Afghans and Pakistanis both dislike the term “AfPak.” But the fact is the two nations now constitute a single front — the most “kinetic” front — in the global war being waged by militant Islamists.
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama emphasized his opposition to the conflict in Iraq but he was adamant about the need to prevail in Afghanistan. This month, American Marines launched Operation Khanjar (Thrust of the Sword), Obama’s own surge of troops into Helmand Province where, over the past two years, the Taliban has been regrouping and regaining power. The White House has pushed the Pakistani government to challenge the Islamist insurgents on its territory as well.
The goal is straightforward: in President Obama’s words, to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” both the Taliban and al-Qaeda in their strongholds. But the means to those ends are more complicated than one might think, as was made clear at a recent “experts workshop” on the AfPak theater organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the policy institute I head. Among those participating in the conference were scholars, foreign correspondents, current and former ambassadors, and representatives of organizations working on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Taliban took over Afghanistan in the 1990s and promptly gave safe haven to al-Qaeda. From its headquarters in the southern city of Kandahar, al-Qaeda plotted — and then celebrated — the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001.
In response, the United States, allied with anti-Taliban Afghans, toppled the regime. But the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and al-Qaeda’s leader, the Saudi multi-millionaire, Osama bin Laden, escaped across the border into northwestern Pakistan, an area so wild Pakistanis sometimes describe it as “Jungle-stan.”
Over the years since then, the U.S. and its NATO allies have attempted to bring security and stability to Afghanistan — with limited success. During this same period, both al-Qaeda and the Taliban have expanded their operational bases in Pakistan. In 2008, the Taliban moved into the Swat valley — a beautiful area in which I happily trekked 20 years ago — just a short march north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
President Obama is no advocate of “nation building.” But he appears to recognize that unless we leave behind in Afghanistan a government that can provide for its own defense and maintain the support of the population, new Taliban fighters will emerge. Financed not just by the opium-poppy trade, but also by radical Arab oil billionaires, they will slaughter those who have cast their lot with us.
And even if Afghanistan were to be transformed into the Costa Rica of Asia, it would count for little should militant Islamists take over nuclear-armed Pakistan. An al-Qaeda statement issued last month read: “God willing, the nuclear weapons [in Pakistan] will not fall into the hands of the Americans, and the Mujahideen would take them and use them against the Americans.”
The emir of the Taliban in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud (also sometimes spelled Ay’atulah Mahsoud) is believed to be responsible for assassinating former prime minister Benazir Bhutto as she was campaigning in late 2007. His ambitions, however, go beyond Pakistan’s borders. “We want to eradicate Britain and America, and to shatter the arrogance and tyranny of the infidels,” he has said. “We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York, and London.” Just bluster? That was the view of many analysts in the 1990s when Osama bin Laden was making similar threats.
In recent days, the Pakistani military has been showing increased commitment and seriousness. According to experts at the FDD workshop, however, it remains a conventional fighting force with little training in counterinsurgency, the military strategy emphasizing protection of the local populations: eliminating terrorists that threaten them, helping them establish security in their areas, and assisting their efforts to build some semblance of a functioning government (even if just a council of elders) and economy.