Political Minutes: U.S. Foreign Policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The World Leaders Forum hosted an event last evening on “U.S. Foreign Policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The event was co-sponsored by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), International Media, Advocacy and Communications (IMAC), SIPA, and the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA).

Bill Grueskin, Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Professional Practice at the Columbia School of Journalism, made the opening remarks and set the stage for the conversation between Ahmed Rashid, distinguished Pakistani journalist and author, and Steve Coll, President of the New America Foundation and a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Coll began by noting that while Pakistan is indeed always “on the brink” – referring to Rashid’s new book Pakistan On the Brink – the dire problems it faces seem to be continuously evolving and accumulating. The root of evil as hypothesized by Rashid: Pakistan’s failure to learn and adapt following the Cold War. The nation fails to recognize that neither scare tactics nor overdependence on America are sustainable and effective. Trade and economic advancement are necessary.

Since 1989, Rashid notes, Pakistan has struggled to balance its civilian politics with the inadequate foreign policy stances it established during the India-Pakistan partition in 1947. The Pakistani elite has neglected to take care of the people. In what Rashid dubbed a “double whammy” for the Pakistani populace, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has become increasingly corrupt and inept while the Pakistani military, carrying a checkered resume that includes government coup d’etats in 1958 and 1999, has slowly lost the popular support it once commanded.

Due to the declining standard of living and security for most Pakistani civilians, there has been more civilian resistance than ever before. But, as Rashid points out, this burgeoning popular movement may pave a brighter path. Even a corrupt democracy, in his opinion, is better than military rule which corners the elite into a “cul-de-sac” where they have to reinvent the wheel.

Still, the rising prominence of civil society in Pakistan is leading to problems. Between the strengthening of right wing, fundamentalist, Islamist groups and the heightening of left wing resistance, civil society has become increasingly polarized.

Coll soon shifted the focus of the conversation to Pakistan’s neighbor across the porous Durand Line border – Afghanistan. Rashid immediately noted the questionable and improbable nature of a successful withdrawal in the near future. He discussed the two-pronged disappointment currently standing in the way of favorable results.

First, he discussed declining discipline and morale. He referred to the conflict in Afghanistan as the longest war American has ever been involved in (10 years and counting), and pointed to incidents of US troops urinating on dead Afghan bodies and the burning of the Qur’an by American forces.

Second, Rashid emphasized the necessity of a political strategy in order to avoid leaving a civil war in Afghanistan upon withdrawal. For such a withdrawal settlement, the Pakistani military needs to be brought on board to make joint arrangements, such as a ceasefire.

Over the course of the conversation, Rashid indicated multiple times that the biggest failure of the intervention in Afghanistan was the inability to establish an indigenous economy that would be self-sustaining long after withdrawal. This “domestic crisis,” coupled with what Rashid termed an “American strategic crisis” and  “regional crisis” has formed the trifecta of tribulations for U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan.

Rashid went on to discuss the Taliban’s current state  – their exhaustion, their changed views, and most importantly, their willingness to have dialogue and make settlements. Now is the time, Rashid emphasized, for the US to engage in trust-building operations on the ground. Only after each side has tested the dedicated involvement of the other and mutual trust has been bolstered will there be a military settlement, a reduction in violence, and finally, a political settlement.

Drawing parallels with the late 1970s Mujahideen-Soviet conflict in Afghanistan, Rashid explicated that America stands to learn from the Soviet Union’s mistakes. Just as the Soviet war in Afghanistan led to the dismantling of a great Cold War superpower, Rashid observed that America’s failure to leave Afghanistan peacefully might have similarly adverse effects on America’s political clout.

To close off the evening’s dialogue, Coll directed his final question toward the most suitable settlements that should be made between the US and Pakistan. Rashid responded by explaining the importance of resetting America’s relationship with Pakistan and assuaging the current bad blood caused by US pressure. The US needs to focus on a more sustainable long-term strategy that is not dependent on the relationship of intelligence networks or the day-to-day arrests of terrorist suspects, as appealing as such statistics and reports are to the American media and government officials. Rather than intervening and dictating Pakistan to track the Haqqani network, for instance, the US needs to provide support by bolstering economic development, trade links, electricity infrastructure, Pakistan’s relationship with India, and galvanizing the international community to maintain focus on the Afghanistan-Pakistan crisis.