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New U.S. Afghanistan-Pakistan Strategy Aims To Take Fight To Al-Qaeda

U.S. President Barack Obama's new strategy will put pressure on both Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (right).
U.S. President Barack Obama's new strategy will put pressure on both Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (right).
U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated his administration's key goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan during a high-profile speech to future U.S. military officers at the Military Academy at West Point on December 1.

"Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future," Obama said.

The new strategy is intended to improve on the strategy Obama outlined for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March by adding a number of new elements to the overall U.S. and international combat effort in South and Central Asia.

The highest-profile aspect of the new U.S. strategy is the commitment of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, to be deployed completely by mid-2010, bringing the total number of U.S. troops there to more than 100,000. The U.S. troop surge would seek to undo the gathering momentum of the Taliban, who now control large parts of Afghanistan and threaten to overthrow its government.

The overall effort, however, will be geared against Al-Qaeda, whose key leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri are still at large and the network is seen to have somewhat recovered from its rout from Afghanistan in 2001.

President Obama also addressed a number of hot-button topics in the U.S.-Afghan relationship, including corruption, the lack of governance, and the defense capacities of the Afghan government.

He said pointedly that the United States would work with the Afghan government to improve its ability to take over full responsibility for security and governance, but that "this effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over."

Reaching Out To Pakistan

Obama dedicated parts of his speech to Washington's relationship with Islamabad, saying, "our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan." But while highlighting the threats posed to Pakistan by extremists, his speech was mute on the specifics of how the strategy would affect Pakistan, where he said Al-Qaeda's leadership had established a safe haven.

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
"Since 9/11, Al-Qaeda's safe havens have been the source of attacks against London and Amman and Bali. The people and governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are endangered," Obama said.

"And the stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that Al-Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them."

Pakistani journalist and regional expert Ahmed Rashid closely follows the complex struggle against extremism. Speaking to RFE/RL hours before Obama's speech, he said that "the biggest question of all" is whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his administration will rise to the occasion. "Much now depends on the cabinet he chooses, which can deliver the goods to the Afghan people."

But Rashid said the real test for the new strategy is in neighboring Pakistan, where he said that the U.S. administration had been secretly negotiating with the Pakistani civilian and military leaders to convince Islamabad to go after the leadership and networks of all militant groups on its soil.

Although a Pakistani military offensive is apparently making substantial progress against the western South Waziristan stronghold of the Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement in Pakistan), the Obama administration is urging it to do more.

Pushing Pakistan's Military

"The Washington Post" recently reported that in a letter to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Obama asked for closer cooperation against Al-Qaeda; the Afghan Taliban; Lashkar-e Taiba, the network of militants linked with former mujahedin commander Jalaluddin Haqqani; and the Pakistani Taliban.

That letter was delivered by Obama's national security adviser, James Jones. Commenting on discussions that ensued between Jones and Pakistani leaders, the newspaper reported that Islamabad was told that if Pakistan cannot deliver, Washington "may be impelled to use any means at its disposal to rout insurgents."

Pakistani troops have launched an offensive on militants along the Afghan border, but not all of them.
And this, Rashid said, is the key in the complex struggle against Al-Qaeda in the region and the effort to defeat the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. "Really this is very much crunch time for the Pakistan military," he said.

"They have to decide if they want to continue to defy the United States and to keep the Afghan Taliban as a hedge against any future U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; or do they want to work with the Americans fully and completely and deal with the whole issue of the leadership of the Afghan Taliban that is in Pakistan."

Former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali agrees with this prognosis, and points to the suspicion that "Pakistan does not believe that the West has staying power in Afghanistan and that makes them hedge their bets."

Islamabad has always denied supporting extremists and points to the terrorist acts against its people and security forces.

Jalali, who is currently a professor at the Near East South Asia Center of Washington's National Defense University, considers the building of an Afghan state that can "win the trust of its people, control its territory, and deliver services to people" a prerequisite for keeping Al-Qaeda away from an ungoverned Afghan space akin to that where it was nurtured in the 1990s.

Jalali says that Obama's strategy can only succeed if a legitimate, accountable, and transparent Afghan government can stand on its feet with regional and international help. "The international community, particularly the United States, [should] help Afghanistan in creating a secure space for the Afghans to create that kind of [political] system," he says.

But "without cooperation from Pakistan, neither the Afghans nor the international community is going to make any achievements."

Focus On Regional Development

Since taking office in January, the Obama administration's effort has been geared toward a regional solution. Despite dramatic escalations between Pakistan and India in the aftermath of attacks against the Indian parliament in 2001 and in Mumbai last year, Western capitals have prevented Islamabad and New Delhi from going to war.

While Obama did not elaborate on the India-Pakistan problems in his speech, analysts are adamant that regional cooperation is now seen as the real long-term solution to the Al-Qaeda threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Julian Lindley-French, a professor of military operational science at the Royal Military Academy of the Netherlands, says that Islamabad now realizes the dangers extremism poses to its future.

And this, he says, might have helped change perceptions across the border in India. "The strategic context has been changed by India recognizing that it needs a stable Pakistan on its northern border. Given that context the game has changed."

He adds that Western efforts against Al-Qaeda today have a "reasonable chance" of success because Al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies are less popular and the West knows a lot more about them compared to eight years ago.

Crucially, the international focus on the region is now evolving and aims at plugging Afghanistan into the wider regional stability built on economic development. "In a sense, the whole discussion about Al-Qaeda is beside the point," Lindley-French says.

"The real objective is to shift the debate away from the security narrative toward the economic stability/development narrative. And that's the real objective of this effort of the next year and a half to two years."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He also writes the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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