Zardari: U.S. Shares Blame For Taliban Threat

When he sat down with NBC's David Gregory last week for a "Meet the Press" interview (video here), Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari delivered a message that some in the U.S., perhaps, didn't want to hear--namely that America bears some responsibility for the Taliban threat in Pakistan.

MR. GREGORY:  And is it America's war or Pakistan's war?

MR. ZARDARI:  It's a war of our existence.  We've been fighting this war much before they attacked 9/11.  They're kind of a cancer created by both of us, Pakistan and America and the world.  We got together, we created this cancer to fight the superpower and then we went away--rather, you went away without finding a cure for it.  And now we've both come together to find a cure for it, and we're looking for one.

In other words, the U.S. and Pakistan colluded to create the Taliban as a response to Russia's presence in Afghanistan. This is, in part, the lesson of Charlie Wilson's War: that the U.S. armed and funded militants to fight the Russians--the Mujahaddin who successfully drove the soviets out--and that those militants later became the Taliban.

For Americans, this notion isn't a big part of the debate. U.S. observers have mainly been concerned with two questions: is Pakistan doing enough to fight the Taliban, and is the current regime there capable of defeating them? As the U.S. has been sending aid to Pakstan for years, one question that came up during the campaign was: are we getting our money's worth/ are there enough strings attached to this aid to ensure that Pakistan does more to fight the Taliban? (This was evidenced by Gregory's questions, as he repeatedly asked Zardari if Pakistan has dedicated enough troops to fighting the Taliban.)

Zardari's claim cuts against that line of questioning. Americans are concerned with solutions to the Taliban problem; Zardari made a point about its cause. Americans have looked for Pakistan to take more responsibility (there's some frustration being expressed in the U.S. public debate that Pakistan won't take its eyes off India, for instance), and Zardari, to a degree, rebuffed that, saying it's not entirely Pakistan's fault, and that it's the U.S.'s too.

That's not to say that Americans don't care about what Zardari is saying--it's just not a big part of the discussion right now.

His point may be a good one to make to U.S. diplomats, and maybe the U.S. public, but I suspect it might not be too effective on Congress: members of Congress seem more concerned with the lives of U.S. soldiers and the money question.

David Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has given the administration a one-year deadline on Afghanistan; this tells me that House Democrats could turn on that war--and U.S. involvement in the region, generally--if public support for it slips, and if significant gains aren't made.

Causation and responsibility, in Zardari's terms, had little to do with the domestic U.S. political fight over Iraq and the surge: no opponents of the invasion--congressional Democrats or otherwise--argued that the U.S. bore some responsibility for the destabilization of Iraq after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled; the debate over whether to stay was about U.S. lives, the cost of the war, whether gains could be made, and whether it was worth it.

That might be what the growing debate over Afghanistan and Pakistan is becoming, as well. If Democrats and public opinion turn against U.S. efforts in that region, I'm not sure Zardari's point--whether or not it's true, and whether or not it should--will factor into the stances taken by those in the U.S. who advocate staying in Afghanistan and giving more aid to Pakistan. The threats of a nuclear Taliban and a terrorist-haven Afghanistan will probably have more to do with it.