Kim Barker

  • Country: The United States
  • Title: Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Education: Northwestern University
  • Books: The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Paula: The recent attempted bombing of an airplane on Christmas Day highlighted the danger posed by Islamic extremism and terrorist groups in Yemen. In what sense (if any) are the issues facing Afghanistan and Yemen related? What parallels should the United States draw between the insurgencies in the two countries? And how are the two conflicts different?

A: There are certainly parallels between Afghanistan and Yemen -- Muslim majorities, weak governments, poverty. But the extremists of Yemen self-identify with al Qaeda and therefore seem more concerned with striking out at Western targets and with this worldwide sense of "jihad." In Afghanistan, the insurgents are more local -- bent on driving out the foreign forces and establishing their version of an Islamic state. Yet the two movements can also be symbiotic, as we saw with the Taliban's sheltering of al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks, and as we have seen with certain training camps in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In general, I think it is dangerous to isolate what is happening with Islamic extremists on a country-by-country basis. Whether we are talking about the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba or al Qaeda in Yemen, or militancy that is spread on the Internet, the groups share similar ideologies, even if their targets may be different at a certain moment.

Robert: In announcing the "surge" of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama announced a timeline of 18 months to begin withdrawing forces. Will the Obama administration keep combat forces in Afghanistan as long as necessary to ensure that the Taliban never offer sanctuary to al Qaeda again, even if this exceeds the stated deadline?

A: Ever since Obama announced the July 2011 deadline, others in his administration have taken pains to say that the date is only a starting point and that the administration will evaluate the situation on the ground when making troop decisions. Although I am not certain what the Obama administration will do, I think officials would be willing to push that date back, if only slightly. But just because the administration starts pulling out troops does not mean that all the troops will be pulled out. It is likely that the U.S. military will have some presence in the region for a number of years, given the United States' goals there and Afghanistan's perceived strategic importance.

Nigel Morris: An effective counterinsurgency strategy requires the local population in Afghanistan to have confidence in the Afghan government and army, particularly in relation to corruption. What steps can the Obama administration take to reduce corruption (and the perception of corruption) in the Afghan government and army? Has there been any progress on this front since you wrote your Letter From Kabul, which highlighted the effects of corruption?

A: Corruption resides more with the police and various ministries than with the army. But you are right: corruption is a major problem, and has continued to be since I wrote my Letter From Kabul. A new poll released this week by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime showed that Afghans worried more about corruption than violence or poverty, and that bribes amounted to 23 percent of Afghanistan's GDP (just below the opium trade). A new unit has been formed in the Afghan Justice Ministry to tackle corruption. There is also increasing acknowledgment that Afghans are not the only ones profiting from corruption. The office of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) recently reported that about three-quarters of its active corruption investigations involved Westerners. But with all this talk, it remains to be seen whether there will be action. Maybe there will be. The former presidential candidate and Hamid Karzai critic Ashraf Ghani, also the country's former finance minister and a former World Bank official, has been tapped to come up with an anticorruption plan before this week's London conference on Afghanistan. He has the kind of name-brand credibility that could help convince Afghans that the country is serious about tackling the problem. Besides urging Karzai to do the proverbial "more," the Obama administration can try to make sure that USAID contracts are not rife with the potential for corruption, and that any of the SIGAR cases are vigorously prosecuted and highlighted. But I am still waiting for my test case -- the sitting Afghan minister charged with corruption and convicted with actual evidence.

Brown N. Ugbaja: The rest of the world seems to have abandoned the United States in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan. Countries in the developing world seem especially uninterested or unable to help. What hope does the Obama administration have for expanding the alliance of states working to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan? Is there a sense in neighboring countries and in other developing states that the problems of Afghanistan are in some sense strategic and universal and could appear in their countries, too?

A: I do not think the rest of the world has abandoned the United States: there are troops from 43 countries in Afghanistan. While you are right that countries in the developing world may not be helping as much as Europe or the United States, I do not know that they could do all that much, given their limited budgets and militaries. In the region, India has been very involved in trying to send aid and government help to Afghanistan, and Pakistan has been considered a crucial ally in fighting terrorists on the Pakistan side of the border. I do think there is a sense in the entire region that what happens in Afghanistan has repercussions throughout Asia and that issues there, whether the heroin flowing through Iran and Russia or the militants gaining strength in Uzbekistan, are universal and strategic.

Milan Hauner: What strategy does the United States have for building up the Afghan army and police? From where can the U.S. military and NATO draw a future office corps? It seems that there is a danger that relatively uneducated and unsophisticated officers could change sides as the tides shift. The Soviet Union co-opted tens of thousands of people to join its side and the advantage of adequate infrastructure, and it still failed after two decades of trying. Can this problem be overcome?

A: Building up the Afghan forces will take a combination of resources, time, and money, mostly from the United States. It is true that Afghanistan is a largely illiterate country, and in some cases, Afghan police and soldiers have had to be taught the most basic skills, such as lacing up their boots. But Afghans are also known for their ability to fight. There have been problems with Afghan army soldiers abandoning their posts in the past, but an increase in salary has bumped up recruitment and retention rates. As with everything else in Afghanistan, though, building up the army is going to take a number of years, even decades, and if Afghans see this army as being "co-opted" by the United States, it will never work. The Afghan army will have to be perceived as an Afghan solution to the insurgency -- and so far, it is. Most Afghans regard the army as one of the few success stories in the country; the police, less so. And building up the police is one of the major challenges the United States faces in the coming years. The police are perceived as largely corrupt and loyal to local powerbrokers rather than the central government. That is going to have to change, and only if the United States is willing to foot the bill can it be overcome. A final point: the major reasons the Soviet Union failed in Afghanistan were because the United States and Pakistan supported the Afghan jihadi groups and because the Soviets were perceived as invaders. What is happening now is much different.

Bart: Regardless of any amount of money and time spent by the United States and NATO, the question seems to come down to this: Do the Afghans have the will to see this conflict through? It appears that senior leaders in the Afghan government and commanders in the Afghan army lack the intensity seen in the mujahideen fighters that defeated the Russians. Is the fight for Afghanistan a war of wills in which patience and determination will hand victory to one side or the other, or can resources and military strategy overcome a deficit in this area?

A: After 30 years of war, Afghans clearly have the will to fight. And the more training Afghan commanders receive, the better they get. As far as whether Afghans have the will to see this through, it depends on what "this" is. If Afghans see positive change in the country -- less corruption, more security, a commitment by foreign forces to stay until the Afghan forces are ready to defend the country alone -- they will have the will to support NATO and the United States. But if corruption continues, along with allegations of civilian casualties, more and more Afghans will sit on the fence. Also, Afghans are pragmatic after so many years of war. They will side with whoever has the bigger guns and whoever they think will be running the show in five or ten years. They will not necessarily ally with the side they like better. So resources, military strategy, and building up the Afghan government can actually tip the balance against the insurgents. But talking about July 2011 tends to make both the Afghan people and the Pakistan government consider hedging their bets.

Ian Oliver:  It seems like the emphasis on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency ignores the issue of counternarcotics strategy. Is this not a dangerous omission when the global consequences of failing to deal with the Afghan drug problem are far more devastating and affect many more innocent people than the Taliban insurgency? I am thinking not only of the major public health problems but also of organized crime, money laundering, and the funding of terrorism in Afghanistan as well as in Central Asia, where massive natural gas resources are threatened.

A: You make good points, but I think that given all the problems facing Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have opted to do triage. Although there is no doubt that insurgents get funding from the drug trade, they also get funding from a lot of other sources, from marble to tobacco. If we eliminated poppies, the insurgents would simply find a new funding source. And spraying all the poppy fields in Afghanistan would not eliminate the drug trade or the cartels in Asia. Nor would it eliminate the demand for the drug or the supply. (The bulk of heroin in the United States, for instance, comes from Mexico and Colombia.) But eliminating all the poppies in Afghanistan would anger a lot of Afghan farmers if there were no alternative livelihoods, and would be easily manipulated by insurgents. I do think that the international community is concerned about fighting drugs -- and in Helmand, as well as elsewhere, a combination of tactics has begun to show some success -- but it is just not the biggest priority. One last point on drugs: some have suggested paying the Afghan farmers not to grow poppies. This would be a very, very bad idea and would likely backfire.  
Thomas Carvalho: Does the Obama administration appear to have settled on a policy regarding peace talks and reconciliation with Taliban and al Qaeda members? Is this the same policy as the Karzai government's? Is there a danger of the administrations in Washington and Kabul working at cross-purposes on this issue?

A: I do not think they are working at cross-purposes, for a change. The Obama administration and the Karzai administration agree that they are willing to negotiate with insurgents who are willing to give up their weapons and pledge allegiance to the new Afghan government. NATO and Karzai are also trying to offer new incentives to the insurgents -- primarily the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami -- to come over, including money, jobs, and land. No one is talking about negotiating with al Qaeda. I do think Karzai is much more optimistic than the Obama administration about the potential success of this strategy. Given past attempts, I think this new push may be able to bring over some lower-level fighters or even Hezb-i-Islami leaders, but winning over Taliban leaders will be a much tougher task. They have been very clear that they will only negotiate if the foreign forces leave Afghanistan and if they can have their version of an Islamic state. And they are hardly against the ropes here. They do not really have all that much of a reason to come to the table -- yet.
Mike Deshpande: Afghanistan is a mixture of tribes, cultures, and languages. Do U.S. forces fully appreciate this fact and the local nuances in each region and village? Is it feasible to provide culture-based solutions to the Taliban insurgency that originate with Afghans? In other words, instead of treating Afghans as a single entity, perhaps it would be more successful to manage the country one tribe and culture at a time.

A: You are correct. Afghanistan is so complicated and the tribal system so complex, especially when compared with Iraq, that even in one district, families in the same tribe have grievances going back generations. So it is tough. From my recent meetings with U.S. military officials, I do believe that the military now has a better understanding of the differences than at any time since 2001. I think they understand that the nuances exist, but I do not yet know if they can actually put those understandings into practice. Working with tribal elders -- and that does not simply mean warlords -- makes sense, as does working on a local or regional approach, instead of simply going through the central Afghan government. That is what the U.S. military and NATO are trying to do now. But it is important to remember that ultimately the country is Afghanistan. So while we are working with different tribes, the overall goal is a unified Afghanistan that accepts and embraces all the different ethnic groups.
Frederico Alconte: Are the Taliban interested in ruling Afghanistan or in simply spoiling the chances of the U.S.-led coalition? Some factions of the insurgency seem only to want to cause havoc and terror, while others seem intent on controlling the state, as the Taliban did in the 1990s. How is the United States able to differentiate among these aims, and how do these calculations affect U.S. strategy in the country?

A: The answer depends on the group in question. "The Taliban" is a convenient catchall name for a lot of different antigovernment groups. Does the Haqqani network want to rule Afghanistan? Probably not, yet it has done a pretty good job spreading terror and havoc and staging spectacular attacks against the coalition. Does Mullah Muhammad Omar's Taliban want to rule Afghanistan? Most definitely. It would also love to spoil the chances of the coalition. What about Hezb-i-Islami? Sure, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar would like to rule Afghanistan, but he may also be content to pledge his allegiance to the new government in return for a say in how the country is run. And then, for some groups, such as those in the Korengal valley, the insurgency is very much tied up with money and a local mafia (in this case, the illegal timber trade). I think the United States and NATO can now separate the aims of the different groups. Part of the new negotiation strategy is to try to split these groups from one another, thereby weakening the insurgency. We will see if it works.

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