By Andrew Callam Staff Writer November 8, 2009

This week International Affairs Review staff writer Andrew Callam sat down with Ambassador Karl Inderfurth, former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs during the Clinton administration, to discuss the Afghanistan elections, US policy, the threat from the Taliban, and instability in Pakistan. Ambassador Inderfurth is currently the John O. Rankin Professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School.

IAR: What effect will the cancellation of Presidential Runoff Election have on the political situation in Afghanistan?

Ambassador Inderfurth: Most importantly, it will clarify the situation in Afghanistan, which has been locked in electoral crisis for several months now, going back to the August 20th election and indeed before. The immediate result is that the Afghans themselves and the international community know who the president of Afghanistan will be. The more difficult issue is whether or not President Hamid Karzai’s reelection will be seen as credible and legitimate by the Afghan people and by the international community. That is something to be determined.

Had the runoff election taken place with Abdullah Abdullah, as controversial as the first round was, it would have been dangerous for the Afghan people and expensive, and however free and fair it was, I think it is highly likely that Hamid Karzai would have won that election. But now we know what the immediate electoral future of Afghanistan is.

IAR: What changes will the Karzai government have to make in order to improve the situation in his country?

Ambassador Inderfurth: Obama made it clear in his phone call to Karzai to congratulate him that the United States sees the issue of corruption and governance as the most important issues that he must now address. That is the consensus, not only by the international community, but also by the Afghan people. And those are the ones that President Karzai can do something about: You will notice that the first issue is not security, because there is no way that the Afghan government can provide for its own security at this point. To do that, they have to first get the Afghan Army and Afghan Police trained and resourced. What Karzai can do something about in the short term is a whole range of issues that has to corruption, which also includes the drug trade, and governance. Otherwise, the legitimacy of his government will be further undermined if he does not move quickly on those issues.

IAR: Is the legitimacy of the Afghan government needed for success in Afghanistan?

Ambassador Inderfurth: It is an absolutely critical aspect for success. It also has to be a two-way street. The international community can do certain things: it can provide security, provide resources, provide training for security forces. But the Afghans themselves and their leadership have to deal with the corruption issue, delivery of services, judicial system reform and other government functions.

IAR: Does the relationship between the Obama administration and Karzai put any constraints on Obama’s overall strategy?

Ambassador Inderfurth: The road has been rockier than necessary with Karzai. Things that a number of Obama’s key advisors have said in the past have put Karzai in the position of being defensive and argumentative. The United States needs to start off on a new foot in its relationship with President Karzai. It does not need to be the same relationship that President George W. Bush had with Karzai, which included weekly video conferences. It can be of a different quality. But the United States will need to start off on a new foot, now that Karzai has been reelected and then follow through on the decisions regarding an Afghanistan strategy that President Obama will soon make.

IAR: Where is Obama’s strategy likely to go?

Ambassador Inderfurth: The Obama will probably decide to send some more troops to Afghanistan, but probably not the maximum amount that General Stanley McChrystal requests. The most important thing that Obama can do when announcing a decision has less to do with the number of troops, but more to do with signaling that the United States will be with Afghanistan over the long haul. If the strategy signals that he is laying the groundwork for an exit strategy, it would be disastrous for the current mission.

The Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda, and other insurgents are waiting to see whether or not the United States will commit to Afghanistan or if it is going to pack its bags. If they get the sense that time is now ticking for when the United States will depart, then game over. And Afghanistan will return to, at some point, what it was before 9/11: a state controlled by a religious extremist group (the Taliban) and a haven for groups like al Qaeda. There may be moderate Taliban, but they will not be the ones that will win the upper hand if the United States and NATO depart. Those that are the most organized and able to return to power are the same ones that America ousted in 2001. Mullah Omar, the leader of Quetta Shura, and others are the ones that would come back.

IAR: On the topic of the so-called “moderate Taliban,” are there elements of the insurgency that are likely to participate in a reconciliation process?

Ambassador Inderfurth: There are some Taliban elements that could be persuaded to come over to the other side, but only if they think that they are losing, not winning. Right now, they think that they are winning and that time is on their side. If we can change that calculation through General McChrystal’s strategy and a firm declaration that we are going to be there for the long term, I think that some of the Taliban would, as they have in past, change sides and go with the winner. Right now, they have they no reason to.

IAR: When Obama first came in to office, he announced that he would take a regional approach to the Afghanistan problem, often referring to an “Af/Pak strategy.” Is the Administration still pursing an Af/Pak strategy?

Ambassador Inderfurth: There has been some change in the originally announced so-called Af/Pak strategy. This is in part due to the fact that the Pakistanis never liked the idea of being part of an Af/Pak designation. They really bridled under the notion that these two countries are basically one in terms of U.S. policy. I do not think that was how it was intended, but that is how it came across. In the future, I think there will be fewer references to Af/Pak.

At the same time, recent events in Pakistan have made it only that much clearer that Pakistan is as much under siege from radical Islamic elements as Afghanistan. The bombings that have taken place in recent weeks, such as the assault on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi on October 10th, are a direct assault on the Pakistani state. Recognizing that what impacts one country will impact the other is conceptually the right way to proceed.

While everyone is waiting for Obama to make the decision about the number of troops in Afghanistan, this misses an important aspect: signaling a long term commitment to Pakistan so that the adversaries in Pakistan do not think it is just a matter of time before the United States leaves. The American commitment to Pakistan is just as important as anything else the United States does in the region. I think those waiting for President Obama to announce his decision will be looking for those indicators as much as the number of troops in Afghanistan.

IAR: How does the recent Kerry-Lugar aid bill play into the United States relationship with Pakistan?

Ambassador Inderfurth: The Kerry-Lugar Aid Bill is another example of the “hell of good intensions.” Originally proposed by then-Senator Joe Biden and Senator Richard Lugar, which became the Kerry-Lugar Bill when Biden came into the administration, was intended to make it clear that the United States is committed to a long-term partnership with Pakistan by tripling American assistance to $7.5 billion over a 5 year period, which includes much more assistance on the non-military side: education, economic opportunity, etc.

The problem was that, when drafting the legislation, a lot of language and conditions were attached by members of Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, that suggested the United States was interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs and that it did not respect their sovereignty. This dynamic goes back decades in terms of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, which has been a hot-cold, on again-off again, roller coaster relationship.

When the bill passed, some Pakistanis were more focused on the language that they found demeaning rather than the size of the aid package. That is what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently went there to deal with. I think that she had some success there, but even then Pakistanis were very sensitive about what she had to say and nobody can wade through those minefields without running into some problems.

IAR: One of the demands American policymakers often make of Pakistan is that they concentrate more on the western border than remain preoccupied with India to the east. Does Pakistan’s assault into South Waziristan signal that they are doing so?

Ambassador Inderfurth: Pakistan has got the message. They know that they have enormous problems in these tribal areas. A several weeks ago, they were fighting in the Swat region of Northwest Frontier Province and now they are going into the tribal areas. They know that this threat is the most immediate challenge they face. The bombs are going off in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar, Rawalpindi; they know what is happening in their country, but at the same time they also have a long-standing security obsession with India. The two countries did fight three wars and the Pakistanis will continue to look at India as a potential threat.

The United States and others have told them to be less concerned about India and to be more concerned about their western border. Now, that is where they are fighting. Every time the United States tells them to do more, they say: “We are doing more than you are doing.” They have had more soldiers killed in their own territory than the United States has had killed in Afghanistan. They are tired of us telling them what to do. Telling them that they need to do more is counterproductive. Working with to have the capacity to do more is the way to go.

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