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Obama Adviser Says 'Everything Up For Reassessment' in Afghanistan

Marvin Weinbaum
Marvin Weinbaum is a former Pakistan analyst with the U.S. State Department. He is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and a scholar-in-residence at a Washington D.C.-based think tank, the Middle East Institute. He advised U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's election campaign on Afghanistan-Pakistan issues.

Weinbaum recently spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique about the future Obama administration's policies on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

RFE/RL: How would an Obama administration look at the whole Afghanistan-Pakistan situation? Do you think they will move forward with some of the plans and strategies already in place, or will they seek a new beginning?

Marvin Weinbaum: Undoubtedly, there will be a reassessment. I am very confident that it will be a policy which will not follow his predecessors. There is already in [Obama's] statements before the election, his position that you talk to everyone -- that you are prepared to seek compromise where it is possible. These are the sorts of things that lead me to conclude that it is going to be a fresh start. And that is what we need very much in both Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

RFE/RL: During his campaign, Obama had a tough line on Afghanistan and talked about sending more U.S. troops there and going after terrorists on Pakistani soil. Do you think these will be the defining elements of his new strategy?

Weinbaum: I do believe that there will be additional forces [sent into Afghanistan]. Half of the people who they are talking about sending -- the two or three brigades -- would be simply involved in training the Afghan [National] Army. They would not be combat forces.

Now, as far as Pakistan is concerned, what [Obama] was talking about there was essentially that if you have the principle leaders of Al-Qaeda in your sites, and if Pakistan for some reason does not or cannot cooperate, you would do this on your own. [Obama] never subscribed to any broader policy than that. And in any event, now everything is up for reassessment.

[Obama] is almost obligated to give high priority to the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater. He made that such an important part of his overall argument -- that this is where the challenge lies to fighting global terrorism.

RFE/RL: In your assessment, how prominently will Pakistan-Afghanistan issues figure on Obama's agenda?

Weinbaum: Assuming now he can begin to move away from Iraq, [Obama] is almost obligated to give high priority to the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater. He made that such an important part of his overall argument -- that this is where the challenge lies to fighting global terrorism. It was the failure to recognize this -- and the distraction of Iraq -- which brought about the situation as it is today.

Whether you can fix this now given what has happened over the last seven years is another question. But this will be very high on his agenda.

RFE/RL: Do you think President-elect Obama will be relying on the military instrument or he will move for --- as experts like yourself have suggested -- a comprehensive regional settlement?

Weinbaum: There is a consensus -- even in the American military -- that there is no, strictly speaking, military solution. It is one which may involve the military in order to be in a position to negotiate without having to concede surrender to your enemy.

What you seek to do by a broader approach -- it's got to include better government in Afghanistan. It's got to include changing for the better people's lives. But it is never going to be enough for some people. And you want to marginalize these people. This is the only way in which it can be done.

RFE/RL: Do you think that apart from the normal diplomatic course of working with Kabul and Islamabad, an Obama administration will consider some innovative solution for the complex problems centered in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region?

Weinbaum: Things have been allowed to [deteriorate] so far in the border region that there is not going to be any quick solutions. What we need from all three capitals -- [Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad] -- is a more coordinated approach. More cooperation.

The United States cannot succeed in gaining the upper hand over militancy and extremism unless this is on Pakistan's agenda. It remains to be seen which direction Pakistan is going to go. We don't know whether they are up for it right now. Their leaders are being tested.

RFE/RL: A year from now, how do you see the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Weinbaum: I think the best we can hope for over the next year is that things become stabilized. We see evidence here of a reconciliation process begun. We've got to follow up any kind of military successes with the kind of policies that are going to sustain successes.

What is important here is that there is a new American administration. There is an opportunity here for people to take a fresh look at the United States and what it stands for and what its objectives are in the region. What President-elect Obama can do is to inspire people to see the United States at its very best. We've lost that moral edge that we had for a long time.