Glass Almost Empty
The White House report on Afghanistan is very bleak indeed.
The Obama administration's long-awaited review of its Afghanistan war strategy—or at least the unclassified five-page summary of it released Thursday—is a bleaker document than it may seem at first glance.
On the one hand, it contains much talk of "significant progress" and "notable" gains in U.S. and NATO military operations. On the other hand, there's at least as much mention of the remaining "challenges" and the fact that even the gains are "fragile and reversible."
But to put the report's findings in these terms suggests a mixed, even glass-half-full picture (things are going well in Column A, not so well in Column B), when in fact it states very clearly that the things going badly make the things going well nearly irrelevant.
Six times in the course of five pages, the report's authors note that, unless Pakistan does a better job of controlling its borders—the western tribal areas, where Taliban leaders find safe haven and move reinforcements and supplies into Afghanistan and back again—the U.S. military successes of recent months are for naught.
For instance, on Page 1, the report defines "our ultimate end state" as "the eventual strategic defeat of al-Qaida in the region," but it adds that this "will require the sustained denial of the group's safe haven in the tribal areas of western Pakistan."
On Page 3: The "denial of extremist safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan."
On Page 5: "Consolidating those gains [made in the fight against the Afghan Taliban] will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks."
Those italics (all mine) make the point: Clearing the safe havens in Pakistan is not just an important ingredient in achieving our strategic objectives in Afghanistan; it is a requirement. Without it, all other successes are merely tactical and, even then, probably short-lived ("fragile and reversible," as the report puts it).
This point is hardly new. Every military official—from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan—have long stressed that the existence of cross-border safe havens gravely impedes the prospects for strategic success.
Ever since he became president, Barack Obama has dramatically stepped up U.S. airstrikes—mainly with smart bombs fired by CIA drones—against Taliban leaders in those Pakistani sanctuaries. But today's report indicates that, while those strikes have had an effect, the effect has not been large or fast enough—that the Pakistanis themselves have to do more on the ground.
At a White House press conference today, Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about the steadily improving "strategic dialogue" between the United States and Pakistan. Only recently, they said, have the Pakistanis come to realize that the jihadists threatening us in Afghanistan are part of the same "terrorist network"—and thus form the same threat—as the jihadists threatening their own regime. As a result, the Pakistani military has taken action, for instance, moving 140,000 soldiers to the western border with Afghanistan—an extraordinary step—and bearing many casualties as a result.
However, the fact remains, at least for the moment, that the Pakistani political and military leaders are not likely to change much more on this front, for the simple reason that they view India—not the Taliban—as the main threat to their existence.
This has two implications for the war in Afghanistan. First, the Pakistani army will insist on keeping the bulk of its troops on the eastern border with India at the expense of dealing with the Taliban safe havens on the western border with Afghanistan.
Second, the Pakistanis want—in their eyes, they need—to maintain influence inside Afghanistan, as a way to counter India's quite active attempt to gain influence inside Afghanistan (which India is pursuing mainly as a way to encircle Pakistan). And the way that Pakistan maintains this influence is through certain factions of the Taliban.
Earlier this year, Dexter Filkins reported in the New York Times that Pakistan had arrested more than 20 Taliban leaders who were in the process of negotiating peace deals with the Afghan government because they were doing so without involving Pakistan.
In short, U.S. officials may have lectured Pakistanis about the links between the Afghan Taliban and the al-Qaida militants who threaten Pakistan's government. But the Pakistanis see the two as distinct—and, in fact, regard some of the Afghan-based Taliban as their allies or even agents.
U.S. military successes in Afghanistan may alter this dynamic to some degree if more Taliban commanders react by rushing to the negotiating tables in order to avoid further damage. And it's worth noting that, according to Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak's report in Thursday's New York Times, even some Taliban fighters see Gen. Petraeus' recent offensives in Kandahar and Helmand provinces as debilitating setbacks—that is, as huge successes for the United States and NATO.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.