May 28, 2020
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Foreign policy experts discuss S. Asia at Camden Conference

CAMDEN, Maine — Two international policy experts offered disparate opinions about the United States’ military and political strategies in Afghanistan and Pakistan during talks Saturday to a packed audience at the 23rd annual Camden Conference.

In keeping with past years, Camden Conference organizers have recruited diplomats, former high-ranking intelligence officials, international journalists and other experts to what has become a major annual winter event for the coastal town.

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This year’s conference, titled “Afghanistan, Pakistan, India — Crossroads of Conflict,” focuses on the challenges facing the U.S. and other nations with vital interests in this turbulent corner of South Asia. The conference concluded Sunday.

As an author and professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, Larry Goodson has worked as a consultant and adviser on Afghanistan to both American military leaders as well as diplomats.

As an author and professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, Larry Goodson has worked as a consultant and adviser on Afghanistan to both American military leaders as well as diplomats.

Goodson said the current U.S. strategy of nation-building while simultaneously fighting the Taliban insurgency and rooting out al-Qaida terrorists will be difficult to accomplish given the current resources devoted to the region.

Widespread perceptions among Afghans that the government of President Hamid Karzai is both illegitimate and deeply corrupt further undermine U.S. efforts, as do the inadvertent yet frequent killings of Afghan civilians by NATO bombs, he said.

While there have been calls for a “civilian surge” of foreign service staff from the United States, the nature of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is largely military — and the military is not designed for “state-building,” he said.

If the U.S. government and its NATO allies want to rebuild the state of Afghanistan, Goodson said, many more non-military personnel need to be on the ground in the country. And right now, the United States does not have those personnel, he added.

Asked at one point whether he believed the 100,000-plus U.S. troops in Afghanistan is sufficient, Goodson quickly responded: “No, it isn’t, especially if you don’t have the civilian surge. We probably don’t have enough troops if [the goal] is state-building and counterinsurgency. If it’s counter-terrorism then, yes, we probably have enough troops.”

The speaker who followed Goodson, however, offered a different perspective on Afghanistan and whether the United States should still be trying to “win the war” there.

Paul Pillar served 28 years with the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, ending his government career as national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. Pillar is now Georgetown University’s director of graduate studies at the Center for Peace and Security Studies.

Pillar questioned arguments that Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for al-Qaida terrorists if the U.S.-led war there fails to stabilize the country. Al-Qaida has plenty of other viable options, including in the tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan.

He also cast doubts on the strategic need to defeat the Taliban, an isolated group that he said has few aspirations beyond the borders of Afghanistan.

But Pillar got the most response from the crowd — much of it enthusiastic — when he questioned whether the United States should continue to attempt to win the war in Afghanistan at significant costs both financially and in terms of American lives lost.

Pillar said he would support negotiations with the Taliban to reach compromises that would allow U.S. combat troops to withdraw eventually.

The withdrawal of troops undoubtedly would fuel the al-Qaida or jihadist propaganda machines, he said. But those short-term public relations losses must be weighed against this country’s long-term strategy, and the considerable “expenditure of blood and treasure” of continuing a Vietnam-like war in Afghanistan, said Pillar, a retired Army Reserve officer who served in Vietnam.

The United States has vital interest in the region and has good reason to pursue counter-terrorism objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But those vital interests do not add up to a “war of necessity” in Afghanistan any longer, he said.

“There is not a war of necessity anywhere,” he said. “True wars of necessity are extremely rare.”

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