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Strategic Affairs Analyst Takes Broad View Of 'Af-Pak' Strategy

Taliban fighters pose in a mosque in Andar district of Afghanistan's Ghazni Province.
Taliban fighters pose in a mosque in Andar district of Afghanistan's Ghazni Province.
Julian Lindley-French is a professor of strategic studies at the University of Leiden and a professor of military operational science at the Royal Military Academy of the Netherlands.

In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique, Lindley-French explains that the next two years will be critical for Western stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, and suggests that U.S. President's Barack Obama's new "Af-Pak" strategy will require a robust regional economic development plan to succeed.

RFE/RL: Considering that the deteriorating situation compelled U.S. President Barack Obama to devise a new strategy for Afghanistan, how do you assess international engagement in the country, post-9/11?

Julian Lindley-French: The key success is...the commitment that we have to the stability in the region, which is actually far deeper than people realize. The key failure was a lack of strategy from the beginning, that there was no real concept of how extensive the engagement would have to be. To make sure that the Afghan people -- who are the critical ground for this whole operation -- [that] their life quality improves over time. That takes a lot of time [and] a lot of investment. And only now are we really beginning to grip, to understand, that reality.

RFE/RL: We have heard a lot of praise being showered on Obama's new "Af-Pak" strategy, but what are its critical shortcomings?

Lindley-French: Well, let's say what's there first, which is now an appreciation that the Afghan stability is linked to the wider region, and that talking to the neighborhood is very important. There is a strong understanding of the economic side of stability. There is a growing understanding of the importance of partnership with international organizations because legitimacy is vital. And finally, political reconciliation is at the heart of the American thinking now within Afghanistan.

Clearly, at times, one has questioned that, but [there is now] hope. I think the most important thing is the new atmosphere with the new president. It gives us a chance to start afresh. What I would like to see much more is a genuine regional economic-development plan.

Julian Lindley-French
RFE/RL: Washington's alarm at recent developments in Pakistan appears to have led President Obama to call for a meeting with the Pakistani and Afghan presidents early next month. Are apparent U.S. concerns justified?

I think these concerns are genuine, but I think they are overstated. I think that there are still some stable institutions within Pakistan that we must work [with] -- the presidency, the parliament, and, of course, the army. And these are fundamental pillars of stability within the country. Now they might not operate in an entirely Western way, but why should they? Pakistan is not, as of yet, a failed state. So I think it is important that we remember that.

We recognize the challenges that are in Pakistan and [must] not avoid the reality of what is happening [in] Baluchistan, Waziristan, [and] the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]. And of course, the Pakistani Taliban is indeed a threat. But Pakistan is, and must remain, a vital partner in our efforts to stabilize the region.

RFE/RL: How do you view the U.S. "Af-Pak" strategy's prospects for success when, as it targets Pakistan's Pashtun tribal areas with drone attacks, Washington appears reluctant to push for a Pakistani political strategy aimed at economic and political integration of these regions aimed at ultimately depriving Al-Qaeda of its sanctuary there?

One has to understand that there is an ongoing military campaign. From time to time there is action taken against potential targets in what is a very poor area around the "Af-Pak" border. So I have some sympathy with the American dilemma and position. But at the same time there is genuine discussion going on in Washington [and] within other capitals about the economic assistance required in Pakistan to help strengthen the institutions of the Pakistani state by improving the life quality of people in the northwest of the country.

So, I think, there is an evolving argument going on -- an evolving discussion about the future of Pakistan, which is much more sophisticated than sometimes is represented in the press and elsewhere.

RFE/RL: Since the inauguration of President Obama, there has been an effort to bring Iran on board in Afghanistan. But so far we have not seen a major breakthrough. How do you see the future Iranian role in Afghanistan?

Well, there are a series of trade-offs which are being sought with all of Afghanistan's partners, one of which is Iran. Diplomatically, it makes sense for the Obama administration to talk to Iran on issues other than the nuclear question. Of course, Afghanistan is a vital question. Iran has influence in Afghanistan -- certainly in the northwest -- and one has to recognize that. But there are also issues which tie Iranians in the longer term closer to the coalition.

One is, of course, concern about the Taliban. Although there is some evidence of short-term Iranian support [to the Taliban], the long-term Iranian support is not to have the Taliban back. On that basis there is -- there are grounds for optimism.

RFE/RL: Interviews with our listeners in the southern Afghan province of Helmand suggest that security there has deteriorated even after the deployment of 8,000 British troops. What's your take on this?

Helmand Province is the center of gravity of the entire insurgency right now. So the situation in Helmand is particularly acute because the Taliban is seeing it as the center of their particular effort in the last couple of years. It is also a major line of communication -- line of supply -- in from Pakistan for the Taliban. So this struggle is fundamental for both sides for the future shape of Afghanistan.

Now, whilst you have seen significant progress in other provinces and indeed in some parts of Helmand Province, because it is the pivotal place in the overall struggle, it's been tough. But the next two three years will be critical because the Americans are coming in greater strength. Given that there also be a new political reconciliation strategy, which is absolutely vital, it's important that we keep the pressure [on the Taliban].