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CFR’s Max Boot on Afghanistan, Israel/Iran and Pakistan

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HH: We first go to foreign affairs with Max Boot from the Council On Foreign Relations. Max, welcome back, always a pleasure to speak with you.

MB: Thanks for having me again.

HH: Let’s start with President Obama’s Afghanistan policy, and what do you assess it as?

MB: I think it was pretty good. I mean, I think it was basically what those of us who are supporters of the war were looking for, which is a real commitment and not just a focused counterterrorism commitment to pinging individual bad guys, but a larger commitment to getting Afghanistan on its feet and creating basic conditions of security, which is the only way we’re going to keep it from becoming a haven for the Taliban or al Qaeda in the future.

HH: Now Max Boot, the country’s half again as big as Iraq, and a third of its economy or GDP comes from heroin, much more tribalistic, many more languages, much more difficult. Do you think 60,000 troops are enough?

MB: Well, keep in mind that yes, everything you said is true, but it’s also true that the insurgency there is much less threatening than it was in Iraq, has much less support. Even though the level of violence has been going up in Afghanistan, it’s still 16 times lower than it was in Iraq in 2006 before the surge. It’s 1/16th what it was in Iraq. And I saw that for myself when I visited there recently. You know, Kabul is pretty safe in a way that Baghdad is only now becoming relatively safe. It’s not as bad as Iraq was, so I think we have a good opportunity to turn it around. I think the number of troops he’s sending is a good start. We may need a little bit more. We’re not going to need as much as we needed in Iraq, but I think if we have some determination and we use the troops that we sent wisely, we can begin to reverse a lot of the losses that we’ve been taking in the last few years.

HH: Max Boot, I linked your Weekly Standard piece on the trip to Kabul, et cetera, but tell the audience just what the look and feel of the city was.

MB: Well, Kabul is really flourishing. I mean, it’s really striking to me the difference with Baghdad, which up until fairly recently was really a city under siege, and in early 2007, whole quarters of Baghdad were deserted. There were people…people were not out in the streets because they were afraid. The city was really ruled by rival militias, which had taken deep root in the Sunni and Shia communities. There’s nothing like that in Kabul. I mean, the streets are full of pedestrians and motorists. It’s flourishing. Entire weeks go by without attacks. I mean, I was at the NATO headquarters in the middle of Kabul, and I said hey, how often do you get rocketed here, because you know in Baghdad, in the Green Zone, they were getting rocketed almost every day for years. And in Kabul, they told me we haven’t had a rocket in months. We can’t even remember the last one. So it’s just a totally different threat level.

HH: Knock on wood on that. Now in terms of our allies’ commitment to Afghanistan, some concern that it’s beginning to slip. What do you think?

MB: There’s no question, but it wasn’t that high to begin with most of our allies. I mean, the Brits and the Canadians and the Aussies are doing a good job, and they’re really fighting, and so are the Poles and the French. But most of them are not willing to fight, and so waiting commitment on the part of the Germans, for example, is not going to make much difference to the outcome. I mean, we sort of fooled ourselves into thinking that oh, NATO has this mission, and the reality is NATO is not capable of running a war. It’s too unwieldy for that. So we really have to rely on what is essentially a coalition of the willing under another name, and that means more American effort and more British effort, and Canadian and a few others. We’re going to have to do the bulk of the war fighting ourselves, I’m afraid.

HH: I’m talking with Max Boot from the Council On Foreign Relations, author extraordinaire. All of his books are at Max, in terms of the relationship between General Petraeus and President Obama, how do you assess it from the distance from which you must assess it from?

MB: I think it’s pretty good. I mean, I think General Petraeus has worked very closely with Dick Holbrooke in formulating a new strategy which is essentially adapted for the conditions of Afghanistan, but it’s in many respects similar to the basic tenets of counterinsurgency that he implemented in Iraq. And there was in fact, you know, those of us who watch Afghanistan closely were looking to see which way the administration would come down, because a lot of folks in the administration like Joe Biden favored a more focused counterterrorism strategy, which meant less of a commitment, and just focused on killing bad guys. And I don’t think that would work. And General Petraeus doesn’t think it would work, and I don’t think Dick Holbrooke thinks it would work. And now I think President Obama doesn’t think it would work, because he’s basically signed off on the Petraeus plan for Afghanistan.

HH: Now let’s turn to Iran, Max Boot. Prime Minister Netanyahu has given a very tough interview to Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, I’m sure you’ve read it.

MB: Right.

HH: What do you think of that? Is that an attempt to get us into the game? Or an attempt to tell us we don’t have to get into the game?

MB: Well, the Israelis keep talking tough about Iran, and keep talking tough about making statements about how concerned they are about Iran going nuclear, and suggesting they may have to do something about it. And I completely agree with all that. But at some point, you know, they either have to act or shut up. And it’s not clear that they’ve made a decision to act, and I think what they’ve been trying to do is to pressure the United States and other Western allies into dealing with Iran ourselves. And unfortunately, that hasn’t had much of a payoff. I mean, I think the Bush strategy on Iran was pretty weak, and I don’t see any evidence that the Obama strategy’s going to be any more successful. So ultimately, at the end of the day, I think if Israel does not want Iran to go nuclear, pretty soon it’s going to have to bomb.

HH: Do you expect that’s going to happen?

MB: I don’t know, but I don’t think anything short of that is going to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

HH: I agree with that, and as a result, I think Netanyahu is pretty much committed to it. I don’t know how he can be prime minister if he doesn’t do it, given how he campaigned, and given what he said. He’d be revealed as a paper tiger, wouldn’t he?

MB: I think you’re probably right. I mean, a lot of it really turns on their capabilities for the Israeli Air Force, and also crucially their targeting intelligence, because you know, if they can knock the Iranian nuclear program out of action for six months, that’s not worth a high risk strike. But if they can knock it out for six years, then it’s worthwhile. So they have to conduct those assessments on their own, and it’s hard to say from the outside what the conditions are.

HH: Do you think they’ll try and do more than just hit the facilities? Will they attempt regime change by decapitation?

MB: I don’t think they can do that, and I don’t think they would do that.

HH: All right, let’s turn to North Korea, about to launch its missile. What’s your advice to President Obama?

MB: Well, try not to repeat the same failed policy which President Clinton pursued and then which President Bush repudiated and then wound up pursuing in the last years of his administration, which is a policy of essentially trying to bribe the North Koreans into giving up their nuclear program without real sticks to make them go along. And the result of that has been that the North Koreans consistently renege on their commitments, and keep their nuclear and ballistic missile programs going, because they know that those are the only assets they have, and the only way that they can blackmail the West into supporting their regime.

HH: But does that mean shoot it down?

MB: I don’t know. I mean, it really depends on where they’re aiming it, and what the trajectory is. And I mean, if it’s straight up over North Korean territory, I don’t know that we would shoot it down. But you know, if it’s heading for Japan, then yeah, I think we should certainly think about shooting it down.

HH: And in terms of, one quick question, we’re almost out of time, I put this too late, the Swat Valley Accord, Max Boot, where the Pakistanis have done a deal with the Taliban. Good news or bad news for the world?

MB: Oh, it’s disastrous, no question about it. But we can’t say that we’re going to paralyze ourselves in Afghanistan because of these terrible things happening in Pakistan. I think we have to renew our commitment in Afghanistan, try to stabilize Afghanistan, and then use that as a base from which we can try to stabilize Western Pakistan. I don’t think we have any other choice.

HH: Max Boot from the Council On Foreign Relations, always a pleasure, thank you, Max.

End of interview.


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