Pakistani Government Dismayed by U.S. Wavering on Afghanistan

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

ONE OF the ideas the Obama administration is considering in response to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan reportedly is called "Pakistan First." Championed by Vice President Biden, the idea is to focus U.S. efforts on attacking al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan's tribal areas with drones or Special Forces, while backing the government's efforts to pacify and develop the lawless areas where al-Qaeda and the Taliban are based. The battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan, meanwhile, would be put on the back burner.

"Pakistan First" would excuse President Obama from having to anger his political base by dispatching the additional U.S. troops that his military commanders say are needed to stop the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan. It would nominally focus U.S. efforts on a nuclear-armed country that is of far greater strategic importance.

Funny, then, that Pakistan's civilian government doesn't think much of the idea. In a meeting with Post editors and reporters Tuesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said without reservation that Taliban advances in Afghanistan were a mortal threat to his country. "We see Mullah Omar," the leader of the Afghan Taliban, "as a serious threat. If the likes of Mullah Omar take over in Afghanistan, it will have serious implications for Pakistan," Mr. Qureshi said. "They have a larger agenda, and the first to be impacted by that agenda is Pakistan. . . . Whether they do it in Pakistan or whether they do it in Afghanistan, it will have implications on Pakistan and it will have implications on the region."

Like a couple of senior European leaders who visited Washington last week, Mr. Qureshi expressed a diplomatic version of dismay at President Obama's public wavering on fighting the Taliban. "If that is going to happen, why have we stuck our necks out?" he asked. "Why did Benazir die?" Benazir Bhutto, the former leader of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, was assassinated after she campaigned in favor of a decisive move by Pakistan to take on the Taliban movement -- something the government and army declined to do until this year. Elements of the military or its intelligence service may still quietly support some Taliban groups; if the United States appears to retreat, those forces will be strengthened -- at the expense of the pro-Western civilian government.

Mr. Qureshi declined to express an opinion about the deployment of more U.S. troops to southern Afghanistan, saying he was not a military expert. But he drew a contrast between NATO's operations in the south and Pakistan's operations against the Taliban this year. "Your troops went in and cleared the area. But once you came out, the Taliban came back in," he said. "What we do is: We go in, and we clear and we hold. When you do that, it requires more contact. It requires more resources. And it means more casualties."

Mr. Qureshi was talking about Pakistan -- but he was also describing the "counterinsurgency" strategy for Afghanistan that Mr. Obama embraced last March and backed until the general he appointed determined it would require more troops. It seems pretty clear that if Mr. Obama decides to abandon counterinsurgency in the name of something called "Pakistan First," America's best allies in Pakistan won't be happy.

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