By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — In the almost nine years the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan, any thoughtful person who follows the war has had a recurring worry: Can America rely on Pakistan? Can our allies in that turbulent country close the Taliban’s safe havens along the border? And, for that matter, are the Pakistanis really trying?
The massive disclosure of war-related documents this week by WikiLeaks raised a number of questions, but none more important than the Pakistan conundrum. Although the Obama administration has downplayed the leaks in general, senior officials agree that Pakistan’s ability to close the sanctuaries is an absolutely crucial issue.
“These safe havens are a big question mark in terms of our success rate,” said Gen. Jim Jones, the national security adviser, in an interview at the White House Tuesday. He noted that the Taliban and its affiliates have used these havens to arm, train, regroup and gather intelligence — confounding U.S. strategy.
The Pakistanis have denied that their intelligence service is aiding the Taliban, and they have noted the raw and fragmentary nature of the WikiLeaks information.
But the fact remains that the Taliban continues to operate effectively from bases inside Pakistan — and, indeed, is escalating its attacks. Unless this changes, the American effort in Afghanistan is likely to fail.
Jones praised the Pakistani military for stepping up its operations in the border region over the past 18 months, but he stressed: “There’s much more to do and not a lot of time to do it.”
Jones drew on his own travels to the region over the past decade to explain why Pakistan is a “hinge” in the war effort. He noted that from 2003 to 2005, the organized enemy presence in Afghanistan was relatively low, with perhaps 100 al-Qaida and 3,000 Taliban fighters there.
A “pivotal time” came in 2006, Jones argued, when the Pakistani military decided to “cut a deal” with tribal leaders that allowed the Taliban insurgents to cross freely from Afghanistan if they didn’t attack Pakistani forces. Jones, who was serving as NATO commander at the time, said he was “incredulous” at the truce and warned the Pakistanis it would never work.
Opening this “highway from Afghanistan to Pakistan” allowed the Taliban a “momentum change” from 2007 to 2009, so that they began to gain the upper hand, Jones recalled. It’s this continuing momentum that the Obama administration has tried to check with its troop surge.
The WikiLeaks hemorrhage has been damaging partly because it came at a time when the Washington mood about Afghanistan was darkening. Even hawkish officials have become increasingly concerned that success — even a minimal “C plus” version — may not be possible within a realistic timeframe.
White House officials talk these days about seeking an “acceptable endstate” in Afghanistan, rather than victory. This means a patchwork process that brings greater security through a stronger Afghan national army and police, plus the tribally based “local police.” The crucial driver will be a political process of reconciliation, brokered partly by Pakistan.
Administration officials agree on the need for diplomatic engagement with the enemy, but they see no sign yet the Taliban is willing to play — with one possible exception. Jones noted that elements of the Taliban might be willing to meet one U.S. condition for talks, which is to disavow al-Qaida. “The Taliban generally as a group has never signed on to the global jihad business and doesn’t seem to have ambitions beyond its region,” Jones said.
Senior officials denied another seeming WikiLeaks revelation — that the Taliban has been using shoulder-fired missiles to down U.S. aircraft. One said he hadn’t seen any reliable confirmation of these reports, but he stressed such missiles would “be a big change in battlefield geometry.” As to recent rumors that Iran may be shipping such weapons, the official said he had no confirmation but that if such game-changing weapons entered Afghanistan, “we will not be able to sit idly by.”
It’s usually a mistake to try to “call” a faraway conflict — up or down, success or failure — on the basis of fragmentary information. But right now, any observer would say that Afghanistan is going badly, that the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy hasn’t been proved, and the American public’s patience is dwindling.
That brings us back to closing the Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. It’s a measure of America’s strategic difficulty that this uncertain option with a reluctant partner may now offer the best possibility for reaching the “acceptable endstate.”
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.