But where’s the meat?

The United States’ Af-Pak strategy is silent on the most important challenge

The main issue in President Barack Obama’s just-announced strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan boils down to this: just how is the United States going to ensure that the Pakistani military establishment plays ball?

As this blog has pointed out before, to win in Afghanistan the United States will need to get the Pakistani military to turn its guns on its own proxies, “strategic assets”, countrymen and co-religionists. This the Pakistani military leadership is reluctant, unwilling or unable to do, depending on how charitable a view you have of them. It was in anticipation of the Obama administration’s strategic review that the Pakistani leadership raked up tensions with India—hoping that a war-like situation on its eastern borders will provide it with a plausible alibi. India foiled that attempt by refusing to even mildly ratchet up military escalation.

That only left the Pakistanis to demand a vague reduction in tensions, a resolution of the Kashmir dispute and unconvincingly insinuate Indian involvement in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. This did not go completely waste—for there are people in the Obama administration who are sympathetic to this line—but it is unlikely to provide the Pakistani military establishment with the way out of having to do what the United States wants it to do.

So, what does the United States do now? As many analysts point out—and Richard Holbrooke himself admitted—no one knows. Mr Holbrooke reiterated that US troops will not cross over into Pakistan *, while Bruce Riedel, the man behind the review only said that he hoped that “aggressive military operations on the Afghan side, and working energetically with the Pakistani government” will shut down these safe havens. Setting benchmarks and making financial assistance conditional on performance sounds like just what the management consultant would advise, but Washington is remarkably susceptible to the Pakistan-will-turn-into-a-nuclear-failed-state-unless… line. The Pakistanis know that and won’t shy from exploiting it.

Expect a train of high-level envoys to visit New Delhi in the coming weeks. Chief among their aims, we are informed, “will be to try to get Pakistani and Indian officials, in particular, to turn down the volume in their never-ending conflict, in the hopes that the Pakistani military can turn its attention to the fight against insurgents in border regions, and away from fighting India.” As patronising as that sounds, it will remain for the Indian government officials to explain to them that they can even have the “never-ending conflict” arises from the same problem that the US is trying to solve. Get the Pakistani government to dismantle the military-jihadi complex and the volume will not only be turned down, it can be turned off.

Mr Obama’s first strategic review skirts around the heart of the matter, perhaps due to its acceptance of red lines. We might have to wait for the next one before he gets it right.

Update: More analysis on this here on INI: on Pragmatic Euphony and Polaris.

Related Links: Leslie Gelb at the Daily Beast has a good critique of those benchmarks. Filter Coffee remarks that the US has ignored Punjabi jihadi groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. And Spencer Ackerman has the money quote.

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5 Responses to But where’s the meat?

  1. Udayan 28th March 2009 at 16:29 #

    I think they want to use money and the ‘sheer force of Holbrooke’s personality’ to coerce the jarnail dudes. Whatever.

    But the US military guys are not mincing words

  2. gbz 28th March 2009 at 22:56 #

    All the discussions on “af-pak” are centered around incremental changes. Does anybody in this whole game – India, US, Pakistan, Arab world have any vision for where they want to see afpak 10yrs from now, 20 yrs from now? What are all these ‘strategies’ and policies eventually geared towards achieving? Peace, stability? for whom?

    You can’t change this place by leaving the established power structures in place and making bargains with them. i know this is all restating the obvious, but it seems strange how everyone keeps going on with this sisyphian approach. You cannot dismantle the military-jihadi complex in Pakistan. The military-jihadi complex IS pakistan. It has been for 30yrs now. Dismantling that means dismantling pakistan — is anybody ready, willing and able?

  3. Trilok 29th March 2009 at 19:01 #

    nitin – ” Mr Holbrooke reiterated that US troops will not cross over into Afghanistan,”

    cross over into pakistan?

  4. Nagarajan Sivakumar 30th March 2009 at 01:45 #

    Folks,
    There is no meat to the policy – check out Brahma Chellaney’s smart post on the new “strategy”. This nothing more than window dressing for a retreat 2 and half years from now.

    The US has known the role of the military-jihadi complex for the longest time and has been trying to beg, bribe and deal with them. This only increases the leverage of the pakis and does nothing to shore up American interests. Given that their supply lines go through Karachi and Russia has shut down other alternative routes, the US has now resorted to begging with the Iranians!

    In other words, Pakistan is “too important to fail” and it’s military must be appeased with no matter what. The billions of dollars of aid will be greased by the politicians AND the military. The joke about “benchmarks” got me puking.

    Mr Obama’s first strategic review skirts around the heart of the matter, perhaps due to its acceptance of red lines. We might have to wait for the next one before he gets it right.

    The skirting around is intentional. THere is nothing Obama or any other person can do about AfPak.

    To quote the previous post
    “You cannot dismantle the military-jihadi complex in Pakistan. The military-jihadi complex IS pakistan. It has been for 30yrs now. Dismantling that means dismantling pakistan — is anybody ready, willing and able?”

    After 8 years of the US pussy footing around, I think we know the answer to that question, dont we ?

    Those Indian commentators who saw this coming need to be commended. India will be left with no other choice but to confront the Taliban again.

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