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Will someone in Washington please say it out loud: The problem is on the other side of the border

Steven Weber, professor of political science | December 2, 2009

Have you ever had a sinus infection?  You can’t get rid of it by rubbing antibiotics on your cheeks, or by taking a decongestant.  Someone has to go in and clean out the source of the infection.  Otherwise, you’re just masking the underlying problem and making yourself feel a little better, while the infection festers.  It will come back.

And so it goes with Afghanistan and Pakistan.  30,000 is just a number.  More troops will make it easier for the US and coalition forces to continue to modify the war strategy toward what the Bush Administration did in its Iraq surge:  make deals with local warlords, buy off the ‘accidental’ opposition that is opportunistic rather than ideological, and kill some of the hard-core fighters for whom there is no other way.  There will probably be some successes along those lines.

But it won’t make a medium term difference.  The irreconcilable elements of the Taliban and Al-Quada have a protected sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan.  Everyone knows this, and the President acknowledged it last night.  But he did not say what he was going to do about that.  “Surgical” whack-a-mole strikes from pilotless drones can kill a terrorist or two.  Covert CIA operations on the ground can gather intelligence and disrupt some of the enemies’ operations.  But we’re not going to win the war in Pakistan using only those tools.

And that’s where the war is truly being fought right now.

Announcing a de facto timeline for withdrawal is good domestic politics, but there are TVs in the tribal areas of Pakistan too — and they were tuned in last night along with the American public.  The Islamist radicals are winning this war, and they know that, and nothing I heard last night leads me or I suspect them to believe that will change before 2011 or 2012 — when American forces leave.

Time for a more radical re-assessment of our goals and objectives in the region.   The White House has already backed away from the broader commitments — heard anyone talking about ‘democracy-building’ in Afghanistan recently?  We need a similar dose of realism with regard to Pakistan.  And we need it very soon.

Comments to “Will someone in Washington please say it out loud: The problem is on the other side of the border

  1. What exactly is “the Problem”? I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Weber’s conclusion that it is “Time for a more radical re-assessment of our goals and objectives in the region.” However, I would argue that “the Problem” is not necessarily in Pakistan. Sure there are very many problems in Pakistan, but I think the problem – the “Problem” – Dr. Weber is pointing to is the problem of militant Islamic fundamentalism.

    Here, Dr. Weber seems to be aligning himself with those who believe that if we could just get into Pakistan, where we could get at the source of the “infection” (to extend his metaphor), we might root out the fundamentalists at the source. This is a tempting view, but I think it misses a very important point. It may very well be that the reason – or at least a key reason – why the fundamentalists are operating out of Pakistan’s tribal areas is simply because they can. Militant Islamic fundamentalists (al-Qaida), the Taliban, and self-styled Pashtun “warlords” take advantage of the brutal terrain and lawlessness of Pakistan’s wild west to launch their forays into Afghanistan and elsewhere. Now even if, and this is a huge if, we could effectively fight these renegades on their home turf, whether by force of arms, propaganda, by applying pressure to the Pakistan government, or by some combination of these and other tactics, what’s to say the revolution would not simply move to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or China’s Xinjiang Province? What’s to say Iran would not begin applying pressure from the west by exporting advanced IED technology into Afghanistan?

    As I wrote above, I absolutely agree with Dr. Weber’s assessment that we need a major re-think of what we think we’re doing in South Asia. He is also correct that 30,000 is just a number. In fact 100 attack helicopters would go much further in Afghanistan than 100,000 warm bodies. Frankly, if we want to leave Afghanistan within the next couple of years, it may be a better idea just to load up a cargo plane with all of the cash that the surge is costing us and line the pockets of the warlords and Taliban commanders in exchange for a peaceful withdrawal (While this may seem cynical, any student of Afghanistan’s history will appreciate the importance of payoffs in every successful attempt to pacify that country. The phrase “money talks” is nowhere more true than in Afghanistan).

    As an former Army intelligence officer and Arabic linguist who spent a year of his life with his boots on the ground in Kandahar Province, among other places, and who as an analyst has committed the greater part of his adult life to fighting radical militants of all stripes, I would challenge Washington not only to re-think its regional strategy in South Asia, but to take a step back and think about the whole enterprise of the Global War on Terrorism.

    I challenge the Washington strategists and analysts and planners to re-assess the threat from a clean slate, to take look at the raw intelligence and honestly ask themselves, “What is the threat?”

    Does anybody with a nuanced understanding of this problem set seriously think that what is going on in Pakistan or Afghanistan today has the potential to result in a terrorist attack on American soil? I think a closer look at who we’re fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan will reveal far more pragmatic goals: local and regional power and securing business interests in the drug and smuggling trades, among others. Those fighting us for idealistic reasons are only doing so because we happen to be in their back yard. Very, very few have either the capability, the discipline and wherewithal to carry out an attack on American soil – far, far fewer, I would wager, than the often cited figure of 100. And no 30,000 soldiers driving around in the Hindu Kush are going to find those half-dozen-odd characters. As one of my colleagues was fond of saying, “The stupid ones are all dead.”

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