Alumnus, U.S. Senator Jack Reed Discusses Afghanistan

December 8, 2009

Originally published in the Winter 2009-10 Belfer Center Newsletter.

An alumnus of Harvard Kennedy School, Francis (Jack) Reed was elected to the U.S. Senate from Rhode Island in 1996. A leader on defense, education, and health care issues in the Senate, Reed is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. Prior to his Senate election, he represented his state in the U.S. House of Representatives. Reed served in the U.S. Army from 1967 to 1979, earning a Masters in Public Policy from the Kennedy School in 1973. In 1982, he received a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

Q. Are there lessons that you recall from your experience as a student at Harvard Kennedy School that you apply in your work as a senator today?

Reed:You are probably not the smartest person in the room; so be prepared and pay attention.

Q. President Clinton recently observed that when he thinks about the predicament in Afghanistan, he sees “ghosts of Vietnam.” What do you find to be the most relevant lessons from Vietnam for the decisions that President Obama and the nation now face in Afghanistan?

Reed:The experience in Vietnam taught us that insurgencies are ultimately political struggles shaped by local culture. Military actions can buy time, but they are not decisive in themselves. The decisive factor is the commitment of people to their government, which presumes a government that can provide security and public service, and is perceived as working on behalf of its people.

Vietnam also taught us to carefully analyze the assumptions underlying our involvement and the nature of the particular struggle. We must ensure that there are vital American national security interests at stake, and these interests cannot be protected without our involvement. Unlike Vietnam, we were drawn to Afghanistan by a direct attack on American soil.

Finally, Vietnam taught us that our policy must be sustainable over time. This factor, in large part, rests on the willingness of the American people to support the effort, and the ability of the Administration to effectively communicate the rationale and consequences of our involvement.

Q. Do you believe that a counterinsurgency strategy is an essential prerequisite for achieving President Obama’s stated objective “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future”?

Reed:Counterinsurgency embraces a wide range of tasks that go beyond military operations and extends to governance and economic development. Moreover, in most cases, counterinsurgency strategy also assumes a complimentary counterterrorism strategy. The counterterrorism strategy is focused on military activities to disrupt and destroy terrorist networks. Both strategies are important in Afghanistan.

Counterterrorism operations depend on accurate and timely intelligence and speed of action. These factors are enhanced by a “presence.” Although some suggest that this presence can be remote or virtual through the use of technology, there is a strong case for a physical presence. In addition, the ability of insurgents, particularly the Taliban and Al Qaeda, to regenerate their forces indicates that counterterrorism operations will be long-term, which also argues for a physical presence.

Counterinsurgency operations are intended to stabilize the legitimate government and, as rapidly as possible, provide the local capacity to ensure security and adequate governance. This process requires a physical presence in order to create an environment for long-term and sustainable activities which shifts the bulk of operations to local forces to prevent regeneration of insurgent forces.

Q.You have said that elements of the insurgency in Afghanistan might be persuaded to cease attacks or even switch sides. What strategy would you propose to peel the reconcilable Taliban from the incorrigibles?

Reed:The Taliban is comprised of a core of fanatical jihadists who will not give up armed resistance to the legitimate government. However, there are a number of Taliban who are involved for non-ideological reasons. These numbers are difficult to determine, but they are not insignificant. Some are drawn to the Taliban for economic reasons. Some are reacting to tribal pressures. Some are disenchanted with the government for its inability to deliver basic services. Some are engaged in criminal activities and the Taliban serve as a convenient, short-term ally.

To win over a portion of these non-ideological Taliban, we have to provide incentives and security. We have to have a uniform procedure, including vetting applicants, that is supported by the national government in Kabul, but also implemented and endorsed by local authorities including tribal and religious leaders. The most obvious incentive is paid employment. This employment must be seen as more than temporary. Concurrent with these types of efforts, the Afghan government and international forces must deploy an aggressive information effort to discredit the Taliban so that individual Taliban will be more disposed to switch sides and tribal and religious leaders will be more willing to endorse these efforts and guarantee the sincerity of the individual.

Q. Most analysts agree that the US has more vital interests in the fight of Pakistan than in Afghanistan. Do you agree? If so, is the allocation of attention and resources between Afghanistan and Pakistan appropriate? If not, how should it be adjusted?

Reed:Pakistan is the most critical area of concern in the region, if not the world. The leadership of Al Qaeda is located there. The leadership of the Taliban is there. Within Pakistan and spilling into Afghanistan is a syndicate of terrorist groups with various affiliations to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. And, a disturbing number of worldwide terrorist plots emanate from Pakistan.

The “Pakistan Taliban,” a distinct entity composed of Pakistani rather than Afghan Taliban, is in open rebellion against the government of Pakistan, prompting the Army of Pakistan to commence a military campaign against them. Although, the Army of Pakistan still may refrain from any serious action against other terrorist networks. Added to this tumultuous and dangerous mix is the sobering fact that Pakistan has a large and growing nuclear arsenal.

One of the most important insights that President Obama brought to our strategy was recognition of the interrelationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and also India. As such, we must measure our efforts in terms of both countries and not view each country in isolation. As a result of this regional perspective, we are reevaluating our posture in Afghanistan and increasing the quantity of our aid to Pakistan as well as the focus of our efforts there. In Pakistan, we are working with the military to help develop their counterinsurgency skills and to acquire equipment geared to counterinsurgency operations. We have also increased our developmental aid to help provide an appropriate complement to military efforts. These changes represent an improved approach to meeting our natural security needs.

Although our efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan are linked, we operate under different constraints. In Afghanistan, as the largest component of the NATO force, we are directly engaged in support of that country’s government. In Pakistan, we have no similar military presence, and we are supporting the efforts of an established and sovereign country and their armed forces. As such, the needs of each country are different and the means of meeting their needs is therefore different.

Senator Jack Reed

"Vietnam taught us that our policy must be sustainable over time. This factor, in large part, rests on the willingness of the American people to support the effort, and the ability of the Administration to effectively communicate the rationale and consequences of our involvement."

—Senator Jack Reed

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