The White House is being appropriately modest in describing the progress of President Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are far from being on the edge of anything anyone would describe as success in south Asia.
Yet at the same time we are no longer close to the precipice of defeat and strategic disaster as we were when the president inherited the war in January 2009. At that time the al Qaeda core leadership in the border lands on the Pakistani-Afghan border was under minimal pressure and planning new attacks on America, their Afghan Taliban allies had the momentum in much of Afghanistan and were gobbling up territory across the south and east of the country rapidly, and we had just witnessed the worst terror attack in the world since 911 in Mumbai, India. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan Obama inherited disasters because American foreign policy had failed to develop effective strategies for both countries and to resource them properly.
Today the al Qaeda core is under considerable pressure from the drones. For example, al Qaeda’s number two Ayman Zawahiri, who used to put out a new diatribe against America every other week or so, has put out only four messages so far this year. His operational tempo has been disrupted. But al Qaeda remains agile, resourceful and dangerous. Any let up in pressure from the drones would allow it to rapidly rebuild its capacity to threaten North America and our European allies.
The Taliban were on the brink of victory in much of southern Afghanistan in early 2009. By every measure they had the momentum and were winning. The President’s first strategic review concluded that we were losing the war. Now NATO commanders in Kabul believe they have arrested the Taliban’s momentum. The gains are fragile and can easily be reversed. Yet there is a reasonable chance that we can begin a transition from NATO led combat operations in some parts of the country, notably Kabul, to Afghan led operations in 2011 and finish that task in 2014 as the latest NATO summit in Lisbon promised.
Pakistan, as always, remains the hardest part of this problem. With the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal and home to more terrorist groups than any other country, Pakistan’s fragile civilian government has hung on to power longer than most of its civilian predecessors. A new U.S.-Pakistan dialogue has begun. But Pakistan faces a growing civil war with parts of the jihadist Frankenstein it helped create like the Pakistani Taliban, and the army remains unwilling to shut down other parts like the Quetta shura and Lashkar e Tayyiba.
There are enormous challenges ahead in every aspect of this conflict. We still do not have as many qualified trainers on the ground helping to build the Afghan security forces as we need, which is our ticket to bringing home our troops. The complex regional diplomacy to reopen Indo-Pakistani dialogue which would affect the Pakistani army’s calculus has yet to really begin, although the president’s trip to New Delhi last month was a start. The White House is right to be modest but also right to stay on course.