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Special Guest: Paul Bremer on Afghanistan and the Future of Europe

March 18th, 2010
Paul Bremer and Colin Powell in 2003 (Defense Dept))

Paul Bremer and Colin Powell in 2003 (Defense Dept)

Paul Bremer led the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. He previously served as chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism, ambassador-at-large for counterrorism, and ambassador to the Netherlands. He joins Bellum for an extended discussion on the war in Afghanistan, the clash of civilizations, and the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

1. Many policy experts, like Ralph Peters, Kori Schake, and others, are voicing grave concerns about continuing the project in Afghanistan. Some have called for a counterterrorism strategy—drones, special forces, etc.—instead of a counterinsurgency strategy—heavy footprint, long-term presence, etc. What are your views on this debate? On our prospects in Afghanistan? On President Obama’s Afghan policy thus far?

Afghanistan was always going to be a more difficult case than Iraq. On every important metric, the situation there is more challenging: In Iraq, 70% of the population is urban; in Afghanistan only 30%.  Iraq has long had one of the region’s largest and best educated middle classes. Iraq’s literacy rate is above 75%; in Afghanistan it is only 30%.  Iraq benefits from important natural resources—water, arable land, oil and gas.  Afghanistan is still largely agricultural.  The Afghans have no historic experience with centralized rule; Mesopotamia has been ruled from Baghdad for millennia.

The Obama administration, after considerable internal debate, has arrived at a reasonable policy for defeating the extremists in Afghanistan. The key to securing the country is securing the South, particularly the Southeast. And the key to securing the Southeast is defeating the Taliban.  The President deserves credit for deciding to replicate President Bush’s Iraq strategy by sending more troops to the fight in Afghanistan. He has been less successful in persuading our NATO allies to contribute more troops to the effort. It was a mistake to tie the surge to a self-imposed deadline for the withdrawal of the additional troops. That only encourages our enemies to outwait us.

The struggle for a secure Afghanistan will be measured in years, not months. The US government needs continually to make the stakes and the difficulties clear to the American public.

2. It has become almost a cliche to speak of a Europe at the crossroads. On the one hand, some like Pope Benedict argue that Europeans have forgotten their heritage—Western Civilization , Christianity, etc. On the other, some like the late Samuel Huntington speak of Europe as a continent on the fault-lines of a great clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. As the former ambassador to the Netherlands, a country that has certainly been in the news in recent years with respect to its large Muslim population and the associated culture clash, and as a counterterrorism expert with a great deal of experience with radical Islam, what are your views on Europe today? What are the ramifications for the trans-Atlantic alliance?

Both the Pope and Huntington are correct.  It is a fact of history that Europe is based on Judeo-Christian values. But Europe seems unwilling, or perhaps afraid, to acknowledge this reality. European bureaucrats omitted any reference to it in their draft “constitution,” reflecting a willful disregard for the continent’s intellectual, moral and spiritual roots.

Meanwhile, many Europeans are proud that they are evolving into a “post-sovereignty world,” one in which the nation state disappears and citizens are called upon to shift their allegiance to the ephemeral “Union.” Not surprisingly, almost all European nations have substantially reduced defense spending.  If you don’t know what you stand for, you cannot easily figure out how to defend it.

European countries have a large, and in most places, growing Muslim population. The vast majority of these men and women are not terrorists.  But as events have shown, there are among them extremists who reject everything the West and Europe stand for—the separation of Church and State, universal suffrage, women’s education, free trade unions, a free press.  And especially democracy which the extremists such as Al Qaeda define as “a new religion that must be destroyed by war.”

Europe also faces a demographic time bomb. The population of every major European country is falling.  This will place unsustainable burdens on the elaborate and expensive welfare programs built up over the decades. As the Muslim populations grow in proportion to overall populations, it is vital that Europe find a way to integrate peaceful Muslims while defeating extremists.

For all of these reasons, the Atlantic Alliance, so long the keystone to American and Western security, will find itself under significant strain in the years ahead.

3. Are there any big themes with respect to international security affairs that you see as important going forward—important issues that people aren’t talking about, angles that are unexplored?

The impact of demographics on the world power structure has been very lightly addressed.  Yet it is perhaps the most significant world trend today and one that will largely determine the balance of power by mid-century.

Tristan Abbey Q&A

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