War Stories

Glass Almost Empty

The White House report on Afghanistan is very bleak indeed.

President Obama

The Obama administration’s long-awaited review of its Afghanistan war strategy—or at least the unclassified five-page summary of it released Thursday—is a bleaker document than it may seem at first glance.

On the one hand, it contains much talk of “significant progress” and “notable” gains in U.S. and NATO military operations. On the other hand, there’s at least as much mention of the remaining “challenges” and the fact that even the gains are “fragile and reversible.”

But to put the report’s findings in these terms suggests a mixed, even glass-half-full picture (things are going well in Column A, not so well in Column B), when in fact it states very clearly that the things going badly make the things going well nearly irrelevant.

Six times in the course of five pages, the report’s authors note that, unless Pakistan does a better job of controlling its borders—the western tribal areas, where Taliban leaders find safe haven and move reinforcements and supplies into Afghanistan and back again—the U.S. military successes of recent months are for naught.

For instance, on Page 1, the report defines “our ultimate end state” as “the eventual strategic defeat of al-Qaida in the region,” but it adds that this “will require the sustained denial of the group’s safe haven in the tribal areas of western Pakistan.”

On Page 3: The “denial of extremist safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan.”

On Page 5: “Consolidating those gains [made in the fight against the Afghan Taliban] will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks.”

Those italics (all mine) make the point: Clearing the safe havens in Pakistan is not just an important ingredient in achieving our strategic objectives in Afghanistan; it is a requirement. Without it, all other successes are merely tactical and, even then, probably short-lived (“fragile and reversible,” as the report puts it).

This point is hardly new. Every military official—from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan—have long stressed that the existence of cross-border safe havens gravely impedes the prospects for strategic success.

Ever since he became president, Barack Obama has dramatically stepped up U.S. airstrikes—mainly with smart bombs fired by CIA drones—against Taliban leaders in those Pakistani sanctuaries. But today’s report indicates that, while those strikes have had an effect, the effect has not been large or fast enough—that the Pakistanis themselves have to do more on the ground.

At a White House press conference today, Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about the steadily improving “strategic dialogue” between the United States and Pakistan. Only recently, they said, have the Pakistanis come to realize that the jihadists threatening us in Afghanistan are part of the same “terrorist network”—and thus form the same threat—as the jihadists threatening their own regime. As a result, the Pakistani military has taken action, for instance, moving 140,000 soldiers to the western border with Afghanistan—an extraordinary step—and bearing many casualties as a result.

However, the fact remains, at least for the moment, that the Pakistani political and military leaders are not likely to change much more on this front, for the simple reason that they view India—not the Taliban—as the main threat to their existence.

This has two implications for the war in Afghanistan. First, the Pakistani army will insist on keeping the bulk of its troops on the eastern border with India at the expense of dealing with the Taliban safe havens on the western border with Afghanistan.

Second, the Pakistanis want—in their eyes, they need—to maintain influence inside Afghanistan, as a way to counter India’s quite active attempt to gain influence inside Afghanistan (which India is pursuing mainly as a way to encircle Pakistan). And the way that Pakistan maintains this influence is through certain factions of the Taliban.

Earlier this year, Dexter Filkins reported in the New York Times that Pakistan had arrested more than 20 Taliban leaders who were in the process of negotiating peace deals with the Afghan government because they were doing so without involving Pakistan.

In short, U.S. officials may have lectured Pakistanis about the links between the Afghan Taliban and the al-Qaida militants who threaten Pakistan’s government. But the Pakistanis see the two as distinct—and, in fact, regard some of the Afghan-based Taliban as their allies or even agents.

U.S. military successes in Afghanistan may alter this dynamic to some degree if more Taliban commanders react by rushing to the negotiating tables in order to avoid further damage. And it’s worth noting that, according to Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak’s report in Thursday’s New York Times, even some Taliban fighters see Gen. Petraeus’ recent offensives in Kandahar and Helmand provinces as debilitating setbacks—that is, as huge successes for the United States and NATO.

However, as long as Pakistani leaders deem a presence in Afghanistan to be a vital security need, the war will continue; and as long as tensions remain high with India, Pakistani leaders will continue demanding a presence in Afghanistan.

In other words, a settlement of the war requires a détente between India and Pakistan.

When Obama came into office, he talked about the need for a “regional” solution to the Afghanistan war. U.S. officials say he fully understands India’s role in such a solution. But little has been done diplomatically to facilitate this role—to foster negotiations between India and Pakistan.

Part of this is because it’s hard. Tensions have been high ever since 1947, when India was partitioned and Pakistan emerged as an independent state. Since then, three wars have erupted between the two countries—in 1965, 1971, and 1999—and at least a half-dozen deadly skirmishes.

Part of this is because the regional politics have grown more complicated. In the weeks following 9/11, Iran supplied the United States with a lot of intelligence about the Taliban. There were even midlevel meetings between the two countries’ diplomatic corps over anti-Taliban strategy—a tentative alliance that ended in January 2002, when then-President George W. Bush declared Iran to be a member of the “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea. Now, with the rise of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the brutal suppression of domestic dissidents, Iran is competing with Pakistan and the United States for influence over Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

On Dec. 15, the day before the White House was scheduled to release its strategic review, someone leaked to the New York Times the findings of two National Intelligence Estimates—one on Afghanistan, the other on Pakistan—concluding that the prospects for success seemed grim, precisely because the Pakistanis were not likely to put the clamp on the Taliban sanctuaries inside their territory.

The leak appeared designed to blunt the more optimistic sections of the then-impending strategic review, so U.S. military officials fought back, telling the Times’ reporter, Elisabeth Bumiller, that the NIEs—which represented the consensus views of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies—were completed in October, before the recent gains in Kandahar, and written mainly at CIA headquarters by desk analysts who had no exposure to events on the ground.

We seem to be witnessing the opening salvos of a bureaucratic battle between the military and the intelligence agencies—a battle that may spread to other Washington realms, as Hillary Clinton’s State Department appears to side with the military and as some top advisers in the White House share the intelligence agencies’ skepticism.

If the fight gets going, it will grow increasingly intense because it will be a contest for the president’s heart and mind—specifically to influence his next big decision on the war in July 2011. That’s when Obama has said U.S. troops will begin to pull out from Afghanistan. The question is: How many troops will be withdrawn? And will the fairly ambitious counterinsurgency strategy, which the president endorsed in December 2009, be scaled back?

Obama has emphasized many times in recent months that the extent of this pullout will be determined by conditions on the ground. Several officials have suggested that the withdrawals will be minor—an impression reinforced by the recent NATO conference in Lisbon, where the Western allies declared that the military missions wouldn’t be turned over entirely to the Afghan military until 2014. And even then, Obama said at today’s press conference, a certain number of U.S. and NATO troops will remain, if just to continue training and advising the Afghan forces.

However, some officials see the intelligence estimates as warranting a second look at the whole U.S. strategy in Afghanistan—an inference they see bolstered by the more pessimistic passages of today’s strategic review (which itself was the product of several interagency meetings at the National Security Council and which incorporates the views of the intelligence agencies as well as those of the military and other departments).

And so, we’re hurled back to a basic question about this war and a tension that stirs ambivalence among many supporters and critics. On the one hand, our chances of success are improved if all the players in the region—Karzai, the Pakistanis, the Taliban, and the Afghan people—are convinced that the United States is going to stay for a long time to come. On the other hand, if our chances are nonetheless dim because of forces largely beyond our control (such as Pakistan’s refusal to crack down on the safe havens inside its territory), then maybe it’s time to draw down—but if we do that, how do we keep the Taliban from coming to power and al-Qaida from once again expanding its reach?

Nothing about this war gets any easier.

Watch: Heather Hurlburt and Michael C. Moynihan debate the future of the Afghanistan war.

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