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Former US Afghan envoy: 'Wars aren't over because you say they're over'

US President Obama promised to end wars, but US troops will remain in Afghanistan after he leaves office. James Dobbins, former US envoy to Afghanistan, tells DW that Washington has learned from its Iraq withdrawal.

DW: What has changed since President Barack Obama originally laid out a timetable in May of 2014 to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by the time he leaves office?

James Dobbins: President [Ashraf] Ghani and Chief Executive Officer [Abdullah] Abdullah had not yet been elected. There was elected President [Hamid] Karzai. You now have a new government.

You've had a year, a campaign season of intense fighting. I wouldn't say that overall the level has been unexpected. I think that, while back in May people anticipated that there might be fighting on this level, they hoped that it wouldn't reach this level of intensity.

You've had the disappointing results of the effort to initiate peace talks, which were quite promising and which were ultimately delayed indefinitely as a result of the revelation of Mullah Omar's death, the competition within the Taliban leadership for primacy and the decision of the leadership to back away from the peace talks that had been scheduled.

You then had the emergence of the "Islamic State" in Afghanistan and some significant inroads, albeit still limited but nevertheless alarming. Finally, you had the Taliban incursion into Kunduz.

I think it was combination of those. I don't think it was any one of them. New reports have indicated that the president had been moving toward this decision [to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016] well before the Kunduz fighting, for instance.

How has the change in power in Afghanistan influenced the US decision to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016?

You have a government that is much more cooperative, a government that clearly wants to work with the United States and NATO. You have a president who is profuse in his thanks to the United States and NATO countries for the contributions and sacrifices they've made. And you have a government that is prepared to cooperate, which is new.

Hamid Karzai

Former President Karzai was often at odds with Washington

I don't want to overstate the difficulties we had with [former President Hamid] Karzai, but particularly in the last years he was increasingly critical of the NATO and American role. He was increasingly unpredictable and difficult and he certainly created controversy and resistance in American and, I expect, in European public opinion by his behavior.

The US has been in Afghanistan for 14 years now. Critics say that the Afghan security forces still are not effective. Why should we believe that staying longer and training Afghan forces longer will make any difference?

The training and raising of the current Afghan army wasn't begun until about 2006. The current force wasn't fully fielded until two years ago.

There wasn't any fighting of consequence in Afghanistan from 2002-2005. We have been in Afghanistan for 14 years, but we haven't been fighting at any significant level for [all] 14 years. There was a fairly substantial period during which the Taliban had been defeated, withdrew to Pakistan, began to reorganize, recruit, train, fund and eventually came back.

The US in the early years, and not just the US but all of the international community, were very slow to provide the kind of resources that would allow the Afghans to stand up a capable army and police force and other institutions of governance.

Fighting in Kunduz

Afghan forces are struggling to maintain security

That process, the serious resources commitments, started seriously about 2005, 2006. I don't know of any countries ever in which we've created an army out of nothing in that period of time that's done better. So what are we comparing it to? It's certainly fighting a lot better than the Iraqi army.

How has the rise of "Islamic State" and the instability in Iraq influenced US policy toward Afghanistan?

It's generally acknowledged that it was a mistake to invade Iraq and that it was a mistake to have left. The bigger mistake was to have invaded Iraq in the first place. But having invaded Iraq, having created a mess, having created the conditions that led to regional imbalance and increased radicalization, it was a mistake to have just walked away from it.

Wars aren't over because you say they're over. My guess is that while President Obama isn't prepared to publicly acknowledge it was a mistake, I'm sure he recognizes that it was. You have to make decisions on the information you have available, not prescience about what's about to occur.

There is a big difference. The Iraqis didn't want us to stay, and the Afghans do. There wasn't a single Iraqi politician who was prepared to stand up in parliament and say the Americans should stay, we should sign a status of forces agreement with them, we should ask them to stay.

In Afghanistan it's exactly the opposite. They had a presidential election campaign last year. They had 13 candidates; 12 of them campaigned on the grounds that they would sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States as soon as they got elected. The 13th candidate said privately he'd do the same thing. So clearly this was a vote-getter in Afghanistan.

It would have been hard to stay in Iraq, not impossible, but hard because the Iraqis themselves weren't prepared to clearly invite the United States to do so. In that respect, it's easy to stay in Afghanistan because there's clear public and elite support for it.

James Dobbins served as the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013-2014 under US President Barack Obama. Ambassador Dobbins also served as President George W. Bush's first special envoy for Afghanistan and the administration's representative to the Afghan opposition in the wake of the September 11 attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. He is a senior fellow and Distinguished Chair in Diplomacy and Security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank.

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