Pessimism on Af-Pak

An argument for “the good war” doesn’t quite deliver

I wanted to be persuaded by Peter Bergen’s argument in Washington Monthly about why the U.S. mission in Afghanistan can still end well. Really, I did. And in the course of his essay, Bergen pairs his argument for America’s “moral obligation” to a country it invaded with some real reasons for optimism: the idea that Afghanistan is historically a “graveyard of empires” is a canard. Afghan refugees are coming home, a sign that they believe the nation has a future. The ranks of the Taliban are relatively small, and they are not especially well liked. Perhaps most important, the next serious effort we make to win this war will be the first.

But the least persuasive section of the essay is the last, when Bergen discusses Pakistan, which, due to its size, its location, and its instability, continues to be the greatest obstacle to a stable, secure Afghanistan—or, as Bergen puts it, “the one skunk at this garden party.” He acknowledges all the usual reasons to be worried about Pakistan’s role, chief among them that nation’s weak civilian government and its military’s inability, or unwillingness, to seriously challenge Islamic militants. Stacked against these chronic problems, Bergen points to “hopeful signs” that Pakistani public opinion has turned on the Taliban, including the overwhelming rejection of political parties affiliated with the fundamentalist movement in a 2008 election. Those results are indeed good news with respect to Pakistan’s domestic politics—but they don’t suggest that the nation’s security forces see the broader strategic situation the same way the U.S. does. And until that happens, the American effort will be an uphill slog.

Skepticism on this score was not alleviated by the lead story in Tuesday’s New York Times, headlined “Pakistan Objects to U.S. Plan for Afghan War.” From the article, by Eric Schmitt and Jane Perlez:

Pakistan is objecting to expanded American combat operations in neighboring Afghanistan, creating new fissures in the alliance with Washington at a critical juncture when thousands of new American forces are arriving in the region.

Pakistani officials have told the Obama administration that the Marines fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan will force militants across the border into Pakistan, with the potential to further inflame the troubled province of Baluchistan, according to Pakistani intelligence officials…

The Pakistani account made clear that even as the United States recommits troops and other resources to take on a growing Taliban threat, Pakistani officials still consider India their top priority and the Taliban militants a problem that can be negotiated. In the long term, the Taliban in Afghanistan may even remain potential allies for Pakistan, as they were in the past, once the United States leaves…

Even as Obama administration officials praise the operations, they express frustration that Pakistan is failing to act against the full array of Islamic militants using the country as a base.

Instead, they say, Pakistani authorities have chosen to fight Pakistani Taliban who threaten their government, while ignoring Taliban and other militants fighting Americans in Afghanistan or terrorizing India.

Those are not particularly hopeful signs.

Curious about what Bergen would make of the story, I reached him by phone Tuesday afternoon. He acknowledged that the U.S. and Pakistan security forces continue to view the situation very differently, and “merely because we think it’s in their strategic interest” to help fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and the border region between the two countries doesn’t mean they’ll do so.

Still, he said, the current state of affairs represents progress of a sort. Historically, Pakistan security forces have distinguished between al Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, as U.S. officials told the Times, they are distinguishing between Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. That might still be less than ideal from an American perspective, but “the big difference is they are going after the Taliban now,” Bergen said. And while the military’s offensive against the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley was far from a classic counterinsurgency, it was broadly supported by the public. “The Pakistani public is sort of the prize here, and their attitudes seem to be changing,” Bergen said.

He also pointed out something he hadn’t noted in his article: the lawyer’s movement that forced Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf from office was a largely democratic, secular effort whose message was amplified by a press that is much more free than it used to be. Altogether, Bergen said, the “underlying trends” are positive.

It’s a hopeful message—at least as hopeful as one can expect in that part of the world—but still not an entirely convincing one. Bergen’s argument, made at greater length here, points toward the conclusion that Pakistan, for all its internal tensions and contradictions, will remain at least a minimally cohesive, functional, legitimate state. For our effort to succeed in Afghanistan, though, we’ll likely need it to be much more than that. And how we get to that point remains as unclear as ever.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.