August 12, 2009


President Obama is having a rough time if his greatest achievements are coming from Pakistan. The Wall Street Journal’s Review & Outlook on the Taliban lauded Pakistan as “an early Obama foreign-policy success.” One look at the latest Gallup Pakistan poll exposes a more realistic impression.

While Taliban sentiment is tipping negative, America has received only a minor boost in popularity. Pakistan's “success” in Swat, a highly publicized Kerry-Lugar Bill, and humanitarian aid to IDP’s didn’t seem to win many new friends. Any gift is a Trojan horse. What America gives is often thought to be owed, a late bill rather than generosity. 59% of responders chose America as the greatest threat to Pakistan because of the escalating Afghan war and its effects to the FATA.

It would be nice if Baitullah Mehsud's death, “underscores that Pakistan has been an early Obama Administration foreign-policy success. Only three months ago, the Taliban were marching on Islamabad and U.S. officials were fretting about the lack of Pakistani will to resist Islamist extremism. But the U.S. worked behind the scenes to encourage a counterattack.”

Except the last three months have been as much reality as illusion. Mehsud is a passing vision. The Taliban was never really marching on Islamabad or threatening nuclear weapons. Pakistani officials had some will to resist the Swat unrest, but were opposed by Pakistani public opinion until the Taliban made a few bad YouTube moves. And nothing is more illustrative of why Pakistanis don’t like America than, “U.S. worked behind the scenes to encourage a counterattack.”

Though Obama obviously believes them to be effective, 67% of Pakistanis oppose his 33 drone strikes and counting. Yesterday the Pakistani press was celebrating the death of Mehsud, today not so much.

President Obama isn't succeeding in Pakistan and considering he was supposed to be a breath of fresh air, failing is more accurate. The money he’s allocated, around $7 billion, has not only been delayed by Congress, but is dwarfed by an estimated $35 billion the war has cost Pakistan. Save the aid and leave is the new motto. Obama has gracefully danced around Kashmir while inking arms deals with India, appealing that South Asia isn’t a zero-sum game as India interferes with Pakistan’s nuclear submarines.

But escalating Afghanistan has done the most damage to Obama’s image. Those who claim America must fight believe it has no choice, that withdrawal is defeat. This may be true for America’s national security interests. However, the war is caused not by the Taliban but by al-Qaeda and America's presence - foreigner presence. The idea of putting more into Afghanistan and Pakistan, a region that glorifies self-reliance, is fatally flawed. This strategy is the reason why war exists.

Though President Obama claims to understand Pakistan, he's ignoring all signs from the Pakistani people and many officials, notably Nawaz Sharif, who oppose military build up in Afghanistan. Having already deployed 17,000 fresh troops, General Stanley McChrystal’s review has supposedly requested another 10,000, maybe more. NATO is also calling for more troops and this only covers 2010. If the war protracts beyond a year and a half, a probability, Obama will need more still.

This is not what the Pakistani or Afghan people had in mind. Obama has made his decision and passed the point of return, but did he really have no alternative?

Withdrawing from Afghanistan at this moment seems suicidal. The Taliban would capture large areas of new territory and could capture the whole state again. Ethnic fighting could flair in the north and invite Iran into the theater, while Pakistan’s tribal areas may get the power and itch to break off entirely. Al Qaeda would have a home for life. At first glance America has no choice but to go all in.

Withdrawing is always portrayed without advantage, even though plenty of advantages exist for withdrawing. Consider the message sent if President Obama summoned 10,000 troops home and shifted all focus to humanitarian projects - it would shock the Taliban as it prepared for a predictable military surge. Afghans desperately need additional attention. Obama would at least capture the attention of Mullah Omar and maybe gain some respect, a critical component in this war. The Pakistani people would’ve hailed a troop withdrawal as real proof that America is changing for the better. So would many Americans.

At the minimum Obama should open the debate of withdrawing, not stigmatize it.

Maybe America has no choice. Is this strategy though, or desperation verging on failure? Obama has validated the Taliban cause when he could’ve undermined the ideal of foreign resistance with a reduced presence. Good governance is a prayer with Hamid Karzai still ahead in the Afghan election; apparently the military option is all that’s left. Obama is committing America to another 10 years in Afghanistan with no certainty of victory.

What is 10 years though, when the enemy vows to fight for 100? Sun Tzu wouldn’t call this success.

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