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Observations on U.S. Engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan

Aired November 30, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the world is trying to assess the nuclear signals coming from Tehran, as Iran lashes back against a rebuke from the U.N., this as a major decision looms on another powder keg, Afghanistan.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

We begin with rising tension in one of the world's most turbulent regions. U.S. President Obama is now set to unveil his new strategy on Afghanistan. He spent months considering this move, which he'll announce Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It's been a long time coming, so long that the British defense minister has said that the hiatus is harming efforts to make progress against the Taliban.

Just this weekend, the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, ruled out any talks with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, calling his administration, quote, "a stooge of the West."

But first, is Iran raising the stakes of international diplomacy? President Ahmadinejad on Sunday announced ten new uranium enrichment plants to be built, this after the outgoing head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, has said that talks with Tehran have hit a dead end.

To talk about the ramifications of all these moves from Tehran, we're joined by Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Mr. Sadjadpour, thanks so much for joining us from Washington.


AMANPOUR: How do you assess what President Ahmadinejad and the cabinet has said over the weekend?

SADJADPOUR: Christiane, I think Ahmadinejad's announcement was mostly bluster. If we want to put this into some perspective, Iran has taken over two decades to complete its enrichment facility in Natanz, and it's still not fully operational. So for them to complete ten enrichment facilities the size of Natanz would -- would take decades.

So I would take this announcement with a grain of salt. I certainly don't think it's an imminent threat. And to credit the Obama administration, I think the United States under his leadership has projected kind of the poise and dignity of a superpower, instead of reacting to every announcement which Iran makes.

AMANPOUR: Well, as you know -- and we're going to bring up a quote from the speaker of the Iranian parliament -- as you know, the administration is also planning on sanctions and trying to get the world mobilized if this nuclear deal doesn't go through. And what we have is Mr. Larijani saying that, "We will carefully watch your future actions. And if you do not cease your ridiculous policy of carrots and sticks, we will follow a new path of behavior towards you."

So what really does the U.S. have and the world powers in terms of leverage now?

SADJADPOUR: Well -- well, I would say, Christiane, firstly, with regards to Ali Larijani's comments, this has long been the modus operandi of the Iranian regime. They want to show that pressure is not going to moderate their behavior. So when they're under pressure, rather than compromising, which they believe will project weakness and invite even more pressure, they often respond provocatively.

And I would say that two things have changed profoundly over the course of the last year. One is, is that the Obama administration has really made a good-faith effort at diplomacy. So when you would talk to European diplomats or Russian or Chinese diplomats, say, last year under the Bush administration, they were reluctant to escalate. They were reluctant to adopt sanctions and punitive measures because they would argue that the Bush administration really hadn't made a good-faith effort at diplomacy. And I think now they no longer have that same pretext, because they've noted that the Obama administration has reached out.

AMANPOUR: But where are we right now? Because there was this moment a few weeks ago in Vienna where this whole deal on low-enriched uranium, shipping Iran's -- the majority of Iran's stockpile out, having it highly processed, and bringing it back for Iran's use in a medical reaction, and suddenly it sort of collapsed. It looked like Iran was accepting it at first. Why do you think it's back to the drawing board?

SADJADPOUR: I think, Christiane, part of the problem is that what transpired with the June 12th elections in Iran was that any remaining moderates or pragmatists that were part of the Iranian government's decision-making structure have essentially been purged from the system. And now you have the hard-line supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who has essentially surrounded himself by similar hard-liners who believe that enmity towards the United States was a fundamental pillar of the 1979 revolution and it remains essential to the identity of the Islamic republic.


So whenever they're in negotiations or they're under pressure, their default instinct is -- is usually defiance.

AMANPOUR: So what is the next step, then? Because, obviously, President Obama and his administration are saying that they still hold out potential hope for diplomacy to work. But they're also putting a deadline that seems to be the end of this year. Where does this go? Is there any realistic chance of diplomacy with Iran now?

SADJADPOUR: Christiane, I think it's going to be a multifaceted policy. We're going to continue to dialogue with Iran. That door of engagement, I think, will remain open. But the Obama administration will no longer have the luxury of patience, and I think they will be forced to escalate and adopt certain sanctions and punitive measures that they were reluctant to take in the past.

As you mentioned in the lead-up to the broadcast, the Obama administration is desperately trying to stabilize the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the last thing they want to do is escalate toward Iran, which shares borders with both Afghanistan and Iraq.

AMANPOUR: So what happens, though? Because, obviously, Iranian officials are also saying that the posture of threats and pressure in the past simply hasn't worked and it leads to negative response from Iran. We've seen that over this weekend. But what is the next step? Because, obviously, in the back of everybody's mind is -- is Israel, is somebody else going to take matters into their own hands militarily?

SADJADPOUR: I -- when you talk to U.S. officials about the prospect of an Israeli strike, they say it's not an idle threat. It's something that they're certainly concerned about and may take the sentiments of Prime Minister Netanyahu at face value when he says that Iran represents, quote, unquote, "an existential threat."

My argument is that an Israeli strike against Iran would actually be welcomed by the hardliners in Tehran, because it would be perhaps the only thing that would heal internal political rifts and really silence the opposition.

So I think that the Obama administration certainly wants to continue forward diplomacy. And, again, what I would argue is that they're in a much better place than the Bush administration, in the sense that the bulk of the international community now realizes that Iran is kind of the intransigent actor in this equation, not Washington, which was the conventional wisdom during the Bush administration. And Iran is a government which is not only under tremendous international pressure, but there's tremendous domestic pressure in Iran.

So I think that the Iranian government is in a far less advantageous position than they were, say, one year ago.

AMANPOUR: Karim Sadjadpour, thank you so much. And we'll continue to watch this developing situation.

And to keep up...

SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: To keep up with the latest news from Iran, sign on to my Twitter feed at

And coming up, the decision that will shape his presidency, President Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan.



JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Muscatatuck urban training center, a half-hour flight from Indianapolis, Indiana, this week transformed into a village in Afghanistan. On the ground, 36 civilian trainees in camouflage jackets and body armor. They're from the State and Treasury Departments, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Agriculture Department.


All volunteered for at least a year in Afghanistan, part of a civilian surge critical to the new strategy, tripling the number deployed on the front lines. They're using their skills in law, agriculture, medicine to help the Afghan people get the services they desperately need.

The team's mission today: help solve a land dispute between two Afghan tribes. Real Afghans, some of whom don't speak English, play the role of provincial officials and tribal leaders. The reading from the Koran, the translator, hot tea they're offered to drink, the soldiers from the Indiana National Guard, every detail as authentic as possible.

These civilians, unarmed, have to establish trust. The war, they say, can't be won only with guns.

MAURA MACK, U.S. AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT: The etiquette, the politeness, building that trust and rapport with them so they really can share with you what their concerns are and be willing to work with us, because we need to work together.


AMANPOUR: That was CNN's Jill Dougherty reporting on the training of U.S. civilians who are heading out to Afghanistan. And as you heard, that training is taking place in a sort of model village in Indiana.

We're joined now by Simon Schama, the professor of history at Columbia University and author of "The History of Britain," and also George Packer, writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of "Interesting Times."

Welcome to you both.



AMANPOUR: So we've seen and we know that President Obama is going to deliver his long-awaited decision on troops to Afghanistan and strategy. How do you assess, particularly yourself in terms of what the British defense minister said, that this long-tortured debate has actually harmed the effort on the ground?

SCHAMA: Well, the British -- British imperial psychology is a past master as blaming somebody else, actually, for a predicament which is structurally very difficult. So let's forget about what the Brits might or might not say.

AMANPOUR: But so many others say that the Taliban is sort of gaining momentum while everybody else dithers, for want of a better of a word.

SCHAMA: Well, that's -- it's -- it's possible. But I think, actually, there are two separate issues. One is simply the numbers game, actually. And you know that, you know, after the speech, it's got to be about, you know, big numbers, little numbers, as though it was kind of Dow Jones index or something.

But actually, the much more problematic issue is what the strategy is. How do we know when we stabilized Afghanistan what is the kind of gold standard for peace, democracy, whatever it is we think we're seeking? That has to be spelled out by the president to the American people. You know, that's -- that's most -- more important thing than the numbers game, I think.

AMANPOUR: Well, picking up on what Simon is saying, I mean, you've been to Afghanistan a lot. What is success, do you think?

PACKER: And "success" is the right word, not "victory." There's no victory in this war. I think success is a relatively stable government in Kabul and in Islamabad, because we have to talk about both countries together, since that's what the strategy is going to -- to be about, that are capable of preventing extremists from overthrowing those governments or making those countries ungovernable. I think that's a sort of threshold minimal test for success.

AMANPOUR: So how do you both assess where he's going to give the speech tomorrow, at West Point, for instance?

SCHAMA: I think it's a dreadful idea, actually.


SCHAMA: No, I really do.


AMANPOUR: ... to the military who's going to have to do it.

SCHAMA: No, I know, but he's on a hiding dark (ph) thing, because actually he needs to, in my view, have not been shy about using the authority of the Oval Office. He has yet to make a single speech to the American people from the Oval Office. It looks over-defensive -- not to make a pun, with a small "d" -- that you have to be there surrounded among, you know, the -- the -- the flower of our nation who you're sending off to put themselves in harm's way. It looks defensive. It's not exactly like Michael Dukakis riding around in a tank, but you look more serviliant (ph) if you're at West Point.

He is the commander-in-chief, and he should be there with the flag and the desk and the -- a White House telling the American people, making that link again between the insecurity we felt in the weeks after 9/11 and why it was sending people, kids to die, actually, in Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: Yeah, and -- and I've actually been stunned that, since his March speech, where he really did make a very robust case for Afghanistan, why he hasn't, for want of a better word, sold it to the American public.

PACKER: I think -- you're right. He didn't give another major speech on Afghanistan under tomorrow night. And that -- during that hiatus, I think support really began to erode, and it's as if the White House thought one speech and then we can turn our attention to other business, because we don't really want our first year to be about Afghanistan. We don't want the president out there continually, you know, beating the war drums when we've got all these other important issues, which are the issues that got him elected.

But Afghanistan didn't care about the White House's communications strategy, and the war went downhill very fast. And I think now, in -- in November or December -- where are we? We're in December already.


SCHAMA: He can't quite decide what...

PACKER: It's been a long time. I think we now -- he's in a much worse position, because he's -- with the silence that I think showed he's a truly deliberative president, unlike his predecessor. It's a good thing. He's really informed himself. But during that period, I think confidence in his leadership began to fail in this country.

SCHAMA: He can't quite ever decide whether he's Mr. Focus or Mr. Multitask. He was actually elected to be President Multitasking, I think actually. And there are certain moments in the life of our great republic, actually, when no matter (inaudible) health reform, no matter how much in deep doo-doo the economy is, the -- the nation really is hungry for the utterance of a commander-in-chief.


SCHAMA: Harry Truman, it took him about three weeks or something, actually, to go to Congress in 1947, explain why the hell anyone should be interested in protecting Greece and Turkey, knew he had to do it and had to do it then, when people were sick of a war they'd been fighting.

AMANPOUR: And in terms of big issues and a moment in a commander-in- chief's reign or rule, let's say, the big issues are surely, do you want to see the Taliban in control of Afghanistan again? Do you care about their appalling atrocities, their abuse of human, civil and women's rights? And none of this case, the moral case is not being made.


AMANPOUR: What do you make of that?

PACKER: I think the basic problem is the -- the moral language, the language of freedom and democracy, was contaminated by George W. Bush, who used them to justify action after action. And the world began to recoil at that language and to find it hypocritical, especially with secret prisons and torture going on.

SCHAMA: Well...

PACKER: And so I think -- I think Obama has had to back off that...

AMANPOUR: But the Germans (ph) want to see the moral language.

PACKER: I think they -- I think they do.

SCHAMA: I -- I don't care about that, really. You know, for example, you could say that being sententious ought not to have worked in Cairo, but it went down like a treat. What was great about the Cairo speech was that, while respecting the integrity and tradition of Islamic culture, Obama had, you know, the cojones enough to say, "And you better actually pay attention to the integrity of freedom in our country, as well."

PACKER: But the other problem is this.

SCHAMA: There is -- no...

PACKER: The public here is tired. They don't want endless war. And to go to war for Afghan women, as noble a cause as that might be, I don't think that's going to win public support.

AMANPOUR: But, George -- but, George, it was the only thing people in this country knew about Afghanistan before 9/11, was about women.

PACKER: But that was eight years ago.


PACKER: It's a different moment now.

AMANPOUR: But do you think...


PACKER: And I think -- I think the problem with the strategy is this. Obama has to make the case that we need 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan, which is what it will be after this surge, in order to protect our own streets from Al Qaida.

AMANPOUR: He's going to make that case.

PACKER: That is the case he tried to make in March, and he's going to have to make it again, because that is his strategy. It's not going to change very much.

SCHAMA: No, that's right. I think...

PACKER: We're not going to see a major new strategy.

AMANPOUR: When then begs the question about why it's taken so long, anyway.

PACKER: I think it's because, in March, he was essentially creating a strategy on the basis of a campaign promise. He didn't know the details. What he's done is -- in his inimitable law professor fashion, he's informed himself really deeply. And this speech is going to have all the details that that speech lacked. But I don't think the strategy is going to be very different.

AMANPOUR: But -- but the bottom line is that his presidency is going to rise or fall on what happens in Afghanistan, like Bush in Iraq. He was going to be remembered for Iraq. And this president has a hot war that he's inherited. What do you think of the strategy to pour in more civilians, as we just saw in that piece from Jill Dougherty? That's even - - not even going very well, and that is how it's going to be won, everybody says.


SCHAMA: ... tripled the number of civilians, but there were 36 people going. So...


AMANPOUR: No, that was -- 36 was the -- was the -- was the group that they were training. But they're talking about tripling civilians, but they don't really have the people to do it. The military people are being recruited.

SCHAMA: Well, it appears what they really like -- in this sweet new spot (ph), we don't know, you know, what was the agricultural expert? Was it to, you know, replace opium poppies with mangold wurzels or something? I mean...

AMANPOUR: It's to do something to give these people a livelihood.

SCHAMA: Of course that's -- of course that's important. It's essential, really, to make some attempt where you can to actually make people feel that our -- the presence of the West is not simply destructive, not simply taking their livelihood away from them, but -- but, you know, it -- it's not going to -- it's the necessary but insufficient condition. We do need boots on the ground, as well.

AMANPOUR: Well, I'm going to read something about boots on the ground. I mean, you saw the new Senate report that came out. It was -- it was written about this weekend, which again revisits what happens at that famous disaster at Tora Bora in December 2001. Again, they conclude, that too few boots on the ground laid the foundation for today's protracted Afghan insurgency and inflamed the internal strife, now endangering Pakistan. So...

PACKER: That is unquestionably true. But the question now is, eight years later, is it simply a matter of let's rectify our mistakes and try to turn back the clock, or have the Afghans themselves grown weary enough of foreign troops that it -- that the openness back -- back then has not...


AMANPOUR: Not according to the polls. Not according to -- not according to all the evidence that some of us get when we go there, and that, I think, is extraordinary.

SCHAMA: What are the polls saying?

AMANPOUR: Well, a lot of the polls say -- and certainly not only anecdotal -- but actually polls say that the majority of the Afghans still want progress, the U.S. and other forces there. They obviously want security, and they obviously don't want civilian casualties. But the great news story seems to be that they still want these forces there, and they want...

PACKER: But, Christiane, the question is -- no, but the question about that is this: Who's being polled? If we're talking about Tajiks and Uzbeks...

SCHAMA: Exactly.

PACKER: ... and people in Kabul, of course.

SCHAMA: Exactly.

AMANPOUR: Yeah, but...

PACKER: What about people in Helmand? What about people in Kandahar? Are they still looking to foreign forces to protect them?


PACKER: Or are -- are they deciding...


PACKER: ... look, the foreign forces aren't doing anything for us, and so we -- we don't want to get caught in the middle of this...


SCHAMA: Well, the issue is whether we've got -- it's always said, the Vietnam analogy is -- is misleading. I actually think by George (ph), as well, it can be misleading. But do we now actually have a Pashto ethnic rebellion on our hands, actually?

AMANPOUR: Well, what...

SCHAMA: Particularly that. That's what the...


AMANPOUR: So here's the question, then. Their -- apparently, their priority is going to be Kandahar. The Wall Street Journal had a wonderful article quoting the British general and the American general both in charge down there talking about ringing Kandahar with steel, pouring in economic and political aid, precisely to arrest the deterioration of Kandahar, which is pivotal to the success or failure of what happens in Afghanistan.

SCHAMA: Whoa, that sounds a little like, "Bring on the Tet offensive," inadvertently to me. You actually box yourself into a corner which you'll then actually...


PACKER: I think that what they're...


SCHAMA: ... the whole time. And we've been just told last week -- or the story in the Times -- about areas in the north, you know, which were supposed to be on the Tajikistan border, supposed to be actually our strongest areas, completely unprotected. It's like smashing a pellet of mercury with a hammer.

PACKER: I think the judgment that they're making is, given the number of troops, given how big Afghanistan is and how dispersed its population is, rather than spread thin in the Karinga Valley (ph) where we really weren't able to do any good anyway, concentrate on the eight cities and use them as laboratories to see if, you know, a civilian surge, if military counterinsurgency well practiced, and if improved performance by the Afghan government begin to turn the tide against the Taliban. And if they don't, then going out into the rural areas of Helmand province isn't going to do it, either.

AMANPOUR: Afghanistan is worth winning, though, isn't it?

PACKER: It's essential, to me. It is essential.

AMANPOUR: And do you believe that, it's worth winning?

SCHAMA: I think -- I think there's -- it'll be a terrifying vacuum if you lose it, in the sense in which we're talking about an enormous geopolitical arc from a very fragile west Pakistan all the way through to Hezbollah Beirut. We've got a serious Islamic crescent...


PACKER: ... I think tomorrow night we're going to be hearing -- and maybe -- maybe more about Pakistan than about Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: What might he say?

PACKER: I think he's going to say that the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Taliban in Pakistan are inseparable, and both of them are inseparable from Al Qaida. It may not have been that way four, five, six years ago, but they've been in that tribal region of western Pakistan long enough that their connections, both strategic, operational, and just moral and ideological are now so deep that you can't fight this insurgency and ignore that one.

And so if we think that the government of Pakistan matters and that it's threatened by its own jihadis, its own homemade jihadis, then we can't ignore Afghanistan, because the two of them are connected.

AMANPOUR: And -- and, finally, they have a little bit of hope, because Pakistan now believes that this is their fight, as well.

SCHAMA: That's the crucial thing. Actually, it will not work unless the Pakistani government is (inaudible) committed. And you bet they'd be horrified if we actually had a timetable for withdrawal. That's their own death warrant.

AMANPOUR: And yet they were very scared even now that the U.S. is just talking a lot and -- and might do what they did in '89...

PACKER: Well, this is a damned if you do...

AMANPOUR: ... pull out and abandon them.

PACKER: ... damned if you don't. If we stay too long, we're imperial occupiers with designs on whatever, the nuclear program, the resources. If we threaten to pull out or if we seem like we're headed for the exits, then we're an unreliable partner.

But, Christiane, this is not different from the March speech. It's the same strategy. I think the difference is, Obama is now going to try to address the real impatience in his own party, the base of his party, by using -- talking about benchmarks, standards of performance by the Afghan government...


SCHAMA: Well, sorry, Barack, you've got to be Abraham Lincoln tomorrow night. You really do.


AMANPOUR: Let's see if he will be.

SCHAMA: You've got to pell (ph) the story beautifully, truthfully, honestly and bravely. You could do that.

AMANPOUR: Thank you very much, indeed, Simon, George. And for more on U.S. military efforts to reach out to a wider world, check out our Web site, where you can see how the U.S. Army is now using a role-playing game trying to attract potential recruits by placing them in virtual combat scenarios.

And coming up, a key concern from Iran. This one has a former Iranian president worried for the future of his country.



AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script."

A troubling view of a future for Iran from a man integral to its past. The former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, like most Iranian leaders, is standing firm on what they call their peaceful nuclear rights. But he is also calling for a more open debate inside Iran, partly, he says, to -- to stem a brain drain.

Rafsanjani cited reports of academic and experts fleeing the country in the wake of this summer's contested elections. The former president, who's allied himself with the opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, said that no one should be afraid of open debate, a veiled reference to the crackdown by the forces allied with President Ahmadinejad.

And that's it for now. Thank you for watching. We'll be back tomorrow with more on the efforts of international civilians to rebuild Afghanistan. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.