August 8, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, James Dobbins, Douglas Lute

Deep Dish: Endgame in Afghanistan, America's Longest War


Ambassador James Dobbins established the US embassy in Kabul 17 years ago, at the beginning of the War in Afghanistan. Since then, the United States and its NATO allies have been at constant war. On this episode of Deep Dish, Ambassador James Dobbins and US NATO Ambassador Douglas Lute discuss whether and how an endgame might take shape in America's longest war.

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[Intro: Brian Hanson: I want to invite all of our listeners to join our Facebook group. You can find us on Facebook under Deep Dish on Global affairs. This is a public group, everyone is welcome, so please join in. You can find out about upcoming episodes in advance, you can submit questions to our upcoming guests, so please go check us out under Deep Dish on Global Affairs.

James Dobbins: The question is would abandoning Afghanistan, leave that territory, exposed as it is, to cross-border intrusions from Pakistan, from Iran, from Central Asia.

Douglas Lute: I mean, 45 billion dollars a year is a significant, huge US National contribution to an area where I would suggest we have few vital national interest.]

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical Global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're talking about new developments in the US was in Afghanistan. To help us understand America's longest war I'm joined by Ambassador Douglas Lute US NATO Ambassador from 2013 to 2017 and is currently a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center.

Welcome, Doug, it's good to have you on the show.

Douglas Lute: Good to be with you.

Brian Hanson: And also on the line is Ambassador James Dobbins who was in charge of reestablishing the US Embassy in Kabul to 2001 to 2002 right at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. He also served as a US Special Representative for Afghan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2014 and currently he's a Senior Fellow at Rand.

Welcome, Jim, good to have you as well.

James Dobbins: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: The war in Afghanistan which I mentioned has been going on for almost 17 years now, it's the longest war in US history. It's also called by some the forgotten war because it's not in the headlines everyday or for many Americans not in their daily consciousness but at the same time, you know, US and NATO still maintain something around 16 thousand troops in the country, the US is spending an estimated something like 45 billion dollars to keep the war going so this is a significant engagement. And I want to get beyond the headlines to really talk to you two to help us understand where things are and how things are changing.

About a year ago in August of 2016 President Trump announced a South Asian Policy which had two of the pillars were increasing troops, adding a few thousand more troops to the ground, in order, as President Trump said that Taliban and Islamic state, quote, need to know they have nowhere to hide, no place is beyond the reach of American Might and American Arms. Second pillar was, that negotiations to end the war should be between the Afghan Government and Taliban insurgents not negotiated directly with the United States.

And we've recently had two significant developments on both fronts. First American Diplomats have held face-to-face talks with Taliban representatives and the other is that we've seen news accounts that the Trump administration has urged American backed Afghan military troops to retreat from sparsely populated areas and really come back and focus on protecting population center.

Jim, can you start us off just by explaining these new developments and policy toward Afghanistan, who do they matter? Why are they significant?

James Dobbins: I'd say first of all they may be a little less new than they appear. I'd be interested in hearing Doug on this. But American officials talked to the Taliban directly in 2010, 2011. We tried to talk in 2013 and in 2014. We eventually negotiated bilaterally, the release of an American soldier who was being held by the Taliban. And news report indicate that American diplomats have talked to the Taliban again recently. So have representatives of any other number of other governments including, incidentally, a number of governments aligned with the United States.

I think for a long while we refrained from going very far in such contacts because the Afghan Government under Hamid Karzai objected and frankly didn't trust the United States. And I think we have a different leadership in Kabul I think we have a greater degree of trust. I understand from news reports that the President of Afghanistan is encouraged the US to conduct these discussions and so we're doing so, but again, it's not unprecedented.

As to the news reports that we're urging the Afghan government to pull back from some exposed outposts to more defensible positions, I think we've urged them to do that for several years, under Obama as well as under Trump, so again I'm not sure how new that is but Doug has an even longer history on this than I and I'll be interested to see whether he agrees.

Douglas Lute: Well, Jim, I think you have the history about right. I remember back in 2010 as a move in parallel with the military surge at that time that there was a renewed emphasis on diplomacy and that saw, for the first time, American officials meeting with Taliban political officials and exploring the potential of some sort of political process that might lead to the end of the war in Afghanistan.

So this has been going on at least since 2010 in terms of talks and by way of the military adjustments, I think it's been unappreciated by both American military officials but Afghan government officials as well. That even with 15 thousand allied troops today, coalition troops today, and at it's peak 140 thousand western troops. Assisting our Afghan partners. That Afghanistan is a very tough place to secure in toto. That it features many remote mountainous areas, very far from transportation infrastructure and so forth, these are not places that are easy to secure. And that the security effort in Afghanistan is better placed on the population centers.

So, I'm with Jim, I think on both counts. Both politically reaching out to the Taliban but also sort of rationalizing or making sense of our military disposition on the ground these are moves that have been going on for some time, and they're moves that make sense.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, so what do you see as has happened over the last year? President Trump did send in, did agree to sending in a few thousand more US troops, which was a change for him, he needed to be talked into that policy. What's happened over the last year? Has there been a shift in either the role of the US, the role of Afghani troops or what's been going on on the ground?

Douglas Lute: Well, look, so the additional uptick in American numbers so roughly 3,000 additional US troops that moved in over the last year or so under this new Trump administration. Has meant that American advisors alongside Afghan troops are now robust enough, the numbers are large enough to disperse these American advisors down into the tactical level of the fight. And so what that means is you have small groups of American advisors with Afghan battalions, so say Afghan formations of three to 500 troops.

So the American advisors are down closer to the action and that's helpful because they're able to provide on the ground advice and assistance to their Afghan counter-parts and most important, they're able to be the eyes and ears of American fire power, in particular, air power.

So that tactical shift putting advisors down closer to the fight, I think, has made a difference. But it's made a difference locally and only temporarily in time. And what I mean by that is that the games have been tactical not strategic. Not long term, not enduring, and the realty on the ground in Afghanistan is that you essentially have a security stalemate. That neither the Taliban or the Afghan Army and Police, with our support, are likely to make any significant gains in terms of ground help.

Brian Hanson: So is that basically what we've seen is that in the last year, you know, there have been contests over regions, but basically there was no movement in long-term control of territory during this period, is that a simple way to say that?

James Dobbins: Not quite, at least my impression is when we reduced forces beginning, that we began a number of years ago but when we reduced forces first to 9,000 or so and then to 6,000, the Taliban began slowly to gain ground. They took, very briefly, a couple of provincial centers and they began to regain some of the ground that they'd lost back in the surge of American and NATO forces back when we had over a hundred thousand. They began to take some of that ground back. I think the plus-up, that relatively small plus-up that President Trump agreed to has halted that erosion and as Doug said, we have a stalemate. I think when President Trump made that decision we had an eroding stalemate and it might be more accurate to say that it's halted the erosion but not fundamentally reversed the process.

Brian Hanson: So some of the numbers I've seen in terms of territory controlled and you know not all territory is equal so that, you know, understanding this is important, but for the 407 administrative districts in Afghanistan I've read numbers that between 180 or 240 of those are either Taliban controlled, probably the minority somewhere around 60 of them and the rest of them contested. Is that about the right ratio and as we think about that are some of these areas more important than others? How should we understand kind of the reality on the ground and the control of the territory?

Douglas Lute: You're right, they're around 400 political entity districts in Afghanistan but you're also right that they're not all equal. I mean, the districts in and around the major population centers are much more significant politically, because that's where the people live, than some remote district in the highlands of the Hindu Kush Mountains, where there is very sparse populations.

So the control of a certain number of districts is the questionable in that regard, it's also questionable because in many cases some of these districts are so remote that we don't actually know what's going on on the ground. So our ability our insight into these 400 odd districts is really in some cases quite limited.

I think the key point is that neither side, given the current state of play, neither side is likely to make significant gains. Gains outside of just marginal changes on the ground in terms of the security situation, and I think Jim and I agree that that really constitutes a military stalemate and opens the door to the importance of a political process, either side, I think could win this on the ground.

Brian Hanson: Great, you took me exactly where I wanted to go with that understanding where we are in the military situation.

What is your sense for the US strategy of what we are trying to achieve there, what Afghanistan wants and what the insurgents, what the Taliban want out of this. What are people trying to achieve in that military, or sorry, in the political resolution?

James Dobbins: Well, I think we have somewhat less insight into the administrations diplomatic strategy, than we do the military. The military issues periodic reports, journalists are all over the battlefield and congressional hearings, etc., so we have a pretty good sense of what the strategy is, as well as what the tactical situation is on the ground and how it's developing.

For obvious reasons, and appropriate reasons diplomacy is handled somewhat more discretely. I think the Trump administration is at this point in the process of feeling out the Taliban to see whether there's any real prospect of a deal, if you will, and they're doing so with the positive assent of the Afghan government.

I don't know how developed the administration is in terms of it's concept of what it could accept, and I expect the Afghan government is not very far developed in that regard either, and probably, I'm waiting to see what kind of response they get from the Taliban clearly the US would like an outcome that preserves Afghanistan from becoming again a launch point for attacks on the United States, a safe-haven for terrorist movements like Al Qaeda and the Islamic state, and that requires a degree of stability in the country of governability, as well as peace.

And so the question is are there agreements that incorporate the Taliban in the political process in a way that allows the government to continue to function. It allows the state to continue to develop in which creates a buffer against the renewal of large scale terrorist encampments and employment of Afghan territory.

Douglas Lute: I'd have to agree with Jim, I think if you start with the premise that there's no military solution, and that the security situation is stalemated, then you turn to alternatives in terms trying to move this forward. And one of the alternatives, of course, is trying to move into some sort of political process with the Taliban but there I think the premise is that the Taliban represent a political entity, an authentic, very Afghan political entity, largely among the rural [postunitarian 00:15:09] of Afghanistan that have to be taken into account.

We can't on the one hand try to move forward politically and on the other hand expect that somehow the Taliban are going to surrender on this. There has to be at least consideration of some political space for the Taliban. Now, what that political space means in practical terms, political power sharing, and so forth, that's the subject of a potential settlement talks of a negotiation and our position, the US position for a long time has been those sorts of authentically, deeply Afghan political questions must be the result of talks between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban.

That we can assist, we can promote, that kind of political dialogue but ultimately in order for this outcome, political outcome, to be durable and authentically Afghan it must be among Afghans. And so I think the way to look at these earlier and recent reports that American diplomats are again reaching out, or exploring avenues with the Taliban, these talks should be viewed prelude as a scene setting attempt to see if we can move toward Afghan to Afghan talks, which would ultimately, if successful, move us towards the end of this long conflict.

Brian Hanson: Again, I'm here with Ambassador Doug Lute who was the US Ambassador to NATO and also Ambassador Jim Dobbins who was in charge of re-establishing the US Embassy in Kabul right at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.

And why is it in that context that for the Taliban it's been so important to talk directly to the US or to involve the US in there, why do they choose that strategy and have they been so firm about wanting us involved?

James Dobbins: There's two reasons, at least two reasons, maybe three, is that they don't want to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government which they're trying to diminish. And so they don't want to talk directly to the Afghan government because that enhances that legitimacy and tends to reduce their own as an alternative to the Afghan government, that's one.

The second is that their primary objective, their overriding objective is to get the US to leave. They're confident that if left alone without the US support they can achieve a military solution, and therefore if they just get the US to leave they don't really have to negotiate with the Afghan government, so that's the second strain. And I think there's a prestige with negotiating directly with the United States, we've seen that with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un willingness to, and the prestige he derived from his meeting with President Trump. So there's a prestige involved in negotiating with the worlds only super power.

Douglas Lute: And I think these last couple points of discussion here inside our conversation reflect why we haven't gotten very far. On the one had the Taliban are demanding that they talk to the US first, because that's their war aim, that involves their war aim of getting us off the battlefield. And on the other hand we've insisted that the Afghan government and the Taliban should have primary responsibility for a political settlement. So we've been at this sort of who goes first and who speaks to whom, kind of stalemate politically as well.

And that in turn is why an American outreach to the Taliban even if in a scene setting role, could be an important early step in breaking this, what has been this political stalemate about who speaks to whom first it may eventually moves us forward.

Brian Hanson: As we've talked about in this conversation there have been some cycles that have happened in terms of US policy, bringing troops in, moving troops out different kinds of strategies. President Trump has been vocal at times about not wanting to be in Afghanistan in the long run and the desire to get out. He's also accused the Obama administration announcing an end dates and pulling out and therefore creating incentives for the other side to wait us out. Does what the President say does that influence, has that influenced or will that influence the negotiations, I guess specifically, you know, some commentators have said the Taliban is reading the White House and saying, you know, we can wait these guys out. Is that an issue?

James Dobbins: Hard to say. President is pretty unpredictable, impulsive, and comes up with a lot of surprises. If you look at what he said when he announced the policy, which he said he didn't initially agree with, but had been brought to agree with. He was pretty clear that this was not time limited and that the objective wasn't to eliminate the Taliban it was simply to prevent it from overthrowing the government in Kabul and replacing it, which is, in other words to say, that the strategy was to sustain the stalemate, although he didn't use those terms obviously.

Now, is he capable of changing his mind? Is there something that the Taliban could do or say to change his mind? I have no idea.

Douglas Lute: So I agree with Jim. Obviously, if you look at this administrations approach to longstanding key allies, South Korea, the NATO allies, and so forth, the one underlying theme is unpredictability and questioning perhaps past relationship, so any did, any policy premised on as long as it takes, as much as it takes, sort of the kind of approach of no timelines, reflective of the August speech from last year. Has got to be placed in a broader context of the sorts of things the administration has demonstrated in actions even since the August speech.

If anything, that should give pause to our Afghan allies, our Afghan partners rather, that maybe the commitment by this administration is not as strong as announced last August and maybe that should provide an impetus or flexibility on the Afghan governments part to play a constructive role in the possibility for talks as well. And I think if you look at President Ghani initiatives there's a whole series of things that he's done beginning back with the speech in February 28th where he offered unconditionally to talk to the Taliban to the Eades cease fire of just the last month or so and other significant outreaches by the Ghani government. Ghani himself, personally, on the line politically to see if he could open a political process with the Taliban. I think that suggests that he's very much in this game and if anything maybe he feels some of the added pressure to try to move forward now.

If there's an element of uncertainty that I would be alert to here, it is the cost figure that you cited early in our conversation and that is 45 billion dollars a year. I mean, 45 billion dollars a year is a significant, huge US national contribution to an area where I would suggest we have few vital national interests.

And when you begin to look at the other things that are demands on those kinds of resources, 45 billion dollars I think that it's important to have a sense of urgency here to begin a political process.

Brian Hanson: And I want to come back to that point in just a moment. Before that I just want to bring one other regional actor into this discussion which is Pakistan. You know, frequently been seen as being a sanctuary for Taliban leaders and the nature of the relationship, particularly with the security services is often reported as very close the Trump administration has tried to put pressure on Pakistan through reductions in military aid and yet Pakistan has also just had an election with a new leader coming into power there. How important is Pakistan in the resolving of this situation and what should we be paying attention to there?

James Dobbins: Well Pakistan is the most influential of Afghanistan's several neighbors, although there's others that can't be ignored like Iran and it could play a very positive role if it chose, and it has in the past on occasion chosen to support reconciliation. But it hasn't been willing to do, is close down the Taliban's headquarters and operating capability from Pakistan. It has been consistently refused to take those kinds of steps and we've seen no real change over the last several years, either under Obama or Trump.

Everything that the new probable Prime Minister there has said would indicate that he supports that policy of not, as he says, fighting the Afghan war on Pakistan territory. But he's new and is also a somewhat unpredictable character, so we'll have to wait and see.

Douglas Lute: Yeah, I largely agree with Jim. I think that the change of administrations in Pakistan reflect sort of a very dynamic political setting across the region. So Pakistan just elected it's...put a new power, put into power a new political party, PTI, meanwhile in Afghanistan you've got scheduled parliamentary elections this fall and you have a presidential election programed for April of next year so there are political dynamics there as well. And I think that these will all come into play as we consider how to gain some traction. How to gain some momentum in potential political talks.

So the region here is a very important dimension of talks, you know earlier in our conversation your listeners might have just picked up that this is simply a matter of getting Afghans in the room with other Afghans. Well, that's fundamentally true but the neighbors here are going to play it a very significant role and you mentioned Iran alongside Pakistan but China, Russia, India and the Saudis will all have interest in this negotiation as well.

Brian Hanson: Let me build on a point that you made Doug, a moment ago and ask how should we understand the strategic interests, the US strategic interests in Afghanistan and how does Afghanistan affect the broader regional politics? Obviously, we started off there right after 9/11 where Afghanistan was the base for planning the attack on the US so it had a very immediate and important relevance. Seventeen years later a whole bunch of things have changed in the world, how important is Afghanistan, how should we see it relative to some of the other challenges we're facing in the region?

Douglas Lute: Well, I mean, you're right to point back to 2001, so in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we had a very clear, and I would say vital, national interest to ensure that we were not attacked again from the source of that attack. And while the attack tactically was planned in Hamburg and [Coraci 00:27:49]Bin Laden himself and the Al Qaeda flag, if you will, were in Afghanistan and provided safe haven by the Taliban Regime. So we have a very clear national interest in 2001 but not long into our incursion in Afghanistan in late 2001 Al Qaeda was dispersed and by and large dispersed and displaced into Pakistan, along with the Taliban leadership itself.

So not long after our intervention actually the vital national interest followed Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda moved into Pakistan. So since then the role, our role, our interest in Afghanistan has been preventive, that is to prevent the return of Al Qaeda, and now more recently to prevent the rise of the Islamic State which has gained an unruly foothold in some parts of Afghanistan. But the vital national interest in Afghanistan proper was largely achieved when Al Qaeda was displaced into Pakistan and then that featured about ten years of a campaign mostly with covert action to decimate Al Qaeda leadership resident in Pakistan culminating in the raid that killed Bin Laden.

So the vital national interest here has shifted over time.

James Dobbins: You know, I agree with most of that, with some reservations. I opened the American Embassy in Kabul in December of 2001, and I recalled that the ceremony opening it that we had abandoned Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet Union and it's withdraw from Afghanistan. Left it alone for ten years and the result was the attack of 9/11. We've lost more people in a few hours on September 11, 2001, more people than we've lost in Afghanistan since 2001 so the investment to the extent it has contributed to the absence of large scale attacks on the United States since 9/11 has proved worthwhile if still quite costly.

I think that the question is, would abandoning Afghanistan leave that territory exposed as it is to cross-border incursion from Pakistan from Iran, from Central Asia. And weak as the government is, the likely again to host large scale terrorists with global aspirations. The Islamic State rather than Al Qaeda is the most immediate candidate since it is embedded there and active there, although the last year Al Qaeda encampments were also discovered. So I think we have a question of our credibility, we've committed ourselves to Afghanistan. We've got a population that is largely free, that enjoys a free press, that enjoys increasing education and civil rights, all encouraged by the United States.

I can remember even quite liberal Democrats who were otherwise skeptical about the war coming up to me when I was briefing on congress and saying we just can't abandon those women. So I think there's a number of considerations that continue to make this higher priority than [Gorgial 00:31:48] Politics might dictate.

Brian Hanson: So as[crosstalk 00:31:53]go ahead, please, Doug.

Douglas Lute: I don't disagree but the question is, you know connecting the degree of American resources, right, the means if you will so 45 billion dollars, 15,000 troops many fewer casualties these days, that's very good news. But the fact remains that if we compare Afghanistan today with a modest US presence and the Afghan capacity that we've built up over the last 17 years to any number of other places around the world, there probably in my...there are in my view more likely potential safe havens for transnational terrorists than an Afghanistan, not abandoned by the US but an Afghanistan with a modest sustainable US presence.

So the question is really, just comes down as it so often does, in government issues, right, how much is enough. How much American, sustained American commitment at the 17 year mark is enough to stabilize Afghanistan sufficiently to make it a less likely safe haven and any number of ten plus other places around the globe. And that's a very subjective judgment that falls on this administration.

James Dobbins: And that point is an issue that Doug and I and others debated over many hours when we were both in office.

Brian Hanson: And obviously the situation is you both have helped us understand, is complex and will be continuing to unfold there. As we close, I noted up top that this a situation in Afghanistan which often is not in the press day-to-day, and when it is it tends to be something happens, one event happens that is the peg for the reporting. For each of you I want to ask, what should our listeners being paying attention to? What is the most important thing for people to understand and to follow as things unfold in Afghanistan?

Douglas Lute: Jim, I'll let you take a shot at that first.

James Dobbins: I think probably the thing to watch most carefully over the next 18 months or so is the Afghan legislative and then Presidential Elections. I think that if the Afghan government loses it's legitimacy it's represented [inaudible 00:34:27]if it no longer can hold a country together, if you can't have an election and have a result people respect and accept then the investment is going to, then our ability to continue to invest is going to be much more difficult, and it's going to be difficult for us and others to sustain.

So the last elections were difficult, it was a dispute, the dispute was ultimately settled with a compromise arrangement which the winner and the runner-up agreed to govern together because it was impossible to determine which one of them really had won. I hope that upcoming elections are more decisive that the results yield a more clearcut result. I also hope that they're relatively peaceful as was the last, as have been all of the elections in Afghanistan to date and that they have a good voter turn out, as have all of the elections in Afghanistan to date.

I think if we get over that hurdle if you have a representative, legitimate, widely respected Afghan Government, at the end of next year, then the chances of ending this with a negotiated settlement are much better.

Douglas Lute: Yeah, you know I have to join Jim on that assessment. I think the most dynamic of all these multiple variables we've talked about, are Afghan National politics. And those culminate in these two election opportunities coming up, coming up very shortly by the way.

You know it strikes me that, in closing, for a long time, we had a narrative that suggested, a national narrative, that suggested that there might be a military solution to this. That we might be able to, if you will, win this on the battlefield. And certainly a commitment of 140,000 largely western troops in the 2009 and 11 period suggested we were trying to do just that, win this on the battlefield.

The narrative that has emerged though, which was represented in the President's speech to the nation last August was that there is no merely, truly military solution to this fight and that ultimately we would need to bring a political solution. And I think the thing for us to remember now is that it is time to prioritize the politics of this conflict just as in the past we've so prioritized the military approach. And if anything the military approach should be brought into support of the political process.

So what I mean by that is that there should be, we should at least consider the potential of subordinating our military approach through political ends and this might have to do with adjustments on the ground. This might have to do with tactics on the ground, it may have to do with cease fires, like the cease fire that was in place for several days not long ago.

But it's time to prioritize the politics and see if we can bring this long conflict to a close.

Brian Hanson: So bringing this long conflict to a close is something that we would all like to see I'm certain and we will continue to play out. Ambassador Douglas Lute, currently of Harvard's Belfer Center and Ambassador James Dobbins currently of Rand. I want to thank you both for really I think an extremely illuminating conversation, to help us understand what is happening in Afghanistan.

So thank you both for being here.

James Dobbins: Pleasure.

Douglas Lute: Yeah, thanks very much, it's always good to work with Jim.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder the opinions you heard belong to the people who express them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to Podcasts.

If you like the show please let us know by tapping the subscribe button on your Podcast app, so you can get each new episode. If you think you know someone who would like this particular episode, please tap the share button and send it to them as well. If you have any questions about anything you heard today, or if you want to submit questions for upcoming guests please join our Facebook group Deep Dish on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio, I'm Brian Hanson and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

I want to invite all of our listeners to join our Facebook group, you can find us on Facebook under Deep Dish on Global Affairs, this is a public group everyone is welcome so please join in. You can find out about upcoming episodes in advance, you can submit questions to our upcoming guests, so please go check us out under Deep Dish on Global Affairs.

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