The optics seem more telling than the rhetoric.
President Barack Obama is hosting his first summit of his wartime allies, the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the so-called "AfPak" summit, dealing with what Obama calls the biggest geopolitical threat to America's security. But there's no state dinner in their honor. No address to Congress, which must fund Obama's plans (and may attach) conditions.
And the principal social event, a dinner for the presidents hosted by Vice President Joe Biden at the Naval Observatory, has its own ironic backstory. Biden famously walked out of a dinner last year with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
After their meetings today, Obama struck a note of optimism.
"I'm pleased that these two men -- elected leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan -- fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat that we face, and have reaffirmed their commitment to confronting it. And I'm pleased that we have advanced unprecedented cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan on a bilateral basis -- and among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States -- which will benefit all of our people."Vice President-elect Joe Biden delivered a critical message when he visited Afghanistan on January 10th.
But the words and pictures were not in synch.
Even the body language at today's Obama statement was telling in regard to the troubled nature of the AfPak summit. Obama, who can be quite warm when he wants to be, was notably cool both to Karzai and to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
Karzai was George W. Bush's man in Kabul, a buddy of sorts, the recipient of regular phone calls from the American president and participant in weekly video conferences with the White House. There will reportedly be none of that with Obama, who had apparently only spoken to Karzai a few times since his own inauguration prior to this week's Washington summit.
Indeed, it was Biden who delivered the message that things would be different back on January 10th, when the then vice president-elect visited Kabul and talked with the Afghan president he walked out on last year as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.Afghan President Hamid Karzai laid out his vision for Afghanistan's future at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday.
But Obama is stuck with Karzai, who will almost certainly win August's Afghan election.
Zardari has none of the Bush buddy/Biden bete noire baggage with Obama that Karzai carries. But the warmth meter doesn't register much higher there.
His administration isn't the target of corruption charges from American officials that Karzai's has been, but this widower of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto hasn't found the way to counter a very alarming jihadist insurgency while balancing the needs of secular reformists and a powerful national security apparatus that is still geared more to a potential war with India rather than the threat within (in part because it's shot through with jihadists itself).
Zardari's administration has cut deals with homegrown Taliban that amount to unsuccessful appeasement. At the insistence of the Obama Administration, it's embarked on a brand-new offensive, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded today. But who knows how long that will last, or even if it's an effective move.
With increasing signs of restiveness in Congress -- though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is against tying the administration's hands -- Obama is offering more money for civilian projects in both countries, and new US training in Kuwait for Pakistani counter-insurgency operations. But how well that will go is anyone's guess.
Meanwhile, the talk will continue. On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and CIA Director Leon Panetta all hold meetings with opposite numbers from the Aghan and Pakistani government.
And everyone comes back together again in August for another trilateral summit. That will be after the Afghan elections, which Karzai and his former warlord running mates are expected to win.
In fact, these trilateral US/Afghanistan/Pakistan summits may take place every quarter.Civilian deaths in Afghanistan are a major problem for the new strategy. Perhaps there will be better optics the next time around. But that may happen only if things are going better.
What's the likelihood of that?
Well, Defense Secretary Bob Gates did an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN a few days ago. What he said should give pause. So far, there have been no breakthroughs with more moderate Afghan Taliban -- a lynchpin of the new Obama strategy announced on March 27th -- and Gates has "real reservations about significant further commitments of American military, beyond what the president has already approved."
Gates went on to compare the situation to the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, noting that the Soviets sent 120,000 troops into the mountainous country, pursued scorched earth tactics, and still lost.
Of course, the Afghan resistance received massive help from the US, which sought successfully to create a Soviet Vietnam.
And it's not so much a matter of winning, or losing, a war in the conventional sense. The mission is to disrupt and disable Al Qaeda from using the region as a safe haven from which to prepare and launch 9/11-type attacks.
The Obama Administration may be closer to achieving that than it may suppose. So long as Pakistan doesn't descend into basket case status.