Robert Jervis Waxes Pessimistic on Afghanistan

Narayan: You put forth the idea of withdrawal without winning in Afghanistan. One of your biggest arguments was that Taliban resurgence does not necessarily entail al-Qaeda resurgence. … Can one not argue that we will be repeating the same mistake we made when we pulled out of Afghanistan in the 1990s?

Jervis: I think this is perhaps the biggest question we are facing. That is, what will happen when Taliban takes over significant parts of the country even more than it has now. And obviously no one can know for sure. But no, I don’t think it’s like it was before partly because of what happened after, and everyone including the Taliban knows this. Yes, there are ties to Al Qaeda. Some ties are of religion although they are not completely so. Some of it is ideology. But I don’t think we should exaggerate those. They [the Taliban] are concerned with different things. They care about attacking the US because we are there [in Afghanistan] and I think they realize if they repeat what happened after the [Soviet] pullout in the 1990s, well, we will repeat what we did in 2001 and 2002 and they don’t want that. And also we are going to keep significant counter-terrorism assets in the northern part of the country. So they don’t get a complete free ride.

Narayan: Doesn’t that assume that their [the Taliban’s] motives are completely rational? Because some would argue that there is a deep-seated sense of hatred towards the west or the U.S.

Jervis: That could be. But I am suspicious of the argument, “Oh, they are irrational”—Right. Everyone is irrational, so you’ve got to be suspicious of that. To answer the second part of your question, well they do see the world very differently. Hate the U.S.? Well, they are not happy that we are blocking their path to power. Okay, I’ll accept that. But do they want to reach out and attack our homeland? Zero, I want to say zero evidence of that. … They want to rule their area in their way. They don’t seem to be like al-Qaeda. And by the way, the other reason I am skeptical of the al-Qaeda-Taliban connection is Pakistan. … Pakistan, for all the problems we have with it, does not want to see terrorist attacks on the U.S. I don’t think Pakistan controls the Taliban, but it would have some influence. It’s another reason why I just don’t think that you are apt to see a repeat of what we saw in the 1990s. Narayan: In the political climate that we are in, it [withdrawal without victory] seems infeasible. Based on that, what would be your recommendation for how we change our policy towards Afghanistan?

Jervis: I think our job as advisers, is to use our expertise as academics to say what we see. For political balancing, I have to leave that to others. But Obama, I think he might have gotten into this without thinking. I think the practical course is the one Obama is going to follow: take some draw down next summer, do as much as we can on training, and have a strategy that mimics Iraq in that we put a lot of attention in first keeping the situation under control. After all that, they will hopefully be in a position to not necessarily win, but at least hold the status quo. I think it probably means abandoning the offensive that we [America] talked about. We should try to stop the momentum of the Taliban, not to roll them back. So we hope by the summer of 2012, which is the real deadline, we can turn enough over to the Afghans that we can have a serious withdrawal and keep American casualties quite low. Obama going into the election needs to have a path out and low casualties and I think that’s what they are aiming for. I think he might be able to actually get that.

Narayan: … We keep seeing al-Qaeda and the Taliban as the cause of the problem, when in a lot of ways they’re actually the consequence of the problem in Afghanistan. When you look at the economic climate in Afghanistan, the profits from the opium production are equivalent to about 50 percent of the country’s GDP. And … 2007 to 2008 was one of the highest levels of opium production in Afghanistan and … this is clearly indicative that there’s been a significant lack of oversight in the region. What should be our course of action to reform the economy in such a way that it’s stable and sustainable?

Jervis: I have not seen any paper that lays out how you would get Afghanistan really on the path to development where we say poppy production would not be the most rational course of action. I am not even sure the simple things—you know, roads, irrigation, and such—will provide a really viable path and that’s one reason why I am pessimistic politically. I’m sure Jeff Sachs has a grand plan but I distrust grand plans. It’s such a long way to go that I am not optimistic that there is anything we can do even in an unreasonable amount of time, even ten years. And anyway we only have couple of years.

Narayan: … Another statistic shows that of the profits from opium production, only 20% goes to the farmers and the other 80% goes to militant groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and corrupt government officials. So we’re really not making progress in Afghanistan as long as the people we are trying to fight are being empowered.

Jervis: Well, they also get a lot of money from us. That’s a part of the problem I don’t see a way of solving. The convoys have to go in a way where we have to pay people off. It’s also true, I believe, that we retook Marjah, or at least parts of it, and the opium crop was ripening at that point. We let them harvest it and do their normal [thing] with it. I think that still illustrates the problem. We were there. We could have destroyed the crops and alienated everyone.

Narayan: … Farmers in Marjah were said to be asking for agricultural supplies. They are asking for infrastructure to change. All the farmers are ready to move away from opium production.

Jervis: I just don’t know if it’s within the realm of what we could deliver. I certainly agree the farmers are very pragmatic. It’s not as though they are committed to opium, committed to Taliban or Al Qaeda, and it is certainly true, as you say, that they get only a small cut of the total revenue. I am not sure what is needed to give them economically viable alternatives, is within reach. It turns out to be hard partly, of course, because Taliban will sabotage our efforts. But, I wonder how close we are even if the Taliban weren’t standing in the way. We tried that in South American countries, in Turkey, and other places. It’s not been a total failure, but it’s not been a total success.

Narayan: In regards to nation building, it seems that the idea of establishing a strong central government is not the best idea because historically Afghanistan has been a tribal country. What would be your prescription for a nation building strategy?

Jervis: … I think you build on what they have which is highly decentralized and the trouble now is the old structures have been destroyed, transformed, etc. We don’t quite know what is going to replace it. Certainly nothing good. … I wish I had the real answers, but I don’t. I really don’t think anyone does.