Interview with Former Asst. Secretary of State Dobbins: Afghanistan's Diplomatic Dilemmas

I had an opportunity to discuss the diplomatic and strategic challenges the U.S. faces in Afghanistan with Mr. James Dobbins. It was especially intriguing to pick his brain.
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I had an opportunity to discuss the diplomatic and strategic challenges the U.S. faces in Afghanistan with Mr. James Dobbins this week -- a man who has played an integral role in some of the most pivotal moments in U.S. foreign policy history over the past 25 years. And it was especially intriguing to pick his brain because, in the wake of 9/11, Bush tasked Dobbins with working together with all of the key stakeholders in Afghanistan to install the successor to the Taliban regime. He represented the U.S. at the Bonn Conference that established the new Afghan government, and, on December 16, 2001, he raised the flag over the newly reopened U.S. Embassy.

Mr. Dobbins has worked under both Republican and Democratic regimes in critical positions, from Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration to Special Assistant to George W. Bush. His diplomatic accomplishments and experience includes the withdrawal of American forces from Somalia, the American-led multilateral intervention in Haiti, the stabilization and reconstruction of Bosnia, and the NATO intervention in Kosovo. He is currently the Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center for the RAND Corporation, one of the world's premier foreign policy think tanks.

Afghanistan drawdown

MICHAEL HUGHES: Critics have chastised Obama for setting a July 2011 deadline to begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan, claiming it demoralizes the Afghan people and emboldens the enemy. On 60 minutes Sunday the President countered that the absence of a deadline sends a message that U.S. involvement is an open-ended commitment. Do you think setting the deadline was a strategic misstep by Obama, or do you think his approach will yield the most positive long-term results?

JAMES DOBBINS: I don't think the President would have set a deadline if he didn't feel the need to make some concession to his domestic critics, and the strong elements within his constituency that have doubts about the wisdom of the commitment in Afghanistan. The deadline has some positive as well as some negative aspects - it does help create a sense of urgency on the part of U.S. officials but perhaps, more importantly, on the part of Afghan officials, which is probably a good thing. It does give the Taliban and some other insurgent groups some hope that they can wait us out, accept some losses over the next couple of years, but ultimately hope to see us leave. It may also have that kind of effect on the Pakistani leadership, leading them to believe we may not be in this for the long-term.

MICHAEL HUGHES: Obama also mentioned that the withdrawal is contingent upon "conditions on the ground". Isn't that the same as committing to staying until the mission is accomplished?

JAMES DOBBINS: My expectation is that if the situation does not improve within the next 18 months he will reevaluate that deadline, just as Bill Clinton did. Clinton said we were going to withdraw from Bosnia within one year, but at the end of the year he acknowledged that we hadn't completed the mission and we would be staying longer. Of course, we were able to reduce forces in Bosnia almost immediately but he had promised to get them out entirely within a year and had to eventually back out of that commitment.

Iran hindrance of Obama Afghan strategy

MICHAEL HUGHES: In a recent Time magazine article you suggest that Iran has the ability to cause major problems for the U.S. in Afghanistan, despite their hatred for the Taliban. Do you think Iran's nuclear ambitions and hatred for the U.S. will trump their strategic interests in Afghanistan?

JAMES DOBBINS: The Iranians have become less helpful in recent years in Afghanistan than they were at an earlier stage. They're still supportive of Karzai but they're hedging their bets, and one can conceive of circumstances where they became actively unhelpful. I think a lot will depend on the nature of their relationship with Washington. Certainly any military action either by the United States or by Israel against Iran would lead to a fairly extreme reaction from the Iranians. And one would see significant efforts by Iran to destabilize both Iraq and Afghanistan. At the moment they are being less helpful than they could be in Afghanistan, but are not yet playing as negative a roll as they might.

MICHAEL HUGHES: Is sitting idly by and hoping Iran doesn't sabotage U.S. operations in Afghanistan a viable strategy?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think the administration has tried to engage the Iranians on Afghanistan. Holbrooke had a glancing conversation with the Iranians at a conference a few months ago, but the Iranians weren't particularly responsive. We should continue to try and engage them, largely in multilateral forms which are somewhat easier for both sides.

MICHAEL HUGHES: Abdullah Abdullah, who withdrew from the recent Afghan Presidential election that sealed a Karzai victory, supposedly is close to Iran. Karzai can leverage Abdullah's relationships - yet another compelling reason for Karzai to bring Abdullah into his administration. Why is Karzai hesitant to do so?

JAMES DOBBINS: I am not sure Abdullah is prepared to join the Karzai administration because he is still bruised by the summary fashion in which he was dismissed from the Foreign Ministry several years ago, as well as the way the fraudulent election was conducted, although I think there was fraud on his side as well. However, fraud was more substantial on the side of Karzai or at least Karzai's supporters. I would hope some discussions have been held to see whether he might be willing to join the [Karzai] team. Abdullah is quite an effective administrator and diplomat and would make a positive contribution, but is probably not ready to do so. It could be that his price for doing so is so high that Karzai couldn't reasonably be expected to pay it - payment which would come in the form of patronage and/or sharing of power. I do hope, in any case, that Abdullah occupies a position within the opposition that's constructive, and I hope his voice is heard, because if he's pushed out of the political system altogether that could be potentially quite destabilizing.

Pakistan, Taliban and the Bonn Accord

MICHAEL HUGHES: You were a key player at the UN-mediated Bonn Accord which established the interim Karzai administration. Parties curiously absent from these proceedings was Pakistan and the Taliban. UN envoy Lakdar Brahimi, who chaired the conference said: "That was our original sin." Do you agree? Was it a sin not to include Pakistan and the Taliban in these negotiations?

JAMES DOBBINS: Pakistan was included and, as a matter of fact, we did more consulting with them than any other party. The head of the ISI was actually one of the first to suggest that Karzai head the new government. I highly doubt the Taliban would have participated in the process if they were invited. Even if we would have urged them to join discussions, the other participants would not have sat down with them at that stage. I do agree that not trying to engage elements of the Taliban at an earlier stage afterward to draw them into the new political process was probably a mistake and there could have been some overtures of that sort. But it was also a mistake not to have deployed adequate forces to establish security throughout the country to create a sense of loyalty on the part of a population which felt, for a long time, that the government in Kabul was doing nothing for them.

MICHAEL HUGHES: Should there be some Taliban representation in the Afghanistan government?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think it would be wise to make an attempt. Obama has already said that he would support efforts by President Karzai to reach out to elements of Taliban leadership that are prepared to participate politically. Karzai has already made attempts to do so and said he's prepared to even talk to Mullah Omar. But I do not believe major elements of the Taliban are likely to be interested as long as they think they are winning. If they begin to perceive that they're not winning on the battlefield then they could become more interested and this could become a viable avenue. But we might be a year or two away from testing that thesis.

U.S. and Pakistan Relations

MICHAEL HUGHES: If Pakistan doesn't do there part in going after militants aggressively within their own borders, what course of action should the U.S. take?

DOBBINS: I am not sure we have any very good options in that regard - other than to keep jawboning them. I think our interests in Pakistan are so important that we're likely to continue to sustain assistance pretty much regardless of how active they are in this regard. Now, it's not as if they said they won't do it, they've said that they have a set of priorities and their first priority is to go after the people who are setting off bombs in Karachi and Lahore, and they'll get to our concerns later. That's an understandable set of sequencing from their standpoint. I think we need to continue to maintain pressure on them to do something about our concerns but I think we also need to recognize that our influence is limited and they do have other quite legitimate security threats.


James Dobbins Profile

Research Focus: Afghanistan; Balkans; Europe; Iraq; Middle East; NATO; trends and issues in international security; U.S.-foreign relations
RAND Research Areas: National Security

Sample of most recent work:
* Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan - Senate Armed Services Committee (testimony)
* Occupying Iraq: A History of the Coalition Provisional Authority (report)
* The Beginner's Guide to Nation-Building (video)
* Our Man in Kabul, Foreign Affairs Magazine (article)
* After the Taliban: Nation-Building in Afghanistan (book)

Link to more of Mr. Dobbins' RAND publications:

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