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Fall 2007

The West’s Common Interest In Afghanistan

Richard Holbrooke, one of America’s top diplomats, and a probable future secretary of state, was United States ambassador to the United Nations under Bill Clinton from 1999 to 2001. He was the chief negotiator of the Dayton peace agreement on the Balkans in 1995, and ambassador to Germany from 1993 to 1994. He spoke with NPQ in July.

NPQ | Seeing the US distracted in Iraq and sensing weakness in the resolve of Europe’s NATO troops, the Taliban, al-Qaida and their allies in Afghanistan are increasingly targeting Europeans, killing them as well as taking hostages.

Are Europeans ready for this global role in the “war on terrorism”? Do they, particularly the Germans, have the resolve to see it through? Italy, too, wants to reassess its role in Afghanistan.

Richard Holbrooke | When I was ambassador to Germany, there was a ferocious battle, which was not settled until it got to the High Court in July 1994, over whether it could send even a small number of peacekeeping troops to the Balkans. Germans have come a very long way. They have actually had commanding generals on the ground in the Balkans and now in Afghanistan.

And they have performed superbly. I have no reason to believe that they are not up to the task.

But this is not a technical issue about German or European capability. It is question of political will. And, of course, the word “will” carries different historical connotations in Germany than elsewhere. Two words—“will” and “destiny”—make Germans and others around them have doubts.

Therefore, it is critically important that lack of resolve does not set in. And that means that the US, Germany, Italy and the other NATO allies reach a binding understanding on what our common interests are in Afghanistan, just as we did in the Balkans after some difficulty.

Let’s be clear: Failure in Afghanistan will result in the return of the Taliban and al-Qaida. They are dangerous enough operating from the mountainous border region with Pakistan. They will be far more dangerous if they once again control cities such as Kandahar and perhaps Kabul, where they would have access to modern telecommunications and urban populations among which to hide.

Given the fact that so many of the 9/11 key operatives were trained and lived in Germany, and so many of the current terrorist targets are European, it is puzzling to me that we would have to explain the threat we face in common with Europe.

For now, (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel’s coalition seems to have the will, though I’m not sure how deep it is among the German people. Of course, Iraq—the greatest disaster ever for American foreign policy, worse than Vietnam—undermines the commitment to work with the US.

But we must find a way, just as we did in the Balkans. In fact, looking back, if it hadn’t been for the Dayton Accords, terrorists would probably have worked out of Bosnia instead of Afghanistan. Dayton gave us the authority to get rid of “foreign elements” there, which pushed them to Sudan and ultimately to Afghanistan.

NPQ | Hillary Clinton promises to shift America’s focus back to Afghanistan and the Taliban and al-Qaida if she becomes president. Is that the right strategy?

Holbrooke | She is completely correct on that.

NPQ | Recent US intelligence reports have traced the resurgent strength of al-Qaida to the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. How should the US and Europe deal with Pakistan? Should they push for democracy or bolster Gen. (Pervez) Musharraf?

Holbrooke | Musharraf had every right to go after the militants in the Red Mosque in Islamabad. That was a direct threat in the heart of the country. However, I have long been troubled by the narrowness of Musharraf’s political base. I’ve been mystified by the intelligence controversies over whether Musharraf is doing enough to crack down on militants in the frontier. Is he or is he not? It is hard to know in the abstract whether a replacement would be better.

All you can say is that the government in Islamabad must have broader popular support. If Musharraf can achieve that, that would be good. If he can’t, there will be terrible consequences.

I believe democracy, rule of law and human rights—in particular the rights of women—are critical elements for broadening the base of that government.

Musharraf’s role model is Kemal Ataturk. Musharraf grew up partly in Turkey, where his father was a military attache. Ataturk is a good model, but the conditions are different. It is clear that Pakistan is not yet on its way to becoming the kind of state that Ataturk created.

NPQ | Well, Ataturk’s state is now unraveling with the recent landslide victory of the neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. Is that a triumph for democracy or a blow to secularism?

Holbrooke | This was an historic election in Turkey. The West has said what it wants is a moderate form of Islam in the world. Here you have one of the two most democratic states in the Muslim world, the other one being Malaysia.

Given the strategic importance of Turkey—it is the new frontline state of the post-Cold War era just as Germany was during the Cold War—it is encouraging to see a peaceful election with an untarnished democratic process.

I was in Istanbul during the voting, watching it all unfold without a hitch, as if I were watching CNN in the US.

What does the election mean in more detail? The stock market went up, so the business community is happy. The nationalist parties also won a larger place in parliament. The Kurds are in the parliament now for the first time in a decade. The AKP has reaffirmed Turkey’s desire to join the EU, a goal that has pushed so many reforms.

For me, the emotion of the election was summed up by two people I met in Istanbul: A professor who welcomed more democracy and a cabdriver who only had two words on his lips, “fanatical Muslims.”

People like the cabdriver worry the Turks are in for a drama like that in Iran, which went from a modernizing, secular state to a fanatical theocracy. Women, of course, would pay the greatest cost.

Finally, there is the question of the military, still the most popular institution in Turkey. This is only a defeat for the army if the generals see it that way. The consensus I heard in Istanbul was that the army will not now interfere since the AKP mandate was so broad. They might have if that country was more divided.

If the army rejected this popular mandate, there would be rioting in the streets. “No Sharia, No Coup.” That is where democratic Turks stand today.