In the Arena

Obama on Af/Pak

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Just finished watching the President unveil his new Af/Pak strategy. It is, as advertised, comprehensive. Most of the details were known in advance, but it was impressive to watch Obama lay them out in a coherent fashion. Some highlights:

1. The most important aspect of Obama’s review is a refocusing toward the situation in Pakistan. The terrorist safe havens in the tribal areas is the heart of the problem. Getting Pakistan to actually move against those safe havens is the most serious challenge we face–and it’s no accident that US officials have acknowledged, for the first time this week, what was previously known but not commented upon: the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) funds, supports and conspires with the Taliban (epsecially the Afghani Taliban). At the same time, there has been a marked increase in cooperation from the Zardari government: all predator drone strikes have to be approved by the Pakistanis–and Zardari has approved four times as many in the past nine months as his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, approved in the year before that.

But there are still egregious situations that need to be addressed by the Pakistanis. The Haqqani madrasa, which sends terrorists across the Afghan border to kill American troops, is located no more than 1 kilometer away from the 9th division of the Pakistani Army. That gives new meaning to the term “safe haven.” Similarly, the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar openly operates a shura in the border city of Quetta–right next to Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where most of the new American troops are being sent. Until the Pakistanis take action in those areas, they can’t be considered reliable allies.

2. The economic aid package to Pakistan is unprecedented, and important, but we have to be extra-careful about how that money is disbursed by the Pakistani government. Another action that might be considered is lifting the tariffs on Pakistani-made textiles, which would be an enormous boon to building a stable middle class there.

3. Obama mentioned the “corruption” of the Afghan government. This is something Bush never did, and it send a crucial public signal–which I assume Richard Holbrooke has delivered privately–to the Karzai government. This emphasis on competence, as opposed to the Bush fantasy of democracy, is a significant change in emphasis.

4. The poppy solution is very notable. We’ll offer wheat, then burn the crop if the farmers don’t accept it. Then offer wheat again. These sorts of crop replacement programs don’t have a fantastic track record, but the size of the poppy crop in Afghanistan has lowered prices, and also caused a real food shortage. For those reasons, the British troops in Helmand told me last December that they had some hope that a wheat replacement campaign might work.

5. No major increase in American troops, which had been requested by the military. The emphasis on training the Afghan Army and police is important, as is the intention to match US teams with Afghans, who have shown a real desire to defend their country in ethnically-mixed units. This proved very efficacious in Iraq, especially in urban areas. One immediate target of opportunity should be Kandahar city.

6. Iran is included–part of the list of countries that might form a contact group to deal with Afghanistan. No special emphasis. Just tucked in there, between Russia and India.

Taken together, this is a sober, well-reasoned policy. I hope it works.