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Belmont Club

Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan

March 28th, 2009 - 10:14 pm

The Guardian reports that Britain now regards Pakistan and Afghanistan as “one theater”. While this makes strategic sense it also carries with it a hidden danger: Pakistan can only be included in the theater of its own volition, otherwise operations in Pakistan will constitute an attack across an international border. The political cooperation of Islamabad is now explicitly critical to the success of the entire campaign. Once Pakistan suspends its cooperation, the bottom falls out of the strategy. There is one further difficulty: this has implicitly now become a battle for Pakistan. The Jihadi elements will now concentrate on pressuring Islamabad into withdrawing support for the campaign against it. Destabilization efforts against the Pakistani government must now be expected. While the new strategy is necessary it carries the risk of escalation: the ante has been upped in a very public sort of way. Presumably the UK is reflecting the thinking of the Obama administration. But if BHO wants to escalate the campaign he must be absolutely determined to see things through to victory.

Britain has offered its full backing for a renewed military offensive inside Pakistan, as UK ministers confirmed the country was now “part of a single campaign” alongside Afghanistan.

Defence secretary John Hutton said the UK supported targeting Pakistan-based Taliban and al-Qaida positions and urged Europe to begin offering assistance to eradicate insurgents in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

Confirming that Britain was being drawn into a widening regional conflict, Hutton said the time had come to target Taliban and al-Qaida havens inside Pakistan. In his most explicit statement of intent against Afghanistan’s troubled neighbour, Hutton said that the military objectives in the region must now have “an equal focus on both countries”.

AFP offered more details of the Obama strategy.

Marvin Weinbaum, who was a State Department analyst on Afghanistan and Pakistan until 2003, said Obama was both doing more and setting a more attainable goal. “I think we were wrong initially to think that we could create a strong central government,” said Weinbaum, adding that there was never a history of Kabul exerting control over all of Afghanistan.

“The Bush administration used that kind of rhetoric, that it’s going to create a model democracy and meanwhile tried to do it on the cheap,” said Weinbaum, now a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. …

Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to the region, said that the US exit strategy was “pretty basic — we can leave once the Afghans can deal with their own security problems.”

But he warned that the “most daunting” aspect of the strategy was to tackle insurgents holed up in Pakistan, whose government switched overnight from Taliban backers to cornerstone US ally after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Holbrooke gave a blunt warning to Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service, elements of which are widely believed to have tipped off militants about impending US military action.

Kamran Bokhari, a senior analyst at the Stratfor global intelligence company, said the Obama team had not yet shown how they would change Pakistani behavior.

It may not be impertinent to point out that Pakistan was never entirely ruled from Islamabad either. Pakistan can to some extent be regarded as an synthetic country which has been in the process of falling apart since it was created. The danger of course, is that Obama will wind up doing the very same thing Weinbaum accused the Bush administration of doing — trying to change a country and doing it on the cheap. But in one sense the odious comparison fails. Afghanistan was the secondary front in the Bush War on Terror strategy and for that reason it was always going to be “on the cheap” relative to Iraq. But now the situation is reversed, no thanks in part to the earlier victory won in Iraq. Afghanistan is going to be Obama’s central theater. In other words, Afghanistan will be to Obama what Iraq was to GWB.

Like Iraq, Pakistan too can be won. But it will take a long time and great determination to do it. And in the end, the outcome may be nothing like any “exit strategy” that Obama may contrive. Like all other great enterprises, the aspiration to victory — if aspiration there is — comes at the price of accepting the risk of defeat. As the war widens into Pakistan there will be many a dangerous crisis. Obama will need to have the US public behind him. Ironically, he may get more support from his political foes than his “base” if the going gets rough.

Interestingly, while Iraq was always called “Bush’s War”, operations in Iraq were fully covered by Congressional authority. While covert actions have been going in in Pakistan for a long time, an explicit extension of the war from Afghanistan into Pakistan, while logical, is potentially without explicit Congressional approval. If Pakistan is going to be part of the war the fact is that it risks being an undeclared war. That may escape the notice of the MSM for as long as it continues its adulation of Obama, but if his support should erode, it may suddenly come to their attention.

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