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December 1, 2009

Q&A: Hoover's Henriksen on Obama's expected troop increase in Afghanistan

By Adam Gorlick

President Obama is expected to announce Tuesday that he'll send roughly 30,000 more troops to fight the war in Afghanistan. The buildup against the Taliban will be the latest twist in an eight-year-old conflict that is becoming increasingly unpopular with American voters and Obama's fellow Democrats. But the president's address will also reportedly answer questions about when and how the war will end.

Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, is closely following the situation. He focuses on American diplomatic and military courses of action toward terrorist havens. He spoke with Stanford Report about the Obama administration's efforts to win the war by adding to the 68,000 American troops already in place and creating a stable government in Afghanistan while keeping a close eye on its eastern neighbor, Pakistan.


How does the situation in Afghanistan compare to Iraq just before the Bush administration implemented its surge strategy in 2007?

In the case of Bush, things were more desperate. You had a very bitter civil war raging in Iraq for a long time. There was a lot of indiscriminate terror in the country and it was very bad. It's a little different now. We don't see massive killings on such a wide scale. The Taliban are not al-Qaida. They're waging a more traditional counterinsurgency, while al-Qaida waged more indiscriminate attacks in Iraq – almost without motive sometimes. The Taliban is trying to capture the loyalty of the people not just by killing, but by actually providing a sort of shadow government by administrating justice, settling disputes and trying to provide some normalcy so long as people adhere to their very strict interpretation of Islam. That's not something al-Qaida did. That was just a very bloody movement.


What benchmarks need to be met before troops could start pulling back?

The most important benchmark is a stable, friendly government to the United States. I don't think we can count on creating a facsimile of America in Afghanistan in three or four years. A friendly government – one that will not allow sanctuary to terrorist elements – is the goal. And that will be difficult to achieve.

Obama reportedly wants U.S. allies to send 10,000 troops to Afghanistan. How important is a commitment from them, and how likely are they to make it?

Most of these troops would come from NATO. These troops might not play a direct combat role, but could be very useful in doing these so-called "hearts and minds" campaigns to win people over. They could provide medical, veterinarian and dental services. Or they could do development projects like build roads, schools, houses and paint mosques. They could do those things that the civilian government can't really do there. They could also train police and city and village officials. If we don't get all 10,000, it won't be a disaster. It will definitely take some pressure off American troops, which will be more engaged in combat.


Some U.S. lawmakers are calling for the number of Afghan troops to double in the near future, and many predict that a troop buildup won't work unless Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan do more to fight the militants. What immediate action can we expect these countries to take?

Afghanistan has to have more police and more soldiers. That's an ongoing project, and it's unrealistic to think we could double their numbers in a short period of time. There are roughly 200,000 Afghan police and soldiers in Afghanistan. To double that or nearly double that in a tight timeline is hard to do. In Pakistan, you need an army that is better trained to fight counterinsurgency against Taliban elements rather than an army that simply wants to fight India. That's a problem. They see their enemy as India more than these insurgencies. 


How strong of an ally is Pakistan, and what are the particular sensitivities the United States needs to deal with in regard to that country?

I don't think Pakistan is a staunch ally the same way we would think of Great Britain or France or Germany. It's allied with us, but we have many problems there. There's a government that has corruption, and a government that has certain factions that are very sympathetic to the Taliban both in their own country and in Afghanistan. They see it as a hedge against India. They see it as an anti-Indian force, so they're supportive of it. We need to get them to train an army, help us counter terrorism and perhaps help us get Osama bin Laden by turning over information they might have. And the nuclear problem is extremely important to the United States. Pakistan is estimated to have about 100 bombs. If they fall into the wrong hands, or are even used against India, that would be a huge problem for the United States. That would ricochet back on us.


How can the United States increase troop levels in Afghanistan without looking like an occupying force and undermining President Hamid Karzai?

That's a key question. We cannot turn Karzai into a puppet. The Taliban has already accused him of being one, and that undercuts him. It also undercuts the U.S. forces and the other forces at our side. When we push Karzai, we have to do it subtly. But he has taken stands against the United States in the past, and he likely will do so in the future to assert his independence.


What power struggles can we expect from Karzai?

He's likely to fight about who administers aid. We would like to do it ourselves, because we like to think it's more efficient and also lets us deal one-on-one with the villagers. If he does it as a go-between, some of that money will be siphoned off. He will buck that system. He'll want to be in charge of the patronage in order to keep people loyal to him. We see it as corruption; he sees it as a way to stay in power. So there will be many tussles over that. On the other hand, he's been helpful. The number of women being educated has dramatically increased under Karzai. He has some good qualities we could embrace.


How should "winning the war in Afghanistan" be defined?

We need a stable government that will not allow al-Qaida to return. We're mostly concerned that al-Qaida will have a sanctuary in Afghanistan. They already have one in Pakistan, and they will project their force. If we lose in the sense that we pull out of Afghanistan and some militant faction takes over and welcomes al-Qaida back, al-Qaida will not just win in Afghanistan, but will win psychologically in a lot of other areas. And that will mean other insurgencies will only get worse around the world. Al-Qaida would get an enormous boost if the United States were to just pull out.



Adam Gorlick, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Thomas Henriksen, Hoover Institution: (650) 723-4255,

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