Obama's Long War
The Obama administration is struggling to find a solution to the current upheaval in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After a successful military strategy in Afghanistan that overthrew the Taliban rule in 2002, the absence of a strong U.S. presence in the interim has allowed the insurgents to regroup in full force. The Obama administration is now pursuing a new strategy unveiled this spring, waging war in the tribal areas within Afghanistan itself and along the Pakistan border. The United States must realize early on that there is no shortcut in dealing with ruthless Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.
If the United States is not prepared to stay in the region for a generation, it must muster all the necessary resources now to pursue its objectives wholeheartedly. For success in this region cannot be achieved without rebuilding Afghanistan from the bottom up and aiding the Pakistan government and military in dealing with the danger its country is facing. Unless the infrastructure of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and their sanctuaries in Pakistan are destroyed, both the war in Afghanistan and the new and escalating chaos in Pakistan will persist.
President Obama’s sending of 17,000 more American troops to Afghanistan is necessary to stem the rising tide of the insurgency, but their focus must be on training and strengthening the Afghan military and police. The current 80,000 troops that compose the Afghan National Army will probably need to be doubled within two or three years. To achieve this, more resources must be allocated for training and equipment while, at least initially, carrying out counterinsurgency efforts alongside the Afghan military. A focused campaign should be undertaken to woo the non-ideologue Afghan foot-soldiers fighting for money beside the Taliban insurgents, by offering them better-paying jobs within the new security apparatus, and co-opting some of the tribal leaders, who might switch sides for the right compensation. Although this idea has been afloat between the Afghan government and U.S. military for some time, no concerted effort has been made. Once potential “converts” are identified, U.S. military leaders should hand this task over to Afghan and American civilians as part of reconstruction and rehabilitation.
Poppies and Afghan Farmers
The United States also must end the farming and cultivation of poppies that subsidize the Taliban and Al Qaeda by offering farmers crop alternatives and subsidies. It is estimated that less than $400 million could achieve this critically important objective. Without significant alternatives, the Taliban will not only continue to finance the insurgency, but maintain mutually beneficial relationships with thousands of destitute Afghan farmers and their families who have no other way to make a living. What is needed is a systematic engagement of Afghan farmers in sustainable farming projects fully subsidized by the United States, while the U.S. uses trained Afghan civilians to supervise such efforts under the protection of the U.S. military. There are no shortcuts. Spraying existing fields without first providing the farmers with alternate sources of living has only alienated farmers in the past. The farmers need a steady income and U.S. protection until the Taliban no longer threatens them.
Even more critical to the future stability of Afghanistan is a major focus on reconstruction, sorely neglected by the Bush administration. A nation torn by bloody conflicts and civil war for more than three decades must be healed from within. Afghans need to feel that their children will be educated, that health care is available and that their government can deliver other basic services and protection. Personal insecurity and a lack of human necessities can make even a Taliban regime preferable to chaos. The United States has no choice but to fund these projects adequately. Now that more than a $1 trillion have been squandered in Iraq over the years, the Obama administration must find the few billions needed each year for this indispensable aspect of the war in Afghanistan.
The United States should guide the Afghans in the building of democratic institutions, especially the formation of national political parties that can produce leaders with national appeal. Economic assistance must also expand sustainable development projects that empower ordinary people, especially women, while fostering collective interest in maintaining the flow of new wealth these projects generate. Existing projects require increased security so that the successful models can grow. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams, instrumental in protecting ground operations, should be expanded and further supported by NATO member states. Incorporating qualified and fully trained Afghans into the P.R.T.’s is essential to ensure their continued success.
Relentlessness should characterize the United States’ efforts to involve its NATO allies directly. Many would resist deep involvement in a counterinsurgency war, but these reluctant NATO members must realize that the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and in Iraq has global implications. In the past few years Al Qaeda and other affiliated terrorist groups have repeatedly attacked Europe, not the United States. The Obama administration should focus on how NATO countries can contribute more. The Turks, for example, have offered military and police training. Other nations could help train and equip the Afghan police and security. The Obama administration must encourage the United Nations to take the lead in securing donor nations to share in the building of Afghanistan. Over the years the United Nations has demonstrated that it is best suited for such tasks, provided that donor countries actually pay what they have pledged (which has not always been the case). The United States can strengthen the U.N.’s position as a clearinghouse and coordinator of all nonmilitary efforts in Afghanistan.
What About Pakistan?
The solution for Pakistan is much more difficult, and it is here that the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda will be won or lost. The focus of the war must now shift to the sanctuaries and terrorist safe havens along Pakistan’s northwest border with Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban provides perfect shelter to Al Qaeda leaders, fuels the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and destabilizes Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It is from this area that the leaders retool and plot their next attacks, which is why it has become a focal point for the U.S. military strategy.
The Obama administration must undertake several critical measures not taken by the previous administration and that led to a crisis of confidence between Pakistan and the United States. The U.S. must make a supreme effort to improve its image there. The Bush legacy left most Pakistanis with a bitter distaste for American policy and outreach. This may be attributed to President Bush’s unconditional support for the unpopular Musharraf, the rising toll of civilian casualties caused by drone attacks and a general distrust toward Americans, who might abandon Pakistan as they have twice before abandoned Afghanistan.
The United States should make it clear that the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda is as much a Pakistani war as it is an American or Afghan war. When Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari agreed to allow the Taliban to institute Shariah law in the Swat region and the Taliban stormed into Bonier, Pakistanis were awakened to the increasing danger of the Taliban forces among them. President Obama must emphasize that unlike U.S. aid used against the Soviets in the cold war, or against the Taliban in 2002, this time the United States has the stamina to persevere for as long as it takes to create stability in the region. The powerful Pakistani army must take the lead with a determination to root out the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters; currently the Pakistani army wields far more power and influence than the government. President Obama must clarify that in exchange for training, equipment and long-term U.S. support, the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence must make the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda their top priority.
The goal cannot be achieved, however, without putting in place four prerequisites. First, the Pakistani military must shift its focus from the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir to the Afghan-Pakistan border, as it has started to do. During the past seven years billions of dollars in U.S. military assistance to Pakistan was spent on weapons procurement and training against India. The United States should bolster efforts to reduce the tension between India and Pakistan, and disabuse Pakistan of the presumed imminent Indian threat. The United States should mediate between the two sides to find a peaceful solution to the Kashmir conflict. At a minimum, India and Pakistan can commit themselves to a nonbelligerent approach to the issue. The Pakistani public must support this shift, which would give the government latitude to focus on the internal and more ominous threat. The Obama administration should assure the Pakistani military intelligence elite that there is no U.S.-Indian-Afghan “conspiracy” designed to dismember the Pakistani state. Here, better cooperation between the C.I.A. and the I.S.I. would help to assuage such concerns while dealing with the Taliban more effectively.
Second, the Obama administration must provide the Pakistani army with the necessary tools and equipment to wage a war against insurgency—a war the military is reluctant to fight and does not yet know how to execute. Scores of combat helicopters, night-vision devices and training are needed to battle an invisible foe. These should be part of the United States’ increased military assistance. Training will take time, as will changing the mindset of the military forces. Meanwhile, the United States should insist quietly on an end to all collaboration between the Pakistani intelligence and terrorist groups. The Pakistani military and civilian authorities must realize that this war will not be won by half-hearted efforts, and that the fate of their own state is intertwined with peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Third, Pakistan and Afghanistan must fully collaborate in their fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which requires improved relations between the two countries. The Obama administration’s recent effort in Washington to improve the relationship between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan is extremely important and should be pursued. Settling the border dispute between the two countries will help resolve their historic differences and will allow the Pakistani army to deal more effectively with border crossings by the Taliban fighters and with the smuggling of narcotics and weapons.
Fourth, U.S. concern over the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is genuine and justified. Although the Pakistani military offers assurances about its safety, the United States cannot take safety for granted. The danger of nuclear weapons or material falling into the hands of a terrorist group cannot readily be ruled out. Pakistan is extraordinarily sensitive about its nuclear weapons and suspects that the United States might have some design in mind to seize them. The Obama administration must work out an arrangement whereby the Pakistanis would feel safe and in control of their weapons, while the United States is satisfied that under no circumstances could such weapons or material fall into the wrong hands.
With the best of intentions and with all the efforts and resources needed to secure a peaceful ending to the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is still no assurance of success. President Obama’s campaign has just begun, and this war may be his longest. The United States can leave the region successfully only when Afghanistan and Pakistan realize that they must fight the war against terror as their own. America must stand ready and willing to help them win it, with staying power this time around.