Our strategic efforts should be focused on Pakistan

Posted Nov. 11, 2009, at 5:05 p.m.

Soon Congress will be asked to approve whatever new funding and additional troops are proposed for Afghanistan by the administration.

Unlike the case of Iraq, or the more distant one of Vietnam, two examples of foolish and self-destructive uses of military force, Afghanistan appears to be more murky. Who are we fighting exactly, and why and how would we define success or failure? It is vital that we try to bring some clear focus to all this now, rather than simply accepting the current situation as a rigid “given,” which allows no room for any change in direction except for “more,” or which points to a strategic change that may be beyond our resources and our collective political will. It is also important to remember that members of Congress are paid to decide ultimate policy questions and not generals and admirals, no matter how intelligent, involved, helpful or sincere.

We went to war in Afghanistan to dislodge the Taliban who were protecting al-Qaida. No doubt we should have remained strong in the country, but Congress was suckered into supporting George Bush’s war in Iraq. Since then the Taliban in Afghanistan has regained strength, but by all accounts the presence of al-Qaida fighters is very limited. A general view is that they have left because of the allied military presence.

The leaders of the Taliban are violent, true-believing militants, but regional, with no apparent ambitions beyond their desire to control the local turf. Many of their foot soldiers appear to be mercenaries, fighting because they are paid. (At this point the odd question occurs — how much would it cost to pay them not to fight com-pared to the cost in lives and money of escalation?).

Meanwhile al-Qaida, our real enemy, has demonstrated a capacity to operate from a variety of bases. Any failed state will do, be it Afghanistan, the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia or any number of others, especially in northern Africa. Yet we are making the same mistake we made in Iraq, that of tying down our maneuver forces in a place that is becoming strategically irrelevant while our enemy moves where it wants.

Some agree with this argument as far as it goes, yet argue that Afghanistan is a special case because of its proximity to Pakistan, a nuclear power with a weak, corrupt, ineffective government, as well as a strong al-Qaida friendly Taliban of its own. They are correct, I think, to point to the dangers in Pakistan, but they don’t take this argument to its logical conclusion.

In fact the real danger is exactly in Pakistan. This is where our strategic efforts should be focused, and Pakistan does not require U.S. troops. They have troops. They need a continuation of U.S. aid as well as any diplomatic efforts to try to resolve the Kashmir dispute with India so that they can focus on the real threat to their sovereignty.

Of course it is possible that if NATO downsizes in Afghanistan, al-Qaida may return. Then we must use mobile assets to deal with this, without bothering with the Taliban. In Pakistan all is complicated by the fact that the Pakistani military has more integrity as an institution than the Pakistani political establishment, but the cen-tral point is that there is simply no case for escalation in Afghanistan, when Pakistan is the relevant theatre of concern.

It is especially disturbing that so much of the rhetoric in favor of escalation is coming from exactly those who were so wrong about Iraq. They have learned nothing. We must not send more young Americans to die for the hopeless Karzai regime.

Larry Litchfield of Belfast is a retired community college professor of political science and history.

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