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Opinion: It's really about Pakistan

Obama's speech hints at the ultimate strategic importance of Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Afghanistan policy at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Dec. 1, 2009. Obama said he is sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next summer to speed the battle against the Taliban and plans to start bringing some home in 18 months. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

BOSTON — The war that President Barack Obama addressed at West Point Tuesday evening is a war for Pakistan just as much, or more, as it is for Afghanistan. Just as the World War II battles in North Africa were ultimately not about Africa, but about defeating Nazi Germany, saving Pakistan is now our most important goal in the new Great Game against Islamic extremism. Compared to that, Afghanistan is a sideshow.

Even though Obama mentioned Pakistan only about half as many times as he mentioned Afghanistan, and came to it late in his address, he showed a realization of this truth when he said that the “stakes are even higher in nuclear-armed Pakistan” because terrorists, should they acquire nuclear weapons, would not hesitate to use them.

Obama also made it clear that there can be no hope of success in Afghanistan as long as there are safe sanctuaries for the Taliban within Pakistan, for that is where both Al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership remain.

Obama needed to address two different audiences with two basically irreconcilable goals in his speech. He needed to tell his increasingly doubtful public that his escalation in Afghanistan is not open-ended and that it will lead to a quick exit. At the same time he needed to tell Afghans, and above all Pakistan, that he is in it for the long haul, and will not abandon the region as the U.S. did after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. The chaos that followed that withdrawal brought the Taliban into being and Al Qaeda in residence. The only thing that can reconcile those goals is a rapid build-up of competent Afghan forces — something that has eluded us for nearly eight years.

For his American audience it will be a tough sell. Americans are an impatient people and the sands of support for the Afghanistan war are running out. Thus Obama promised “the fastest possible pace,” saying that within “18 months our troops will begin to come home.”

As for the second audience, Pakistanis will need a lot of persuading that America will stay engaged in the region. Afghanistan is a country of some 30 million. Pakistan has a population of 170 million, and possesses scores of nuclear weapons.

Afghanistan is of interest to the United States only so far as it is not used for a base for terrorism against the U.S. first and Pakistan second. Our interest in Pakistan is much broader, but more subtle since we cannot use direct military force. It must be a game of cajoling and supporting elements in Pakistan that will see things our way. For now, Pakistan sees its major threat as coming from India, not the Islamic insurgency it is fighting on the northwest frontier.

And even though Obama praised the Pakistani army for attacking the Taliban in Waziristan, the army fights the Pakistani Taliban that targets Pakistan, not the Afghan Taliban that targets U.S. forces from Pakistan. The Pakistani army seeks an accommodation of sorts with the Afghan Taliban.