Swallowing the spider to catch the fly in Afghanistan

by Andrew Sprung

As Chris noted earlier today, Glenn Greenwald extended his grudge match with Joe Klein today:

Over the weekend, Time's Joe Klein, undoubtedly reciting what his hawkish government sources told him, trotted out a brand new "justification" for the war in Afghanistan:  we have to stay in order to prevent India and Pakistan from going to war with each other.  The U.S. government excels at finding brand new Urgent National Security Reasons to continue fighting wars once the original justifications fail or otherwise become inoperative:  no more Al Qaeda in Afghanistan? Still have to stay, otherwise India and Pakistan will fight.  As part of his stenography services, Klein explained:

[S]ome of the best arguments about why this war is necessary must go unspoken by the President.

I can see contesting the swallow-the-spider-to-catch-the-fly logic of the U.S. fighting a war in Afghanistan to keep Pakistan from imploding and to keep it from going to war with India.  But there is nothing new or really covert about this argument, though the Administration is not exactly trumpeting it. It's been aired for some time, and it's central to the Administration's calculus. Here's Steve Coll -- a net supporter of the Administration's AfPak policy but no "stenographer" --  testifying before the Senate on Oct. 1:

The success of Pakistanthat is, its emergence as a stable, modernizing, prosperous, pluralistic country, at peace with its neighbors and within its borders, and integrated economically in South and Central Asiais obviously important, even vital, not only to the United States but to the broader international community.

One obstacle to the emergence of such a Pakistan is the deeply held view within the Pakistani security services that the United States will abandon the region once it has defeated or disabled Al Qaeda. Pakistani generals correctly fear that a precipitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan would be destabilizing, and that it would strengthen Islamist radical networks, including but not limited to the Taliban, who are today destabilizing Pakistan as well as the wider region.

Alternatively or concurrently, sections of the Pakistani military and civilian élite also fear that the United States may collaborate with India, naïvely or deliberately, to weaken Pakistan, by supporting governments in Kabul that at best are hostile to Pakistani interests or at worst facilitate Indian efforts to destabilize, disarm or even destroy the Pakistani state.

The problem lies in how the Taliban and the Pakistan Army will read the explicit use of a calendar. Ahmed Rashid, on NPR’s Morning Edition, speaking from Lahore, voiced the same fear that seized me when I heard the President be so explicit about 2011: No matter how nuanced the invocation, Pakistani liberals fighting against the Army’s hedging strategy of support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda will be demoralized by the use of a specific date. They will interpret it as evidence that the United States has already made a decision to leave the Afghan battlefield and that it will ultimately repeat its past pattern of abandoning Pakistan periodically. This may be unfair, but the perception is inevitable...

The question of Pakistani perception turned Coll's mind toward Rashid because that is Rashid's brief. In November 2008, Rediff India Abroad picked up this bit of transition news:

In fact, Petraeus has reportedly nominated Ahmed Rashid and Shuja Nawaz, author of the recently published book on Pakistani Army called Crossed Swords, as members of a brains trust to advise him on a new strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ahmed Rashid has been arguing for some months now that the Pakistani Army cannot be expected to co-operate wholeheartedly with the US Armed Forces in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban unless there is a forward movement in settling the Kashmir issue and India is pressured to cut down its presence in Afghanistan. There were not many takers for his arguments in the Bush Administration. But they have already started influencing the thinking of many who are close to Obama.

Those who worry about Pakistani paranoia over India's intentions in Afghanistan, and the impact of U.S. Afghan policy, are not making it up.  Last week, the Pakistani columnist Mohammad Jamil, who writes regularly for the Daily Times in Pakistan, wrote a sprawling response to Obama's speech that retailed much of the policy discussion in the U.S. but also included this unfamiliar (to us) note:

Obama ordered deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and defied predictions that in his new strategy, India would be given a pivotal role in Afghanistan. One did not hear a single word about India during his speech; however, it could be a deliberate attempt to keep certain things under wraps on the pretext of addressing Pakistan’s concerns.

Jamil's piece ended with this burst of blended paranoia:

However, the real threat is from the US, because the Jewish lobby and the Indian lobby have not been able to stomach Pakistan’s nuclear capability.

Klein's reporting is spot-on. Concern about Pakistani-Indian relations is central to the Administration's thinking about Afghanistan.  You can argue with the policy; you can argue, as Greenwald does, that it's unwise to escalate a war without strong domestic support (though Obama's speech seems to have boosted support somewhat); you can argue that the Administration should itself air these concerns more fully.  But it makes no sense to hit Klein simultaneously for airing the "secret" rationale and for implicitly supporting it. If it were secret, and Klein supported it, why would he air it?