Get out of Afghanistan

We can't win there without fixing Pakistan ... and we can't fix Pakistan

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There is a logic inherent in the current situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan that says clearly to the administration of President Barack Obama, "Don't go any further with this one."

It is simple. It is impossible to fix Afghanistan without fixing Pakistan. It is impossible to fix Pakistan. Thus, Afghanistan is and will remain an impossible sinkhole.

It will, in fact, be the same kind of quicksand for the United States in terms of unwinnability that the Vietnam War was for more than a decade.

The further implication for the Obama administration is that, as was the case with the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, all of its great objectives to meet the short- and long-term needs of the United States at home will go over the falls as it wrestles to find the resources and energy to contend with an expensive war that it cannot win and does not have the courage to end.

So far, Mr. Obama doesn't seem to get it. He intends to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan by 17,000 to 53,000 by May. The end-game for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is supposed to be spelled out and stated after the completion of what is supposed to be a comprehensive policy review in Washington, perhaps later this week. There is no reason to believe that the process or policy will come out as it should -- with a decision to walk away.

It has been clear since the first U.S. military and intelligence agency attempts to put al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan out of business in late 2001 and early 2002, highlighted in our unsuccessful efforts to bag al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, that the 1,500-mile mountainous eastern border of Afghanistan with Pakistan, and the state of play in Pakistan itself, meant that the conflict inevitably would become a cross-border international affair.

A current parallel in North America is the fact that the Mexican drug trade depends almost entirely on the American market for drugs, and the violence under way in Mexico is waged with weapons bought by Mexicans on the American "anything goes" gun market.What goes on in South Asia is a Afghan-Pakistani affair; what goes on in North America is a Mexican-American affair.

The front end of the U.S. effort to deal with the Pakistan part of the problem in Afghanistan involved cooperation, largely military, with the government of then-Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. It didn't work because Mr. Musharraf's government and military were not able -- or not willing -- to control Pakistan's western border. This was in spite of their receiving $10 billion in U.S. aid.

Pakistan's problem then was Pakistan's problem now. It is a very divided and diverse country. It includes big, mostly peaceful political movements, based for the most part on tribal and regional differences. They are what has the current civilian government of Pakistan, headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, a thoroughly crooked scoundrel whom the United States nonetheless prefers to the alternatives, in domestic political turmoil. Mr. Zardari's principal civilian opponent is former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, equally crooked and villainous.

The conflict between these two civilian politicians -- and others -- leaves Pakistan in such a state of civil disorder that the other political force in the country, the military, which has seized power at countless junctures since independence in 1947, always has a wet finger in the air to determine whether it is time for it to carry out another coup d'etat against another civilian government.

Then there are the divisions within the Pakistan military. There are generals and generals and generals. There is the famous, or notorious, Inter-Services Intelligence agency. America's current favorite is Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, a former ISI leader who now heads the Army. But there is no reason to believe that if Gen. Kayani or the ISI controlled the action in Pakistan that matters would improve for the United States in Afghanistan.

It was the ISI that with the United States initially supported the mujahedeen, the predecessors of the Taliban, against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Pakistan military had and still has close ties to the Taliban. Pakistan also has a hearty number of Islamic fundamentalists among its population and in its armed forces. It is also important to remember that power is held in some of Pakistan's border areas by armed tribal groups, many of which are led by Islamists who are close to Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

Top that with the fact that Pakistanis and their government are angered by the U.S. bombing of parts of Pakistan with remote-controlled aircraft and its sending of ground forces into Pakistan to attack the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Bottom line: The United States is not going to get matters in Pakistan under control.

Rest of the bottom line: If the United States can't get matters in Pakistan under control -- and as even Mr. Obama's own special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, has said, the problems in the two countries are inextricably linked -- Mr. Obama's escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan by adding thousands more U.S. troops simply is not going to work.

If it is not going to work, there is no reason to pursue it, spending more of our money and blood. Whoever in Washington wants this -- those wishing to preserve the beloved heritage of one of President George W. Bush's wars, supporters of Israel who might want to distract us from pursuing a Middle East peace settlement, contractors and others who make money off such wars or those who wish to save the hide of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, should be told to stay out of the way while Mr. Obama gets us out of this losing, lost contest.

Last word for Bush zealots who might scream bloody murder at the thought: If the Afghanistan war was so important, how come Mr. Bush abandoned it to invade Iraq? Don't say we didn't tell you.


Dan Simpson , a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ( dsimpson@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1976).


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