American Ambiguity in Afghanistan

A Pakistani prisoner caught fighting with the Taliban is released
A Pakistani man captured fighting alongside the Taliban is released from a jail in Lahore, Aug. 22, 2003, the day Pakistan released 41 of its citizens captured during the October 2001 war in Afghanistan (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP-Getty Images).

Amidst a renewed focus on Afghanistan, the Bush administration has mobilized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to take charge of Kabul’s security from tomorrow and is expected to announce shortly a major package of economic assistance for the reconstruction of the war-torn nation. The belated American moves reflect a new sense of urgency that, nearly two years after the ouster of the Taliban, progress toward peace and stability in Afghanistan has been painfully slow.

Former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill is expected to be nominated to take charge of Afghan policy at the National Security Council and give it more purposefulness. Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who is the presidential envoy to Afghanistan, will have the mandate to shape developments on the ground when he is appointed in the next few weeks as ambassador to Kabul.

But the Bush administration appears far away from reconciling the deeper tension between its interests in Afghanistan and those in Pakistan.

The United States is clearly interested in bringing about a rapid normalization of the situation in Afghanistan, but is unwilling to confront the sources of regional instability in Pakistan. Until the United States comes to terms with this core contradiction in its policy toward Southwest Asia, strengthening the military stabilization effort and committing more economic resources for development in Afghanistan are unlikely to bear fruit.

NATO will take over the command of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul [on Aug. 11]. The 5,000-strong contingent is comprised predominantly of European forces. Turkey and Britain had led the force initially, and a joint command of Germany and the Netherlands was running it until last week.

Even as it brings a measure of stability and continuity to the international contribution to Kabul’s security, the Bush administration has also bowed to criticism at home and abroad that it has not done enough to step up the pace of national reconstruction in Afghanistan. Although the United States has been the largest donor to Afghanistan, it spends nearly seven times more in Kosovo and Bosnia, raising questions about the intensity of American political commitment
in Kabul.

The U.S. security operations in Afghanistan cost the Pentagon about $10 billion every year, but the economic disbursements are less than $1 billion, despite Congress’ authorization for a lot more resources. In an important move, the Bush administration is said to be getting ready to announce a package of $1.6 billion to be spent over the next year to accelerate the movements toward peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan. This will be nearly double the amount spent in the current year and is partly motivated by the desire to demonstrate political success on the eve of American elections next year.

But success is likely to remain elusive so long as Washington remains unwilling to squeeze Islamabad into full cooperation in isolating and defeating the forces threatening Afghanistan’s stability. The opposition to the new order in Afghanistan is led by a new alliance between Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Pakistan’s favorite mujahedeen leader in the days of Soviet occupation and immediately after. The links between the armed forces in Pakistan and sections of this alliance are the principal source of threat to the post-Taliban order in Afghanistan.

In an important statement last month, Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy,  demanded that “every effort has to be made by Pakistan not to allow its territory to be used by the Taliban elements—we need 100-percent assurance on this from Pakistan, not 50 percent.”

The American recognition, however, that full cooperation from Pakistan is not forthcoming has not been matched by policy decisions in Washington to press Islamabad to stop undermining the new government in Afghanistan.

Worse still, as tensions have mounted in recent weeks between Kabul and Islamabad, the U.S. pressure appears to be directed more toward the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, than the Pakistani leader, Pervez Musharraf.

For too long, the U.S. policy toward Afghanistan has been paralyzed by the fear of offending the Pakistani military. Unless Washington liberates itself from the emphasis on the centrality of Islamabad in Afghanistan’s political future, it will find it difficult to promote stability in the region.