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Washington, D.C. – In a major reversal of administration policy, the Pentagon announced today its intention to extend the Afghan mission to 3014, citing the date as a more realistic date for withdrawal. The announcement follows the conclusion of an extensive internal review ordered by President Obama earlier this year. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell explained that the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces in 2014 would “be way too soon” and would jeopardize any hopes of stability in Afghanistan and the region.

The authors of the Pentagon report argued that a thousand year postponement would allow the Afghan National Army to build up sufficient capacity to defend itself and would be–perhaps–enough time for the Afghans to develop a stable political system. Andrew Exum, chairman of the review committee, said the committee considered the situation in Afghanistan analogous to that of 11th century England. The Norman Conquest of England, Exum said, offers an excellent example of how occupation can result in a prosperous democracy. “Look, it took approximately a thousand years–from the Battle of Hastings in 1066, to the Magna Carta in 1215, to the industrial revolution–for the parliamentary system to entrench itself in English political life,” said Exum. “It’s only fair we allow our Afghan allies that much time too,” he elaborated.

In this morning’s Toronto Star, Liberal Party foreign policy critic Bob Rae has an op-ed calling for Canada’s continued engagement in Afghanistan–albeit at a political, not military, level. “Our political effort, with the needed appointment of a peace envoy to the region, should increase, and our aid should continue,” writes Rae.

Today, Dutch troops announced their formal departure after four years of combat in Afghanistan. And Canadian troops are scheduled to leave the country next year. After committing many of their young and billions in aid, NATO members are withdrawing, one country at a time. The largest troop contributor, the United States, is leaning towards the exit as well. According to the New York Times, President Obama seems committed to his “self-imposed” withdrawal deadline for July 2011.

So, it must be naturally asked, what does Canada do next in Afghanistan–the country’s largest foreign combat mission since the Korean War, and its largest recipient of bilateral foreign aid?

I admire Bob Rae greatly, both as a thinker and as a politician. And I respect him even more for broaching the morally contentious, politically divisive subject of a post-American/NATO Afghanistan. But his recommendations–that Canada appoint a peace envoy and increase aid–strike me as facile. Frankly, a post-American Afghanistan will be one of Pakistan’s making, with the Taliban back at the helm. The West’s ability to influence Afghan policies, which dwindles by the day, will be nil as soon as American troops part, leaving the free Taliban to impose their draconian laws once again.

Sending a peace envoy to a government that roundly despises you–and that will for years exploit NATO’s occupation for the purposes of propaganda–is rather naive. More naive is the suggestion that Canada not only continue giving aid to Afghanistan, but increase its aid. While humanitarian aid will always prove important in ill-governed Afghanistan, Rae imagines that our aid would “build schools to counter the madrassas, to allow women to take their place as equals.” It’s an admirable notion, but history tells us that the Taliban won’t allow these schools to stand and they won’t allow women to take their place as equals. Without a continued Western military presence–something I’m opposed to–we won’t be able to assure that any of our aid will reach the Afghan people, and we won’t be able to assure minority and women’s rights.

That sounds awfully tragic, but as Rae himself puts it, “real statecraft is understanding the limits of power and the real difficulties of exporting democracy.” Afghanistan is a crude lesson in learning that our power to control the destinies of those continents away from us, no matter how noble our intentions, are limited.

On a cold day in January 2009, in the tribal area of South Waziristan, Taliban and (possibly) Al-Qaida militants met to plot a response to a CIA drone attack on a senior Taliban commander. Huddled among them was “an older man and a very important person from ISI,” according to a field report from the U.S. Army’s Task Force Castle engineering group. That gentleman was a 72-year-old boisterous, mustached Hamid Gul, a retired Lieutenant General from the Pakistani army, who had served as the ISI’s head between 1987-1989.

In the West, Gul is cast as a dreary figure with “laser black eyes,” whose audacious pronouncements against the U.S.-led War on Terror and public support for the Taliban have led to attempts to label him an international terrorist. The attempt ultimately failed–due in part to scant definitive evidence, and in part to China’s interjection on Pakistan’s behalf. But, despite the looming threat to place him on a list of international terrorists, Gul continues to bluster in support of the Taliban.

“The Americans are defeated,” he told Al Jazeera English in an interview earlier this year. He went on, “[t]here is fatigue now…There is no way that the Americans can hold on to Afghanistan.” Gul should know: he helped orchestrate–with CIA funding and arms–the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan over two decades ago. It was during that time that he developed close relations with the mujahideen, who would later form the core of the Taliban, and with many of the Arab fighters, some of whom later joined extremist Islamist groups, including Al-Qaida.

His sympathy, and that of many of his ISI colleagues, for the Taliban stems from the years they spent in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan together, helping the Taliban create their Islamic Emirate, and at the same time, helping Pakistan gain “strategic depth”–which is Pakistani military lexicon for a friendly government in Afghanistan that would, during a war with India, allow Pakistan to regroup on Afghan soil.

The loquacious and hardened former ISI chief is to be found on nightly Pakistani political talk shows, decrying the government’s acquiescence to CIA drone strikes on Pakistani soil or its support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. He is no stranger to foreign media either. Just after the Wikileaks story broke, accusing the ISI of “[guiding] the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand,” Gul jumped to the agency’s support. He denied ever meeting with the Taliban, and termed as “flawed” the intelligence briefs suggesting that Pakistan’s ISI was working against NATO and the U.S. in Afghanistan. To the BBC, he dismissed Wikileaks as “pure fiction which is being sold as intelligence.”

It is hard to believe that, on the one hand, Gul and the ISI sympathize with the Taliban and its goals, but, on the other, that they provide it no material support–even harder to believe, when considering that Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus is extremely active in the region and abroad. The ISI’s support for the Taliban is an open secret in Pakistan. When pushed on the topic of ISI-Taliban links, some well-informed Pakistanis will wryly admit it, and will follow up with a “so what?”, articulating the same argument put forth by Gul: the Americans will tire of war, and Pakistan will be left to deal with the mess. Isn’t it better, they say, that Pakistan hedge its bets now and support a pro-Pakistan Taliban insurgency?

Even in Washington and other Western capitals, the Wikileaks revelations–that the ISI provides support to the Taliban–are not treated as revelations at all. One blogger described the allegations akin to discovering that LeBron James was going to play for the Miami Heat. (He will, it’s old news.) Twitter was awash with sarcastic comments too, including one by the Washington Post‘s twitter handle, which purposefully placed quotation marks around the word “revelations.” Former State Department speechwriter, Michael Cohen, notes that the White House shrugged at the news as well: “National Security Advisor Jim Jones congratulates the Pakistani military for going after Taliban forces that killed hundreds of Pakistani civilians, but fails to mention the protection provided by Pakistan for the insurgent forces that are killing Afghan civilians and, of course, US troops.” Jones’ apparent mental trapeze act–flipping what should be grounds for condemnation into a statement congratulating Pakistan’s military–is evidence of Washington’s willful blind-eye to, even acceptance of, the ISI’s activities in Afghanistan. The revelations should have at least elicited a sharp rebuke, a statement that Pakistan should shape up–but it didn’t.

That it didn’t is perhaps indicative of an emerging consensus that an active military mission in Afghanistan will no longer serve the interests of the U.S. and NATO. Already, Britain, the Netherlands, and Canada have announced their intention to withdraw, sooner rather than later, from Afghanistan. And the Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan, a conservative, is now calling the war in Afghanistan, “The Unwinnable War.” The hawkish American commentator Ann Coulter—notable for her desire to “invade their [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity“—agreed with GOP Chairman Michael Steele’s assessment that the war in Afghanistan may prove difficult to win. Over 1000 casualties, $300 billion, and nine years later, Americans of all stripes are bound to ask if the war is still worth it.

And that fatigue and aversion to prolonged conflict in distant lands is something Hamid Gul and his ilk in the ISI understood far better than American politicians did. They grasped, early on in the war, that America would once again leave—as it abandoned them after the Soviet-Afghan war, and then later slapped a series of sanctions on the country. Whether their prescience is owed to sophisticated analysis or to mere ideological bias, in retrospect, they made the better bet. They knew better than the Bush administration that a diverse, rugged Afghanistan would not become the paragon of democracy the neocons imagined. They knew, also, that public support in America would wane, noting that the cost and the deaths of American lives was too cumbersome.

A war that was once touted as a just war–the right war, unlike Iraq–is today openly called a “morally ambiguous” one. And as the war grows unpopular by the day, questions arise about the United States’ commitment to Afghanistan. Will the Obama administration withdraw on schedule, and by doing so, cede ground to Pakistan and the Taliban? Or will it continue the fight, and risk alienating an already fatigued public?

Foreign Policy‘s David Rothkopf beat me to it with his latest blog post, “A Tea Party Made in Heaven,” which argues that if Tea Baggers want no taxes, unhindered gun rights, and theocratic government, then Pakistan should be their next stop.

I couldn’t agree more. One of the first things I told my brother upon arriving in Karachi–as I remarked at the complete chaos, manifested in the way people drive–was that Pakistan is such a libertarian society. You can do pretty much anything you want, and not just on the roads.

You can tote your AK-47 around in public.

You also apparently don’t have to pay taxes, according to the New York Times‘ Sabrina Tavernise. She reports that out of a population of 170 million (and I’d venture to say that the population is probably 180 million) less than 2 percent actually bother paying taxes. And there’s no doubt that most of the 2 percent aren’t even fully declaring their income.

In her insightful book, “Breaking the Curfew: A Political Journey through Pakistan,” Emma Duncan recounts that a study by the IMF revealed that there wasn’t anything wrong with Pakistan’s tax collecting system. It was, after all, established by the British Raj. The problem was that–much like the Tea Baggers–Pakistanis simply didn’t want to pay taxes. Of course, the reluctance of Pakistanis to not pay taxes does have some merit. Their government for the past 60 years has been anything but representative, and, as the American colonists said, “no tax without representation.”

Pakistan is the Tea Bagger’s paradise for yet another reason: it’s a state whose laws are inspired by a “divine” book. Just as Sarah Palin imagines that the Founding Fathers based the United States Constitution on the Bible and the Ten Commandments, Pakistan’s leaders think their country’s laws should be based on God’s other book, the Koran. And like Palin, Pakistanis don’t know jack squat about the actual secular roots of the country’s founding. Jinnah famously said: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples… You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state”–now that’s a pretty unambiguous declaration of secularism. Period.

And Tea Baggers also happen to share the same socially conservative values as Pakistanis: homophobia, pro-life, virginity, and a whole gamut of stupid values. So yeah, Palin et al., come to Pakistan. I’ll show you around.

A flurry of commentary has appeared in recent days concerning Pakistani policy in Afghanistan. Analysts are wondering if Pakistan’s intelligence cooperation with the U.S. and its military operations in the tribal areas signal some sort of shift in the Pakistanis’ strategic mindset. Of course, some analysts question if Pakistan’s recent actions can even be considered helpful (for example, the capture of Baradar did more to hurt peace negotiations than help.) Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria is in the optimist camp, claiming that there has indeed been a shift in Pakistan’s Afghan policy and that this is largely the result of the White House’s well-orchestrated Pakistan policy. (Note: There are eerie similarities between the current Obama administration policy in Pakistan and the recommendations made by the Center for American Progress report on Pakistan published in November 2009.)

Max Fisher at the Atlantic wonders the same: “Is Pakistan finally on our side?” Fisher, more pessimistic, believes that Pakistan has not really changed its strategy at all. There may be short-term cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan, but “the underlying factors that led to Pakistani support of the Taliban may very well remain: Poverty and all the rage it creates, anti-Western sentiment, religious fundamentalism, and fear of India.”

Finally, Jeffrey Dressler and Reza Jan of the American Entreprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project provide an overview of the main arguments for and against the possibility of a more U.S. friendly Pakistani policy in the region. Dressler and Jan think that “[t]here appears to be a fissure in Pakistan’s long-standing support for the QST,” but how and why this fissure exists is unclear. They stress that the outcome–of Pakistan’s anti-Taliban stand–is more important than why Pakistan is shifting policy.

For the past few weeks, as some of you may know, I’ve been compiling news stories and analysis about Afghanistan and Pakistan for HuffPost‘s At War blog. I’ve made several observations over this time, and I’m going to offer one today: there is no analysis of Afghanistan coming from the right. None. It’s mainly the American Left and centrists who seem concerned about the conflict, which is even more appalling considering that 30,000 more American troops are due to land in the country.

What explains this? My first instinct is to say that the GOP is the party of no ideas. That was easy, but not sufficient.

The dearth of conservative analysis of the issue is perhaps best explained by the fact the conservatives messed up Afghanistan–big time. Now we know that it was all along possible to force Pakistan to cooperate with the U.S. The Obama administration’s regional strategy is working; him, Holbrooke, and McChrystal have coaxed Pakistan into cooperating, something the Bush administration utterly failed at. Caught in the delusions of Musharraf’s pronouncements, they failed to see that Pakistan had not shifted its national security strategy in the region. And though it still continues to reportedly support certain factions of the Taliban, it is more or less making significant gains. Obama gave Pakistan an offer for influence in Afghanistan, and Pakistan agreed to abandon its outright support for the Taliban. That’s called foreign policy.

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, famed journalist Steve Coll offers his thoughts on “Taking on the Taliban,” arguing that “there are few strategic issues of greater importance to the outcome of President Obama’s Afghan war [as Pakistan].” Simply put, one of the root problems for NATO in Afghanistan is its militarized neighbour, Pakistan. Coll discusses the latest development in the Afghan War–the capture of Mullah Baradar–and places it in the context of an ostensible change in Pakistan’s strategic priorities in Afghanistan. As I’ve mentioned before, after facing the menace of Pakistani Taliban terrorist attacks through out all of last year (some of which targeted top Army personnel), Pakistan’s military is probably considering a shift in its strategy. It may no longer be actively supporting the Afghan Taliban, which it had previously cultivated as a hedge against a pro-Indian Karzai administration in India. But it’s hard to judge what exactly is going on inside the minds of the boys in Islamabad.

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Here are bits from a live chat with Steve Coll I participated in the on The New Yorker‘s website:

Me: In light of recent accomplishments–the capture of Baradar and the strike on the Haqqani network–do you believe that the Obama administration has succeeded in offering Pakistan a “grand bargain”–that is, Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan in exchange for a greater voice for Pakistan in a post-NATO Afghanistan and more aid and armaments for Pakistan?

Steve Coll:
Another good question. I think the administration has succeeded in offering the bargain, yes. I don’t think they’ve succeeded in completing it yet or even ratifying it as the formal and final plan. I did a little reporting before writing this week’s Comment (kind of a radical thing to do when forming opinions, but I was really desperate) and one well-placed person I chatted with on the American side, someone I know to be pretty hard-headed about these things, compared the Pakistan high command to someone who has climbed over a fence, and is now hanging on the other side, looking down, looking around, trying to decide whether to let go and jump. That is, the fence is letting go of the old habits of mind and action. That seems like a pretty optimistic metaphor – not sure I see the evidence for it yet, but it would be great if it’s true.

Saba Imtiaz:
Steve, you wrote today – “For the I.S.I. to repudiate the Taliban entirely, its officers would have to imagine a new way of living in the world—to write a new definition of Pakistan’s national security, one that emphasizes politics and economics over clandestine war” – This has been said repeatedly before, but the Baradar arrest sees to have given people ‘hope’ that the ISI will change. Do you think its possible?

Steve Coll:
It’s the most important question facing Pakistan. I don’t think ISI or the Army’s high command will change their assumptions overnight. My sense of it from passing through and listening from time to time is that because of all the violence and turmoil inside Pakistan, there IS a debate, a new discourse, inside the military and I.S.I. about where Pakistan’s interests really lie vis a vis the Taliban and like groups. But this has not led to the sea change people hope for – not yet.

It can happen, however, if the incentives change. I think of a country like Indonesia. Its military and its civil-military relations were deeply troubled just 15 years ago. Look at the place now – not perfect, but vastly changed in a relatively short period of time because the external incentives all around Southeast Asia and within Indonesia itself have changed.

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On Indian-US relations

Jill:
Hi, Steve. At the London Conference, there was lots of discussion about talking with elements of the Taliban, much to India’s dismay. How is this going to affect the U.S. relationship with India?

Steve Coll:
India’s government is led at the highest levels by people who understand counterinsurgency theory and practice. India pushes the United States to be tough-minded about Pakistan and particularly I.S.I. and its links to the Taliban – it fears the pattern of clientitis in U.S. relations with the Pakistani military. At the same time, India wants a stable relationship with a Taliban-free Pakistan and knows that ultimately might include a poltiical solution of some sort, just as India has negotiated with its opposition in Kashmir and many other places. So it’s just a question of sequencing, emphasis and whether all of the parties can work in alignment from month to month and season to season. In public, there have been some gaps in the U.S.-India relationship during the last few months. In private, I think things are better, but I’m not sure how much better.

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On changing the mind of Pakistan’s national security decision-makers

Me:
Hi Steve. I know this is a hard question to answer, but how do you think the US can shift the “geopolitical incentives [as you see it[ that have informed Pakistan’s alliance with the Afghan Taliban”? National security thought is more a habit of mind than just a fact-based, geopolitical calculus. I think it’s pretty hard to alter the assumptions and worldview with which Pakistan’s top thinkers function–just as it’s hard to do in the realm of US foreign policy.

Steve Coll:
You’re right. The incentives can’t be abstract. They have to be material. India’s economy is growing at eight percent plus. Pakistan’s economic potential – and therefor, the economic potential of its military, its military families, etc. – is as basic to the country’s survival as its tanks and airplanes, but whether the country’s leaders will ever find the will and courage to take risks around that insight is hard to know.

The New York Times reports that Operation Marjah, a major joint NATO-Afghan offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, is more about shifting perceptions on the ground than just military victory. Before they began the offensive, US military commanders, who are leading the operation, took a poll of locals to measure their opinions of the US and the Taliban.

“This is all a war of perceptions,” General McChrystal said. “This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.”

The operation also actively involved the Karzai administration for the first time:

Notably, this was the first time that the Americans took pains to involve the central government of President Hamid Karzai in such a significant operation, let alone a multiphase campaign that included the military, government and economic stability. Aside from contributing thousands of troops, Mr. Karzai and his aides, with significant help from the Americans, basically built a government in waiting. The aim is for the Afghan government to carry out programs in education, health and employment as soon as the area is secured, according to a senior American officer.

The size of the onslaught was a departure from past practice, too. The allied force is so large as to be described by one senior American adviser as “overwhelming to the point of saturation.”

And the operation was advertised, almost in neon lights, so far in advance and in such detail that there was none of the element of surprise that combat commanders usually prize.

All of those characteristics are explained by the psychological goal of this campaign, a shift of perceptions among the fence-sitters and the fearful among the Afghan people.

Here’s a great profile of the relationship between Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, and General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff. The piece provides an excellent overview of the personal and geopolitical factors at play in US-Pakistani relations, and their cooperation (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan. It’s a flattering portrait of Pakistan’s most powerful man.

“On a flight from Islamabad to Kandahar that night, Mullen told reporters that he had once again been impressed by what he saw. “To see how much progress has been made–for all intents and purposes the insurgents are gone.” Asked to grade the Pakistani army’s counterinsurgency technique–which the United States has urged Kayani to employ in lieu of brute force that incurs collateral damage and breeds more insurgents–Mullen didn’t hesitate. “It’s exceptional. I give them an ‘A.’” Though Mullen was not able to visit South Waziristan, he was pleased by reports of progress there. “Kayani laid out this plan to me in early 2009. He has executed everything he said he was going to do,” Mullen said.”

February 19, 2010 – A US drone strike has killed Mohammed Haqqani, brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani. The Haqqani network, led by Sirajuddin, is responsible for several attacks on NATO troops and NATO supply lines in Afghanistan, and is affiliated with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

In his book, Descent Into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid described the Haqqani network as an asset of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s top intelligence agency. The Haqqanis were permitted to covertly operate on Pakistani soil, and in turn they agreed to not attack the Pakistani establishment. The drone strike comes as a blow to the Haqqani network and signals, perhaps, a shift in Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan. For the drone strike to have been successful, the United States would have had to rely on Pakistani intelligence, which indicates a willingness on the ISI’s part to cooperate. Moreover, two days ago, Mullah Baradar, another Taliban commander, was captured in Karachi. When Baradar’s arrest was announced, various analysts remarked on the news with cautious optimism, unsure of whether the arrest was a harbinger of a new Pakistani strategy. This latest drone strike lends credence to such a shift: Pakistan is willingly cooperating with the United States and NATO in Afghanistan now, but on the condition that it receives a stake in a post-NATO Afghanistan and that India’s influence in the region is curbed.

Update: It’s almost as if the ISI read David Kenner’s post on ForeignPolicy.com, and said effyou. Kenner complained about Pakistan’s reluctance in going after the Haqqani network–and boom, there’s an attack on the Haqqanis: “Although General Kayani has shown a willingness to go after Taliban operatives in South Waziristan, the Pakistani military has repeatedly rebuffed U.S. requests to take on Haqqani operatives to the north. For years, U.S. officials have accused the ISI of maintaining links to tribal patriarch Jalaluddin Haqqani. In one particularly blunt message delivered in 2008, CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes traveled to Islamabad to tell the Pakistanis, “[W]e know there’s a connection … and we think you could do more and we want you to do more about it,” as summarized by a senior American official to the New York Times. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has also stated publicly that Pakistan’s ties to the Haqqani network, as well as other extremist groups in the tribal areas, “are a real concern to us.” The ISI is thought to maintain its ties to Haqqani because it perceives his organization as a valuable asset in countering Indian influence in Afghanistan.” ISI sab ka dada hai–the ISI is everyone’s granddaddy.

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