Huffpost WorldPost
Russ Feingold Headshot

First, Do What We Must in Pakistan

Posted: Updated:

President Obama's strategy review for Afghanistan and Pakistan, unveiled last week, finally focuses the government's attention and resources where they are most needed. After years of our country being bogged down in Iraq, the president recognizes that the key to our national security is defeating al Qaeda, and that to do so we must address both Pakistan and Afghanistan. But while the president clearly understands that the greatest threat to our nation resides in Pakistan, his new strategy has the potential to escalate, rather than diminish this threat.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. made the right choice to invade Afghanistan because it was from there that our nation was attacked. Our brave troops successfully toppled the Taliban, but the Bush administration soon turned its attention elsewhere. Distracted by Iraq, that administration allowed efforts in Afghanistan to languish while al Qaeda and Taliban leaders found safe haven in the western part of Pakistan. As a result, al Qaeda has reconstituted and strengthened itself while the Taliban, operating relatively freely in Pakistan, launches cross border attacks into Afghanistan, including lethal attacks on Americans.

The Obama administration's plan and rhetoric recognize the vital need to confront this threat. However, the decision to send 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan -- and possibly an additional 10,000 troops next year -- before fully confronting the terrorist safe havens and instability in Pakistan could very well prove ineffective, or worse, counterproductive. So long as the Taliban can flee into Pakistan and operate from there with relative ease, any gains against them in Afghanistan may well be temporary at best. Meanwhile, our troops would be threatened by forces who are largely beyond their reach, in Pakistan, while our increased military presence in Afghanistan could stoke resentment among the Afghan people.

In addition, and perhaps even more troubling, increased military engagement against the Taliban in Afghanistan could push it further into Pakistan while worsening the militant extremism that has spread to more and more parts of Pakistan. New Taliban safe havens could emerge from which attacks in Afghanistan or Pakistan, like recent bombings in the Khyber Pass and Lahore, could be planned. More Pakistanis could fall under the control of those who would violate basic human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls. Already weak government institutions could deteriorate further, undermining the legitimacy of the Pakistani state. And a country with nuclear weapons could be dangerously destabilized.

President Obama has stated clearly that we cannot prevail in Afghanistan without addressing Pakistan -- but that recognition alone is not enough. Before deciding to send more troops to Afghanistan, we should be ratcheting up the pressure on Pakistani leaders to curb militant extremism. The Pakistani government must not sit idly by as the Taliban and other militants operate freely, in some cases with the support of individuals in the government. Increasing U.S. assistance to Pakistan is an important step, as is the insistence that it be conditioned on a commitment to confronting al Qaeda and the Taliban, but we must be explicit about the serious consequences if this commitment is not met. We can't walk away from Pakistan altogether or abandon those fighting alongside us against this threat. At the same time, we must not turn a blind eye to those in the government who tolerate and support militant extremism and whose actions threaten Americans and Pakistanis alike.

We also need to push Pakistan to make democratic reforms because, until it does so, it is unlikely to be a true partner in fighting extremism -- no matter how much assistance we provide. An effective, responsive and representative government will help Pakistan achieve the political and economic stability that are sorely needed there. Moreover, if Pakistan is going to undertake a sustained effort against militant extremism, it will likely need a civilian government that derives popular legitimacy through a respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Stability and elections are no guarantee of an aggressive counterterrorism policy, of course, but they may be a necessary requirement.

Finally, we must work with both Pakistan and India to reconcile the historic tensions between their countries. As we saw in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, those tensions continue to fester. India's security concerns must be addressed -- and they can be, once Pakistan finally turns its attention to the al Qaeda, Taliban and militant threats within its own borders.

None of these needed initiatives will come easily, but they may be even more difficult if we first escalate militarily in Afghanistan. If, as the president said, another terrorist attack against the U.S. would likely come from Pakistan, then that is where we must start.