I’ve highlighted a bunch of different articles in the past week about the upcoming challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan with Iran as a potential complicating factor. Here’s my attempt to cram all of these highlights into one post…
Jodi Kantor in the New York Times on Richard Holbrooke and Afpak:
For now, Holbrooke is both raising expectations and lowering them. He is talking about Afpak – Washington shorthand for his assignment – as his last and toughest mission. But along with the rest of Obama’s foreign-policy staff, he is also trying to redefine success in the region, shifting away from former President George W. Bush’s grand, transformative goals and toward something more achievable.
Fareed Zakaria has some ideas on what at least one of these less exalted goals should be:
In May 2006 a unit of American soldiers in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan valley were engulfed in a ferocious fire fight with the Taliban. Only after six hours, and supporting airstrikes, could they extricate themselves from the valley. But what was most revealing about the battle was the fact that many local farmers spontaneously joined in, rushing home to get their weapons. Asked later why they’d done so, the villagers claimed they didn’t support the Taliban’s ideological agenda, nor were they particularly hostile toward the Americans. But this battle was the most momentous thing that had happened in their valley for years. If as virile young men they had stood by and just watched, they would have been dishonored in their communities. And, of course, if they were going to fight, they could not fight alongside the foreigners.
In describing this battle, the Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen coins a term, “accidental guerilla,” to describe the villagers. They had no grand transnational agenda, no dreams of global jihad. If anything, those young men were defending their local ways and customs from encroachment from outside. But a global terrorist group—with local ties—can find ways to turn these villagers into allies of a kind. And foreign forces, if they are not very careful, can easily turn them into enemies.
Reduced to its simplest level, the goal of American policy in Afghanistan should be to stop creating accidental guerrillas. It should make those villagers see U.S. forces as acting in their interests. That would mark a fundamental turnaround.
Another major problems is – as Tom Ricks quotes Abu Muquwama to explain – that:
It’s tough to fight a war in Afghanistan when the opposing team decides to fight the war in Pakistan
At the same time, Pakistan seems to be dragging it’s feet with regards to destroying the forces it considered – until recently – it’s proxies in it’s struggle with India for regional power, the Taliban. This creates a nagging feeling of suspicion among Pakistan’s allies, as Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti explained in the New York Times:
In recent years, there have been some significant successes in the hunt for Taliban leaders. Pakistani operatives tracked Mullah Dadullah, a senior aide to Mullah Omar, as he crossed the Afghan border in May 2007, and he was later killed by American and Afghan troops.
Yet most of the arrests in Pakistan have coincided with visits by senior American officials.
The arrest of Mullah Obeidullah, the former Taliban defense minister, in Quetta in February 2007 coincided with the visit of Vice President Dick Cheney to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is unclear whether Mullah Obeidullah is still in Pakistani custody or was secretly released as part of a prisoner exchange to free Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who was kidnapped last February and released three months later.
Schmitt and Mazzetti clearly convey the suspicion among top American officials that Pakistan’s wars against its terrorists are mainly a public relations effort to pacify America. Pakistan’s reluctance to fully accept America as an ally (believing we will again retreat from the region after we are done with Afghanistan one way or another, as we did after the Soviet Union was defeated there) is not our only challenge in the region. Parag Khanna of Foreign Policy describes how Afpak is also the center of maneuvering by other nations:
China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are also becoming increasingly important – not as neighbors of the chaos, like Pakistan, but meddlers in it. The United States is already failing to grasp not only the details of other powers’ maneuverings in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the extent to which these dealings could eclipse even the most brilliant U.S. shuttle diplomacy by Holbrooke.
He describes how China has become Afghanistan’s largest investor, how Saudi Arabia continues to funnel enormous amounts of money to fund religious extremism in the region, including Wahabbi mosques, and how Iran is taking steps to provide energy for what they anticipate will be shortages in Afpak and India. Khanna – seeing this pipelines and other relations between Iran, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as inevitable as all partners stand to benefit – suggests America get out in front and support the pipeline. Better to build it ourselves than having it built without us.
Building roads and controlling their usage has for centuries been the foundation of spreading Silk Road influence, as well as the key to success in the 19th-century Great Game. Today’s struggle for control follows similar rules.
This Great Game – a term historically used to describe the strategic competition for influence in the region, especially when it involves great intrigues and turnabouts – would seem to require us to neutralize or flip Iran into an ally. Roger Cohen of the New York Times makes the case:
Iran’s political constellation includes those who have given past support to terrorist organizations. But axis-of-evil myopia has led U.S. policy makers to underestimate the social, psychological and political forces for pragmatism, compromise and stability. Iran has not waged a war of aggression for a very long time.
Tehran shares many American interests, including a democratic Iraq, because that will be a Shiite-governed Iraq, and a unified Iraq stable enough to ensure access to holy cities like Najaf.
It opposes Taliban redux in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda’s Sunni fanaticism. Its democracy is flawed but by Middle East standards vibrant. Both words in its self-description — Islamic Republic — count.