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Who Lost Afghanistan?

Who Lost Afghanistan?
(Hy Rothstein, July 26, 2020)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Hy Rothstein recently retired from the faculty at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Hy spent considerable time in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Philippines observing the conduct of those wars. Dr. Rothstein has written and edited books about Afghanistan (Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare (2006) and Afghan Endgames – Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (Feb 2012), Iraq (The Three Circles of War (2010)), an anthology that explores the similarities between insurgency and gang violence (Gangs & Guerrillas (2011), a comprehensive volume on deception titled, The Art and Science of Military Deception (2013) and, Assessing War, which addresses the challenges of measuring success and failure during war.

Dr. Rothstein also served in the US Army as a Special Forces officer for more than twenty-six years. When not working, Hy single-hands his 40 foot sail boat on California’s central coast.

Transcript

Robert R. Reilly:

Introduction

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Bob Reilly, the director, and we are extremely pleased to bring to you today Dr. Hy Rothstein, who recently retired from the faculty at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California. Hy spent considerable time in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Philippines observing the conduct of those wars.

He is the author of Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare (2006) and he has contributed to and edited Afghan Endgames – Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War. He has also edited a comprehensive volume on deception titled, The Art and Science of Military Deception (2013) and, Assessing War, which addresses the challenges of measuring success and failure during war.

Dr. Rothstein also served in the U.S. Army as a Special Forces officer for more than twenty-six years. He is a graduate of West Point Military Academy. His topic today is, “Who Lost Afghanistan?” Dr. Rothstein.

Hy Rothstein:

Introduction

Good evening, everybody. My name is Hy Rothstein. Bob Reilly, a close friend and somebody who I admire, asked me to talk a little bit about Afghanistan, so the talk is titled, “Who Lost Afghanistan?” So what happened on September 11, 2001, almost nineteen years ago resulted in a very unorthodox but also very successful military campaign to remove the Taliban regime from power. That was the same regime that provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and to Al Qaeda. By early December 2001 every major city in Afghanistan had fallen. The Taliban and Al Qaeda had been crushed.

Now, this brilliant initial victory, this brilliant success, was followed by eighteen years of inept policy and strategy by civilian and military leaders from the United States. Afghanistan I think eventually will be a case study on how not to exercise military and political power. Let me note that over the last eighteen plus years we have been fighting predominantly the Taliban in Afghanistan, who were never a direct threat to the United States. We have not been fighting Al Qaeda, the perpetrators of 9/11, who really by early 2002 had a very limited presence in Afghanistan. That fact is often forgotten.

So the focus of this talk will be mostly on issues of policy and politics, not so much on strategy and military operations. A talk on the military campaign would really be a talk unto itself, and that should be postponed to a future time, but let me say that the senior military leaders over the last eighteen years would be dominant on the list of people who lost Afghanistan because at almost every turn, the military’s response in that country was inappropriate. Even the initial success that I mentioned at the very beginning of the talk, the plan for that was not generated by the military. It was generated by the CIA, but the CIA recognized that it required military forces to respond.

Military Failures

But let me say something to at least be fair to the military leaders, who I said did not perform very well. A military campaign or at least a successful military campaign is impossible without a clear policy purpose, and the policy purpose that is just in the eyes of the people who live in the area where you are waging war, and a clear, achievable, and just policy purpose in Afghanistan has been elusive, again, over three administrations.

I will say one thing about the military plan before I get to the heart of my talk, and that is once the military recovered from initial success in Afghanistan, it snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by employing large troop formations inappropriately. Even the counter-terrorism fight that was fought with precision by America’s most elite units proved to be a-strategic.

So I will discuss what happened in Afghanistan in two distinct phases for analytical purposes. The first phase is really what took place over what I will call the Bush-Obama era and that is the era of the original sin. Phase two is really the Trump phase. In that phase the focus was just get out, get out as quickly as we can.

Phase One

So let me start with phase one, the phase of the original sin, and state right up front that there was a fundamental design flaw in U.S.-Afghanistan policy. So simply put the policy of creating and supporting a strong, central government and democratic elections in Afghanistan and a strong, centralized security force, the Afghan National Army, was not a formula for success and stability. That design, a strong, central government and a strong, central security force, is the cause collectively (they both are the cause) of instability and continuing growth and strength of the insurgency.

The American policy in Afghanistan has failed to acknowledge the historical lessons of governance in that country. The British, the Soviets, and even the pre-9/11 Taliban wrongly assumed that a strong, centralized government could deliver stability, so every president since 9/11 has doomed the United States by following the well-worn path of failure of many, many countries’ histories in Afghanistan.

A Flawed Design

So why a flawed design? To understand why our policy design was flawed, we really must understand how Afghanistan works. The rugged terrain, the ethnic diversity, and the rural nature of Afghanistan have historically put the villages in that country beyond the formal control of the central government. Equally important, rural Afghans are very suspicious of what goes on in Kabul. Their primary allegiance is to local leaders and that local allegiance is based on kinship. The rural population in Afghanistan, which makes up approximately 75% of the population, rarely see themselves as part of a single nation with common interests.

However, that said, rejecting control from Kabul does not mean that Afghans reject governance. Local institutions in Afghanistan are highly effective because they are grounded in perceptions of fairness and legitimacy at the local level, so effective and legitimate governance in Afghanistan exists where the central government does not, so regimes that try to impose strong, central authority generated insurgencies against them.

So the United States and its coalition partners have supported a government design that is contrary to the way rural Afghans understand governance. Accordingly, that type of centralized control is opposed in the rural areas, and the presence of foreign troops in these rural areas in the countryside is especially destabilizing when those foreign forces are viewed as defenders of the central government rather than defenders of local leaders.

Legitimacy

Let me just in a very general sense talk about where legitimacy comes from, where the sources of legitimacy are. So the first source of legitimacy can be referred to as traditional sources. That would be based on culture, dynastic, and tribal affiliations. The second source of legitimacy would be religious legitimacy and that is based on charismatic religious leaders as well as a religious ideology that the population believes in. And the third general source of legitimacy would be a legal and institutional sources, elected representatives for example.

So Afghans recognize the first two, traditional and religious sources of legitimacy. We demanded that they acknowledge the third source of legitimacy, which is legal and institutional. They do not recognize that as a legitimate source of legitimacy, so therefore they rejected what we and our coalition partners put in place, and this is again the source of resistance and failure in our efforts over the last eighteen plus years. We ignored the two recognized sources of legitimacy, and again I will repeat those are traditional and religious sources.

Obviously, the consent of the governed matters and increased governing legitimacy would go a long way to defusing the insurgency, but at every turn we went in the wrong direction, so U.S. policy and the central government that it helped create provoke and empower the insurgency. This is why all of the programs and initiatives and investments that the United States has made have not thwarted the Taliban at all.

U.S. Support

One other point: the Afghan government is hooked to a U.S. life support system. If the U.S. government pulls the plug, the Afghan government and what we have created in Kabul will die. This is not a good option. Alternatively, a permanent dependency by the Afghan government on the United States is also not a good option.

So let me outline what the features of an effective policy and strategy in Afghanistan would have looked like if we chose to implement a reasonable and effective policy many years ago, and let me just assume that our goal in Afghanistan is to create a stable and secure ally whose territory would not be a safe haven for terrorists. So the theme or objective would be for a legitimate and effective policy to decentralize power to conform to the historical traditions of successful governance in Afghanistan. In other words fix the original sin that I talked about earlier.

Go Long, Go Small, Go Local

Let me just summarize to start with by a little slogan that would go, ‘go long, go small, and go local.’ So what do I mean by going local? Well, that would mean that Afghan stability would really depend on local political arrangements, you know rather than relying on control from Kabul. Going small would mean relying mostly on small, specialized, probably Special Forces, by working with and through local, legitimate institutions at a village level.

And going long would mean being prepared to stay as long as it takes to create stability and security in Afghanistan. The other thing that would be essential – and much of this has already happened based on our draw-down, not based on strategy – but close most of the bases. The existing infrastructure and expenditure of these bases is really a source of corruption and a source of the insurgency.

Better Policies

What would have been the features of good policy of Afghanistan? And again, assuming that we want a government in Afghanistan that is self-sustaining, that is legitimate in the eyes of the people, that is stable and secure, and is able to keep their territory from being a safe haven for terrorists, what would we want as a policy? Well, the theme of the policy would have to be decentralizing power to conform with historical, Afghan traditions of governance. And that would be, for example, we would have to focus on a local level, we would have to have elements of the government operate in a very small way at the local level, and we would have to operate for the long term in that country.

And let me sort of clarify that because I do not think that was clear enough. Going local would mean Afghan stability would depend on local, political arrangements rather than control from Kabul. Going small would be having for example American Special Forces working with local Afghan forces at a village level, working with legitimate institutions. And going long would mean staying in Afghanistan and being prepared to stay there for as long as it takes to make sure the country remains stable.

We would have to close all of the major U.S. bases in Afghanistan and a lot of that has been done as a result of our draw-down, but the reason for closing these bases is they are a source of instability. These bases fuel the insurgency and they fuel corruption in the country because of the resources that become available throughout the country based on the influx of money and resources that the United States infuses into that country.

Development projects: we would have to stop many of the development projects unless of course the locals make in-kind investments in those projects. It is important for the locals to have skin in the game. We would also have to increase our efforts to identify young, nationalistic, legitimate Afghan leaders, who will cut deals that will lead to stability.

Cutting deals in that country is a way of life, and we would reward individuals and localities for good governance. I mean good governance Afghan style. And we would invest in those areas where violence is neither tolerated nor exported. In other words we would start rewarding the peacemakers, not the war-makers. The current incentive structure really incentivizes fighting.

We would also push to downsize the Afghan National Army and again develop local, professional security forces at the lowest practical level. But the Afghan Army is an important entity. It has to be strong enough to provide security against external threats and inter-regional rivalries. Maintaining a small U.S. footprint in that country is important to strike high value terrorist targets or to defeat insurgents if they would be so stupid as to mass.

I think the second to last feature would be increasing the diplomatic efforts with Pakistan and India to help facilitate a strong and stable Afghanistan. My final point would be – and Bob and I have spoken about this in the past – developing an information campaign that articulates the justice of our shared interests with the Afghans that undermines the legitimacy of the Taliban. There really has never been an information campaign that talks to the justice of our shared cause and undermines the legitimacy of what the Taliban is trying to do.

Phase Two

So let me move to phase two right now, and that is the Trump era. What we see in the Trump era is an acknowledgement, and maybe falsely so, that winning is no longer an option in Afghanistan. So if winning is no longer an option, what we see in the Trump era is efforts to get out of Afghanistan at all costs and that is the focus right now.

Who is to Blame?

Now, sadly U.S. leaders in what has become America’s longest war hardly acknowledge their own culpability in what is right now a failure in Afghanistan. There is a tendency to blame our Afghan partners. There is a tendency to say Afghan political leaders and Afghan security forces are not competent. There is a tendency to look at Pakistani complicity in this failure [and] systematic corruption in Afghanistan. Those are some of the normal explanations for failure in that country.

However, Washington owns I think the largest portion of that failure because it was Washington that insisted on a form of government in Afghanistan that is inconsistent with the way Afghanistan runs. Again, Washington is responsible because it insisted on a type of government that now exists in Afghanistan and the structure of security forces that exist that again are inconsistent with the way Afghanistan runs, so the failure I think was predictable because centralization in that country is utterly inconsistent and unsuited to history, geography, and culture of that country. So it was the American blueprint, the original sin, that we are dealing with today, that has led us down a road that will result in failure.

The Taliban’s Position

Now, the U.S. seems oblivious to this fact, but the Taliban actually gets it. This explains why the Taliban insist on negotiating with the architect of the debacle, the United States, and they refuse to engage at an official level with the Afghan ‘puppet’ government. To make matters worse, the fiasco continues. For example, the Taliban shows little constraint in targeting the Afghan National Army and civilians while peace negotiations are ongoing. Our envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, continues to negotiate with the enemy or with the Taliban while the Taliban continues to strike at the Afghan government.

So you have got to ask, why would a negotiating partner who is serious about peace step up their attacks? The answer is really a simple one, and that is they are not serious about peace. Why would the Taliban be serious about peace? They control more territory now than they did last year and the year before that. They are continuing to expand contested space in that country, and the government of Afghanistan is losing control of space every day as the Taliban’s control is growing.

So the current trend does not favor a peace settlement that would honor the sacrifices of those that have been fighting in that country for almost two decades. The Taliban are winning because of our poor strategic choices many, many years ago, and the fighting makes sense for the Taliban, and they are strengthened by the fact that our original plan is not one that creates legitimacy for the government in that country.

The American Position

So the Taliban has a strengthened negotiating position vis-à-vis the government of Afghanistan and even the United States. And we find ourselves in a bizarre reality right now. The U.S. has agreed to the demands that the Taliban has imposed on us for a negotiation, and that demand is that the Taliban says that the Afghan government cannot be part of those negotiations in a formal way. We have agreed to that, so we have agreed to negotiate with our enemy, and we have excluded our long-time ally, the Afghan government, the government that we put in place, from those negotiations. We have put them on the sideline while we negotiate with the enemy, and Khalilzad himself has referred to the Taliban leaders as patriots.

So the American diplomacy right now implicitly supports the Taliban’s claim that the Afghan government is a puppet regime, and the current diplomatic approach undermines the future of American influence in Afghanistan and the region, and it also signals to our allies that we cannot be trusted.

Hamdullah Mohib

There is another bizarre thing that was troubling. The Afghans have a very, very capable National Security Advisor (NSA), an advisor to President Ghani. His name is Dr. Hamdullah Mohib. He is Western educated. He has an American wife. He is the type of young man that we would see as the future of Afghanistan. He expressed some legitimate frustration in the way that the United States is negotiating with the Taliban, and has been okay with the Taliban excluding the Afghan government from the negotiations.

So what happens? Well, U.S. diplomats have put poor Hamdullah Mohib on the persona non grata list. He is no longer considered somebody that the United States can deal with because he very rightly and legitimately expressed concerns about the way the negotiations are going.

What Do We Do?

So what should we do at this point? First, I think direct negotiations with the Taliban should stop. Under the current conditions negotiating with the Taliban will not bring peace to the Afghan people and it will damage our future prospects of influence in Afghanistan and in the region. Next the United States should re-look at its common interests with the Afghan. government. In other words where do our interests and the interests of the Afghan government overlap? And then we need to take a very, very sober look at what price we are willing to spend to defend those interests.

Extremes

At one extreme the United States can withdraw completely from Afghanistan and stop its financial support. We can also falsely claim that we gave it our best shot and the Afghan government blew their chance at creating a better life for their people. This approach would likely result in a very, very swift collapse of the Afghan government, and open the door for increased influence by Iran, by Russia, by Pakistan, by China, and again, it would finish off U.S. influence in the region.

At the other extreme the United States can maintain its efforts in the country, continue our support, support that has already exceeded the one trillion dollar figure, and more than 2,400 Americans killed, and more than 20,000 wounded. These extremes are probably incompatible with both U.S. and Afghan interests and neither one will likely bring peace to the Afghan people.

The Goldilocks approach, the one that would put the solution somewhere between these extremes, will also not work. The solution to a durable peace in Afghanistan must first fix the original sin, the flawed design of the Afghan government and security force, the flawed design that the United States imposed on the Afghan government with regard to how it governs itself and how its security forces are designed, which again is based on a centralization of power and a centralization of the security apparatus. That just has not worked.

Conclusion

So let me just try to conclude by saying the American strategy that has been pursued for over eighteen years is not a formula for peace and stability in Afghanistan. It has been the cause of instability and the continued growth of the insurgency. American political and military leaders lost Afghanistan. So the efforts to reroute the currents of Afghan culture have come undone. Washington and Kabul must recognize this flawed design and move forward to decentralize the approach and create a more legitimate form of governance that really conforms with the way Afghanistan works.

In Afghanistan more than any other place else in the world all politics is local and the way the country runs or the way policy has to be designed must be consistent with the Afghan views of how the world works and what constitutes legitimate governance, not our views of those topics. I will conclude now.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you for that devastating appraisal of U.S. misconceived strategy in Afghanistan. If I may make a comment then ask you a question, the comment is it seems to me the route of the original sin was cultural illiteracy that may continue to obtain today since the policy has not changed. You made multiple trips to Afghanistan. You spent a lot of time over there on the ground in different parts of the country, appraising the situation. How early did it occur to you that we were on a trajectory for failure? And because of your long experience in the Special Forces and in the U.S. Army you have contacts high in the chain of military command. Did you find any acknowledgement at those higher levels that we were on the wrong track early on?

Hy Rothstein:

Bob, of course over time I refined my assessment of what was going on, but as early as early 2002 when I first went to Afghanistan I had concerns just looking at it from a military standpoint because rather than develop local capabilities, local security capabilities based on culture and country, I found that the fighting in Afghanistan had reverted to going after high value targets. In other words trying to kill our way to success rather than working with local police and security forces to secure the countryside. We really abandoned the countryside and focused on a centralized approach to going after AQ and Taliban leaders. That proved to be very unsuccessful.

In the years that went by it became clear to me that the entire centralized approach was inconsistent with what historically would bring stability to the country and I actually had many conversations with very senior leaders and much of what I described in the middle of my talk in what I call phase one, the Bush-Obama era, I offered to senior leaders in the government as a prescription for success in writing up to the office of the Vice President of the United States during this administration. There was some acknowledgement that what I was saying was true, but there was little appetite to try to change the way we were operating.

Now, I will also say that I mentioned Hamdullah Mohib, who was also the Afghan Ambassador to the United States before he went back to Afghanistan to be essentially President Ghani’s National Security Advisor. I got to know him fairly well, and I invited him out to the Naval Postgraduate School to speak to our students. And I have had subsequent conversations with him over the years and I discussed the decentralized approach with him, and he also acknowledged that Afghanistan runs in a very decentralized way, and acknowledged that there is some room for that approach being accepted in Kabul, although Ghani is a very centralized type manager. Mohib managed acknowledged the role of decentralized governance in that country, so I think there are windows of opportunity to decentralize the approach, but because the United States was not interested, it really never got any traction.

Robert R. Reilly:

Are there parallels in the strategic failure in Afghanistan with those in Vietnam, most particularly as the strategy was conceived and conducted by General Westmoreland, which was to the neglect of South Vietnamese forces, who were not supplied with weapons as good as the Soviet weapons with which the North Vietnamese were fighting them nor the kind of training they needed to fight in that war with the idea that we will do it, we, Americans, we will take them out and we will not waste our time with these Vietnamese local forces. Do you see any analogies to Vietnam in this failure in Afghanistan?

Hy Rothstein:

I do, but I think we recognized early on that we did not want to conduct the fight in a unilateral way. It started that way, but even in the early days the Northern Alliance was a key ally in toppling the Taliban. I mean there were only about a hundred Special Forces and combat controllers on the ground in the early days along with U.S. air power that coupled with the Northern Alliance toppled the Afghan government and sent Al Qaeda running to the hills, so there was a recognition that much of the fight, most of the fight had to be by locals.

But the similarity though to Vietnam is that we felt that through attrition, in other words by applying military power to attrit the enemy, victory could be had. That proved to be false in Vietnam, and it also is not the path to victory in Afghanistan. We cannot kill our way to victory. The idea of developing local security capabilities that would thwart the Taliban and secure legitimate, local governance was really a second thought to the U.S. approach and to actually the Afghan approach also, and that is because we were instructing the Afghans. So rather than build from the village level up, we decided to build from the top down. In theory you want to build from both ends and come to the middle, but we focused on a top down approach, a centralized approach, which is not the way to secure that country and to make it stable.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, as we are on the cusp of failure right now, can we look past that failure to any internal Afghan political forces of a local nature that oppose the Taliban’s return to power, and would have the means to take action against it? Number one. Number two: has the Taliban in any convincing way demonstrated a change in its character that would make it more acceptable, broadly acceptable, to the Afghan people or has the memory of their brutal time in power remained?

Hy Rothstein:

You know the Afghan people have no love for the Taliban. That does not mean that there is not a certain legitimacy to the way they operate. The Taliban understand that legitimacy comes from religious and dynastic sources. The Taliban run, for example, Sharia courts, which are considered very legitimate in that country. And the governments run sort of Western-style courts, that are not considered that legitimate and are also subject to being corrupt. So there is a certain level of legitimacy that the Taliban has that is accepted in the rural areas even though the people are not inclined to like the Taliban.

I think the Taliban have modified their approach somewhat, and I think if Afghanistan went to a decentralized way of governance, there may be certain areas in the country that would prefer Taliban-led local governance, and I think we would have to be prepared to accept that as long as it is the type of governance that has some connection to the desires of the people in that area, so the Taliban does have a certain degree of legitimacy. They have changed their ways a little bit, but the population of Afghanistan probably would never accept a Taliban-led regime again, although that may be what happens down the road because, again, the way we have structured things does not bode well for the future of the centralized government in that country.

Robert R. Reilly:

Is there a prospect of the country degenerating back into warlordism, the kind of situation in which it was before the Taliban took over the country?

Hy Rothstein:

Without any local security capabilities and legitimate, local governance, yes. That is why the idea of legitimate, local governance and legitimate, local security forces are so important because they would thwart even the Taliban forcing their way into power at a local level. You know after my first trip to Afghanistan I wrote this book on Afghanistan, and one of the things that I found very interesting is if you develop local security forces under the control of the local shura, and you have some sort of reasonable security in the area, the economy in the area becomes pretty good. The people thrive in that area and the security force has the support of the people, the support of the local, legitimate government, and it is efficient to thwart illegitimate warlords from taking over, so that is why it is so important to develop capabilities at a local level because those capabilities cannot be rapidly exported from Kabul to a village hundreds of miles away.

Robert R. Reilly:

Let me ask you, Hy, if I may a question about the nature of that national army in Afghanistan, on which so much money has been spent for training and equipment. As you have pointed out repeatedly, a strong national government is not culturally or politically accepted in Afghanistan. As the Taliban gains more and more control of territory, what will happen to this national army? Will it disintegrate? Will its forces return to local allegiances or to the local warlords? What is going to happen to the Afghan National Army, particularly as we recede further and further?

Hy Rothstein:

Well, first of all I mentioned in my talk that the Afghan government and Army are tied to a U.S. umbilical cord. If that cord is ever cut, both collapse (in my mind) very, very quickly. The Afghan Army has a desertion rate that is incredible, and again it is because of the way we have designed the army. We bring people from the countryside to the center, and think that that army and those troops want to stay in Kabul and defend the central government.

No, they want to defend their villages, so taking those same people that come from the country and bringing them to the center, if we would reverse that, then recruit people at a local level, train them, and make them part of a local security force, they would fight for local security. So what I am trying to say is the collapse of the central army would take place fairly rapidly once the United States loses interest. And you would find warlordism, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS perhaps trying to dominate the local scene if the locals are incapable of protecting themselves and if the local governing structure is incapable of generating forces to defend themselves.

Robert R. Reilly:

Isn’t it too late for that, particularly in light of the fact that the original sin has never been, let us say, cleansed? There is no acknowledgement that that strategy with which we began is so fundamentally flawed, so that now we would understand we have got to train the forces for their local operation?

Hy Rothstein:

Yes, again, one of the proposed solutions would have to be fix that original sin. We cannot create a stable government that this country would consider legitimate if we do not do something about that original sin, and the policy that surrounds that original sin. I think that there is actually room to still do that. People like Hamdullah Mohib would be a very good negotiating partner to try to force a decentralization of governance.

The reality is that the government in Kabul will actually strengthen its hand and ensure their ability to survive if they decide to decentralize. If they do not, they are on a timeline towards destruction. So I think even at this point if the United States acknowledges policy failures of the last eighteen years and pushes hard with the Afghan government to decentralize and create local capability, I think it is still possible to turn this around, but again we would have to be willing to address for the long term in this, but again I do not think this requires the same level of investment that we have already made. I think it can really be a fraction of that investment. The return on that investment can be very, very significant.

Robert R. Reilly:

Shifting gears a little bit let me ask you [a question]. You mentioned the Afghan National Army needs to maintain a capability against external threats to Afghanistan. What might those external threats be?

Hy Rothstein:

Russia has been trying to expand their influence in the country. Afghans do not like foreign influence. The Pakistanis continue to try to extend their influence in the country. I think the U.S. presence now tamps down on both Russian and Pakistani influence. Iran has tremendous influence and forces in the country along the shared border. Even Chinese influence in that country is on the rise. So there are plenty of countries in that region that would like to replace U.S. influence in the country. In many ways they be in for many of the same issues that the United States faces because I am not sure they understand any better than we do how that country operates.

But the Afghan Army needs to be able to not only be a deterrent against external forces, there are also potential problems inside the country. If one region has a feud with another region, that is the responsibility of the central government to try to deal with, not to interfere with what goes on within a province or a locality, but there are conflicts between and among different localities, that is something that the central government has to traditionally dealt with. So a central military [is needed] to deal with external threats and with threats or problems between and among ethnic groups within the country or regional groups within the country.

Robert R. Reilly:

Hy, you referred to the possibility of the loss of U.S. influence in Afghanistan to Iran, Russia, Pakistan, China, etc., but what is that influence worth? I mean what is it actually that the United States would lose? What level of strategic significance is Afghanistan to the United States at this point?

Hy Rothstein:

You know that is a great question. It is one I am sure that the current administration has looked at and that is why they want to pull the plug. Perhaps another way to look at it is that our failure in Afghanistan and our willingness to support our enemy of eighteen years, the Taliban, versus the government that we created, I think can have a long term impact on our relations with friends and allies throughout the world because it demonstrates that we cannot be trusted, that we are fickle, that we do not follow through, that we do not understand the nature of what goes on in other cultures, in other countries, and we are perhaps not a very good ally. So I think the potential of getting out and Afghanistan collapsing I think really is a signal to our allies that they have to consider us as a strategic partner.

Robert R. Reilly:

And one final question: the presence of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was the principal cause of our going in there in the first place. To what extent do you think our failure in Afghanistan is going to lead to a recurrence of that kind of danger?

Hy Rothstein:

I do not think it is the same danger that it used to be to be quite frank. As a matter of fact before we went into Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban had already gotten tired of Al Qaeda. They were getting ready to throw them out of the country on their own because they were creating a threat to the Taliban regime. So it is not clear that the Taliban if they came to power would tolerate either Al Qaeda or ISIS operating in the country.

Now, whether or not they would be powerful enough to thwart the presence of those entities in the country is a different question. The Taliban knows what happened to them after 9/11. We bombed the hell out of them and pushed them out of power. I think they have learned and would not make the mistake again that would trigger that type of response.

Robert R. Reilly:

Dr. Rothstein, I want to thank you very much for taking the time today to talk to the Westminster Institute. I hope you will come back to discuss the other side of the issue which you said would be another talk, and that is the military dimensions. So thank you very much for joining us today.

Hy Rothstein:

Bob, it is always a pleasure to have anything to do with you and the Westminster Institute.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you, Hy.

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