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Obama's Afghan Dilemma | The Nation

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Obama's Afghan Dilemma

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Since 9/11, Pakistan has received more than $11 billion in US aid, but almost all of it has flowed into the coffers of Pakistan's army and ISI, with little or no oversight. According to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, between 2002 and 2007 only 10 percent of US aid was devoted to development and humanitarian assistance. That avalanche of cash to the military has allowed the ISI free rein to support its network of Islamist extremists, which it has built up systematically since the 1980s. As long as ISI helped nab an occasional Al Qaeda bigwig, even as it tolerated or supported the Afghan Taliban and other Islamist radicals, the United States went along. "We've got to put an end to this dirty game, where Pakistan uses surrogate terrorist groups," says Chamberlin.

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Robert Dreyfuss
Bob Dreyfuss
Robert Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor, is an investigative journalist specializing in politics and national...

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Even those fighting the war have difficulty distinguishing friends from enemies. Michael Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflicts, who oversees a Pentagon anti-terrorism force, isn't sure. Asked if ISI is on our side or not, he pauses. "It's complicated. I'll put it that way," he says finally. "It's not black and white." Last summer Zardari attempted to bring ISI under the control of the civilian-run Interior Ministry, but the idea was quickly shot down. "That lasted eight hours," says Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars, a book about the CIA and Afghanistan that Obama was recently seen carrying. "Somebody told the ISI about the announcement, and they said, 'No, that won't be happening.'" Then, in the fall, Pakistan's army chief of staff installed a new set of generals atop the ISI, though there was widespread skepticism that the move reflected a real policy change by the army.

Yet Pakistani attitudes are slowly changing, even inside the military, analysts say. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto a year ago and the massive bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad in September alarmed many generals about the threat to Pakistan from its Islamist creations. "Pakistan has had a tolerance and a see-no-evil attitude toward the Taliban," says Riedel. "But the Afghan Taliban has also created a Pakistani Taliban, which is a Frankenstein the Pakistani army can't control. So it still has relations with parent Taliban, but the infant Taliban is now increasingly a threat to the cohesion of the Pakistan state, and it's a physical threat to the Pakistani army and even to the ISI. This is the classic case of a covert action program getting out of control."

As a result, of late the army is scrambling to control a crisis of its own making, without much success. It has launched a three-pronged military offensive in the tribal areas and nearby districts, but--having spent a half-century preparing for a tank war with India--the Pakistani army is not well equipped to fight a counterinsurgency war. And in the tribal areas the Pakistani army, which is mostly Punjabi, is seen as a foreign force by local Pashtuns, while many Pakistani officers and enlisted men are loath to fight against their compatriots in what they see as America's war. Both the military and the Pakistan government have tried to build tribal militias to combat the Taliban, but so far this effort hasn't paid off. And the government has tried to encourage the holding of tribal jirgas, or councils, to generate grassroots opposition to the dominance of Taliban-like elements in and around the tribal areas. That, too, hasn't worked well, since the Taliban have engaged in murderous counterattacks, including gruesome killings and suicide bomb attacks aimed at the jirgas. Many in Pakistan are operating under outdated assumptions about the tribes in the northwest, says Christine Fair, an independent expert on South Asia who took part in the Center for American Progress study. "The jirgas used to be made up of secular tribal leaders," she says. "Now, they meet in mosques and madrassas." Since the US-backed anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, madrassas, or religious schools, have become factories and recruiting areas for militant Islamists.

Part of the solution, stressed by all of Obama's aides, is more economic support to both countries, targeted toward building infrastructure, improving agriculture, providing microcredit for small business and constructing schools and clinics. One member of Obama's task force on Pakistan is Jonah Blank, a senior staff member at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is a key aide to Vice President-elect Joe Biden. Blank was a driving force behind the Biden-Lugar-Obama bill to provide $1.5 billion a year for ten years in economic support to Pakistan. A parallel effort for Afghanistan, including what Obama calls a Marshall Plan-style mobilization, is also under way. "Call it a democracy dividend," says Blank. "The civilians can say, 'See? We deliver.'"

But economic development takes a long time to be felt, and the crisis is now. If the wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan aren't going to be resolved militarily--and they won't be--the solution to both crises, now inextricably linked, must be a diplomatic one: first, negotiations with many of the forces opposing the two governments and the US presence in the region, and, second, progress toward a Pakistan-India accord.

In Pakistan, the Zardari government and the Parliament have strongly endorsed talks with the Taliban, better organized than the faltering accords announced in 2004 and 2006. In Afghanistan, Karzai declared in mid-November that he is open to direct talks with Mullah Omar. And in late October, tribal elders and dozens of Pakistani and Afghan officials convened a two-day "mini-jirga" intended to be the start of a dialogue with the Taliban. Owais Ghani, governor of the North-West Frontier Province and a leader of the secular, nationalist ANP party, said at the mini-jirga: "We will sit, we will talk to them, they will listen to us, and we will come to some sort of solution."

Karzai's offer to Mullah Omar, which was unprecedented, followed two years of quiet discussions in South Asia, Europe and the Middle East among Pakistani and Afghan officials, former leaders of the Taliban and members of Saudi Arabia's royal family, including King Abdullah. Among the participants: Karzai's brother and Nawaz Sharif, a Pakistani politician with close ties to the religious establishment who spent years in exile in Saudi Arabia. According to news reports, London and Paris provided logistical and diplomatic support for the contacts. The Pakistani daily Dawn reported that French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner is supporting talks between Karzai and "moderates within the Taliban," and he has invited Iran and Pakistan to Paris to participate in talks on Afghanistan.

So far, Mullah Omar has rejected Karzai's offer of direct talks, and the Taliban continues to insist on the withdrawal of US and NATO forces before any deal. A deal with the Islamist insurgency, or at least enough of it to make it stick, is an exceedingly difficult undertaking, and most of Obama's advisers are skeptical that it can work. India, Iran and Russia, which supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the decade before 9/11, won't look with favor on a US-Saudi effort to allow the Taliban back in power, so their concerns will have to be taken into account. The fragmented nature of the Taliban movment makes it hard to figure out whom, exactly, to negotiate with. And though parts of the movement may be pragmatic enough to strike a deal, other parts are likely to fight to the bitter end.

The Obama team is far more supportive of an urgent diplomatic initiative to bring Pakistan and India toward an accord. But after the Mumbai attack, with its potential to bring the two countries back to the brink of war, that is a task that has just become far more difficult. "This requires great subtlety and a degree of sophistication that, I have to say, is not the norm in American diplomacy," says Riedel. "It calls for a stretch. I think the way to start is with very, very quiet conversations between the United States and India, and I think that the new relationship that we have with India gives us a better platform than ever before." India, Riedel says, is worried that the United States will seek a deal with Pakistan at India's expense. But closer US-India ties, cemented by a recent deal over India's nuclear program, give Washington new credibility to assure New Delhi that its interests in Kashmir and Afghanistan, where India is worried about a Taliban resurgence, will be protected.

India is deeply involved in Afghanistan now, and its role there is causing a degree of paranoia in Pakistan. India, along with Iran and Russia, helped oust the Pakistan-backed Taliban in 2001. India has provided $1.2 billion in aid to Afghanistan since then, and it has opened consulates in four Afghan cities that, Pakistan fears, could be bases for Indian intelligence. It is against that threat, historically, that Pakistan has supported right-wing Islamists. But India is a power with global ambitions, a thriving economy and powerful armed forces, and it is becoming clear in Pakistan that it can no longer compete with India, which is causing an outbreak of realism inside the Pakistani army. Ashley Tellis, now of the Carnegie Endowment, has had extensive contacts with Pakistan's military. "The mainstream of the Pakistani army no longer sees India as the main threat," he says. "There may be some of the far right, among the Islamists, who believe that India is the central danger." But Tellis says they are a minority. "To protect their institutional interests, they know that they must have a rapprochement with India."

The opportunity for a dialogue with elements of the Taliban and the possibility of a peace process between Pakistan and India constitute the true exit strategy for the United States in Afghanistan. But to nail down a deal with the insurgents, the United States will have to offer them what they most want, namely, a timetable for the withdrawal of US and NATO forces. "What the insurgents do seem to agree about is that foreigners shouldn't run their country, and that the country should be run according to the principles of Islam," says Chas Freeman.

"We need to recall the reason we went to Afghanistan in the first place," he says. "Our purpose was...to deny the use of Afghan territory to terrorists with global reach. That was and is an attainable objective. It is a limited objective that can be achieved at reasonable cost. We must return to a ruthless focus on this objective. We cannot afford to pursue goals, however worthy, that contradict or undermine it. The reform of Afghan politics, society and mores must wait."

Meanwhile, the stage is set. The governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan want peace talks with Islamist insurgents and the Taliban. Outside powers, led by Saudi Arabia and quietly supported by Britain and France, are facilitating behind-the-scenes contacts between the Taliban and key Afghan and Pakistani leaders. Neighboring states, including India, Russia and Iran, while hardly enamored of the Taliban, might underwrite a truce. And the possibility of a regional economic pact linking Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India could tie it all together.

Al Qaeda, pushed into remote redoubts in Pakistan's mountains, is most certainly still plotting against the United States. But many, perhaps most, of its fair-weather allies on the Islamic right, including the Taliban, might very well be persuaded to make a final break with Osama bin Laden and his ilk if they can get a better deal, including a share of power in Kabul. Will President Obama seize the moment? Will he have the courage to offer an end to US occupation of Afghanistan if the Taliban-led movement abandons its ties to Al Qaeda?

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