate and rightly seen as illegitimate by a large segment of the Afghan population. Karzai didn’t win those elections, and it isn’t incidental that the Electoral Complaints Commission took Karzai slightly below 50 percent and Abdullah gave up because he recognized it was hopeless. The Electoral Complaints Commission did a statistical sample because all it needed to do was to bring him below 50 percent and there could be a run off. It didn’t need to determine how many votes he actually got, but based on what I know from the staff, Karzai’s vote was probably around 41 percent, not 49 percent, and Abdullah was not that far behind, maybe 35 percent. This was a much closer contest. I think Abdullah was right not to go to the second round because the Independent Election Commission was moving to increase the number of polling centers when the root of the problem was ghost polling centers—that is, polling centers that never opened, never existed, producing a million phony ballots. In every case, the fraud was either perpetrated by the Election Commission staff, or they collaborated with those who did the fraud, or they knew of the fraud and didn’t report it. Every one of those people who were responsible for the staff was being rehired. In fact, as a little aside, exactly one person has lost his job over fraud in the Afghanistan elections, and that wasn’t one of the people who committed the fraud. The result of this process is that we don’t have a credible partner, and that is the missing link in President Obama’s strategy. It is also what makes it so difficult to implement.

The idea of protecting the population—okay, you can do that. You can clear the Taliban out of an area. That’s hard, but then you need something to happen. Otherwise, you’re going to be there forever. Specifically, what you need is for there to be an Afghan army to come in and help you secure it and eventually to take over. You need Afghan police to provide order, and then you need an Afghan government, some kind of government, that can provide public services, honest administration and can win the trust of the people. The Karzai government can’t do that, won’t do it, and the way in which most Afghan’s experience government, well, there’s a lot of talk in Washington about corruption, which is there of course. But that isn’t the main point. The main way they experience it is as abuse of power—people operating with impunity. It isn’t just government officials. It’s really the local power brokers, and again in applying our cultural standards we imagine that if you’re out of office, you’re out of power. If we think there is a corrupt governor or an abusive governor, we want to get him out of office, but it doesn’t change things because the guy actually still runs things.

The dilemma is that even if you remove these guys, they’re still in power, and once the population has lost confidence in the government even if you could miraculously get honest administration, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to regain the confidence of the people. That’s the problem. In order for somebody to sign up on the government’s side, they basically put their lives at risk. The Taliban basically leaves the elders alone unless they’re aligned with the government. You would need a large critical mass to simultaneously go over to the government side, and that’s very hard. I don’t see that this piece is going to be readily fixed. I do think meaningful, elected, local self-government will help, but it’s by no means a panacea.

Let me just say a word about the police and then just a word to respond to what Ivan said about Pakistan. On the issue of the police, there’s a real dilemma here, which is that we have an eight-week training course for police, which is relatively short, but if you want to get large numbers you can’t train them for long periods of time. The trouble is you have people who come in whose first few weeks are spent on things like basic hygiene. What is required when a whole bunch of men live together? Most of them are illiterate, and so if you really wanted to get a higher-quality police you would have to have a multi-year training course that included such things as teaching them how to read and write, but if you did that, at the end of the process you would have a relatively educated person who wouldn’t want to be a policeman. These are some of the dilemmas we face, and some of these dilemmas—and I won’t go into it—come from imposing our idea of what the Afghan army should be and our idea of what the Afghan police should be. Ambassador Abramowitz has raised this, and I won’t go further. He does observe that Afghans are not unknown for their fighting prowess. How is it that we need to spend so much time training them how to fight?

Let me turn to the question of Pakistan. The extraordinary thing about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is that the Pakistanis remember everything, and the Americans remember nothing. As a result, we simply adopt the Pakistani narrative of what happened. That narrative is that the U.S. is an unfaithful ally that lost interest. Well, that isn’t how it happened. First, the U.S. embraced Pakistan in 1981 after the Soviet invasion. Pakistan then made a commitment to the United States. General Zia came and he said Pakistan has neither the means nor the intention of developing a nuclear explosive device. Congress put this into law, and I had a lot to do with that, actually. It was simply putting his promise, his commitment, which nobody made him offer, into law. They knew that if they crossed the line on the nuclear program that their weapons and aid would be cut off. They did, and it was cut off. We now are in deep apology mode for their breaking their commitment. That reflects, I think, the larger problem of the relationship, which is that we have always viewed it as Pakistan doing something for us and therefore we are not sufficiently grateful. That more or less is the Pakistani narrative, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a lot bigger threat to Pakistan than it was to the United States. We might have approached it by saying to Pakistan, to General Zia, well, if you want our help, here are our conditions and we expect you to keep them. Instead, we approached them from a position of weakness, and we said if you will sign up with us in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, we’ll provide all of these goodies. Zia said, “Yes, and I want to control it.” Of course, the most significant thing he wanted to control was to decide who among the Afghans got the U.S. assistance. He gave it to the very people that hate us the most, our enemies. Incidentally, no Soviet ever attacked us from Afghanistan, but of course the very people that we funded—and we funded because Zia insisted we fund them—were the people who ultimately were responsible for or contributed significantly to the attacks on the United States. The same blank-check approach was applied toward Musharaf in the Bush administration.

There is, however, no easy solution to the problem in Pakistan because Pakistan is a divided country. It’s certainly divided ethnically with a significant independence movement in Balochistan, late separatism, and the fact that the Pashtuns are on both sides of the border, but it’s also divided horizontally in the sense that there’s a civilian government but there is also the army, which has run things formally for half of Pakistan’s history and informally for most of the other half. There’s the ISI, which operates within the army, and then there are the supposedly rogue elements of the ISI. If we were to lay down some of these conditions, threaten to cut off aid to Pakistan, who would we be hurting, and would we be serving our interests? I would argue that in fact our interest lies in strengthening Pakistan’s civilian government. I know there are many criticisms of the president, and he’s a less-than-perfect human being. But the fact is it would be awfully good if Pakistan had one civilian government that actually served its term and then left office rather than being overthrown. The civilian government has a different approach to India than the military. You spoke of it as though India was the enemy, but it’s interesting. If you talk in Pakistan to the military, actually if you talk to them on almost any subject, flower arrangements, within a few minutes the subject of India will come up. You could spend all day in India talking about security issues, and the subject of Pakistan does not come up. India has moved on. Pakistan’s military has not, and of course their wellbeing depends on the Indian threat. That’s the raison d’être, and it’s why they do incredibly reckless things like support terrorists who were responsible for a number of attacks in India, including the Mumbai attacks, which are the one thing that could lead to a Pakistan war and why they believe it’s useful to be fighting India in Afghanistan, both the Pashtuns against the Tajiks and the Taliban against the Karzai government. As tempting as it would be to think of Pakistan as a unitary actor subject to pressure, it just doesn’t work that way, and so I think we have to operate with the reality of Pakistan. That reality is that we will be much better off if democracy really takes root in the country, if it becomes institutionalized, if the civilian government can gain a measure of control over the military. That’s not impossible. Some of the shift that has taken place this year in terms of the military fighting the Pakistani Taliban, which they were reluctant to do is under pressure and direction from the civilians. Pakistan was much less engaged in Afghanistan during this election period than it had been in 2004. That was the civilian government’s policy decision that they didn’t want to be involved. Again, it’s far from perfect, but it’s not impossible. Over time what we want to see is a strengthened civilian government in Pakistan and for it then to pursue some of the ideas that President Zardari has but are shared by other Pakistani politicians of cooperation with India and Afghanistan, a regional market, even Pakistan providing infrastructure for India. Let me stop there.

Ivan Eland

Thanks, Peter, for an interesting presentation, and now we’ll go to our third speaker, Chuck Peña, who is a senior fellow here at the Institute.

Charles Peña

Good afternoon. Ivan hasn’t given me a time limit, but since I know I stand between you and two important things, first questions, second lunch, I will do my best to keep my remarks relatively brief. Peter, to address the first part of your remarks, I am Californian by birthright, northern California specifically, since you talked about how people identify. I also want to congratulate Ivan for being pretty prescient about scheduling this particular event. He and I actually talked about this maybe six weeks or so ago, and who would know that it would happen the week after when President Obama decided to make his speech about ramping up troops in Afghanistan.

The title of today’s event is “Can we withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan?” I’m going to focus my remarks mostly about Afghanistan, but I would say 80 to 90 percent of what I have to say you could probably just transfer over wholesale to Iraq. I thought it was interesting that Ivan chose the term “can we withdraw”. The simple answer is yes, absolutely, no problem. All the President has to do is make a decision. Whenever talk about military withdrawal comes up, everybody throws up all the reasons you can’t do it, how complicated it is, all the politics involved. The bottom line is the commander in chief can make the decision. All he or she has to do is make it, and then he tells the secretary of defense who then works with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and the COCOMs make it happen. It’s that simple. So the answer to: can we withdraw? is yes. It always has been yes. You just have to have the political will to make the decision to withdraw.

The next question that comes up is, well, how do you do that? It’s a logistical nightmare. Yeah, it is, particularly in Iraq at the moment. It is a bit of a logistical nightmare, but in Afghanistan, yeah, you can withdraw. Let me suggest the President has said that he would like to begin withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan in roughly 18 months. At two brigades a month, which is not unreasonable and an average rotation, we can be out in less than 18 months, out of Afghanistan. In fact, we can probably be out in close to a year if he made that decision now, to draw down at roughly two brigades. Two brigades, by the way, is about 7,000 troops, depending on whether it’s combat or combat support.

The how is also fairly doable, and you tell the folks on the joint staff, figure out the logistics. You work with the co-com to figure it all out, and you find a way to bring the troops out. Part of the problem, particularly in Iraq, is the equipment. How do you get the equipment out? Because we’ve got a lot of heavy equipment in there now. It’s less so in Afghanistan, so it is probably a little bit easier. Again, it’s not logistically easy but logistically doable, and I would suggest that if you made the decision you wanted to withdraw rather than ramp up in Afghanistan, you could be out in less than 18 months, which is when the President says he would actually like to begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan. If you can do it because it’s just simply a decision and how you do it is doable, what it really comes down to is should you?

Maybe the more appropriate question is, should we withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan? Rather than belabor the point on Iraq, let me focus on Afghanistan although as I said, I think at least strategically the logic applies pretty equally to both. The answer to: should we withdraw? is yes. And let me walk through an argument as to why that answer is yes. First of all, the proposed ramp-up of troops, 30,000, which is less than what General McCrystal wanted, he wanted 40,000, and the President and his advisors decided 30,000 instead of 40,000 and General McCrystal, being the good general, has saluted, said, “Yes, sir, I can still win with 30,000 even though I asked for 40,000 troops.” It’s not enough. Ivan alluded to this. It’s both the rule of thumb, and it’s what General Petraeus, General McCrystal’s superior officer, wrote in the counterinsurgency manual that the United States military now uses, and it’s what history has demonstrated. You need about 20,000 soldiers per every 1,000 civilians to be able to effectively run a counterinsurgency operation. In Afghanistan, with a population of more than 30 million people, you’re looking at a force, a footprint, of more than 600,000 troops required to run an effective counterinsurgency. We don’t have 600,000 ground forces in the United States Army. You could combine the active duty army and marines and get to 600,000, but there’s no way that we can get to that number if we had to. So, are the roughly 100,000 U.S. troops after the surge, give or take, plus the NATO troops enough to do what in terms of counterinsurgency? Enough to occupy Kabul and keep Karzai ensconced as the mayor, enough maybe to occupy two or three more provinces in Afghanistan, but not enough to occupy the country, not enough to run an effective counterinsurgency. So what happens when you have a small force trying to run counterinsurgency? You play whack-a-mole. You subdue the enemy in one area, and then when you say, hey, we’ve got pacification, you move on to the next area. As you move on to the next area, what generally happens is in the place you pacified before, violence erupts there. Why? Because there’s nobody there minding the store. Of course, the solution that the President has proposed, which is by the way the same solution that President Bush proposed in Iraq, is we will train the Afghans to take control of their own security. As they stand up, we’ll stand down. That is exactly what President Obama is proposing in Afghanistan. Number one, you don’t have enough troops to run effective counterinsurgency. You may or may not have enough to run an effective counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan. That’s problem number one and a reason why we should withdraw rather than stay.

Number two, no political leader in the United States has ever admitted to the American public what’s required to run an effective counterinsurgency. We make it sound as though if we just put in enough troops—and Obama also talked about bringing in more civilians, there’s also going to be a civilian surge, State Department and other services—that we’ll just do this in a kinder, gentler way. We will provide all these services, and schools, and running water, and all the amenities that people like. They will love us and won’t turn against us as a result. So between the military and the civilians, we’ll win. Well, that’s not really how it’s done, or at least that’s not what history tells us. History tells us that when you run effective counterinsurgency, you kill lots of people, and if you don’t kill them, you incarcerate them. You engage in broad-brush, relatively harsh tactics to do that. The point of counterinsurgency is to impose security and order, and you do that any way you can. It doesn’t matter how much collateral damage is involved. It doesn’t matter whether you’re killing or locking up the right people. What matters is that you’re imposing order and security. That is the whole point of running a counterinsurgency operation. You don’t do that by killing people with kindness. You do that by using military force, and that’s exactly what history has demonstrated. If you look at the British—who are often acknowledged as the experts in counterinsurgency mostly because they used to have lots of colonies and had to run counterinsurgency operations to have security in their colonial empire—that’s what the Brits did. It’s not very pretty. It’s ugly, and it runs counter to what we believe we are as a country, which is why presidents, not just this president, any president, doesn’t admit to the American public what’s required to run an effective counterinsurgency. They dress it up in a lot of different ways that are politically more palatable. Do we have enough troops and are we willing to engage in the kinds of tactics that are necessary to win? I think the answer there is, no, we’re not.

Number three, how long do we have to stay? We’ve already been in there eight years, as has been suggested, oscillating, going back and forth between counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, relatively small footprint, let’s ramp up, now let’s ramp up even more. The history of counterinsurgency is five to seven years with enough troops engaged in the kinds of operations that you really need to engage in. That is exactly not what President Obama has proposed. In fact, he has even said, much to his credit, that he does not want this to be an open-ended nation-building mission. I applaud him for that, but if you’re going to run effective counterinsurgency, you better plan to be there for a minimum of five years. Oh, by the way, the Brits were in Malaysia for 20 years running their counterinsurgency operations there. You better be willing to be there for a long time. This is already an unpopular war with the American public. What are the odds that the American public is going to be willing to put up with five, seven, ten, twenty more years of this? From a tactical perspective, I don’t think we can win. Those are three strong tactical reasons to withdraw. Most importantly, the one that trumps those three is that strategically it’s not in our interest to stay. Both Peter and Ivan have talked a little about this, but occupation is what fuels resentment, which is what creates terrorists. It creates terrorists in the territory that you’re occupying, and as we saw with 9/11 it creates terrorists who may decide that they want to strike you at home away from the territory that you’re occupying.

Since the whole point of having gone into Afghanistan in the first place, which I would argue we had to do at the time, is to try and reduce the terrorist threat to the United States, not increase the terrorist threat to the United States, at this point in time, eight years later, having not really achieved the objectives that we wanted to achieve when we first went into Afghanistan, it is now high time for the U.S. to leave and let Afghanistan be run by the Afghans however imperfectly that might be. Our only criteria has to be that the government, whichever government it is, whether it’s the Karzai government, whether it’s a Taliban government, that any government in Afghanistan not openly provide aid and shelter to Al Qaeda and if they decide to do that, we come back and we do this all over again, which by the way is cheaper for those of us who may be worried about the costs. It’s cheaper for us to leave—and if things get out of hand again, just come back and do it all over again—than it is for us to stay to try and make something work that maybe we can’t make-work.

Here are the issues. Number one, both Peter and Ivan have talked about this, the Taliban is not monolithic. We here in the United States tend to equate the Taliban with Al Qaeda. They’re not one and the same. There are elements of the Taliban that would support Al Qaeda in wanting to attack the United States. There are other elements of the Taliban that are just interested in having a say in the government in Afghanistan. We’ve got to stop treating them monolithically as a single threat as if somehow they are a threat to the United States of America proper. They’re not. We have to be willing to live with less than perfect in terms of what happens in Afghanistan, and I also think that we have to be willing to concede at this point that what’s left of Al Qaeda, whether they’re operating out of Pakistan or coming across the boarder periodically into Afghanistan. And by the way I saw a news report that supposedly even Bin Laden—assuming he’s still alive—finds his way across the border into Afghanistan periodically. Al Qaeda isn’t the same Al Qaeda that existed, that attacked us on 9/11, and Bin Laden in particular does not have operational control over a group that has global reach that can attack the United States. Our larger problem is not Osama Bin Laden and what is left of Al Qaeda hiding out in Pakistan. Our larger problem is the ideology of radical Islam, which has seeped into the Muslim world in part because we’ve helped propagate that by our actions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I would argue that whatever benefit there might be to getting Bin Laden at this point, and believe me I would love to be able to say that we got Osama Bin Laden, but strategically the costs required to try and get Bin Laden and contain Al Qaeda far outweigh any residual benefit at this stage. Bin Laden and the people surrounding him no longer represent operationally the real threat to the United States. The real threat is sort of everywhere within the Muslim world being fueled by ideology and anti-American sentiment. So this notion of denying Al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan, I think, is a pie-in-the-sky notion. Al Qaeda—there will be some safe havens. Why? Because there will always be people who have sympathies and decide they want to support groups like Al Qaeda. The question is, are they local threats or global threats? As long as they are local threats, then those are threats that the Afghan government has to deal with and ones that we may have to live with—again, less than perfect. It’s the global threat that Al Qaeda may represent that we have to worry about. I think we have to worry about that less now than we did eight years ago. I think we have to worry more that we are radicalizing Muslims around the world, as witnessed by the bombings in Madrid and London in particular. Our very presence in two Muslim countries at the moment, Iraq and Afghanistan, goes a long, long way to fueling that radicalism that it’s U.S. occupation that makes us a target. There may be a certain amount of anti-Western, anti-U.S. elements in radical Islamic ideology, but most of that is because we’re there in their territories, not necessarily that they want to come after the United States in the U.S.

It doesn’t solve all of our problems. I don’t want to suggest it’s a panacea, and certainly withdrawing from Iraq or Afghanistan doesn’t necessarily mean that either country will be a better place from the perspective of Iraqis or Afghans, though Peter has alluded that maybe he thinks Iraq would be. I think that would be great.

Our concern is not whether Iraq and Afghanistan are better places. Our concern is whether either one of them represents a threat to the United States. The best way in my opinion to move in the right direction to ensure that neither country is a threat to the United States is for the U.S. to withdraw to give Muslims in those countries less reason to want to target the United States, less reason to have sympathy with the ideology of radical Islam, and we would be a much safer country as a result of doing that. Again, let me reiterate. Can we withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan? Yes. How do we do it? We can do it. It’s a little bit logistically complicated, but it’s certainly doable. More importantly should we withdraw? Absolutely, because that’s what is in our strategic interest, and those are the kinds of decisions that any president should be making, the decision that are in our strategic interest. Thank you.


Very interesting presentations that highlighted the complexity of this whole situation, and I think they underline the fact that the wars from the beginning were serious mistakes and have gotten us into a deep quagmire, which I think needs to be emphasized. In order to get support to get out of the war, to build support across the political spectrum, this country needs to recognize the facts that you were stating and the necessity of getting out. President Obama is being criticized on the right for not wanting to stay in forever. I think it’s very important to build that kind of broad support in order to make this progress and get out. In the case of Afghanistan—I have a number of Afghan friends and my daughter worked there for a couple of years. I think it’s important with regard to the Taliban that we be willing to make the distinction between the national segment who really wants to govern the country and the dictatorial segment, which led before, which imposed incredibly severe rules on behavior and things throughout the country, blew up the Buddhist statues and things like that, which is not the one we would want to have as an ally. My other question to Peter in Iraq is, given the conflict between the Kurds and the other Iraqis over the oil on the borders of Kurdistan how does that get settled in order to separate a Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq?

Ivan Eland

Peter, do you want to handle that question?

Peter Galbraith

Let me begin by just making clear that I am not in favor of withdrawal from Afghanistan. I have reservations about additional troops because I don’t think they can accomplish their counterinsurgency mission because there is no credible partner. But I think the consequences of withdrawal at this point in time would be disastrous for many people in Afghanistan. We have accomplished a lot and we are not viewed as an alien body in the way that we are in Arab Iraq. In some ways I think there are three bad choices—more troops, but I think that was ineffective because there’s no credible local partner; withdrawal, which would lead to rapid deterioration; and the current situation, which is gradual deterioration. In the real world they are not happy solutions.

The second point I would make is that it doesn’t follow that if we withdraw, the Taliban are going to come in and be the government. Remember, 55 percent of the country are Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks. These are groups that give the Taliban no support, and many Pashtuns don’t support the Taliban. So, it’s conceivable if we were to completely disengage, yes, then the Taliban would have some possibility maybe of taking advantage of chaos in Kabul or if the Afghan groups started to fight each other as they did in the early ’90s, but if we remain engaged even with a small number of troops or even without troops, the Taliban is not going to come back and take power. There may be a formula for it to include in parts of the country that there would be room for a very conservative Islamic party that would embody the Taliban. When you speak to your daughter, don’t be under illusions as to what that would mean for women in the country. Let’s not pretend that it’s going to be something different than what it’s going to be.

On the issue of oil in Iraq, there is something in the Iraqi constitution that basically addresses this, which provides for revenue sharing from what are the existing oil fields and then allows the regions, of which there is really only one, Kurdistan, to develop their own resources. This has been incredibly important to the Kurds because if you talk to any Kurd, what they’ll say about the oil of Iraq is that they wish Iraq never had any oil because it was used to finance the oppression of the Kurds, purchase the chemical weapons that killed them and for the physical destruction. For them, even if the revenues are pooled, and they say they’re willing to do that although they’re not constitutionally required to, for them it is that they have their own independent source of revenue. That is really the critical element.

In terms of how it works on territory, it’s Kirkuk, the largest oil field, which they have agreed should be managed by the central government, but which they believe should be part of Kurdistan and the constitution says there should be a referendum, which hasn’t been held. If Kurdistan became fully independent, inevitably Kirkuk would go with it. I’m not sure it would give Kurdistan an out-sized share of the total oil resources because there is so much that exists in the south, and frankly there is almost certainly oil in the Sunni areas. It’s a matter that was never explored.


With regard to Afghanistan, the existence of the heroin trade is a threat to not only our well-being but the whole world, so why don’t we make that a focus of the effort? It is also the major funding for the Taliban itself.

Peter Galbraith

I’ll take a crack at that. I think we’ve done everything since 9/11 except really focused. Now, we have made efforts against Al Qaeda, but we really focused on Iraq. Then we got into nation building and drug interdiction in Afghanistan and actually drug eradication. I think everybody in Afghanistan makes money off drugs, not just the Taliban. Of course, the best thing to do would probably be to cut the demand off. A really radical solution would be, of course, to legalize drugs in the U.S., but no one is going to do that. That would take the fire out of some of the insurgency right there, or if they did it in Europe as well. No one, of course, is going to be doing that. If you are going out and you’re eradicating poppy fields, the population is not going to support you. They’re going to go over to the Taliban, and I think that’s why the U.S. military was very reluctant to do these types of things earlier in Afghanistan. Now, of course, Obama has changed the policy a bit as I understand it. He has gone away from that and is trying to get the traffickers and that sort of thing, rather than the actual growers, which is an improvement in the policy but is still sort of a sidelight. I think we need to get back on what we should be focused on, and that is it’s tragic that Afghanistan’s major export is opium, which is turned into heroin. The U.S. has to pay attention to what we haven’t paid attention to sufficiently, and that is keeping your eyes on the threat. Anything that helps us get Al Qaeda and Bin Laden—and Chuck is right, just because you get Bin Laden that doesn't mean the show is over, but you have to concentrate on that, anything that takes your eyes off that, including fighting the Taliban, in my estimation should be put aside. We can talk about what’s good for the people of Afghanistan and what’s good for the people of Iraq, but I think first of all we have to keep our eyes on our own security as well. That is really what we have failed to do since 9/11.


I certainly applaud the central thrust, which is that we need to achieve a public recognition that the enemy is not the Taliban, it’s Al Qaeda, and re-frame our attitudes accordingly. It’s an uphill job changing American opinion. I applaud your efforts here. Meanwhile, I have one specific problem I would like to ask about. I’ve seen reports that in arming the police and in developing the army of Afghanistan we are having a lot of success recruiting Tajiks who operate now as a strong plurality of the army and not much success recruiting Pashtuns who are joining and defecting in considerable numbers and are considerably outnumbered in the army. It seems to me if and when we do get out, we’re just making it possible for opposing factions to kill each other at longer range. What do we do about that?

Ivan Eland

Peter, do you want to take that?

Peter Galbraith

Well, this of course goes back to the history of how the current government came into power, which is that we aligned ourselves or we backed the Northern Alliance, which was primarily a Tajik movement. I’m not sure that most of the recruits are Tajik, but certainly the leadership of the army is Tajik. The dilemma is very simple, and this is particularly, I think, true in the police. I’ll talk about the police and then just a word about the army. If you recruit Pashtun policemen to serve in Kandahar, if they are outside of Kandahar City, they get eight weeks training and they man a checkpoint. Their chance of living through the year is probably 50 percent, and overall the mortality rate of the police is 10 percent a year. That is not a very inviting occupation. So, of course, if you’re a Tajik and are going to go serve in the safe Tajik areas, that’s fine. It’s a job. But if you’re a Pashtun, it’s not very inviting. I frankly don’t know how much of that same factor is at play in the army. Again, my impression is that there are Pashtuns in the Army. It’s just that the higher ranks are Tajik.

Ivan Eland

I think more generally any time you have ethno-sectarian divisions in a country and you’re training a force that’s more inclined to be one ethno-sectarian group than the other, if the place deteriorates after, the same could be said for Iraq. Have we trained everybody in the civil war there if it happens? I’m more pessimistic about it than Peter because I look over Iraqi history and I see so many Kurdish and Shiite rebellions against the Sunni government, and also the history of these types of things in other countries with ethno-sectarian violence, and it seems to come back all the time. I think any time you train forces of one side or the other even if they’re the Iraqi army, the Afghan army, whatever, you risk that happening after you leave. Of course, the U.S. always leaves these situations sooner or later unless we’re talking about Korea or Germany or something.

We have time for one more question.


I have an open question. Maybe Chuck wants to address it. Why should anybody put any credibility in the pledge of the Obama administration to withdraw from Afghanistan by mid-2011, given the recent testimony by Secretaries Gates and Clinton that at that time the withdrawal is not fixed but will be dependent on the assessment of the military commanders on the ground, which is certainly a dodge for we’re staying?

Charles Peña

Any time a president says that we’re going to withdraw, and this was certainly true in Iraq under the Bush administration and I think it’s going to be true both in Iraq and Afghanistan under Obama, it’s conditional. There are always conditions. I mean the President didn’t say unconditionally we’re going to start withdrawing troops in 18 months. They will look at an assessment. They will look at what’s on the ground, and if they don’t think that things have gotten better, my guess is they will find a reason to stay. I don’t think anybody should be surprised by the testimony of Secretary Gates or Secretary Clinton’s remarks that we’ll have to have an assessment and we’ll have to wait and see. All he did was he threw a marker out there. Whether it was to prod Karzai or prod the Pakistanis, who knows? But I think it was mostly for domestic political consumption. He knows this is an unpopular war at the moment. He knows that if he doesn’t at least give some lip service to the possibility of withdrawal that politically it will become a quagmire for him. I do not necessarily put much stock in his statement that we will begin withdrawal in 18 months, and the question will be whether the American public decides to hold his feet to the fire 18 months from now.

To sort of answer part of the first question the President doesn’t need to guild a political coalition to decide to withdraw. He can just decide as long as he’s willing to weather the political storm that ensues, and that’s the problem. The problem is that the President does not want to weather the political storm, and so he is trying to find some sort of consensus on withdrawal. Since we don’t need congressional approval any more to go to war and you don’t need funding so much to withdraw as much as you need funding to keep troops deployed, he can make the decision. It’s all about politics.

Ivan Eland

We may not see a withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, either. I mean they can renegotiate the agreement, and Maliki has made hints that he might want to do that. People have taken even the Iraq war withdrawal for granted, and I’m not sure we can, especially if the violence starts again, because we have so much invested there. I think Chuck is exactly right on that point because in the Vietnam War when Nixon came in, he was the candidate who was going to get us out of Vietnam. He started the Vietnamization program, and you saw the protests on college campuses go down until they discovered he was escalating the war in Cambodia and running a secret war. The President just saying that we’re going to be withdrawing in July 2011 from Afghanistan quiets a lot of the anti-war left because they say, “Oh, problem solved. We’re eventually going to get out of here.” I think Chuck is exactly right on that, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to withdraw from either of these countries any time soon, I don’t think.

Peter Galbraith

If I can say, first let’s be clear that Congress authorized both of these wars. One may not like it, but in fact they did do it. They haven’t repealed it. I think of President Clinton’s deployment to Bosnia, which was also incidentally, announced for a year, and he went in with very significant force. There was no violence in that year. It was successful, and at the end of the year the deployment continued with virtually no public opposition. I think that President Obama is sincere in what he is saying. The idea is we bring in significant additional force, seek to accomplish a mission as we did in Bosnia, and then the situation is better and you hope you can withdraw. For the reasons I outlined, which have entirely to do with the absence of a credible local partner, I have reservations about that. On the issue of Iraq, I certainly think that the withdrawal will go ahead. We never did have a strategic interest in Iraq, but once we were there, of course we have changed things so we do have some obligations. I would think we would want to have at least the possibility of going back in if we have to deal with Al Qaeda in the Sunni areas, and I’ve argued in the past and still think it’s true that we have an obligation to Kurdistan, which was on our side. It’s been a reliable ally, and that obligation can be discharged by a fairly minimal security commitment of the kind that we had from 1991 until 2003 with the no-fly zone.

Ivan Eland

That’s it. Thanks for coming, and we’re going to have lunch.

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