Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 10:43 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 10:43 | SYDNEY

Five Middle East crises: 3. Afghanistan-Pakistan


Anthony Bubalo

13 February 2009 11:16

The third in the series of challenges confronting the Obama Administration in ‘West Asia’  (here are the first and second) is perhaps the greatest: Afghanistan-Pakistan.

In the last year, the realisation has set in that the US and its partners are losing in Afghanistan by most measures. Losing has been the result of a combination of failures since the US first overthrew the Taliban in 2001 — though not all the failures have been the coalition's. For a succinct explanation of what has gone wrong, read this excellent piece by Thomas Barfield.

Against this background, first the Bush and now Obama Administrations have been reorienting America’s approach. The problem for the US and its coalition partners is that it has taken them seven years to fail in Afghanistan, but they have much less time – perhaps no more than 18 months — to demonstrate that things are being turned around.  

The Obama Administration is now in the midst of a strategic review that will likely see as many as 20-30,000 additional US troops sent to Afghanistan (indeed it may even despatch them before the review is complete). This will improve – though to what extent, is not clear – the ability of coalition forces to actually hold the territory they almost always win in battles with insurgents, but then give away as troops return to their bases. 

What is even less clear is how the Administration will address the civil component of the civil-military equation in Afghanistan — specifically, delivering basic but rapid improvements in infrastructure, economic opportunities, basic welfare services, and rule of law. Security and governance are central to ensuring that Afghans are not forced into the embrace of the Taliban out of solemn resignation at the continuing failures of both their own central government (which faces but may not hold elections this year) and its Western allies.

The battle for hearts and minds in Western capitals is acute, and it is here that the next year or 18 months will be most critical. The coalition can’t demonstrate that it has won in Afghanistan in such a short time, but it must demonstrate in tangible ways that it is winning a war that many people doubt is worth fighting, especially given economic emergencies at home.

The appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan acknowledges that instability in Afghanistan reflects a broader regional insecurity complex. The US and its coalition partners have so badly needed Pakistan’s help that, for the most part, they have turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s inability and unwillingness to do more than the bare minimum.

The extent of Pakistan’s help varies, usually in tune with the extent of Western pressure. If recent reports about the success of US Predator strikes against jihadists in Pakistan’s tribal areas are correct, this would in part reflect enhanced Pakistani cooperation. But what doesn’t change is the fact that Western and Pakistani strategic interests in Afghanistan are fundamentally at odds. 

For domestic, historical and strategic reasons, Pakistan wants a client state in Afghanistan and has kept this option alive even as it has responded to Western pressure, betting that in the end, the West will give up and go home, as it has before. This strategic disconnect is exacerbated by the fact that even moderate Pakistanis don’t believe that the West listens or appreciates Pakistani needs and interests.    

To succeed, Holbrooke will need to reconcile these competing strategic visions and perceptions. This will require diplomacy not just on the Afghan and Pakistani fronts, but involving other neighbours as well, including Iran, India, Russia, China and the central Asian republics.

But while the coalition seeks Pakistan’s help in Afghanistan, it will also need to ensure that Pakistan does not become what it is trying to rescue Afghanistan from. Today, Pakistan continues to be a safe haven for international terrorist groups, has a weak central government and is broke. Of course, the starting points are different. Pakistan is not a failed state. Yet the consequences of its failure, particularly as country with nuclear weapons, would far outweigh even what is at stake in Afghanistan.

Photo by Flickr user angelfire 3182, used under a Creative Commons license.