We Should Hold Our Nose And Remain Engaged In Pakistan
By Joel Brinkley for Tribune Media Services
America’s involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan may be the most complex foreign-policy dilemma the nation has ever faced. With the death of Osama bin Laden, along with Pakistan’s furious response, the knot is more tangled.
Right now, Afghan officials are reviling their Pakistani counterparts. Pakistan is flirting with China. American officials are threatening to curtail aid to Islamabad. Afghanistan is establishing what it calls the High Peace Council for reconciliation talks with the Taliban, while the United States is already saying the peace talks will almost certainly fail.
Meantime, Afghan Taliban leaders are trying to talk nice. Oh, we’re happy to let girls go to school, they are cooing through thin smiles. Just let us back into the government. At the same time, their fighters opened fire on an unarmed roadwork crew, massacring 36 workers and wounding 20 others.
Pakistani soldiers fired on a U.S. military helicopter flying along the Pakistan-Afghan border. But the government did display a small flash of grace. It gave the U.S. permission to haul away the ruined tail of the helicopter that crashed just outside Osama bin Laden’s home.
Think back to previous conflicts. Even the decisions behind the Vietnam War, one of the most traumatic events in American history, seem relatively simple by comparison. Now we are dealing with two nations led by perfidious, double-dealing scoundrels who take pleasure in disparaging us.
In a chorus over the last few days, President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials have been declaiming: You’re fighting the wrong war in the wrong place. They have their own self-interested motivations for saying that. Actually, though, they are correct.
Most analysts believe bin Laden left the tribal areas of Pakistan and moved to a compound just outside the capital to escape the rain of American drone missiles that were killing some of his minions.
Does it make any sense to believe that bin Laden would pull out all by himself, leaving behind his key aides and allies, like Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader? Of course not. Sooner or later we will learn that a half-dozen of them, at least, are hiding in full sight inside Pakistan, in their own high-walled compounds.
One frequent Afghan observation is well-taken, that all of the al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders of note are in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. The United States acknowledged years ago that few if any al-Qaeda operatives remained in Afghanistan.
But now Pakistani leaders are insulting and reviling the U.S., and senior members of Congress are threatening to withhold aid. As Sen. James Risch, an Idaho Republican, put it during a recent Foreign Relations Committee hearing, “Why are we spending our kids’ and our grandkids’ money to do this in a country that really doesn’t like us?
“It’s a hard sell to the American people.”
But the United States can’t stop providing aid to Pakistan and pull out of the country. For one thing, most of the supplies for the 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan are trucked in from Pakistan, and Pakistanis have already shown their eagerness, if provoked, to attack these caravans and torch the trucks. Look at the map, and you won’t find another politically possible supply route.
Pakistan is an extremely unstable country. Its leaders hold onto their pathological obsession with India and refuse to recognize the dire threat that the Taliban and other militants pose from within. What would happen if the government fell, and Islamic militants seized Pakistan’s 100-plus nukes?
Meanwhile, the Afghan war continues, to deprive al-Qaeda of a home there once again. But if the U.S. pulled out and al-Qaeda returned, they’d be doing the U.S. military a great favor. We’ve been trying to get at them in North Waziristan for a decade now with limited success at best. Move back to Afghanistan and they would be easy targets.
What could Karzai do about it?
This summer, President Obama is going to announce the first troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. The number being bandied about now is roughly 5,000 troops. He should ramp it up, withdraw faster. After all, now we are caught in the middle of a civil war between the previous and the present governments.
As for Pakistan, we have to hold our noses and remain engaged. The possible alternatives are simply too ugly to imagine. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it at the height of the rancor last week, like it or not, “we need them, and they need us.”