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Biden May Find NATO More Willing To Help In Afghanistan

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) is welcomed by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Brussels on March 10.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) is welcomed by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Brussels on March 10.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Brussels to meet with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and to address the security organization. Biden is likely to seek more NATO military help in Afghanistan, which U.S. President Barack Obama says is the real battlefront against terrorism. But previous U.S. requests for help in Afghanistan have been met with reluctance. This time, though, Biden may have a more receptive audience, according to William Hartung, the New York-based director of the Arms and Security Initiative of the New America Foundation, a Washington policy research center. Hartung shared his outlook in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully.

RFE/RL: This isn't the first time the United States has asked its NATO allies for more military help in Afghanistan. So far, the response has been weak. Has anything happened since the last time Washington asked for help that may lead European countries to be more forthcoming?

William Hartung:
I think our best hope is that the Obama administration is reaching out perhaps a bit more, and also is looking at getting out of Iraq, which is an unpopular policy in Europe. But I think if push comes to shove, [Europeans] have to decide, are they willing to spend the money, are they willing to put the troops at risk? And that's domestic politics for the European countries.

William Hartung
RFE/RL: Do you think the Europeans might be more willing to help because Obama is considering engaging some elements of the Taliban?

I think that might play well in some of the European countries, just the notion that [U.S. officials are] going to try different approaches, different techniques. They're not viewing it as solely a military matter. Obviously, there's some controversy involved in, 'Is there such a thing as a moderate wing of the Taliban?' and so forth, but I think at least the notion of trying a different approach may have some positive response in Europe.

RFE/RL: In 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan was laughed at by some observers for trying to make contact with what he believed were "moderate" elements in the Iranian government. Are there moderates among the Taliban in Afghanistan who might entertain engagement with the United States?

There's a risk that the notion of "moderate Taliban" may just be more of a wish than a reality. I don't think there's anything wrong with testing it, as long as it's done publicly and transparently. Part of the problem with the Reagan administration and Iran was that it was done in secret, so it couldn't be subjected to public debate, to public scrutiny, criticism from experts, and so forth.

So I think at least if it's done [with] eyes open and with public discussion, I don't think it'll do any harm. But obviously any agreement would have to be very carefully monitored to make sure that it's meaningful.

RFE/RL: Biden reportedly has told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that unless he ends the corruption in his government, he'll find himself without a job. Yet is there anyone in Afghanistan who could possibly take his place?

I don't see a good alternative to Karzai. Maybe there's some moderate who can crack the whip and get rid of corruption and do all the things that might need to be done. But I don't see it, I don't see who that person would be at the present. So I think the biggest problem from Karzai has been that he's in a very difficult position, and he doesn't have entire control over the warlords. He certainly doesn't have the leverage he would like over the Taliban.

He's got control of the capital, and everything else is somewhat dicey. I think the problem is anyone in that job would be in serious difficulty. So I'd be open to hearing about what person or political trend that might be, but I haven't seen anything to suggest that there's some tremendously better option out there.

I think at some point there's going to have to be a reckoning as to whether we're defining success in a way that's not achievable.
RFE/RL: What does Karzai need to do to become a better president?

Certainly he needs better trained police and security forces. I think he could use some more sophisticated attempts at development aid. But I think ultimately the issue of corruption is somewhat in his hands. Certainly if he had more competent security and police forces, they may be less likely to engage in that kind of activity. But I think there's only so much you can do from the outside.

RFE/RL: Since Alexander in the 4th century, foreign armies have been thwarted by Afghanistan. Why? Is it the terrain or the country's tribal makeup that makes it hard to conquer?

One of the reasons it's difficult is geography. I mean, I think it's hard just militarily to subdue the country. I think, secondly, there's kind of a strong nationalist impulse to not take kindly to outsiders trying to interfere in Afghan affairs. And then in terms of some alternative stability, there are ethnic divisions, which I think make it hard to come together for some sort of positive agenda, as opposed to a kind of defensive stay-out-of-my-backyard sort of agenda.

RFE/RL: Realistically, what kind of outcome can the United States and NATO expect in Afghanistan?

Part of the discussion that I would like to see happen -- and it's going to have to be approached very delicately -- is what if there isn't a solution in Afghanistan? What if the best we can hope for is to somehow have a position to strike if there's literally Al-Qaeda training camps that return there, as opposed to thinking we can create this kind of stable, allied, predictable, democratic system?

My fear is if we spill more blood and treasure toward that end, we could be in there for decades. I think the problem with having that discussion is it's viewed as retreat. But Reagan was able to retreat from Lebanon [without loss of U.S. pride]. It's not unheard of. I think it's just emotional force behind the fact that the people who carried out the 9/11 attacks pulled that together -- to some degree, at least, in terms of military training -- in Afghanistan. But I think at some point there's going to have to be a reckoning as to whether we're defining success in a way that's not achievable.