"I think we should definitely keep giving help to Afghanistan”by Bronwen Maddox / March 26, 2015 / Leave a comment
I think we should definitely keep giving help to Afghanistan,” said Paul Wolfowitz. “Unfortunately, the question” of whether Congress will agree to that “is a good one.”
“It’s not only money, it’s the message it would send if we abandon them. Having said that, I know how American taxpayers feel about having to foot the bill. I wish we had long ago gone to some of the other countries who have a stake in the outcome to spread the burden.”
Wolfowitz, United States Deputy Secretary of Defence from 2001 to 2005, was one of the leading neo-conservatives behind George W Bush at the time of the Iraq invasion. He was one of those apparently most confident about the capacity of the US to change a regime and to bring democracy to a country, although the popular caricature, which portrayed the group as eager to launch a war and naive about its effects, has obscured the nuance and idealism in his analysis. He brought those ideals about the properly high ambitions for development to the World Bank when he became its President in 2005, although opposition to his appointment from leading economists, controversy over Iraq, rows among bank members over his anti-corruption drive and disputes over his personal relationship with a bank colleague contributed to his sudden departure after two years.
The point of talking to him now is partly because Ukraine and the continuing turmoil of the Middle East raise the question of whether we can ever intervene successfully or whether, after Iraq and Afghanistan, we should jettison those old hopes. It is also because, although he spoke to Prospect in a personal capacity, he has become an advisor on foreign policy to Jeb Bush, brother of George W, who announced in December he was exploring whether to contest the Republican nomination for President in 2016.
The importance of democracy and international order is still central for him. “Putin has violated probably the single most important security agreement to come out of the end of the Cold War,” he said—“that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for a guarantee of its independence and territorial integrity not only by Russia but by the United States and the United Kingdom.” Also central is the belief in the importance of American leadership in asserting that order. “That is a guarantee that people in Asia, for example in Japan, look at; they see how we’re performing today, and frankly they’re dismayed.”
There are “reasons to be cautious,” he acknowledged, adding that “the slogan of the hour on the western side” is that we should have “strategic patience,” rather than rush to intervene. He finds that worrying. “Putin is invoking the incredibly dangerous principle that borders should somehow follow ethnicity. I’m not about to compare him with Hitler but that was the principle of the Munich Agreement… Part of what makes it so dangerous is that there are so many places in eastern Europe where ethnicity is an issue.”
What can we do? We’ve got better at exposing the corruption of the cronies around Putin, he says, for instance by putting them on the US Treasury sanctions list. “Putin is very sensitive that so many of his closest associates have made so much money, not to mention that he is probably one of the richest people in the world. That’s not a story he wants the Russian people to hear” above the noise of the “viciously anti-western messages” that state media churns out.
“I have no interest in going back to the Cold War,” he said, “but one thing we did pretty well back then was to get the truth into the Soviet Union when it was much harder to penetrate. We ought to be doing a better job of that now.” Senior Obama officials have recently had discussions in London with their British counterparts about how better to counter the flood of propaganda that Russia is pouring into eastern Ukraine and parts of the Baltics. Britain, Wolfowitz said, “has been right to reopen the investigation into the murder of Litvinenko”—the fugitive Russian intelligence officer who was probing organised crime and who was assassinated in London in 2006—“and into the information he was trying to get out into the public.”
He suggests, if gently, that “I believe Britain could do more and I hope they would,” to target Russian money in London. “My feeling is they [British officials] must be able to but obviously that amount of Russian money is a reason why they hesitate. They probably think of it correctly as a two-edged sword that can be used both ways.”
The European Union could “take a lead” too in helping Ukraine with the “pretty large scale economic assistance or debt relief” that it now needs to reform its economy and politics. But “it’s rather silly to expect all of that to get pulled together where they are fighting a losing battle to defend their own territory—where we said we would defend their territorial integrity.”
He is critical of debates on intervention that hold back, too often as he sees it, from giving people arms to defend themselves, citing “1991 where we abandoned the Shia in southern Iraq, or the 1990s where we refused to allow the Bosnians to get arms.” Libya, he said, is “a perfect and wretched example” where western refusal to arm and equip the security forces after the revolution meant that the moderates who won the elections were undermined by extremists helped by an influx of weapons from the Gulf.
That kind of prescription has led some to portray him as a perpetual hawk, but that would be wrong. In Ukraine’s case, he said: “No amount of weapons will enable them to win. But winning is not the goal. Holding as much of their territory as possible is the goal, and [so is] making Putin pay as high a price as possible.”
Does that mean we should now intervene in Syria and Iraq? No; his answer picks up from America’s goals when it withdrew from Iraq in 2011. “It may sound a little bit like spinning a fairytale,” he said of Syria, “but the goal needs to be to unify the moderate Sunnis and Shias against the extremists” on each side. That would mean putting on the table “a political solution, which to have any hope of being accepted would have to include the departure of Assad and his closest cronies, but which would try to offer some real guarantees to the Christian and Alawite communities. By this time, even if they didn’t fear for their futures before, they now have so much blood on their hands that they have to now.” He added: “There are not a lot of moderate Sunnis left, after we abandoned them, but maybe some can be resuscitated.” Maybe an Arab peacekeeping force could help, although “maybe that sounds like a fairytale,” he repeated, a trailing ending to a prescription that is nonetheless hardly less substantial than US or UK policy now.
In Iraq, similarly, he thinks we need to return to the kind of pact the US tried to establish. “An effort needs to be made to re-establish the bargain that was concluded during what sometimes was mistakenly called the ‘surge,’ which wasn’t so much about increasing troops but about separating Sunni extremists from those prepared to work with a reasonable [Shia] government.” That meant bringing the country’s large Sunni minority, the elite under Saddam Hussein, into power-sharing agreements with Shias suddenly in the ascendancy. “Since we left in 2011,” he said, “the government has got more and more unreasonable”; the rise of Islamic State has been enabled by the government’s persecution of Sunni minorities. “There are Shia death squads and ethnic cleansing of a horrific type going on now in Tikrit and probably in Mosul soon,” said Wolfowitz.
The charge of naivety is raised most often against exactly those hopes: that the US could have hoped to bridge the deep tribal and religious divisions within Iraq by a power-sharing pact that drew on American notions of constitutional protection of minorities. Yet even if it has so far failed, there is no other real goal around, as officials from European capitals testify, while diplomats on many sides are now hoping the US can pull the strings of its complex network of allegiances to improve stability in the region.
“You need to wean back Baghdad from Tehran,” said Wolfowitz, “and what might do that is a clear idea of American strategy, as well as more support from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis made a terrible mistake in most of the last decade failing to support a reasonable Shia government in Baghdad. It’s not suprising the Iranians came in with a lot of money and a lot of guns.”
He added: “The Saudis may have a lot of ideological blinders particularly when it comes to the Shia, but they are realists and they want to survive in a difficult region. They ought to understand that they are going to need allies.”
He is the first to remark that “there is a limit to what outsiders can do” to help countries develop after conflict. “The processes that are involved and the requirements are so locally specific, you need such a wealth of local knowledge. That is the kind of thing people who grow up in a country have at their fingertips and what someone with a PhD in Afghanistan studies could not possibly master.” It isn’t, he added, “something where you come in from the outside with a blueprint. Some people thought Iraq would be like Japan or Germany all over again [after the Second World War].”
But one area where outside help is “often desperately needed”—and valuable—is security. “We made a mistake in the beginning in not building a large enough Afghan army. Our reasoning was that it couldn’t afford an army of the size it really needed. Well, six months of sustaining a Nato force there would probably pay for six years of a properly sized Afghan army.”
Any attempt at intervention “means giving a lot of latitude to local people and accepting that they will make mistakes. As we would too. But it is much better that they make mistakes, and my guess is that they will make fewer.”