THE HAGUE -- If rule of law can take root in Afghanistan, democracy and economic prosperity will not be far behind.
So says Alexander Thier, director of the Future of Afghanistan Project at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent, nonpartisan think tank in Washington. RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique caught up with Thier at the end of a major international conference on Afghanistan at The Hague, and asked him about U.S. President Barack Obama's newly unveiled strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
RFE/RL: This week's one-day conference at The Hague on Afghanistan brought together more than 80 countries and international organizations. How significant was it?
Alexander Thier: The most significant element of this conference, in my view, is the fact that last week, we had the introduction of President Obama's new strategy. And what we saw coming out of that strategy was a newly energized American approach to Afghanistan.
And what I think this conference now does, is adds a bevy of international voices to that strategy. This is really an attempt, after seven difficult years, and particularly a few years of decline in Afghanistan, to reinvigorate the international approach.
RFE/RL: In the past seven years we have seen a lot of nicely worded plans being put together for Afghanistan. But the results have been mixed at best. How in your assessment is the current plan different?
Thier: I think one of the most important things about the last seven years and why there has been a failure in Afghanistan, is that without a combined sense of strategic objectives in Afghanistan, what you had was each country -- all of these different countries engaged in Afghanistan -- coming to the table saying, 'this is what we are going to do.' And then putting it together and making it look like it was a plan.
But in reality, what you need to do is first to have a strategic plan with clear objectives. Then, decide how you are going to implement those objectives. So that's a good start.
RFE/RL: Given that the new spike in violence is making Afghanistan increasingly unstable, what kind of challenges do you see as the new strategy is being implemented in Afghanistan?
Thier: It is right, I think, to be concerned about how all of this will translate into implementation. What I am optimistic about is that at least from the U.S. perspective, they are more serious about committing the resources -- not just the military resources, although that's important -- but committing the money, the diplomatic resources, and the civilians. And making the Afghan government accountable and making the U.S. government accountable. And these are all things that we have been waiting to see for seven years.
'Serious' Approach To Pakistan
RFE/RL: Seven years ago, the main objective of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan was to defeat Al-Qaeda. But we have seen that the primary goal of President Obama's new strategy is still to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan." Do you think that Washington will be able to achieve this objective now or will Al-Qaeda continue to be a step ahead of the United States?
Thier: I think that this strategy really at its heart is about the stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And in the process of stabilizing those countries, Al-Qaeda will no longer find a place to thrive.
The reason that Al-Qaeda have been able to stay alive -- they were pushed out of Afghanistan quickly -- the reason that they have been able to stay alive is because of sanctuary in Pakistan. The threat of Afghanistan collapsing is that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda then come back across the border and use Afghanistan again as a sanctuary, a safe haven for their plans abroad.
So in this sense, the reason that Al-Qaeda is still alive and well and operating is not because they are ahead of our strategy. It's because, our strategy until now has not seriously incorporated Pakistan. And bringing Pakistan into that strategy, which is by far, I think, a more difficult challenge than Afghanistan, is why Al-Qaeda still remains viable in the region.
RFE/RL: We have seen Pakistan's civilian government making all kinds of statements about defeating extremism. Yet experts describe it as weak and fragmented. Do you think that it is up to the challenge of defeating extremism?
Thier: Clearly at the moment, the Pakistani government, establishment, [and] security forces are not able [to defeat extremism]. But my judgment is that the government of Pakistan first needs the will to combat this problem.
The existence of this problem is not just that the Pakistani government has been trying to get rid of extremism but it hasn't succeeded. The problem is that there are divisions within Pakistan and some elements in Pakistan still to this day -- as they have for many decades -- continue to support extremist groups. Until that changes, I don't think that the Pakistanis are going to be able to deal with this problem.
RFE/RL: We have heard a lot of praise for President Obama's new "AfPak" strategy." What in your opinion is missing from this strategy?
Thier: I think that most of the things that I want to see are in there. My hope is one of emphasis. I think that rule of law is one of the most important things for Afghanistan, if not the most important thing. Democracy, economic development -- all of these things cannot happen without the rule of law. Dealing with the insurgency cannot happen.
I think that more than elections, even more than education and health care an so on, this is the foundation that will allow Afghan society to get out of its current predicament.
RFE/RL: How optimistic are you that a few years from now, the international community will not be discussing yet another strategy because the new strategy will have succeeded in stabilizing Afghanistan?
Thier: It's possible to imagine a peaceful Afghanistan. I am sure it will happen. Whether it happens in 20 years, or 50 years, or 100, at some point I am sure it will happen.
So the question then becomes, how do we get there? And how do we expedite that process, so that it is in 10 years and not 100 years? So I am certain that day will come when we are not reinventing strategies for Afghanistan. The question is whether the Afghan people and the international community have the fortitude to make that happen now more quickly as opposed to being a distant dream."