I’m headed back to Afghanistan and Pakistan at a critical juncture, which will shape Barack Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.
The president will have to roll out his AfPak strategy very soon and explain it to the American public. His long review has fed the perception in South Asia that the United States is heading for the exit, which adds to the Taliban’s momentum.
Meantime, President Hamid Karzai was formally returned to office Monday, after Abdullah Abdullah, his challenger in a scheduled runoff election, withdrew from the race. Time will tell whether Karzai is finally willing to tackle the massive corruption that has fueled Taliban gains.
And in coming weeks, we’ll see if the administration can improve its tense relationship with Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country in which jihadis are flourishing. The extent of our mutual mistrust was clear during Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to Pakistan last week. She was harshly questioned by students and journalists suspicious of U.S. intentions; she in turn questioned how hard Pakistani officials had tried to shut down al-Qaida havens.
Her query was a bit odd, since the Pakistani government has cooperated in efforts to decimate al-Qaida, and Pakistan’s military is warring against some Pakistani Taliban groups near suspected al-Qaida havens. But her blunt language reflected U.S. frustration at Pakistan’s reluctance to go after militants such as Afghan Taliban leaders and Pakistani jihadis who attack India over Kashmir.
Without an effective U.S.-Pakistani relationship, any AfPak strategy will fail.
So, in my travels, I’ll be looking at issues that will determine the success of Obama’s strategy — and will shape our relationships with Pakistanis and Afghans. Here are the issues in Afghanistan that I consider to be key:
Does our strategy permit us to plan a decent exit? What do I mean? Whatever Obama decides on troop levels, the goal must be to help Afghans reach the point where they can keep their own country stable. We must calm the country sufficiently, and for long enough, to train a larger Afghan army and develop “good enough” Afghan government services. Then, as in Iraq, we can draw down in an orderly way.
Do we know how to train a viable Afghan army? Afghans know how to fight. But there are unique problems in training an Afghan army that won’t get undercut by sectarian tensions caused by the undue influence of minority Tajiks linked to the Northern Alliance, the forces that helped defeat the Taliban. The army must also command the trust of majority Pashtuns, who live in the regions where the Taliban has the most strength.
Can we promote a national reconciliation strategy that will woo away mid- and low-level Taliban, and win over ambivalent tribal leaders? Karzai will present such a policy, as he has done before with little to show for it. U.S. officials have a team in place to reach out to tribal leaders; can they succeed?
Have we learned from our mistakes in Iraq how to use economic aid better? In Iraq, we wasted billions on unsuccessful projects run by foreign contractors whose huge overhead ate up the funding.
Obama’s special emissary to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, is trying to restructure aid delivery to use fewer contractors, with more oversight by USAID officials. He wants to funnel more aid directly to Afghan and Pakistani ministries and nongovernmental organizations, backed up by more U.S. technical specialists. Holbrooke is encountering resistance, in part because of his bulldozer personality, in part because such change is so stressful. Can this new aid policy advance?
Will we abandon Afghan women, who want opportunities and education? This issue gets far less attention than it did after the fall of the Taliban. Will Obama’s strategy keep it in mind?
And on Pakistan, here’s what I believe will be central: Pakistan’s political leaders understand the existential threat posed by militants, and its army now does, too — up to a point. So long as the army doubts the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, it will be loath to turn on the Afghan Taliban, whom it once trained and who might rule again in Kabul.
So the issues I will look at are these:
First, is it possible for U.S. and Pakistani officials to overcome the mutual mistrust that prevents closer U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in fighting jihadis? Can Pakistani security services be convinced to go after militants who threaten U.S. forces in Afghanistan and target Indian cities?
Second, can U.S. officials figure out how to communicate more proactively with Pakistanis, for example, to dispel the idea that a new, larger U.S. aid package is meant for nefarious purposes? Closer economic cooperation could undercut militants’ appeal inside Pakistan; closer military cooperation could squeeze the worst Taliban in a cross-border pincer and persuade other groups to stop fighting.
In the coming weeks, we will have a better idea of what is possible. Stay tuned.