Return to Transcripts main page


A Roundtable on NATO Tactics in Afghanistan

Aired October 5, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the Taliban tightens its grip on much of Afghanistan. Is it time to start talking to them?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour. And thank you for joining us here, where our mission will be to tackle the big stories and the human drama that makes up our world. We'll be talking to decision- makers and hearing from uncommon voices. We'll see where the story leads us.

And so, eight years after being routed from Afghanistan, eight years after 9/11, the Taliban has returned with a vengeance. And as U.S. and NATO troops are struggling to defeat them on the battlefield, the insurgents only seem to be gaining ground. And President Hamid Karzai is mired in allegations of election fraud and corruption. So does the U.S. have a strategy for victory, or is it time to cut a deal with the Taliban?

To answer those questions, I'm joined by three of the world's leading experts on Afghanistan, in fact, experts on the Taliban themselves. Ahmed Rashid, who wrote the definitive account of the Taliban, he joins us from our Madrid studios. Thomas Johnson, an adviser to both the U.S. and Canadian armies and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California. And Michael Semple, who served with the U.N. and the European Union in Kabul, he has firsthand experience of trying to negotiate with the Taliban.

So welcome to you, gentlemen, all three.


AMANPOUR: Thank you for being here.

Now, you, I know, don't agree with the strategy of staying in Afghanistan?

JOHNSON: Well, I'm not sure I would state it that way. I'm concerned that I don't understand what our policy objectives are in Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: Well, the policy apparently is to disrupt the Taliban. Is that possible?

JOHNSON: Well, yes, I think disrupting the Taliban is possible. I think managing the conflict is possible. But when we start talking about nation-building and we start talking about many of the different types of dynamics that are associated with a counterinsurgency, then there's other problems that at risk.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask Ahmed Rashid -- thank you for being there in Madrid. You wrote "Taliban," and you are really one of the definitive voices on this. Is it possible to negotiate with these people? And who are they?

AHMED RASHID, JOURNALIST: Well, I think it is certainly possible to negotiate with the Taliban. And there are large sections of the Afghan Taliban who are rented Taliban or they're there for non-ideological reasons. They're there because they're being paid or they're looking for revenge or their own families have suffered.

But the point is that at the moment, the Taliban -- the perception amongst the Afghans are that the Taliban are winning. And you don't negotiate with somebody who thinks that he's winning. So the point is that I think what is correct and which the U.S. military and the Obama administration are stressing, that you've got to be in a more advantageous military position, having pushed the Taliban back somewhat before you can really have meaningful negotiations with them.

AMANPOUR: Well, how do you do that? How do you do that? Are these - - are these sort of -- for want of a better word -- normal insurgents, normal nationalists or not?

JOHNSON: I think there's a large body of evidence that suggests that insurgencies historically have ended via reconciliation and negotiation. The problem, though, is that most of these cases have been secular insurgencies. In Afghanistan, we have an insurgency that's driven by religious idioms, if you will.

At -- the most benign description of the Taliban, I think, is that they're insurgents wrapped in the narrative of a jihad. The most damning description of the Taliban are they're jihadists. They're what Eric Hoffer would suggest are true believers. These are not people that are going to easily reconcile and to throw away their beliefs.

AMANPOUR: OK. But who's asking them to throw away their beliefs? Let's -- let's talk to Michael Semple. You were in Kabul. You did actually negotiate with the Taliban on a very local issue, but nonetheless you did. Tell us how that went.

MICHAEL SEMPLE, AUTHOR, "RECONCILIATION IN AFGHANISTAN": I've negotiated with the Taliban in the days when the Taliban were in power, and I was the U.N. representative. It was part of our job to negotiate with the Taliban on a daily basis. I've also negotiated with some of the commanders.

AMANPOUR: But were they reasonable?

SEMPLE: Reasonable is not the word that I would use to describe them. They're certainly tricky negotiating partners. However, there was a mixed record in the negotiations in those days. We certainly managed to achieve some good things through negotiations. Sometimes -- sometimes it worked.

AMANPOUR: Such as?

SEMPLE: For example, they -- during the year 2001, you may recall there was a great crisis in the -- in the humanitarian program there when the -- the main relief operation by the United Nations was -- was closed down...


AMANPOUR: Yes, I remember that.

SEMPLE: ... with the Taliban. That went to negotiation. I was one of the negotiators. It took us, you know, a week of tough bargaining, game play, bit of politics behind the scene, and -- and it produced a negotiated outcome. So the dynamics of insurgency are one thing, but somebody to write off the Taliban as somehow -- somehow un-Afghan, un-human, that you can't deal with them, it's not true. We have empirical evidence to suggest that when the -- when the time is right, it is possible to achieve a negotiated outcome with them.


AMANPOUR: ... versus the military insurgency?

JOHNSON: Yes, let me -- let me make a couple of points here. I think the Taliban of 2001 are very different than what we're facing in 2009. I think this is a very emboldened group. If you take a look at any of their propaganda, any of their media statements, they believe they're winning. I mean, Mullah Omar himself has stated repeatedly over the last two years that the only way that he would ever negotiate with the regime in Kabul is when the internationals leave.

And -- and I think that many of the people that are pursuing, are talking about negotiations are the same people that -- that -- that criticized Islamabad for negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008. And in every instance, the Taliban broke aspects of the negotiation and used these negotiations to either regroup or to attack us at even further strength in Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: Ahmed Rashid, can you talk to that? Is it smart to negotiate with them? Or should they do, like the Pakistan government is doing right now, crushing them?

RASHID: I disagree with two points. First of all, the Afghan Taliban are very different from the Pakistani Taliban.


RASHID: I don't believe the Afghan Taliban are rank-and-file, are jihadists. As I said, many of them and many of their mid-level commanders are fighting for very non-jihadist reasons.

Yes, their hardcore leadership, which is based in Pakistan, are certainly jihadists and they're heavily influenced by Al Qaida and by -- and the ideology of Al Qaida. But the rank-and-file are not.

The Taliban in Afghanistan remain essentially still a peasant army. The Taliban in Pakistan, on the other hand, are far more ideologically driven, because many of them -- the majority of them have been through religious schools, they've been influenced by this jihadist ideological, they've been living side-by-side with Al Qaida and bin Laden for the last eight years. They're much more ideologically driven, which is why there -- it's much more dangerous negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban than it is with the Afghan Taliban.

AMANPOUR: Can I just show this map? Look, as it comes up, you can see here Afghanistan, here Pakistan. We all know that. But clearly, there is a movement of Taliban going back and forth there.

JOHNSON: Yes, well, it's very -- it's very difficult to generalize. I mean, there's many different shades of the Taliban. But I just returned from two months in the south, in Kandahar, living in Kandahar City and living in -- in the Dand district. And I interviewed numerous village elders. I -- I interviewed through a fixer some Taliban, also, and I went there assuming that these were -- foot soldiers were being paid. You hear that often in the media.

I found nobody that would suggest that -- that the Taliban foot soldiers are presently being paid. In fact, they are joining for ideological reasons presently. And this was confirmed to me not only by Canadian military, but also U.S. military and people in the intelligence community. These are committed ideologues.

AMANPOUR: Tom, some of them are. I was also there. I was also there, and I heard umpteen stories about the -- really, the young, young sort of rank-and-file...


AMANPOUR: ... who actually are being paid $5 or $10 just to plant an IED, because they can't support their families.


AMANPOUR: There's Taliban with a big T and Taliban with a small t.

JOHNSON: I don't disagree with that. But I -- I think that just to view the foot soldiers as accidental insurance -- accidental guerillas that my good friend, David Cullen (ph), would suggest I think is missing the point. I think this is a very, very different Taliban than -- than when Rashid wrote his book and what occurred in 2001. These are very emboldened.

AMANPOUR: And, Michael, do you think that it's a wise strategy now to -- to try to talk to them? Or -- or who are these rank-and-file? Ahmed said they're not fighting for ideological reasons, the rank-and-file.

SEMPLE: The point is that when people do something, whether you're sitting in the United States or you're sitting in Afghanistan, there's rarely one reason that explains why you're doing it. It's normally one, two, three. And there's a reason that you -- that you tend to put forward.

You know, in -- in the kind of milieu that we're talking about in southern Afghanistan around Kandahar, you know, you get great street cred for being a holy war fighter, that it's -- even if you are from the, you know, the lowest of the low, social outcasts from a very -- from families who've got no status inside the tribe there, the easiest way to get status there is to be carrying a gun and to be fighting the good fight for God and against the foreigners.

It doesn't necessarily mean that that's the only thing that motivates them, and it certainly doesn't mean that the people, you know, who are calling the shots, who are orchestrating it, who are organizing actually believe this, although they certainly have realized that the most effective tool to mobilize young men to go out and risk getting -- getting killed is to say that you're fighting for God and your country.

AMANPOUR: So let's -- isn't this the bottom line, that, in fact, all three of you gentlemen, the polling about the Taliban in Afghanistan shows them at most at 8 percent popularity, and there are other polls that show them even less. The majority of the people in Afghanistan seem to want progress and -- and -- and the kind of nation-building that they've been promised.

At the same time, the Taliban seem to be gaining more ground, gaining more territory, gaining more control. So they're militarily strong, but not necessarily supported.

Ahmed Rashid, how do you explain that dichotomy? Because don't insurgents have to be supported by the populations?

RASHID: Back in 2001, the vast majority of Afghans welcomed their liberation from the Taliban. Now -- and they expected certain things to happen, their lives to change, development to take place, et cetera, much of which never happened.

Now, even today, eight years on, and despite the advances made by the Taliban, I still very firmly believe -- and I think most Afghans will tell you -- that nobody in Afghanistan wants a Taliban regime back again.

But at the same time, they are fed up with the lack of good governance that their own regime, the Karzai regime, has produced. They're fed up with the -- the broken promises of the international community, the failure to develop the country, agriculture, et cetera.

So, you know, it's a very -- it's a very mixed bag. On the one hand, they don't want to the Taliban back. But at the same time, they're not seeing their government or the internationals deliver what they have promised.

JOHNSON: I think that one of the real problems in Afghanistan is the great differential or delta between the expectations of the rural Pashtun and the realities on the ground. I believe that the majority of Afghans will take justice and security from the Taliban if we don't offer them. Let me give...

AMANPOUR: So nation-building?

JOHNSON: Well, let me give you an idiom.

AMANPOUR: And you don't seem to like that.

JOHNSON: Let me give you an idiom.

AMANPOUR: I'm going to stop you there, because we're going to come back right after the break and discuss this important point.


AMANPOUR: So does negotiating work? We'll look at some historical precedents when we come back.


AMANPOUR: So joining me again to talk about the Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, Thomas Johnson, and Michael Semple. You said the idiom of what drove you crazy?

JOHNSON: Well, let me -- let me tell you what many Afghans have told me. I absolutely agree that most of them do not like the Taliban, but I think that, if we don't offer security and justice from the -- they'll take it from the Taliban.

What the Afghan have been telling me is that, hey, the Taliban are a bitter pill and a hard pill to swallow, but it settles my upset stomach. And I think that's very, very important. We just have not delivered on the promise, our promises, and -- and they recognize that.

AMANPOUR: Michael Semple, because you also were involved with humanitarian work and some of those promises, look, the truth of the matter is that the indicators are positive in Afghanistan in many areas. Girls are going to school; there's a higher GDP from an economy that was absolutely flat and nothing under the Taliban; cellphones are being used. There's a lot of progress. People do want that. They don't want to see the Taliban come marching back, do they?

SEMPLE: Most of the stories describing progress are considered by many Afghans as so many fairy stories, because without security...

AMANPOUR: But I've seen it, Michael.

SEMPLE: ... without these -- but they're considered by Afghan -- I'm not -- I'm not saying that you're wrong. I'm -- I'm talking about the absolutely overwhelming popular perception...

AMANPOUR: That they want security first, yes, that's true.

SEMPLE: ... which is that -- yes, which is that we -- we and their government have not delivered on security.

AMANPOUR: That's true.

SEMPLE: And when we -- when we fail on that and when they see rampant corruption with no inclination whatsoever from the international institutions that delivered this system that signed up to Bonn and promised to develop it, no inclination to clamp down on that, that's when we get the phenomenon that Thomas is saying, that it's a bitter pill, but we'll swallow it.

AMANPOUR: Right. Right.

Ahmed Rashid, the promises were important, and many people think that the reason there's such trouble in Afghanistan is because Afghans are historically against any kind of foreign intervention. Can you put paid to that? Or do you -- do you subscribe to that, as well?

RASHID: No, I don't. Certainly not. I mean, yes, they are, you know, very fierce defenders of their homeland and their tribe and their region, et cetera, you know, like they defended themselves against the British and the -- and the Soviets, but this is not in some kind of -- this is not built into their gene system that they will resist all foreigners. After all, in 2001, as I've said, more than 90 percent of the Afghans actually welcomed the end of the Taliban regime, and they welcome foreign troops, and they -- they have put up with foreign troops.

For example, even eight years on, even with all the failure that we have seen, you are still not seeing a mass movement like you did in Iraq, for example, against what, you know, could be called a foreign occupation or the presence of foreign troops.

So I still think at the bottom end, the Afghans still believe that, if their lives are to change, they still need the foreigners, because only the foreigners have the money and the means by which they can actually develop Afghanistan. And that belief is still there, despite the fact of all the negatives that are going around.

AMANPOUR: And -- and, Thomas, isn't that just the most positive aspect of all of this, that after all of this, they still don't want to throw out the you-know-what on their ear? They still want them there. And you've called it a Vietnam, but the similarities and the parallels don't exist.

JOHNSON: Oh, no, I think that -- that over a wide variety of variables, they're -- they're strong. There's an eerie similarity between the two. I can talk about that.

AMANPOUR: The main difference, though, is that in Vietnam, the people didn't want the Americans. Here, they want the foreign troops.

JOHNSON: Well, no, I think -- I think the main problem that we faced in Vietnam was the nexus between an illegitimate regime and the -- and the insurgency and not understanding what the Viet Cong represented. We thought we were fighting communists when we were fighting nationalists that wanted to reunite the country.

In Afghanistan, it looks like we treat them almost as secular insurgents when I believe that we're fighting jihadists. And -- and it calls for different measures. And, I mean, I think that -- the thing that I think that -- that is very important to recognize is, we tried to...


JOHNSON: ... we tried to do this on the cheap. We have tried to do this on the cheap since 2001. It's got all types of implications.

Since 2001, we've averaged about $2.4 billion, non-military aid, to the Afghan people yearly. That translates into about $80 per Afghan. There's been a number of studies that talk about phantom aid, suggesting that 87 percent of our aid never even gets into Afghanistan. It's taken by consultants; it's taken by overhead.

If you use those figures, the actual American aid that's reaching the Afghan is about $10.40, or about the cost of two McDonald Happy Meals. That's no way to gain the trust and confidence of people living literally in the Iron Age.

AMANPOUR: You're absolutely right. I've seen that every time I've been there. And I want to just play this sound bite by Admiral Mullen, who testified to -- to Congress about what needs more, which is more resources. Let's listen to what he has to say.


ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: I support a properly resourced, classically pursued counterinsurgency effort. The president has given us a clear mission: disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaida and its extremist allies and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven again. You can't do that from off-shore, and you can't do that by just killing the bad guys. You have to be there, where the people are, when they need you there, and until they can provide for their own security.


AMANPOUR: So he's talking more troops and a lot more years, Michael Semple. Is he right?

SEMPLE: There's something else missing. It's called politics. The whole problem in Afghanistan is political. You can come up with an effective aid program. You can come up with an effective military program. If you don't have a political strategy, you're going nowhere.

AMANPOUR: But they do have a political strategy.

SEMPLE: The Taliban -- the Taliban -- the Taliban will only accept moving towards a negotiated process when they -- when they decide that they have to accept the existence of other political forces inside Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: How do you make them do that?

SEMPLE: You have to ensure that the Afghan administration is a credible negotiating partner, because the point is, only one small strand in any eventual solution, whether it's in one year's time or two years' time or three years' time, only one small strand will be the United States or the international community talking with the Taliban about issues to do with, you know, the U.N. charter and international security and so on. The main negotiating strand is going to be the Afghan government, the insurgents, and the other political forces inside Afghanistan who are broadly supportive of the Bonn process but are not actually inside the government.

And the point is, when you -- when you -- you have to ensure that the Afghan government is a credible negotiating partner in that process. And at the moment, as we have seen with recent -- with recent events, it is absolutely not, and everything you throw in the aid program and everything you throw in the military program is jeopardized by the absence of a credible negotiating partner sitting in Kabul.

AMANPOUR: All right, that's true. But it seems to be the only negotiating partner right now, because the U.S. is not going to pull out. Let's look at some of the photos you took and you've brought back, Tom, from -- from your trips there.

But let's talk at the same time about this very local level that you keep talking about.


AMANPOUR: You can't do it from -- from a macro level. You have to attack the district -- not attack, help the district level.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Everything in Afghanistan historically has bubbled up from the district, the wasi walli (ph), or the sub-district level, the village level. We have tried to push everything down from Kabul into this critical area, and that's where we've gone wrong.

We, like the Soviets, try to administer and conduct this war at a provincial level. You'll never -- you'll very rarely ever run into an Afghan that -- that says, "Hey, I'm from Uruzgan," or, "I'm from Paktika." Their self-identity...

AMANPOUR: Is the province.

JOHNSON: ... is the province. Their self-identity is at the district level.

AMANPOUR: Right. Now, you say the Soviet -- I mean, every Afghan we -- we run into says, "You, Americans, you, Europeans, you came to help us, not like the Soviets, who came to harm us and occupy us."

I want to give the last word to Ahmed Rashid. Is it possible? We're going to show you another map where there's speculation now that the U.S. wants to push troops into Kandahar, which is the heartland of the Taliban. Do you think, even at this late date, it's possible to somehow defeat them? And does the U.S. have the right strategy?

RASHID: I think this administration does have the right strategy. The former administration under Bush, unfortunately, didn't. And let me just say a word on this bottom up. You also need a top down. And what we had was a wasted eight years, where President Bush was having these monthly, weekly telephone conversations with Hamid Karzai, not setting down markers, not setting down limits as to what the Afghan government, how it should be performing, and what it should not be doing, and what it should be doing.

I think you certainly need the international community to set down markers for the Afghan government as to what it can do and -- and what it should not do. I think certainly the Taliban can be driven back, if there is a proper, as Admiral Mullen said, a proper resourced and a strategized policy toward defeating counterinsurgency while at the same time fulfilling the economic needs of the people.

This has to be a pro-people strategy. And they -- it has to show the Afghans that there's something in it for them.

AMANPOUR: Ahmed Rashid, thank you for joining us from Madrid.

And one last question to you gentlemen here. Is it possible to reset the clock? It's a yes-or-no answer. Reset the clock on Afghanistan?

JOHNSON: It depends on what our policy goals are.

AMANPOUR: Yes or no?

SEMPLE: The clock will be reset in Afghanistan by an effective Afghan government, not by any outside force.

AMANPOUR: Thank you so much.

And we are going to continue this conversation online on our Web site at, where you can see more of Thomas Johnson's amazing photographs of Afghanistan, and also on, so please join us there.


AMANPOUR: Now our P.S., our postscript. And tonight, some words from the U.S. commander on the ground in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

As the Obama administration considers its next move in the war, in a speech in London, General McChrystal took aim at those who say that the U.S. should move from a counterinsurgency strategy to a strategy with a counterterrorist focus and possibly less troops.


GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, COMMANDER, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASSISTANCE FORCE, AFGHANISTAN: ... as I believe you have to navigate from where you are, not from where you wish you were. We are in Afghanistan. We've established relationships, expectations both with the Afghan people, the Afghan government, in the region, and I believe Afghanistan has its own value. It's stability now.


AMANPOUR: General McChrystal said that a change of U.S. strategy could create what he called "Chaosistan," a Somalia-like haven of chaos, as he put it. We'll be closely following what General McChrystal says in the days and weeks ahead as the Obama administration considers strategy and troop levels for Afghanistan.

But that's it for now. Thank you for watching. And we will be back tomorrow with a special hour-long edition of our program, a rare joint interview with the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and secretary of defense, Robert Gates.

For all of us here, goodbye from New York.