While the presidential candidates try to outdo each other on hawkishness on their Afghanistan/Pakistan policies and violence rises even further, the military seem to be the ones really running U.S. foreign policy in the region. And they're looking for a Grand Bargain.
This week's Sixty Minutes has eye-opening footage from a forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan, which includes up-close combat with Taliban militants.
The footage underscores what a recent draft of a National Intelligence Estimate called Afghanistan's "downward spiral", with a 30 percent increase in attacks in the last year.
These soldiers had not come this close to their enemy in Afghanistan before - close enough to lob hand grenades. Staff Sgt. Jake Schlereth had to crawl into a cornfield in pursuit. "You couldn't see [the enemy]…and…I had to get down on the ground and look and see if they were down there…you knew they were in there," he tells Logan.
At least twelve enemy fighters were killed in the skirmish and one U.S. soldier was wounded. The soldiers found a camera left behind by the enemy that contained images of at least 50 heavily armed fighters, showing details of their training and actual attacks. But it also showed enemy surveillance of U.S. soldiers on patrol. Says Capt. Thomas Kilbride, who leads such patrols, "This is showing a [U.S.] unit driving. I don't know if this is us or not." Does he think he and his men are being watched every time they go on patrol? "Oh, yeah," he says.
The images on the camera prove the enemy is better armed and organized. One of the men killed was carrying an identification card issued across the border in Pakistan. The U.S. military plans more fighting ahead in the winter months, when violence is usually less. "I'm here to predict this winter will be the most violent winter so far," says Gen. Schlosser.
But with experts saying that an Iraq-style Surge and Awakening, as advocated by John McCain, won't work among the Pushtun tribes who are implacably hostile to outsiders and occupiers - and likewise saying that Obama's more hawkish policy on Pakistan is a step too far that would touch off a larger regional conflict - General David Petraeus has put together a team of advisors who are saying the the best bet is to make a deal with the Taliban to return them to some sort of respectability as long as they give up Al Qaeda in the process. One of those advisers, Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid, has joined with New York University Prof. Barnett Rubin to write an essay entitled "From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan" published this week in the influential 'Foreign Affairs' journal. Jim Lobe at IPS News writes:
Both Obama and McCain have called for increases in U.S. and NATO troop strength, and President George W. Bush currently intends to send 8,000 more U.S. troops to join the 34,000 who are already there before he leaves office. The NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, who commands a total of nearly 70,000 troops, said last week he will need yet another 15,000 more next year.
But while those forces may help keep the lid on, they cannot defeat the Taliban, particularly so long as their Pakistani allies provide a safe haven, according to Rashid and Rubin, whose article criticises the Bush administration’s "war-on-terror" rhetoric that "thwarts sound strategic thinking by assimilating opponents into a homogenous ‘terrorist’ enemy."
"(The) United States must redefine its counterterrorist goals," they argue. "It should seek to separate those Islamist movements with local or national objectives from those that, like al Qaeda, seek to attack the United States or its allies directly – instead of lumping them all together." Those willing to sever ties with al Qaeda should be engaged, according to the authors.
"...An agreement in principle to prohibit the use of Afghan (or Pakistani) territory for international terrorism, plus an agreement from the United States and NATO that such a guarantee could be sufficient to end their hostile military action, could constitute a framework for negotiation. Any agreement in which the Taliban or other insurgents disavowed al Qaeda would constitute a strategic defeat for al Qaeda," according to the two authors.
It's almost certainly a good idea. Bob Gates has said that "There has to be ultimately, and I’ll underscore ultimately, reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this. That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us," and I've agreed with that concept for years. But one would think the State Dept. under the next President, rather than Petraeus, in the role of regional proconsul, should be doing the running.
However, Rashid and Rubin want to take it a step further - and that's where I think their plan becomes highly problemmatic.
At the same time, Washington and its allies should pursue a "high-level diplomatic initiative designed to build genuine consensus on the goal of achieving Afghan stability by addressing the legitimate sources of Pakistan’s insecurity...," they argue.
They call for the UN Security Council to establish of a contact group consisting of its five permanent members, and possibly NATO and Saudi Arabia, to promote dialogue between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan and Kashmir, and between Pakistan and Afghanistan on delineating their border with the central aim of "assur(ing) Pakistan that the international community is committed to its territorial integrity." The group should also provide security assurances to Russia and Iran about U.S. NATO intentions and to promote regional economic integration and development.
The problem is that Pakistan isn't only concerned with its own territorial integrity. Pakistan's foreign policy has always been run by the Pakistani military, primarily aimed at India and always seen the use of proxy terror groups as a way to counter the assymetric balance of conventional forces. The Pakistani military has always had one primary mission - India. One of its primary objectives has been to bring Afghanistan into its own orbit and deny India influence there. While India must worry about the other regional power, China, Pakistan has always co-operated with China both militarily and politically on the local stage - the two nations develop fighter jets together, exercize together, vote together in local forums. India was the only reason why Pakistan developed a nuclear arsenal (India worried about Pakistan and China) and you can be sure that every nuclear weapon in Pakistan's inventory is assigned to an Indian target and to no other - something that it is doubtful is the case for India's weapons.
Throughout their short history as seperate nations - which has included four outright wars - India and Pakistan have been burdened by extremists who define themselves in terms of opposition to their neighbour and in supremacist religious rhetoric. Both have always had to cope with militant portions of their own military and political spectrums who define themselves in terms of a perceived military threat from the other nation. In India's case, although offtimes these factions have gained ascendancy, the democratic process has kept their influence from being total. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been a military dictatorship more often than it has been even slightly democratic and, when a democracy, was constantly threatened by coups from one of its two militant factions - the religious and military extremists. Accordingly, the military has made a de facto trade off with the Islamists. The military runs the nation and the Islamists use it as a safe base to preach, recruit and stage their worldwide Jihad. Neither rocks the other's boat all that much and so a balance of power has evolved, teetering on a precipice of civil war which spills over locally from time to time. Rashid and Rubin's plan doesn't provide an incentive to either group to change that equation.
Instead, as so often in the past, India should offer concessions to a nation which has talked the talk far more often than it has walked the walk. There is no mention anywhere of curtailling Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, and its alleged sponsoring of terror groups in Kashmir, Afghanistan and India. No mention of the tens of thousands of Taliban and Al Qaida trained militants in Pakistan (Jane's in 2004 estimated 20,000 such in Karachi alone). No mention of Pakistan's inability (reluctance) to capture Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar - and other major terror/crime figures such as Dahwood Ibrahim - who are certainly hiding on their territory.
It's a plan the Pakistanis will love - because it enables them to keep on doing what they've been doing, playing the West for all they are worth while asking concessions from their main rivals. It's highly unlikely that the Indians or anyone else in the region will want to play ball just to give the U.S. cover as it makes for an exit.