Tides Are Slow to Change

by Joshua Foust on 1/16/2007

First, some news:

  • Afghani intelligence claims to have detained a spokesman for the Taliban, Muhammad Hanif. He was the most visible media contact.
  • Pakistan launched an airstrike on purported al-Qaeda camps in the village of Zamzola in South Waziristan.

Both of these events just happen to coincide with the first-ever visit to Kabul and Karzai by SecDef Robert Gates. He wants to stem the violence; his commander wants to increase troop levels. Laudable, yes, but how they’ll accomplish this when troops are scheduled to be siphoned off to Iraq isn’t clear. I wonder if there is a connection—not in any broader “change of the tides” but if both Afghanistan and Pakistan are trying to put on an impressive show for the shiny new Secretary of Defense. It also flies in the face of repeated protestations from Islamabad that there aren’t any militants in the western frontier provinces, and that the real problem for the insurgency in Afghanistan lie within Afghanistan.

If that’s the case, one wonders, why, then, the granting of partial autonomy? Why the airstrike? I daresay Musharraf feels caught out in the middle, between his citizens’ desires to support the Taliban and hurt Americans, his desire not to needlessly antagonize the Americans, and his country’s concerns in having a pliant, or at least friendly, government in Kabul.

Speaking of Iraq: Gates took his visit to Afghanistan as an opportunity to scold Iran on its meddlement. Which is, unfortunately, demonstrative of the larger strategic problems the U.S. faces: Iraq swallows everything. It is a blackhole, sucking attention, money, equipment, and most importantly people, into its abyss. Even when on a mission to support the mission in Afghanistan, the SecDef feels the need to poke Iran, which is actually helping to stabilize the place (despite its role in Iraq). He, and Afghanistan, would be best served by giving the local situation his undivided attention for even a few hours. Maybe he’ll learn something about the problems that are specific to Afghanistan, instead of trying to fight both wars the same way.

I agree there is a superficial similarity: both missions are drastically undermanned and underfunded in ethnically riven regions with centuries of conflict, and both have uncooperative, nuclear regimes with porous borders to the east making trouble. But the two places are also vastly different: Iran is a help in Afghanistan. Pakistan exercises no official control over the Taliban militants, while it is quite likely Iran’s help to the Shia insurgents in Iraq is much more explicit. And the mission in Afghanistan stands a reasonable chance of success, while at this point Iraq does not. We obsess on Iraq at our peril, for it will result in the Taliban coming back, stronger than ever and spoiling for more fights.

Update: I have no idea how I missed this; maybe it’s my steadfast refusal to read the news over the weekend. Apparently on Saturday Hillary Clinton issued a call for more troops in Afghanistan. Best I know, since all news about the place is buried in the American press, that makes her the only potential ’08 Presidential candidate to so far recognize the extent of the trouble there.

Update II (from Nathan): Safrang has some thoughts on Clinton’s call.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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