Heading it off at the pass

David Kilcullen, interviewed for the Sydney Morning Herald, says Pakistan could collapse before the end of the year and that the coalition is in race against time.

Cautioning against an excessive focus by Western governments on Afghanistan at the expense of Pakistan, Dr Kilcullen said that "the Kabul tail was wagging the dog". Comparing the challenges in the two, he said Afghanistan was a campaign to defend a reconstruction program. "It's not really about al-Qaeda. Afghanistan doesn't worry me. Pakistan does."

But he was hesitant about the level of resources for, and the likely impact of, Washington's new drive to emulate an Iraq-style "surge" by sending an extra 21,000 troops to Afghanistan.

"In Iraq, five brigades went into the centre of Baghdad in five months. In Afghanistan, it will be two combat brigades [across the country] in 12 months. That will have much less of a punch effect than we had in Iraq.

"We can muddle through in Afghanistan. It is problematic and difficult but we know what to do. What we don't know is if we have the time or if we can afford the cost of what needs to be done."

America might squeak through without a major effort if the best case scenarios eventuate. The problem is, nobody knows where the Wheel of Fortune will stop in its spin. The article goes:

The special US envoy Richard Holbrooke has been charged with brokering a regional compact by reaching out to Iran, Russia and China, and Dr Kilcullen said: "This is exactly what he's good at and it could work.

"But will it? It requires regional architecture to give the Pakistani security establishment a sense of security which might make them stop supporting the Taliban," he said.

"The best case scenario is that the US can deal with Afghanistan, with President Obama giving leadership while the extra American troops succeed on the ground - at the same time as Mr Holbrooke seeks a regional security deal," he said. The worst case was that Washington would fail to stabilise Afghanistan, Pakistan would collapse and al-Qaeda would end up running what he called 'Talibanistan.'

"This is not acceptable. You can't have al-Qaeda in control of Pakistan's missiles," he said.

"It's too early to tell which way it will go. We'll start to know about July. That's the peak fighting season … and a month from the Afghan presidential election."

What Obama intends will be authentically expressed not so much in what he says, but in the resources he devotes towards certain goals. He has a mixed heritage from the previous administration. On the one hand, its victory in the Middle East leaves him with a one, instead of a two front war. The Bush administrations rapproachment with India is also another useful card. On the debit side of the leger, GWB never succeeded in finding a formula that would stabilize Pakistan. And efforts to democratize Pakistan by removing Musharraf may have caused as many problems as it solved.

Obama learned at first hand that NATO's aversion to supporting the "good war" and what is now BHO's war in South Asia had less to do with a rejection of Bush policies as with a fundamental military and political incpacity to generate any real expeditionary force. He came away from the NATO summit essentially empty handed. Still, America might still have the resources to solve the problem in South Asia if it could pull together. But here, the decision by the Left to unswervingly undermine the War on Terror will bear bitter fruit on Obama's watch. Any realistic effort to fix the problem in South Asia will require time, sacrifice and resources. Where will Obama get the political support to make the effort, assuming he decides to make it? His Left wing -- his base -- has for decades brainwashed themselves into opposing any major commitments abroad. Indeed it elected him largely on the strength of the impression that he would end the War in Iraq and before they realized that South Asia would no longer be a minor little backwater. Faced with a major effort in the theater, the Left is likely to abandon Obama once the casualty and monetary bill in South Asia rises. The segment of American society that is most predisposed to support Obama's efforts is precisely the segment that deeply suspects him: the conservatives.

A survey by the Pew Research organization shows just how bimodal American politics has become on certain issues. "For all of his hopes about bipartisanship, Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades. The 61-point partisan gap in opinions about Obama's job performance is the result of a combination of high Democratic ratings for the president -- 88% job approval among Democrats -- and relatively low approval ratings among Republicans (27%)." Ironically, Obama has greater potential support for an effort in South Asia from those who are antipathetic toward him than from those who "support" him.

Obama's campaign rhetoric -- tirades against "unproven missile defense systems", pledges to treat enemy combatants like ordinary criminals with full legal rights, implicit promises to draw down military effort -- are all crashing against the hard reality of a dangerous world. Kilcullen reminds us that the time for choices is short. We'll see what happens.