President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan strategy is looking eerily similar to the approach former President George W. Bush employed in his effort to remake Iraq.  Through a combination of increased military muscle, diplomatic pressure, reconstruction aid, and support from friends and allies, the Obama administration hopes to end the scourge of al-Qaeda and the Taliban and usher in a future of peace and democratic governance in Afghanistan. 

Although Obama has rhetorically repudiated the “global war on terror,” his Afghan – more precisely, Afghanistan-Pakistan, or Af-Pak – strategy has the look of déjà vu all over again.

Candidate Obama properly criticized the Bush administration for diverting the nation’s energy and resources to Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, instead of defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  The invasion of Iraq was a strategic error of colossal proportions, and the United States is still paying the price for that tragic folly in taxpayer dollars and in the loss of American lives, now in excess of 4200.  President Obama is attempting to correct that strategic blunder by taking the fight against the terrorists who attacked the United States to the right battlefield.  Unfortunately, this otherwise intelligent change of course is coming seven years late.  Just as he has decided to terminate America’s involvement in Iraq at the end of 2010, his presidency and the country’s interests would be better served by planning the same exit strategy in Afghanistan.

In the first place, the planned strategy of military search-and-destroy and political pacification will require a costly and prolonged campaign, just the sort of thing a new president with an economic crisis on his hands and an ambitious reform agenda would want to avoid.  President Hamid Karzai’s corrupt and ineffectual leadership aside, it is fanciful to think that Afghanistan is likely to be anything but the lawless, ungovernable assemblage of warring tribes that historically have fiercely resisted external influence.  Great Britain twice failed in the nineteenth century to control Afghanistan.  Soviet Russia fared no better a century later.

Stealing a page from the Bush playbook in Iraq, Obama is planning to surge an additional 17,000 combat troops.  But the addition of reinforcements will not be sufficient to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban so long as the militants can take refuge in the sanctuaries of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan and in the adjoining Balochistan and Northwest Frontier Province.  Washington’s appeals to the government in Islamabad to help root out the militants have been futile thus far.  Not only did the Pakistani Army offer little resistance to Taliban encroachment in the Swat Valley, it signed a truce that ensured their control of the area.  In the past week, the Taliban have expanded their influence, ensconcing themselves in Buner, a district only 60 miles north of Islamabad.

Senior US officials – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her special Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen – have warned the Pakistani government that its passivity endangers US policy in Afghanistan.  No doubt they will join Obama in exhorting Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to take aggressive action against the insurgency when he visits Washington on May 6.  Zardari is likely to offer reassurances, if only to ensure continued receipt of US aid, and he will probably point to the military’s recent clash with the militants in a district west of the Swat Valley as an illustration of his government’s earnest.  For a variety of reasons, however, Pakistan’s support of America’s Af-Pak strategy is more likely to be honored in the breach than the observance.

For one thing, the insurgents have proven to be a match for the Pakistani Army.  Lacking counterinsurgency skills, the Army has suffered serious losses when it has engaged the militants in FATA and the Swat Valley.  For another, its soldiers are trained and deployed instead to counter the military threat from India, with which the government remains obsessed.  Even if Pakistani military leaders were to redeploy reinforcements from the Indian border to FATA and the Swat Valley, they would still be reluctant to attack insurgents that the national intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, supports as a proxy force against India in Kashmir.

To further complicate matters, the collateral damage produced by the Pakistani Army’s heavy-handed tactics has resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians and alienated the population in the border areas.  Thanks to the “war on terror,” anti-Americanism has also intensified in Pakistan, as it has everywhere in the Muslim world.  Obama’s stated objective of taking the fight into Pakistan and the continuing strikes from Predator drone aircraft have not only reinforced this sentiment, they have led to growing sympathy for the Taliban on the part of the tribes in FATA and the Northwest Frontier Province.  To expect Zardari to back air strikes that undermine his political authority is nothing short of delusional.

Without sustained Pakistani cooperation for the military effort in Afghanistan, the US will be forced to wage a long and dispiriting struggle, not unlike the kind it fought in Vietnam, in which it will produce a new jihadi – and not just in Pakistan – for every militant it kills.  It will also be a lonely struggle.  The British may send another 2000 troops to support the surge, and the Australians may add modestly to their total.  But the other European allies are heading for the exit, as possibly the Canadians as well.  No matter how seduced the Europeans are by Obama’s charisma, they are not keen on making themselves targets of extremist reprisals.  True, they agreed at the recent NATO ministerial meeting in Strasbourg to supply an additional 5000 troops, but virtually the lot of them will be assigned to maintain security during next August’s elections in Afghanistan and to train the Afghan army and police.

Given such massive obstacles, the Obama administration will have to do the best it can with a bad hand.  Making the best of a bad situation does not call for increasing US military forces in Afghanistan or taking the fight to Pakistan.  Persisting on the present course runs a far greater chance of destabilizing Pakistan, thus producing more terrorists, and of provoking a conflict with India.  The wiser course is to reduce the US military presence and plan for our departure from Afghanistan, as the president is doing in Iraq. 

A gradual withdrawal of US forces would help to improve America’s toxic image in Pakistan and, if coupled with the resumption of a dialogue with Iran and progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state, in the broader Muslim world.  A reduced US military presence might also force Islamabad to be more responsive to threats to Pakistan’s territorial integrity.  As part of the process of disengagement, we should continue to provide humanitarian and developmental aid, as underwritten by the Biden-Lugar Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2008, and provide training for the Afghan military and police, who, as in Iraq, must assume responsibility for their own security. 

This suggested course of action, while far from ideal, is a necessary concession to political reality, a concession that the United States, in its periodic bouts of hubris, has all too frequently ignored.

Hugh De Santis is a strategic analyst and international consultant.  He is a former career officer in the Department of State and Chair of the Department of National Security Strategy at the National War College.  His comments do not reflect the views of the US Government.