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March 27th, 2009
08:11 PM ET

Obama's anti-terror plan could be doomed

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/03/27/us.afghanistan.troops/art.obama.afghanistan.cnn.jpg caption="President Obama, here with Hillary Clinton on Friday, calls the situation in Afghanistan "increasingly perilous.""]
Peter Bergen
CNN National Security Analyst

The Obama plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan announced Friday has a great deal to recommend it, with its emphasis on protecting the Afghan population and delivering more aid directly to the Pakistani people instead of to the Pakistan army.

These are just two among a raft of other sensible and long-overdue shifts in South Asia policy.

That the strategy is well-calibrated is not surprising, as some of the most able officials in the administration helped to put it together - Richard Holbrooke at the State Department, Bruce Riedel at the National Security Council and Michèle Flournoy at the Pentagon, supplemented, of course, by Gen. David Petraeus and his experienced team at Central Command.

But the new strategy does not answer the largest question that hovers over the entire "Af-Pak" enterprise because it is, to a great degree, unanswerable.

Every government official involved in the Af-Pak review understands that Afghanistan can never be stable if al Qaeda and the Taliban continue to be headquartered in Pakistan.

Yet the Pakistani government does not have any real strategy to defeat the militants on its territory.

How then can the United States have a strategy to succeed in Pakistan when the Pakistani government itself does not have a strategy to defeat its own proliferating insurgencies?

It's not simply that the Pakistan government is bifurcated into a weak elected civilian government that is barely functional and a strong unelected government, the Pakistani Army, which still controls the country's national security policy.

Nor is it simply that Pakistan has rarely produced leaders equal to the task of managing one of the largest and most chaotic countries on the planet.

While these are undoubtedly problems for the United States, the deepest difficulty is that neither the Pakistani military nor political establishment have articulated to themselves or to their own people the plan they have to rid the country of its jiihadist militants, which were once clients of the Pakistani state, but have now increasingly turned against it.

To root out those militants, the Pakistanis first tried the hammer approach in their tribal regions along the Afghan border in 2004 with a number of military operations that were essentially defeats for the Pakistani army, which is geared for land wars with India, rather than effective counterinsurgency campaigns.

The failed military operations were followed by appeasement in the form of "peace" agreements with the militants in 2005 and 2006, which were really admissions of military failure and led the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies to establish even greater sway in the tribal areas.

By 2009, the militants controlled all seven of the tribal agencies in the tribal region and their writ extended into the "settled" areas of the North West Frontier Province, almost up to the gates of Peshawar, the provincial capital.

The pattern of military failure followed by appeasement continued this year in Swat in northern Pakistan, whose verdant valleys and towering mountains had once been one of Pakistan's premier tourist destinations. It is now firmly in the grip of the Pakistani Taliban, who won it by force of arms, a victory that has been certified by yet another "peace" agreement with the government.

Despite this record of success, the militants are a long way from taking over the Pakistani state, as some hyperventilating members of the American commentariat have suggested. In the national election last year, militant religious parties were thrashed, dropping from 11 percent of the vote to a piffling 2 percent.

This suggests a way forward for the Pakistani government, and by extension the Obama administration. Ordinary Pakistanis have had it with the militants of every stripe. Their government needs to adopt a sound counterinsurgency policy against the militants in the broadest sense, typically understood as 80 percent political measures and 20 percent military action.

To that end, the Pakistani military must end its counterproductive policy of punitive expeditions against the militants along the Afghan border and instead center its efforts in securing and improving the lives of the population there, hundreds of thousands of whom have already fled the violence in the tribal areas. That would demonstrate to the people in the tribal regions that they can put their faith in the government.

Pakistanis will support action against the militants if their politicians and generals explain that their country is now fighting to restore Pakistan to its rightful place as a stable, democratic state that is no longer the incubator of the most violent jihadist groups in the world.

Right now the Pakistani establishment hasn't articulated that goal to its own people, nor has it explained how it plans to get there.

Until that happens, any American strategy to deal with Pakistan and its militants, no matter how smartly constructed, is doomed to fail.


Filed under: Afghanistan • Barack Obama • Peter Bergen
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Kailea

    Fighting terrorism is an important aspect to the war we are currently in, however; Pakistan is a very dangerous country for our troops to be in. I think it would be a very dangerous decision to put our Americans in further danger in Pakistan. If the Pakistan government officials will not take action against the terrorists in Pakistan, then we have no reason to further involve our selves in something that isn't directly our problem. The risk is to high.

    March 29, 2009 at 10:07 pm |