There is a flaming contradiction at the heart of President Obama’s Afghan war policy that threatens his strategy for safe withdrawal; the latest news from Pakistan suggests that the President now recognizes that something basic has to change.Many readers find their eyes glazing over when it comes to yet more bad news from Pakistan, the “Islamic” republic which brings so little happiness to itself and its neighbors. (One of life’s little mysteries: why more Muslims don’t demand that countries take the word “Islamic” out of their names until they cease to bring discredit upon it with their great honking failures of elementary justice?)But depressing as the Pakistan news usually is, especially to those of us who know some of the idealistic and genuinely patriotic people in Pakistan who are working so hard to make things better, and who have a feel for the kind of place this beautiful country could some day become, you have to follow this story if you want to make sense of world news. There are signs that US policy is moving toward a tipping point on Pakistan, one that would have major consequences for a lot of big issues, including the war in Afghanistan.President Obama yesterday issued a stern warning over the relationship between Pakistan and militant Islamist groups in Afghanistan, narrowing the distance between the official statements coming from the White House and remarks by outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen. Combined with Afghan President Karzai’s recent defense deal with India, Pakistan is being pressed from all sides to make a serious choice in how it conducts its foreign policy. From the Wall Street Journal:
Offering the most detailed description to date of the administration’s view of the complicated relationship, the president credited Pakistan for aiding in the fight against al Qaeda, but also pointed to problems posed by Islamabad’s seemingly contradictory behavior toward other extremist factions.In describing the strains at a White House news conference on Thursday, Mr. Obama stated publicly what administration officials previously have said only in privacy or anonymity: that Islamabad and Washington have divergent strategic visions, especially in Afghanistan, leading Pakistan to view Islamist militant groups as useful proxies.To change that, Washington must continue to try to “reorient” Pakistan’s world view, Mr. Obama said.
The President now seems to be facing up to the problem at the heart of his Afghan war strategy. Withdrawing from Afghanistan requires building an acceptable (if far from perfect) future Afghan government that at the minimum won’t permit the country’s territory to be used as a basis for attacks against neighbors and the US and its allies. But Pakistan, whose cooperation is necessary for that strategy to work, loathes and hates that outcome and is willing to do everything in its power to ensure that postwar Afghanistan looks very different.This is not a little problem to be papered over with communiques, with Pakistani objections silenced by appropriately large and poorly supervised transfers of aid. It is a basic strategic difference, a clash of interests, and if it cannot be overcome the US must find a new Afghan strategy.If the Pakistanis don’t change their minds, the US must now look to secure its interests in postwar Afghanistan without Pakistan’s help and even over its determined opposition. Pakistan’s plan for postwar Afghanistan (a country controlled by radical Islamists in a close relationship with Pakistan who are committed to jihad in South and Central Asia and elsewhere) would turn the country into a petri dish for terror plots and a magnet for deranged and violent fanatics from all over the world. Preventing this outcome is why the US has been at war in Afghanistan for so long; securing that outcome is the chief strategic goal of a powerful wing of the somewhat fragmented and confused Pakistani national security system.This means bringing India, Russia and Iran into the country, and winning at least tacit consent from China on the importance of a non-jihadi Afghanistan. To certain strains of nationalist opinion among Pakistanis, this will feel like the ultimate betrayal. Given that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and parts of its government are closely linked with terrorist groups already at war with the US, there is a potential for serious harm. One is sorry to say that things are so bad that one hopes Pakistanis have no illusions about the consequences if Pakistani nukes end up in terrorist hands.The US would still rather move on in Afghanistan with Pakistan rather than against it, but time and trust are running short. It looks from the outside (and probably also looks this way in Islamabad) that the Obama administration is carefully and deliberately orchestrating pressure. I suspect that the hardline Pakistanis, secure in their arrogance and contempt for an administration they believe is weak and poorly led, will be telling their colleagues that the President is bluffing and pushing for a policy of brinkmanship. Push this guy and he steps back, they are saying. He talks tough but backs down.One very much hopes they are wrong. It would be a serious mistake to let things get to this point without a plan to move ahead without a Pakistani alliance.Meanwhile, Pakistan’s internal order continues its chaotic descent. At the end of the day, Pakistan’s biggest problems have to do with the domestic consequence of its failing state. As The Economist reports:
Popular anger over Pakistan’s crippling electricity shortage boiled over on to the streets this week, with riots that paralysed whole cities, unleashing running battles with the police and causing widespread damage to government offices (see picture above).It is clear why the people were angry. In many of the towns in revolt, they have gone 20 hours a day without power in a still-sweltering Pakistan. What is more, the government of President Asif Zardari has done little as the energy crisis has grown, dithering over its strategy even as it cooks up schemes for new power plants to enrich its cronies. In the process, the government has squandered billions of dollars.The energy deficit, in both electricity and gas, means that businesses have to shut for part of each week, forcing many to go bankrupt. Power shortages are estimated to slice some 3-4% off GDP. “The textile industry of Punjab is doomed,” says Shabbir Ahmed, chief executive of Bashir Printing, a textile dyeing and printing factory in Faisalabad, in Punjab province. His plant now shuts for two days a week for lack of gas. Even when there is gas, he says, the electricity is cut four times a day.For ordinary people, the frustrations are endless. Refrigerators become useless. Water runs out because it relies on electrical pumps. Children do their homework by candlelight.Insufficient capacity is not even the biggest problem. That is a $6 billion chain of debt, ultimately owed by the state, that is debilitating the entire energy sector. Power plants are owed money by the national grid and the grid in turn cannot get consumers (including the Pakistani government) to pay for the electricity they use. This week, the financial crunch meant that oil supply to the two biggest private power plants was halted, because the state-owned oil company had no cash to procure fuel.
Pakistan is a country that is unable to manage even the most basic tasks of national life, and its economy and society are breaking under the burden of excessive defense spending, but its security establishment seems bent on forcing a contest in which an isolated Pakistan will take on the whole world in Afghanistan. A significant chunk of its national security leadership is convinced that this all makes sense and is part of some grand design. This is the same kind of wishful thinking and clueless arrogance that cost Pakistan Bangladesh; the costs for Pakistan this time around could be even worse.Meanwhile, the Obama administration must accept that it can do little at this point to protect the foundations of its Afghan strategy. It seems increasingly likely that as the date of the hoped for US withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, US and Pakistani interests will diverge. Planning to engineer a safe exit from Afghanistan without Pakistani help needs to move to the top of the Pentagon and White House in-trays.