washingtonpost.com
Try 'Pakistan First'

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama offer the same beguiling Democratic version of the global war on terrorism: Get out of Iraq and put more U.S. forces into Afghanistan to win that conflict decisively. Republicans are also increasingly urging President Bush to adopt an Afghanistan-first policy.

"The basic failure in priorities" in Bush's war on terrorism lies "in the fact that our monthly investment in Iraq is $10 billion a month and $2 billion a month in Afghanistan," writes David Abshire, a GOP elder statesman, in "A Call to Greatness," a new book intended to set the agenda for the next presidency. When a Republican White House loses a seasoned foreign policy thinker such as Abshire on a key issue, it has big problems.

So does the solution that is being pushed. A major shift in resources into Afghanistan may not significantly help in that battle in the near term. Decisions on drawing down forces in Iraq should be based on conditions there -- as Gen. David Petraeus argued to Congress this month -- and not on campaign-fostered illusions that troop numbers and money alone can turn the tide against terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Bush's decision last week to put Petraeus in charge of the Pentagon's Central Command and thus of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan will intensify this Iraq vs. Afghanistan argument on Capitol Hill. Critics see the Petraeus promotion as a Bush ploy to keep Iraq the "central front" in the war on terrorism and to continue to shirk the war in Afghanistan .

That sells Petraeus short and ignores the reality that the war in Afghanistan will not be won or lost in Afghanistan alone. It must also be won inside Pakistan, where things go from bad to worse for U.S. policy, which has been a set of forlorn wishes that seem to boomerang.

President Pervez Musharraf, after a breathtaking exercise in compulsively and systematically destroying his own rule, sits by silently while a civilian-led, democratically elected government takes charge in Islamabad and narrows U.S. options.

The new regime is cutting back even on Musharraf's already feeble efforts to curb the movements of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other Islamic extremist forces that operate in Afghanistan from sanctuaries in the remote tribal frontier regions of Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Officials in Islamabad hint that flights over FATA by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles based in Afghanistan may soon be forbidden. These Predator missions gather intelligence and strike enemy targets with precision. Their loss would be a major setback for the United States.

Equally alarming are reports that the government is shelving counterinsurgency efforts in the tribal areas in favor of dealing with Islamic militancy "through dialogue and development." Last week, this shift produced a new truce with Taliban forces in FATA and the announced release of Sufi Mohammad, the founder of an outlawed jihadist movement that fights in Afghanistan.

During his Washington visit, Petraeus struck me as grimly realistic about the trade-offs involved in pursuing the two-front war he soon will command. The need for more troops on the Afghan front is clear. The opportunity to use them for decisive victory is clouded. It is unlikely to exist as long as Pakistan offers sanctuary to al-Qaeda and its allies. Pakistan's political evolution is in fact a more important immediate factor than shifting U.S. resources from Iraq.

Obama asserted last summer that as president he would strike at terrorists in Pakistan if the Pakistani government would not act on intelligence he considered sound. Increasingly it looks as though, if elected, he will get the chance to do just that -- but he would then be acting against a duly elected civilian government, not the unpopular Musharraf.

The promotion of Petraeus is also a strong vote of confidence by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in the view that U.S. forces must urgently fight and win the counterinsurgency wars of the Middle East and Central Asia rather than concentrate resources on future conventional wars. A set of remarkably candid speeches by Gates on the internal struggle at the Pentagon on that issue have clearly put him in the Petraeus "fight-win" camp. They suggest that I understated Gates's commitment when I wrote about the differences within the Pentagon two weeks ago.

Pakistan, with its two dozen nuclear weapons, popular and official support for Kashmiri and Taliban terrorism, and political instability, is ultimately a greater threat to world peace than Afghanistan and Iraq combined. That is the unavoidable reality that campaign promises should not obscure.

jimhoagland@washpost.com

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