This "Year of India" (6): What’s Wrong with our Afghan War

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan. (30 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

The dirty little secret of the US drone war in Afghanistan is that the civilian “kill rate” is worse in the Obama “surge” than it was in the bad old Bush war. The dirty little sequel is that our friends in India don’t think the Obama – McChrystal war in Afghanistan can succeed.

Siddharth Varadarajan, the strategic affairs editor of The Hindu, India’s “national newspaper,” speaks plainly (and fast!) about Pakistan’s double game in the Afghan war and about India’s dissent in the American war. Short form: the US is still going “soft on the Pakistani military,” and “hard on Afghan civilians.”

The American military strategy has three “fundamental weaknesses,” Mr. Vardarajan is saying. (1) The long-distance application of force, by air, cannot defeat the Taliban. Civilian casualties are still going up. The promise of a kinder-gentler counterinsurgency campaign has not been delivered. (2) Foreign troops (ours) cannot bear the brunt of a war on the Taliban in a country and culture that reject outsiders. The US and Britain have had almost a decade since 9.11 to train an Afghan army, and have almost nothing to show for it — a big point against our seriousness. (3) The US is outsourcing much of the Afghan problem to Pakistan, which isn’t much interested in a solution. The Palkistani military and intelligence, which run the country, are still nurturing links with the Islamist, anti-Indian Taliban. And all the more because President Obama has already scheduled his American exit, there’s a built-in incentive for the Pakistanis to stay in touch with their jihadis.

Historically the Pakistani miitary has used the jihadis the undermine democracy in Pakistan, to promote Islamism and muddy the waters in the region. The presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan is a symptom of the problem… You have to deal with the root cause of the problem, which is the nature of the Pakistani military, and there is a reluctance to do that. Just as the Pakistani military doesn’t want to give up 30 years of investment in the Taliban, I think the Pentagon and the State Department don’t want to give up 60 years of investment in the Pakistani military. So you have a tendency to cling on to your strategic assets in the hope that they will somehow do your bidding. But life doesn’t go that way.

Siddharth Varadarajan in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, March, 2010.

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