Sleeping on AfPak

Sleeping on AfPak

Why isn't anyone—including the president—talking about America's Afghanistan dilemma?

Our Afghanistan-Pakistan policy is looking more and more like a long shot, but you would not know it from the anemic public discussion.

The Bush and Obama administrations have been given wide latitude on policy but little scrutiny, even as both countries continue to deteriorate. Mainstream editorialists and commentators remain complacent in examining our so-called AfPak strategy. Congress holds hearings and invariably opts to largely rubber stamp administration requests. Unlike during the run-up to the Iraq War, the intelligence community seems to have stopped leaking alternate views.

Politically, the Left periodically raises its voice, rallying in its inherent dislike of armed conflict, while the neoconservative-led Right can never let a war pass by without declaring it a test of American global preeminence or a necessity to expand freedom. More important, the American people, according to polls, have not considered the seemingly endless war a major concern. The issue has been veiled to them, in part because it is characterized as a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, which Mr. Obama constantly repeats in public remarks. More fundamentally, the public attitude stems from the rise of the volunteer army, which gets wide public support. One result is that most American families today do not experience the direct worry and worse, grief of death or dismemberment, over children or spouses in Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam, we give the troops respect but not the more important respect of asking ourselves whether we should continue to send them to war for uncertain ends. With volunteer forces have come military leaders with excellent capabilities—martial, media and political—who have largely gotten the sizable blank check that wartime can bring.

Sooner or later, our attention deficit will run up against the harsh reality of AfPak, and we will face a domestic political crisis and perhaps also a civil-military clash. The basic problem is strategic, not the flow of battle—allied forces have achieved many tactical successes. It is that we have to rely on two allies who do not sing from our hymnal—and even if they did, it is not clear that they could produce the results we require.

It is hard to believe that in present circumstances we can do much to establish a more effective and importantly collaborative Pakistan government and a survivable non-Taliban one in Afghanistan without massive increases in American economic and military involvement and perhaps not even then. The strategic dilemma of our AfPak engagement is staring us in the face. Among its well-known critical manifestations are:

· Afghanistan’s leadership is weak and corrupt. In 2009 U.S. officials often labeled Afghan President Hamid Karzai the problem; last year he was mostly Winston Churchill.

· Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari is also ineffective, corrupt and widely disliked. Pakistan’s military, with its national security focus on India, dominates the security agenda and the national budget. But extremist violence spreads to the interior, while Pakistan expands its nuclear-weapons capabilities

· Afghan forces, now some three hundred thousand to be increased to four hundred thousand, dwarfs by ten times the number of Taliban fighters and are better armed, but that makes little difference on the battlefield. No country provides the Taliban the billions of dollars of equipment that we and the Saudis gave to the mujahideen fighting the Russians.

· Pakistan is mostly unwilling to attack major Taliban sanctuaries despite our entreaties. That leads us to technological fixes—more and more drone strikes, which kill both the bad and innocent but do not resolve the sanctuary problem and leave a Pakistani public even more galvanized against America

· Afghan GNP is miniscule. Billions of aid dollars are wasted and we have not yet generated a productive economy. Narcotic production is again thriving, feeding farmers, politicians and Taliban.

The administration is focused on these crucial challenges but does not tell us how they will be overcome. Instead we hear of battlefield successes, of the goal of turning the tide, of the enormous impact of drones and of endless high level visits to importune the Pakistan military to clean out the insurgents. The administration reiterates our determination not to abandon the Afghans as it sets dates for turning over the military mission. We talk of negotiations with the Taliban and involving regional states, but there is little evidence of it. It is difficult to ask our military to hang around in Afghanistan and make things better without seeking to win this endless war. That can lead to demands for vastly increased military efforts or a genuine civil-military split in the country.

Our strategic dilemma is rarely discussed. It is hard to talk candidly in public about basic difficulties with our two allies. But our $1.5 billion in annual aid will not much change Pakistan or buy its full support. In any event, Pakistan needs much more aid. How much it will cost in lives and money to keep Afghanistan going is also uncertain. Nation building in Afghanistan is a generation-long problem, one that does not play to our strengths but has now become a tar baby. There are obviously grave issues also involved in any reduction of our efforts.

The war is likely to heat up this summer and casualties will rise significantly. The administration is almost certainly considering shortcuts for the immediate progress many in our military want, such as giving an ultimatum to Pakistan to clean out its sanctuaries or we will use our forces to do it. Whether that will produce good or bad results will be much argued. But now we are now approaching stalemate or worse. It is past time to face our terrible dilemma and consider how to deal with it, bluntly and realistically. That will require serious public discussion.