As General David Petraeus takes over the war in Afghanistan from General Stanley McChrystal, he faces a daunting set of challenges. Thirty years of fighting have taken their toll on the country. Afghanistan is a backwards place with little infrastructure. The heroin capital of the world, its opium fields are a rich source of income for the Taliban and its allies. The country is rife with corruption and tribalism.
To make matters worse, the Afghan government is shaky. President Hamid Karzai is expressing doubts that America can win and hedging his bets. He has entertained the idea of a deal with the Taliban. Two of Karzai's most pro-American subordinates, including his intelligence chief, resigned earlier this month.
General Petraeus knows all of this. "I've always said that Afghanistan would be the tougher fight," he remarked in late 2008. Last year Petraeus and McChrystal together developed a counterinsurgency strategy-based on the one that brought Iraq back from the brink-to suit the peculiarities of Afghanistan.
But Petraeus and U.S. forces cannot do it alone. The fight for Afghanistan requires, as President Obama himself noted earlier this week, "a unity of purpose on the part of all branches of the U.S. government that reflects the enormous sacrifices that are being made by the young men and women who are there." Such unity of purpose is essential to dealing with one of the most serious challenges facing Afghanistan today: Pakistan.
Many of Afghanistan's woes can be traced to its southern neighbor. Pakistan provided crucial counterterrorism assistance in the post-September 11 world-September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other high-level al Qaeda operatives would not have been captured in Pakistan without the assistance of local authorities. But the Pakistani government remains divided and duplicitous.
For years, its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has nurtured jihadist organizations and exported terrorism to Afghanistan, Kashmir, and India as part of its foreign policy. Some parts of the ISI are on our side. Others are not. That's why President Obama said on Thursday that in addition to making sure "we have a stable Afghan government" in the fight against terrorism, "we also have to make sure that we've got a Pakistani government that is working effectively with us to dismantle these networks."
This requires consistent diplomatic and political pressure on the Pakistani government. Petraeus and the military can exert some of this pressure through their liaison relationship with the Pakistani military-America provides training for the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, and supplies the armed forces. This provides some of the levers needed. But a concerted effort by State Department and intelligence officials, and President Obama himself, is needed as well.
Obama has not been negligent in this regard. A recent study by RAND notes that President Obama sent a letter to Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari that "bluntly warned that Pakistan's use of militant groups to pursue its policy goals would no longer be tolerated." It is not clear what, exactly, this means absent concrete action, or even if Zardari could rein in the ISI should he want to. But Obama, according to RAND, also "offered additional military and economic assistance, as well as help in easing tensions with India."
Looming over America's military and diplomatic efforts is the withdrawal timetable. It does not matter that the July 2011 date for the beginning of the draw-down is more nuanced than a complete "switching off the lights and closing the door behind us," as President Obama said on Thursday. The arbitrary date sends the message that America's commitment is limited. Those in the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment who support the Afghan insurgents do so because they see them as a means to project power in Afghanistan. The timetable tells the Pakistanis that support for the Taliban and their ilk may be rewarded in the not distant future.
Afghanistan is a contest of wills. President Obama insists that Pakistan must give up its support for militant groups, but the July 2011 deadline undercuts his efforts. The deadline indicates that America may not have the will necessary to fight for its own interests, which differ in important respects from Pakistan's.