All the talk is how to end the Afghan war, not how to win it. Until recently, powers that be in Washington were proselytizing about the need for a long-term commitment – five to 10 years if necessary – to defeat the Taliban. The change was dictated by critical decisions made, or not made, by Pakistan. As long as Taliban insurgents enjoy safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal belt, the Afghan war is unwinnable.
If truth be known – but some key U.S. policymakers don’t want to hear it and when they do they pooh-pooh the evidence as unconvincing – our Pakistani friends have convinced themselves the United States does not have the wherewithal to stay the course in Afghanistan for the next five years. Let alone 10.
President Obama is committed to begin a U.S. withdrawal by mid-2011. Already, the United Nations says it has begun talks with Taliban representatives, which the Taliban denies. Former Taliban officials who did time in a U.S. prison are acting as intermediaries. Besides, many key Pakistanis believe they can live with another Taliban regime, albeit cleansed of its medieval practices and without al-Qaida.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief of staff and top soldier, and Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the powerful head of Inter-Services Intelligence, are having a hard time reassuring their subordinates about the solidity of their alliance with the United States. Collectively, they have to deal with the emergence of Paranoidistan, a state that suspects every U.S. move is designed to weaken Pakistan for the benefit of a secret U.S. alliance with India.
If the United States is such a good ally, say the skeptics, why do Pakistani troops ride into combat in trucks protected only by canvas? And what happened to the requested 500 M113 (out of 6,000 being retired) fully tracked armored personnel carriers that formed the backbone of U.S. infantry units until they were replaced with more modern Strykers and Bradleys? The Pakistanis also have a desperate need for helicopter gunships and troop carriers. All the United States could supply were 10 Russian MI8s; half of them can’t fly from lack of spare parts.
Many Pakistanis believe there is a secret sub-HQ of Gen. David H. Petraeus’ Tampa-based CENTCOM secretly sheltered below ground in the U.S. Embassy compound. Any factoid published in an Urdu-language Pakistani tabloid becomes incontrovertible fact when picked up in the more respectable local English media. U.S. diplomats and their vehicles are regularly harassed while newly posted officials are made to wait months for their Pakistani visas.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen has met 16 times with his Pakistani counterpart, Kayani, including 15 trips to Pakistan, to overcome deep distrust about U.S. motives. He sees the complexity of the relationship with south central Asia and central Asia growing daily. Terrorist sympathizers getting their hands on part of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is the worst nightmare, as seen by the Pentagon’s topsiders, and the more unstable Pakistan becomes, the closer the danger.
After fighting three wars with India since independence in 1947, Kayani had to convince his generals and colonels that it was necessary to shift Pakistan’s strategic focus from India to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border. Mullen tells his staff to look at Pakistan’s problems through "their lens." But after what Pakistani officers describe as repeated U.S. betrayals – the worst being punishing Pakistan, a key Cold War ally against the Soviet Union, with tough economic and military sanctions over 10 years for its secret development of a nuclear deterrent against India – Kayani has a tough sell when he tells his staff to look at America’s problems through "their lens."
Another major problem for the Obama administration in Pakistan is that an entire generation of field-grade officers had no exposure to U.S. staff colleges and training facilities. Sanctions had kept them out.
Much to Mullen’s surprise, Pakistan recently announced a six- to 12-month suspension of military operations against the Taliban in South Waziristan, under way since last October. This was a campaign designed to defeat the Taliban that had fought its way to within 60 miles of Islamabad, the capital.
The more dangerous Taliban for the United States was its Afghan wing that was fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. These Taliban continue to enjoy sanctuaries in North Waziristan, where Pakistan’s ISI hopes to strike a deal with its leaders that would wind down hostilities in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is fearful that continued fighting in Afghanistan against the Taliban is a convenient cover for India, its erstwhile enemy, to consolidate its influence in a country the Pakistanis have long regarded as their geopolitical turf. For U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates, just back from India and Pakistan, a power-sharing compromise in Kabul is the only way to cut short a war that no longer has the support of the American people.
Obama, like most European leaders, is baffled by seemingly contradictory reports about Pakistan brought back to him by Mullen, Gates, Petraeus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. Their Pakistani interlocutors have different agendas, and some aren’t averse to disinformation. There is also Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani who is trying to reduce President Asif Ali Zardari to a ceremonial role.
To sort fact from fancy, Obama has asked national security adviser James L. Jones, a former NATO supreme commander, to return to Islamabad – he was last there in November – to (1) reiterate a solemn strategic partnership with Pakistan for the long term (witness the five-year, $7.5 billion economic aid package); and (2) pin down Kayani on a common strategic objective in FATA and Afghanistan.
More critical to Kayani than economic aid is the equipment the Pakistani army needs to make a difference in its tribal areas on the Afghan border. Kayani also has to assess how the Afghan war will look as key NATO components – U.K., Canadian and Dutch units – begin to head home at year’s end 2010, and some U.S. forces by mid-2011.