Tread lightly

A history professor at the University of Michigan, Juan Cole's notoriety as a scholar focusing on Islam was largely confined to academic circles until 2002, when he began writing his Informed Comment blog. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States, Cole's significant insights suddenly became important to a much wider audience. Having lived in various parts of the Muslim world for nearly a decade, with a command of Arabic and Persian, his ability to put current conflicts into a historical context made him a highly sought-after commentator. Along with frequent television and radio appearances, he writes a regular column for He's also the author of several books, including his most recent, Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan). 

In advance of an upcoming Royal Oak appearance to discuss the Obama administration's Afghanistan and Pakistan policies, we caught up with the busy Cole last week by phone. 

Metro Times:
By most accounts, the debate in the White House right now isn't over whether to escalate or de-escalate the war in Afghanistan, but rather over how many more troops to send there. If you were talking to the president right now instead of us, what would you say to him?

Juan Cole: If you are going to accomplish anything in Afghanistan, you need a very light footprint.

What would that footprint look like?

Cole: Let's back up and talk about what the goal is in Afghanistan. Your strategy and your tactics are going to come out of your goal. I'm a little bit afraid that, in regard to the goal, you see a lot of mission creep. The goal has become standing up an Afghan government and an Afghan military that's relatively stable and can control the country. There's a lot of state-building involved in that. 

I am a severe skeptic on this score. I don't think that's a proper goal for the U.S. military. I think we are dealing with a tribal society of people who, as a matter of course, are organized by clan and have feuds with each other, and feuds with other tribes, and feuds with their cousins. I think that Washington misinterprets this feuding as Talibanism, and thinks that if you put a lot of troops in there, you can pacify the country and settle it down. 

I just think it is a misreading of the character of the country. Afghanistan is a country where localism is important, where people don't like the central government coming in and bothering them. There's a sense in which the communist government of the 1980s, backed by the Soviet Union, wanted to drag Afghanistan kicking and screaming into the late 20th century, and to do that you had to impose central government policy on the countryside and on the villagers. And the villagers rose up and kicked the Soviets and the communists out. They were outraged, in part, against the centralizing tendency of Kabul. 

So, I just think that Afghanistan is a country that needs a light touch. You just have to accept that there's going to be a certain amount of disorder in the countryside as long as people are organized tribally. And if you put 100,000 or 150,000 Western troops in there, that's just more people to feud with.

Given all that, what do you think success in Afghanistan would entail?

Cole: If you are asking what I think is a plausible goal, I'd say it is training an Afghan army and police force as best you can. But you are just going to have to accept that it's going to be a weak government. You can shore it up to some extent, but you need to shore it up behind the scenes. It can't be seen to be a puppet government, because that will undermine its legitimacy. 

A government that can provide more services to people is good. Road building is good. Encouraging the markets to open is good. But as far as fighting what the U.S. is calling Taliban, they are really just regional warlords. They might have a tactical alliance with the old Taliban of Mullah Omar, but it's a mistake to sweep them all up into a single category.

Do you think there is a possibility that the Taliban that was in power before the U.S. sent in troops could return to a position of power that they held before?

Cole: It is unlikely the Taliban will come back in that way. 

First of all, the opinion polls show that only 5 percent of Afghans think well of Taliban. Five percent is a pretty low approval rating. Of course, Taliban are mainly from the Pashtun ethnic group, which is about 42 percent of the country, so there might be a few districts that would be under Taliban rule if people have their say. But the country's other ethnic groups don't support the Taliban. So I don't anticipate them coming back.

And, even when they were in power, it was fairly easy to dislodge them. All the U.S. had to do in 2001 was to give close air support to the enemies of the Taliban. What I don't understand is why that's not a standing option. This may be part of what Vice President Joe Biden is saying, that it is always the case that if things get out of hand we just give close air support to the enemies of the Taliban and push them back.

One version of events of 9/11 is that it was part of bin Laden's strategy to lure us into Afghanistan and bleed us the way the Soviets were bled ...

Cole: Bin Laden said this explicitly in 1996.

So why do you think we fell for the trap?

Cole: It's just so tempting for a great power to have an area to go into. Central Asia is rich in resources — natural gas, and Kazakhstan has petroleum and gold — and there was this opportunity to assert U.S. interests in Central Asia and push Russia back. There are all kinds of reasons for which bin Laden was making us a very attractive offer. He was offering us a very large, delicious piece of cheese. Of course, it turns out that there was a very large mousetrap attached to the cheese.

What about the terrorism component of this — the fear the Taliban will shield al-Qaeda and provide a safe haven that will give them a staging area to plan another attack on the United States?

Cole: First of all, that premise is flawed. There is virtually no al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. As we speak, something on the order of 10 to 15 percent of Afghanistan is more or less controlled by Taliban. And yet, there is virtually no al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. So if the idea that Taliban equals safe harbor for al-Qaeda isn't true in the present, why would it be true in the future?

In fact, why is it we don't think the Taliban can learn? They're pretty smart people. They took on the Soviets and defeated them. Surely they're dismayed at what happened to them after al-Qaeda attacked the United States. I imagine a lot of them would slit al-Qaeda's throats if they came anywhere near, out of anger at them for ruining the good deal the Taliban had in Afghanistan. 

Al-Qaeda is a presence in Pakistan, though. How do we pursue them there?

Cole: Al-Qaeda is a presence in some parts of the Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, not in Pakistan proper. There are 15 federally administrated tribal areas. They are extremely craggy countryside. Very, very difficult to penetrate. 

And how many al-Qaeda operatives do you think are in the tribal areas of Pakistan? Five hundred? A thousand? What I can't understand is the argument that we need 100,000 troops in neighboring Afghanistan because there is a small number of Arab radicals hiding out in the hills of Waziristan. What can they do from there exactly? I can't imagine that they have high-speed Internet. They're just hiding out. Obviously, the way to deal with them is to have the Pakistani government deal with them. 

We're increasingly seeing references to the AfPak conflict. Is there a way that conflating issues involving Afghanistan and Pakistan hinders understanding that those two countries are so dissimilar?

Cole: It's crazy to put Afghanistan and Pakistan into the same basket. Pakistan is a real country. It has a big civil service, and it has a big army, and it has a long tradition of central government rule. To conflate it with Afghanistan, which is just a very rural, tribal, undeveloped place, is crazy. 

What do you think about the policy that began under Bush and apparently increased under Obama to use unmanned drone aircraft to take out suspected terrorists remotely in Pakistan? Do you think that is working, or is that simply creating more enemies because innocent civilians are also getting killed in those operations?

Cole: I think it is a very bad policy. First of all, it is illegal under international law. It is a kind of summary execution. Second of all, it angers the Pakistani public, and we want the Pakistani public on our side. It detracts from the legitimacy of the Pakistani government. The Pakistani government denounces us for doing it in public, but we know behind the scenes that they are fully cooperative with this program. In some ways it is laziness; those drone strikes are substituting for the Pakistani government actually asserting itself in Pakistani villages. It would be much better if the Pakistani constabulary and security forces could actually assert the prerogative of the Pakistani state in those areas. But we're bombing them from the air. It is alleged that the U.S. drone strikes kill far more civilians than terrorists. It's not the case that they've killed no terrorists. Some known bad guys have been struck in this way, but the price is too high. 

The war on terror is also one in which there is really no end point. Isn't that one of the problems here?

Cole: The Obama administration, to its credit, has abandoned the terminology of a war on terror. They are calling it an overseas contingency operation, which sounds very temporary indeed. So, the rhetoric of a long war is gone, but the policy of using this sledgehammer of the Pentagon to deal with the mosquitoes of al-Qaeda is still in place, and that's what needs to change.

While Obama has been weighing the decision about what to do in Afghanistan, and where to go from here, former Vice President Dick Cheney has accused him of dithering. Do you think that is a fair criticism, that Obama is coming off as being Hamlet-like and afraid to take action?

Cole: Given that Cheney rushed us into at least two wars and seemed eager for more, with hardly any debate, I just wish we'd had more deliberation and planning in the past when he was in power. No, I think the criticism is a complete crock. It's just an attempt to play politics. 

Look, when Obama came into office, the Afghan presidential elections were scheduled for Aug. 20. How is Obama going to make policy about Afghanistan without knowing who the president is going to be as of Aug. 21? In fact, in Afghanistan, politics is very personalistic, so it is important to know who your partner is going to be. I think Obama came in hoping [Afghan President] Hamid Karzai might be defeated; he thought that Karzai is part of the problem, and then Karzai tried to steal the election, and we've had a lot of ups and downs since then. It now appears that Karzai will remain in power. But whether you do counterinsurgency or counterterrorism as policy will depend very much on whether you have a reliable Afghan government to fight with. And the Obama administration clearly doesn't believe that Karzai is such a credible partner. So, I don't see how he could have made policy with this political backdrop. It would have been very dangerous. Now, the situation has been clarified. It's not a good situation, and Obama will be in a position to come to a considered, mature opinion.

As we're talking, Abdullah has pulled out of the presidential race and the Afghanistan runoff has been canceled; Karzai is talking about cleaning up corruption and reaching out to the Taliban. Do you think either of those things is likely to happen?

Cole: I think reaching out to the Taliban has already been happening. Saudi Arabia has hosted meetings between Karzai's representatives and major opposition forces. There are some groups that are being called Taliban that are not; they are simply religious Pashtun nationalists who have a beef with Karzai. They can be cajoled; they can be offered positions; they can be offered services from the central government. So they might be brought in from the cold. 

And, to his credit, that is one thing Karzai has been trying to do — to negotiate with his opposition. However, when you talk about cleaning up corruption, even if Karzai wanted to do it, he wouldn't be able to. Afghanistan is the fifth poorest country in the world, with a culture of corruption that pervades the government. It's just a way of life over there. If somebody does a favor for you, even if they are in government service, they expect a tip. For us to imagine that it is gong to be different anytime soon would be foolish.

There is a widespread impression among a lot of people that the troop surge worked in Iraq and that same type of effort could be transferred to Afghanistan. Could you talk about that?

Cole: That would be a book, all of the reasons for which the two are not the same. Iraq is a relatively advanced country. It's probably 60 or so percent literate; it has an industrial infrastructure. And it is possible to have a government that functions in Iraq. In Afghanistan — and people don't understand this, but — 90 percent of the new Afghan army is illiterate. So you send these guys into Kandahar to an address and they wouldn't even be able to read the street signs. So, you just can't analogize from one to the other. It's just crazy to try. They are not the same kinds of societies.

Also, I don't think the surge is what mainly turned things around in Iraq. The Shiites won the civil war in Iraq. Nobody is winning civil wars in Afghanistan. In fact, in Iraq, we were betting on the 60 percent majority Shiites. In Afghanistan, we're betting on the minority against the Pashtun plurality. So the demographics are not working for us in Afghanistan.

So, a) I don't think the surge is mainly what turned things around and b) it's just not the same situation. So, if they are making policy in Afghanistan by analogies from Iraq, that is very dangerous. 

Speaking of Iraq, Obama has been committed to removing all U.S. troops from there by the end of 2011 under the Status of Forces agreement. Do you still see us on track to do that?

Cole: Obama is ahead of schedule on the Iraq withdrawal. In fact, it's clear to me he's won that argument in Washington and with the Pentagon. When he first came in, Petraeus and the other big generals were on his case and were trying to reverse his commitment to get out of Iraq, and they failed. And now, they appear to have become convinced that he was right. 

Juan Cole speaks Saturday, Nov. 14, at 1:30 p.m. at Royal Oak First United Methodist Church, 320 W. Seventh St. between Lafayette and Washington. Parking is available in the church lot or the structure on Lafayette north of the church. Admission is $5, students free. More information is available from the sponsoring Huntington Woods Peace, Citizenship and Education Project at or 248-546-6834.

Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog is at

Curt Guyette and W. Kim Heron are news editor and editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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