Afghanistan and Pakistan: Sorting fact from hope

President Obama’s State of the Union Speech cited a light at the Afghan tunnel’s end, and General Petraeus said a few hours earlier that conditions are improving in Afghanistan. For readers of Google News on Afghanistan and Pakistan these statements hit a discordant note; journalists are describing steady deterioration in both countries. While it is perhaps disrespectful to question the veracity of Messangers Obama and Petraeus, a look some facts can help assess their claims.

In Afghanistan, since 2007, the tempo of the Taliban insurgency has increased, notwithstanding U.S. reinforcements and frequent drone attacks. This period, in fact, has seen the insurgency spread from southern and eastern Afghanistan to all areas of the country, including the north where the allies of Washington and President Karzai are based. Insurgencies, of course, wax and wane, but the import of this dispersion lies in it occurring as nation-building measures meant to check Taliban appeal have had success. Three million more Afghan children are in school; more reliable supplies of potable water, electricity and medicine are available; and many miles of road have been built. There seems, then, no correlation between nation-building successes and defeating the Taliban.

Likewise, U.S.-NATO military operations have initial success, but little lasting impact. The campaign in Helmand Province last spring, for example, drove Taliban forces underground or from the province. But when operations shifted to adjacent Kandahar this fall, Taliban forces returned to Helmand. There is every reason to think this pattern will repeat when the coalition moves to its next target. Indeed, the Taliban’s leave-wait-and-return strategy is identical to that Afghans used to drive British and Soviet armies out of Afghanistan in, respectively, the 1880s and 1980s.

The Afghan political system built by the West, the UN, and India also has not gained traction. Karzai’s reelection featured questionable vote counts; the new parliament reportedly is alienating all ethnic groups; and Mr. Karzai’s mood swings — one day praising the West’s support, the next damning its militaries — raise concern about his competence and reinforces his reputation as merely Kabul’s mayor. Also troubling for regime stability is Karzai’s backing of former-mujahideen leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf as the parliament’s speaker. Sayyaf is a Pashtun leader with a private army, a staunchly pro-Saudi Wahabi, and the facilitator of al-Qaeda’s assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood, the icon of the northern, non-Pashtun Afghans who are the West’s only (to date) reliable Afghan allies.

In Pakistan, too, difficulties abound. President Zadari’s government has made little headway against daunting economic problems or the fierce civil war it is fighting against Islamists. The still unalleviated impact of massive flooding, spiking costs for internal security and military operations, and rampant corruption — for which Zadari is legend — all prevent the regime from improving employment rates and social services. The failure reinforces the already crucial role of Arab Peninsula-sponsored Islamic NGOs in providing education, health care, and jobs.

Pakistan’s military chief, General Kayani, also faces a deteriorating security environment. His forces continue to battle Pashtun militants in a destabilizing fight in the tribal belt; other army units are aiding internal security forces against Islamists and criminals in Karachi and elsewhere in the Punjab. Kayani also is being pressed by Washington and NATO to increase army operations in the border area. This request puts Kayani in a potentially disastrous quandary: Such action will worsen Pakistan’s civil war, do little to aid the West’s Afghan war, and ultimately leave Pakistan with messes along the border and in Afghanistan when U.S. withdrawal begins later in 2011.

Also pressing negatively on Kayani is India’s presence in Afghanistan. For Pakistani leaders, as Kayani said publicly, India is enemy number one, and for the first time in Pakistan’s history New Delhi has — in Islamabad’s eyes — can now threaten Pakistan from the west. Kayani and his corps commanders believe India’s Western-backed Afghan presence puts Pakistan in a mortal strategic vice. This helps explain why Pakistan has quietly but quickly doubled its arsenal of nuclear warheads.

The world is always one of troubles, but Afghanistan and Pakistan have more than their share. And none, on its face, offers light at the tunnel’s end. Perhaps the light President Obama and General Petraeus claim to see can only be seen by a hopeful beholder’s eye.

Scheuer is Adjunct Professor of Security Studies, Georgetown University, and author of Osama Bin Laden, (Oxford, 2011).


Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.