Key to Afghanistan: Pakistan
Washington Times, February 1, 2009
President Barack Obama has done well to appoint a special representative to the two interlinked countries that he says constitute "the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism" — Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistani-Afghan belt has turned into a festering threat to international peace and security, and Richard Holbrooke has described his new role as a "very difficult assignment."
Mr. Obama is right to emphasize an integrated U.S. strategy toward those two countries. But even as he has embarked on some major steps, his strategy has yet to signal a meaningful integration. While pursuing a "surge" of U.S. forces in Afghanistan without clarity on the precise nature and length of the military mission, Mr. Obama is seeking to do, albeit in more subtle ways, what U.S. policy has traditionally done — prop up the Pakistani state.
Mr. 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, Mr. 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 3 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 latest surge, oddly, is intended for a nonmilitary mission – to strike a political deal with the Taliban from a position of strength. That is why Defense Secretary Robert Gates, scaling down U.S. objectives he said were "too broad and too far into the future," told Congress this week there was not enough "time, patience or money" to pursue ambitious goals in Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama, ironically, has set out to do in Afghanistan what his predecessor did in Iraq, where a surge of U.S. troops was used largely as a show of force to buy off Sunni leaders and other local chieftains. But Iraq-style payoffs have little chance of creating a stable, more peaceful Afghanistan, a tribal society without the literacy level and middle class of Iraq.
Mr. 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. Proceeds from the $300-million-a-year drug trade, routed through Pakistani territory, fund the Taliban and several Pakistan-based terror groups.
When the newly elected Pakistani government attempted last July to bring the ISI under civilian oversight, Washington did not come to its support, thus allowing the army to frustrate that move. Similarly, despite the risk that Pakistan could slide from narco-terrorism to nuclear terrorism, Washington prefers continued military control over the Pakistani nuclear arsenal through the National Command Authority because the general who heads that body is vetted by the Pentagon and CIA.
Still, some delicate shifts in U.S. policy are now under way. For one, the new administration, in keeping with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pledge during her Senate confirmation hearing, has set out to "condition" future U.S. military aid to concrete Pakistani steps to evict foreign fighters and shut down al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries. For another, the United States is to unveil a huge jump in nonmilitary aid to Islamabad under the pending bill, the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, which Mr. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Mrs. Clinton co-sponsored last July with eight other senators.
But given the troop surge, the new land-transit deals with Russia and Central Asian states will not significantly cut America’s logistics dependence on Pakistan, which also provides intelligence to the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Pakistani generals haughtily believe the United States needs them more than Pakistan needs America.
Indeed, it would be naive to expect the Pakistani army and ISI to be brought to heel through a mere restructuring of the U.S. aid program. For the Pakistani military, the Taliban and other militant groups remain not just useful surrogates, but force multipliers vis-a-vis Afghanistan and India.
At a time when Pakistan’s solvency depends on continued U.S. aid and an American-backed multilateral credit line, Washington has greater leverage than ever. Yet, greater U.S. largess to help stabilize Pakistan is to run parallel to the surge-and-bribe endeavor in Afghanistan, with greenbacks serving as a common lubricant. The strategy suggests the United States is now seeking not to defeat but to contain terrorism in the region.
Without a fundamental break from failed U.S. policies and recognition that the path to success in Afghanistan lies through Pakistan, Mr. Holbrooke’s "very difficult assignment" will end in failure, even as the surge deepens the military quagmire in Afghanistan.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan."