Debating Rubin and Rashid

by Joshua Foust on 10/15/2008 · 6 comments

Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid have co-authored an essay in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs (not online yet). It is absolutely esential reading: unlike the vast majority of analysis on the topic (with the notable exception of Anthony Cordesman of CSIS), it is measured, rational, and compelling—especially considering the expertise of each. I’m curious about a few things with it, however, so this deserves a longer discussion.

For starters, a contrast. In an essay called, “What Has Moscow Done,” about the Russo-Georgia War, Columbia University’s Stephen Sestanovich notes:

Whenever U.S. foreign policy faces a major failure, so-called realist commentators come forward to suggest a way ot, usually by recalibrating ends and means and rethinking national priorities… This “let’s make a deal” approach to diplomacy has a tempting simplicity to it. And (because this is the role realism usually plays in U.S. foreign policy debates) it will surely force U.S. decision-makers to think harder about the ends they seek, by what means they should pursue them, and at what cost. Even so, it is not likely to be the strategy the next U.S. administration adopts. Diplomats are widely thought to be negotiating such deals all the time, but it is in fact very rare that any large problem is solved because representatives of two great powers trade completely unrelated assets. These “grand bargains” favored by amateur diplomats are almost never consummated.

Sestanovich, who spent several years as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for the FSU, also highlights the assumptions behind such thinking, namely about the flexibility of the other party’s policy. While he was discussing Russia, it is a principle that applies in general: it is wonderful to talk about grand bargains and compromise, but that really only works so long as the other party believes in a positive-sum outcome as well: if it is zero-sum, then there must be a great deal of work beforehand to shape the outcome.

I bring this up because Rubin and Rashid’s essay is called “From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In the same issue. But, they make really strong points about the region:

  • Much of Pakistan operates under a “sense of siege” driven both by India’s aggressive diplomatic push into Afghanistan, and also cross-border attacks in territory long claimed by Afghanistan.
  • U.S. policy is paralyzed by the political baggage of the GWoT.
  • The West badly overestimates Afghanistan’s ability to secure itself (i.e. the total annual cost of the ANSF will fall short of the government’s total budget by about $1 billion in 2013).
  • The Durand Line drives a significant amount of the conflict.
  • Afghanistan will never be at peace so long as Pakistan is obsessed with India.
  • The Taliban must be distinguished from al-Qaeda.
  • Pursuing discussions, and being prepared to compromise on objectives that might not be vital, can produce the calm needed for permanent development to take place.

I am hopelessly simplifying this (seriously, go grab a copy off the shelves if you don’t subscribe). But I am curious:

  • What evidence do Rubin and Rashid have that the initial overtures by some Taliban members to the GIRoA and New York Times are genuine? Maulana Fazlur Rahman doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation as an honest broker—how can we be sure his bargain (voting rights as a party in exchange for not being called a terrorist) is brokered honestly?
  • While speaking in grand ideas is wonderful, the devil, as they say, is in the details. The details of the security guarantees, amnesty, U.S. presence, the terms under which somehow talking will legitimate the Durand Line—all of these are relatively minor, but will determine the success of any talks.
  • These UNSC-approved contact groups sound suspiciously like the envoys of the 1990s. How can they be more effective at forcing a permanent solution to the Kashmir crisis than the other multilateral and parallel bilateral diplomatic campaigns that have failed?
  • If the contact group is to assure Pakistan of its territorial integrity, how will it ever get Afghanistan to relent on its claim to Pakistani territory in the FATA and stop launching wars over it?
  • Rubin and Rashid are absolutely right that the FATA must be politically connected to a state, at least according to recent surveys. How could this contact group bring about such a fundamental change in Pakistan’s political and institutional make up?
  • They are absolutely right that a major diplomatic push needs to happen, and it needs to be coordinated region-wide and focused on long term solutions. While including China, Iran, and Russia is nice, there is no precedent for hoping that such talks will bear results acceptable to the West in general and the U.S. in particular. Should the U.S. consent to Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for cooperation on Afghanistan? Should the U.S. scuttle the India nuclear deal to reduce pressure on the Pakistani government? Should the U.S. agree never to influence Central Asia so Russia takes a more active role in securing Afghanistan, and should we assume Russia’s presence will be accepted?

I really don’t have answers to these. Rubin and Rashid are right to bring them up, because discussing them—pros and cons alike—will help us all get a better understanding of what and how we can do better in the area. I haven’t settled my mind on any of this yet, either: these are questions only. I don’t even know if they’re good ones.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this: are Rubin and Rashid off the reservation? Or are they in front of the cutting edge, looking for radical new solutions to replace our current failing ones?


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 6 comments }

Graham Marley October 15, 2008 at 8:24 pm

Josh, this comment is more inquiry than opinion, as I’m not nearly well versed enough of any of this, but would love to hear your thoughts.

I can’t help wondering, with so many things going on at once, do these points brought up rely on some “dust settling” to take place before they can be explored with a little less speculation? I think it’s at least noteworthy that while the Pakistani government is undergoing changes, the U.S. is also in an election process. Until both governments fall into stride with their changes in of themselves, predicting how the two will interface is way beyond my foresight. I’m biting my tongue here, because I know the rules here on presidential politics, but I think you know what I’m driving at.

Laurence October 17, 2008 at 5:06 am

Barnett Rubin was an author of “Calming the Ferghana Valley”–a US policy paper that recommended strategies eventually leading to the Andijan violence of 2005, IMHO (though I’m sure he and his co-authors would deny any responsibility). Rashid likewise has a better track record describing the horrors of the Taliban than forecasting, as far as I can tell.

Therefore, I’d be interested in what the experts who read Registan have to say about their Foreign Affairs article. Josh is certainly right to raise questions. Based on past experience, I would take anything either of them has to say with a grain of salt…I’m glad Josh is raising this issue.

Joshua Foust October 17, 2008 at 6:20 am

For the record, I reject any association of culpability with the Rubin-Lubin report, even if (at the time) he had adopted a rather Murray-ian approach to the subject.

I raise questions here because I think it’s important to be thinking about ways of engaging Afghanistan and Pakistan to end the crisis there, but I don’t know how. I don’t see how their plan would work, but it might, and THAT conversation needs to happen. That is why I raise questions.

But Laurence, you will not use this comment thread as a referendum on either. Like them or not, they carry a tremendous amount of influence — debating the merits of their ideas is far more constructive than resorting to ad hominem attacks and poisoning the well.

laurence October 17, 2008 at 3:27 pm

Josh, I don’t think a reference to a track record is an ad hominem attack. If a batter bats 100, he’s not as good as one who bats 300. That’s not personal, it’s empirical. How credible is the source? How realistic are the forecasts? And if forecasts are wrong, maybe the theoretical approaches are flawed, or the analyst is missing something, likewise not a personal attack. Personally, I think there needs to be more scrutiny of the work of people like Rubin (and Lubin). If the influence is based on erroneous assumptions–well, maybe they shouldn’t have more influence?

Nothing personal.

And I’m crediting you with raising important issues because it is now some eight years after 9/11 and everything is going downhill–yet your voice has been one of sanity, of raising important questions, not culpability for anything…at a time when others were just repeating the conventional wisdom…

Joshua Foust October 18, 2008 at 9:50 pm

Laurence, fair enough, but in your first comment you practically blamed Rubin for Andijon. That is ridiculous. Either prove causation, or don’t poison the well.

There are many things to discuss in the Rubin/Rashid paper (Rashid tends to be breathless, I agree). Rubin’s secret culpability for the massacre of 750 people, however, is not.

JustPlainDave October 22, 2008 at 1:24 pm

The Rubin and Rashid paper is now up on the Foreign Affairs website: here.

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