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A case for stepping lightly

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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 Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States, Cole's 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 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).

We caught up with Cole by phone.

Orlando Weekly: 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?

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

One version of the events of Sept. 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 …

Bin Laden said this explicitly in 1996.

So why do you think we fell for the trap?

It's just so tempting for a great power to have an area `like that` it can 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.

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

First of all, that premise is flawed. There is virtually no al-Qaida 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-Qaida in Afghanistan. So if the idea that Taliban equals safe harbor for al-Qaida isn't true in the present, why would it be true in the future?

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

Al-Qaida 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-Qaida 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.

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?

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, in which case they could actually just arrest suspicious-looking Egyptians.

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

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-Qaida 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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

A version of this story first appeared in Detroit's Metro Times.


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