obama's war
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Pakistan -- The Hardest Problem of All

David Kilcullen Adviser to Gen. McChyrstal

David Kilcullen

Al Qaeda is based in Pakistan and Al Qaeda's policy is the overthrow of the current system in Pakistan to be replaced by one controlled by Al Qaeda, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons, of which there's 100 in the form of medium-range ballistic missiles in Pakistan.

So from an Al Qaeda strategic standpoint, Pakistan is a much more important strategic prize than Afghanistan.

One of the reasons why Afghanistan matters is that failure in Afghanistan is going to be very destabilizing for Pakistan. But I think we need to balance carefully the resource allocation so that we don't throw a lot of resources into Afghanistan, which is and always will be, of less importance in terms of global strategy than Pakistan.

But, of course, we are not in Pakistan in the way that we're in Afghanistan. We don't have an International Security Assistance Force helping the Pakistanis. We don't have an American general and an American Army operating in Pakistan. We're basically working with a partner in Pakistan who doesn't want us to be there in significant numbers on the ground, and actually consistently refuses our assistance in some key areas. So it's quite a different dynamic.

It's also an ally that, by many accounts, is an active antagonist in Afghanistan.

I think that Pakistan isn't really coherent enough to describe it as an enemy or an ally. We have enemies in Pakistan; we have allies in Pakistan; we have friends in Pakistan. Allies and friends are not always the same thing. And some of our enemies are in or work for the Pakistani military. Some of our friends are also in the Pakistani military.

So it's a complex picture and there elements within the Pakistani national security establishment that have traditionally regarded extremists like the Taliban as a tool of international relations, a sort of unconventional counterweight to Indian regional influence. And they've created this monster which now threatens the survival of Pakistan, or at the very least the internal security of Pakistan.

And yet they can't quite bring themselves to let go of using those guys as a tool of foreign policy. So there's this real disconnect in Pakistani thinking about the Taliban, where they still persist in regarding some Taliban as good and other Taliban as bad, or regarding the Taliban as OK when they stay within the bounds of just attacking India, but not OK when they start attacking something internally to Pakistan.

And I think the problem is there is no good or bad Taliban. The Taliban are fundamentally a movement that threatens the survival of Pakistan. Now we may not see a collapse in Pakistan any time soon, but that is the ultimate objective of groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

And I think until the Pakistanis start to see that the main threat to them is the internal security threat from extremists, not some external threat from India, until we see that, we're going to continue to see elements in the Pakistani military and the Pakistani intelligence service continuing to openly or covertly support the enemy. ...

There's a lot of talk about the new Afghanistan policy. Is there a new Pakistan policy? Is there a Pakistan policy?

Like I said, I think the problem with regard to Afghanistan is we have the new policy; we don't know whether we have the time and resources to execute it. The problem with regard to Pakistan is we're not really sure what to do. And it is a much more complex and much more difficult problem.

Steve Coll Author, The Bin Ladens

The Taliban's bid for national power in Afghanistan is inseparable from their historical relationship with the Pakistani security services. Even today the Taliban in Afghanistan are taking direction from leaders who are almost certainly living in Pakistani cities, may very well be known to the Pakistani security.

And why is the government of Pakistan -- our ally -- possibly tolerating the presence of these Afghan Taliban? Because they're not certain about where Afghanistan is going. They see the Taliban as a potential hedge against their enemies in Afghanistan, so they're sort of sitting on their hands.

This could not be a more complicated war. If you think about it, the United States is essentially waging a proxy war against its own ally. The Taliban are a proxy of the government of Pakistan. We are an ally of the government of Pakistan. We are fighting the Taliban. In the end, the Taliban will be defeated strategically when the government of Pakistan makes a strategic decision that its future does not lie in partnership with Islamic extremists.

What progress is being made on that front?

It's going in the right direction, but it's a long struggle. And that's why this set of decisions matters so much. The decisions that the Obama administration makes about what to do in Afghanistan are inseparable from the struggle that we continue in a non-military fashion to undertake in Pakistan to persuade that government to unplug itself from Islamic extremists.

From my point of view, it seems they are very willing to go after [Pakistani Taliban leader Maulana] Fazlullah in the Swat Valley, perhaps contributed to providing intelligence for taking a drone strike on --

[Pakistani Taliban leader] Baitullah Mehsud. That's right.

Is there any evidence that you see that they're willing to go after Mullah Omar or the Haqqanni network?

I don't see any clear evidence that they're willing to go after the Afghan Taliban, whether that's Mullah Omar or the Haqqanni network. I don't think that the decision is final and irrevocable, however.

I think that the various elites that make up the Pakistani government -- the military, the security services and the civilians and the political parties -- are struggling with the basic question of where Pakistan's interests lie in this complicated, multi-sided contest.

And there are some of them who believe strongly that Pakistan ought to break with the Islamic extremists, make peace with India and enjoy economic prosperity for the next 40 years. Those are the groups in Pakistan that are aligned with American interests.

And American policy ought to be constructed to do everything it possibly can to help those people succeed. We can't win the argument for them, but we can pressure their opponents and enhance their potential. And we have to create conditions in the region where normal politics and economic integration among all of the countries -- Afghanistan, Pakistan and India -- are not impeded by chronic revolutionary violence from Islamic obscurantists like the Taliban.

That doesn't mean that it's our job to go in there as foreign troops and kill every last Taliban. It means that we ought to construct policies that have that strategic goal clearly in mind.

If there's no evidence yet that they're going after the Afghan Taliban -- isn't that key?

It is.

And so what does Obama's new strategy have in it that addresses that issue?

It has the potential of leverage that if properly applied in private could push the Pakistan government to make a decision about which side of this war they're on.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal Commander, ISAF

....You've got to be frustrated that [the Pakistanis are] not going after the Quetta Shura and Haqqani network.

It's easy to judge from here, and it's easy to be frustrated at what does or doesn't happen somewhere. I would like to see, and hope to see over time, a continuing improvement of our partnership. We have a pretty growing partnership right now in border coordination centers and whatnot.

I cannot believe that you go to your meetings with [Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq] Kayani and speak quite the same tone of patience with the Pakistanis. This has been a long, frustrating matter.

Gen. Kayani and I have a relationship, and I think we've talked frankly, and it's one to one. I don't think that us discussing it through the press is the right way to do business. I think the respect that he's shown me and the respect that I show him helps build that candor and trust.

Trust has not been in abundance between the United States and Pakistan in this war along the border, other than going after some of the Al Qaeda leadership and those who attack Pakistani targets.

Trust is an amazing commodity. The Afghan people often talk to me about having to develop trust in America, because they believe that we deserted them in 1990 and 1991. And in the eyes of the Afghans, I think that's a fair concern. There were two sides to the story, but I could absolutely [understand] their perspective.

Similarly, the Pakistanis feel that when, in the early 1990s, we cut off all of our interaction with the Pakistani military, we stopped bringing them to our schools, they felt that that was a breach of trust.

Whether it was or not in our perspective doesn't matter. In every relationship, there are two perspectives to it. And I guess the thing that I learn more and more as I get older, it's more important to try to see the other person's perspective than to bang them in the head with mine.

Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.) Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus

[Pakistan is] increasingly coming to understand that the Taliban they created largely at our request to overthrow the Soviet regime inside Afghanistan in the 1980s, that Frankenstein's monster they created is starting to turn on them. And it's very hard, I think, for them to separate that out.

There are some factions that operate exclusively against American forces inside Afghanistan.

That's the good Taliban in their view.

That's the good Taliban in their view. But they are starting to understand that the good Taliban can become the bad Taliban.

Are they?

I think so.

Is there evidence?

The fact that the degree of cooperation between the United States and Pakistan, at least against the Pakistani Taliban --

The bad Taliban.

The bad Taliban in their eyes, right? We know that that is happening to an increasing degree. The only reason that they would ask for our help, cooperate with us in actions against the Pakistani Taliban, is if they're scared, if they begin to understand that some Taliban can present a threat to their regime. ...

I am not willing to throw in the towel yet. I don't have a better alternative or a lower-risk, high-return alternative than continuing to work with this Pakistani government and continuing to nudge it forward toward taking more effective action.

What about getting tougher with the Pakistanis?

I think we've done that in this administration. ...

Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn Director of Intelligence, ISAF

Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn

Why not say [to Pakistan] you guys have had eight years to go after Mullah Omar and we know he's in Quetta and his lieutenants are there. And if you're not going to go after him, we're coming in and getting him?

Yeah, I think that that's unrealistic.


You're talking about a sovereign country.

We've invaded sovereign countries before.

We can be tougher on them when it comes to ensuring that they understand the problems that exist in their country right now that eventually are going to turn on them. This is a problem that is going to be a long-term problem -- not just for Pakistan, but for this whole region.

They're slowly comprehending that. I think that for us to make any statements -- I just think it would be unrealistic at this point. I think that we have enough cooperation going on where we can cause and influence the Pakistan government to do more to support what we're trying to do here.

And on Pakistan, a lot of people go, well, there's safe haven. If we don't do something about the safe haven, we can't win in Afghanistan. I don't necessarily agree with that. I believed that a few years ago. But I think it's a matter of risk. I think we can achieve what we need, we can succeed in Afghanistan, despite there being a safe haven, sanctuary, whatever you want to call it, a place where some of our enemy resides. But it's a risk factor, and not a black or white --

Not a game changer?

It's not a game changer. It's a matter of risk.

Three years ago, that was considered a game changer, that without going after the training camps and the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], we couldn't defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. What changed?

I don't think Al Qaeda is as strong, and I don't think that the cohesiveness amongst all the groups there is as strong. Their desire is clearly stronger. ... And that's something that is really, really going to be tough to defeat. ...

But the other change is, four years ago, we were fighting more along the border. Today, the Afghans are now the Taliban. It's no longer this Pakistan Taliban who were fighting in Afghanistan, which was kind of the case. You'd see bits and pieces of Arabs and other foreign elements, small numbers, not large numbers. I mean, really small numbers.

But now we're facing the enemy who, over the last couple of years, they're back in Afghanistan. They've resurged. And probably 90, 95 percent of what we're facing today are Afghans.

Bilal Sarwary Journalist

Bilal Sarwary

Are Afghans confused by America's relationship and support for Pakistan?

I think some Afghans would tell you -- and this is the educated class -- that the United States needs Pakistan as a strategic ally. And like Iran and Iraq, it's a nuclear power. …

But others will tell you, "Well, how long could you be friends with a country like Pakistan?" And they point out their involvement in Afghanistan. They point out to their involvement in India. And then they point out their support for the Taliban.

Seth Jones Author, The Graveyard of Empires

Seth Jones

… Do Americans have any leverage in this situation with Pakistan?

I think the Americans do have some leverage. Just in the sheer amount of assistance that the U.S. provides to Pakistan, both civilian and military assistance to Pakistan, it has some leverage. But I would say it has not been willing to use that leverage to target militant groups like the Afghan Taliban operating in Baluchistan.

Look, for example, at the Predator [drone] ... strikes. Where are they happening? They are happening primarily in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and primarily against foreign fighters, especially Al Qaeda mid- and senior-level officials. No Predators have been used in Baluchistan. Certainly not against Afghan Taliban. No Predators in general have been used against senior Haqqani network individuals.

So you even see on the U.S. front there has been, in some cases, a tendency even as it operates in Pakistan, to focus on foreign fighters, and not to focus on insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan.

That sounds like the Americans are bowing to a Pakistani policy that's actively a hindrance to American efforts.

Well, it's a very ironic situation to be in, where you have a Pakistan government that has provided assistance in targeting some militant groups, and capturing or killing some mid- and senior-level Al Qaeda officials, but at the same time, is also providing direct support to insurgent groups like the Taliban and Haqqani network that are fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan. It's a very surreal situation to be in.

And what's the answer?

I think the answer is at some point U.S. assistance to Pakistan has to be at least partially tied to a metric that looks at key inner shura members of the Taliban and Haqqani network and bases its effectiveness on the ability to capture or kill Mullah Omar, Mullah Baradar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Siraj Haqqani. Because that is the only way I think that one can demonstrate that they are truly committed to targeting some of these Afghan insurgent groups in Pakistan.

[Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Adm. [Mike] Mullen goes to Islamabad. Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates goes to Islamabad. They met with Gen. Kayani; with Gen. [Ahmed Shuya] Pasha [head of Pakistani intelligence]. ... None of these men are naïve, I'm sure. What is the substance of that conversation? I'm sure it's hard to speculate. But I guess I'm somewhat baffled by how it's been eight years at this point, and the dynamic is not new. How do we account for that slowness on the Pakistani part?

The Pakistanis have actually played this game quite well. They have gotten a lot of assistance and they have demonstrated an ability, in some cases, to help the United States out. But they have also continued to back -- or least elements of Pakistan's national security have continued to back Afghan insurgent groups.

And what you have on the U.S. side is disagreement among a range of different U.S. government agencies -- Central Intelligence Agency, the military, State Department -- on several things. How serious is the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence]-Taliban connection? How much of this can the U.S. actually influence? How important is this to the insurgency in Afghanistan? And what you have is actually disagreements, serious disagreements in policy on some of these very, very major issues within U.S. government agencies that have not been resolved.

This is true as I found out in conducting a range of interviews with former CIA officials, including station chiefs, that there were huge discrepancies in Pakistan's role between the station in Kabul and the station in Islamabad. In Islamabad, there was a much more cautious approach, that Pakistan's intelligence agency actually was supportive in many ways, and quite the opposite approach taken by a range of CIA officials in Afghanistan, where ISI was deeply detrimental to U.S. efforts in that country. So even among two CIA stations not that far apart, huge disagreements on the nature of the problem and the way to fix it.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas Spokesman, Pakistan Army

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas

The big fish, if you will, I think, are considered Baitullah Mehsud, Siraj Haqqani, Mullah Omar -- and these are people, especially Haqqani and Omar, that the Americans believe the Pakistanis consider assets, and are unwilling to go after.

That's an unjust comment. They are not assets. There is no linkage. If the state has taken a conscious decision of turning around after the 9/11 incident, then the government is following the policy. Now, do you mean to say that there is a policy where the army is conducting operations, and losing life? We have lost over 1,800 soldiers and officers in this operation. You mean to say that these lives have been lost for nothing? Or ... is hobnobbing ... undermining the army's success, the sacrifices in this area?

That's not what I understand is the criticism. What I understand is the criticism is that you certainly want to go after people like Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah, and others who are threatening the Pakistani state. But where the reluctance comes in is going after those people that threaten Afghanistan, the so-called good Taliban, as opposed to the bad Taliban.

If you and your friend are attacked by me and my friend, are you going to first save your friend, or save yourself?

What you're saying is that your priority is to go after those people that are threatening you.

Absolutely. If you have to retain a stability of the force, first you have to go after something which is destabilizing you, and undermining you. Only then, when you [are] in a position to stabilize, then you would be able to conduct operations further against those who are undermining your friend.

Andrew Exum Adviser to Gen. McChrystal

The problem is -- let's say just for sake of argument that Pakistan is in fact the primary problem in Afghanistan, that the actions of the Pakistani government, that the actions of individuals within the Pakistani government are responsible for the difficulties that Afghanistan is enduring. We still don't have a lot of leverage on the ground with the Pakistanis. We don't have 90,000 troops on the ground there.

And in addition, I would turn things back on the Afghan government and say that if they were effectively providing essential services to their population, if they were seen as legitimate by their population, if Afghanistan weren't perceived as one of the most corrupt governments on earth or corrupt nations on earth, then I think that a lot of Afghanistan's problems would go away.

But as it stands right now, the Taliban enjoys popularity in certain areas of Afghanistan, not just because of the campaign of fear and intimidation, but because they ably capitalize on the weaknesses of the Afghanistan government. So we will continue to focus on building institutions of Afghan government partly because our leverage in Pakistan is limited, but partly because that's also where we see the problems in Afghanistan lying.

Richard Holbrooke Special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan

Our policy towards Pakistan is clear-cut and unambiguous. It is critically important to the vital national security interests of the United States. We support the democratically elected government of Pakistan. We have massively increased foreign assistance. We are looking for ways to increase it still further. We are reorienting some of our assistance to help the Pakistanis with their economic problems, particularly in energy. Secretary Clinton will be going there in October [2009] to announce new programs and policies. And we are also urging the Pakistanis to take action against the insurgents in the west. And they have done so.

When we came into office, we faced many problems in Pakistan. We've addressed every one of them. Government stability and political situation has gotten better. The army has counterattacked in Swat and made some real progress. We raised billions of dollars internationally and contributed ourselves for reconstruction. We raised another huge amount of money for the refugees. We are going to continue to help the people of Pakistan in every way we can. We care about this country. President Obama has a personal connection to this country because his mother lived there for years and he visited and he has close Pakistani friends. … So of course, we have a very clear strategy for Pakistan. …

Amrullah Saleh Director, Afghan Intelligence

Amrullah Saleh

How would you describe what you're facing here in Afghanistan? Who is the enemy and where are they?

The enemy is an ideology … [and a] policy nurtured in Pakistan for 30 years. And it says Afghanistan must be governed by a backwater, conservative, clerical state obedient, half-obedient or at least loyal to Pakistan. Pakistanis were not able to finance such an adventure, so they started to beg money and resources from Arab countries and from extremist figures in the Arab world.

And from taxing, drugs.

And taxing, drugs. So then Al Qaeda came and they took part in … this joint venture of Pakistan, Al Qaeda, extremist groups, drug networks, smugglers, a lot of other illegitimate vested interests brought into existence the Taliban which we collapsed on top of.

But we have not defeated them because they lost ground, but they did not lose manpower. They did not lose their leadership. They went back to Pakistan where they waited, they played with emotions and sentiments and patience of the West. Did not immediately come back in 2002, 2003, 2004 because memories of Sept. 11 were very fresh.

And as those memories faded away from our brains, they did come back -- the same strength, more resources, well trained, and we are fighting the same forces. They are not defeated.

George Packer The New Yorker

George Packer

The people I'm talking to describe Pakistan as much harder than Afghanistan.

So, you have to sort of take a deep breath and say, "Oh, and by the way there's this much larger country to the east where a great deal of the problem actually lies," because that's where there's a sanctuary for the Taliban. That's where Al Qaeda is. And that's where there is a military that operates on its own, free of its civilian control, and that has seized the Afghan Taliban as a strategic asset, and isn't going to let go of that because they know that sooner or later we'll be gone. And they want to have their people around to pursue what they think of as their national interest in Afghanistan.

So Ambassador [Richard] Holbrooke goes to Islamabad and sits down with Gen. Kayani and Gen. Pasha, and President [Asif Ali] Zardari and I'm sure that he tries to push them towards cooperating with us in the war in Afghanistan. But what if it's simply not Pakistan's perceived self-interest to cooperate with us in Afghanistan? Why should they do what we tell them to do, even though right now they're becoming increasingly dependent on our aid?

So we are, in a way, in an even bigger fix than Pakistan because we have less leverage. We can't send troops. I don't think the Congress or the public will stand for spending a lot of money in a country perceived as, if not an enemy, at least a very dubious friend.

I don't think we really have a strategy for Pakistan. And I think the people I'm talking to are trying to figure it out, but it can't be a head-on attempt to just fix a problem. It has to be done almost sort of circumstantially, and by indirect means, which means it's going to be slow. It's going to be hard for the U.S. government, which is used to doing things head on by throwing a lot of money and resources at a problem to both figure out intellectually and to carry out.

Most Afghans will blame their problems almost entirely on Pakistan. Every IED [improvised explosive device] that goes off in Afghanistan has the fingerprints of some Pakistani intelligence agent on it, according to Afghans. And there's actually some truth to that, a fair amount of truth to that. But that's not something we can really fix, at least in the short-term.

I think if we have a strategy in Pakistan it's to build up the civilian government to the point where it can be a kind of counterbalance to the military and begin to reorient their own sense of their destiny. Is that even thinkable for a foreign power to do? Even as I say it, I think, "Why do we think we could even begin to accomplish that?"

Holbrooke's brief doesn't include India. What kind of challenges does that present?

I think Holbrooke wanted India as part of his portfolio. I think he wanted Iran as part of his portfolio, inasmuch as Iran was important in Afghanistan, which it is.

Iran was taken away by the Obama administration and given to someone else, Dennis Ross. India was taken away by the Indians, who said: "We're not part of your failed state, Af-Pak problem. We're a growing world power, and we're not going to have a special representative for India. And what's more, don't even mention the word 'Kashmir' when you come here."

And so, Holbrooke literally has said, "I'm trying to get through this job without using the 'K' word." Well, what does that mean? That means he cannot use his negotiating skills to begin to arrive at some agreement between the Pakistanis and the Indians on one of the really key issues, which is keeping Pakistan from focusing entirely on the threat of extremism.

Instead, Pakistan, from the beginning, has seen its main enemy as India. It's got most of its forces on its border with India and Kashmir. Its, you know, obsession with nuclear weapons is driven by its fear of India. Its use of the Taliban in Afghanistan is partly a way to counter what they think is an Indian encroachment here and which could end up encircling Pakistan.

They have this sense that they're being surrounded by their bigger neighbors, and they have to keep their little monsters fed and ready -- even if those monsters are beginning to blow up police stations and hotels in Pakistan.

So Holbrooke can't address one of the core strategic problems, and that means he has to approach Pakistan much more incrementally. It's a matter of a very patient building up of support for two governments -- the Afghan government and the Pakistani civilian government -- in order to reorient the whole region away from this constant sense of "We have to go to war in order not to be extinguished ourselves."

That's the best I can do to sum it up. And there's lots of little pieces to it. But that's a very difficult thing to do if you can't at least approach what Holbrooke did in Dayton, which was to get the parties in the room and hammer out a deal.

And in the meantime Afghanistan boils?

And Pakistan collapses. I arrived in Islamabad with Holbrooke in July [2009] with riots in the streets of Karachi and other cities because of an electricity crisis that was foreseeable and foreseen. Every week, there's a new crisis in Pakistan. And part of Holbrooke's focus is just to try to stay abreast of each new crisis and get American involvement in helping with their power shortage. Or the refugee problem that resulted from the Pakistan army going into Swat and clearing out the Taliban, the problem of getting the refugees back into their homes without having the Taliban start killing them again.

I mean, it's crisis management in Pakistan. It's a government and really a society that you feel is, in spite of its size, in spite of its history, in spite of its nukes, is sort of collapsing. And its collapse is, in a way, a more calamitous prospect than anything that's happening in Afghanistan. And we have less leverage to stop it.

posted october 13, 2009

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