Joe Biden is reportedly the Obama administration’s biggest opponent to escalation in Afghanistan, arguing internally that our current strategic priorities are seriously out of kilter.
Holly Bailey and Evan Thomas open a piece on “A Day in the Life of Joe Biden” (HTML title: “Joe Biden, White House Truth Teller”) with an interesting quote:
Joe Biden had a question. During a long Sunday meeting with President Obama and top national-security advisers on Sept. 13, the VP interjected, “Can I just clarify a factual point? How much will we spend this year on Afghanistan?” Someone provided the figure: $65 billion. “And how much will we spend on Pakistan?” Another figure was supplied: $2.25 billion. “Well, by my calculations that’s a 30-to-1 ratio in favor of Afghanistan. So I have a question. Al Qaeda is almost all in Pakistan, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And yet for every dollar we’re spending in Pakistan, we’re spending $30 in Afghanistan. Does that make strategic sense?” The White House Situation Room fell silent. But the questions had their desired effect: those gathered began putting more thought into Pakistan as the key theater in the region.
Ariana Huffington, who enthusiastically agrees, pleas for Biden to resign the vice presidency and fight for this position rather than let Obama do what he seems on track to do: “looking for a middle way.” Now, of course, Biden’s not going to do that. He’s got a lot more clout inside the administration than he would outside and he’d be seen as weakening his party.
That outlandish suggestion aside, however, Biden makes a strong point on the disparity between how we’re treating the two halfs of what has become “AfPak.” To be sure, our own Harlan Ullman has been making the same point for months. But he’s not vice president in an administration that campaigned on the vitality of winning in Afghanistan.
It’s become conventional wisdom that al Qaeda has mostly been run out of Afghanistan and that Pakistan is where the action is. Speaking at the Atlantic Council last November, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden said, “Today, virtually every major terrorist threat that my agency is aware of has threads back to the tribal areas” in Pakistan. Yet, we’re putting 30 times the resources into Afghanistan.
Presumably, that’s partly explained by the fact that we toppled the previous government of Afghanistan by force of arms after the 9/11 attacks and have remained there to finish routing the Taliban and accomplish some vague and constantly shifting nation-building objectives. But the evidence continues to mount that we’re spinning our wheels in Afghanistan. Certainly, the corruption of the Hamid Karzai government in the recent elections would seem an indication that we’re a long way from the sort of political climate we’re seeking there.
And, yes, Pakistan is more difficult. They’re our ostensible ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban and a sizable American presence there might do more harm than good. But that still doesn’t account for a 30-to-1 disparity in favor of the half of AfPak that poses the least threat to the United States and is far less amenable to modernization. Especially when the events of the last few days show a resurgent Taliban as a threat to the stability of Pakistan.
It’s far from clear, of course, that our prospects for success are remarkably higher on the other side of the porous border. The degree to which Islamabad controls the military and intelligence apparatus and the precise overlap in the agendas of our two governments are open to debate. But given that both al Qaeda and the Taliban seem to have their power centers in Pakistan and that we’ve spent eight years pouring our resources overwhelmingly into Afghanistan, it’s prudent to hedge our bets and at least bring the two figures into something approaching balance.