President Barack Obama, flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, announced the new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan on March 27th. But the administration is already scrambling to keep up with deteriorating events.
With the appropriate huzzahs for President Barack Obama's first 100 days still ringing in the air, his new AfPak strategy, for the linked crisis of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is already in deep trouble. Events have accelerated beyond the assumptions underlying it, especially in Pakistan, and much of the past few days in the administration was taken up with re-strategizing, including discussions on Air Force One as the president flew back-and-forth for a Missouri town hall yesterday and a full-scale National Security Council session before that.
Obama is meeting today with the chairs and ranking minority members of the Senate and House armed services committees, including his defeated rival, John McCain.
AfPak could be a tremendous disaster for America. As we are serially distracted by the various ADD obsessions of our media culture.
What's wrong? Most immediately, the slow-rolling jihad in Pakistan and a relatively new government there that's been fighting with functional modernist governmental rivals and cutting deals that don't work with the Pakistani Taliban. And in the long term, an approach in Afghanistan that leans in the direction of nation-building rather than simply -- though it's not simple -- keeping Al Qaeda too disrupted to launch serious attacks on America.
Richard Armitage, longtime confidante of Colin Powell and deputy secretary of state in the Bush/Cheney Administration, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that Pakistan and Afghanistan may spiral out of control.
What, after all, does Obama want to accomplish? To try to turn Afghanistan into a country like ours, as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney seemingly tried in Iraq? (Leaving Obama with the messy overhang.) That's an even more unlikely goal for Afghanistan than for Iraq.
At this point, Obama will be fortunate to keep Pakistan from falling into the hands of the Taliban. And if that were to happen, all hope of denying Al Qaeda cadre safe havens in Pakistan from which to plan and launch strategic terrorist operations against America would be lost.
It seems to me that our policy should be guided by three imperatives:
1. To disrupt and disable Al Qaeda's strategic capabilities, i.e., its ability to launch a 9/11-type attack.
2. To develop friendlier relations with the Islamic world as a whole.
3. To keep Pakistan's nuclear weapons out of the hands of jihadists. Iranian nuclear weapons are theoretical; Pakistani nuclear weapons are not.
A top Soviet commander remembers the difficulty of the Afghan War.
We may actually be closer than we suppose to achieving the first goal in Afghanistan. That's about preventing the formation of terrorist bases, camps, training centers, keeping leaders on the run, disrupting communications, interdicting weapons shipments, preventing the development or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. Which does not require a modern state run out of Afghanistan's capital of Kabul, but simply a more stable and functional one, probably a coalition government, that enables ongoing operations against Al Qaeda.
The second goal, of friendlier relations with the Islamic world, is one that Obama is already well launched upon. His speech to the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, his respectful tour of the nation's most famous mosque and religious museum, are major departures from the past.
The third goal, of keeping Pakistani nukes out of the hands of jihadists, is trickier. That requires at least a major semblance of stability in Pakistan. And that is something fast unraveling.
Obama is realizing that Pakistan has become his toughest international challenge.
Obama is spending a great deal of time focusing on the deteriorating situation in Pakistan. Under the new administration, which replaced that of General Pervez Musharaff, the Pakistani Taliban have metastized through much of the country, and are edging perilously close to the capital of Islamabad.
In developments which mostly went unreported in the American media, the US Embassy in Islamabad on April 9th shut down for all normal operations and suggested that American citizens curtail their travels.
On April 10th, security forces arrested some 350 suspected jihadist terrorists in the Pakistani capital, in advance of some still unspecified plot for a terrorist strike. You'll recall that that is far more people than were needed to virtually shut down Mumbai, India's financial capital, in the terrorist siege there last Thanksgiving.
Since then, the Pakistani Taliban have made further advances around the country. They continue to disrupt US supply operations to the forces fighting in Afghanistan and are threatening Karachi, Pakistan's seaport through which those supplies must flow.
After several agreements, granting sharia law in various parts of the country in exchange for peace and an end to offensive operations, between the government and the Taliban failed, the Obama Administration urged the government to launch military attacks, and the army may be having some successes in the last few days.
The army, founded in the British tradition following Pakistan's independence in the 1940s, is historically the only stable major institution in the country. Like Pervez Musharaff and current chief of staff Ashfaq Kayani, its top officers were educated and trained in elite British and American staff colleges as well as in Pakistan. But for all its modernist sheen and pro-Western sympathies, the army -- like the dread ISI intelligence service, which helped Afghan Taliban take over Afghanistan from battling mujahedeen warlords in the wake of the Soviet ouster -- is shot through with jihadist sympathizers. Pakistan's rationale, incidentally, is that it wanted a very stable Afghanistan to avoid meddling there from archrival India.
Obama had already upped civilian aid to Pakistan to help stabilize the country. Now he's proposing to increase military aid, in the form of new military hardware such as helicopters, infantry weapons, and night-vision goggles. And Pakistan has just agreed to increased US military training in counterinsurgency for its forces, with some of it apparently to take place outside the country.
The terrorist siege of Mumbai five months ago derailed already tense relations between Pakistan and India.
Pakistan is also moving some of its troops massed along the border with India to its border with Afghanistan. When India and Pakistan nearly came to war after the terrorist siege of Mumbai last Thanksgiving, probably a major strategic goal of the attack, Pakistan moved troops away from the Afghan border, where they are supposed to interdict forces aiding the Afghan Taliban, to its border with India.
And what of Pakistan's nukes? That's even less clear. The Financial Times reported yesterday that Pakistani officials are sharing nuclear secrets with the US, Britain, and other Western countries to "assuage fears." Considering the proximity of Pakistan's nuclear weapons to territory under the sway of the Pakistani Taliban, that's not tremendously reassuring.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the suddenly simpler part of the AfPak equation, the Afghan Taliban announced yesterday that they will launch Operation Nasrat Victory to respond to Obama's Afghan military surge. They promise a series of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks against foreign troops, diplomats, international aid workers -- Obama is dispatching hundreds of civilian experts and aid workers to more rural parts of Afghanistan to help develop the country's civilian infrastructure -- and Afghan officials.
In other developments, Britain and Australia, having ended their Iraqi missions, are sending more troops to Afghanistan.
And Turkey is taking over command of NATO forces in and around the Afghan capital of Kabul to provide security, increasing its troops in Afghanistan. The French previously had that command, and security had become rather porous.
You know it's a bad situation when Afghanistan, site of the long-troubled and neglected "good" post-9/11 war, as the Democrats had it during the Bush/Cheney years, is suddenly in better shape than Pakistan, our one-time front-line ally in the "War on Terror."