The tactic is nothing knew. Passed along from George Bush to Barack Obama, U.S. policy in Afghanistan adheres to one overriding rule when the temperature gets too hot: blame Pakistan. Bush would often phone his counterpart, Pervez Musharraf, whenever he needed to kick up some dust on the ground. Now the Obama administration has cut out the middle-man.
Drone strikes aren’t just for degrading al-Qaeda’s leadership. They serve as neon arrows to point Americans in Washington’s desired direction - away from Afghanistan.
Eliminating the term “AfPak” from its latest review illustrates the simple, fiendish measures devised by the White House. “AfPak” was no label of convenience, instead coined by Richard Holbrooke in an explicit attempt to connect the two states. Holbrooke would write shortly after being promoted as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, “This is not just an effort to save eight syllables. It is an attempt to indicate and imprint in our DNA the fact that there is one theater of war.”
Former CIA official Bruce Riedel, who authored the original (and overhauled) White House strategy in February, would bring the phrase into public consciousness. But while Afghanistan’s fate does depend on Pakistan’s, the link was established to go beyond that theory - to excuse all of Afghanistan’s internal woes.
No longer needed, the White House’s latest review dumped "AfPak" in favor of the traditional “Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Drones and cross-border raids serve their purpose now. It's more likely than ever that July 2011 indicated a deadline to Pakistan, not a troop withdrawal date, and present events continue to validate this scenario. After working North Waziristan all year, U.S. officials predictably emerged in the run-up to Afghanistan’s review to keep that message on track.
Naturally the mainstream U.S. media has bought into the idea of a gentler, more understanding Pentagon. ABC reports, “U.S. and NATO officials have begun talking about the sanctuary problem in more nuanced terms over the past year, backing away from stark demands that Pakistan wipe out the havens and praising Pakistan for attacking homegrown militants on a large scale.”
This isn’t the case though. While U.S. officials have praised Islamabad for its multi-operation campaign in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), they haven’t retreated an inch from "stark demands." Rather, U.S. officials exploit the goodcop/badcop routine to pressure Islamabad without grinding too hard on an unfriendly populace. A scam, in short.
And the White House and Pentagon’s latest review matched the pattern identically.
Rumors of U.S. troops moving into the FATA have swirled since three cross-border raids in early October, and came to a boil last week after ex-Afghan spy chief Amrullah Saleh foretold of a July 2011 deadline to Islamabad. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates played good cop on the Afghan-Pakistan border, Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen singled out Pakistan the night before Washington's review in Islamabad. No sooner had U.S. officials turned the heat up did they back off.
The White House’s review, while geared towards Pakistan's territory, kept its public demands to a minimum. Islamabad wouldn’t appreciate the blame after all that it’s done, especially when it believes America’s war in Afghanistan to be a fools errand.
But the next day Mullen was back out in Kabul predicting of an invasion into North Waziristan, "I certainly think it is very possible that the Pakistani military will achieve the goal.” Meanwhile Cameron Munter, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, claimed, “America is fully satisfied that Pakistan Army has not the capacity presently to launch operation in North Waziristan.”
"We would like them to move tomorrow, we would like them to take out these people tomorrow," he added. "But we understand they're telling us honestly about the capacity of their military, and when they are able, we are convinced they will move in."
So even though Washington “understands” Islamabad’s dilemma, U.S. personnel are being deployed to remind it of North Waziristan. Or, more likely, the U.S. public. And Friday was a day of action. U.S. drones pounded targets in the Khyber agency, warning shots that no agency will be out of bounds after July 2011.
One noticeable bright-spot does exist for U.S. strategy in Pakistan. According to new polling, popular opinion has never opposed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) more than now. Better yet, over 60% of respondents support a military operation into North Waziristan. The belief that Afghan Taliban represent “Islamic heroes” also fell from 40% in 2009 to 20%. 43% of respondents believed that foreign militants should be “forced to leave by the Pakistan Army,” while only 2% believe they should stay.
These numbers have further motivated Washington’s push for an invasion, believing local resentment to be a cleared hurdle.
But numbers often have two sides and a sizable portion of those favoring military operations are internally displaced, who naturally want the TTP evicted. Support drops across Pakistan in general. Opposition to drone strikes persists (58% overall), and U.S. operations into Pakistan - Washington's ultimate objective - remains a red-line. The most telling figure: “Two-thirds of the respondents, 64.2 percent, have unfavorable opinions about Pakistani Taliban while only 36.2 percent believe that Afghan Taliban are terrorists.”
Pakistanis support operations against the TTP - but for Pakistan’s sake, not America’s.
Popular approval by itself is also insufficient justification for an operation. U.S. officials completely ignore the fact that Pakistan lacks the civil and economic capacity for North Waziristan, not simply the military means. Gains in South Waziristan, Kurram, Mohmand, Bajaur, and Swat were supposed to be solidified through political and economic development. However this vital phase of Islamabad’s strategy has flamed out amid an economic crisis and severe flooding.
Washington envisions an operation into North Waziristan for its own interests in Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan’s future as a secondary concern. These priorities must be reversed so that Pakistan’s well-being generates stability in Afghanistan. Without a plan to develop North Waziristan (along with every other agency) and minimize the flood of TTP that come running out, a military operation (whether Pakistani or American) holds the potential to destabilize Afghanistan. Just like how U.S. operations across the Pakistani border will reverse public opinion gains.
Rushing often leads to being late.