Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Wall Street Journal Overplaying The Iran-Taliban Connection

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia, Iran by Dan on July 28, 2010

The leak of thousands upon thousands of classified Afghan war documents has created a political firestorm in Washington.  Why is anyone’s guess; most of the information that was leaked is only a confirmation of what most Americans already think about the war.

This is why I’m baffled by conservative news outlets like the Wall Street Journal, whose editors are trying to hype up charges that Iran is working with Taliban insurgents and Al’Qaeda operatives against the United States in Afghanistan.  But, like everything else contained in the Wikileaks document dump, this charge has been floating around for years.

Take this statement by former U.S. Commander Stanley McChrystal as an example.  Or this intelligence official who argued the same thing in early April of this year.

U.S. commanders and the Afghan Government have raised this assertion many times in the past two years. So why are commentators acting like the Iran-Taliban-AQ connection is some sort of smoking-gun discovery?  Given Iran’s tendency to support insurgent and terrorist networks against U.S. objectives- regardless of ideological orientation- you would hope that the editors are just writing this story to drag readers in.

Let’s not make the Iran-Taliban alliance more than it really is. The Iranian Government, the Taliban, and Al’Qaeda all have the same enemy in the United States and NATO. Other than anti-Americanism, all three groups have very different agendas in Afghanistan and in South Asia more broadly. So the idea that the U.S. now has to confront some strong, new threat is totally baseless and exaggerated. Opposing the U.S. presence is the only reason why all three are coming together, nothing more.

Remember how hostile the Taliban Government was towards the Iranian theocracy in the mid to late 1990’s? Iranians were (and still are) viewed by the Taliban movement as apostates and unbelievers. This hostility rose to new heights in 1998, when Taliban soldiers captured and assassinated eight Iranian diplomats, which almost propelled Iranian military retaliation.

This crisis may have erupted in the past, but the distrust between Iran and the Taliban is still there, which is why some in Tehran are worried about Hamid Karzai’s negotiations with Taliban leaders.

At best, the Iran-Taliban-AQ connection is shallow and convenient. When U.S. troops finally withdraw from Afghanistan, I doubt that the Iranians will be working with members of Al’Qaeda anytime soon.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Marc Lynch at FP.com**


Deceiving Polls on Obama and Afghanistan

Of all the instruments used to determine what people are thinking, polling is the most widely used in social science and the easiest to conduct.  But you have to be careful of the results, because polls are also used to bolster partisanship on certain issues (like war or health-care), or to damage a person’s reputation during an election cycle.

Take this poll by the USA Today, which is used by Third Way‘s Kyle Spector on why Americans still support President Obama on Afghanistan:

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 58 percent support the president’s timetable to begin withdrawing some troops in July 2011. And, although the question isn’t asked as frequently, other polls found significant majorities believe in the mission in Afghanistan even as they see U.S. efforts hitting obstacles. Sixty-one percent believe that “eliminating the threat from terrorists operating from Afghanistan is a worthwhile goal for American troops to fight and possibly die for,” and 76 percent believe what happens in Afghanistan matters to their security in the U.S.—

Poll results are only as accurate and reliable as the poll themselves. So when a poll asks a very specific question, geared towards a specific answer, like “eliminating the threat from terrorists operating from Afghanistan is a worthwhile goal,” the poll itself doesn’t really capture the real opinions of Americans. How can American citizens not respond positively to the question of eliminating terrorists? That’s like asking an American if he/she likes democracy, or giving a fat kid the choice between a piece of cake and a carrot stick. Obviously he’s going to choose the cake.

This is not to say that Third Way is a bad organization. Third Way has a great reputation in Washington D.C. But this poll is a little shaky. A real good question shouldn’t introduce bias in order to sway a respondent towards a particular answer. All polling companies do this, of course, but that still doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Kyle Spector of Third Way.  His article appears on FP.com’s AfPak Channel**

Calling All Police Officers

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on July 12, 2010

Last December, President Barack Obama spoke to the American people and drove home the point that U.S. forces would begin to leave Afghanistan in July of 2011.  But ever since that West Point speech, Democrats and Republicans on Capital Hill have been debating about what exactly the President meant by withdraw.  Are U.S. troops going to quickly pack up their gear and head home overnight like ghosts in the wind after nearly a decade of war, like Vice President Joe Biden implied to a Newsweek reporter?  Or is that date simply the start of a long process of withdrawal, where the pace would be determined by conditions on the ground, as General David Petraeus stated in front of Congress during his confirmation hearing?

To this day, insiders and outsiders alike still don’t really know the answer.  In fact, from reading the news, it doesn’t look like the Obama administration knows what the answer is either.  Staffers and senior administration officials say each member of Obama’s team is on the same page with the President’s current strategy, whether it’s working with Hamid Karzai, reaching out to Taliban militants, or engaging local tribal leaders in Pashtun villages.  But this argument is clouded by the fact that both the Vice President and the newly confirmed U.S. Commander hold different interpretations on some central themes of Washington’s strategy, such as the pace and scope of the American commitment.

Regardless of what the answer is, a key tenant of the U.S. counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan is still being overlooked; the training of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police Force (there is one man, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann, who is the exception).  And this is a sad state of affairs, because these are the two forces that will eventually be tasked with taking over what the U.S. leaves behind.

Whether U.S. forces will depart in a quick manner or over a longer period of time is actually a trivial point at the moment.  What is significant is that American troops will surely start to begin the process of disappearing from Afghanistan next July.  But if U.S. forces are expected to follow the July timeline and salvage whatever successes they have made across the country, you would think that creating an independent and transparent Afghan police force would be a top priority.

Unfortunately, it appears that pressuring the Taliban for short-term tactical victories against the insurgency is more important than building a more secure long-term future for Afghan civilians.  This wouldn’t be such a pressing lapse in judgment if the ANSF were already professional, but this is anything but the case.

As of today, the Afghan Police Force is still considered by Afghans and internationals alike as one of the most corrupt institutions in the entire country.  Stealing and pillaging aside- which are still pretty horrific crimes from a police standpoint- there are disturbing examples of policemen kidnapping and sometimes killing civilians to quench their thirst either for money or revenge.  Intimidation of civilians is not uncommon, desertion is high, drug abuse is rampant (British estimates are as high as 60 percent in Helmand Province), and many policemen simply look the other way when drug traffickers try to move their products.  The drug trade is easy money in Afghanistan, and reports from virtually every international security think-tank recognize that some in the ANP get a cut of the action.

All of these problems are not only discrediting to the United States, who in some ways are only edging this activity along by not strictly confronting it.  They are also main reasons why so many Afghans (especially in the South) are reluctant to cooperate with the police in counterinsurgency operations.  There is no trust between the people who are supposed to protect the local population and enforce the laws of Afghanistan’s constitution.  In fact, in some areas (like Kandahar), the lack of trust between the two sides has gotten so bad that citizens actually prefer the Taliban to the ANP.  While the Afghan National Army does not have such a bad reputation, they too have their list of problems, like drug use, absenteeism, and mismanagement).

Surely the United States is not solely to blame for the lackluster performance of Afghanistan’s security forces.  But Washington’s obsession in numbers doesn’t exactly alleviate the situation either.  There seems to be a universal belief that Afghanistan can be turned around- and Taliban influence can be contained- if Afghan security personnel reach a certain number, like 200,00 or 300,000.  But all of the policemen in the world will not help Afghanistan become a semi-stable country if the quality is below average.

In some ways, the United States suffers from this very same problem. In some American cities, citizens trust gangs and other criminal organization’s more than police officers, because gang’s protect the neighborhoods and police officers are viewed as predatory (whether this is actually true is up for debate). Afghanistan is in much the same situation, although multiplied by 100.  If civilian authorities don’t deliver, there reputation gets damaged, or worst, destroyed.  Only solid training program, with strict benchmarks in firearms, community policing, community interaction, and respectable wages will this reputation improve.

It’s an old saying, but quality should overtake quantity. General David Petraeus and his colleagues- specifically Lt. Gen. William Caldwell- should begin to stress the quality of Afghanistan’s police officers rather than the quantity.  A force that employs a few officers who are both proficient and impartial at what they do is a much better scenario for Afghan security than a force with thousands of officers who have no idea how to start a criminal investigation or file a civilian complaint.

Afghanistan is not a lost cause yet, but it will be if the counterinsurgency approach is not followed properly.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Ronald E. Neumann at FP.com.  Neumann was a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan in 2005 to 2007**

McChrystal Out, Petraeus In, Strategy Stays The Same

Boy was I wrong on my prediction.

In a publicized address to the nation Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama accepted General Stanley McChrystal’s resignation, citing the commander’s “poor judgment” over the Rolling Stone article. Sure, the General was let go because of a juvinile act of insubordination, but can you blame the president for making this decision? If I was in his shoes, I may have made the same exact judgment. The last thing the United States needs is a general who throws insults at the upper echelons of the White House national-security staff. Remarks like those tend to divide an administration, and a divided administration is not what you want when cooperation is a must in a conflict as complicated as Afghanistan.

But in a way, the McChrystal firing is only a sub-headline to a much larger story. Is this going to affect the way the U.S. Military fights the war? More importantly, will the McChrystal removal make the enemy more confident about its own operations in the war effort?

The answer to the latter is absolutely. Newsweek reports that Taliban commanders have been watching and listening with glee over the political firestorm that is occurring in Washington as a result of McChrystal’s comments. To them, a split in America’s leadership only brings positivity to their own ranks, reiterating the belief that the United States has no strategic direction inside Afghanistan. American infighting over the course of the war only adds skepticism among NATO allies as well, some of whom are withdrawing their entire troop contingent this summer (like the Netherlands and Canada). And sadly, Taliban commanders may be just in celebrating McChrystal’s removal…the American public is just about sick and tired of Afghanistan, and the White House is undergoing a tremendous amount of criticism about the lack of military and political success within the country as a whole.

The former question (is this going to affect the way the U.S. Military fights the war?) is a much more difficult one to answer. Tactics probably won’t change very much, because the man who reinvented counterinsurgency doctrine (General David Petraeus) has been tapped to takeover the U.S. Command. Both Petraeus and McChrystal are highly supportive of counterinsurgency, with Petraeus turning Iraq around with the same strategy a few years earlier and McChrystal following Petraeus’ lead in Afghanistan during his tenure. So “winning hearts and minds” (whatever that might entail at this point) is still the name of the game.

The problem is accessibility. McChrystal had a very close relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the only official who was quick to lend his personal support to the general after the Rolling Stone story was published online. The two men were more than respectful to one another, and Karzai has frequently hinted that McChrystal was the only American he could trust in the entire campaign. Petraeus now has the unfortunate task of rebuilding this trust, which is absolutely key if the U.S. wishes to establish a semi-functioning national government in Kabul (which might not be possible anyway, given Afghanistan’s history). But if his record is anything to go by, this probably won’t be much of an issue for Petraeus; many Middle Eastern leaders already view him for what he is, which is an honest and intelligent person.

What McChrystal will do next is anyone’s guess. He has a lot of empty time to fill, so maybe he’ll just retire into the sunset (although his roots in the special-forces might prompt him to stay). But the narrative just got a little more interesting.

One more question to consider: Did Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry have a say during this entire process? Considering that both men have had public disagreements with McChrystal in the past, I wouldn’t doubt it.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Stephen Walt, Peter Feaver, and Kori Schake**

Trouble In Paradise, If Afghanistan Was A Paradise

Most of the time, honesty is the best policy in life. If you lie to your parents and do something behind their back, chances are that you’ll escape a much harder punishment if you confront them and admit your mistakes. And in the court of law, if you are suspected, charged, and tried of murder, you will probably end up with a much better sentence if you simply admit the crime to the judge rather than wasting taxpayer money on a drawn out trial.

But wars are extenuating circumstances. Killing people in mass quantities can hardly be considered a normal part of everyday life. So perhaps this is why General Stanley McChrystal’s remarks yesterday about President Obama and his staff are so disturbing and dangerous; they reveal a thought process that not only hurts the war effort and divides the upper echelons of the U.S. command, but embarrass the entire civil-military establishment.

The story I’m obviously referring to is a new piece by Rolling Stone Magazine that will be hitting shelves this Friday, in which the top U.S/NATO Commander in Afghanistan directs some pointed insults to his superiors in the White House. Some of these comments could be contained if they focused on a single individual. But this article is going to pretty difficult to contain and sweep under the rug, especially when every major Obama official- including President Obama himself- involved in Afghan policy was mentioned in a negative light.

The article in Rolling Stone is pretty long, and I suspect that most people won’t have time to read the entire thing…although it is a page-turner. But here are the quotes that really distinguish the controversy from the jargon, and get the General in some real trouble (courtesy of Politico):


“The article, titled “The Runaway General,” appears in the magazine later this week. It contains a number of jabs by McChrystal and his staff aimed not only at the president but also at Vice President Joe Biden, special envoy Richard Holbrooke, Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan, and others.

McChrystal described his first meeting with Obama as disappointing and said that Obama was unprepared for the meeting.

National Security Adviser Jim Jones is described by a McChrystal aide as a “clown” stuck in 1985.

Others aides joked about Biden’s last name as sounding like “Bite me” since Biden opposed the surge.”

And from FP.com: “Some of the harshest criticism was reserved for Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, whose leaked memos cast doubt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s trustworthiness as an ally. McChrystal said he felt “betrayed” by the ambassador, and that the leaked memos “covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so.”


Keep in mind that this isn’t the first time the top General has gotten himself in hot water with the White House. Last September, when President Obama was determining a new policy for the war, McChrystal publicly stated that he would not accept a plan to reduce U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan…a plan that VP Biden endorsed. During that time, the President recalled the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen to show his displeasure, and to basically tell him to keep a lid on McChrystal.

This time, however, the President has recalled McChrystal directly, ordering him to fly from Afghanistan to Washington for a meeting today. Is the U.S. about to see a change of command in Afghanistan? Tom Ricks seems to think so.

My bet is that McChyrstal will offer his resignation, but the President will refuse to take it…you know, for the sake of the mission.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of David Kenner, Blake HounshellPeter Feaver, and Kori Schake**

Getting Tough With Pakistan Will Help Salvage Afghanistan

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog about Afghanistan and Pakistan…so much time, in fact, that I sometimes think I’ve exhausted everything I have to say about the subject.  But my focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan has always remained consistent over the past year, the main one being that both nations are crucial to America’s counterterrorism efforts.  And both countries, by the way, have taken on such an importance to U.S. foreign policy that the last two administrations have spent enormous amounts of presidential resources on Afghan and Pakistani relations.

But my lack of clarity and my writer’s block on “AfPak” quickly disappears when I hear the same old questions being asked in the press.  Why is the U.S. in Afghanistan?  Why is NATO struggling to defeat the Taliban?  Why is the insurgency spreading despite thousands of American troops on the ground?  And why is Osama bin-Laden still at large, sitting in a cave somewhere after close to a decade of being America’s number one enemy?

All the questions may be different in some capacity, and some are actually reminiscent of doubts Americans had before September 11.  But even with these supposed differences, the answer comes back to a single country that has yet to show its full capacity, but could improve the situation remarkably if they decided to cooperate in a wholehearted way.  That nation is Pakistan.

The United States and NATO will be hard-pressed to achieve anything in Afghanistan if Pakistan’s security services refuses to get on board with what Washington is trying to accomplish. In fact, Pakistan’s unhelpful behavior over the last nine years is the major reason why the U.S. and its allies are fairing badly in southern Afghanistan today. Of course, this is not the only reason; a faulty war plan and an artificial timetable for withdrawal also make the job of securing Afghanistan that much more difficult (the Taliban can basically pack it in and lay low until July of next year, when the coalition pulls out).

Yet even with these mistakes (which are of America’s doing), you have to wonder if the war would be going as badly today if the Pakistanis were embracing the same strategy as the Americans.

But the causes behind Pakistan’s floundering are well known.  Like the Taliban, the Pakistani Government is planning for an Afghanistan that is largely free of American (and western) influence, and the best way to do that is by solidifying a partnership with a group that has the strength and appeal to help them achieve their objectives. Islamabad is looking towards the future and trying to determine what the best course of action in order to suit their own security interests in a post-American Afghanistan. Virtually everyone in the region, from the mullahs of Tehran to the Chinese, is expecting the United States to leave the region next summer, consistent with Obama’s stated timeline.  So it shouldn’t come as a shock that Pakistan is trying to get a head start over other powers in South Asia, even if this means pursuing a policy that is contradictory to America’s current position.

Today, the Taliban Movement is Pakistan’s number-one partner in Afghanistan, and historically, it has been Pakistan’s most reliable partner for the last decade and a half. Speculation aside, chances are that the Taliban would have probably died out by now if it wasn’t for the billions of dollars in military assistance that Pakistan’s gave them over the last 15-odd years. Taliban fighters have always been perceived by the Pakistani Military as a proxy force against foreign entities inside Afghanistan, as well as a hedge against an expanding Indian presence.

The sad part is that everyone pretty much knows this already, yet are still scared to admit that the situation in Afghanistan will stay the same unless Pakistan’s grievances are met.

So what can the U.S. do to reverse the tide and possibly gain Pakistan’s valuable support?  Given Pakistan’s paranoia over anything Indian, the logical answer would be an American led initiative to roll back Indian influence inside Afghanistan. But it’s quite obvious that India wouldn’t accept such a proposal (would you!). Plus, India is one of America’s closest allies in South Asia, so the idea that the United States would jeopardize this relationship by asking the Indians to limit their freedom of movement is probably far-fetched anyway.

The only answer I see that could convince the Pakistanis to cooperate in Afghanistan (and against terrorism in general) is by threatening to sever (or actually severing) American military support to the regime.  Islamabad is dependent on Washington for billions in military and civilian aid, the latest being a $7.5 billion American-led initiative to strengthen Pakistan’s educational system and basic infrastructure. Some see this money as a waste, but it could be turned into an opportunity for the U.S. if utilized correctly.  Nothing exerts pressure over an ally than the diversion of money.  Maybe its time to give the Pakistanis an ultimatum; help us achieve a somewhat stable, Al’Qaeda-free buffer zone in Afghanistan or risk losing American protection.

Is this a politically viable proposal?  Considering the current atmosphere on Capital Hill, probably not.  I’m guessing that no representative or senator wants to endorse a major reversal in policy ahead of the midterm elections.  But what other solution is there?  I’m open for suggestions, and so is the White House.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Peter Feaver at FP.com**

Have The British Learned Nothing?

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on June 17, 2010

The British are having a tough time in Afghanistan.

That’s the observation of Stephen Grey, a foreign correspondent for London’s Sunday Times, someone who has traveled to Afghanistan numerous times for the paper and a man who just recently put out a new book about the Afghan conflict last year.  In fact, Grey is so compassionate about his conclusion that he’s scheduled to give a talk (at the New America Foundation) today about the British experience in the Afghan theater; an experience, he says, that has been mired by miscalculation, a lack of resources, weak troop strength, and confusion in the British command.

Now keep in mind that this is not really a groundbreaking discovery.  Washington is facing many of the same challenges today, despite the fact that the U.S. Military has been fighting inside Afghanistan for close to a decade.  The latest blunder for the United States came last March and April, when the Taliban re-established a presence in Helmand after they were driven out by coalition forces a few weeks earlier.  The Taliban, by the way, is still very much alive in that area, made abundantly clear by the insurgency’s relentless intimidation campaign against the local population (targeted assassinations included).

So the charge that the British Government is having problems in southern Afghanistan is not a breaking-news story.  Rather, what could be considered highly consequential is the slow pace with which the British Army has adapted to the war’s changing environment.  And according to Grey, this conventional mindset is not going to go away anytime soon.

This quote really jumped out at me:

“The charge then against British commanders is that despite the sacrifice and heroism of their troops, they failed to alter their strategy and their people fast both from conventional war to counterinsurgency”.

Gee, doesn’t this sound a bit similar to the U.S. experience in Iraq from 2003-2006? Apparently, the British have learned nothing from Bush’s troubled campaign in Iraq seven years earlier.

So in order to prevent a terrible instance of déjà-vu, here are a few pointers for the British (or anyone else for that matter):

1)  Don’t “paint a rosy-picture” to your citizens when the war effort is going horribly. This is the equivalent of a police commissioner claiming that police brutality is nonexistent, despite the existence of video footage showing officers blatantly pummeling unarmed civilians (Rodney King reference).

2)  Don’t pretend that events on the ground will quickly evolve to your war plan. I’m afraid that this is exactly what happened to the Bush administration during Iraq’s bloodiest days, and apparently what is happening today to the British.  Bush & Company waited too long for a change in policy, instead sitting on their heels and hoping for the best (to their credit, they did eventually embrace counterinsurgency, thanks to General Petreaus).  The Brits still have time to avoid making a similar mistake, just in time for the upcoming offensive in Kandahar this summer.

3)  Be honest with yourself and admit when the war is going badly.  This is a hard step to take, because it may not be politically acceptable in the short-term.  Your party may lose a few seats during election time, and you may take a big hit credibility wise for a few weeks, which seems like an eternity in political life. But such a step could reap enormous benefits by jump-starting a process of getting the war plan right. The sooner you admit failure, the quicker you’ll be able to fix that failure.  It worked relatively well for the United States back in 2007, and it could be promising for the British as well.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Stephen Grey at the AfPak Channel**

Afghanistan Forecast: Younger Recruits Changing The Taliban Movement

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on May 12, 2010

An alarming blurb from Newsweek:

“In a series of interviews for this story with more than a dozen young insurgent leaders over the past three months, they showed themselves to be more hotheaded and less respectful of authority than their elders. War against America has steeled these young fighters in combat with an enemy that employs more accurate and lethal firepower…the experience has only made them tougher and more uncompromising, in the judgment of veteran Taliban members.”

So lets see…

Younger and more extreme recruits are already seeping into the Taliban movement. And the old-guard is quickly being incapacitated from the leadership.

Even more reason for the U.S. to find a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan before its too late. Strike a deal before the entire Afghan Taliban insurgency becomes saturated with more ideological members, because when this happens, you can forget about withdrawing American troops next summer and leaving behind some kind of moderate government.

Obviously easier said than done, but the President, General McChrystal, and Ambassador Eikenberry need to make it happen nonetheless. Endorsing Hamid Karzai’s Taliban reconciliation proposal would be a good step forward.  And today is a perfect opportunity; President Obama is devoting an entire 3-hour session to the Afghan leader.

Note to the President: sign onto the plan now.  If not, don’t be surprised if your surge policy fails when July comes along.  And don’t be shocked if your approval ratings go down the tube as a result.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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U.S. To Pakistan: Get In Or Get Out Of The Way

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on May 10, 2010

Almost a week and a half after the failed car bombing in Times Square, all arrows continue to point towards Pakistan as the staging ground for the attack.

This new evidence is not just the result of great police gruntwork and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Pakistan…it is the result of a confession.  Faisal Shahzad, the man who is responsible for the botched terror attempt, spilled his guts to interrogators that he traveled to Pakistan months earlier and received explosives training from a terrorist camp in North Waziristan.  This is the same agency, by the way, that is host to a tangled web of Islamic militant groups (Al’Qaeda Central, the Pakistani Taliban, Jaish e-Mohammad, Chechen extremists, and Uzbek militants are all thought to be using North Waziristan as a safe-haven).  Oh and one more thing…the United States has been pressing the Pakistani Government to launch a new military offensive in North Waziristan since the beginning of this year.

So perhaps it’s not all that surprising that the United States is starting to consider a beefed up presence in western Pakistan.  The New York Times reported over the weekend that U.S. Central Command is starting to debate whether more American troops should be deployed inside the Northwest Frontier Province.

Of course, this is hardly a new idea.  The United States has repeatedly asked the Pakistani Government to go into North Waziristan in the hopes of flushing out the militants from their remaining safe-haven.  And to date, the Pakistanis have repeatedly rebuffed the offer, complaining that such an operation would jeopardize the gains already made in areas like South Waziristan and the Swat Valley.  And they may indeed be right.  The Pakistani Military is fighting a counterinsurgency after all, and this type of battle limits the types of tactics the military can use.  As in all counterinsurgencies, the Pakistani army needs to hold the area under its control and build up local institutions before insurgents come creeping back.

But American patience is wearing thin, and the attempted car bombing in the heart of America’s biggest city is only reinforcing this belief.  Fortunately, the Pakistanis are starting to recognize this.

Intellectuals both inside and outside the Pakistani Government understand that they got lucky.  Consider the alternative; if Shahzad’s bomb went off as planned, relations with the United States probably would have deteriorated to levels not seen in decades.  Billions of dollars in security assistance from Washington would be severed, and the Pakistanis would run the risk of losing their biggest ally at a tumultuous time in their nation’s history…all because Pakistan dragged their heels on North Waziristan.

Today, the Pakistanis are breathing a sigh of relief.  Yet this relief could come with a price tomorrow.  The Times Square incident has sent a powerful signal to the military that Washington will not tolerate floundering over North Waziristan anymore.

In fact, the time may have already come.  U.S. Central Command is already debating whether to introduce more American trainers inside Pakistan as an alternative to waiting for a new Pakistani operation.   The U.S. already has around 200 advisors inside the country, which doesn’t even include the dozens of drone aircraft patrolling Pakistani airspace on a daily basis.

But all of this can be avoided, if and only if Pakistan finally gets on board.  They have cooperated (and continue to cooperate) on the Shahzad investigation, but this should only serve as a jumping-off point.  The message from D.C. is clear: cleanse North Waziristan or risk losing the goodwill they have gained over the past few months.

Hillary Clinton’s remarks last night on 60 Minutes exemplify the seriousness of the current situation: if a successful act of terrorism against the U.S. homeland is traced back to Pakistan, there will be “severe consequences.”

What she means by “severe” is anyone’s guess.  But her message to the Pakistani leadership is loud and clear.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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Afghan Residents Growing Angry

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on May 6, 2010

Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has opened up a new hearing on the war in Afghanistan.

The mission here is to determine if the President’s new strategy is starting to take hold across the country, four months after the White House switched that strategy from good-old-fashioned “kick ass” fighting to population protection and economic reconstruction.  Last February’s operation in Marjah is the focal point of the investigation, which as you might remember was the biggest military operation against the Taliban in the entire nine-year conflict.

Frank Ruggiero, the top State Department official in Southern Afghanistan, and Brig. Gen. John Nicholson are expected to testify in front of the committee later today.

Judging from today’s festivities, things don’t seem to be all that rosy.  Senator John Kerry, the Chairman of the Committee, opened up the hearing with some strong words about the coalition’s effort in Marjah.  Courtesy of The Majlis:

“Unfortunately, the initial word from hundreds of villagers of Marjah suggests the full measure of our challenge. A recent survey conducted by the International Council on Security and Development showed that a vast majority of villagers felt negatively about foreign troops and that more young Afghans had joined the Taliban over the last year.”

These are not exactly reassuring words for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.  The ICSD report that Sen. Kerry is referencing is extremely troubling from a counterinsurgency point of view: 67 percent of the Afghans surveyed found the Marjah operation “bad for the Afghan people,” and a vast majority predict that the Taliban will return despite America’s overwhelming “victory” earlier in the year.

This report is obviously a little bit dated, because the Taliban have already re-infiltrated the area.  Residents hardly go out at night, and many of the town’s citizens are intimidated by militants who warn them not to cooperate with coalition forces.  In fact, the Taliban continues to drill these beliefs into the minds of Afghans by unleashing a widespread P.R. campaign across the city.

With Marjah’s economy in the dumps, and with NATO’s less-than-stellar performance in institution building, should we have expected anything different?  15,000 soldiers cleared Marjah in February, only to leave in a month’s time without holding and building: two pillars of counterinsurgency doctrine.  And the last time I checked, we are performing a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.  Talk about counterproductive.

What does this say for the upcoming NATO offensive in Kandahar?  Easy…don’t make the same mistake again!

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Thomas H. Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School and M. Chris Mason of the Center for American Defense Studies**