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.