Interview conducted by Constantino Xavier
First publication date: 22 December 2010
A former CIA officer, Bruce Riedel has been a close observer of the radical developments that South Asia has witnessed since 2001. In this interview with The Majalla, Riedel explores different scenarios for Afghanistan in 2015, warns against a possible coup in Pakistan, and highlights Al-Qaeda’s profile as an intelligent organization.
Bruce Riedel is a former CIA officer and currently a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Riedel was a senior adviser to three US Presidents on South Asia and the Middle East. In 2009, he chaired the Obama Administration’s inter-agency review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. Riedel is also the author of The Search for al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future (2008). In his upcoming book Deadly Embrace (December 2010), Riedel recounts the troubled history of US-Pakistan relations and its connection to the rise of global jihadist groups.
Speaking to The Majalla in his office in Washington DC, Riedel does not shy away from tackling the tough questions on the region, from Afghanistan’s possible scenarios in 2015, and the future of Pakistan, to Al-Qaeda as a learning organization interested in sucking the United States into a third war in Yemen. His picture of South Asia suggests a gloomy future for a region increasingly riddled by deadly embraces.
The Majalla: Mr. Riedel, you chaired the 2009 US inter-agency review for Afghanistan and Pakistan and the next one is coming up soon. What are the benchmarks to evaluate the strategy’s success since then?
On the benchmarks of success, they are fairly clear: Size and quality of the Afghan army and police, which are both moving in the right direction, and also signs of the degradation of the Taliban. In the last three months, according to the Pentagon, over three hundred mid-level Taliban commanders have been killed or captured. What does that tell us about the momentum of the Taliban? Are they beginning to feel pressure in a way they have never felt before? Those are the things I think they are going to be looking at this December and next spring.
Q: In concrete terms, what is in your view the best-case scenario we can expect for Afghanistan in 2015?
The optimal outcome is an Afghanistan that is strong enough to manage the Taliban largely on its own. That is to say that it can contain, if not defeat, the Taliban insurgency without foreign combat troops on the ground. It will still need financial support from outside. It will still need intelligence support. It may need occasional expert and military advice. But it can take care of the Taliban or the residue of the Taliban and Pashtun insurgents by itself.
Q: And, on the opposite extreme, if everything goes wrong over the next five years, what would the worst-case scenario look like?
Resumption of civil war. And I think that’s a very realistic danger. In fact, we are already seeing the Tajiks, Uzbeks and others making contingency plans and arming themselves for a full-scale resumption of the civil war as it was in the late 1990s. They are seeing the talk about talks with the Taliban as a signal that their interests are about to be sacrificed. I think that’s premature on their part, but it is nonetheless real and palpable today, an indication of their anxieties. The tendency of all parties in the region is to think the worst and in conspiracy terms.
And when people see all this talk about talks with the Pashtuns and the Taliban about changing the political order in Kabul, Tajiks in particular perceive that as a threat to what they see as a very good political order in Kabul, one in which, for the first time, Pashtuns don’t have control over the country as a whole.
Q: Why do you underline that there has only been “talk about talks”?
Well, if we take *Ambassador Holbrooke’s recent comments, there is very little that is actually happening in that regard. As far as I can tell, at this stage this is much more speculative than it is for real. The story about a Pakistani imposter fooling British intelligence, MI6, into believing he was a senior Taliban official underscores how little real talking is underway.
Q: But do you agree that talks with the Taliban will eventually become a necessity? That beyond the military level, there is need for a political negotiation?
I don’t think it is a necessity. Most civil wars end with one side winning and the other side losing, and not in a negotiated finale. That said, there is every reason to test to see whether the Taliban is interested in a political process. We should encourage the Karzai government in that regard. If it turns out that there is a substantial bloc of moderate Taliban leaders who want to get back into the political process, all the better. I’m personally skeptical that such a bloc exists, but I don’t see any reason to not test that and finding out whether they are there or not.
Q: You have previously underlined the importance of an attitude shift in Pakistan, in order to limit external support to the Afghan Taliban. How do you see that shift occurring, now that withdrawal is on the immediate horizon?
The shift will only happen when the Pakistani army comes to the conclusion that America is not leaving Afghanistan. And unfortunately that’s not going to seriously happen until sometime in the middle of 2011. I think the administration has already changed the timeline debate. You saw it in Lisbon. The new buzzword is 2014, not July 2011, but that’s going take a while to filter down into the region.
Pakistan is clearly going to play a part in what happens in Afghanistan but it’s not likely to achieve its goal, which is a satellite state. Nor will the NATO alliance or India let that happen. Over the next years Pakistan will have to reassess what its interests and assets are in Afghanistan. The calculation in Islamabad today still is that the US is leaving next year. So it’s only in August 2011, when they actually see that we are not leaving, that their assessment of the situation is likely to begin to change.
Q: ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) has recently initiated a major public relations operation, inviting foreign officials, journalists and scholars to visit their headquarters. What is motivating this campaign?
You’ll have to ask General Pasha. But I think that the ISI recognizes that it has an image problem. And the reaction of most organizations to an image problem is a public relations campaign. But as far as I can tell, I don’t think they have had very much success.
And it’s not just the ISI—it’s the army. The ISI is an instrument of the army, and they know that they have become perceived in America as duplicitous and double-dealing. They want to draw attention to the fact that they are at war with the militancy and they want more credit for what they are already doing, which they should deservedly get for their struggles.
But the problem is that the past is not so easily escaped, as indicated by their ongoing relations with the Afghan Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The true picture of that complex relationship is that they are at war with part of the jihadist Frankenstein they created, while they are still in bed with other parts of the jihadist Frankenstein, and all the public relations in the world won’t change that.
Q: Your upcoming book, Deadly Embrace, takes a rather critical perspective of US-Pakistan relations. Why such a gloomy balance?
It’s a deadly embrace for both sides: The US gets Al-Qaeda and the like, and Pakistan gets a Frankenstein, which it no longer can control. The book is an effort to study the US-Pakistani bilateral relationship in the context of the growth of the global jihad over the last quarter of century.
It seeks to understand why the US has been such a weak partner for democracy in Pakistan. We have endorsed enthusiastically every Pakistani military dictator and the result is that we have contributed to the weakness of Pakistani civil society and to the imbalance in civil-military relations. And this has been a bipartisan project, as Democrats and Republicans alike have—by and large—endorsed the man on horseback.
Q: You’ve been a close observer of Al-Qaeda over the last decade. Since 2001, have its strategy and operational capabilities actually changed?
As a learning organization, Al-Qaeda is very adaptive and agile. For example, in Iraq, Al-Qaeda emphasized the use of foreign cadres and found that this alienated the local Sunni community. Today, in Pakistan, they prefer to emphasize their Pakistani face, the Pakistani Taliban. They have also learned that purely indiscriminate acts of terror can backfire. It doesn’t mean they don’t do them anymore, but they are more careful. They will find a rationale to explain their targeting better than they did in Iraq five or six years ago.
Al-Qaeda’s strategic priority is now focused on Pakistan for two reasons. There is a defensive priority because they are under real pressure from the drones. And there is an offensive priority because they sense that the Pakistani state is weak and that their allies in Pakistan—the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, etc—have a real chance to take the country over in the foreseeable future. That would be a global game changer for Al-Qaeda.
Q: What would be Al-Qaeda’s role in a possible coup in Pakistan? Is that a likely scenario?
The simplest way for a jihadist Pakistan to be created is for a coup from within the Pakistani army. It already happened once, with Zia-ul-Haq. Is there another Zia in the Pakistani army today? Most certainly. Is he in a position to stage a coup? That is a much more complicated question. Pakistan’s coups have traditionally come top-down, usually from a chief of army staff. That tradition could change and you could then have a coup from, say, a brigadier general. It has happened in other countries, and it could happen in Pakistan too. But it is by no means inevitable.
Q: What is, in your view, Al-Qaeda’s actual state of links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, who organized the Mumbai attacks in 2008?
The jury is still out on Al-Qaeda’s role in the Mumbai attacks. The confession of David Headley shows that the planners for Mumbai include people that were clearly influenced by Al-Qaeda’s ideology if not Al-Qaeda members themselves. And as soon as he finished that operation and began working on the Copenhagen plot, he went directly into Al-Qaeda’s orbit, so I think that it’s premature to say that Al-Qaeda did not have a role in Mumbai. The facts are still to be completely understood on that, just like the question of the extent of ISI’s involvement, though on that case the evidence in the dock is mounting pretty considerably.
Q: So smaller groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba are both emulating and cooperating with Al-Qaeda?
I think there are two phenomena going on here. All of these Pakistan-based jihadist groups are becoming both more radicalized and more global. It doesn’t mean that they are giving up their historic objectives. Lashkar-e-Taiba is still focused on India primarily. The Afghan Taliban is still primarily focused on Afghanistan. But at the same time they are now also adopting considerable parts of Al-Qaeda’s global agenda. So you see Lashkar-e-Taiba supporting attacks on Israeli targets, even this is not their traditional objective—it is the global jihad that attracts them.
At the same time you also have an overall radicalization process that is leading to increasing operational links. For example, you have David Headley working for the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Mumbai and then being literally outsourced to Al-Qaeda for the Copenhagen operation. The same person but working for two different terrorist organizations over a relatively short period of time.
Interview conducted by Constantino Xavier.
*This interview was conducted prior to the death of US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke on 13 December 2010.