The Political Rathole In The Near East

We've seen the Obama administration go to great lengths to persuade the American people that whatever is happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan is very serious, that it is in the interests of the United States to spend money and lives dealing with "it," and that, despite news reports to the contrary, progress is being made.

When I was interviewing administration officials for some posts and an article about the first and second one hundred days, I would always ask about the biggest known unknown, and the answer was always the same: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The worry was threefold; one, that something horrible and unpredictable would happen -- an unknown unknown -- and completely blow up the new Richard Holbrooke-led "strategy" upon which Barack Obama's credibility rests.

Two -- that the American people would not see our intervention in the region as a national security priority; this was why, I was told, that Obama would be returning to the subject, as he did this week.

Three -- that Democrats in Congress would face significant pressure from liberal constituents and begin to hamstring the administration.

Not ten days into the second one hundred days, the trifecta has occurred: Pakistani militants are united more than ever before and fighting battles with a weakened Pakistani government a day's walk from Islamabad; American people are weary; Key appropriators like David Obey have already given up; Obey's giving the administration a year before he closes the purse.

Here's a case where public communication strategy will drive policy. And yet, unlike the invasion of Iraq, there's no two-sentence encapsulation that fits, there's no compliant press corps that will report whatever the administration wants, and there's no conviction, even within the administration, that the current strategy has achievable endpoints.

The Taliban and Al Qaeda are our number one enemies. But they're kind of mysterious by this point, and the Bush-era line that "if we don't fight 'em over there, they'll come here" rings a little hollow now, even if it happens to be a reasonable assumption. Much of what our military and intelligence forces are doing over there remains classified, but it clearly includes a lot of hardware, a lot of secret special forces raids, a lot of counterintelligence and strategic trickery, radio jamming and the like. The collateral damage from our Predator strikes is apparently one of the many ways we're further alienating civilians.

There are weapons of mass destruction to worry about, but they are supposedly safe from theft or use -- especially by that country's own military, which is corrupt, which colludes with the terrorists who are supposedly enemy number one, and has towered over and threatened the civilian government for over 50 years. U.S. technology keeps these nukes safe, and U.S. special forces are probably billeted in some secret base near Islamabad ready to parachute in, steal the nukes, and keep them safe, if the Pakistan government were to fall.

Russia and China: Why does the U.S. have to flex its muscles like an impressionable bodybuilder? Russia and China take a keen interest in the affairs of the region. China's relationship with Pakistan is rooted in history and in finance. Russia is more worried about geopolitics and basing, as its barely three-decades-old invasion of Afghanistan will attest. In this way, the U.S.'s ability to exert influence over both countries is limited by China and Russia; at the same time, because China and Russia are hovering, the U.S. must hover too. (Remember, the Northern Alliance was supported by Russia (and Iran and India) during the 90s when America's support was small.)  Do Russia and China care more about extremism and instability than they do about checking America's power? I don't know.

Pakistan's aspirations: We tend to lose sight of what Pakistani people aspire to; the country has seen itself as a haven for Muslims, and it is now a principle goal of our foreign policy to convince the Muslim world that American values are not incompatible with that religion, or, at the very least, do not threaten it. Deradicalization of Pakistan's existing radical Islamic community is impossible, but preventing the further radicalization of said community -- at least for a while -- is achievable with the right type of U.S. intervention. At this juncture, it's important to note that polls of Pakistanis make it pretty clear that most Pakistanis aren't radical and that they dislike radicalism more than they dislike the U.S. When it comes to Afghanistan, Pakistanis generally don't respect the boundary that international officials place between the two countries. Given the threat of an invasion from India, Pakistanis want the living space that Afghanistan affords.

Afghanistan's aspirations: I'm kind of lost here, but stability is certainly something that beleaguered Afghans want -- along with an ability to make some money, export their wares, and not be killed by their government, the Taliban, and the United States.

Congress has agreed to provide a few billion dollars, here and there, for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Cynics believe that America is simply trying to bribe both governments out of corruption -- or bribe them in such a generous way that they begin to depend more on American money -- and therefore adopt American principles -- more than indigenous ones. A few billion dollars isn't going to be enough, as it took about $10 billion dollars worth of secret aid to down a few Russian helicopters and convince the Soviets to withdraw from just one country.