Sometimes, the most telling facts are the ones your briefers don’t want to mention. On a hot, sunny day in early May, I sat with other reporters at an International Security Assistance Force briefing in Afghanistan’s violence-wracked Ghazni province, otherwise known as Regional Command East. The ISAF civilian-military team, using laser pointers on a map, highlighted a few peaceful districts colored green and many others colored red, where the Taliban was still fighting, although the briefers said that “progress” was evident. One district in the south called Nawa, a spit of Afghan land that descended close to Pakistan’s tribal regions, was colored black, not green or red.
Why black? “That means we don’t go there at all,” one briefer explained. “It’s totally under the sway of the Taliban.” He moved on quickly, but the forbidding dark blot on the map sent a clear message: Even though this region is now as secure as it’s ever likely to get—NATO forces are still near the height of President Obama’s 33,000 troop “surge,” before troops leave in 2014—the allies have already written off this part of the country bordering Pakistan as lost.
The next day, the dangers of this outcome were driven home to us in the nearby village of Zana Khan, when U.S. and Afghan officials presided over a huge hold-and-clear operation to proudly host a shura—a village meeting—demonstrating how the Afghan government is winning hearts and minds (Although ISAF described the operation as Afghan-led, Polish helicopters hovered, dropping flare-like countermeasures.) All went well, but sitting on the side of the dusty square, a 32-year-old farmer named Mohammed quietly warned us: “Two hours after you leave, the Taliban will be back.” Mohammed then pointed to the crowd squinting into the sun and listening docilely. “They are all Taliban,” he declared.
And sure enough, shortly after the meeting—less than a half hour later—mortar shells from the hills surrounding the village sent us scurrying for cover. The Taliban munitions almost certainly were ferreted in from Pakistani tribal regions.
Fast-forward two weeks to the NATO summit in Chicago, which ended on Monday. Lots of triumphal talk from attendees about a 2014 exit and a stable Afghanistan. Fifty—count ’em, 50—nations committed to Afghanistan’s future. Also among the invitees, however, were Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and other senior officials. Zardari was there even though he and his government had refused even to allow overland NATO travel in the wake of bitter tensions resulting from U.S. strikes at the border and from last May’s raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.
More significantly, U.S. officials have begun to acknowledge, more bluntly than ever before, that Pakistan’s senior military and intelligence apparatus is supporting and funding the same Taliban fighters who are killing NATO soldiers—not just Americans, but also Germans, French, Italians, and Canadians—and endangering the outcome of America’s longest war. Even the U.S. Embassy in Kabul—“which is American soil,” U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker angrily noted in an interview—was twice attacked by what Crocker described as “Pakistan-based insurgents.” Last fall, outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen called the terrorist Haqqani network in Pakistan’s tribal regions, the suspect behind the embassy attack, a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence service.
Yet there it was in Chicago, the Pakistan delegation, welcomed because President Bush in 2004 had designated Pakistan a “major non-NATO ally,” ushered around as if it was just another ISAF member in good standing. Pakistan, America’s ally in the war on terrorism. Pakistan, supporter of terror, aider and abettor to the killing of Americans, and now an adversary of the greatest military alliance in history.
There is nothing very new, of course, about Pakistan’s two-faced behavior. It is a problem that has dogged Washington since well before 9/11. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, which effectively run that nominally democratic country, have long seen radical Islamist groups, including the Taliban, as a strategic counterbalance to the influence of Pakistan’s bitter rival, Hindu-dominated India, in Afghanistan and south-central Asia. The upshot is that despite fitful efforts to rein in the worst of the jihadists, Pakistan offers a safe haven to the rest of them—and permanent access to Afghanistan just across the border. “Any other country, we’d be calling them a state sponsor of terrorism,” said a former senior U.S. diplomat who has served as ambassador to Islamabad. “It’s inconceivable that we give $3 billion a year to a country that would harbor Osama bin Laden.” Yet we do.
What is new about this moment in history is that, for Washington and other leading NATO members, the stakes are higher than they have ever been, and the Pakistan problem, which until now has been considered a mere complicating factor in Afghanistan, has become acute and central. So much so that failing to deal with it could very well lead to the biggest foreign-policy failure of the Obama administration. Why? Because even as NATO troops prepare to depart, Obama in recent weeks has committed the United States—and NATO—to remain there in a robust way, to “train, advise, and assist” for years, possibly decades, to come, as he said in Chicago on Monday. And there may even be some hope, for the first time, in Afghanistan, absent the Pakistan problem.
In a country traumatized in recent decades by U.S. abandonment, many Afghans say that the psychology has changed in recent weeks with the news of long-term U.S. and Western commitments. After Obama announced a 10-year strategic partnership agreement running to 2024, real-estate prices shot up in Kabul. On top of that, the U.S., NATO, and the Afghan government are expected to pool some $4 billion a year to fund the increasingly sturdy Afghan army and security forces. Finally, economic-development assistance programs are expected to come out of a Tokyo conference scheduled for July, when Afghanistan will present its “strategic vision,” including a planned surge in mining revenues from gold and rare minerals. Even in some areas of the once-violent south, helped by a program to induce Taliban fighters to lay down their arms and to “reintegrate” them, ISAF Cmdr. John Allen argues that he is more focused now on economic progress than security. “In the south and southwest, it really is a post-conflict conversation,” Allen, a four-star Marine general, told me and other visiting reporters in an interview in Uruzgan province on May 7.
NATO invited Pakistan’s Asif Ali Zardari despite the country’s support for the Taliban.
With elections expected as early as next year, credible alternatives already are emerging to President Hamid Karzai, who is deeply mistrusted in Washington. Among them: popular provincial Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai, who has begun to open political offices in Kabul; Abdullah Abdullah, who finished second to Karzai in 2009 and is a former U.S. ally; and possibly even Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born, naturalized American who was once the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. (In an interview with National Journal this week, Khalilzad would not rule out a run, saying only, “I’m not planning it.”)
In the wake of the Chicago summit, it seems much likelier that whoever is elected U.S. president in November, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, the U.S., NATO, and some 22 non-NATO countries (from Australia to Macedonia) will remain engaged in Afghanistan in some fashion indefinitely. “There’s going to be an international military presence here in Afghanistan for a long time, a long time after 2014,” Allen said. As a result, he argued, many mid-level Taliban fighters are beginning to have second thoughts. “If your narrative is, ‘Just wait us out,’ [and] you’re going to have to wait now for decades ... you’re going to start to lose some enthusiasm.”
Indeed, mounting evidence indicates that much of the enthusiasm for war is coming from the Taliban leadership safely harbored in Quetta, Pakistan, along with Islamabad’s military-intelligence apparatus. They continue to provide an ever-flush resupply depot to the Taliban that could destroy the alliance’s most ambitious project and condemn to near-certain failure the United States’ 10-year-long, vastly expensive response to 9/11. In addition to attacks on U.S. and NATO troops, and the assassinations of Afghanistan’s top peace negotiators—including former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and, last week, Maulvi Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban leader who became a senior member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council—are plots thought to emanate from Pakistan.
Allen acknowledged that the U.S. isn’t certain how many of the enemy it is still fighting because so many are supplied by Pakistan’s tribal warlords. “Nobody knows for sure,” Allen said. “I think most estimates would put [the insurgency] between 30 and 35 [thousand]. Some large number of them are in Pakistan. And the term ‘enemy’ has many different meanings here. A significant number of what might be considered enemy are in a support role; they’re not fighters, necessarily.”
A FAILURE OF U.S. DIPLOMACY
Rescuing Afghanistan under these circumstances is like trying to put out a fire in your house while your neighbor constantly reignites the building from the backyard. At least as important as talking with the Taliban, in other words, is negotiating with its overseers: the ISI. And yet some critics—who include prominent Pakistanis yearning to break the country’s Faustian bargain with Islamist radicals—say that Washington is largely ignoring or shunting aside the Pakistan problem out of fear, inertia, and a lack of a U.S. and NATO strategic vision. “It is a failure of diplomacy of the highest order, where we have had the lives of our people at stake,” Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador, told NJ. To keep the Pakistanis even marginally cooperative, Khalilzad said, “I think, frankly, we have been too cautious and willing to pay too high a price.”
Before he was forced out of office last year, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani—perhaps the closest Pakistani friend the Obama administration had—urged U.S. officials to adopt a “holistic” approach to the region that would help wean Pakistan from its military support of Islamists. It never happened. And today, rather than coming up with a new overarching strategic policy for Pakistan and the region that is commensurate with the deep commitments that the U.S. has never before made, Washington and other capitals continue to watch, helplessly, as a middle-sized developing country defies a superpower and the West’s dominant nations with virtual impunity.
Even the Europeans continue to describe the issue as a problem of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, although their own blood and treasure are at stake. “The Americans are completely paralyzed by this situation,” one European diplomat said, on condition of anonymity. Another senior NATO official also laid the problem on the Americans. “It’s quite difficult at times to find a single U.S. policy on Pakistan, much less coordination with others.”
The administration’s paralysis has been evident in an intense, months-long internal debate over whether to issue an apology to Pakistan over the errant NATO strikes that killed at least 24 Pakistani soldiers last fall, even though five months have passed since the completion of an official Pentagon investigation that partially blamed U.S. forces for the incident. Obama, facing charges of appeasement from Romney, has repeatedly hesitated, and even Crocker bluntly opposed the move in an interview.
To be sure, the way out is not easy or clear, and some critics, such as the senior NATO official, are sympathetic about the muddle in Washington. “How would you deal with it, even if you decided you wanted to deal with it?” he asked. “The United States has tried being nice to Pakistan. It’s tried being nasty to Pakistan. It’s tried giving them money. It’s tried taking money away. Once a country has got it into its head that it has a national policy which is in its national interests, you can exert huge amounts of pressure, but it becomes almost impossible to shift, partly for domestic political reasons. And let’s face it: In Pakistan, there is a huge amount of support for the Taliban.”
At his closing news conference in Chicago on Monday, Obama merely alluded to the problem—even though it was the first question put to him by reporters. “I don’t want to paper over real challenges there,” the president said. “There is no doubt that there have been tensions between ISAF and Pakistan, the United States and Pakistan, over the last several months.… But, ultimately, it is in our interest to see a successful, stable Pakistan, and it is in Pakistan’s interest to work with us and the world community to ensure that they themselves are not consumed by extremism that is in their midst. And so we’re going to keep on going at this. And I think every NATO member, every ISAF member, is committed to that.”
The bottom line remains, however: Washington has no comprehensive approach to a region that hatched the worst-ever attack on the nation’s home soil, a strategy that would wean the Pakistanis away from their retrograde, anti-Western policies. Even as they have become increasingly forthright about Pakistan’s involvement in terrorism, U.S. and NATO officials remain wary of offending Islamabad because of a bedrock fear that if Pakistan becomes destabilized, its nuclear arsenal could fall into the wrong hands. That caution also ruled in Chicago, where all the talk was simply about NATO getting permission from the Pakistanis to use their overland routes to expedite the troop pullout.
Nor does Washington have a senior diplomat with enough authority, toughness, and vision to handle the problem, according to U.S. and European officials. Richard Holbrooke, the only one thought to have all those qualities, was named Obama’s “special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan” in 2009. But the White House partially stymied him—lobbied by India, Obama denied Holbrooke’s request to make Kashmir part of his portfolio even though Islamabad uses that disputed province, situated between Pakistan and India, to justify the army’s strategic support of jihadist proxy groups. After Holbrooke died suddenly in December 2010, he was succeeded by career diplomat Marc Grossman, who is widely considered ineffective and has provoked backbiting from the State Department’s South and Central Asian Bureau, where the assistant secretary, Robert Blake, has been largely cut out of deliberations. “It’s all Holbrooke’s broken china,” one official said. The two leading figures in U.S. policy in the region, Ryan Crocker, the ambassador to Afghanistan, and Gen. Allen, are already making plans to leave (in Crocker’s case, back to retirement; Allen is expected to be named NATO commander in Europe). Ambassador Cameron Munter, described as increasingly agitated over the failure of U.S. policy, is also leaving his post early.
Although Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been praised for her approach to the region, having recently proposed a “New Silk Road” to induce Pakistan and other countries to work with Afghanistan, she is involved in the issue only sporadically.
The Taliban leadership, on the eve of the NATO summit, issued a statement from its comfortable sanctuary in tribal Pakistan, where it pledged to “keep proceeding with … ongoing jihad until it attains its goal.”
THE WAY FORWARD
What should the strategic vision be? Based on interviews with a wide range of U.S., European, Afghan, and Pakistani officials, here are some suggestions. First, there should be a démarche of the kind the Pakistanis have not been given since just after 9/11, when then-President Pervez Musharraf was presented with a stark choice: Fully support the war against the Taliban, or you’re through. Now, Pakistan should be confronted with a clear and harsh update of that choice: If you defy the international community, you will be turned into a sanctioned pariah, á la Iran, in which case your country will lose ground economically and militarily to archrival India. Alternatively, if you repudiate violent extremists, you will be rewarded with more economic assistance and a voice in the region’s future, such as Clinton’s New Silk Road, which seeks to turn central Asia into a commercial hub once again.
“We have to be willing to escalate the pressure, which, in my view, has to include Pakistan’s very difficult economic circumstances,” Khalilzad said. “Today, I think the Pakistanis can cover only about 10 weeks of imports. We also need to move diplomatically by engaging some key countries they rely on, like China and Saudi Arabia.”
A former senior diplomat intimately familiar with the decline in U.S.-Pakistan discussions agrees. “The message needs to be: What kind of future does Pakistan want? Does it want to be Iran—or does it want to be South Korea—in other words, rich and respected?” he said. “No one has delivered that tough message recently. So the assumption in Pakistan is that the Americans need us more than we need them. We can hold the Americans to ransom. They can’t get out of Afghanistan without our help.”
Instead, this critique goes, the U.S. has been too nice and too polite, to the point where the Pakistanis have come to expect American acquiescence. That is one reason the most recent issue over shipping rights has dragged on so long. “The Pakistanis have totally miscalculated. They thought NATO would buckle under in a few weeks. And it’s been six months,” said the former senior diplomat, who would describe internal deliberations between the U.S. and Pakistan only on condition of anonymity.
To be sure, U.S. nonchalance and miscalculation over the past decade have contributed mightily to the Pakistanis’ own strategic ambivalence. After 9/11, the Bush administration ignored its democracy agenda entirely when it came to Pakistan, refusing even to meet with exiled leader Benazir Bhutto; instead, the administration blindly supported the Pakistan coup leader, Gen. Musharraf, although the latter was fully vested in the military’s traditional support of jihadist proxies. True, in the early days of the war on terrorism, Pakistan was in fact helpful against al-Qaida, taking part in the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani from Balochistan, in 2003. But Musharraf grew complacent, throwing up an assortment of “al-Qaida No. 3” leaders to appease the Americans while signing peace deals with Islamist parties to block the more-legitimate secular political parties that might present real opposition to him.
All the while, Washington looked the other way and hinted at its eventual departure from the region, thus robbing Pakistan of any motivation to reorient its army from India and toward pacifying its restive tribal regions. U.S. efforts have remained piecemeal and intermittent, at best, rather than focused on leveraging America’s, and NATO’s, expensive and long-term commitment into a diplomatic vision for the region that would have co-opted the Pakistanis: the kind of vision U.S. officials have developed vis-à-vis China, Russia, Iran, and even Latin America.
One example of what was missed was the tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. India has resisted any international mediation over the disputed province, which it claims, but New Delhi has also shown an eagerness to work with Washington, which proffered a generous strategic partnership to India beginning in the mid-2000s, much to the ire of the Pakistanis. Yet Washington did not demand a quid pro quo from Delhi, and the Kashmir issue continued to fester. Back in 1999, U.S. officials were rattled when the two countries—both of which tested nukes in 1998—fought deadly skirmishes along the so-called line of control that, since 1971, has divided Kashmir. Worried about a nuclear conflict, President Clinton in 2000 sounded a strong new U.S. diplomatic line, calling for “respect for the line of control.”
Then inattention took over again. Only when war threatened to erupt in 2002 did Bush send Secretary of State Colin Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, to negotiate a de-escalation. As part of that effort, a senior administration official said, the United States briefly sought to play mediator in discussions over Kashmir once again. But Bush, distracted by Iraq, dropped the issue.
CHANGING THE CALCULUS
One reason some U.S. policymakers have been somewhat fatalistic about Pakistan’s behavior is that, until now, the typical view from Washington has been that Afghanistan will somehow always revert back to a state of war, and that its government is hopelessly corrupt. Certainly that was the view of Vice President Joe Biden, who argued in 2009 for a much earlier departure from Afghanistan. And the president seems to agree with him. Obama, sounding on Monday what has become a familiar note in the face of a tough reelection challenge, called for “a stable Afghanistan that won’t be perfect” so that “we can start rebuilding America and making some of the massive investments we’ve been making in Afghanistan here back home.”
But if Obama also believes his own rhetoric about an “Afghan good enough” state in which the center holds and the Taliban doesn’t take over; and if he wants to avoid a foreign-policy disaster that will forever be associated with his presidency, then he needs to take one more important step: Appoint a high-level representative, or perhaps delegate Secretary of State Clinton to the task. And he needs to rethink the whole region.
As we’ve learned so many times over the years, the permanent presence of American power and influence, and that of the international community, can fundamentally alter the equation—it can overturn the iron law of history that seems to doom backward countries like Afghanistan to ever-more war and repression. We saw it in Bosnia, when everyone expected the 1995 Dayton Accord to fall apart and the ethnic killing to resume. It didn’t, because NATO stayed. We saw it in Kosovo, which gained its independence under NATO monitoring. We saw it in the ultimate impact that the 1975 Helsinki Final Act had in undermining the illegitimate Communist regimes in the Soviet bloc.
In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, fear of U.S. abandonment has largely determined policy until now, causing both countries to revert to old habits. Now Washington has a chance to change those calculations—to alter the fundamental equation once again—because of its long-term commitment. But only if it deals in a whole new way with Pakistan.
This article appears in the May 26, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.