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December 4, 2009

Stanford conference on Afghanistan, Pakistan draws passion, anger

By Cynthia Haven

The timing was unexpected:  The Stanford conference on "Alienated Nations, Fractured States: Afghanistan and Pakistan" had been scheduled months ago – but its occurrence Thursday coincided with President Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and begin withdrawing them in 18 months.

The presidential speech fueled the final panel discussion of the conference, sponsored by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, which drew impassioned, sometimes even angry, responses from the participating scholars and about 150 members of the public.

The announced topic of the panel, "The Global Politics of Afghanistan and Pakistan," gave way to the simple question:  "What do we do?"

"What is to be done – after all the detailed expertise and knowledge? How does that relate to what is to be done?" asked Shahzad Bashir, associate professor of religious studies at Stanford, who moderated the discussion with Robert Crews, associate professor of history.

An Afghan journalist, Fariba Nawa, summarized her ambivalence: "I really want to believe Obama – I'm sick of gloom and doom. I'm an Afghan, and I want peace.  However, recalling Obama's speech, "He was trying to please everyone, and that's not going to work."

"The first priority is security"

Conceding that the Taliban is a "brutal force that killed a lot of people," she pointed out that "the first priority is security," which the Taliban had ensured.  Nevertheless, the Afghan people "shouldn't have to choose between the corrupt Karzai government or the Taliban." 

 "I know there is will in the Afghan people, and resilience," Nawa said. She recalled relatives cheering on their rooftops as U.S. bombs fell in 2002.  "They were so hopeful."  Now they "feel they have been betrayed again," she said.  "They don't want Americans to leave, but they don't want them to do what they are doing. Military escalation is not the answer – but it's not troop withdrawal, either."

Amin Tarzi of the Middle East Studies of Marine Corps University called for "achievable goals that can be achieved in a short time, because we are losing credibility."

"The notion that we are building democracy in Afghanistan – that's far away."

Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network was pessimistic:  "I'm afraid I believe in the gloom and doom big time," he said.  Politically expedient withdrawal strategies are problematic, because "Afghanistan will not work to our timelines" and will not respond to American midterm elections and German election deadlines.

"Don't think there are silver bullets in Afghanistan," he told the audience.  "The system is too centralized and overpersonalized."

"Sooner or later we will have to sit down with the Taliban, and talk to them and with them."  In the meantime, he said, we can "use the time to build up a counterweight" among women, ethnic minorities, and other political factions. The goal should be to "help create circumstances so that the Afghans can decide."

Call for democracy

Ruttig, a German scholar, said he had lived a decade of his life in Afghanistan – "I feel a quarter Afghan."  In an emotional plea, he exhorted "anyone who has a voice" to appeal for a continued presence in Afghanistan.  "Let's talk about democracy in Afghanistan again," he said.

Jamal Elias, of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, urged the United States to walk a middle ground:  "The U.S. needs to distance itself from Karzai's government," which has been "treated as the only game in town," and yet not abandon the current government, either.

He also reminded the audience, "In addition to a war being won and lost as a macho poker game – people live there."

Farzana Shaikh, of the Royal Institute of International Affair's Asia Programme, said  "It's self-evident that there will not be peace in Afghanistan unless Pakistan wants it.  Pakistan will only cooperate in the peace process if its concerns vis-à-vis India are taken seriously" – for example, she said, the disputed region of Kashmir. 

She urged Obama to "resuscitate regional diplomacy – which is, after all, what was promised when President Obama took over."

Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment, took issue with Shaikh's prescription, arguing that time was running out: "You cannot put Kashmir into the equation.  The U.S. has not the power to broker the deal.  We don't have time.  The Afghan war will be lost or won in the next 18 months."

A worthwhile aim might be "leaving with some sort of government in place that can survive – that's the best we can do," Dorronsoro said.

In the question-and-answer session, a self-described "Silicon Valley sort" expressed anger at Obama, who he had previously thought would be "very good for the country." He asked the panel to respond not to "What should be done," but "What's going to happen?"

No magic wand

Tarzi said, "It depends on many factors – not just a magic wand of what the U.S. wants.  We do not have that kind of power."

"State-building is multi-generational. Do we want to do it or not?" he asked. "Even if we had the best intentions and everything was perfect – it's not our doing."

Dorronsoro predicted, "There will be local successes in the next year.  After that, the problem will be that the legitimacy of the central government will be totally dead." 

"We cannot withdraw, because there will be nothing left," he said. "The next step will be negotiating with the Taliban."

Shaikh was openly doubtful about the future of her own country: "I think Pakistan is heading into extremely rocky waters. I am a pessimist."  The elections last year were "a huge disappointment," she said.

"Pakistan's political system is deeply dysfunctional," she said.  The U.S. has tried to persuade Pakistan that "the real enemy is not India, but militant Islam," she said. "The army is loathe to accept this."

The country is locked into a  "fierce and brutal power struggle" between militant and political wings.  Issues are increasingly evaluated on the basis of whether they represent "good" or "bad" Islam. "It has torn our country apart," she said.

For the future, "It spells disaster."

One of the most unsettling moments of the discussion occurred when Shah Mahmoud Hanifi of James Madison University reacted to Nawa's account of Afghan people cheering during the bombing.

"Let me turn the tables on you," he said to the audience.  "What would it take to get you to stand on roofs and cheer someone bombing your country?" 

In poignant disbelief, he concluded, "It's utterly impossible to celebrate the bombing of your country."



Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,


Robert Crews, history, (650) 724-5435,

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