U.S. President Barack Obama is right to talk about “the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan” and the need to evolve an integrated U.S. strategy toward these two closely tied countries. But even as he has embarked on some major steps, his evolving strategy does not suggest a meaningful integration.
While pursuing a large “surge” of U.S. forces in Afghanistan without clarity on the precise nature and length of the military mission, Obama is seeking to do, albeit in more subtle ways, what U.S. policy has traditionally done vis-a-vis Pakistan — prop up that state.
Obama’s priority is to prevent Pakistan’s financial collapse while getting the Pakistani military to break its close nexus with the Taliban. Toward that end, Obama is set to more than triple nonmilitary aid to a near-bankrupt Pakistan, already one of the three largest recipients of U.S. assistance, but with the military aid currently being three times larger than the economic aid.
Sending 30,000 more U.S. forces into Afghanistan is a losing strategy. In fact, Taliban attacks escalated last year, even as the number of NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan nearly doubled in the first half of 2008. The Soviet Union, with more than 100,000 troops, couldn’t pacify that country, whose mountainous terrain and entrenched antipathy to foreign intervention have historically made it “the graveyard of empires.”
More troubling is the fact that Obama’s planned near-doubling of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by summer to almost 64,000 is intended for a nonmilitary mission — to strike a political deal with the Taliban from a position of strength.
All in all, Obama’s strategy on Pakistan and Afghanistan signals subtle shifts but no fundamental break with failed U.S. policies, thus raising the specter of regional and international security coming under greater pressure.
Ironically, Obama has set out to do in Afghanistan what his much-despised predecessor did in Iraq, where a surge of U.S. troops was used largely as a show of force to buy off Sunni tribal leaders and other local chieftains. But Iraq-style payoffs have little chance of creating a stable, more peaceful Afghanistan, even if deals struck with local Taliban commanders yield short-term gains in assorted territorial pockets.
Unlike Iraq, which has had a middle class and a high level of literacy, Afghanistan is still basically a tribal society and plagued by corruption.
Obama needs to face up to a stark truth: The war in Afghanistan can only be won in Pakistan, whose military establishment fathered the Taliban and still provides sanctuary, intelligence and material support to that Islamist militia.
In fact, the Pakistani military, through its infamous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, has exploited Afghanistan’s special status as the global poppy hub to fashion the instrument of narco-terrorism. An estimated 92 percent of the world’s opium supply is from Afghanistan.
Proceeds from the $300-million-a-year drug trade, routed through Pakistani territory, fund the Taliban and several Pakistan-based terror groups, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-i-Muhammad, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Maktab al-Khidamat and Hizb ul-Tahrir.
Pakistan is also the main sanctuary of al-Qaida. But while Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders operate out of mountain caves along Pakistan’s Afghan border, the presence of the Taliban and other Pakistani military-nurtured militants is more open on Pakistani soil.
As U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry stated, “a single country has become ground zero for the terrorist threat we face. The consensus among our intelligence agencies is that top al-Qaida leaders are plotting their next attack from Pakistan, where the prevalence of religious extremists and nuclear weapons make that country the central, crucial front in our struggle to protect America from terrorism.”
Unless its jihad culture is unraveled, there is a potent risk of Pakistan sliding from narco-terrorism to nuclear terrorism. Diminishing that risk demands that the fledgling Pakistani civilian government be encouraged by the U.S. to assert control over the military, intelligence and nuclear establishments. A.Q. Khan, who masterminded an international nuclear-smuggling ring for 16 long years with military connivance, including the provision of military transport aircraft, has still not been allowed to be questioned by international investigators.
To be sure, Obama identified Pakistan as the critical front 15 months ago when he publicly advocated direct U.S. action there, including hot pursuit from Afghanistan into Pakistani territory, if Pakistani security forces failed to play their role. It is thus little surprise that as president, Obama has continued one of the Bush administration policies: allowing CIA missile strikes on terrorist hideouts in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
But it will be difficult for Obama to reverse the long-standing U.S. policy of building up the Pakistani military as that country’s pivot. Since the time Pakistan was co-opted into the U.S.-led Cold War military alliances like CENTO and SEATO in the 1950s, successive U.S. administrations have valued the Pakistani military for promotion of regional interests, to the extent that the CIA helped train and fatten the ISI. CIA-ISI ties are still cozy.
Tellingly, when the Pakistani government attempted in July to bring the ISI under civilian control, Washington did not come to its support, thus allowing the army to frustrate that move. Instead, the U.S. has tried to convey that the ISI is in the midst of being revamped and that its ranks are being purged of jihadists — a story Washington has repeated almost every year or two since 9/11.
Similarly, Washington seems to prefer the present military control over the Pakistani nuclear arsenal through the National Command Authority (NCA) because the general who heads it is vetted by the Pentagon and CIA. Still, some shifts in U.S. policy are now under way. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged during her Senate confirmation hearing that the new administration would “condition” future U.S. military aid to concrete Pakistani steps to evict foreign fighters and shut down the Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries. She also warned that those in Pakistan who refuse to fall in line would pay a price.
In fact, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Clinton, as senators, had sponsored a bill in July that proposed that more U.S. aid be channeled to Pakistan for humanitarian and development needs, including the promotion of political pluralism, the rule of law, human and civil rights, education, public health and agriculture. The bill also sought to tie future U.S. weapons sales to a certification by the secretary of state to Congress that the Pakistani military was making “concerted efforts” to undermine al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The Obama administration is now pushing for the early passage of that still-pending bill, the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act. But it will be naive to expect the Pakistani military to be brought to heel through a restructuring of the aid program alone. For the military, the Taliban and other militant groups remain useful surrogates.
Also, the U.S. conditions being introduced relate principally to Pakistani cooperation on the western frontier. That could leave the Pakistani military to continue its long-running asymmetrical warfare on the east against India. The U.S. has sought to reduce its logistics dependence on the Pakistani military. But given the troop surge, the new land-transit deals with Russia and Central Asian states will not significantly cut America’s dependence on Pakistan, through which three-quarters of U.S. war supplies go to Afghanistan.
More fundamentally, there is no indication Obama intends to abandon the long-standing U.S. pampering of the Pakistani military.
While championing a huge increase in nonmilitary assistance to Pakistan, he has thus far signaled no intent to slash the generous military aid flow other than to tie it to specific goals. Also, his administration is still not clear whether Afghanistan or Pakistan should be its priority No. 1.
Biden, an early supporter of a surge in Afghanistan, has contended for a year now that the U.S. must focus on securing Afghanistan because “if Afghanistan fails, Pakistan could follow.” He is wrong.
With the U.S. military intervention now more than seven years old, the time when a surge could work has already passed. More importantly, the U.S. can never win in Afghanistan without first dismantling the Pakistani military’s sanctuaries and sustenance infrastructure for the Taliban. But the real problem is not at the Pakistani frontiers with Afghanistan (and India). Rather it is the sanctuaries deep inside Pakistan that continue to breed extremism and export terrorism.
Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s newly appointed “special representative” to Afghanistan, warned in a March 2008 Op-Ed that: “The conflict in Afghanistan will be far more costly and much, much longer than Americans realize. This war, already in its seventh year, will eventually become the longest in American history, surpassing even Vietnam.”
He went on to ask: “Will short-term success create a long-term trap for the United States and its allies, as the war becomes the longest in American history?”
But the analysis also underlined his mistaken belief that the Afghanistan conflict is rooted entirely in internal factors: Massive, “officially sanctioned corruption and the drug trade are the most serious problems the country faces, and they offer the Taliban its only exploitable opportunity to gain support.”
The U.S. military cannot directly achieve in Afghanistan what high-pressure American diplomacy can deliver on that front through Pakistan. As Bush administration national security adviser Stephen Hadley pointed out days before Obama assumed the presidency, “You can’t really solve Afghanistan without solving Pakistan.” Even Kerry, after returning from a January tour of the region with Biden, has acknowledged that “Pakistan is the strategic center of gravity for defeating insurgents in Afghanistan.”
At a time when Pakistan’s solvency depends on continued U.S. aid flow as well as on American support for securing international credit extending beyond the recent $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund bailout package, Washington has greater leverage than ever before.
Without a fundamental shift in U.S. policy on Pakistan and recognition in Washington that the path to success in Afghanistan lies through Pakistan, Holbrooke’s very difficult assignment will end in failure, even as the troop surge deepens the military quagmire in Afghanistan.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.