Rebuilding Afghanistan: An Interview with Amb. James Dobbins

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James Dobbins is the Director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center and one of the country's foremost authorities on nation building. In 2001, he represented the United States at the Bonn Conference that established the new Afghan government. He has held positions at both the State Department and White House, including Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Special Assistant to the President and Ambassador to the European Community. He is the author of numerous books including The Beginner's Guide to Nation Building

RealClearWorld's Gregory Scoblete spoke with Ambassador Dobbins about the conflict in Afghanistan.

RCW: What is your impression of the Obama administration's Afghanistan policy?

Dobbins: First, I think there's been a degree of continuity with the Bush administration. The Bush administration changed substantially from essentially neglect to making Afghanistan an increased priority. I think that the Obama administration's decision to keep [Defense Secretary] Gates, General Petraeus and [Lt. General] Douglas Lute at the National Security Council meant that you didn't have to start the learning curve from the bottom.

[The Obama administration] did introduce some new elements and emphasized elements that Bush had been moving toward, such as the prominence given to Pakistan and promoting a more effective Pakistani counterinsurgency effort. I think the Obama strategy is very complex and has a lot of moving parts and is very difficult to integrate effectively. That's a necessary condition, this is not a simple operation. You have U.S. and allied elements, civilian and military pieces and they all have to move in sync. In many ways, the implementation and execution of their strategy is more important than its articulation and design.

RCW: Do you feel confident that President Obama has the right implementers on his team?

Dobbins: I think he does. You now have four or five ambassadors in the embassy instead of one. The level of experience is up. The decision to replace [General McKiernan] with General McChrystal indicates a desire to find the absolute best person. There's been a surge in troops and in the numbers of civilians. So yes, I think they are sending in more people of a higher caliber, but getting them to work smoothly together is still a work in progress.

RCW: There seems to be a fairly open debate inside the administration about whether to send more troops into Afghanistan on top of the additional forces approved by President Obama earlier this year. Given that counter-insurgency is a manpower intensive exercise, can the administration's strategy even hope to succeed if President Obama doesn't approve requests for additional troops?

Dobbins: Your chances for success are substantially increased if you are adequately resourced. I don't think you can say that X number assures success and that Y number means failure. What you can say is that X number makes the chances of success more likely, and Y number makes the chances less likely.

There are two levels of push-back or resistance to increasing our troop levels in Afghanistan. One level of argument says that, yes of course, more troops are more likely to bring success but the benefits don't offset the costs. It says, in essence, that it's cheaper to have a 9/11 every ten years than to fight a war in Afghanistan for ten years - that you'd lose a lot more people and lot more money in Afghanistan. You can make that argument. I don't find it convincing but it is responsible. No one really knows the risks [of another attack] exactly, so it's a judgment call about the risks.

The second line of argument is that there is no risk in withdrawing, or that you can reduce your risks while doing less on the ground -  that there is some formula that allows you to commit less manpower and still do a better job. And I find that argument completely unrealistic.

RCW: That second argument seems to be the one advanced recently by columnist George Will - that the U.S. can effectively eliminate safe havens in Afghanistan while staying "off-shore." Why is that unrealistic? 

Dobbins: Well, what are your assumptions? Assuming we cut back our forces in Afghanistan we would have to assume a friendly government in Pakistan that would let us mount operations in Afghanistan. Can we still retain the same influence in Pakistan, with no forces in Afghanistan? I don't think so. A lot of our success in striking [militants] in Pakistan has come from close cooperation with the government and from their intelligence. Would we get the same thing in Afghanistan if we move to a more punitive position of long range strikes?

RCW: Outside of the mechanics of nation building, I'm wondering about the geopolitical context of the mission in Afghanistan. There are a lot of regional players that could help or hinder our efforts.

Dobbins: I don't think the regional circumstances are ideal. But we have had some success in reorienting Pakistani policy. The Pakistani-India relationship is not as bad as it was a year ago. The U.S. has not been successful in engaging Iran and Iran has considerable influence there as well. I think the regional dynamics continue to be a major factor. American efforts do have a strong regional dimension and a strong diplomatic component as well, with Ambassador Holbrooke overseeing them.

RCW: There have been a number of revelations recently about endemic corruption in Afghanistan, as well numerous reports of election fraud.  Can the U.S. rebuild a nation when its governing institutions are seen as corrupt, illegitimate, or both?

Dobbins: Corruption is a major factor in influencing the popular attitude [toward the Afghan government], but you need realistic metrics. Is it more corrupt than Pakistan or Tajikistan? And you may say yes, even by that low standard, the corruption has reached a bad point. But let's step back: the U.S. doesn't invade poor countries to make them rich or authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful. The criteria are whether you can take a society in conflict and leave it at peace with itself and its neighbors.

So if you're trying to conduct an operation of this sort, whether it be in Libera or Sierra Leone, you're not trying to turn them into a Malaysia or South Korea, you're trying to get them to be like other African countries around them that are not at war. Azerbaijan and Tajikistan are sad places, but they're not at war. That's the standard.

RCW: Stepping back from Afghanistan, why is it in America's interest to invest its limited resources in building up another nation's capacity?

Dobbins: I think it's important to distinguish nation building from the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases you had a brief conflict and then a post-conflict reconstruction phase. In both cases we did not adequately resource that reconstruction effort. This is not Vietnam - we did not come into these countries while they were in the midst of an insurgency. The insurgency came after we got there. It came as a result of U.S policy decisions, largely negative ones, such as the failure to establish peacekeeping forces. The U.S. left a huge security vacuum. It did this as a matter of policy because it was against nation building. But that allowed spoiler elements to employ violent resistance.

But this is not the norm. There have been several dozen post conflict successes after the Cold War, with far lower levels of resource allocation. The U.S. is naturally focused on the situations in which it's involved or that get the most attention - like Darfur - but in the broader sweep, the number of international conflicts is down significantly. Civil wars are down 50 percent and the numbers killed in those wars is down even lower, even when you include Iraq. And this is mostly because of successful peacekeeping missions.

The U.S. made serious mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we're paying the price. That doesn't mean the whole nation building enterprise is worthless. The other question that gets mistakenly tied up with nation building is counter-insurgency and whether or not it can succeed - and there the record is more mixed. Half of those efforts do succeed, the other half don't. Those aren't great odds, but they aren't bad enough to just throw up your hands and abandon the whole effort.

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