Oh, the war in Afghanistan. The more I learn, the more I'm convinced that we need to get out.
As I described the situation to my Cato colleague Chris Preble, for lack of a better analogy, the Afghanistan–Pakistan border is like a balloon: pushing down on one side forces elements to move to another — it doesn't eliminate the threat.
The fate of Pakistan — a nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country plagued by a powerful jihadist insurgency — will matter more to regional and global stability than economic and political developments in Afghanistan. But if our attempts to stabilize Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, where does that leave us? Like A.I.G., is Afghanistan too big to fail? No.
President Obama earlier this month issued a wide-ranging strategic review of the war and the region, and declared "the core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan." But al Qaeda, as we very well know, is a loosely connected and decentralized network with cells in over 60 countries. Amassing tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops in one country — or any country — is unnecessary.
Until Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, changes priorities, this is a stalemate and we are throwing soldiers into a conflict because policymakers fear that, if we leave, it will get worse. Sound familiar?
The only military role necessary in Afghanistan is trainers and assistance for the Afghan military, police, and special forces tasked with discrete operations against specific targets. The bulk of the combat forces can and should be withdrawn.
As for Pakistan's impulsive act of gallantry in Buner this week, that's certainly welcome news. But Mukhtar Khan, a Pakistani freelance journalist whom I've talked to on numerous occasions, records here that last year in Buner, a lashkar (tribal militia) successfully beat back the Taliban's incursions.
Thanks to the Swat Valley peace deal between pro-Taliban TNSM founder Sufi Mohammad and the Pakistani government, militants have spilled back into Buner, killing policemen and terrorizing locals. What's especially troubling this time around is that the spread from Swat into Buner brings militants closer to Mardan and Swabi, which leads directly to the four-lane motorway running from Peshawar to Islamabad. (I took the picture above when I was on the motorway to Peshawar last August.)
Overall, I'm not optimistic that the Pakistani government's effort in Buner changes the grand scheme of things. Unless the intervention is coupled with a comprehensive shift in Pakistan's strategic priorities, which means a move away from allowing its territory to act as a de facto sanctuary for militants undermining U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, then these sporadic raids tell us nothing about their leaders' overall commitment to tackling terrorism.
For instance, Pakistan's Supreme Court recently ordered the release of hard-line cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz on bail. Aziz was a leading figure from the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) massacre of July 2007 and faces several charges, including aiding militants. For an idea of how pervasive militant sympathies go, when the Islamist political party Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islami was in power in North-West Frontier Province, a Pakistani territory adjacent to the ungoverned tribal areas, its leaders proselytized in mosques about the need for jihad in Afghanistan. In addition, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, was killed in Iraq, their parliament observed a two-minute moment of silence.
If leaders within Pakistan's military and intelligence establishments are serious about combating extremism, it will take more than periodic military moves into restive areas. We will not know for the next several months whether they have abandoned their lackadaisical attitude toward extremism.