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World Views: Presidential Debate Reaction, Intervention in Afghanistan (Oct 26, 2012)

Rebecca Cruise hosts this week while Suzette Grillot joins the roundtable from France to talk about Monday's final presidential debate that focused on foreign policy.

Grillot said historically, presidential candidates rarely distinguish themselves on foreign policy.

"We tend to see candidates tend to fall under the same type of broad umbrella of promoting U.S. national interests," Grillot said. "The place they really only differ, and I think we saw this this week in the debate, in terms of method, and how they would promote American values or maintain American strength, or how they would promote free market capitalist economy."

Joshua Landis, the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said what struck him the most about the debate was Mitt Romney's retreat from military assertiveness.

"He said, 'We can't kill our way out of this mess.' He did not call for a no-fly zone over Syria," Landis said. "He didn't qualify his support for President Obama's deadline for a 2014 retreat from Afghanistan, and even on Iran, they really shared a view on Iran, that economic strangulation should be the path forward."

Grillot also said many of the French citizens and Europeans she spoke to this week seem both fascinated and perplexed by the American two-party system and the Electoral College.

Later in the program, Grillot continued her conversation with author and journalist Alex Strick van Linschoten.  He lives permanently in Kandahar, and says the influx of financial assistance since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 is one of the worst things to happen to the country.

"There was a period in 2008-2009 where brothers and cousins were putting bombs in each others' projects for them to find and blow them up, so they could get the service contract for the road," Strick van Linschoten said.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On changes since the death of U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke

We saw this regional political initiative being taken at the same time as ideas for a new Silk Road, and rebuilding things economically. There was all this talk of all of the mineral wealth that Afghanistan has. All of these were kind of temporarily brought together, but it hasn’t really worked out that way. Holbrooke died, so now we have some emphasis on the political strategy, but it hasn’t been very coordinated in any sense.

On what should happen after the 2014 deadline for the withdrawl of U.S. troops

You can’t have foreign military forces staying there forever. But at the same time, we shouldn’t forget how the international military presence makes it difficult for Afghans to participate in the political life of their own country. There might be people in a village who want to change up the local political leadership. They want a different guy there, but no U.S. military are funding the local warlord too, because it makes sense for local security, and that works for them. So there are all sorts of structural problems from the top that we’re supporting, that we’re enabling, that prevent local political initiative from taking shape.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Alex, picking up with where we were last week, we were talking about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and what’s likely to happen. But I really want to turn now to the international presence in general over the past, now 10-12 years, in terms of a really significant presence of international agencies, and foreign players, that are bringing in large amounts of cash. There are large projects going on. What is the story about this? In terms of the impact that they’ve had, do we see increased development in Afghanistan? Do we see greater security in Afghanistan? Do we see more schools? Roads? Water projects? What is the impact, both positive and negative, of this international presence?

ALEX STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
Well, I think if there’s something which I’ve really taken away from the time living down in Afghanistan, and watching this international presence, and how international actors, both military and civilian, behave, something that I’ve really taken away from this is that we don’t know how to intervene in countries like Afghanistan. Whether this is based on a lack of understanding, or whether this is based on more structural issues, that’s something to be debated. But I’ve just seen different countries trying to figure out places like Kandahar, and how our institutions work in just a practical sense. People come from 6 months, tours, and then they leave. 6 months is no time at all to have to figure and understand how to behave, and work, in Afghanistan. Like I said last week, I spent two years just traveling around doing nothing before I felt vaguely able to start thinking about and understanding the place, and…

GRILLOT:
And nobody really commits that kind of time. People are more or less short-term there. Like you said, they come in 6 months. They, for lack of a better term, parachute in and hop on a plane and go out. So how do we see any consistency in some of these projects? Are you seeing consistency in the international projects that are going on there? We’re not talking about military activities now. We’re talking about projects that are sponsored by international agencies. Is that what we’re seeing happening? That they’re just coming and going, and there’s no real consistency?

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
Yeah, I mean…

GRILLOT:
… no moving forward?

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
…it’s, we’re seeing this kind of yo-yo of different priorities, and there’ll be some new guy that comes in who will think counter-narcotics is really important. We’ll have a year where everyone is talking about counter-narcotics. Then the next year it’s too close to, you know, we start to withdraw, and thinking about these things, so suddenly counter-narcotics isn’t important. Then we’re talking about something else, and then one year the tribes are important. We need to engage with the tribes. In fact, structurally, there’s some kind of interesting things which go on here, particularly in the military, where you don’t get credit for programs that were set up before your rotation. So everyone who comes in has to set up their own new program. You don’t get evaluated for whether it has success in the long-term, you just get credit for having started a new initiative. So you have endless new initiatives, which have nothing to do with Afghanistan. It’s just because people want to get promotions, and things like that.

GRILLOT:
So all kinds of ulterior motives that have nothing to do with Afghanistan. I want to go back and pick up on what you just said: “We don’t do intervention very well.” And again, we’re not really talking about military intervention. We can leave that aside whether we “intervene” properly, in that respect. But in terms of encouraging, let’s say, if I just were to pick on that, and say, political and economic development. Intervening in a country to facilitate political and economic development. We’re also, perhaps, yo-yo-ing between those two, right? In terms of focusing on politics versus economics. Are we doing these things at the same time? Or are a lot of these projects happening in tandem? Or are we focusing a lot on democracy? Elections, right? Let’s set up elections in Afghanistan and call it a democracy. Is this what your experience has been there?

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
Well, it’s different in different periods. When Richard Holbrooke was the Special Representative there was a kind of temporary merger of the two, maybe. We saw this regional political initiative being taken at the same time as ideas for a new Silk Road, and rebuilding things economically. There was all this talk of all of the mineral wealth that Afghanistan has. All of these were kind of temporarily brought together, but it hasn’t really worked out that way. Holbrooke died, so now we have some emphasis on the political strategy, but it hasn’t been very coordinated in any sense. Essentially all of these different groups and organizations are doing whatever they’re doing without any great sense…

GRILLOT:
There’s no strategic plan of how to rebuild the country of Afghanistan.

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
Not really. There have been some initiatives. There have been some kind of longer-term plans, but a lot of this has had to do with infrastructure. There’ve been some successes. Telecommunications is always cited as one. Lots of people have cell phones now, but things like electricity in Kandahar City – 11-12 years after the war, people get two hours of electricity every other day from city power, and the rest of the time they’re on generators. There were times when people thought electricity was important to provide, so the U.S. funded generators and fuels and everything. So there was a lot of electricity, but then it got turned off…

GRILLOT:
But how can we expect them to develop electricity? Why is that not a priority? What is the priority? Is it elections? Is that the most important thing, elections versus electricity? Is that the…

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
Well, elections are an interesting thing to bring up. Again, yes, we love from the outside these kind of poster events where we can say, “Look, this was something that happened, and there was a transition, and something new happened. We have a new president, we have new people in the parliament, whatever.” But just look at Afghanistan’s elections. I was down in Kandahar when this was happening. It was a complete fraud. People were stuffing ballot boxes. There were huge inconsistencies. The entire box would be filled with votes for just one candidate, even in places where no one was voting. No one was seen, then they reported lot of voting. It will be the same for the next presidential election in 2014. We like to have these events, but this is just a semblance, or a fig leaf of democracy. This isn’t actually what’s going on.

GRILLOT:
So, let’s talk about how that relates to corruption in the country. Corruption plays a large role here, not only in government, but in terms of these international organizations. Again, in the presence of the money, of the assistance, how is it that you’ve seen corruption at work in Afghanistan?

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
Well, this huge influx of cash is in many ways one of the worst things that’s happened to Afghanistan. I’ve seen the effect that it’s had on friendships, and local communities where essentially you have now this huge contracting industry where Afghans are paid to build bridges, or to repair holes in the road where IEDs have gone off, and things like this. But where the competition is so intense, there was a period in 2008-2009 where brothers and cousins were putting bombs in each other’s projects for them to find and blow them up, so that they could get the service contract for the road or something like that. A lot of my friends, when I first met them, they had no money, and now they’re multimillionaires in U.S. dollars just purely from this time. It’s really fragmented society. When you combine this with the insecurity where, because of threats from the Taliban, because of the ongoing international military operations, a lot of the people, the educated elite, and so on, have left Kabul for abroad. In places like Kandahar, what you have left are the tough, hard-edge people who are able to survive this kind of stuff. But it’s not what you need to rebuild Afghanistan. It’s not what you need to create a future for young people in Afghanistan. You have to remember most of the population is young.

GRILLOT:
So listening to you makes me think that perhaps an international presence is doing more harm in Afghanistan than it is doing good. Would this be your assessment?

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
In many ways, but it goes both ways. The only thing holding Afghanistan together at the moment is this international presence. If the international forces left tomorrow, you would be plunged into…

GRILLOT:
It would just implode.

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
…quite intense conflict.

GRILLOT:
So the international presence is better than no international presence. But do you think perhaps at some point the Afghan people would be better served to rebuild their own country?

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
That’s what needs to happen in the end. You can’t have foreign military forces staying there forever. But at the same time, we shouldn’t forget how the international military presence makes it difficult for Afghans to participate in the political life of their own country. There might be people in a village who want to change up the local political leadership. They want a different guy there, but no U.S. military are funding the local warlord too, because it makes sense for local security, and that works for them. So there are all sorts of structural problems from the top that we’re supporting, that we’re enabling, that prevent local political initiative from taking shape.

GRILLOT:
So what a dilemma, right? The fact that international intervention of this sort provides significant opportunity, but also provides a number of challenges and obstacles. I’d like to ask you about drugs for a second. You mentioned counter-narcotics a little while ago. What are you seeing in terms of the drug problem? Not necessarily Afghans on drugs, but the fact that they’re producing so much of the world’s drugs today. Is this more or less of a problem today than it has been in the past?

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
It’s been somewhat stable over the past few years. Opium production has gone up in the last year or two. As I said, it’s not an international priority at the moment. Certainly not for the U.S., most of the U.S. drug sources come from elsewhere. It’s not from Afghanistan.

GRILLOT:
It’s mainly flowing to Europe, right?

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
Right, exactly.

GRILLOT:
Most of the drugs from Afghanistan are coming to Europe.

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
I was at a conference in September with Russian academics and scholars, and the official Russian government figure for the number of people who die from heroin in Russia is 35,000 each year. So that’s the official figure, the actual figure will be much higher. If you talk to Russian government officials, and you say “What is the main strategic issue with Afghanistan?” they’ll say it’s this opium that’s killing tens of thousands of our people each year. That’s not really going to go away until we deal with the bigger issues in Afghanistan, and we deal with security issues as well. Say what you want about the Taliban, but the Taliban were the only people to ever, in Afghanistan’s history, completely eradicate the opium cultivation in the last three years of their government. Which they did in part because they wanted some kind of international recognition, which then didn’t come to them, and then 9/11 happened, so it’s kind of irrelevant.

GRILLOT:
It’s something I think, clearly, we forget.

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
That was something which they sought to engage, and there were some meetings, and so on, but that didn’t work out because of various things. It’s also incredibly important for Afghans because addiction to drugs is rising, just like in Iran, which is incredibly affected by drugs coming out from Afghanistan. In Southern Afghanistan, if you’re a mother, and you have eight kids, it’s a lot of work, and when you want your kids to be quiet, you give them some opium tea, and that’s dealt with. So you have kids, 2-3 years old, who are already addicted…

GRILLOT:
…already addicted to heroin. It’s unbelievable. So you’re still traveling broadly in Afghanistan. You’ve just recently come back from the country. What is your assessment now on the ground? Safe country? Not a safe country? Where is it safe? Are you feeling hopeful and optimistic about the direction that Afghanistan is headed?

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
No, I certainly wouldn’t say I was hopeful. In a lot of places the security is really good now. That’s what happens when you put 30,000 American troops in a very controlled area, and you spend a lot of money which buys you a lot of goodwill in the short term. But long-term, does that mean that everyone is hopeful, and thinks that everything is going to be rosy in the future? No. People are still taking their money and their kids out, and young people still want to leave because they don’t see it has any future. They see this 2015 date coming, and they see the pullout of international involvement, and engagement, and they see there’s nothing positive necessarily on the cards for them.

GRILLOT:
Is the migration a significant threat to Afghanistan’s future? Those that are educated, and even those that aren’t, are basically draining this country of its future population, its future leaders?

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
That’s definitely a big long-term problem for Afghanistan. I think 2011 saw the highest number of refugees leaving Afghanistan since 2001. We often hear these military briefings that everything is going great, security is great, and people feel happy and you have these ABC polls saying “X percent of Afghans feel positive towards their government.” The reliability of these polls is a separate matter, but the fact that I always look at to see whether people have long-term confidence in their future in the situation is how many people are leaving the cities each year, how many people are trying to find a way out? That hasn’t gone down, really.

GRILLOT:
Well Alex, thank you once again for sharing this interesting story. We clearly have a long way to go, but people like you that are sharing these experiences with us, I think help us understand what needs to be done, so thank you very much.

STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN:
Thanks for having me on.

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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