Juan Cole, a leading historian of the Islamic world and fervent critic of the Bush administration’s policies, tells Harper‘s Scott Collins that he’s not so pleased with the Obama administration’s policies, either.


The Obama plan for Afghanistan involves a substantial ramp-up of the U.S. presence coupled with what seems a more aggressive posture against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province—as shown by the now routine reports of attacks using predator drones. You previously criticized Bush’s policies in the area as being short-sighted with respect to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is the Obama plan an improvement?

Under Bush, Afghanistan and Pakistan suffered from neglect. Under Obama they may suffer from a surfeit of attention. To tell you the truth, I cannot understand what the mission is in Afghanistan any more. It is not to fight Al Qaeda there. I haven’t seen anything about U.S. troops engaging or capturing “Arab Afghans” for years. It appears that the U.S. and NATO are just trying to shore up the government of Hamid Karzai, which only controls thirty percent of the country. And what do we expect? That someday rural Pashtun Muslims will wake up and say, “I don’t mind foreign troops patrolling my country, I’m happy to be ruled by Tajiks and Hazara Shiites, and I’m not that interested in living by Islamic law anymore”? President Obama has spoken about fighting defeating the “Taliban,” but there seem to be four or five distinct groups now being called that, only one of them is Mulla Omar’s “Old Taliban.” And, I have a distinct sense of dread that some of the Pashtuns attacking NATO checkpoints are just disgruntled poppy farmers whose crops we burned down.

As for Pakistan, the demand that the government exert control over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is frankly daft. I’ve been through that territory. You might as well demand that we exert control over all the rattlesnakes in New Mexico. And the conviction that the security of the U.S. mainland depends on the urban Pakistani government regimenting those rural clansmen makes no sense to me. Rugged areas where the government is weak are obviously possible havens for terrorists, but they also typically lack the infrastructure to enable major operations to be conducted directly from such territories. We’d be better off working with Pakistan to put in better airport security and computer tracking of people flying in and out. The Pakistani military has been fighting hard in Bajaur, one of the tribal agencies, against the Pakistani Taliban since August. They have had some success, but displaced 300,000 Pashtuns from their homes. That is going to settle the Pashtuns down?

See Steve Hynd’s recent piece, “Taliban: What’s in a Name?” for a more detailed discussion of the “four or five” Taliban’s issue.

Cole’s bottom line on both Afghanistan and Pakistan is well worth paying attention to.  It’s not entirely clear that our political leaders have an achievable set of political objectives that takes into account the realities of the cultures we’re trying to change.  

He’s making a point from a leftist perspective that Henry Kissinger made from the Right during his Makins Lecture in January.  For every policy issue, the great statesman told us, we must consider three aspects:  Our goal, our capabilities toward acheiving that goal, and our staying power. He argued — four days before Barack Obama was sworn in — that we were not doing that with respect to Afghanistan:

Our stated objective, as Kissinger sees it,  is a democratic state — in the fullest sense of the term, including equal rights for women and religious tolerance — that is centrally governed.   He believes we “need to examine whether this is a conceivable objective.” 

Not only is our goal the achievement of something that has never existed in that territory but, to the extent that it’s plausible nobody seriously thinks it possible in less than twenty years.  Given that public opinion in most members of the coalition has already turned against the mission, Kissinger is highly skeptical that we can bring to bear sufficient resources to get the job done, much less sustain it for the necessary timeframe.

If, after careful reassessment, we decide that we don’t have the staying power and other necessary capabilities to achieve the goal, then we “need a different strategy.”   He suggests that it will likely be one “designed to prevent what we fear most: the return of a terrorist state.”

In all fairness, barely a week into office, Obama announced a new Afghanistan strategy that seemed to limit the goals in precisely that way.  But our objectives still seem to require a much more functional government than Afghanistan has ever had.   The same may be true in Pakistan.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  A tip of the hat to Andrew Sullivan for pointing me to the Cole interview.  

Related Experts: James Joyner