WASHINGTON – The Obama administration Friday unveiled its new strategy for defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, but it offered few new options for dealing with Pakistan, which experts say has become a much more significant terrorist haven.
Administration officials acknowledge that since Sept. 11, Pakistan has grown into a huge cesspool of terrorism, but they also admit America’s options for draining it are limited.
Osama bin Laden orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks from Afghanistan while he was a guest of the Afghan Taliban regime. After the U.S. invasion in late 2001, senior Taliban and al-Qaida leaders fled to Pakistan’s tribal areas, where their presence has spawned a Pakistani offshoot that now threatens the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
“Pakistan is 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, a military bigger than the United States’ and an al-Qaida base in the two-thirds of the country the government doesn’t control,” said David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert who took part in the strategy review and is the author of a new book, “The Accidental Guerrilla.”
Calling the situation “increasingly perilous,” Obama announced Friday that he’d send 4,000 troops to train Afghan forces, in addition to the 17,500 he’d previously ordered into the country. He also said he’d “surge” hundreds of civilians to help fight endemic corruption, build up the economy and improve governance.
Obama, however, spelled out a far less ambitious plan for Pakistan, although his top military advisers and intelligence experts say it’s the crux of the region’s problems. In his announcement, he called the Afghanistan-Pakistan border the “most dangerous place in the world” for American security.
“In the new strategy, there was a greater degree of candor, putting Pakistan at the center instead of at the fringes” as the Bush administration did, said Ambassador James Dobbins, a RAND Corp. senior fellow who served as President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan, “but people who wanted more certainty on how to solve Pakistan are going to be disappointed.”
Obama urged Congress to give Pakistan $1.5 billion a year in reconstruction and government projects, in addition to the military aid Pakistan already receives. He also called on the world community to reach out to Pakistan diplomatically.
Obama advisers said that even if the U.S. successfully stabilizes Afghanistan and meets its goal to train 134,000 Afghan soldiers and 82,000 police officers, the effort will be futile unless there’s a way to prevent fighters and weapons from moving freely across the border.
“You can have a great government in Kabul,” said Richard Holbrooke, the president’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But “if the current situation in western Pakistan continued, the instability in Afghanistan will continue.”
Obama said the U.S. would press Pakistan to follow up on any intelligence that could lead to a high-value target. Privately, however, many U.S. intelligence officials don’t trust the Pakistani military and intelligence services. In a briefing to reporters, a U.S. intelligence officer said that “too often” the Pakistanis take tips from the U.S. and then inform targets so they can escape.
In Pakistan, the reception to Obama’s proposal was lukewarm.
Many Pakistanis say the American presence in the region is causing the violence, while some sympathize with the Afghan Taliban, who come from the same Pashtun ethnic group that inhabits Pakistan’s northwest.