With all the contradictory advice he’s getting on Afghanistan, Barack Obama’s head must be spinning by now — just like another well-meaning Democrat’s head was spinning 45 years ago, as he faced another inherited war with an inherited Secretary of Defense. For now, I’m willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and wait to see whether Gates’s troop announcement will lay out the necessary details: not just the numbers, but the mission, and most importantly, the end state.
In the meantime, here’s a novel idea: why not listen to the Pakistanis?
As the Western war effort has faltered in Afghanistan and we’ve realised there’s a handy scapegoat just across the Durand Line, it has become something of a habit to treat Pakistan as an international retard, a country incapable of seeing anything outside the prism of its self-interest — or worse still, as a Somalia-like failed state with no institutions, history or national pride.
No matter that they’ve just held free elections, or that their civilian government is trying its best to rein in the military, or that, despite claims to the contrary, their foreign policy remains quite rational — Pakistan has become the villain of this Great Game, never to be trusted and certainly not to be taken seriously.
While this may not be altogether unreasonable — Pakistan certainly hasn’t made it easy to think otherwise — it’s a real shame we’ve shut them out. It may be a mess, but Pakistan is also a country with a long tradition for vigorous public debate that, for better or worse, represents the full spectrum of political opinion, including what we derisively call Islamic fundamentalism. What’s best, you don’t have to know Urdu to sample what Pakistani pundits have to offer.
I’m bringing this up because of two recent articles I think are noteworthy as counterpoints in the current America-centric debate over the escalation of war in Afghanistan. One is a Washington Post op-ed by Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan; the other, an opinion piece, in the Pakistani newspaper The News, by Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador to the. U.S. and the U.K.
Both are pleas for sympathy and understanding, for aid and support, and for trust and respect. They may read like standard bluster, but there’s an element of sadness and despair that’s hard to dismiss. The situation must be dire when the head of state of a sovereign country feels compelled to write something like this — in a welcome message to a new U.S. president and his envoy:
Ambassador Holbrooke will soon discover that Pakistan is far more than a rhetorical partner in the fight against extremism. Unlike in the 1980s, we are surrogates for no one. With all due respect, we need no lectures on our commitment. This is our war. It is our children and wives who are dying.
And more to the point:
Assistance to Pakistan is not charity; rather, the creation of a politically stable and economically viable Pakistan is in the long-term, strategic interest of the United States.
For her part, Lodhi provides a practical 8-point list of dos and don’ts for Islamabad to “reset ties with the US and align these with the sentiments of its own people”, with the idea that “no policy is sustainable unless it has public support”. It’s worth quoting at length:
1) Seek an end to unilateral US Predator attacks on Pakistani territory, which have inflamed public opinion, undercut Islamabad’s own counter-insurgency efforts and risk destabilising the country. [...]
2) Reject any conditionality attached to assistance promised under the Biden-Lugar bill. The administration’s announcement that this assistance will be linked to Pakistan’s counterterrorism performance in the border region is at odds with the approach advocated by President Obama during the campaign. [...]
3) Convey that Pakistan is neither looking for nor needs US military assistance to build its conventional capability. But to strengthen its counterterrorism capabilities, it requires helicopters, night vision, radars, electronic intelligence devices and other advanced technology. Absent these, the Pakistani army will continue to fight an asymmetrical conflict with conventional implements.
4) Insist on the criticality of trade, rather than aid, in helping Pakistan’s economic recovery. The country’s economic lifeline, textiles, is in deep trouble. Providing Pakistani garments and textiles access to the American market would be a transformative act. [...]
5) Assert that a genuinely “regional approach” should address Pakistan’s security concerns with India, especially Kashmir, and Afghanistan. Washington should be made to recognise the regional nature of Pakistan’s security challenges and acknowledge that many issues in the region are so interconnected that they can set each other off.
6) Insist that as the US reshapes its Afghan policy, Pakistan’s views and security are factored into the review. [...]
7) Counsel the US that simply sending more troops to Afghanistan without a significant change in strategy will be counter-productive. [...]
8) Policies to stabilise Afghanistan should not unintendedly end up destabilising Pakistan, as has been the case with the flawed approach and military missteps of the Bush era.
The Obama Administration should consider a more realistic approach to Afghanistan that focuses policy on the ‘core’ project (defeating terrorism), rather than a ‘big project’ of multiple goals that can mire it in a war without end. This means distinguishing between what is vital (disruption of terrorist networks) and what is desirable but best left to Afghans to undertake (transforming society, building a centralised state and promoting democracy). This should aim to separate Al Qaeda from the Taliban, and engage the latter in a reconciliation process. Building confidence by dialogue should be followed by the offer for an eventual withdrawal of foreign forces in return for a cessation of attacks and support for the creation of a viable Afghan national army and security apparatus.
This is not all that different from what the American and European opponents of the planned “Afghan surge” are saying. For the record, I think a troop increase of 30,000 is hardly an “escalation”; it’s a stopgap measure at best, designed for a last-ditch holding action to check the Taleban advance. But there are other, more important issues here, and I believe Lodhi’s views are worth considering, coming as they are from a country whose insecurities need to be addressed before we can expect any progress in Afghanistan.