Team Obama will be holding a war council of sorts this week, as top Pakistani and Afghan officials come to Washington as part of Obama's ongoing review of the conflict. Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta will meet with, among others, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Richard Holbrooke, and Bruce Riedel, who's coordinating the administration's rethink. A whole passel of military officials from the region will be here, too.
But what's troubling so far about the administration's signals on Afghanistan and Pakistan is that it's all tilted toward war and "counterinsurgency," and there's precious little being said about negotiations, deal-making with the Taliban, and diplomacy.
It's not only that Obama has ordered the deployment of 17,000 more US troops. The administration is escalating Predator and Reaper air strikes against targets in both countries, and, according to both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times the air strikes are being quietly supported by Pakistan, even as Pakistan's top officials criticize them in public. The Times reported that Obama has expanded the air strikes to attacks on the Pakistani Taliban, who are gaining momentum in that country, even as they continue to hit Al Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Pakistan who use the tribal areas there as a base for the Afghan insurgency. An important story in the Journal last week, entitled, "Pakistan Lends Support for U.S. Military Strikes," said:
"Pakistan's leaders have publicly denounced U.S. missile strikes as an attack on the country's sovereignty, but privately Pakistani military and intelligence officers are aiding these attacks and have given significant support to recent U.S. missions, say officials from both countries."
The cat's out of the bag as far as US-Pakistani cooperation goes now, with Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, blurting out at a recent hearing that US air strikes are flown from military bases in Pakistan, not elsewhere. "As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base," she said.
Meanwhile, as the Times reports today, a team of 70 US Special Forces troops and others has been in Pakistan for nearly a year "training Pakistani Army and paramilitary troops [and] providing them with intelligence and advising on combat tactics." And:
"They make up a secret task force, overseen by the United States Central Command and Special Operations Command. It started last summer, with the support of Pakistan's government and military, in an effort to root out Qaeda and Taliban operations that threaten American troops in Afghanistan and are increasingly destabilizing Pakistan. It is a much larger and more ambitious effort than either country has acknowledged."
It's clear that Obama is intent on a significant escalation of the war in Afghanistan itself along with a much more overt relationship with Pakistan's armed forces and its intelligence services, including the ISI. It looks as if it's all aimed at something called "victory," even though more and more analysts say that victory -- whatever that means -- isn't likely and the only real exit strategy is a negotiated deal with the insurgency, in both countries.
It's troubling, therefore, to read all the criticism of efforts by Pakistan and Afghanistan to offer peace feelers to the other side. Top US officials are critical of Pakistan's latest attempt at working out a deal with Taliban-related fighters in the Swat Valley, a settled area outside Pakistan's lawless tribal areas that has largely been overrun by the Taliban. They are also quick to disparage President Hamid Karzai's repeated feelers to the Taliban in Afghanistan, too. And, while it's true that Obama's Afghan-Pakistan review is still underway, the president himself isn't saying much about involving India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China in bolstering both Pakistan's and Afghanistan's feeble overtures for a deal.
An intelligent piece today in the Los Angeles Times by Julian Barnes describes the challenges facing Obama in Afghanistan thusly:
"President Obama's war strategy began to take shape with his announcement last week that 17,000 additional U.S. troops are headed to Afghanistan. But the thorniest problems still await him: persuading militants to lay down their arms, coaxing help from allies and eliminating extremist havens on the Afghan-Pakistan border."
But America's allies in NATO aren't likely to step up support for the war. (Obama will make a pitch to them directly during a high-stakes NATO summit in April.) The real solution lies in getting the vast majority of Afghanistan's pro-Taliban and Taliban-leaning warlords, tribal chiefs, village leaders, and others, along with a hefty chunk of the Taliban leadership, to make a deal. As I reported in mt Nation feature last December, "Obama's Afghan Dilemma" , the core of Obama's strategy is based on the conviction that the Taliban won't negotiate now because they think they're winning. So, Obama believes, first the United States has to regain the military advantage and then start talking. My question is: why not test the reverse idea? Why not start talking now, and put an offer on the table of a US withdrawal, and see what happens?