U.S. fighting the wrong war

by Brahma Chellaney

The deeper Pakistan has dug itself into a jihadist dungeon over the past decade and more, the more the United States has gotten involved in that country, including in propping up its tottering economy through generous bilateral and international aid, macro-managing Pakistani politics and pampering the powerful, meddling military establishment.

This political approach contrasts starkly with a stepped-up military approach in Afghanistan, where currently the U.S. focus is on a troop “surge” and the establishment of local-level civil militias.

The blunt truth is that the U.S. is fighting the wrong war. As a result, it is in danger of losing the fight against Islamists and transnational terrorists. The real war needs to be fought in Pakistan, in defense of international peace and security.

The 2001 U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan was intended to deny use of that landlocked country’s lawless regions as a base by al-Qaida and other transnational terrorists. To a large extent, that goal has been realized, despite the threat from a resurgent Taliban.

Today, the main base of international terrorists is not Afghanistan, but Pakistan. Support and sustenance for Afghan militants also comes from inside Pakistan. According to Bruce Riedel, the coauthor of U.S. President Barack Obama’s review of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, Pakistan “has more terrorists per square mile than any place else on Earth, and it has a nuclear-weapons program that is growing faster than anyplace else on Earth.”

Yet, while waging war in Afghanistan, the U.S. pursues a dubious political strategy in an increasingly radicalized Pakistan, best illustrated by the new American $7.5 billion aid package to win hearts and minds in a country that now looks like a Molotov cocktail waiting for a match. Even as the U.S. seeks to bribe the Pakistani military to stop providing succor and sanctuary to militants along the Afghan frontier, the major terrorist safe havens remain deep inside Pakistan, not at its borders. The scourge of Pakistani terrorism still emanates not so much from the Islamist mullahs as from military generals who reared the forces of jihad.

The success of the ongoing induction of 21,000 additional American troops in Afghanistan will depend on the battlefield in another country — a battlefield where America’s role is largely political.

It is also apparent that the U.S. military cannot secure a ticket out of Afghanistan without first dismantling the Pakistani military’s sanctuaries and sustenance infrastructure for the Taliban and other Afghan militants.

Yet, Obama has no real strategy to uproot Pakistan’s military-reared terror infrastructure other than to entice the Pakistani Army and intelligence with larger funds and more weapon transfers — inducements that they will gladly grasp, only to continue aiding extremists.

Obama’s Pakistan strategy indeed can be summed up in just four words: More of the same. Actually, it is more of what hasn’t worked in the past. Unsuccessful U.S. policies over the years have helped produce a terrifying mess in Pakistan.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was constrained to admit on May 19 that “our policy toward Pakistan over the last 30 years has been incoherent. I don’t know any other word to use.”

Still, Obama is seeking to replicate the failed approach of the past on a much-bigger scale, as exemplified by his plan to make Pakistan the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world without setting clear benchmarks for judging progress. In fact, his administration has been successful in dissuading Congress thus far from imposing any rigid condition on the new record-level aid for Pakistan, the first $ 2 billion tranche of which already has been cleared for release.

Bountiful U.S. aid indeed permits Pakistan to plow more of its domestic resources into weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as exemplified by the two plutonium-production reactors now under construction at Khushab. Existing WMD in a country teeming with jihadists within and outside the system are a matter of deep global concern; an expanding Pakistani arsenal makes the scenario nightmarish.

Throwing more money at Islamabad, pampering the wielder of real power — the military — and undermining Pakistan’s elected leaders (with Obama publicly excoriating President Asif Ali Zardari’s fledgling government as “very fragile,” ineffectual and unable “to gain the support and loyalty” of the Pakistani people) are examples of why the new administration is offering more of the same in U.S. policy. To persuade the Pakistani military against helping the Taliban and other militants, Washington is paying billions of dollars in additional ransom money, with no assurance that such payouts will make any difference.

How can Pakistan become a “normal” state if U.S. policy does not seek to make its military, intelligence and nuclear establishments accountable to the elected government? Indeed, as long as the decisive power continues with the military, and the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency remains “a state within the state,” Pakistan is likely to stay a common thread in the investigations of most acts of international terrorism.

Yet the Obama strategy relies on these very institutions for gains on the Afghan battlefield. By publicizing his intent to exit Afghanistan, Obama, however, has ensured that U.S. forces will get no genuine cooperation from the Pakistani Army and ISI. Now these two institutions and their progeny, the Taliban, will prefer to just wait out the Americans to reclaim Afghanistan.

It is past time Washington began squeezing the Pakistani military establishment and actively assisting the country’s elected leaders to assume full powers and undo policies and mind-sets deeply implanted by a succession of military rulers. The civilian government today takes all the blame but does not have the power to deliver.

The emergence of a fully empowered civilian government and a robust civil society will foster democracy, marginalize radicals and bring Pakistan back from the brink.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”