The AfPak puzzle

The good news: Obama understands what's wrong in Afghanistan and Pakistan
The bad news: He can't fix it

By Fred Kaplan

We finally have a president who grasps what needs to be done about Afghanistan and Pakistan. The frightening thing is that much of what needs to be done lies beyond the scope of American power.

President Barack Obama realizes, to a degree that George W. Bush never did, that the two countries can't be dealt with separately, that the threats facing each are intertwined. He recognizes that Pakistan is central to the entire region's security and that its fate will affect Afghanistan far more than vice versa. He understands that political and economic development are at least as decisive as military strength. His special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, has assembled a team of advisers who know the complexities of South Asian politics as deeply as anyone. Yet despite all this knowledge and insight, there's only so much that the United States can affect, much less control (and most of the major players know this, too).

For much of this week, Obama, Holbrooke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other top officials have been meeting with the Afghan and Pakistani presidents, Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari. Everyone has emerged from these meetings with encouraging words about the common need to battle the Taliban and to strengthen democratic institutions.

Today, in an unprecedented move, the secretaries of the interior, agriculture, and other domestic agencies met with their Afghan and Pakistani counterparts — who traveled to Washington along with Karzai and Zardari — to discuss ways of improving civilian infrastructure. As those versed in counterinsurgency well know, and as Obama himself has frequently said, the best way to build loyalty to the government — and thus undercut the appeal of insurgents — is to display competence in providing basic services.

But there's an enormous practical barrier to this idea. No American diplomat, Agency for International Development worker, or other civil servant or contractor can, or should, be expected to roam Afghanistan without security forces standing by, and it's unclear where these forces are going to come from. President Obama has ordered an increase in U.S. troops; most of them will arrive this summer. But their main mission will be fighting insurgents along the eastern border and protecting Afghan civilians. There simply aren't enough of them to protect American civilians, too. (And that task involves more than sending out a handful of bodyguards; those guards, in turn, require a perimeter defense, a supply network, and so forth. This is a perennial paradox of counterinsurgency operations: Security requires development, but development requires security.)

Of course these civilian advisers could be stationed in Kabul. But the last thing Karzai, or any other popularly elected president of Afghanistan, needs is a vast American apparatus — a replay of Baghdad's Green Zone — that makes it seem as though foreign infidels are running the country.

The situation in Pakistan is more delicate still, because we barely have a presence there at all — nor are we likely to have one anytime soon. Pakistanis hold a very dim view of the United States; in the Pew Global Survey's most recent poll, they are second only to the Turks in this regard. Our standing may have improved a bit since Obama's election (the numbers are not yet in), but nobody anticipates that U.S. troops will be tolerated on Pakistani soil. Mere drone attacks, aimed at Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, have triggered widespread resentment, because they have occasionally killed civilians as well. The Islamabad government has permitted a small number of Pakistani soldiers to be trained by Americans in counterinsurgency, but only outside Pakistan's borders, a restriction that limits the training's relevance, since counterinsurgency is by nature a local enterprise, varying case by case and requiring on-the-scene calibration.

In short, we can send Pakistanis money, arms, handbooks, and the like. But we can't make them do what they say they're going to do or even effectively monitor whether they're doing it. Bush sent $10 billion to then-President Pervez Musharraf, who pledged that he would use the aid to go after the terrorists. For the most part, he didn't.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani military has little desire to improve its counterinsurgency skills. Many officers are more loyal to the Taliban than to the central government. And though the army is beginning to crack down on Taliban fighters in the Swat and Buner districts, it is still the case that 80 percent or 90 percent of Pakistani troops are stationed on the border with India, which most officers still see as the country's greatest threat. This perception is no mere idiosyncrasy; it is integral to the Pakistani worldview, dating back to the founding of the nation and the partition from India in 1947. It has been reinforced by three wars between the two nations, in '47, '65, and '71, as well as a war or two that nearly broke out in the past decade, and has been hammered home further by the fact that both counties have nuclear weapons.

Maybe this time the Pakistani military is really getting serious. Certainly the population is less enamored of Islamist terrorists than it used to be. Those who say they support suicide bombing under certain circumstances has plummeted from 40 percent in 2004 to just 5 percent in 2008, according to a Pew survey released this past March. (Then again, 34 percent of Pakistanis still say they have confidence in Osama bin Laden, down from 50 percent.)

Pakistan's political and military leaders are doing a horrible job of exploiting this shift in public opinion. They're finally going after the Taliban — a move that is potentially more popular than it would have been a few years ago — but they're doing it by dropping bombs, firing rockets, and launching artillery shells, techniques guaranteed to kill at least as many civilians as insurgents. The recent fighting in Swat and Buner has forced a half-million people to flee their homes. The onslaught of refugees has created a massive humanitarian crisis, and it has made many people as bitter toward the government as toward the Taliban. They simply want peace and don't care much who brings it about.

To calm this crisis and reduce the chance of a total breakdown of authority in Pakistan, the Obama administration will have to get a lot bolder a lot more quickly. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan can be stabilized by the United States alone, and NATO is not terribly effective or popular, either. For months now, President Obama and others have said this is a regional crisis that must be solved by all interested parties in the region. Now it's time to get this effort going.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was recently in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. AfPak was on the agenda; it's unclear whether any accord was reached. It's also time to reach out to China and Russia and make some kind of deal with Iran as well. This is no fantasy. Iran is very leery of seeing radical Sunnis, such as the Taliban or al-Qaida, destabilize or take power in Afghanistan or Pakistan. After Sept. 11, 2001, midlevel U.S. and Iranian officials held talks about cooperating against the Taliban. These talks ended in January 2002, after Bush tagged Iran as a member of the "axis of evil."

Meanwhile, is anyone trying to persuade India to take steps to ease tensions on its border with Pakistan? This is a precondition to getting the Pakistani military to take its threat from within more seriously. The fact that it's difficult doesn't make it any less necessary. Everything that needs to be done — and done fairly soon — is difficult, and none of it can be done by the United States alone.

7 May 2009 — Return to cover.