Stephen M. Walt

The Af-Pak muddle

President Obama’s approach to Central Asia still strikes me as misguided. The administration isn’t naïve about the scope of the task and the potential risks, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s warnings about the futility of trying to create “some sort of Central Asian Valhalla” suggests that they have more realistic expectations about what the ...

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NOW ZAD, AFGHANISTAN - APRIL 01: U.S. Marines patrol through the mud on April 1, 2009 in Now Zad in Helmand province Afghanistan. Taliban have buried IEDs throughout the abandoned city, and U.S. forces there patrol through unpaved areas behind a mine sweeper in single file or "Ranger file" to avoid stepping on them. The military says the civilian population fled the city during previous fighting, leaving a ghost town, now a battle ground between Taliban fighters and U.S. Marines from Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

President Obama’s approach to Central Asia still strikes me as misguided. The administration isn’t naïve about the scope of the task and the potential risks, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s warnings about the futility of trying to create “some sort of Central Asian Valhalla” suggests that they have more realistic expectations about what the United States can accomplish. But as our prior interventions in the Balkans, Somalia, and Iraq remind us, it’s easier to walk into a quagmire than it is to walk out, and the new emphasis on “exit strategies” and “benchmarks” won’t be of much help if Pakistan’s internal politics remain chaotic (a safe bet) and if training more Afghan soldiers isn’t the magic bullet that keeps the Taliban at bay and allows the United States to withdraw in a timely fashion. And it’s clear that we won’t get much additional help from our NATO allies. For some other worrisome comparisons, see Juan Cole’s trenchant analysis here.

Our efforts in Central Asia are confounded by two fundamental problems.  First, our understanding of Pakistani and Afghan society is limited, which makes it hard to know which groups or leaders to support and makes it virtually certain that any effort we undertake will generate lots of unintended consequences. We were once confident that Hamid Karzai would be a terrific leader, for example, but he’s proven to be a disappointment. If we try to engineer his replacement, however, there’s no guarantee we will end up with anyone better. Ditto Pakistan, where none of the contenders for power looks particularly promising and where their own ambitions and interests are partly (and maybe substantially) at odds with ours.  

Look at this way: We have enough trouble getting reliable, efficient, and corruption-free government here at home (think Rod Blagoevich, Jack Abramoff, or the State Legislature here in Massachusetts, where the past two speakers had to resign in the face of scandals). So what makes us think we can root it out on the other side of the world? For that matter, what is the model of political transformation that we are selling to the world, given our inability to rebuild or restore deteriorating American cities like Detroit, and the serious problems of governance we observe in states like California? And that’s in our own country, which we probably understand fairly well. To imagine that we know how to manage the politics of more than 200 million people in Afghanistan and Pakistan — who are themselves divided into a diverse array of clans, tribes, and sects — is the very definition of hubris.

Second, our leverage in either society (and especially Pakistan) is limited by our own conviction that “we cannot afford to fail.” If we are unwilling to walk away and leave either country to its fate, then President Obama’s assurance that “we will not, and cannot, provide a blank check” is meaningless. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf diddled us for years because he knew we were so committed to his success that we would keep pouring in money even when we knew his government was still backing jihadi terrorists instead of cracking down on them. If, like AIG, Pakistan is “too important to fail,” then what’s going to be different now?

Which brings me to the larger question: What is the strategic rationale for doubling down in Afghanistan and Pakistan? According to President Obama, the reason we are there is simple: We want to prevent these territories from becoming safe havens for terrorists who might attack the United States. In his words:

I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”

So the ultimate justification for increasing our effort in Central Asia is the danger posed by al Qaeda, and in particular, the need to deny it a “safe haven.” Agreed, but while it is obvious that al Qaeda is a threat, is it of sufficient magnitude to warrant an expensive and possibly open-ended effort to re-shape the politics of this region? Although Obama denies that this is his goal, how do we “defeat al Qaeda” without doing a lot of social engineering in both places? Obama clearly doesn’t think that Predator strikes against terrorist cells would be sufficient, or he wouldn’t be increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and vowing to do more with Pakistan too.  Vastly increasing the size of the Afghan army or convincing the Pakistani government to get serious about Islamic extremism are not politically neutral acts; indeed, their stated purpose is to alter the political environment in a positive way. Whether we admit or not, we are still engaged in nation-building.

Here we need to take a deep breath, and consider whether the actual threat we face there justifies this level of effort and commitment. In other words, we need some cold-blooded cost-benefit analysis, weighing the actual risks against the likely costs. And the latter includes the opportunity costs (i.e., the things that won’t get done because we are busy trying to remake the political landscape for 32 million Afghanis and 178 million Pakistanis). I’ll address that issue in a subsequent post.

John Moore/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt
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