At his first meeting as commander-in-chief with heads of joint chiefs of staff and military services Wednesday Jan. 28, President Barack Obama hit the nail on the head when he said: “We're going to have some difficult decisions to make surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan, most immediately.”
He added: “Obviously our effort to go after extremist organizations that do harm to our homeland is uppermost in our minds.”
The meeting, also attended by vice president Joseph Biden, took place in the secure Pentagon conference room called “the Tank.”
Obama's sense of urgency was palpable but, interestingly, he made no mention of Pakistan, although it has become closely interwoven in the Afghanistan conflict. Last week, he and secretary of state Hillary Clinton appointed Richard Holbrooke special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But nothing has happened since then.
Obama is precise in his geographical directives and matches them to his political and military strategic viewpoints. George Mitchell's brief as Middle East envoy did not cover Iran, and the envoy for Iran (Dennis Ross?) was not assigned to deal with Hizballah and Hamas. By the same token, Holbrooke's terms of reference do not include India and Kashmir, although the problems of the entire subcontinent are inextricably intertwined in a single knot.
This precise distribution of tasks guarantees the president and secretary of state room for maneuver and ease of control over envoys who are strong characters in their own right. It also interfaces with the approach set forth by defense secretary Robert Gates Tuesday, Jan. 27, at a hearing before the Armed Forces Committee of Congress.
Time running out fast for winning the Long War
Setting forth “modest goals for Afghanistan, he defined success as an “Afghanistan that is not a safe haven for al Qaeda, whose people reject the rule of Taliban insurgents and support a legitimate government.” Gates added cautiously: “…success in Afghanistan also requires security progress in neighboring Pakistan given the porous and violent frontier between the two nations.”
A tall order, yet Obama and Clinton were clearly at pains this week to keep the US army's warfronts down to two – Iraq and Afghanistan – while minimizing additional arenas.
This approach contrasts sharply with that of their predecessor. George W. Bush was ready to take on al Qaeda and other extremist terror groups wherever necessary in Asia, the Middle East or Africa – except that he kept on running out of fighting manpower.
Aware of this limitation, Obama is taking the opposite tack: He aims at reducing the geographic arenas of conflict in which US forces are engaged, while also concerned to reduce the loss of life and budgetary outlay.
At his congressional hearing, Gates tried to gloss over the differences between the two administrations on both of which he served: “Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, was committed to going after al Qaeda targets, wherever al Qaeda is,” he said.
But a different strategic approach to the war on terror – the “Long War” – may have been overtaken by time.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and counter-terror experts argue that time is the enemy of the Obama-Clinton-Gates goal of keeping the Afghanistan War within strict geographical limits.
Taliban and al Qaeda prepare their own surge – from Pakistan
Even if the transfer of 30,000 troops from Iraq to Afghanistan takes place without a hitch – although Gates and US commanders warn against too rapid a pace – the first detachments will not be ready to go into the battlefield before late 2010, although troops from other units are due to arrive this coming fall.
Work on the new camps and logistic-operational infrastructure to absorb the new intake is only just beginning.
And once the first troops are in place and ready to engage the Taliban and al Qaeda, they will still be restricted to areas close to Kabul and their new bases and not other, more dangerous parts of Afghanistan.
This time line depends on al Qaeda and Taliban standing still, when in fact they are deep into a surge of their own which they are leveraging from strong positions in Pakistan.
Their foothold in the Pakistani districts of Mohmand and Bajaur covers a key corridor slicing through the three provinces of Kunar, Nuristan and Kapisa and reaching as far as the Afghan capital of Kabul.
In the Swat valley, once a scenic tourist area of northern Pakistan, the Pakistani army fought and quelled an insurgency – but only at the expense of alienating its people. Today, Pakistani troops fear to venture into this new hotbed of defiance. All of Swat but for the towns of Mardan, Sawabi and Charsada is now under the Taliban's thumb and a willing wellspring of fighting strength.
The strategic Khyber Pass district, long the route through which eight-tenths of NATO's supplies passed into Afghanistan, is now under constant attack, forcing its commanders to seek out alternative, uncertain supply lines through Russia and Central Asia.
Gates needs three-to-five years to achieve success
Pro-Western Pakistani, Saudi and Turkish circles in touch with al Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistan report that both are absolutely certain they will soon control every bit of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border strip including the North West Frontier Province, as well as sections of southwest Baluchistan and the city of Karachi's outlying region.
They are contemptuous of Asif Ali Zardari and his government in Islamabad and confident it will soon be swept away.
While this may be an exaggeration, even US intelligence sources admit the two violent organizations are on the ascendant in Pakistan; they are expanding their control, gobbling up territory and getting stronger militarily all the time.
Al Qaeda and Taliban are thought by broad Pakistani political, military and intelligence sources to be on the brink of launching a general offensive inside their country to gain more ground and control of more terrain abutting on Afghanistan. In the opinion of those sources, the Pakistani army is in no shape to withstand an al Qaeda-Taliban onslaught.
Last week, the US defense secretary remarked in this regard: “The goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far in the future.”
He urged a strategy for now that would define “more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years in terms of re-establishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al Qaeda, preventing the re-establishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people – some very concrete things.”
Very few military experts believe that a new US envoy, in the controversial person of Richard Holbrooke, frequent US drone strikes in the Pakistan border districts – since Obama took office, two attacks took place in South and North Waziristan killing 21 people – and even a troop surge, will grant the new US administration the three-to-five years sought by Gates.
Was that the time span the US president was thinking of when he talked about making difficult decisions “most immediately?”
If so, they will be too late. Quite soon, the Taliban and al Qaeda will be swarming over yet broader expanses of Pakistan. Whether the new White House likes it or not, the war has solidly crossed the Afghan-Pakistani border and is already burning up much of Pakistan.