Hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Afghanistan: A Plan to Turn the Tide? (Panel II)

Interview

By:  Joe Biden, Jr.
Date: Jan. 31, 2008
Location: Washington, DC

SEN. BIDEN: Our next panel is a very distinguished panel:

General James Jones, U.S Marine Corps, retired, former commander, European Command, and Supreme Allied Commander of Europe.

The Honorable Thomas Pickering, former undersecretary for Political Affairs, the Department of State.

The Honorable Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.

(Pause for the seating of the second panel.)

Gentlemen, welcome. Thank you for being here. I know you have extremely busy schedules, but your continued service to this committee and to the country is very much appreciated.

Why don't we begin in the order in which you were called? General Jones, Ambassador Pickering, Ambassador Holbrooke.

General, it's all yours.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

SEN. BIDEN: I thank all of you for being here.

A couple of us went into Afghanistan the January after the Taliban fell and with Secretary Rumsfeld trying to keep us out.

It's amazing how he didn't know there were three branches of government. He got confused.

And anyway, we spent some time in there, five days. And I had -- this is directed to you, General. And we met with, I think it was a British two-star. Wasn't it? I can't recall. I think it was a British two-star who was in western Kabul. We went over and had -- I think we had dinner with him. We spent some time with him. And I asked a question of him at that time; this is 2002. I said, "General, how long is your parliament going to let you stay here in Afghanistan?" And he said, "Senator, we Brits have an expression." He said, "As long as the big dog's in the pen, the small dogs will stay. When the big dog leaves, the small dogs will leave."

Well, it seems to me part of the problem is the big dog left, and put all its focus on Iraq. I don't want to get into an argument about whether Iraq's right, wrong, or indifferent. But the bottom line was -- when we came back I issued a -- well, not a report, but a -- well, I guess it was a report, actually -- that then-Secretary of State Powell agreed with. And he led the fight within the administration, as you may recall, to increase resources and military assets in Afghanistan at that time. And he lost that bureaucratic battle with, I assume, Rumsfeld and Cheney. I don't know, but that's the obvious assumption.

And it seems to me everything's kind of gone downhill from there. And I noticed a phrase all three of you used -- or some version of the phrase -- that, you know, international resolve is waning, which leads me -- there's a point to this -- which leads me to Pakistan.

I would argue that in 2002 we had a real opportunity to -- with Musharraf -- to actually get a little more robust cooperation in dealing with Waziristan. And I think he saw the big dog leaving as well, and I think he made his deal, essentially. I don't want to overstate it, but he made his deal, which was basically, let -- you leave me alone in Islamabad and I'll leave you alone in the provinces -- which leads me to this point.

Most Americans think we're in Afghanistan fighting al Qaeda. They could give a damn about the Taliban, if you really got down to it. We all know they should be very concerned about the Taliban, but they give a damn about the Taliban because they don't think the Taliban got in planes and came over and attacked the United States. They think the Taliban did what they did. They gave refuge and comfort and support to al Qaeda.

Now, I ask the question -- which I can't respond to today by -- I can't tell you the answer in public, but you will know it -- of the intelligence community about the relative role of the Taliban and al Qaeda and how that mix works, which leads me to my question.

If Ambassador Holbrooke is correct that ultimate success -- success meaning a stable Afghanistan over a long period of time emerging, not unlike our commitment we made to Korea, not unlike commitments, long-term commitments we made in the past that worked -- how much of the ability to deal with the border relates to the ability to deal with Pakistan and the ISI, and how much of that relates to al Qaeda?

Make -- if you can talk to me about -- if there's a distinction, I think there is, but -- where the focus, you know, should be in terms of that border.

And I would conclude by saying I would suggest that if we took out the entire -- all of al Qaeda, if the Lord came down and said there's not a single member of al Qaeda left live and breathing on the Earth, we still have a real big problem with the Taliban. And conversely, if the Taliban were gone, you still have a problem with al Qaeda. Talk to me about the nexus between al Qaeda, Taliban, Pakistan and Afghanistan, if you would. (Pause.)

Anyone.

GEN. JONES: What I can talk about is the fact that as a NATO commander my relationship with Pakistan really occurred in the last six months of my tour, just as I was leaving NATO. So I only had the opportunity to visit Islamabad twice and host the Pakistani military at NATO one time. This was right at the time when we were witnessing the -- beginning to witness the failure of the deal that was struck with the tribal regions to live and let live, on the false notion that they would honor their side of the deal, which is to say, respect the borders and not -- and cease and desist, which they didn't do.

My last meeting with a -- senior Pakistani officials, I told him that the next few months would probably show that this was not going to work and the problem was going to get worse and not better. And that's exactly what happened.

I think that there are a couple of things that were going on in 2005, 2004. It was called the Tripartite Commission, where U.S., Afghan and Pakistan militaries regularly met to discuss the situation. When NATO came in and took over the responsibility for security and stability in Afghanistan, NATO became a member of the Tripartite Commission as well. So there is an ongoing relationship.

I think whatever the future holds, that part of the region is going to be a central point if we're going to achieve any success. And we simply have to make sure that we do it well.

One last point: my observation during my four years there was that the Taliban was certainly potentially more numerous. Al Qaeda, for a while, was an afterthought in 2002, 2003. Both have shown a propensity to recover from the defeats that were -- that they experienced, and it's simply because we haven't addressed the issue of safe havens and border transit.

MR. HOLBROOKE: Mr. Chairman, I think that the problem of that border area is one of the toughest on Earth, so there's no easy solution.

In General Jones's and Ambassador Pickering's report, they have a very good suggestion which relates directly to your question, and which, as far as I know, has received no attention in the administration: first, an all-out effort to get the Afghan government and the Pakistani government to agree on the international border. As you well know, the Durand Line, in the 19th century British legacy, has never been fully accepted.

Secondly --

SEN. BIDEN: And the recommendation is for the Afghanis to accept the Durand Line?

MR. HOLBROOKE: Yeah, the -- they specifically recommend the Afghans accept the Durand Line, but in the real world, anything the two countries agree on ought to be fine to the United States. The Durand Line is, I feel, a starting point for negotiation. I don't know every detail of it. No one does anymore. There is -- they also suggest a major international conference -- they use the precedent of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which fixed Swiss neutrality, and it's held for 200 years -- to agree on neutrality for Afghanistan.

They also point out that Iran must be part of the solution of Afghanistan. Now, I was in Herat a year ago. The Iranian influence in Herat is crystal-clear, and the Herat is relatively stable because the Iranians don't want problems there. They have other problems -- drugs are crossing the border and the Iranians want to gain economic hegemony -- but like with Iraq, a point you have made many times, you can't fix the problems of Iran -- I mean, excuse me, Iraq and Afghanistan, without a buy-in from the neighbors, no matter how they are.

Having said all that, the actual problem of what to do with these training camps is an awesome and a daunting one. Some people have proposed Americans crossing the border in hot pursuit. The risk of that is very -- there's a very high risk here -- and I would defer to General Jones -- that we would get into areas where our military effectiveness would be limited, but the political and strategic negatives would be enormous. So I think we have to proceeds very carefully.

Finally, two last points. There is now a new element in the equation, which none of us would have expected five years ago: Pakistani Taliban, whose focus is eastward towards the populated, non- fundamentalist areas of Pakistan. They pose a real threat, and the lack of democracy in Pakistan seems to be feeding that opportunity. It would be the biggest strategic catastrophe in memory if Pakistan went the way that Iran went in the 1970s. And yet the narrowing base of the government raises that risk in the deepest way. I know you have spoke eloquently on this in public repeatedly over the last year, and I can only echo and share the things you have said, Mr. Chairman.

MR. PICKERING: There's three very brief points, Mr. Chairman, to amplify what my colleagues have said, with which I totally agree. Al Qaeda is an Arab organization. Taliban is predominately Pashtun. They clearly had tensions, even when we were supporting them both to fight the Soviets. In adversity, those tensions go away.

We neglected to understand that after, in fact, we were quickly victorious in Afghanistan, we had a huge mountain of work to do, to follow up, to make sure that it didn't roll out under our feet. We have a constant capability of doing that, if you look back over the years. We're pretty good at wars and very bad at what to do after them.

The second piece, I think, is equally important, that Iran and the United States share a common interest in Afghanistan. We after all took the two greatest burdens off the Iran plate -- the Taliban in Afghanistan and the leader of Iraq. There is, in my view, a serious opportunity here. And the report is not, in my view, at all wrong in suggesting that this happen. My belief is that we need a broader conversation with Iran anyway. But if Iraq is a legitimate subject, why isn't Afghanistan a legitimate subject to talk to Iran about, regardless of all the other difficulties we've got?

Look, we couldn't have the Karzai government, as Dick reminds me, if we hadn't got together with the Iranians in Bonn and put it together. And Jim Dobbins, who led that effort, is almost lavish in his praise of Iranian cooperation in those days, as strange as that may seem in today's environment and atmosphere.

I think the third piece is that Dick is right about the Pakistan Taliban, but it's not totally new on the scene. We've had movements in Pakistan, in the madrassas, training radical Islamic people, many of whom went to Afghanistan in the pre-Taliban-ruling days and became, in fact, the nexus of a lot of the Taliban effort.

I think that a totally loony idea is to put U.S. forces into the frontier areas of Pakistan. If the Pakistanis themselves cannot do it, with their knowledge, with their colorable capability to operate in those areas, at least now, how are Americans going to get over this particular difficult problem? I have no objections to the U.S. helping Pakistan, but this is a Pakistani problem in almost an exclusive sense. And we have to find a way, which we haven't been successful yet, in motivating the Pakistanis to do so.

I think their deal came after, at least according to reports I had, they tried putting a division into the frontier tribal areas and got very badly beat up. So it is not a simple problem either for Musharraf or for the Pakistanis to deal with, but I see that as the only road, and I totally agree with Dick on the looming dangers.

SEN. BIDEN: Well, I know you have to go at 12:30, General. My time is up.

I'll conclude by saying that, you know, some Americans would wonder why, with us being essentially the primary guarantor of Karzai's government, why when Paddy Ashdown was called that he was not acceptable, why we would accept that. I understand it's an independent government, but many Americans would wonder why we would be in a position to not make it clear that that was not acceptable, in terms of the help they expect from us, but anyway.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

SEN. BIDEN: If the senator would yield for just a second, I'd point out that, because I was chairman of Judiciary during those periods, you'd remember. And cops -- we vetted their entire police force. We went back and retrained them. And I don't know how Plan Colombia, the portion that worked, could have worked without that. Medellin, you can walk the streets --

MR. PICKERING: We didn't train military without vetting them.

SEN. BIDEN: That's right. And that's not happening now.

MR. BOUCHER: So to add to the answer and Senator Biden's comment, Senator Nelson, roads and markets before drug eradication, some way of compensation to people when their only source of livelihood has been destroyed or else -- joining the Taliban's even easier. Hold eradication off in insecure areas for a while, and go after the traffickers and the drug lords and the precursor chemicals.

I think the previous testimony strongly suggested to me -- and by the way the witnesses avoided the questions posed by chairman and his colleagues -- that they are not going after drug lords at a high level. I don't know, Mr. Chairman, if that was your impression, but I listed carefully to the colloquy, and I was not encouraged.

SEN. NELSON: Thank you.

SEN. BIDEN: (Off mike.)

SEN. : Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Let me thank all three of our witnesses.

I want to touch upon the importance of border security in dealing with the problems in Afghanistan. There was, I think, some high hopes when OSCE agreed to provide some border security with Central Asia. There's very challenging issues as it relates to Iran and Iran's support for extremists groups within Afghanistan. And of course it was well reported that al Qaeda has the ability to travel between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So I just really would like to get an assessment from you as to two points. First, how important is border security in attaining our goals in Afghanistan, and how effective have we been on border security issue?

GEN. JONES: I think border security is extremely important, but in a 360-degree sense around Afghanistan. And I think that this is why in our report we stressed the fact that what's happening in the region is now making Afghanistan part of a regional problem.

But you talk to the individual countries bordering Afghanistan about drugs -- China, for example, and Russia -- very concerned about the infringement of their borders and the traffic. Iran has running gun battles with these drug convoys, losing untold hundreds of people a year, trying to impede, trying to restrict the flow of drugs through their territories by the way, on their way to the European markets at the rate of about 90 percent of the drug product, and also to the east.

So I think one of the aspects of this being a regional problem is to get regional actors together and say what are we going to do about the border situation? How can more countries do more, particularly against drugs, but also against the flow of insurgents?

Obviously, the one that people focus on the most is the Pakistan- Afghanistan border dispute. And for several years we listened to the finger-pointing between President Musharraf and President Karzai, which didn't really contribute to any forward progress.

Now that it is a regional problem, we should all hope that the leaders of these countries will get together and do what's right.

SEN. : Let me ask one additional question, General, and that is what should our expectations be? What can we -- at the end of the day, what are we hoping, realistically, to achieve in Afghanistan as a country that has a history of tribal leaders, that has never had a strong central government? What can we expect and what is the timeline?

I know that's very difficult to predict, but I'd be interested in your assessment as to what can we achieve as far as stability in that country, its extremist groups being eradicated and an economy that's not based on narcotics?

GEN. JONES: My feeling, from having traveled all over the country, particularly in the aftermath of the elections that were held, was that the Afghan people themselves really want to stop fighting. There is a historical behavioral science, I think, that you can track problems within a country or within a region, where people go through a fighting and a killing spell and eventually they get tired of it or something happens, they stop and they yearn for peace. And hopefully, that's what happened in Bosnia, and we're all hoping that in Afghanistan we're seeing the same thing.

I think the outpouring of public support for the election, the promise of a better life, the promise of economic stability, the promise of a judicial system, the potential of not being pulled in two different directions, terrorized at night and being able to only go out during the days. Those promises came through loud and clear to the Afghan people, and they voted overwhelmingly for that.

What's going on, I think, in the aftermath of these elections is their frustration over not seeing progress towards that goal. It wasn't going to happen overnight; we all recognize that. My feeling is that for all of the enthusiasm that happened after the elections, the decrease in violence, the fact that the violence had really been located to a very small place, the PRTs were launched. NATO came in more forcefully. There was a lot of momentum that we had plans for judicial reform, police reform, narcotics reform, demobilization and reintegration, the standing-down the warlords. A lot of good things, a lot of momentum.

And what I think has happened now is the momentum has been lost. It's been lost because a lot of these programs have not been fully implemented. It's been lost because there is just no sense that we can tackle effectively the three or four most important things that are going on inside the country, complicated now by the fact that, I think it's fair to say, this is a regional problem, whereas before we were able to focus on Afghanistan, quite apart from the nations around it.

So I still think that there is a way ahead. I think it's -- I think the international community needs to come together, make their assessments, us make our assessments. I do believe that a Paddy Ashdown-like figure or figures is absolutely critical to focusing the tremendous amount of money and resources, in both people and assistance that is going on, and which is to be commended. But it's going on in a almost uncoordinated way, and on certain issues we need a lot more coordination, a lot more effect.

MR. BOUCHER: Senator, the Paddy Ashdown affair is not about Paddy Ashdown. It's a seminal moment in the relationship between the Karzai government and the international community. It did not happen before, anything like this.

And for reasons involving internal politics in Afghanistan, the forthcoming elections, Karzai's need to be more nationalistic and no longer so subservient to the outside world, he broke an agreement in public. It may or may not have helped him domestically; I have no idea. But if it is allowed to stand, all the things that my colleagues have recommended in this terrific report I don't think will happen.

SEN. : Well, it appears like we have our challenges ahead of us. It's not going to be a quick path.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SEN. BIDEN: I thank the gentleman. (Off mike) -- mean that sincerely. And you can rest assured, unfortunately for you all, we're going to call on you again.

Three of us on this committee are heading over to Pakistan and Afghanistan shortly, and we'll follow up when we come back. But I don't know how, to use your phrase, General, and also -- all three of you, I don't know how we get a handle on this without much greater coordination and involvement in the international community. I just don't -- I don't think there's any possibility.

At any rate, thank you very much. We are adjourned. (Strikes gavel.)