War Stories

The Pakistan Problem

Will Pakistan’s instability make the Afghan war unwinnable?

U.S. Army patrols in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama’s decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan means neither that he is “putting his stamp firmly” on the war, as the New York Times reports, nor that he is sliding down “the slippery slope of military escalation,” as an anti-war group protests.

He will have to decide where to take the war sometime in the next few months, and he may wind up on that slope, despite his best efforts to resist it. But he hasn’t yet reached either point.

The president announced on Tuesday that he was sending two more brigades plus their support personnel to Afghanistan—thus boosting the U.S. military presence there by half—for two basic reasons: to keep that country from falling apart before its presidential elections this August and to provide a modicum of security, so that the elections can take place.

The White House is conducting a “strategic review” of Afghanistan, scheduled to be completed in 60 days. (The Pentagon’s Joint Staff has already submitted its own review, and Gen. David Petraeus’ U.S. Central Command is writing one, too. At least one section of the White House’s paper will be a review of those reviews.) After that, Obama will decide how to deal with this war in the long term. But if he’d waited for the review before deciding whether to send the two brigades, they wouldn’t have arrived in time for the elections.

In short, whatever Obama eventually does about this war, he pretty much had to send those two brigades now—a move recommended by all his civilian and military advisers—unless, of course, he’d decided just to get out of Afghanistan altogether. But he wasn’t going to do that. He has said many times, during the election campaign and since, that as U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq, he would send at least some of them to Afghanistan. And the two brigades that he’s sending there now—one Army, one Marine—were originally scheduled to rotate back into Iraq.

Even so, the president made clear in his announcement that the deployment is not open-ended. Its purpose, he said, is merely “to stabilize a deteriorating situation.” He also said, more pointedly, “This troop increase does not pre-determine the outcome of that strategic review.”

The NATO alliance’s challenge in Afghanistan—difficult enough—has been complicated in just the last few days by a deal struck across the border between the Pakistani government and a key figure in the Taliban. In exchange for an end to the internal fighting between the army and the rebels, the Taliban has been allowed to set up a court system of Islamist, or sharia, law in the Swat Valley, an area of 1.3 million people—a majority of whom had voted for secular candidates in the most recent elections—just 100 miles from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have said that their limited mission in Afghanistan is to keep that country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists who want to attack the United States and its allies or to destabilize the region. And yet the Taliban appears to have been given just such a safe haven inside Pakistan—a much richer state that has nuclear weapons—with the blessings of the Pakistani government, which is supposedly our ally in the war on terror.

For some time now, U.S. officers have acknowledged that Pakistan looms as the larger threat and the world’s biggest potential source of global terrorism. Even if the war in Afghanistan goes smoothly, that would mean nothing if Pakistan falls apart.

The question now arises: If Islamist terrorists have an officially sanctioned haven inside Pakistan itself, does the fate of Afghanistan matter very much? How much blood and treasure is a sideshow worth?

It should be emphasized, this deal has not yet been enacted; nor, given its terms, is it likely to be. Contrary to some reports, it does not call for a wholesale abandonment of the Swat Valley to Taliban rule. Rather, as respected journalist Ismail Khan notes in an article in today’s Dawn, the country’s most widely read English-language newspaper, the deal calls for Pakistan’s secular criminal code to be observed, unless a council of sharia judges rules that some law or another is un-Islamic. The deal also calls for a halt in the fighting between the Pakistani army and the Taliban militias.

The key facts here are that, at the moment, there is no working judicial system of any sort in the Swat Valley—and that the Taliban militias have routed the numerically superior Pakistani army in their armed confrontations. So the deal imposes national secular authority even more than it legitimizes sharia justice. And given the balance of power, it’s unclear why the Taliban would go along with that.

The deal was made not with “the Taliban” as a whole—the term implies a more cohesive entity than actually exists—but rather, specifically, with Maulana Sufi Muhammad, whom the Pakistanis arrested two years ago for leading jihadist raids across the border into Afghanistan. He was released from prison after agreeing to give up the struggle and to work for peace.

The hope is that he would strike a deal with his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah, who is the deputy to a much more militant Taliban leader—or that, if he can’t come to terms with his son-in-law, a wedge might be driven between various Islamist factions, peeling Sufi Muhammad and his followers away from the radicals and thus strengthening the hand of the central government.

However, Daniel Markey, a specialist on Pakistan at the Council on Foreign Relations, doubts this stratagem will work. “It assumes the militants will accept the authority of the Pakistani state,” he said in a phone interview today. “Why should they?”

There is nothing wrong in principle with trying to negotiate deals with Taliban factions. Gen. Petraeus has openly said that such deals will have to be a part of any successful strategy in Afghanistan. However, Petraeus and other officers make two points about such negotiations: First, it’s futile to go down that road with hard-core Taliban; second, to the extent negotiations succeed with any faction, we need to enter into them from a position of strength.

The deal in Pakistan breaks both rules: Pakistan’s political leaders are trying to craft a deal, indirectly, with the hard-core Taliban, and they’re entering into it from a position of obvious weakness.

This is why the deal is not only ill-fated but potentially disastrous: It reveals the severe weakness of the Pakistani state. The politicians pursued the deal only because the state cannot control its own territory. Unless Sufi Muhammad can convince his son-in-law to accept peace and obeisance to secular authority in exchange for a parcel of land where Islamic law carries some weight, the deal is more likely to convince the militant Taliban simply to press on for more favors still.

Or, if they’re lucky, the deal will simply collapse, as similar deals have collapsed in the past, and the struggles will rage on.

Whatever President Obama decides to do in Afghanistan, the real danger lies in Pakistan, and its problems lie beyond the powers and jurisdiction of the U.S. military or NATO.

A solution, if there is one, will be maddeningly complicated. It will require a semblance of order on the Afghan-Pakistani border (good luck, Richard Holbrooke) and the Pakistani army’s willingness to be trained in counterinsurgency operations by foreign armies or advisers. This, in turn, will require a calming of the border between Pakistan and India—so that the Pakistani military feels secure enough to redeploy troops away from its traditional external rival toward the much more real threats from within. And an Indian-Pakistani settlement will probably require security guarantees from several powers in the region—which will involve the powers negotiating on goals and means as a precondition. Finally, all these steps will have to be taken at roughly the same time; success in each realm will depend, to some degree, on successes in the others.

Diplomacy has rarely had to be managed on so many wobbly layers. But the alternative is too awful to allow.