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Opinion: It's really about Pakistan

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

Pakistan created the Taliban because it wanted a friendly power on its western border and an end to the chaos of battling mujahedeen factions that were reducing Afghanistan to ruin. Pakistan’s greatest fear and resentment against the United States is based on the conception that the U.S. will leave Afghanistan in chaos again, and leave Pakistan to clean up the mess. Until Pakistan is sure of the U.S., it will want to continue hedging its bets with the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan doesn’t want to see India attempting to fill any vacuum that a departing America might leave.

Today Obama finds himself in the same shoes as the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, with a war he didn’t start but believes he cannot afford to lose. Obama dismissed the Vietnam parallel, but must fear, in his heart, that the Russian war in Afghanistan is worryingly similar.

The cliche is that presidents need a war to be considered great. But since World War II, wars have devastated presidencies. Truman became ensnared in Korea. Vietnam broke the back of both the Johnson and Nixon presidencies, and Iraq brought great discredit onto George W. Bush.

A major question is, will Obama’s escalation to three times the force that he inherited from the Bush administration help stabilize or ultimately destabilize neighboring Pakistan? Obama hopes the surge will help do the former and hinder the latter. But is he setting goals that are beyond our ability to achieve at a reasonable cost, the very thing he said he would avoid?

Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai may reign over a weak and corrupt government, but he is a tower of strength compared to Pakistan’s pro-American president, Ali Zardari, whose political weakness could see him out of office soon, and whose personal corruption could see him in jail. Civilian control of government is far healthier in Afghanistan than in Pakistan.

Obama promised a new deal with Pakistan, a partnership of mutual interest, mutual respect and mutual trust. It will not be easy to achieve.

For 100 years, from the 1840s to the 1940s, Britain fought three wars in Afghanistan and numerous campaigns on the frontier — the raison d’etre being not for Afghanistan itself, but for the defense of India, of which Pakistan was then a part.