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The Beginning of Wisdom on “Afpak”

Whenever a new administration takes power, officials always find that some of their going-in assumptions don’t stand up to the test of events. That’s been the case with the Obama administration and its much vaunted focus on “Afpak,” their acronym for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The point of this coinage was that they were going to treat the two problems as inextricably linked. More than that: They would try to stabilize Afghanistan by focusing on Pakistan first. This was supposed to be a reversal of the Bush administration’s wrong-headed priorities. But it turns out not to be as simple as the Obama-ites imagined. Now they are conceding:

“We’re no longer looking at how Pakistan could help Afghanistan,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “We’re looking at what we could do to help Pakistan get through this period.”

This is the beginning of wisdom — the realization that Pakistan is such a mess that it’s unrealistic to expect that we can solve its problems first and then focus on Afghanistan. If we hold Afghanistan hostage to positive developments in Pakistan we might as well run up the white flag and let the extremists take over. The good news is that we can make substantial progress against the Afghan insurgency even if Pakistan remains a turbulent, unsettled place — as it will be for the foreseeable future. It’s true that insurgents receive valuable bases, equipment, and training in Pakistan but they also have plenty of base areas in Afghanistan in provinces where there have been, until now, few, if any, coalition troops. Overall, the number of Pakistanis, Arabs, Uzbeks, and other foreigners involved in the the fighting in Afghanistan is small — probably less than 5% of the total (and that’s a generous estimate). Almost all the insurgents are Afghans, and almost all of their money comes from Afghanistan in the form of profits from the drug trade. With more troops and a better strategy we can make substantial headway against the insurgents inside Afghanistan.

In the long run we might even be able to turn the “Afpak” strategy on its head: Instead of trying to stabilize Afghanistan through Pakistan, we may be able to stabilize Pakistan through Afghanistan. The same tribes inhabit the border regions of both countries, after all, and if we can bring a modicum of security and economic development to the Afghan side of the Durand Line, we may start to generate some stability and progress that spills over into Pakistan’s frontier regions. Admittedly that’s a long shot but it’s a less improbable strategy than the administration’s previous hopes that with a little more aid we can somehow nudge Pakistan into clamping down on extremists who are threatening neighboring states. As the events of the past few weeks have shown, the government in Islamabad is hanging on by its fingernails. It can barely handle insurgents threatening its own existence much less that of its neighbors.


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