Will Pakistan's instability make the Afghan war unwinnable?

Military analysis.
Feb. 18 2009 6:38 PM

The Pakistan Problem

Will Pakistan's instability make the Afghan war unwinnable?

U.S. Army patrols in Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
U.S. Army patrols in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama's decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan means neither that he is "putting his stamp firmly" on the war, as the New York Times reports, nor that he is sliding down "the slippery slope of military escalation," as an anti-war group protests.

He will have to decide where to take the war sometime in the next few months, and he may wind up on that slope, despite his best efforts to resist it. But he hasn't yet reached either point.

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The president announced on Tuesday that he was sending two more brigades plus their support personnel to Afghanistan—thus boosting the U.S. military presence there by half—for two basic reasons: to keep that country from falling apart before its presidential elections this August and to provide a modicum of security, so that the elections can take place.

The White House is conducting a "strategic review" of Afghanistan, scheduled to be completed in 60 days. (The Pentagon's Joint Staff has already submitted its own review, and Gen. David Petraeus' U.S. Central Command is writing one, too. At least one section of the White House's paper will be a review of those reviews.) After that, Obama will decide how to deal with this war in the long term. But if he'd waited for the review before deciding whether to send the two brigades, they wouldn't have arrived in time for the elections.

In short, whatever Obama eventually does about this war, he pretty much had to send those two brigades now—a move recommended by all his civilian and military advisers—unless, of course, he'd decided just to get out of Afghanistan altogether. But he wasn't going to do that. He has said many times, during the election campaign and since, that as U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq, he would send at least some of them to Afghanistan. And the two brigades that he's sending there now—one Army, one Marine—were originally scheduled to rotate back into Iraq.

Even so, the president made clear in his announcement that the deployment is not open-ended. Its purpose, he said, is merely "to stabilize a deteriorating situation." He also said, more pointedly, "This troop increase does not pre-determine the outcome of that strategic review."

The NATO alliance's challenge in Afghanistan—difficult enough—has been complicated in just the last few days by a deal struck across the border between the Pakistani government and a key figure in the Taliban. In exchange for an end to the internal fighting between the army and the rebels, the Taliban has been allowed to set up a court system of Islamist, or sharia, law in the Swat Valley, an area of 1.3 million people—a majority of whom had voted for secular candidates in the most recent elections—just 100 miles from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have said that their limited mission in Afghanistan is to keep that country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists who want to attack the United States and its allies or to destabilize the region. And yet the Taliban appears to have been given just such a safe haven inside Pakistan—a much richer state that has nuclear weapons—with the blessings of the Pakistani government, which is supposedly our ally in the war on terror.

For some time now, U.S. officers have acknowledged that Pakistan looms as the larger threat and the world's biggest potential source of global terrorism. Even if the war in Afghanistan goes smoothly, that would mean nothing if Pakistan falls apart.

The question now arises: If Islamist terrorists have an officially sanctioned haven inside Pakistan itself, does the fate of Afghanistan matter very much? How much blood and treasure is a sideshow worth?

It should be emphasized, this deal has not yet been enacted; nor, given its terms, is it likely to be. Contrary to some reports, it does not call for a wholesale abandonment of the Swat Valley to Taliban rule. Rather, as respected journalist Ismail Khan notes in an article in today's Dawn, the country's most widely read English-language newspaper, the deal calls for Pakistan's secular criminal code to be observed, unless a council of sharia judges rules that some law or another is un-Islamic. The deal also calls for a halt in the fighting between the Pakistani army and the Taliban militias.