ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Our next guest warns against seeing Afghanistan strictly through a military lens. Ahmed Rashid is author of such books as "Taliban" and "Descent Into Chaos." In June in the New York Review of Books, he wrote about more troop increases for Afghanistan as a recipe for disaster. He spoke with us from Madrid via Skype. And I asked Rashid if he found anything at all encouraging in the Trump speech.
AHMED RASHID: Well, I think the biggest factor has been that he remains committed to Afghanistan, an open-ended commitment, which is a very good thing. And I think the Afghans breathed a sigh of relief that he did not take advice of some of his right-wing advisers who wanted him to pull out. That's the first thing. But then when we get to the substance of what he wants to do, frankly, there was very little substance.
He started off by saying no nation building. And there was, you know, all these issues that remain that Afghanistan - the political economic crisis in Kabul, the economic crisis. Will the U.S. continue giving up to 10 billion to 12 billion a year for the budget and for the army? The regional crisis - there was no mention - apart from Pakistan, there was no mention of the interference by many regional countries. For example, not just Pakistan is hosting the Taliban, but so are Iran and Russia.
SIEGEL: Yes. You write of the risk of the government in Kabul collapsing. It's a partnership that was brokered by the U.S. after an election in which each presidential candidate said he was robbed by the other. There are daily protests that you describe in the capital. There have been some big terrorist bombings.
Given that lay of the land in Afghanistan today, is there anything that the U.S. could actually do to make a collapse of the government less likely? Or would the money go straight through the hands of the government into other people's pockets if we spent more on the country?
RASHID: Well, the fact is that, you know, this government in Kabul was actually the brainchild and the creation of Secretary of State John Kerry. He held the hands of the Afghan leaders, and they formed a coalition government. Now, that kind of hand-holding is necessary once again. But we don't have a diplomatic team in the U.S. who could carry that out. There is still no U.S. ambassador in Kabul. So it's very difficult to see how the U.S. is going to move forward on resolving some of these very critical issues quite apart from the war effort.
SIEGEL: Donald Trump was very critical of Pakistan for offering safe haven to terror groups, both Afghan and Pakistani. Can you imagine U.S. pressure or the threat of withholding aid leading the Pakistanis to crack down on, say, the Haqqani network?
RASHID: Well, certainly Pakistan has resisted all attempts so far by the U.S., by former administrations to crack down on the Afghan Taliban who are living in Pakistan, which of course includes the Haqqani network. And certainly Pakistan was expecting pressure again in Trump's speech. But I think what has come as a bit of a shock was President Trump announcing that India is now a strategic partner of the U.S. and inviting India into Afghanistan.
Now, one of the main reasons why Pakistan has hedged its bets and maintained links with the Taliban is because it wants to keep India out of Afghanistan. And here was the U.S. president inviting India into Afghanistan. What people hoped for and expected was that the U.S. would try and broker some kind of talks between India and Pakistan so that they could get over this competition and help the Afghan government defeat the Taliban.
SIEGEL: And when you hear President Trump swear off nation building and say that that's not what the U.S. military is all about, does that strike you as a - well, as a serious negative for Afghanistan? Is it a conceivable positive that without the U.S. there, more homegrown institutions might thrive? What reactions would you have to that?
RASHID: Well, unfortunately, what we've seen in the last two years because Afghanistan was literally abandoned in the last year of the Obama administration and of course we've spent eight, nine months waging for Trump's strategy to emerge - what we've seen is that, you know, institutions have broken down. Things that were doing very well like education, health are being run by the government. So many of them have packed up or have been attacked by the Taliban.
As we know, there have been tens of thousands of educated Afghans who fled Afghanistan last year, abandoning their jobs and, as it were, giving up with Afghanistan. So nation building is as much a message of hope as it is a practical issue. And by saying we are not into nation building, you are denying the Afghans that hope that, you know, their country can improve.
SIEGEL: Journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, thanks a lot for talking with us today.
RASHID: Thank you.
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