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White House Hones its Strategy in Two-Front War

May 6, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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On the day President Obama met with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House to discuss military and diplomatic strategy in combating the Taliban, two analysts assesses the obstacles standing in the way of stability in the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two countries, one war, and the U.S. strategy. Joining us are two retired Army colonels, now scholars, Boston University history Professor Andrew Bacevich. His latest book is “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” And John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank, and author of “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.”

Good title to your book.

JOHN NAGL, Center for a New American Security: Thank you very much. It goes downhill after the title.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, now, let me start with you on this question. Today’s meeting is a kind of embodiment of this notion of treating — acknowledging that both countries have many differences, but treating them as one, one struggle. Is that a good approach?

JOHN NAGL: Well, I think it is, because we’re facing, really, one enemy across both sides of the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s a very artificial border. It’s 1,500 kilometers long, extraordinarily mountainous terrain. And the Taliban moves freely from one side of that line to the other.

And so if Pakistan and Afghanistan don’t both approach this problem together, don’t both have an effective counterinsurgency campaign plan, there simply is no chance to stabilize either Afghanistan or Pakistan. And doing that, stabilizing both of those countries, is very much in America’s interest.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andrew Bacevich, what do you think about the general notion of treating them as one?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH (Ret.), Boston University: Well, I think Dr. Nagl is right, that it’s very important for those two countries to collaborate. I think the big question is, what’s the appropriate role for the United States to be playing?

You know, in the wake of 9/11, the idea somehow got planted that we’re called upon to determine the fate of nations in the greater Middle East. I think, based on the evidence of the past seven-and-a-half years, that’s not a good idea. We lack the capacity, the power, the wisdom to do so, and so it baffles me why this new president at the beginning of his term persists in thinking that we can determine the fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Evaluating Obama's approach

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so pick up on that. You have a meeting today. The president brings in the two presidents. What are the pitfalls that you see? What worries you about a meeting like this or the approach that the Obama administration is taking?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I don't have any problem with the meeting, and I hope that the president was encouraging both of these leaders to, you know, do a better job.

But, you know, if we were evaluating the effectiveness of Mr. Karzai and Mr. Zardari on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of their effective governance, it probably would rate about a 2. These are not people who govern effective and legitimate institutions. So jawboning, I think, is only going to do so much.

My problem is that the Obama administration seems to think that further militarizing U.S. policy in Afghanistan is going to produce results that are much different from the results achieved by the Bush administration, and those results were not very impressive.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Do you want to respond to that? We're on Afghanistan specifically now, the more military, counterinsurgency approach.

JOHN NAGL: The place where we're conducting counterinsurgency directly vise Pakistan, where we have to conduct counterinsurgency very indirectly. We have to rely on the Pakistanis to do that.

I would agree with Professor Bacevich that the Bush administration's campaign in Afghanistan was not particularly successful. After early successes, when the Taliban was toppled, when al-Qaida was ejected from Afghanistan, settling across the Durand Line in Pakistan, President Karzai was installed, and we had an awful lot of momentum.

But we then, quite frankly, took our eye off the ball. We decided to fight another war in Iraq, and we didn't mobilize the United States for war. We didn't have enough resources to fight two wars at once, and so we stopped focusing on Afghanistan and put all of our resources into Iraq.

And while we were focused on Iraq, the Taliban regained its strength across the border in Pakistan, Pakistan ignored the threat, and the Taliban came back across the border and gained strength in Afghanistan, and threatened the government of President Karzai, who I'll agree with Professor Bacevich is not a particularly impressive leader.

That doesn't mean the fact that we have neglected Afghanistan for the past eight years, that we have not put the resources into that counterinsurgency campaign that would be required to win does not mean that, if we do put those resources in, that we can't succeed.

Enmities between the two countries

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you one more follow-up here. You heard when I asked Pam Constable from the Washington Post about how officials there see it, and she said she did not think they see this as -- she talked about the historical enmities between and differences between the two countries. How much does that matter to U.S. policy moving ahead, treating them both?

JOHN NAGL: Very important. That's why the meeting today of the three presidents was so important. Increasingly, the Pakistani government understands that the Taliban, which in a lot of ways it created initially to throw the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan 20 years ago, is now becoming a threat to its own survival.

And so Pakistan is starting to understand that this is a real threat to its government. The Afghan government already understands that and needs additional resources to confront that challenge and that threat.

The two countries have to come together if we're going to make progress in this fight on both sides of the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andrew Bacevich, if the goals are not as clear as you'd like, what's the alternative to the current approach that's being put forward?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Look, at the end of the day, the people of Pakistan are going to decide their own fate. There are some problems that the United States of America is incapable of solving. And, you know, it ought not necessarily to be unpatriotic to acknowledge that.

Pam Constable said that the people of Pakistan, seeing what the Taliban actually have on offer, are becoming more serious about addressing that problem. It seems to me that's the good news.

The question is whether or not our actions in Pakistan actually impede or encourage that recognition of the Taliban threat. And I'd argue that the program of targeted assassinations that we have been conducting in Pakistan with our UAV attacks probably actually encourages anti-Americanism and plays into the hands of the Taliban, so our policy...

JEFFREY BROWN: Excuse me. Go ahead.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I mean, it seems to me, the principle number one with regard to the U.S. and Pakistan is do no harm. And I would argue that much of what we have been doing in Pakistan over the past couple of years is simply doing harm.

Serious threat to the region

JEFFREY BROWN: How would you, John Nagl, define the seriousness of the threat itself, both within the region, but also to the U.S.?

JOHN NAGL: The threat to Pakistan's government is very real. The Taliban, allied in some ways with al-Qaida, has the potential to do real damage to the government of Pakistan, conceivably to seize control of at least some of the nuclear weapons inside Pakistan, and that is really the $64 million question. That is what keeps strategists up at night.

So the Taliban gaining strength inside Afghanistan, inside Pakistan, al-Qaida regenerating itself, maintaining a base inside Pakistan, a very weak government in Pakistan, as in Afghanistan, and nuclear weapons, this is the most dangerous brew in the world today for the United States and its interests.

So it is very strongly in America's national interest to do all that it can to stabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan. I agree with Professor Bacevich that some of the drone strikes may be counterproductive, but overall our efforts should be dedicated to stability inside Pakistan to keep the American people safe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, Andrew Bacevich, for a final, brief response to that. On the threat, how do you define the threat in the region and to the U.S., to help us see the larger picture here?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, Dr. Nagl is correct. The $64 question is, what happens if the Taliban or other radicals gain control of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal?

Strategists should be staying up at night thinking about that, and they ought to be working now to conceive of a strategy should that occur.

And the strategy is one of deterrence and is of containment. That strategy has worked in the past. It can work again. And we should begin now to be putting in place the building blocks of that strategy, should the worst case occur in Pakistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andrew Bacevich and John Nagl, thank you both very much.

JOHN NAGL: Thank you.