Kojo chats with Pultizer-winning author and journalist Steve Coll about the history shaping current events in Afghanistan and its neighbors.


  • Steve Coll President and CEO, New America Foundation; Staff Writer, The New Yorker; Author, "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001" (Penguin Press)


  • 13:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a speech's place in history. We'll explore the evolution of "The State of the Union Address." But first, the history behind the headlines in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We often like to draw comparisons between the current war in Afghanistan and past American conflicts, most specifically the Vietnam War, but it's less often that we stop to consider the complicated histories of Afghanistan and Pakistan in their own right and the complex roles that America has already played in them.

  • 13:07:31

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to take the long view and explore how history is shaping the headlines coming out of that part of the world today is Steve Coll. He is the president of the New America Foundation and a contributor to The New Yorker. He's a former managing editor of The Washington Post and won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2005 book, "Ghost Wars: The Secret History Of The CIA, Afghanistan, And Bin Laden From The Soviet Invasion To September 10, 2001." Thank you very much for joining us.

  • 13:08:01

    MR. STEVE COLLKojo, thanks for having me.

  • 13:08:04

    NNAMDISo much of this American military effort in Afghanistan depends on having a reliable and credible partner in the Afghan government. During the past week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai tried to put off seating a new parliament. He found himself at odds with the international community and eventually agreed to seat a new parliament to avoid a constitutional crisis.

  • 13:08:26

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that the heart of this debate was about Karzai's power base in the Pashtun South, which is also where a lot of the fighting between NATO troops and the Taliban is taking place. Where did this or what does this political dispute tell you about our partner Karzai and the grip he has on his country's government?

  • 13:08:47

    COLLWell, it's a struggle between the president who has sought to arrogate power to himself and a body politic that is increasingly asserting its own prerogatives through the parliament, a flawed institution, but right now the only constitutional institution that is not beholden to the president. So we had parliamentary elections marred by fraud, but nonetheless, they occurred. And while their franchise wasn't as large as it had been in the last time around, it was still a legitimate franchise.

  • 13:09:21

    COLLThe results came in. I think most Afghans watching the vote thought that President Karzai was hoping for a parliament that would be his supporter, by and large, essentially a rubber-stamp parliament. And what he got was a parliament that is, by and large, not in his camp and prepared to challenge him. And so this struggle between the palace and the parliament is really a struggle for inclusion in a very flawed constitutional system, but nonetheless, a struggle to broaden the base of Afghan politics. And I think it's a good sign, ultimately, that the president was forced by his international partners to back down from his plans to kind of run a steamroller through this parliament.

  • 13:10:07

    COLLNow, you mentioned the Pashtun issue, which is important. Part of the president's concern was that there were, through irregularities and violence, some provinces where the results of the parliamentary vote did not reflect the ethnic makeup of the province, places like Ghazni, where clearly Pashtun voters were disenfranchised by the pattern of violence on election day. That is, their voters just couldn't get out and vote.

  • 13:10:34

    COLLSo the president, I think, was trying to make sure that the outcome of his standoff with the parliament had in it some seats at the table for these Pashtun populations that had been excluded by the results.

  • 13:10:45

    NNAMDISo there have been some seats for them in this agreement?

  • 13:10:48

    COLLI think he's still pushing for that and I think...

  • 13:10:50

    NNAMDIBecause that's where -- that's where his power base is, largely, is in the Pashtun South, is it not?

  • 13:10:55

    COLLIt is, though he has built an alliance of politicians from other sections of the country that has made him at least have some networks outside of the south. But yes, you're right, particularly in the deep South, in Kandahar. That's where his family comes from.

  • 13:11:12

    NNAMDILet's delve into the historical weeds for a second because we spent a lot of time this past year following stories about whether Karzai has been negotiating with the Taliban. He's someone who has a particularly complicated history with the Taliban, isn't he?

  • 13:11:25

    COLLIt's a fascinating story, actually, yes. To make it brief, after the Soviets withdrew, civil war ensued. In Kaboul during the 1990s, before the Taliban took over, there was a Mujahedeen government, so called, a rebel government. And in that government, Karzai served as deputy foreign minister for a time and he entered into negotiations with armed elements that were opposed to his government. He lost the confidence of some of his cabinet members and he was essentially arrested on suspicion of colluding with the enemy.

  • 13:12:02

    COLLHe eventually escaped the country, went around to Pakistan and as the Taliban were being born politically after 1994, he was initially involved with them and has said openly that he was sympathetic to them, cooperated with them. And then only later broke with them after Taliban elements assassinated his father, who had been a distinguished politician in Afghanistan. So he has been on both sides of the conflicts that the Taliban have generated.

  • 13:12:32

    NNAMDIWell, from the weeds to what some may consider the wall, we've been at war in Afghanistan for nearly a decade, but our military strategy also hinges on a civilian surge and a barrage of development projects to prop up Afghanistan's government and economy. There was a passage in your book, "Ghost Wars" about what happened when Russia tried to prop up a credible government in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

  • 13:12:56

    NNAMDIA passage where you quoted Russian Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov telling the Politburo that it was clear that Afghanistan was not ready to solve its issues through socialism, that its economy was backward, the Islamic religion predominated and nearly all its rural population was illiterate. To what degree are we, the U.S., working against the same problem in our mission in Afghanistan?

  • 13:13:24

    COLLI think the context of our problems, while the problems are severe, is pretty different. I would say that with the Soviets, we have in common a problem of our own allusions of seeing the world through our own theories, our own ideas and having trouble, as the Soviets did, translating our theories, in our case, counter-insurgency, in their case, global Communism, into a sustainable program that lines up with local Afghan realities. That, we clearly have in common as a broad problem.

  • 13:14:02

    COLLHowever, the circumstances, fortunately for us, are more favorable to our projects than they were to the Soviets. When the Soviets invaded, the entire body politic of Afghanistan dissolved and turned into opposition. Virtually the entire army dissolved and turned against the Soviets. All of the elites went to Pakistan and joined the insurgency.

  • 13:14:25

    COLLHere, Afghanistan is much more ambivalent about the international community's presence. There's still, according to opinion polling, a majority or plurality of Afghans that want the international community to help them reconstruct. Nobody but a minority wants to be ruled by the Taliban again. So there's more space for us and the opponents we face are not as strong as the one the Soviets faced. But like the Soviets, we are prisoners of our own allusions sometimes.

  • 13:14:52

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Steve Coll. He is president of the New America Foundation and a contributor to The New Yorker. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2005 book, "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001." If you'd like to hear what Afghan citizens have to say about the war, politics and what life is like there today, join us on Thursday at 1:00 when we'll be broadcasting an event we recorded last week with America Abroad called, "Joined by War: Conversations Between Afghans and Americans."

  • 13:15:24

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation right now, you can call us at 800-433-8850. What lessons do you think the United States should take out of Russia's experience occupying Afghanistan three decades ago? 800-433-8850 or you can send us e-mail to kojo@wamu.org, a tweet at kojoshow. Same question to you, Steve Coll. What lessons do you think American policymakers need to learn or what lessons do you think we may have failed to learn from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan?

  • 13:15:55

    COLLWell, I think the ones that are most important now -- there are many, but the ones that are most important now to American interests and to the price in blood and treasure that the United States continues to pay in Afghanistan, is to study the way the Soviets exited the war. We are in a transition, according to the Obama administration. It's a goal of that transition to reduce American combat, the American combat role in the war, while not leaving behind chaos or a civil war.

  • 13:16:27

    COLLAnd what's interesting about the Soviet experience, we think of this in shorthand. The Soviets lost the war. They left. The Soviet Union fell apart.

  • 13:16:36

    NNAMDIWe think of everything in shorthand, but go ahead.

  • 13:16:38

    COLLYes. But, in fact, Gorbachev, from the time of his Bleeding Wounds speech when he recognized that the war was not winnable in a conventional military term or sense until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, which was a long transition, they had a similar transition. They tried to Afghanize the war. They tried to strategize, develop a political strategy of Afghan national unity, regional diplomacy, to give them cover to move out of direct combat. And the important point is that they actually succeeded in structuring a withdrawal that left behind a government that while unpopular and weak in important respects, was nonetheless able to hold on to all of the major cities.

  • 13:17:19

    COLLThe United States believed that government could be overthrown very quickly after the Soviet troops moved out of direct combat. In fact, it survived and there were elements of the political strategy that the Soviets used to get out that I think have lessons and, in fact, are being studied by the Obama administration as they construct their transition looking to 2014 and beyond.

  • 13:17:40

    NNAMDIPeople often talk about our military mission in Afghanistan as if the Taliban and al-Qaida are the same enemy, as if they want the same things. Where do you see daylight, so to speak, between them and how do you think that can shape events in Afghanistan?

  • 13:17:55

    COLLWell, the Taliban are -- first of all, the Taliban is itself a coalition of Afghan groups that has a relatively short history dating back to the early 1990s. It is diverse internally and so even to speak of it as a unified entity is a little bit difficult. The old leadership around Mullah Omar, which is generally in exile in Pakistan, potentially could be drawn -- elements of that leadership could be drawn into politics, peaceful politics. There are lots of guerrilla -- violent guerrilla leaders who, as they have gotten into middle life and thought about their options, have been convinced to put down the gun and run for office and pursue their goals by peaceful political means.

  • 13:18:44

    COLLSo President Karzai is trying to find as many old-school Taliban leaders as he can who he might persuade to come in. The problem is that the Taliban on the ground, on the front lines, is increasingly run by younger leaders who are -- who have their own ideas, have been raised in an atmosphere of violence, who are un-tethered from senior leadership and who resemble, unfortunately, the kind of un-tethered child-soldiers that we see in other parts of the world, essentially self-governing, a kind of a "Lord of the Flies" atmosphere. And it's difficult to imagine that those kinds of commanders are going to be easily persuaded to enter peaceful politics.

  • 13:19:24

    NNAMDIThink of Bobby Rush, former Black Panther Party member, a revolutionary who is now a member of Congress and one of the members who has been there for a longer time to the extent where he's considered a moderate in some circles.

  • 13:19:36

    COLLWell, the Irish Republican Army is another example.

  • 13:19:37

    NNAMDIExactly right. 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation. To what degree do you think we failed to understand the rise of Islamic fundamentalism born of the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s? 800-433-8850. And that takes me to Pakistan where, this month, the assassination of a governor has inflamed debates about religion and the country's blasphemy laws. Islam is at the core of Pakistan's very complex history.

  • 13:20:07

    NNAMDIWhat do you make of the recent events in Pakistan and what they tell you about the partner we're working with on that side of our military mission in Afghanistan?

  • 13:20:15

    COLLWell, Pakistan is a nation under severe pressure. It has been under pressure steadily over the last three or four years. The local insurgency intensified in 2007. The rate of civilian and military deaths from local violence, from Pakistani Taliban insurgents, by and large, has been steady and severe. Now, for two or three years, the economy is falling apart, inflation is rising, floods devastated the economic heartland of the Indus River Valley last summer.

  • 13:20:49

    COLLAnd the country is still barely beginning its recovery. So this is a nation that, while it has proved resilient over a long series of crisis and has a profound sense of nationalism and -- even in the Army, an institution that is held together under severe pressure, nonetheless, the degree of pressure that Pakistan is under now has few precedence in its history, if any. The country did split in half in 1971, which was an even more severe crisis. But the rise of Islamist ideology is challenging every sector of the Pakistani state.

  • 13:21:29

    NNAMDIYou actually begin your book, "Ghost Wars," documenting the religiously fueled riots that threaten the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad in 1979. What does that have to do with what we see today?

  • 13:21:40

    COLLWell, it was the tail end of an era, well, really the beginning, I should say, of an era presided over by General Zia-ul-Haq, who was a military leader, one in a series of military leaders in Pakistan's history, but the first to really see political Islam as a mechanism of the Army's rule. I think he truly believed that a stronger role for religious ideology and Pakistan's politics would be good for the nation. It also was good for the Army. And it was his political strategy as an individual to maintain power, to use religion as a way to outflank secular political opponents.

  • 13:22:13

    COLLAnd so he introduced this ideology broadly in Pakistani society and within the institution of the Army. And he used it also as a mechanism to organize the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. And Pakistan is, as much as anyone, have been paying the price ever since.

  • 13:22:37

    NNAMDIThe chicken's coming home to roost. Here is Kevin in Manassas, Va. Kevin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:22:44

    KEVINThank you, Kojo, for taking my time. I'm a little nervous, but the -- I'm originally Iranian. I want to comment about the role of Iran in Afghanistan with the events that's taking place in Lebanon and also with the Palestinian papers that just came out. And Afghanistan's survival really depends on 8,000 fuel tankers that daily deliver fuel to Afghanistan and to the NATO. Isn't it time for United States to back off the Iranian situation and put it right to make some proper diplomatic solutions instead of continually imposing new sanctions? Thank you.

  • 13:23:26

    NNAMDIIn other words, the -- Iran is in a position to help the United States in this situation. Steve Coll.

  • 13:23:32

    COLLWell, I think it's true that Iran and the United States have shared interests in a stable Afghanistan. Those interests brought the United States and Iran, along with India and Russia and other countries, together after the September 11th attacks to forge the bond agreement that was the -- really the high water mark of a pretty low tide of U.S./Iranian cooperation since the Iranian revolution, that the United States and Iran forged a constitutional compact that allowed President Karzai to come to power.

  • 13:24:04

    COLLIran is Afghanistan's neighbor. A large percentage of Afghanistan's population has historical linguistic and cultural ties to Iran, as well as in the case of the Shia Menardari (sp?) in Afghanistan religious ties to the Iranian regime. And Iran almost went to war with the Taliban so it's always seen itself in opposition to the kind of ideology that the Taliban has espoused, which has no room for the Shia sect that Iran's leaders espoused. So in that sense, there is common ground with the United States, but the problem is that Iran's regime, first of all, is heavily influenced by its radical elements these days and secondly, feels under siege by the United States.

  • 13:24:52

    COLLIt looks around the region. It sees American military bases in Afghanistan, sees American military bases in Iraq and basically says, we're next. We're not going to cooperate in this project. And it's been difficult to overcome that siege mentality.

  • 13:25:10

    NNAMDIHow about India? Thank you for your call, Kevin. We got this e-mail from Bruce. "India reportedly is having considerable success with development projects in Afghanistan. Is it feasible for the U.S. to hand off many of our developmental -- development projects to the Indians?"

  • 13:25:25

    COLLWell, the problem is that the government of Pakistan and particularly it's Army, which has been the source of historical support for the Taliban, has persisted in its alliance with the Taliban, sometimes undeclared, but nonetheless, an alliance precisely because it fears Indian influence in Afghanistan. And so to the extent that India's work in Afghanistan, which is legitimate and credible and effective in the way that the writer suggests, to the extent that it's visible, it only inflames Pakistani paranoia about Indian encirclement.

  • 13:26:01

    COLLAnd makes the American project of trying to stabilize the country and eliminate groups like the Taliban, at least as violent actors, all the more difficult. So I'm afraid it's not as simple, even though the United States and India broadly are closely aligned about the goals in the war and increasingly on a global stage, self conscious partners. Nonetheless, it's hard just for us to hand this over to them because we'll only inflame Pakistan's perception.

  • 13:26:33

    NNAMDIWell, let's complicate it just a little more. It seems that when it comes to the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been playing a double game or even a triple game with Afghanistan for some time with its government behaving one way, it's military another, it's intelligence service yet another. What reasons do you see for Pakistan to begin acting differently, if at all, in the future and is there anything that the United States can do to facilitate that process? All politics being local.

  • 13:27:01

    COLLWell, it's, I think, one of the most important questions in the war and a difficult one to provide an easy answer to. But fundamentally, Pakistan's insecurity arises from the fact that it is a smaller country, weaker, next door to India, which it imagines wishes to weaken, destabilize or destroy Pakistan. And so it has found in that position, small brother next to big brother, that the best defense is to a nuclear deterrent that will prevent India from invading the country with conventional arms and secondly, Islamist militias that are a low cost, forward defense against what Pakistan imagines to be India hegemony. And they’ve noticed, the Pakistanis, that Islamist ideology and Islamist terrorist groups are the one thing that India doesn't seem to have an easy solution for either, whether it's in Kashmir or on the streets of Mumbai.

  • 13:27:52

    COLLSo it's tempting for this Army and its security services to continue with this policy. The hope is -- lies in the fact that it's proving to be self defeating and ineffective. And that, in fact, this Frankenstein strategy has reached the stage where Frankenstein has come off the table, broken out of his straps and is rampaging through the streets of Pakistani cities. It's plain for everyone to see. Now, persuading the Pakistani security services that they can find security, the existential security that they seek and require, in other strategies, in peaceful strategies and political strategies.

  • 13:28:31

    COLLThat's the goal of American engagement with the Pakistani state. The civilian parties are fully aligned, for the most part, with this goal. Persuading the Army, in effect, to back out of this historical strategy is the much more difficult challenge.

  • 13:28:48

    NNAMDIAnd how will President Obama try to explain all of that in three minutes or less during the State of the Union tonight?

  • 13:28:54

    COLLI think he'll probably talk about Al-Qaeda. Dismantle, destroy, disable, whatever it is, that phrase that we always use.

  • 13:29:00

    NNAMDISteve Coll, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:29:01

    COLLKojo, my pleasure.

  • 13:29:03

    NNAMDISteve Coll is the president of the New America Foundation and a contributor to the New Yorker, former managing editor of the Washington Post, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2005 book, "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan And Bin Laden, From The Soviet Invasion To September 10, 2001." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, State of the Union 101, a brief history of State of the Union addresses. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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