Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), recently told an audience that contrary to growing public sentiment, Iraq should remain the focus of President George W. Bush's global war on terror. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Kagan about why he feels the United States must remain in Iraq for the long term.
RFE/RL: In your public remarks this past week you said that you reject the argument -- which is gaining ground among Americans -- that by staying in Iraq, the United States is fighting the wrong enemy. The logic is that Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated, and ethnic violence is down. How is the enemy still there?
Frederick Kagan: Well, Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been operationally defeated in the sense that they can't plan and coordinate large-scale operations across Iraq, as they had been doing. But they are not strategically defeated in the sense that their will to continue to fight has not been broken. And we know that Al-Qaeda is working to regroup in Iraq. We know that they continue to have safe havens in Syria, from which they're flowing foreign fighters into Iraq.
We've got pretty good evidence that the global Al-Qaeda movement has not given up on Iraq and doesn't want to give up on Iraq, because it put a lot of chits there, and it is a huge humiliation for that movement to be defeated in Iraq and I don't think that they're just going to go away and tamely accept that.
RFE/RL: But in Afghanistan, the Taliban is back in force and cross-border violence on the Pakistani border is increasing.
Kagan: You have to be careful not to equate the Taliban with Al-Qaeda. There are multiple Taliban groupings and some of them are very heavily infiltrated by Al-Qaeda. The ones that have been giving us the hardest time recently have been the Taliban grouping that's based in Quetta, in Pakistan, and it's operating in Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, Oruzgan, and Farah provinces. And that's very largely an indigenous insurgency.
There is some Al-Qaeda involvement in that, but that's fundamentally a Pashtun insurgency against what is seen to be a Tajik government. Now that insurgency, in my view, is the most serious threat to the success of the Afghan government. But it is very, very secondary from the standpoint of fighting against Al-Qaeda.
There is a significant Al-Qaeda presence, of course, in Waziristan and Pakistan and also in the Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan, and they have been conducting cross-border operations into Afghanistan. Here the issue is that the safe havens that they're trying to establish are not in Afghanistan. The safe havens that they have established are in Pakistan. Whereas in Iraq, Al-Qaeda in Iraq is still trying to establish safe havens within Iraq.
RFE/RL: And one of the points you've made publicly is that you aren't convinced that clearing Afghanistan of terrorists and the Taliban would take care of the problem in Pakistan. You said the notion of coalition forces attacking targets in Pakistan, a country of some 160 million people that has nuclear weapons, gave you "the chills." Why are we still hearing about the possibility of coalition troops engaging in cross-border operations to pursue terrorists from Afghanistan to Pakistan? Shouldn't that be part of the strategy?
Kagan: You have to decide what level of operation you're talking about. Because there is the issue of "hot pursuit" and if you have Al-Qaeda or Taliban who move from bases in Pakistan into Afghanistan, we have a right under international law to chase them back into Pakistan. The problem is that we have no permanent presence in Pakistan in this area and the Pakistani government has very little in the way of permanent presence in these areas. And so from the standpoint of going after the safe havens in Pakistan we simply don't have the intelligence that we would need to do even effective targeted strikes, let alone effectively clearing this out.
And I think one of the lessons of Iraq that people have not internalized enough is that even targeted strikes based on lots of intelligence did not take down the Al-Qaeda network. We had done that consistently from 2004 to 2006. We killed a lot of Al-Qaeda leaders, including [Abu Mus'ab] al-Zarqawi. But Al-Qaeda's capabilities grew over that period. So I'm very dubious about the likelihood having success with that model in Waziristan and the Northwest Frontier Province.
RFE/RL: Speaking of Pakistan, "The New York Times" reported this week that the Bush administration plans to shift $230 million in aid to Pakistan from counterterrorism programs to upgrading that country's aging F-16 attack planes, which Pakistan values more for their contribution to its military rivalry with India than for fighting insurgents along its Afghan border. Democrats, and some Republicans, are alarmed. What's behind this decision?
Kagan: Well, this is one of the fundamental problems that we have with Pakistan. The Pakistani government does not identify the fight against Al-Qaeda as a priority. The Pakistani government identifies the fight against India as a priority. And this has been true as long as there's been a Pakistan. And so, when Pakistani governments negotiate with the United States for assistance, the military assistance that they want is assistance that will help them against India, which is in a big, conventional war. And it's not assistance in a counterinsurgency.
RFE/RL: Why do we want to help Pakistan arm itself against India? That seems counter to our national interests.
Kagan: Yes, I agree with you. I think it is against our national interests to arm Pakistan against our major strategic partner in that region. And I think the only reason that we would do it is that the quid pro quo is that the Pakistanis actually get serious about prioritizing the fight that we care about. This has been the approach that successive administrations have taken to Pakistan and it's the approach unfortunately that still sort of dominates this discussion, but I think it's a bankrupt approach.
I don't think that we're going to make headway this way. And so I really do think that we need to rethink what kind of pressures we're prepared to put on Pakistan, and what kind of return on investment we're prepared to demand from them while we do something that is in fact contrary to our interests.
RFE/RL: You say that President Bush is correct in his approach to the fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, Senator John McCain is correct, and Senator Barack Obama is incorrect. McCain, though, recently called for something similar in Afghanistan to the surge in Iraq -- three more U.S. brigades, about 10,000 troops, that have been "freed up" from Iraq that should be deployed to Afghanistan. Is that something that you agree with, or do you think McCain is echoing Obama?
Kagan: We went through an exercise at AEI looking at what we thought was necessary in Afghanistan and I think three brigades is about right, which is what the commanders on the ground have been calling for, and I think that's about right. I think that McCain has been careful to say that he does not want to do anything that would jeopardize success in Iraq but that we should do everything in our power to get the additional forces to Afghanistan, without jeopardizing our success in Iraq.
And I think what Senator Obama has been saying, is that he is prepared to lose in Iraq in order to get forces to Afghanistan more promptly. And I think that's a misunderstanding of the relative strategic priority of these two theaters.
It's really a fundamental issue -- if you think that Iraq is the more important theater, as I do, and I think as Senator McCain does, then you are very reluctant to accept risk in that theater. If you think, as Senator Obama does, that Afghanistan is the most important theater, then you're prepared to accept a lot of risk in Iraq. And that's sort of what we're talking about.
And we're also talking about timing. Because I don't think anyone disputes that the high, high likelihood is that there will be fewer U.S. forces in Iraq at the end of 2009 than there are at the beginning of 2009.
RFE/RL: It's also a matter of how you define "winning" and "losing" in Iraq, right?
Kagan: This has been a talking point for a long time and it's a talking point without substance because those of us who've supported the war have been very clear about what winning is. And the problem is the rhetoric is always so unrealistic that you can't possibly mean it.
And what I would say is, on the contrary, I think we're headed there. Winning is a stable, legitimate, Iraq government that does not permit safe havens for terrorists of any variety in its country, and that's an ally [of the United States.].
RFE/RL: But on that point, the Iraqi government has been judged in several quarters as having failed to step up to the opportunity it's been given. The surge was enacted to give the government more time to move the country forward, and by many accounts, it has not done so.
Kagan: Well, if your premise is the false-to-fact premise that the Iraqi government isn't stepping up, then that's a reasonable argument. But the premise is wrong. The Iraqi government has been stepping up. It has stepped up in the first thing we pressed them for, which was, get your soldiers into the fight. They've done that. Something like 100,000 Iraqi soldiers came online in 2007. And they're fighting across the country and lifting the burden from us.
RFE/RL: You say that some of the reasons for seeing the war in Iraq through to its conclusion are that it's a bulwark against Islamist extremism; that it could become the breadbasket of the Middle East, and you said that it has the world's biggest supply of oil. Afghanistan's exports, you said, are only opium and people. So is it Iraq's oil that keeps the United States there, and has it been about oil since the very start? Is that why so many U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians have died?
Kagan: Look, to begin with, we're not talking about having a lot of American troops die at this point. I mean, the other problem that undergirds this discussion is that a lot of people who want to talk about this war protracting are still living in 2006 in terms of what this war looks like and what kind of casualties we're taking. American casualties have dropped off -- obviously any casualty is bad and tragic, and I would much prefer not to have any American soldier die -- but we're talking about, I mean, if we remain at this level of U.S. casualties, this is a very low level of U.S. casualties for us to be dealing with.
If the war was about oil, we've been remarkably stupid. Because we seized the oil fields in 2003, and then we gave them back to the Iraqis. If we, you know, if we wanted to take Iraq's oil we could have done that. And we didn't.
And not only that, but we've been helping the Iraqis to rebuild their oil infrastructure, we've been letting them do it on their terms and make contracts that they're happy with, with firms they want to deal with. We haven't been telling them who to do business with and who not to do business with on this issue, and the guys who are making these decisions are the oil minister and the parliament.
If we could step out of the blood-for-oil trope, which has always been a red herring -- we didn't go into Iraq for oil -- listen, let me just put it this way: if we'd wanted oil from Iraq all we'd have [had] to do is lift the sanctions on Saddam [Hussein]. Saddam would have pumped lots of oil. So this was never about increasing the oil supply.
Now, what we're saying is when we're up to $130-, $140-barrel oil, and this is having a significant effect on the economy, and Senator Obama's making a big deal about that sort of thing, and the effect it's having on the economy. And then he's saying that he's prepared to accept insecurity in Iraq in order to go deal with Afghanistan, I think it's only reasonable to make the point that the corollary is, that that is very likely to reduce the amount of Iraqi oil that the Iraqis put in the global market and continue to have serious effects on the American economy.
RFE/RL: What in your mind is the value of turning Iraq into a stable country versus the value of helping Afghanistan achieve the same success?
Kagan: I don't think it's acceptable for us to lose in Afghanistan. I don't think it's acceptable for the United States to lose anywhere. I think we always have a problem when we put our soldiers in harm's way and then lose.
And of course it would be a disaster if Afghanistan collapsed, if we had the return of some sort of Al-Qaeda safe haven there, and I also agree that we have a moral obligation to the Afghan people at this point, to continue to support them.
And I also think from the standpoint of geostrategy, it would be very good for the United States to have a stable, democratic ally in the heart of Central Asia. And it would be good for Afghanistan to start becoming a net exporter of security rather than a net importer of security.
So I think we have a lot of reasons to be concerned about Afghanistan, and of course it's not a question of what kind of resources that they have, but I do think that when you look at a map of the region and look at our geostrategic equities and ask, what relative advantages and disadvantages do U.S. security success or failures in Iraq and Afghanistan offer, the balance is pretty clear that Iraq is much more important to us than Afghanistan is.
I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. I don't think we need to lose in Iraq in order to win in Afghanistan. And I don't think we should.