Can Obama Be Successful in Afghanistan?

President Obama’s criteria for “success” in the Afghanistan war depends more on what our erstwhile ally Pakistan does to solve its problems than on our fine troops and deep pockets.  Even though Pakistan is acting as if it is committed to fighting the Taliban, there’s a good chance American support and Pakistan resolve will expire before Obama’s “success” is achieved.

Last week, President Obama said “success” in the war is denying al Qaeda and its affiliates “safe havens from which to attack Americans” which depends equally on Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Failure to defeat the Islamists in both countries will resonate far and wide with the worst case being al Qaeda getting Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile.

“Success” on the Afghanistan side of the border is a stretch goal but possible given good leadership, sufficient time, troops and money. But Pakistan is the center of gravity of the war on terror, and we have little influence over that country’s activities.  That’s why Obama’s “success” is doubtful, a view shared by most Americans.

A June 2009 BBC World News America/The Harris Poll found more than three in five Americans (63%) say “… they are not confident that the government of Pakistan will be able to defeat the Taliban.”  Worse, more than half of Americans (55%) expect in the next few years “… there will be a government in Pakistan that will support al Qaeda in its efforts to launch terrorist attacks against the U.S.”   [June 12 and 16, 2009,]

The Obama administration understands public support for operations in Central Asia is drying up. That’s why Obama conducted a war policy review, quickly announced his new strategy and brought in a new commander, Army Gen. Stanley McCrystal, to implement a “fresh” approach.   The President needs quick and positive results before he runs for re-election in 2012.

McCrystal’s “fresh” approach shifts emphasis in Afghanistan from “kinetic,” or conventional, fighting, toward “winning hearts and minds.”  There are similarities between his strategy and Gen. David Petraeus’ winning approach in Iraq: surge forces (growing to 68,000 Americans in 2009), more restrictive rules of engagement, less intrusive operations, and a “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency tactic that provides locals long-term security to win their confidence.

But to realize Obama’s regional “success” Pakistan must mirror what McCrystal aims to accomplish in Afghanistan.  To coax Islamabad, Obama hired Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the Bosnia peace agreement in the mid-1990s.  Holbrooke prodded and shamed Islamabad to keep step with efforts in Afghanistan, and beginning in March, the Pakistanis launched a counteroffensive that took back frontier areas like the Swat Valley from the Taliban. Recently the Pakistanis shifted their sights on tribal regions like Waziristan, an Afghanistan border area.

Last week, that operation suffered a blow when Taliban militants in North Waziristan ended a 2008 peace agreement with the Pakistani government.  This development jeopardizes the army’s plan to isolate its key Taliban rival, Baitullah Mehshud and threatens to over-stretch the military.  The army has 140,000 forces fighting on many fronts across western Pakistan.

Pakistan’s stretched armed forces need urgent help.  Dr. Nasim Ashraf, a former minister under President Pervez Muscharaff and a scholar with the Washington-based The Middle East Institute, visited the Pakistani frontier in June 2009.  During his visit, Ashraf spoke with many key Pakistani military officers who lamented that “U.S. assistance takes too long to reach where it is needed and that promises are made but not fulfilled in time.”  

Thus far the U.S. has begun delivering transport helicopters, body armor and other counterinsurgency hardware for the fight.  But Pakistani commanders told Dr. Ashraf they also need night vision equipment for F-16 fighter jets which are highly effective against high value targets and which could reduce the need for reliance on highly unpopular American drone attacks.

The army also plans to permanently assign soldiers in frontier areas like the Swat Valley, said Ashraf.  These troops need to be equipped with helicopters for quick response to distress calls from sergeants embedded in local communities.  This approach appears to parallel McCrystal’s “clear, hold, build” tactic.

But Pakistan’s “success” depends just as much on resolving non-military problems as defeating the insurgents. It must build trust in the government, improve the economy, resolve the internally displaced persons crisis and replace extremist-based Islamic schools used as recruiting bases.  Resolving these long-term problems will go far to denying safe haven to extremists.

Pakistan’s political class must address sources of discontent on which the extremists thrive, including government corruption, inadequate services and a troubled legal system. Corruption is a serious problem in Pakistan’s government. Dr. Ashraf found “… the people have very little confidence in either the provincial or the [federal] government” because of corruption.  And Syed Adil Gilani, chairman of Transparency International Pakistan, said his country is one of the most corrupt nations in the world which failed to properly use billions of U.S. aid dollars for fighting terrorism.

Pakistan’s economy is in a tailspin with high unemployment and inflation, and all indications are that a “tipping point is being reached,” according to Dr. Ashraf.  But the silver lining is Islamabad’s crisis, which scares most of the world.  That’s why 20 countries promised billions in aid hoping to contain the crisis but that assistance may arrive too late to sustain anti-Taliban momentum. Even America’s promised five-year $7.5 billion aid package got bogged down in Congress over Pakistan’s past nuclear proliferation and terrorism aiding activities.

Pakistan is grappling with almost two million internally displaced people who are vulnerable to extremist recruitment. The U.S. has done more than its share to alleviate this humanitarian crisis, pledging $300 million, but Islamic charities are competing for the allegiance of these people, and, so far, the Islamists are winning.  Hard-line Islamic charities which front for insurgent groups push their anti-western agenda along with aid to sour public opinion against the government and the Americans.

The Saudis and other Arab Gulf states funnel money to the Taliban and their primary recruiting venue, the madrassas (Islamic schools).  Thousands of these Koran-only schools that teach hatred of the west provide fertile ground for jihadist recruiting.  

Pakistan’s previous government launched an effort to create alternative secular schools to the Saudi-financed Islamic madrassa system.  But that effort was abandoned by the current government due to a lack of funding, said Ashraf.

Pakistani officials seem to believe these are aid-related problems.  Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., called for a $30 billion Marshall Plan to defeat extremism in his country. But the U.S. sent more than $12 billion in military and development aid to that country over the past eight years and the situation got worse.  The problem in Pakistan isn’t just about aid; it’s also about leadership.  

Pakistan needs leaders who will stay the course and not squander another opportunity to address its many problems. And the U.S. needs to encourage Pakistan while carefully monitoring how our investment is used in order to give Islamabdad a fighting chance.

President Obama’s criteria for “success” in the Afghanistan war — denying al Qaeda and its affiliates “safe havens from which to attack Americans” — ,depends on American resolve to stay the course, the new military strategy and the Pakistanis. Pakistan is the weakest link because it has a poor track record, making it hard to be optimistic about Obama’s chances of “success.”