Twenty-four hours before President Barack Obama announced a 30,000-troop escalation of the Afghan War, one of his key foreign policy advisors provided a view of the president’s thinking at Brown University. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and co-chair of the White House committee to review US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, painted a dismal picture of the Afghan War, but endorsed an escalation.
“We are losing this war by every statistical measure,” said Riedel, who finished his report in March and is now a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. Yet defeat would be “catastrophic,” he added, because it would lead the Pakistani Army to seek an accommodation with Al Qaeda, which could lead to control of nuclear weapons by radical Muslims.
Riedel’s hawkish views were met with skepticism by some audience members at Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies, including Sergei N. Khrushchev, son of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Meanwhile, Rhode Island peace activists voiced disappointment with Obama’s new policy and planned to demonstrate in Providence’s Burnside Park.
Khrushchev, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute, questioned whether a victory in Afghanistan would merely recreate the political situation prior to September 11, 2001 with the Taliban dominating southern Afghanistan and other ethnic groups controlling the north. Riedel countered that Afghanistan had a functioning central government between World War I until the 1970s and could again.
Khrushchev responded, “Does that mean a corrupt tyranny?”
“Corrupt, yes,” Riedel, quickly responded, adding that the Afghan government would “hopefully not” be tyrannical. Nevertheless, Riedel commented that the recent fraudu-lent Afghan election could be “a fatal blow” to the war effort by undermining US public support.
Watson Institute Professor James Der Derian challenged Riedel’s view that CIA predator drones were “remarkably effective.” Der Derian noted that David Rohde, a New York Times reporter who was kidnapped by the Taliban for seven months, criticized the drones in a November speech at Brown.
“The drones do alienate Pakistanis,” Riedel conceded, because of civilian casualties.
Despite setbacks, Riedel argued, the Afghan war is winnable because the Taliban is a Pashtun-dominated organization and Pashtuns comprise only forty percent of the popula-tion. The US must improve security so that some Pashtuns abandon the Taliban, he continued. Today “no one in their right mind would leave” he noted, because “we can’t protect them.”
Riedel also said Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, large terrorist population and ongoing confrontation with India make it “the most dangerous country in the world.” Pakistani army officers believe their greatest enemies are India and the US, he stated, not Al Qaeda or the Pakistani terrorist group that killed more than 160 people in Mumbai a year ago, Lashkar-e-Taiba.
A rare positive development in the region, Riedel observed, is improved US relations with India, thanks to a Bush Administration pact on nuclear energy and Obama’s Novem-ber 24 state dinner with India’s prime minister. If India and Pakistan can reconcile, Riedel said, the Pakistani Army could challenge terrorists it now views as allies in its conflict with India.
Martha Yager, program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee in southeastern New England, a leading peace group, disagrees with Obama and Riedel. The United States should withdraw from Afghanistan, she says, finance reconstruction efforts and seek diplomatic solutions to its problems. “Guns are a really brutal tool that does a lot of damage,” she says, “and I think we underestimate the fallout from that damage.”
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