A Three-Pronged Bet on 'AFPAK'
In the two-front war that Washington is now calling "AFPAK," there's more head-scratching going on than is immediately visible. Yes, President Obama approved a Pentagon request to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. But at the same time, he has ordered a strategy review to make sure the United States isn't marching blindly into what historians call "the graveyard of empires."
Ordering troop deployments before deciding on strategy isn't a great idea -- as Iraq demonstrated. But the additional troops are only about half of what U.S. commanders have requested. "The decision on the 17,000 troops is not predictive of the outcome of the strategy review," cautions a top Pentagon official.
Obama and his special adviser for the region, Richard Holbrooke, want to put their own stamp on policy. They inherited three reviews on Afghanistan: one by Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, which was commissioned by the Bush administration; a second by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and a third by Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander who oversees the region.
Obama promptly ordered up a fourth assessment -- a review of the reviews, if you will. The baseline is the idea that Afghanistan and Pakistan are two theaters in the same war, combating the Taliban and al-Qaeda extremists that are operating in both countries. Hence, AFPAK. Overseeing this meta-review is Bruce Riedel, a former senior analyst at the CIA who's on loan for 60 days from the Brookings Institution.
As part of the review, top military and intelligence officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan are visiting Washington this week. "We agree that there is one front, from Kabul to Calcutta," a senior Pakistani official told me. But what that will mean in practice is far from clear.
U.S. officials were flummoxed by Pakistan's announcement last week that it had negotiated a truce with Islamic rebels in the Swat Valley region. Pakistani officials portray the deal, which would impose Islamic sharia law in the area, as a way to placate tribal leaders and pry them loose from Taliban militants.
But American officials are skeptical. They say that while 100,000 Pakistani troops are deployed in the northwest, the war is going badly. "Even with all that manpower, they're not making much progress," says one key official. Washington fears that Pakistan may want to fold its hand in Swat to avoid morale problems in an army that would rather be confronting India in the east than Muslim militants in the northwest.
A similar stand-down took place several years ago in Waziristan, where Gen. Pervez Musharraf agreed to a truce rather than continue a failing campaign. Today in Waziristan, the only real threats to Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters come from U.S. Predator drones overhead.
Asked about the Swat truce, Mullen said in a telephone interview: "It's too soon to tell, but the history is not encouraging. It's not good if it's a repeat of what happened before."
Pakistani officials say that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari is ready to fight the Muslim militants, if America provides the tools and training for counterinsurgency. On the Pakistani "wish list" are attack helicopters, night-vision equipment, light artillery for the mountainous border regions, jamming equipment to stop Taliban radio broadcasts and other high-tech surveillance gear.
The Americans would like to teach counterinsurgency tactics to a Pakistani army organized to fight a traditional war against India. Here again, Zardari's government says that it is ready. The Pakistanis say that they already have authorized 70 U.S. Special Forces advisers to train the Frontier Corps constabulary in the tribal areas along the border -- and that they are willing to approve three times that number. They even talk of secret training camps in America to reduce the U.S. footprint in Pakistan.
The Obama team's broad goal for AFPAK is a three-way strategic engagement to fight a common enemy. This means billions in economic aid for a collapsing Pakistani economy; it means a new focus on fighting corruption in Afghanistan; and it may mean distancing the United States from President Hamid Karzai in advance of Afghanistan's presidential elections in August. (Complicating the situation is the fact that Karzai's legal mandate may expire in May.)
Will the new strategy require more U.S. troops than the 17,000 Obama decided to add last week? He will make that call over the next month, and it will be one of the fateful decisions of his presidency.