The Pakistan War and Its Afghan Adjunct

Friday, March 27, 2009 at 10:58 am

Yesterday, Noah Shachtman asked if the United States was really at war in Pakistan. Today President Obama made it clear: yes, the war is in Pakistan, with an inextricable Afghanistan component.  The goal is “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future,” he said. That’s the right emphasis, given the safe havens for al-Qaeda are in Pakistan, and it’s significant that the first substantive portion of Obama’s speech spelling out the new strategy was devoted to Pakistan, not Afghanistan. But the dilemma is that the United States. can only devote so many resources — economic, political and especially military — into Pakistan.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), after offering cautious praise for the strategy, observes:

However, I am concerned that the new strategy may still be overly Afghan-centric when it needs to be even more regional.  As the bombing near the Khyber pass this morning highlights, we need to fully address the inextricable links between the crisis in Afghanistan and the instability and terrorist threats in Pakistan.

Feingold calls for an “adequate” strategy in Pakistan but doesn’t spell out what that would be. But the question of whether the new strategy is insufficiently regional runs right into the problem of Pakistani sovereignty and cooperation. Obama — and, for that matter, former President George W. Bush –  has no choice but to employ indirection as a result. He pledged greater resources to training Pakistani troops in “root[ing] out the terrorists,” which is to say making them a better counterinsurgent force, and what sounds like a large U.S.-led international effort at state-building, including essentially an infrastructure-heavy stimulus package in the Pakistani tribal areas. Then there’s sustained diplomacy with the entire region, along with the United Nations, to get everyone behind the Pakistani government.

That raises a huge number of questions. For instance: Who’s going to implement these “opportunity zones in the border region” when the Pakistan side of the border is overrun with insurgents? When the Pakistani military cuts deals with the Taliban and adds to the safe havens, what force will there be to secure the projects, give people jobs, and get them turning dirt? The trouble is that there isn’t an obviously better alternative to what will very likely be a graft-heavy process of moving money around, special inspector generals or not. Right now, the money the United States gives the Pakistanis are, literally, untraceable cash transfers. That’s how the Pakistani military likes it. Will that change?

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