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Sat. February 04, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Christophe Bluth
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International Affairs Forum: Do you believe that the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the shift in focus in the War on Terror from Iraq to Afghanistan is a sign that the invasion of Iraq limited the ability of the West to effectively combat the threat of terrorism? Professor Christophe Bluth: Well it certainly limited the ability for the West to rebuild Afghanistan. Also it limited activities against Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda because a lot of intelligence assets that were initially deployed in Afghanistan were withdrawn and put into Iraq. Essentially Afghanistan was ignored after 2003 and the West failed to invest enough resources for the development of infrastructure such as electricity, roads and whatever else was needed in Afghanistan. Additionally the West failed to create a state where the government could control the whole of the country which meant the although the Afghan Government was a welcome change from the Taliban it didn’t really have any control outside the borders of Kabul, as such it was incapable of enforcing its edict in the rest of the country. This has meant that we have a Police force that is susceptible to corruption and incapable of securing the cities and villages of Afghanistan and a military that is incapable of fighting the insurgency. This means that the West is still involved in Afghanistan but without enough forces to conduct effective operations. We have just in excess of 8000 British troops 50-60,000 troops belonging to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and that is simply not enough. As well as the problems of economic and military under resourcing we have the third problem of the Talibanisation of the tribal areas bordering Pakistan which basically form a safe haven for the Taliban to regroup, train and arm themselves. IA-Forum: Do you see the adaptation of an Iraq style ‘surge’ to the situation in Afghanistan as an attempt to rectify previous mistakes? Prof. Bluth: The important thing to note about the surge is that it doesn’t only involve additional troops but also involves making political deals. The only reason the surge worked in Iraq was basically because the Sunni tribal leaders were effectively bought out and convinced that it was better to support the Americans than Al-Qaeda. IA-Forum: How do you think these types of deals would translate to Afghanistan? Prof. Bluth: What is needed in Afghanistan is the support of all the warlords. The problem is as long as you allow warlords with their own private militias as has been the case in Afghanistan, there is always the potential for conflict and consequently it is very difficult to build a state on the rule of law. In the long term all the different factions in Afghanistan will have to be integrated in some form in order to keep the extremists at bay. Ultimately, the real difficulty is how you deal with the hinterland in Pakistan. It seems that the whole stability of Pakistan is threatened by the Talibanisation of parts of the country that the Pakistani Military has been unable to stop. This is a huge problem which suffers from the same problem as Afghanistan in that America is still bogged down in Iraq and unable to commit the necessary resources and NATO is unwilling to commit extra troops. IA-Forum: Do you think that democracy is possible in Afghanistan? Prof. Bluth: Well we have democracy of sorts, we have elections, people vote, but the question is can we have the rule of law like we have in modern state? Can we have a government that has the exclusive use of violence? Can we get rid of the militias? Can we deal with the drug problem? I think all these are possible if we put in the necessary resources and integrate the regional leaders, especially the Pashtun but it will require a great deal of political will, economic investment and improved security. All of these things are connected in a very difficult conundrum and we are not really approaching any of them with any success at the moment. IA-Forum: With the recent agreement of the Pakistani government to introduce Sharia Law in the Swat region, is this a sign that political engagement with the Taliban is necessary for stability? Prof. Bluth: What is the Taliban? Someone could be a member of government one day and a Taliban the next. Afghanistan is a country with a very complex cultural and tribal structure that isn’t really suited to a modern day state. There are clearly some extremists that we cannot negotiate with, those who will settle for nothing less than the complete ejection of all foreign troops and the recreation of the kind of Taliban state that existed before the invasion of 2001. However there are people who joined the Taliban because they saw it as the only alternative to a government that they were not happy with. These individuals could possibly be integrated into a viable government although the outcome is still far from clear. However, there will always be a core of extremists who will settle for nothing less than total Western disengagement from Afghanistan. IA-Forum: What influence do regional actors have on the situation in Afghanistan? Prof. Bluth: I believe that India is particularly important as Pakistan’s dual policy of, on the one hand placating the Americans and on the other hand supporting insurgents, has been in order to create an Afghanistan that is under Pakistani influence in order to give Pakistan strategic depth in its volatile confrontation with India. Currently, Pakistan sees the Karzai government in Kabul as being pro-Indian and as such sees Afghanistan as part of its conflict with India when it should concentrate on the monster that it has created on its own borders which is threatening the stability of the whole country. Iran as far as I can see is nothing but a trouble maker and is playing both sides. During the Taliban’s reign in Afghanistan before the American invasion, Iran was poised to invade Afghanistan with 200,000 troops after the Taliban killed Iranian diplomats in Kabul although in the end they decided against the invasion. On the other hand, they are not above using the Taliban for their own political purposes so it is unclear to me what role Iran wishes to play. Iran is certainly not a benign influence, let’s put it this way. IA-Forum: What should be the West’s next step in Afghanistan? Prof. Bluth: We certainly need a massive rethink within NATO and the ISAF as the current counter insurgency is failing and the Taliban are gaining ground. Additionally, America’s approach to Pakistan is going to be critical. The problem for Pakistan is that it is seen to be too pro-American. Whether it is appropriate to have Predator drones shooting at targets in Pakistan is questionable because although they are quite successful in hitting their targets, the political repercussions are very severe. Their needs to be an urgent review of policy towards Pakistan. IA-Forum: What is Al-Qaeda’s role in the current conflict? Prof. Bluth: It is very unclear at the moment whether Al-Qaeda is doing very much although it appears that Al-Qaeda fighters from Iraq have joined the insurgency in Afghanistan. The insurgency is a very heterogeneous phenomenon involving criminals, locals with grievances against Western influence and the Afghan Government as well as Islamic extremists including Al-Qaeda; however it is unclear whether Al-Qaeda elements within the insurgency are pursuing their own agenda. The Taliban are certainly not allowing them to dominate the direction of the insurgency. Therefore Al-Qaeda is not really the issue; the issue is how we go about stabilising the region. The instability appears to be spreading as we saw in the Mumbai attacks. The worst case scenario would be the complete Talibanisation of Pakistan and extremist control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal although I do believe that this is still unlikely as the majority of the Pakistani population, the Punjab, is not at all extremist. Although the Taliban have a foothold in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, they would find it exceedingly difficult to gain control of all Pakistan. Another possible outcome of the instability would be a nuclear war between India and Pakistan which although unlikely still a possibility. The tension between the two over the Mumbai attacks is indicative of the hostility in the region. This is a situation that outside powers such as Europe and the US need to approach very carefully. Professor Christophe Bluth is Professor of International Studies at Leeds University, specialising in the areas of terrorism and nuclear weapons policies.

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