Tag: Pakistan

Trying Harder in Afghanistan

President Obama today gave a statement about his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first thing to say here is that, according to those who attended a White House briefing, the strategy is not complete: the goals are not defined.

Second, there seems to be a gap between rhetoric and reality. On the one hand, the White House is rhetorically embracing the idea that, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned,  the problem is insufficient U.S. effort. That is consistent with what Obama has said all along: that we are failing in Afghanistan because U.S. efforts there are starved of resources that went to Iraq.

So we need more trainers for the Afghan army (a brigade from the 82nd Airborne gets that job), more combat troops (although only the 17,000 already committed), more U.S. government civilians to aid local development, and more drug eradication (on the folly of this, read Ted Carpenter and David Rittgers). As an enthusiastic Robert Kagan points out, this seems to be a stronger embrace of the nation-building strategy. The partial departure is the willingness to try to buy off elements of the Taliban. 

On the other hand, the trainers being sent were requested long ago, and the troop increase is not new. The other shifts are minor. So, in terms of action, little has changed. There seems be a compromise here between the so-called minimalists and maximalists, which caused essentially a stalemate.

If you agree that the trouble in Afghanistan is that we weren’t trying hard enough, you should wonder why we aren’t trying even harder — doubling down on troops and effort, not just saying so. If you think, as I do, that we need a new strategy of radically reduced objectives, you have the opposite concern.

Nothing particularly new is happening with Pakistan, either, which matters more. We are continuing airstrikes and increasing aid. The White House recognition that the trouble with Pakistan is its vulnerabilty to India, which causes it to avoid policing its west and to embrace militants, is useful, even though it’s hard to see what we can do about it.

One particulary troubling observation that the president made today is this:

The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked. We have a shared responsibility to act — not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends on it. And what’s at stake at this time is not just our own security — it’s the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago, and that must be our common purpose today.

There are two problems here. First, we can pay the price of an Afghanistan in chaos if we figure out ways to prevent terrorist havens. That is possible at considerably less cost than we spend on that project today. The question is whether we can afford to resurrect Afghanistan from chaos. The president fully buys into the idea that Afghanistan would quickly revert to its 1990s state, with Al Qaeda sanctuaries, absent the U.S. military. That’s a claim in need of interrogation.

Second, it is silly to cast the war as a test of multilateralism.  Free nations consistently ally when their security obviously requires it. Europeans sensibly wonder if that is still the case in Afghanistan.  What we’re testing is how willing nations are to unify to fight wars where their security is not obviously at stake.

Obama on Pakistan (and Nawaz Sharif)

The New York Times reports this morning that the Obama administration is deciding whether Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif is likely to be a reliable ally or an obstructionist force.

Honestly? This is a man who in 1999 agreed to send a special operations team to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, who later tried to forge peace with India, and recently agreed to mediate a truce between Karzai’s government and the Taliban.

Right now, there’s no solution in Afghanistan unless Pakistan is stabilized. Sure, Sharif is pompous, self-aggrandizing, and as religiously conservative as ever before, but he’s still immensely popular and (reminder to policymakers in Washington) it’s not our job to pick and choose that country’s political winners.

In this turbulent region our strategy should be narrowly tailored to securing our specific objectives (i.e. - narrowing our aim to denying al Qaida the use of sanctuaries, if that’s even still achievable), implementing the few policies likely to achieve those goals (i.e. - cooperating with local leaders and tribal elders along the Pashtun tribal belt straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border), and being flexible with whatever leader holds power in Islamabad (i.e. - not expecting Sharif to toe the line on every conceivable issue).

The Hazards of Expanding the War into Pakistan

This morning, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration may expand the war in Afghanistan deeper into Pakistan in order to target Taliban safe havens in Balochistan.

The war would have a very different character if the Pashtun and Balochi areas of western Pakistan did not act as de facto sanctuaries for the leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban. As I’ve written before, NATO’s stalemate will continue so long as Pakistan is unable – or unwilling – to uproot militant sanctuaries.

But I’ve also argued about the hazards of the United States using unmanned aerial drones to strike targets within Pakistan. These aerial strikes lead to collateral damage that undermines the authority of sitting Pakistani leaders, fuels violent religious extremism in a nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country and exacerbates anti-American sentiment even among the more moderate elements of the country.

U.S. policy in this region is beyond complicated. It’s a complete mess. Right now, more than three-quarters of provisions for U.S. and NATO troops must travel through Pakistan’s worsening security conditions to make it into land-locked Afghanistan. But after previous U.S. aerial drone strikes within Pakistan, leaders in Islamabad have more than once closed their main supply route.

As I argue in a forthcoming Cato policy analysis,

Our dependence on [Pakistan] constrains the usefulness of their support… To make matters worse, Washington’s diminished leverage over Pakistan means that elements of its military and intelligence service will continue to take advantage of America’s dependence by failing to tackle terrorism more vigorously.

Other routes for the Afghanistan mission are currently being considered, but the leaders of these countries bring their own problems, as other scholars have written both here and here.

For the foreseeable future, the war in Afghanistan will remain hostage to events inside Pakistan. And sadly, Washington’s attempts to stabilize Afghanistan will likely continue to destabilize Pakistan.

What’s New in Pakistan?

200903_innocent_blogThis weekend, protesters supporting Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) clashed with police in riot gear in downtown Lahore. The sight of lawyers being tear-gassed is shocking to many Americans. But what should be more shocking—yet extremely more complicated to work through as explained below—is America’s continued backing of Pakistan’s unpopular president, Asif Ali Zardari, who continues to obstruct his democratic opposition and (until recently) the reappointment of ousted Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudrhy.

It’s easy for people in the West to dismiss these demonstrations as the outgrowth of the country’s petty political infighting. But Americans must recognize that historically, U.S. policy and assistance has either enhanced the position of Pakistan’s military at the expense of its civilian leaders, or has helped domestic civilian leaders more popular within Washington than within their home country. Throughout the Cold War and up to the present day, these domestically unpopular figures devoted more government resources toward themselves, their own political parties, and their own bureaucratic expansion rather than toward economic and social reforms to modernize and better educate Pakistan’s population. Consequently, Pakistani citizens began to blame American aid and support for their own deteriorating situation.

Certainly Pakistan’s domestic power struggles and ceaseless political infighting will continue to overshadow a menace more sinister than legislative rivals—i.e.-the Taliban, al Qaeda and other militant groups sweeping through large swaths of Pakistani territory.

But for long-term stability, U.S. policymakers must jettison the idea that a foreign leader’s denunciation of America means that leader poses a direct threat to U.S. interests. What America should want most is stability and continuity, particularly within Pakistan if we want to prevent the convergence of global terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Thus, in a perverse way, Sharif’s condemnation of the United States, coupled with his unwavering support for restoring judges sacked by Musharraf, has shored up his support within Pakistan, and his rise to power may actually bring solidity to the country.

The question of whether the military will step back in is much more complicated. Last August when the military backed away from politics, that move was based on political expediency (a desire to repair its tarnished image) rather than on political principle (a desire to restore the country’s democratic rights). If people in the military begin to feel that the country is slipping out of control they would attempt to retake power. There are, however, two main reasons why the military would not try to reassert its authority: 1) political pressure from Washington (the belief that with the military focused on governing, it would take its focus off combating the insurgency); and 2) pragmatism (after all, if Pakistanis are in an uproar over Sharif, imagine the protests that would ensue if army generals tried to impose martial law).

But when it comes to foreign policy, anything is possible, and Pakistan’s government has swung like a pendulum between military dictators and electoral democracies throughout its 61-year history. Because civilian leaders do not have a monopoly on government decision-making, U.S. policymakers must cultivate relations with both the civilians and the military, as civilians may be in power one day and the military in power the next.

Pakistan’s army is on standby ahead of today’s planned sit-in by lawyers in Islamabad, and authorities warn that such a protest would paralyze the government. The best U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can do is work with both Zardari and Sharif to arrive at a negotiated settlement to restoring judges and ending the political deadlock. But overall, Pakistan’s long-term success depends on the strength of its civilian institutions and the public’s repudiation of extremism. In this respect, America must be committed to strengthening cooperation not only with the Pakistani Government but with the Pakistani people.

Update: Sharif this morning calls off protest

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