In the Arena

McCain and Kissinger on Afghanistan

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John McCain and Henry Kissinger have weighed in on Afghanistan in the past 48 hours–and both have a good grasp of the problems we’re facing there, but their solutions diverge, at least in emphasis, and these nuanced disagreements illuminate the mind-boggling difficulties we’re facing in the Af/Pak region.

McCain’s speech at the American Enterprise Institute is far more detailed than Kissinger’s op-ed in the Washington Post today, and it shows a better understanding of the problems on the ground. For example, McCain understands that the Afghan national army has been a surprising success–an integrated multi-ethnic force that has performed reliably in battle against the Taliban. Not surprisingly, McCain is more bullish on nation-building than Kissinger, and–as he did in Iraq–places more emphasis on counterinsurgency operations (protecting the populace) rather than counterterrorism (chasing after the bad guys). Kissinger agrees with McCain on the potential efficacy of General Petraeus’s proposed counterinsurgency strategy–which already has had positive, pre-Petraeus success in some of the valleys patrolled by the U.S. military in eastern Afghanistan. But the fundamental difference between McCain’s nation-building and Kissinger’s more modest notion of preventing Afghanistan from being a terrorist haven is precisely where the rubber meets the road–and where the Obama policy team has to make a big decision. Kissinger is right that Afghanistan has never lent itself to coherent nationhood–a fact that McCain doesn’t mention–but then what? How do you prevent the terrorists from establishing havens if you don’t have a stable, effective Afghan nation-state?

Which is precisely the problem across the border in Pakistan, where the terrorist havens actually exist these days. Pakistan, it has been said, is an army in search of a country. That army has chosen to allow the terrorists to infest the northwest while focusing its attention on the Indian threat to the east. It seems to me that the problem with both the McCain and Kissinger speeches is that they have the situation precisely reversed: the stabilization of the Pakistani nation-state is far more important than anything happening across the border in Afghanistan. Get Pakistan right and you have a chance in Afghanistan. Get Pakistan wrong and you have no chance.

That’s why the most hopeful, and positive, development in McCain’s speech is his support for a major economic development package for Pakistan–presumably, the Kerry-Lugar legislation that will probably be the first major foreign aid bill to pass the Congress. The least hopeful aspect in McCain’s speech is that he has set himself up to be a hawk in the Afghanistan sideshow, favoring higher troop levels in a looming debate between the military and the Obama Administration that isn’t nearly as important as focusing now, intensely, on figuring out how much cooperation we can expect from the Pakistani military in the effort to deal with the terrorist infestations in northwestern Pakistan–and whether we can have any reasonable expectation that Pakistan, with its 100 nuclear weapons, can become a stable and reliable U.S. ally in the struggle against the jihadi extremists it now harbors.