February 1, 2011

Rodriguez Slips on Pakistan's Sanctuaries

Its policies drifting away amid a frantic struggle to rescue them, the White House seems to have nothing to offer except propaganda. Consumed by revolutionary flames in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan is drifting even further off the front pages than it already was. As if to remind Americans before the shock, or possibly as a warning to policy-makers in Washington, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez brought the conflict back into view by forecasting the Taliban’s spring offensive.

“This year... they will come back with a different kind of strategy,” Rodriguez, an Iraq-war veteran and General David Petraeus’s deputy in Afghanistan, explained of theoretical hit squads. “They will not be as direct in their confrontations as they were last year.”

However, the man in charge of day-to-day military operations might want to let his politically-savvy superior handle the media duties. Warning of another bloody summer while simultaneously trying to boost public confidence, Rodriguez makes the nice little claim that America doesn’t need Pakistan to move into North Waziristan.

Presuming that the Taliban’s safe havens don’t become “significantly worse,” the general believes that the absence of a South Waziristan-like invasion “is not a mission-stopper in my mind.”

Why Rodriguez thought he could persuade anyone with this argument isn’t exactly clear. Before today, Pakistan’s continual sanctuary was viewed as a prime deal-breaker by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen. All three of President Barack Obama’s reviews placed a heavy burden on Pakistan’s military cooperation in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), particularly North and South Waziristan. Though U.S. officials have backed off in recent months, they’ve done so more out of the realization that Islamabad has neither the economic means nor political will to launch the desired operations.

One sentence after the other, U.S. officials (such as Vice President Joe Biden) claim that any decision is Pakistan’s alone, then call for action as soon as possible. This leads to a partial solution of Rodriguez’s U-turn.

Where he found the belief that he could fool people still isn’t clear, although his admission prolongs the war and thus increases his desperation. Enjoying relative freedom in Pakistan - whether in the FATA, Balochistan, or Karachi - the Taliban can continue to mount substantial offensives at least until 2014 and likely beyond. U.S. officials reportedly find silver lining in the Haqqani network’s concentration in North Waziristan, but this isn’t entirely true. A great deal of Taliban and TTP do use North Waziristan as a sanctuary, both before and after it received South Waziristan’s influx.

However, the Haqqani network and TTP in general is diversified throughout the FATA and can only be eliminated by a through, multi-agency campaign. The Haqqanis have been preparing for an invasion for last two years and have dispersed accordingly.

Displace North Waziristan when South Waziristan’s stability remains tenuous and the TTP will likely evade the blow as it did in the south. The Haqqanis will pop up somewhere new. Although they’re forced to cede territory, America faces a similar problem by settling for drones in counterinsurgency. This is mere counter-terrorism, a tactic rather than strategy. Were the Haqqani network and TTP’s ranks annihilated by drones, new groups will rise if the root problems of political and economic marginalization go unresolved.

Drones aren’t the answer when they leave Pakistan to do all of its own nation-building.

The reason why Rodriguez issued his remarks stems from accepting the fact that Islamabad lacks the means. Far from believing U.S. policy in Afghanistan can sustain active Pakistani sanctuaries, the general tried his hand at Petraeus’s game with a clever flick of propaganda. “You’re not breaking up with me, I’m breaking up with you.” But his comments only signal one thing - Pakistan has rejected an operation before July and Washington is already trying to spin its disappointment.

Come July, when Obama has no leeway to withdraw troops, the demand for Pakistani action will rise once more. So too will calls for U.S. operations, generating new tension between the two governments. This is just sloppy spin.

Now the war’s end appears even further off in the distance.

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