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World Views: Aurora Prompts Questions on Global Gun Trade, Paul Folmsbee on South Asia (Aug 06, 2012)

Regular KGOU political analyst Keith Gaddie joins Suzette Grillot for a conversation on global arms procurement and trade, gun control politics in the wake of the Colorado movie theater shooting, and whether or not the tragedy in Aurora constitutes domestic terrorism.

“Context matters,” Gaddie said.  “A random of violence is not the same as an act of terror.  Terror occurs, but it’s not terrorism.”

This month, U.S. diplomat Paul Folmsbee starts a new job as the Executive Director of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs.  The New York native earned a Master’s in social anthropology from the University of Oklahoma in 1985, and has led U.S. law enforcement and counter-terrorism efforts in Pakistan.  When he returned to Norman for his son’s graduation from OU’s law school in May, he spoke with former World Views host Zach Messitte and Monica Sharp.  Folmsbee described the five different regional commands of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, where he served as the senior civilian representative to Regional Command East.

“It is clearly time, as our president says, to wrap this up,” Folmsbee said.  “Our own president is saying that, and he’s right.  I think the Taliban and a lot of the Islamic fundamentalist groups are in trouble, but I also think it’s complicated because there’s a lot of Afghan population members who are probably sympathetic towards some of the values that the Taliban represent, to some small degree.”

Folmsbee served as the U.S. Consul General in Mumbai, India from 2008 to 2011, where he witnessed first-hand the November 2008 terrorist attacks that killed more than 160 people over a four-day period.  He said the U.S. respond to the attacks frustrated him.

“There was a time when we must have had close to 100 U.S. citizens trapped in hotels, and we were able to get up close to those areas and then we tried to, as Americans came out, intercept them and get them to the consulate,” Folmsbee said.  “But I’ll admit I would’ve appreciated having some forces to assist us and assist our Indian brothers with that.”

Folmsbee said the lack of homogeneity among the citizens in Pakistan and Afghanistan led to the disjointed lack of information regarding the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.

“Parts of the population are not fully linked strongly to Islamabad,” Folmsbee said.  “So that creates, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), or the Northwest frontier, and other locations, particularly Baluchistan, some pretty rough areas that are not fully allied with Islamabad.  So Islamabad has its hands full just stabilizing its own country. “


ZACH MESSITTE, HOST: Paul Folmsbee, thank you for joining us on World Views.

PAUL FOLMSBEE: Thank you, it’s great to be here.

MESSITTE: You are a senior diplomat.  You grew up in India.  You’ve had tours in Pakistan, and India, and Sri Lanka, and most recently in Afghanistan.  What makes this part of the world special for you?

FOLMSBEE: Well, first of all, as you say, I grew up in India, and I’ve always been interested in cross-cultural environments.  That really extends all the way back to my days at the University of Oklahoma, where I graduated with a Masters in anthropology.  India is complicated.  South Asia is complicated.  So it really needs our attention and effort.  It’s a lot of fun to work there, honestly.  I love the culture, the food, and the people.  So it just draws you in.  It’s part of the future.

MESSITTE: Now, most recently, of course, you’ve been in Afghanistan, and on this program that Monica and Joshua Landis and I do, we talk about Afghanistan with some frequency.  President Obama talked about how in 2014 American troops will withdraw from the country, and there’s a question of what happens next?  What happens when the American presence decreases and then diminishes entirely?  What’s left in Afghanistan?  Is the Karzai government able to step up and fill the vacuum that’s going to be left by American soldiers there?

FOLMSBEE: Well, you asked a lot of questions in one short space, so maybe I’ll back up…


FOLMSBEE: …and talk a little bit about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.  Afghanistan is actually divided into five different regional commands – the U.S. presence there.  Three of those commands are particularly focused on what we call “the war,” which really is the provinces in Afghanistan that border Pakistan, particularly in the culturally Pashtun areas.  The other two areas, Herāt and Mazār-i-Sharīf, and those regions, are actually relatively stable.  They’re Dari-speaking populations, which is very similar to Farsi Persian.  Herāt, in particular, is very linked economically to Iran.  So we’re really talking about the other parts of Afghanistan, and that is what we call The East, the 14 provinces that make up The East - the provinces all around Kabul, the provinces in the south that are all around Kandahar, and the province of Helmand.  Those are the areas that we really focus on right now.  It’s a complicated situation.  There is significant progress.  There are more kids in school in those locations.  The economy is doing better in places.  It’s selective.  Certain cities, like Jalalabad, are actually experiencing some improvements.  Other locations have a long ways to go, but I think overall, the future is moving in the right direction, albeit with lots of bad days.

MESSITTE: Both Monica and I have a colleague here who just returned from the Oklahoma National Guard, who just returned from service in the Eastern Provinces of Afghanistan.  His assessment basically was that it’s miserable.  That there was very little progress, and very little sense of identity, of what it means to even be an Afghan, in terms of the people he was meeting with.  There was a sense that perhaps it was not only time for the United States to come home from this mission, but that at the end of the day there was a good probability that the Taliban would return, and be in control.  How do you respond to that kind of a criticism?

FOLMSBEE: I hear this sort of thing all the time, actually.  Let me first say that as the senior civilian representative to Regional Command East, I’m actually partnered with the two-star general who runs that part of Afghanistan, and we’re very privileged to have the Oklahoma National Guard with us.  They were called Task Force Thunderbird, and located in the province of Laghman.  Mihtarlam, the capital of Laghman Province, was one of the first cities to actually transfer to Afghan authority.  I was in Mihtarlam less than two weeks ago meeting with Governor Azizi there, and it’s fairly stable.  I’m not saying things are perfect.  There are going to be other challenges, but it’s definitely moving in the right direction.

MONICA SHARP: A lot of Americans are finding that their support for the war in Afghanistan is dwindling.  The recent numbers that came out, I believe, quoted it somewhere around 27% of Americans think we should even still be in Afghanistan fighting this war.  What is the role of diplomacy when it seems like the success is slow in coming?  At what point will the American electorate will feel like this war was worth it?

FOLMSBEE: Well, first of all, I think we always have to remember that the attacks that were launched against New York came out of this area.  I’ve served in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  I built a road right up Tora Bora in 2006, where we famously had Osama bin Laden flee.  So we cannot forget that was the primary reason we’re there.  We’re there to help stabilize that situation.  I honestly don’t think we had a choice.  I think the American people needed to be there, and I think the rest of the world needed to be there.  If you look now at the Coalition that is in Afghanistan, we always talk about the American presence.  There’s actually a large Coalition presence there.  I work with many different countries.  There’s a French presence there, there’s a Polish presence, there’s many others.  That being said, it is clearly time, as our president says, to wrap this up.  Our own president is saying that, and he’s right.  We’re moving in that direction.  2014 is the date, and we’re focused on that.  I think we will see some success.  I think the Taliban and a lot of the Islamic fundamentalist groups are in trouble, but I also think it’s complicated because there’s a lot of Afghan population members who are probably sympathetic towards some of the values that the Taliban represent, to some small degree.  So we’ll have to work with that.

SHARP: So after the U.S. departs Afghanistan, what are the odds of the Taliban experiencing a resurgence that would necessitate our return to the region five or ten years hence?

FOLMSBEE: I personally think that will not happen.  I think that the challenges that the Taliban face and other Islamic fundamentalists is too great.  The United States has been successful in dissecting Islamic fundamentalists.  I’ve been on the front sides of that watching our military heroes focus on that.  Really, we have made significant progress.  Not enough, perhaps, but enough for now.  I do see success at the end of this.  I’m not just saying that.  I’m somebody who has a very informed opinion.  I spent my childhood in India, close by.  I’ve worked in Pakistan, I’ve worked a lot in Afghanistan in the area.  There’s some good news coming for us there.  It’s going to be tough though, I will admit.

MESSITTE: Let’s actually stay with Pakistan, a country also that you know well, and of course Americans have heard for years now that the Pakistani intelligence service is very close with the Taliban.  Most famously, that Osama bin Laden was living in a Abbottabad not far from a military installation.  How could they not have known?  These kinds of things.  What is your understanding of the greatest challenges confronting the Pakistani government in securing U.S. interests in the region?

FOLMSBEE: Well I think one of the things I would tell American listeners is that Pakistan is not homogenous, in many ways as Afghanistan is not.  What that means is that parts of the population are not fully linked strongly to Islamabad.  So that creates, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), or the Northwest frontier, and other locations, particularly Baluchistan, some pretty rough areas that are not fully allied with Islamabad.  So Islamabad has its hands full just stabilizing its own country.  So that’s right out of the gate.  Right there is what we have to focus on in Pakistan before we get anywhere else.

MESSITTE: Similarly though, we hear about anti-American views among the population in Pakistan, and that it’s different there than it would be, for instance, in India, or even in Afghanistan.  Is that true?  Is there a sort-of pervasive anti-Americanism in Pakistan?

FOLMSBEE: It’s complicated, and I’m sorry to use that term.  There are elements in the Pakistani community and the culture that will speak out against Western and American interests sometimes.  Sometimes our interests are misrepresented by media.  That happens here in this country, frankly, let alone in Pakistan.  So we have to work around all those.  It’s similar in India.  Huge democracy, messy democracy.  Lots of media, so lots of different views.  One of the things we have to be careful about is to not say that a country speaks with one voice.  Our country does not speak with one voice.  India, Pakistan, Afghanistan do not speak with one voice, so we have to be very specific about what we’re saying.

MESSITTE: You’re listening to World Views on KGOU, and we’re talking with senior United States diplomat Paul Folmsbee.  Let’s switch actually, and talk now about India.  A place where you spent three years as the consul general in Mumbai, and in fact, you were there during the terrorist incident in the fall of 2008.  Explain a little bit about what that was like being the American consul general in Mumbai.  What was the U.S. government’s reaction, and what kind of role did the government have in the aftermath?

FOLMSBEE: Well, there’s no question that attack took a lot of people by surprise.  The government of India included.  I think for the United States, I will admit to me, to be slightly personally frustrated, to speak extremely candidly, when you have a terrorist get into a city like that.  There was a time when we must have had close to 100 U.S. citizens trapped in hotels, and we were able to get up close to those areas and then we tried to, as Americans came out, intercept them and get them to the consulate.  But I’ll admit, I would’ve appreciated having some forces to assist us and assist our Indian brothers with that.  There was some delay there, but in the end, I’m glad to say most of the terrorists were eventually killed and removed.

MESSITTE: But this is just another example of this tension that exists between India and Pakistan, both these countries that you know well.  This clearly is a very difficult relationship.  Explain this.  Why is this relationship between India and Pakistan so fraught with tension, and what is the role of the United States in trying to mitigate it?

FOLMSBEE: I’m trying to avoid saying “it’s complicated” because I know I’ve already said that too many times…

MESSITTE: (Laughs) But that’s your job!  You’re a diplomat.  You’re supposed to untie complicated knots.

FOLMSBEE: In some ways, I’ve heard India and Pakistan and the relationship described by friends of mine and others as a divorce with children.  It’s extremely complicated on the border areas, of course, because India has a state called Punjab.  Pakistan has a province called Punjab.  So the population is linked.  They’re speaking the same language.  You have the Sindhis, a large population in India who has no state to call their own, unlike many other states in India, which are defined by their ethnic heritage.  Whereas there’s a place in Pakistan called Sindh.  It’s the children.  It’s the linkages that will not separate.

MESSITTE: But it’s children who have nuclear weapons.

FOLMSBEE: There are certainly issues that we’re going to have to work through, and nuclear weapons is one of them.  Obviously, we want to see a stable Pakistan that acts responsibly with that kind of weaponry, and India as well.

SHARP: I’d like to ask a question about higher education, and turn a little bit to your role as a diplomatic officer.  In my position here at the University of Oklahoma as the director of International Student Services, we work with a tremendous number of international students ever y year who come through our campus to pursue academic programs, and learn English.  What is the role of higher education with respect to public diplomacy?  I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.

FOLMSBEE: I would say right off the bat that it’s a major priority.  We have all sorts of programs where we send students and teachers and professors back to the United States to engage in training and speaking engagements, up to our ability to pay for it, frankly.  On top of that, we of course have so many other students, professors, and teachers coming to the United States through our visa programs.  So it’s a huge connection, and it really is something I continue to encourage.

SHARP: And as we know, those student visas are unlimited in number, so as many students as could afford to pay for their education in the United States, and could get visas to come here, could come here.  Right now, the number of international students in the U.S. is somewhere around 1.3 million, which is a tremendous amount of visa processing for U.S. consulates around the world.  Back to my earlier question, might this be the more stable route through which the U.S. might export democracy by bringing international students to the U.S., kind of a soft sell?  Come here for four or five years, do a masters, learn about the U.S. inside the U.S.

FOLMSBEE: I would argue that’s already happening, actually.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve met with the senior Indian, Pakistan, or Afghan leadership, and then suddenly realize that they’ve had training or experience in the United States.  It immediately opens up their understanding of the issues.  It’s just been fantastic.  So I see that all the time, actually.

SHARP: And I think we’ve seen this frequently around the world in the news in the last year, with the Arab Spring.  How many of these leaders actually have taken degrees in the United States, and if not them themselves, how many of their spouses or their adult children…

FOLMSBEE: No, I’m with you.  I think we do those programs to the extent that we have funding and resources, and that’s always the constraint.  How many people can we process?  The United States is processing, as you say, 1.2-1.3 million students.  That’s a lot of visas.

SHARP: It’s a lot of personal interviews.

MESSITTE: You’ve spent your career in the foreign service, posted all over the world.  What do you say to young people who are interested in pursuing the State Department as a career?  Why should they be going into it?  Why should they not be thinking, or should they also be thinking, about business or other ventures?  What’s unique about a career in the State Department?

FOLMSBEE: Well, first of all, I’m always encouraging young people to join the Foreign Service.  It’s just a fantastic career.  I would encourage people to jump into business as well.  We need all sides.  The Foreign Service is an opportunity to be right at moments of history.  I started out as a very junior guy when we did the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in Geneva.  I was literally a fly on the wall there.  You have an opportunity in the Foreign Service to really make a difference.  Now, for example, in Afghanistan, I have 210 civilians operating all around the border areas working in development and reaching out to the Afghan population.  Working in health, in education, these kinds of things help make the world a better place.  If you want a job in the Foreign Service that you really feel good about, then I would encourage people to take the exam, to go through that process.  It’s really very fulfilling.

MESSITTE: Well, Paul Folmsbee, Senior Diplomat with the United States State Department, thank you for joining us on World Views.

FOLMSBEE: Thank you, thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2012 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

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