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Former U.N. Diplomat Argues U.S. Strategy In Afghanistan Was Deeply Flawed


The collapse of Afghanistan's government and the Taliban's takeover of the country may have caught U.S. leaders unaware. But for many Americans who've lived and worked in Afghanistan, the country's instability was not a surprise. Ambassador Peter Galbraith was the U.N.'s No. 2 official in Afghanistan in 2009, and he joins us now.


PETER GALBRAITH: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the collapse of Afghanistan's government and military were inevitable?

GALBRAITH: Certainly, having seen what happened over the 10 days leading up to the fall of Kabul, the answer has to be yes. I mean, I first visited Afghanistan on February 14, 1989 with the Mujahideen, and that was actually the day that the Soviets finished their withdrawal. The Soviet-installed government lasted another three years. It actually outlasted the Soviet Union itself, whereas the American-sponsored government, after up to $2 trillion, 2,500 American casualties, didn't even last till the August 31 date for the final American withdrawal. So I think it's impossible to argue that, given the strategy we followed for 20 years, that there could have been a different result.

SHAPIRO: Well, talk about that. What kind of a strategy do you think might have led to a different result?

GALBRAITH: So if you look at the places where the United States has intervened successfully - Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999 - in those cases, the U.S. intervened on behalf of a local party - the Bosnian government, the Kosovars - to accomplish their objectives. But in Afghanistan in 2001, we began that way. We intervened with the Northern Alliance to help the Northern Alliance accomplish its objective, which was to oust the Taliban and to retake Kabul. And then having done that, we changed our objective into an exercise in nation-building in a country that was geographically and ethnically very diverse. And within Kabul, all power was concentrated in the hands of a president. Well, when you have many ethnic groups, the president can only be from one of them.

SHAPIRO: And let's talk about the election of that president. One of your tasks in 2009 was to oversee Afghanistan's presidential election, and you and other international observers say there was widespread fraud. Your highlighting that fraud led to your recall. In your view, how did that flawed election plant the seeds for what we're seeing in Afghanistan today?

GALBRAITH: The problem is that already, you had a government in Kabul that was corrupt and ineffective. Then you have a fraudulent election, and it's then seen as illegitimate. The elections - the fraud was organized by Hamid Karzai. He had appointed all the members of the Independent Election Commission, and they were the ones who carried out the fraud. And the trouble is when you come to office as a result of a stolen election, then it's impossible for you to crack down on the people who stole the election for you. And that's basically what happened in Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: You're pointing out political problems that might have been unsolvable. But talk about the military piece of this. How do you evaluate the way the U.S. military did its mission of counterinsurgency and training Afghan forces? Was this always just an effort to buy time?

GALBRAITH: Well, counterinsurgency has four elements - clear, hold, govern and build. So the NATO forces could clear an area, as in Helmand Province. But then the problem was that NATO could clear an area. But there was never an Afghan security force that was capable of holding the areas. And there was certainly no honest administration to administer the area, and therefore, people didn't see their lives getting better. The core element of a counterinsurgency, which is you win over the population - that never happened. And it never happened because of the corruption and the sense that the government itself was illegitimate.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Peter Galbraith is the former deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan.

Thank you very much.

GALBRAITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.