Obama's Afghanistan plan offers few solutions for Pakistan

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 27, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Friday unveiled its new strategy for defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, but it offered few new options for dealing with Pakistan, which experts say has become a much more significant terrorist haven.

Administration officials acknowledge that since 9/11, Pakistan has grown into a huge cesspool of terrorism, but they also admit America's options for draining it are limited.

Osama bin Laden orchestrated the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan, while he was a guest of the Afghan Taliban regime. After the U.S. invasion in late 2001, senior Taliban and al Qaida leaders fled to Pakistan's tribal areas, where their presence has spawned a Pakistani offshoot that now threatens the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan.

"Pakistan is 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, a military bigger than the United States' and an al Qaida base in the two-thirds of the country the government doesn't control," said David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert who took part in the strategy review and is the author of a new book, "The Accidental Guerrilla."

Calling the situation "increasingly perilous," Obama announced on Friday that he'd send 4,000 troops to train Afghan forces, in addition to the 17,500 he'd previously ordered into the country. He also said he'd "surge" hundreds of civilians to help fight endemic corruption, build up the economy and improve governance.

Obama, however, spelled out a far less ambitious plan for Pakistan, although his top military advisers and intelligence experts say it's the crux of the region's problems. In his announcement, he called the Afghanistan-Pakistan border the "most dangerous place in the world" for American security.

"In the new strategy, there was a greater degree of candor, putting Pakistan at the center instead of at the fringes" as the Bush administration did, said Ambassador James Dobbins, a RAND Corp. senior fellow who served as President George W. Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan. "But people who wanted more certainty on how to solve Pakistan are going to be disappointed."

Obama urged Congress to give Pakistan $1.5 billion a year in reconstruction and government projects, in addition to the military aid Pakistan already receives. He also called on the world community to reach out to Pakistan diplomatically.

U.S. officials say some Pakistani military intelligence officers have maintained close ties with both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. It appears that one element of Obama's strategy for dealing with Pakistan is to convince its army that the U.S. won't walk away from the region as it did in the 1990s, but will stay until Afghanistan is secure.

A key element of Obama's emphasis on seeking stability in Afghanistan is "convincing the Pakistanis that there is no good reason they should invest in the Taliban," a U.S. intelligence official told reporters in a briefing Friday.

Obama advisers said that even if the U.S. successfully stabilizes Afghanistan and meets its goal to train 134,000 Afghan soldiers and 82,000 police, the effort will be futile unless there's a way to prevent fighters and weapons from moving freely across the border.

"You can have a great government in Kabul," said Richard Holbrooke, the president's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But "if the current situation in western Pakistan continued, the instability in Afghanistan will continue."

Obama said the U.S. would press Pakistan to follow up on any intelligence that could lead to a high-value target. Privately, however, many U.S. intelligence officials don't trust the Pakistani military and intelligence services. In a briefing to reporters, a U.S. intelligence officer said that "too often" the Pakistanis take tips from the U.S. and then inform targets so they can escape.

In Pakistan, the reception to Obama's proposal was lukewarm.

Many Pakistanis say the American presence in the region is causing the violence, while some sympathize with the Afghan Taliban, who come from the same Pashtun ethnic group that inhabits Pakistan's northwest.

"America has created these conditions," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of Jamaat-i-Islami, one of the two big mainstream religious parties. "We have to stop this partnership with the U.S. Why are we helping them fight our brothers?"

Ayaz Amir, a newspaper columnist and a member of parliament for the main opposition party, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, said the increased aid promised by Obama would "just increase the cesspools of corruption."

"They will just create a class of war profiteers . . . which is a recipe for demoralization," Amir said. "Pakistan has to do its own thinking, be left on its own and the Americans have to get the hell out of Afghanistan."

At home, though, Obama's approach won plaudits, including from some Republicans.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whose opinions the administration sought in shaping the policy, said Obama's plans are "on target," although Graham also would like to see an additional 8,000 or more troops deployed to Afghanistan later this year or next year.

Graham said that increased financial aid to Pakistan is important, and he doesn't fault Obama for not having more detailed plans yet because so much depends on the U.S. ability to reshape the attitudes of Pakistan's government and military.

At this time, he said, "The population as a whole will not tolerate a Western presence . . . they're paranoid about India. That's a cultural change that's going to take time."

(McClatchy special correspondent Saeed Shah in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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