Maya Schenwar

An interview with Stephen Kinzer

    Last week, with President-elect Obama’s blessing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the beginning of a troop "surge" in Afghanistan. As the US embarks on a slow redeployment of troops away from the widely condemned occupation of Iraq – though that occupation is not by any means ending – it is easy to frame Afghanistan as a milder war, a war that can even, perhaps, be "won." However, sending more American forces to Afghanistan is a peculiar first project for a supposedly peacemaking president-elect, according to Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents, and has written extensively on US interventionism around the world.

    In the following interview, Kinzer puts forth a new approach to Afghanistan. He calls for a framework that acknowledges cultural differences, considers Afghanistan in its geographical context and confronts the Taliban – and the poppy trade – in a realistic way. As Obama gears up to assume his role as commander in chief, Kinzer challenges him to ponder what "real change" might actually mean when it comes to Afghanistan.

    Maya Schenwar: Afghanistan tends to be viewed as the "Good War," in comparison with Iraq. What’s behind that image?

    Stephen Kinzer: We first became militarily involved in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks. It was a very emotional moment, and it was understandable that most Americans wanted a sense of revenge against the perpetrators of those attacks. It might, in retrospect, have been possible to dislodge the Taliban from power in Afghanistan without a military operation. That, however, did not suit the tenor of those times.

    As a result of the operations that followed the September 11 attacks, the United States has become more and more deeply enmeshed in Afghanistan. What seemed at first like it might be a relatively quick operation turned out to be one that is dragging us ever deeper in, all these years later. Before we allow inertia and a general momentum, cloaked in our emotions, to drag us even deeper into Afghanistan, we need to stop and ask ourselves, "Is this a military problem, or does it need a different kind of solution?"

    So, the solution to our situation in Afghanistan will probably have to involve some serious diplomacy. How can the United States begin the process of negotiating with the Taliban?

    In the first place, increasing the number of American troops in Afghanistan is sending the wrong signal. The very presence of foreign troops in aggressive, frontline military roles in Afghanistan is an incitement for reaction from local people. The first thing we need to do is decide to maintain our troop strength at the relatively modest level that it’s at now, and not increase it.

    Resisting foreign armies is something Afghans have been doing for thousands of years – they’re probably better at it than anyone else in the world. The British learned this in the 19th century, the Soviets learned this in the 20th century. We shouldn’t have to repeat those very painful lessons. So that’s the first part: we should not be escalating our military presence there. What do we do instead of that? I think we need a dual process; a process that goes on within Afghanistan and a process that goes on in a much broader region.

    Within Afghanistan, it’s important to understand that what we call the Taliban is actually a very broad coalition of tribal factions and warlords and other groups. Afghanistan is a place of constantly shifting factions. A faction that might be on your side today might not be tomorrow. A Taliban-allied warlord may not necessarily be anti-American, and if he is today, he might not be tomorrow. This system of flexible alliances holds out great opportunity for sophisticated diplomacy. There’s a great possibility that once the United States is not seen as an invading force, it will be able to persuade a number of these warlords or factional leaders to shift their alliances. We ought to test that.

    At the same time, we need to be negotiating throughout this region. This is not a problem anymore that can be solved within Afghanistan. It has long since become a regional problem. Just in the last week, after this recent attack on a concentration of American trucks, the American commanders started talking about alternative routes into Afghanistan for their supply convoys. They’re talking about doing that from central Asian countries or even from places originating in Russia. So this shows you what a regional dimension is involved here. Pakistan is a deeply influential player in Afghanistan.

    We need Pakistan to take a more resolute position, but Pakistan, like any country in the world, is only willing to make security concessions when it feels safe. Right now, Pakistan’s security focus is – and has been for nearly all of its existence – on India. Its policy of insisting on having a pliant government in place in Afghanistan, and supporting favorable factions inside Afghanistan, is based almost entirely on its desire to counter India.

    India has been opening up consulates in Afghanistan, and there’s talk about Indian military aid and Indian development aid in Afghanistan. Until the Pakistan-India confrontation can be ratcheted down several levels, there probably won’t be peace in Afghanistan. Iran is another country that can have great influence inside of Afghanistan. Parts of Afghanistan used to be in Iran – it has tremendous ability to influence some large regions of Afghanistan.

    So, we need a policy, first of all, of not increasing our troops in Afghanistan, and pulling the troops we have there out of offensive roles. And second, trying to negotiate among factions within the country. Third, we need to produce a regional framework in which some kind of stable Afghanistan is possible.

    You’ve said you don’t recommend a quick withdrawal. Why maintain current troop levels instead of decreasing them?

    Unfortunately, Afghanistan has become so destabilized now that some of the worst warlords, the most grotesque criminals, are now in positions of great power. The presence of the United States is something Afghans feel will prevent an immediate explosion. If we leave immediately, I fear that violence would devastate that country. I don’t think the problem is necessarily that there are American troops in Afghanistan. It’s more what they’re doing. The tactics that we’re following there, of carrying out aggressive raiding and bombing places with predator aircraft is very counterproductive.

    The region where the conflict is unfolding in Afghanistan is generally thought of as a Muslim region. And it is. However, it’s more productive to think of it as a Pashtun region. Pashtun tradition is the dominant force there, even more powerful than Islam. Pashtun tradition, embodied in a relatively simple and ancient code they call Pashtunwali, is based on a particular form of honor, the offense against which is considered a great crime. This honor is defined very simply in a series of what might be described as concentric circles.

    You do not violate a woman’s dressing space. You do not violate my home. You do not violate my compound. You do not violate my village. And you do not violate my country. As long as you observe that principle, you can make all kinds of accommodations with the Pashtun. But we’re not doing that, and the nature of our policy is to violate that very fundamental cultural code. So, we are not seen how we’d like to be seen.

    We’d like Afghans to compare what we want for Afghanistan with what the Taliban wants, and see that what we’re trying to do for them is better. But they don’t see it that way. They are not judging these different factions according to what they’re offering. Instead, they’re judging them by another standard: Who’s from here, and who’s an outsider? Well, if you’re an outsider, no matter what you’re pushing in Afghanistan, you’re always seen through that lens. So, emphasizing by military escalation that we are the outsider only further weakens our position.

    In your video that came out a couple of days ago, you talk a little bit about how our presence in Afghanistan has not only rallied the Taliban, but has also become a recruitment device for other anti-American groups, like al-Qaeda. How do we defuse that inspiration for recruitment, if our troops stay in Afghanistan?

    We can do it by making our troops less visible. If our troops are simply out training Afghan military units, or even helping to carry out engineering projects in the countryside, our presence alone is not seen as hostile. It’s when we’re smashing down doors and making people lie on their stomachs while we search their homes; it’s when we send predator bombs to attack targets which may be real – but which also involve the killing of civilians – that we incite this hatred toward ourselves.

    Being in the country itself is not a violation of this Pashtun code; in fact, the opposite is true. The obligation to protect and embrace a guest is a very profound part of Pashtun culture. There’s a difference between being a guest and a violator. We should make sure we stay on the right side of that line.

    In your video, you make some pretty big suggestions about our policy on the Afghan poppy trade. Could you describe your ideas on that?

    We’re now spending $4 billion per month on our war effort in Afghanistan. The total annual value of the poppy crop in Afghanistan is also about $4 billion. Today, the proceeds from nearly all the poppies growing in Afghanistan go into the pockets of the warlords. We are very rightly concerned about that. The money that’s being used to finance the war against us is in part coming from the Afghan poppy crop.

    In addition, we’re turning the poor farmers who grow most of these poppies into enemies by pursuing our traditional policy of burning fields and spraying with them from above with herbicides. How can we resolve all these problems together – not to mention that people are dying on the streets of Hamburg and Chicago every day from the heroin that comes from Afghan poppies?

    My suggestion is that we abandon the idea of wiping out the poppy fields. That’s like wiping out the Taliban. It’s a great idea, but it’s just not practical. Therefore, since it’s not possible to do what we would like to do in our fantasies, what would be a realistic approach?

    I’d like to see the United States buy the entire Afghan poppy crop. We would be paying as much as we pay each month for our war effort in Afghanistan. We could use some of that crop to make morphine for medical use, and the rest, we could burn. This will have the effect of, A, dramatically reducing the income that pours into the coffers of many of the most brutal Afghan warlords; B, showing poor Afghan peasants that we’re actually buying something from them, giving them some money to live on rather than firing predator drones into their wedding parties; and C, presumably impacting the heroin supply worldwide.

    Obviously we have made some mistakes in Afghanistan. If we’re going to learn from history, what are the lessons here? How can future generations look at what’s happened in Afghanistan and avoid repeating today’s mistakes?

    Let me focus on one big lesson that I hope we learn. It is that, when you are trying to bring a country to do what you want it to do, military action is not always the best course. We need to understand the culture of each country before we go in. These countries are in many ways quite different from us; people think in different ways than how we think. We have certain ways of approaching security problems. We use methods against others that we think would be effective if they were used against us. But those methods aren’t necessarily effective against people with different cultural backgrounds.

    So, the number one lesson I’d hope we would learn is: Instead of acting reflexively to confront security threats in ways that seem to allow us to use our own advantages to the fullest, let’s be more careful in analyzing the places we’re going into. Let’s see if there are ways we can achieve our security goals without inadvertently undercutting our own security.

    In so many of these places – and Afghanistan is a great example – we sense a security threat, act against it, and then, after awhile, wake up and realize we’ve only made the threat worse. Every time we do that, whether it’s in Central Asia or the horn of Africa or Central America or Southeast Asia, we are confronted with the same lesson, but we just don’t learn it.

    The lesson is, countries are different. They have to be dealt with in ways that are in harmony with their own cultures. Once you understand other countries, you have a much greater ability to extract from them the understandings that you need to live safely with them. So don’t charge ahead with your prefixed idea about what’s going to solve your security problem. Stop and think about what will really be in America’s interest over the long run.



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