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Obama's Afghan Dilemma | The Nation

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Obama's Afghan Dilemma

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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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President-elect Barack Obama says that Afghanistan is "the right war." "It's time to heed the call from General [David] McKiernan and others for more troops," Obama said in late October, referring to the US commander in Afghanistan. "That's why I'd send at least two or three additional combat brigades to Afghanistan." He's coupled that with tough talk about hitting Al Qaeda anywhere, including next door in Pakistan. "If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out," Obama said in the second of his three debates with John McCain. "We will kill bin Laden. We will crush Al Qaeda."

Despite such rhetoric, however, nearly two years ago Obama began assembling a cast of experts steeped in the intricacies of South Asian affairs, and they have provided him with a far richer and more sophisticated view of the Afghanistan-Pakistan tangle than emerged in the campaign. "The format of presidential debates does not lend itself to a nuanced discussion," says Bruce Riedel, wryly. A former CIA specialist on South Asia who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Clinton and Bush, Riedel led an advisory task force on Afghanistan-Pakistan for Obama. Interviews with Riedel and other Obama advisers--who made it clear they were not speaking for the president-elect--suggest that Obama intends to reorient US policy in the region significantly, and a key plank in that reorientation includes negotiations with the enemy. But assertions by the US command and the Obama team that we can both "surge" and negotiate overlook the glaring reality that sending more troops into the Afghan quagmire and urging the Pakistani government to escalate the war it is fighting against its own people will make the crisis worse, not better.

The outlines of Obama's strategy, which aren't likely to be articulated fully until after the inauguration, include a repudiation of the strident "global war on terror" rhetoric that marked President Bush's years and that only inflamed Muslim attitudes toward the United States. Campaign sloganeering aside, Obama may try to curtail the indiscriminate use of air power in Afghanistan against often ill-defined targets ("just air raiding villages and killing civilians" was how he put it in 2007), though how he'll do that while adding more troops and escalating the war isn't clear. He'll slow down, if not halt, the provocative cross-border attacks into Pakistani tribal areas against insurgent bases, even as he reserves the right to hit bin Laden. The incoming administration will take steps to strengthen the fledgling civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan against the machinations of the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which maintains covert ties to a wide range of extremist groups, including the Taliban. And it will support a major boost in economic aid to both countries.

Nearly all of Obama's advisers--along with members of a parallel task force at the Center for American Progress, a think tank likely to be the source of many Obama appointees--insist that a central part of a new US policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan must be to facilitate a peace process between Pakistan and India, its giant neighbor to the east. For decades, Pakistan's military and the ISI have lent covert support to Islamist terrorist groups, in Afghanistan and in the disputed territory of Kashmir, as part of a strategy of asymmetric warfare against India. A Pakistan-India accord would strengthen Pakistan's civilian government and undercut the rationale for the army and ISI's ties to the Taliban, allied Afghan Islamist warlords and Kashmiri Islamist militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, suspected of involvement in the Mumbai terror attack. Wendy Chamberlin, US ambassador to Pakistan on 9/11 and a member of Obama's Pakistan task force, is a strong supporter of efforts to forge a Pakistan-India accord. "I argued for it [in 2002]," she says. And I got dismissed."

Many of Obama's advisers are open to the notion of bringing Iran into the mix, pointing out that Iran was helpful in 2001 in building the original coalition behind Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Iran's role was also highlighted in a September report by a private working group led by Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. They suggested connecting Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Iran in a regional economic community, concluding, "The U.S. should...reconsider its opposition to the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline project." Tariq Ali, a British-Pakistani scholar and author of The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, has called for creation of a South Asian Union to facilitate a regional economic resurgence.

Even as they favor eventual talks with "reconcilable" elements of the Taliban movement, some of Obama's advisers and Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander, defend their call for a surge by arguing that their first priority is to stabilize Afghanistan militarily. "Trying to divide your enemy is always a smart thing to do," says Riedel. "But until we break the momentum that the Taliban has today, where they feel that they're the winner, I don't see that you have any credible chance of persuading even a small number of Taliban to break. They think they're winning, and if you look at the numbers, you can make a pretty convincing case."

In the first ten months of this year, 255 US and NATO troops were killed in Afghanistan, more than all those who died in the first four years of the war in Afghanistan put together. Entire swaths of southern Afghanistan, in provinces along the Pakistan border south and east of Kabul, are controlled by the Taliban and their allies. Lately they have been able to strike with impunity even within Kabul, the Afghan capital. The CIA has been warning for more than two years that Afghanistan was spinning out of control. A forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate, representing the views of sixteen US intelligence agencies, warns that Afghanistan is in a "downward spiral" and, according to the New York Times, "casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban's influence there." The enemy has also evolved as a fighting force. Already by 2006, according to a report for West Point by retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the Taliban were fielding battalion-size units of more than 400 fighters. In some provinces the Taliban and their allies are creating a parallel state, appointing governors and provincial officials and establishing Sharia-style courts.

The counterinsurgency is made all the more difficult by the nature of the enemy, an exceedingly complex, multiheaded Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It goes far beyond Mullah Omar's Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda. "Calling it the Taliban is a failure to understand what's going on," says Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan and terrorism at the RAND Corporation. "It's a movement, not an organization," explains Chas Freeman, president of the Middle East Policy Council and a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "What we conveniently have been labeling 'the Taliban' is a phenomenon that includes a lot of people simply on the Islamic right." In all, the US military has identified at least fourteen separate insurgent organizations in Afghanistan, and according to Riedel, there are as many as fifty separate Islamist formations in neighboring Pakistan [see Anand Gopal, page 17, for more on the insurgency].

At the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony Cordesman, a sober-minded, conservative military analyst, sounded the alarm. "We are running out of time," he wrote. "We currently are losing, and the trends have been consistent since 2004...we face a crisis in the field--right now." The situation, he said, is far more urgent than anything that can be solved by economic aid or nation-building efforts. "At least during 2009-10, priority must be given to warfighting needs." McKiernan, the US commander, has called for at least four more brigades, perhaps as many as 25,000 troops. He warned that the mission in Afghanistan will require a "sustained commitment" lasting many years, and the United States has announced plans to help more than double the size of the Afghan National Army (ANA), to 134,000 troops. "This is a decades-long project," says Ashley Tellis, a former National Security Council specialist on South Asia, who adds that it will take at least ten years before the United States can withdraw and let the ANA fight its own battles. "The transition alone will take a decade, until you can switch to the ANA," he says.

But surging troops into Afghanistan would be akin to sending the fabled 600 into the valley of death. As in Vietnam, tens of thousands more troops will only provide the Taliban with many more targets, sparking Pashtun nationalist resistance and inspiring more recruits for the insurgency. Advocates of sending additional US forces into this maelstrom have yet to articulate exactly how another 25,000 can turn the tide. Tariq Ali says that pacifying the country would require at least 200,000 more troops, beyond the 62,000 US and NATO forces there now, and that it would necessitate laying waste huge parts of Afghanistan. Many Afghan watchers consider the war unwinnable, and they point out that in the 1980s the Soviet Union, with far more troops, had engaged in a brutal nine-year counterinsurgency war--and lost. British Ambassador to Afghanistan Sherard Cowper-Coles has warned against precisely the escalation that Obama and Petraeus advocate. Sending more troops, he says, "would have perverse effects: it would identify us even more strongly as an occupation force and would multiply the targets [for the insurgents]." A top British general, Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith, says, "We're not going to win this war.... It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat."

"What began as a punitive raid aimed at beheading Al Qaeda and chastising its Afghan household staff has somehow morphed--with no real discussion or debate--into a prolonged effort to pacify Afghanistan and transform its society," says Freeman. "This moving of the goal posts gratified neoconservatives and liberal interventionists alike. Our new purpose became giving Afghanistan a centrally directed state--something it had never had. We now fight to exclude reactionary Muslims from a role in governing the new Afghanistan." Freeman suggests that this is an untenable goal, and that it is time to co-opt local authorities and enlist regional allies in search of a settlement.

Those who insist the war is winnable, including US and NATO commanders, also say that it can't be won without taking the war across the border to Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas, an escalation that's already under way. But this poses a whole new set of problems. The situation in Pakistan is only slightly less dire than in Afghanistan. The country emerged this year from nearly a decade under a US-backed military dictatorship and faces a daunting set of challenges. A multipronged insurgency based in the tribal areas is spreading its influence into the neighboring North-West Frontier Province, and it has reached all the way to Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, where assassinations and suicide bombings occur regularly. The new government is weak and divided, with little or no control over the Pakistani army and ISI. And its economy is virtually bankrupt: with inflation at 25 percent and vast unemployment, the country is desperately seeking $10 billion to $15 billion in immediate financial aid.

Yet the fragile Pakistani state is being pushed to the breaking point by the Bush administration. Since August, nearly two dozen CIA Predator missile attacks in tribal areas have inflamed much of the country against the United States. Already, before the spate of attacks, public opinion polls showed that 86 percent of Pakistanis say the goal of the United States is to "weaken and divide the Islamic world," 84 percent say the United States is a greater threat than Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and 89 percent oppose Pakistan's cooperation with the US "war on terror." Many Pakistanis blame the United States for its fifty-year record of propping up military dictators, which makes it hard for the United States to support even its allies, such as President Zardari. "Right now, we're kind of the kiss of death," says Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who was part of Obama's Pakistan task force.

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.

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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