April 24, 2009 — WASHINGTON — Events in Pakistan and Afghanistan are already overtaking the Obama administration's month-old strategy for the two countries, and it needs to be modified even before it's been implemented, U.S. officials and experts said this week.
As Islamic militants continue their advance in Pakistan and press their attacks on overstretched U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, many U.S. officials fear that the administration is running out of time to defeat what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week called a "mortal threat" to the world. Failure in either place, these officials argue, would guarantee failure in the other.
On Capitol Hill, one of the advisors who helped draft the strategy called for a fundamental change in the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, and others said the administration now must create a separate Pakistan strategy. Some of the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because much of the strategy and the intelligence that informs it remain classified.
"We need a fundamental change of approach," David Kilcullen, who advised the administration on its Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee Thursday.
In the last month, the Taliban have advanced toward the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and the strategic city of Peshawar, which is on one of the main U.S. military supply routes into Afghanistan.
"We're certainly moving closer to the tipping point" where Pakistan could be overrun by Islamic extremists, Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned Friday.
U.S. officials are concerned that rather than confronting the advancing militants, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari earlier this month negotiated an agreement with the Taliban that allowed the militants to impose strict Islamic law in the northwestern Swat Valley.
They're also alarmed that when the Taliban began appearing earlier this month in the neighboring Buner district, which is even closer to Islamabad, the Pakistani military failed to respond.
"The most important, most pressing threat to the very existence of their country is the threat posed by the internal extremists and groups such as the Taliban and the syndicated extremists," Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander for U.S. Central Command, told a House of Representatives subcommittee Friday.
Yet Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy who's coordinating U.S. policy in the region, and other officials privately concede that there are no promising answers.
"The strategic assessment may have been off to the degree with which Pakistan would deteriorate, and yet we are left with the same limited options," said Andrew Exum, a former Army officer and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
Petraeus and other U.S. officials would like the Pakistani military to shift its focus from Hindu-dominated archrival India to the threat posed by Islamic extremism, but so far the Pakistanis have shown little interest in doing so, despite the administration's plan to spend $3 billion to train Pakistani forces and another $1.5 billon a year for five years for non-military aid.
Appearing on Capitol Hill Thursday, retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the U.S. "cannot continue to provide Pakistan with assistance and hope that simply they will take action against extremists."
U.S. officials are frustrated with Zardari and Pakistan's other civilian leaders, who they say remain determined to continue negotiating with the Taliban, are in denial about the threat that the extremists pose.
"The $64,000 question," one State Department official said, "is how much cooperation can we expect from the Pakistani government?"
Some officials favor reaching out to Zardari's main opponent, Nawaz Sharif, but others have little faith in him, either.
Joint Chiefs chairman Mullen and some other top officers argue that working with the Pakistani chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, is America's best option. "There are no other useful alternatives here," said one defense official.
Others, however, are skeptical that Kayani would risk the unity of his military by turning away from India to battle fellow Muslims.
Shuja Nawaz, the director of South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council of the United States, suggested that the United States encourage India to "cool the temperature" on Pakistan. That, however, will be difficult for Indian politicians to do in the middle of an election campaign and with many Indians still reeling from last year's Mumbai terrorist attacks, which were planned in Pakistan.
Moreover, some administration officials worry that any outreach to India would strengthen the Islamic militants by reinforcing Pakistani fears that the U.S. is allied with mostly Hindu India against predominately Muslim Pakistan.
The situation in Afghanistan is no better, officials concede. The U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai has failed to curb corruption and drug trafficking, and that's helped the Afghan Taliban win the support of poor and disenfranchised rural majority.
The Afghan part of the administration's strategy calls for the U.S. to send an additional 17,500 combat troops and another 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan to secure population centers and thwart the free flow of weapons, fighters and cash along the border.
U.S. commanders on the ground, however, say that even with those reinforcements they'll lack the forces, airpower and intelligence support needed to stem the tide of al Qaida and Taliban fighters from Pakistan and win the confidence of skeptical Afghan tribesmen.
The administration has said that it will announce the benchmarks it'll use to assess the success of its Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy and a co-author of the strategy, declined to comment Friday about what adjustments the United States must now make, a Pentagon spokesman said.