Following the end of President Barack Obama‘s speech on the new Afghanistan strategy Tuesday, the Washington Post‘s headline read, “‘Afghanistan Is Not Lost,’ Obama Says.” That title aptly summarizes the sentiment behind the president’s West Point address. Prior to Obama’s announcement, news agencies had already disseminated the main points – the current status quo is not “sustainable” in Afghanistan, the U.S. will be escalating their presence by 30,000 troops by the first part of 2010, a withdrawal of these forces will begin in July 2011, and power will be transitioned to the Afghan government and the Afghan people in a “responsible” manner. On Tuesday evening, the president couched these points in heavy rhetoric, emphasizing why Al Qaeda continues to be a continuous threat to the United States and its Allies, and why Americans need to continue to invest in this war.
Frankly, I did not expect much more from this speech, precisely because of what the president was trying to achieve. Obama was primarily addressing an audience of young cadets at West Point, many of whom will be deployed as a result of this new strategy. He told them, “I know that this decision asks even more of you as a military that, along with your families, has already borne the heaviest of all burdens.” Ultimately, the president on Tuesday was trying to assert his role as the American commander-in-chief, a figure capable of making the tough decisions, a person who, despite recent critics crowing to the contrary, does not “dither” on matters of national security and safety.
As such, the speech was an unsurprising stream of expected rhetoric. But it was what Obama didn’t say that can be assessed – namely, what all this means for Pakistan, Afghanistan’s perceived “brother from another mother.” During the speech, the president touched upon Pakistan briefly and vaguely, stating,
We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That is why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border. In the past, there have been those in Pakistan who have argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight… The Pakistani Army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan. And there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy…Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust.
Obama went on to assert Washington’s commitment to an effective, long-term partnership with Pakistan. But during his speech, he did not make a distinction between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Doing so would have highlighted a flaw in the argument that the U.S. and Pakistan share a common enemy, particularly since Pakistan’s military is fighting the Pakistani Taliban but continues to make deals with anti-NATO/U.S. militants in North Waziristan, [see also related CHUP post]. Ultimately, getting Pakistan to see eye-to-eye with the U.S. on the Afghan Taliban is a continuing issue. Following the speech, CNN correspondent Michael Ware noted, “The war is not won or lost in Afghanistan…the key to that is in Pakistan and the [Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban] sanctuaries and safe havens [in the border region].”
Ware also brought up the regional implications of the war in Afghanistan, calling it a “chess game,” with Saudi Arabia and Iran both playing hands in the area, and India and Pakistan using it as “yet another battlefield.” Reuters, in its coverage, noted, “Many analysts say Pakistan is reluctant to take on the Afghan Taliban as it might need them to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan in case of a U.S. pullout.” Understanding these broader regional issues are key to approaching this war, and particularly a linked Pakistan strategy.
The NY Times cited Obama’s advisers who conceded that the president “could not be very specific about his Pakistan strategy” Tuesday because “American operations there are classified, most run by the Central Intelligence Agency.” The NY Times added, “In recent months, in addition to providing White House officials with classified assessments about Afghanistan, the C.I.A. delivered a plan for widening the campaign of strikes against militants by drone aircraft in Pakistan, sending additional spies there and securing a White House commitment to bulk up the C.I.A.’s budget for operations inside the country.” This was reportedly the message delivered by Gen. Jim Jones when he visited Islamabad several weeks ago, though “the Pakistanis, suspicious of Mr. Obama’s intentions and his staying power, have not yet agreed.”
Given the increasing anti-American sentiment on the ground, a broadened U.S. presence in Pakistan will undoubtedly be met with rage/indignation/burning tires. And, if Islamabad (covertly) agrees to such terms, it will further cement the perception that we are not fighting “our” war but “America’s” war, a distinction with negative ramifications. Ultimately, as Washington continues to push this flawed “AfPak” strategy, the term “FakAp” increasingly seems more fitting, (credit for “FakAp” goes to @majorbuttretd on Twitter, who blogs over at Bostive Neuj).