Opinion: It's really about Pakistan

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.

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.