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October 7, 2010

As the US loses in Afghanistan it blames Pakistan

Scott Stockdale

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The Obama administration has always felt that Pakistan was the key to winning the war in Afghanistan. But, for unknown reasons - perhaps the arrogance of a superpower - it felt it could bend the will of the Pakistani government and military to put the United State's interests ahead of its own.

However, events on the ground are increasingly proving this to be a foolish and thus costly strategy, doomed to failure.

It's been widely publicized that US officials have long known that Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency – the power broker between the US and Pakistani government and military – has been aiding the Taliban, despite years of American strategies employing carrots and sticks to stop this subterfuge.

In a recent interview, Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan’s ISI gave a Pakistani perspective, which is diametrically opposed to the American one.

“You will never sever your relationship with the opposition of the country,” Mr. Gul said.

“It’s not in your interest, especially since day one it was known that the Americans would go away. Now at a time when the Americans are losing the war, the Taliban are the future resistance of Afghanistan . . . Would you not continue to engage in the future?”

Now, nine years into the war, the US administration is increasingly blaming Pakistan for America's failure to make progress in Afghanistan. 

A new White House assessment steps up criticism of Pakistan's campaign against militants, stating bluntly that its government and military have been unwilling to take action against al Qaeda and like-minded terrorists.

It seems that the US administration and chattering classes have long forgotten that Pakistan was a reluctant US ally to begin with: making threats of US bombing necessary to get Pakistan to support the US war in Afghanistan, after 9/11.

After all, Pakistani officials always knew – even if American officials didn't - that many of its citizens and military personnel would view the War On Terror as a war against Muslims.

Meanwhile, the White House report also raises questions about the U.S.-led coalition's progress battling the Taliban and improving governance in Afghanistan, two months before the White House will review its war strategy.

The report shows growing U.S. frustration, officials said. "The report reflects that there are real challenges we have with Pakistan," said an Obama administration official.

As is its custom, the Obama administration debated long and hard on how to get Pakistan to crack down on the militants, some of whom Pakistani officials themselves created as assets in Afghanistan, and as a counterweight against India, Pakistan's much bigger and traditional enemy. Now, US officials at all levels are in talks with Pakistan to address these issues, the official added.

However, this is nothing new. US officials have been in talks with Pakistani officials for nine years, yet the situation continues to deteriorate.

According to Bob Woodward's new book Obama Wars Bruce Riedel, who advised Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, from posts in the White House, the Defence Department and the CIA, and is now a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution in Washington, was brought in as a key figure in the Obama administration's March 2009 Afghanistan strategy review.

Mr. Woodward said Mr. Riedel personally convinced President Obama, only two months after he took office, that Pakistan needed to be the centerpiece of his new strategy. Mr. Riedel proposed arming the Pakistani military for counterinsurgency and increasing economic and other forms of aid to the civilian government.

President Obama, however, opted to pursue a less confrontational path. He concluded the central task would be convincing the Pakistani leadership to throw its lot in with the United States. He said at the time of the initial strategy review in March 2009, "that we had to have a serious heart-to-heart with Pakistani civilian, military and intelligence leaders."

Subsequently the talk continued, but the desired results failed to materialize, so President Obama's advisors decided it was time for a more muscular approach.

Consequently, later in 2009, the decision was made to send an additional 30,000 "surge" of troops to Afghanistan.

On the Larry King show recently Mr. Woodward described the meeting between President Obama and his advisors, which resulted in this strategy. 

He said President Obama pointed out to his advisors that they told him he would have three options to choose from; but they were, in fact, only giving him one. 

He turned to Defence Secretary Robert Gates with his complaint and Mr. Gates said: “You're right Mr. President. You should have more options.”

Mr. Woodward, who was telling the story, then laughed and said: “But they never ever did (give Obama more options.)” 

Realizing that his plans to also expand the U.S. military presence in Pakistan and widen drone strikes would be a hard sell to the Pakistani government, President Obama attempted to soften the blow:  He framed the policy as a new "strategic partnership" with Pakistan, even tying the success of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to the survival of Pakistani President Zardari and the legacy of his deceased wife Benazir Bhutto.

Meanwhile, in the White House report, US officials say they are increasingly frustrated by Pakistan's decision not to send large numbers of ground forces into North Waziristan, a tribal area of Pakistan where many Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding. “This is a much a political choice as it is a reflection of an under-resourced military prioritizing its targets,” the unclassified 27-page report finds.

Pakistani officials have said they don't lack the will and that they have generally stepped up their efforts in response to US pressure, but are getting too little credit for it.

They also say their army is already stretched thin – a problem exacerbated when soldiers were diverted to respond to the worst flooding in the country's history, this summer.

While President Obama and his officials flail away, baffled at Pakistan's intransigence, Mr. Riedel, the architect of US policy in Afghanistan, shed some light on the problem, at a public meeting in Waterloo, in May 2010.

“Pakistan feels that it can't rely on the U.S. For the last 60 years we've either been madly in love with them or divorced from them. The U.S. is not reliable when it comes to Pakistan. Pakistani polls show that Pakistanis believe the U.S. is the number one threat to their future. We out-poll India as the number one bad guy. We're in a deep, deep hole.”

Mr. Riedel also said, five months ago, at the meeting in Waterloo, that this war is going to consume the Obama presidency.  Perhaps Obama should offer Mr. Riedel a few carrots to entice him back into the fold.

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