In the Arena

Today in the Northwest Frontier Province

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Fred Kaplan has a good piece about some glimmerings of hopeful news that Barack Obama may be able to take advantage of in a difficult world–and here’s another: Pakistan may actually be our ally again in the fight against the Taliban.

Yes, Pakistan has putatively been on our side against Al Qaeda since the 9/11 attacks–but that support has been tentative, at best, since the Pakistani military and intelligence services have been primary backers, indeed founders, of the Taliban. The safe haven for Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province has made the war in Afghanistan near-impossible to win and is a tacit act of aggression–if such a thing is possible–against the U.S. and NATO troops deployed in the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan, which is why the CIA has intensified its Predator drone strikes against suspected terrorists in the Pakistan border areas over the past few months.

The good news is that the new Pakistani government of Asif Ali Zardari seems to understand that the combined Taliban/Al Qaeda forces in the unruly northwest have now targeted the Pakistani government itself. That may well have been the message gleaned from the Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad a few months ago–which may have been an assassination attempt on several top Pakistani leaders scheduled to have dinner at the hotel. In any case, as Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah report in the New York Times today, the Pakistani Army has began a brutal and difficult campaign against the terrorists. If this means that the Pakistani military, and particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency no longer consider the more extreme Taliban factions allies, we could be at a turning point in this dreadful war. But that is a big if. The Pakistanis have promised to take action against the Taliban before.

This time, however, the U.S. should help the process along with a concerted and targeted aid package: military aid that can only be used to fight the Taliban (counterinsurgency training and equipment like up-armored humvees etc.) as opposed to untargeted military aid, plus civilian assistance to build local institutions (especially schools, to provide an alternative to the madrassas). Perhaps most important, as President-elect Obama indicated to me a few weeks ago, a high-powered special envoy should be named–someone like Bill Clinton–to try to solve the eternal dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. If India recedes as a threat, the Pakistani military’s imagined need for a guerrilla counterforce in Kashmir and Afghanistan should also recede.

This is a complicated situation–aren’t they all?–but I’m guessing that a consensus on a fresh way forward may soon be found.

Update: Jay Ackroyd raises the very good question of whether we can be sure that targeted military aid is actually targeted. I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer–but I do imagine that if you start with U.S. counterinsurgency trainers, and the aid flows only to units they are training directly in the Northwest Frontier Province, you have a better shot at the aid not going, say, to the Pakistani nuclear weapons program…or to units, or jihadis, facing the Indians in Kashmir.

I’d welcome a reaction from military commenters who might have a better  idea as to how this can be done.