Q&A: A RAND Analyst on Afghanistan

As America approaches its eighth year in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has declared the country the main front in the war on terrorism. A reemerging insurgency led by the Taliban has rocked the country, and President Obama recently pledged 50 percent more troops to fight it, alongside more help from NATO. But can that turn around a war in which initial successes have been reversed? Seth G. Jones, RAND analyst and author of In the Graveyard of Empires, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Taylor Lee about the situation. Excerpts:

Your new book is a history of foreign militias in Afghanistan and their many failures. What parallels from history can we draw on to understand America's presence in the region?
Foreign armies tend to want to win the war in Afghanistan using their own forces. British forces were used en masse to try to stabilize Afghanistan; a large Soviet Army of over 100,000 was used to try to stabilize Afghanistan; Alexander the Great sent in his army to try to stabilize Afghanistan; and now the U.S. has tried to win the war in Afghanistan using primarily U.S. forces—although we have increasingly seen a shift to try to train Afghan national security forces. But a foreign army that comes into Afghanistan has historically not done well. It generally has led to a revolt by the Afghanistan population. Another thing is that Afghanistan has had a weak central government, so any invading army has had to deal with a range of neighbors that have meddled in Afghanistan affairs. During the British wars it was the Russian Army. During the Soviet invasion, it was the United States. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia provided assistance to the mujahedin. And today a range of neighbors, including both Pakistan and Iran, have provided assistance to insurgent groups.

You say Afghanistan is always a quagmire for invading armies. This is America's eighth year there. Is there any way out?
If there is any hope for the United States, it is finding ways to increasingly push this fight to an Afghan level. Actually, like the way the U.S. did in 2001 in which it leveraged local Afghans to fight again the Taliban.

What will it take now to bring about cooperation between the central government and local tribes?
The administration needs to relax a strategy of trying to deliver services—that is, electricity, water, and health care—from the central government out as a top-down strategy. It is going to be about the village level and identifying tribes, subtribes, and clans that oppose the Taliban operations in their areas.

How will President Hamid Karzai fare in the August election?
Corruption challenges, in my view, are a driver of the insurgency. It has caused people to turn from the central government. It's not clear to me that without substantial pressure from the United States, the United Nations, and other organizations in Afghanistan that the central government will take substantive anti-corruption action.

How do we regain the trust and support of the Afghan people?
The most significant area is civilian casualties. U.S. military forces were killing, in some cases exaggerated by the Taliban, a large number of Afghan civilians [in air support]. The other thing that was happening were night raids, house raids, and targeted killings. There has been an effort, especially with Gen. McChrystal taking over, to use more stringent rules of engagement.

Is a cohesive Afghan state feasible?
It's a complete pipe dream to expect that an Afghan central government can establish order and deliver key services on its own. And when one gets in the rural area of the country, many Afghans actually don't want the central government to play that role.

Is Afghanistan the next Vietnam?
The average length of an insurgency, at least since 1945, is 14 years. We are at the seven-and-a-half-year point here, which is roughly halfway. But, in looking at the Vietnam, one of the things that we do not have in Afghanistan is a very popular insurgent network operating in the country. It still appears to have a very minimal support base. That means the war is still kind of wide open and up for grabs.