OPED — Only way to end the Afghanistan war: US peace deal with the Taliban

Here’s my latest, an oped in the Christian Science Monitor.  I will try to discuss the topic more expansively in a blog post here.  Stay tuned.  My apologies for the extended absence.  I’ve been busy.

“Nearly six months into the United States surge in Afghanistan and six months prior to the White House’s review of the Afghan war strategy, it’s clear our mission in Afghanistan is not only failing, but beyond repair.

Only a political solution can bring lasting peace to Afghanistan and extract the US from this messy conflict. And given Washington’s bleak military predicament, it must begin to give precedence to a political reconciliation process with the senior Taliban leadership now, rather than next year…”

Read the rest here.

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Kayani Seeks New Deal with Obama?

Barack Hussein Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States today, marking the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of a new era in American politics.  Among those hopeful for change appears to be Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.    

For the second time this month, Gen. Kayani has called for the ceasing of U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistan.  His statement yesterday was echoed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Gen. Tariq Majid, who said the attacks were causing political and economic trouble for Pakistan.

General Kayani’s comments could be dismissed as posturing for domestic consumption.  But the timing — two statements in the final period of the Obama transition — suggests otherwise.

It is conceivable that Gen. Kayani consented to U.S. drone strikes in August as he concluded it was the lesser of two evils cash-strapped Pakistan had to choose from — the other evil being U.S. ground incursions.  Factoring in his calculation could have been the fact that the Bush administration was on its way out and there would be a potential opportunity to strike a new deal in four months.

Whether this was Gen. Kayani’s game plan is unclear and it’s uncertain as to whether it would even work.  After taking control over U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus reportedly told the Pakistani leadership that there will be no policy change in the next administration.  

But the role of Gen. Petraeus, who arrives in Islamabad today, in the Obama administration is unclear.  There appears to be a concerted effort by Chairman of Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen to sideline Gen. Petraeus (very transparent in Elizabeth Bumiller’s profile of Adm. Mullen).  

And there will be new, multiple (and perhaps overlapping/competing) centers of power in the Obama administration.  Managing the “team of rivals” will be a cerebral and pragmatic chief executive — a clear contrast from his predecessor.  Despite the continuity of challenges, policy outputs could very well be different.  And that might be what Gen. Kayani is banking on.

Change will not occur overnight.  The Obama administration’s review of the Afghanistan-Pakistan war is expected to conclude by early April.    

A dramatic game changer in Islamabad before then, however, would require an accelerated policy shift.

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Obama and McCain Equally Mediocre on Pakistan

Pakistan, arguably the most important U.S. foreign policy issue right now, took up a few minutes in last night’s one and a half hour presidential debate.

In short, the discussion lacked substance. It was mostly a regurgitation of dated talking points from last year’s party debates. As such, the brief exchange confirmed the pre-existing positions of both candidates on U.S.-Pakistan relations.

But much has changed in Pakistan since last year. The situation in Pakistan is so volatile that each week brings ground changing developments. And so it is worrisome that both Barack Obama and John McCain have clearly not adapted their positions since the primaries.

The partisan debate on the cable channels (particularly DNC TV [MSNBC] and RNC TV [Fox News]) is nauseating and misleading. In reality, both candidates have their strengths and weaknesses on Pakistan.  Combine their strengths and you have a solid Pakistan policy.


Obama’s support for Pakistan’s fledgling democracy and appropriation of the Biden plan, which calls for vastly increasing development aid, is excellent. It is an integral part of a transition toward a full-fledged Pakistan policy.

But Obama seems unaware of the clear and present economic danger in Pakistan. The Biden-Lugar bill will not be passed till next year. And it will take time for funds to trickle into the country. [Plus, much of it will be eaten up by USAID and contractors.]  While Obama pats himself on the back for a proposal that is perhaps half a year from actually impacting Pakistan, more and more Pakistanis go hungry.  Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves are dwindling, its rupee is plummeting in value, and inflation is dangerously high.

If Obama were truly serious about Pakistan, he would have commented on the new Friends of Pakistan initiative — a coordinating body of Pakistan donors, including the G-7, China, and Saudi Arabia that had its first meeting on Friday.  He would have offered specific ways the United States could help Pakistan now, in this great time of need.

Furthermore, Obama still finds it necessary to compare his “Pakistan policy” to the Bush administration’s old “Musharraf policy.” With Musharraf out of the scene, after an OK from the Bush administration, this is an antiquated talking point.  It’s a different ball game.  No need to talk about the past.

Also, Obama seems to be unaware of the failures of Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government.  Zardari has concentrated power in his own hands.  His style of governance (he’s effectively governed the country, at least partially, since February) has focused on dividing and conquering opponents and deferring major issues (such as the judges’ restoration and parliamentary debate on the war on terror).  On this, Obama is silent.

Obama is most known in Pakistan for his call to go after high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Pakistan, if Islamabad is unwilling or incapable to do so.  Pakistanis abhor this policy. Obama’s statements contradicts his supposition that America’s standing in the world is important to U.S. national security and needs to be improved.  Not only does this policy hurt U.S. relations with the Pakistani public — 165 million strong it is — it also alienates Pakistan’s military.  And the worst thing Washington can do right now is pit Pakistani institutions against one another and push away Pakistan’s military — especially when they are essential for security purposes.  At this point, it seems as if Obama would not bode well for U.S.-Pakistan military ties, which have already deteriorated considerably.  And it is imperative that these ties improve.  Plus, a pincer attack on the Pakistani military would destabilize Pakistan, compelling the military to intervene or leading to the decay of its security apparatus.


McCain has yet to really come to terms with the existence of a civil, democratic government in Pakistan.  He fails to include Pakistan in his proposed League of Democracies.  He seems in denial — or his talking points have yet to be updated — so much that he is confused as to what the president’s name is.

McCain masterfully dished out the tricky names of Eastern European leaders, yet referred to Asif Ali Zardari as “Kardari.” Perhaps it was a Freudian slip.  Zardari is, in a sense, the Karzai of Pakistan. [It's ok, Pakistani newsreaders and commentators frequently mispronounce the two candidates' names. Barack is "Barrack" (as in military barracks) and McCain is "Mccann." Besides, Bush didn't even know Musharraf's name in 2000.]

But it also demonstrates the greatest flaw in McCain’s Pakistan policy: he has failed to adapt it to a post-Musharraf Pakistan.

While Obama would likely develop stronger relations with Pakistan’s civilian government, McCain seems like he would strengthen ties with Pakistan’s military. His Pakistan policy seems more influenced by Richard Armitage rather than Ashley Tellis (the architect of the U.S.-India nuclear deal). This is a critical half of the battle.  Pakistan’s military has been and will for the near to midterm be a major power broker in Pakistan.  It is obviously essential to resolving Pakistan’s security challenges.  But ties between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries have deteriorated considerably in recent months.  [Meanwhile, Pakistan's army chief has just completed a five day visit to China, where he will be shown "the money."]

McCain was right to criticize Obama’s idea of unilaterally striking high-value targets in Pakistan.  Though Obama’s idea is consistent with Bush administration policy, as I have stated earlier, it does not make it right.  McCain smartly noted that even if something like that has to be done, you’d don’t announce it publicly — especially when you are violating the sovereignty of an ally!

Also, the Arizona senator seems to have strong relations with Gen. David Petraeus, who will be running the show in Southwest Asia.  The present administration’s Pakistan policy seems to have been fractured within (VP’s office vs. State Department; CIA vs. parts of DoD/NSC).  McCain seems like he would have the confidence of his own military command and (partly due to the weakness of his own vice presidential candidate) would maintain a uniform policy throughout government.

Finally, McCain’s positions on Pakistan (sans the flaws) reflect a realism that is sorely lacking in many of other foreign policy positions, which have been tainted by a piecemeal adoption of neoconservatism.


Both candidates fail to understand the immense gravity of the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both have called for an additional 2-3 brigades for Afghanistan, when independent analysts say at least five or six are needed.

But neither the candidates, nor most in the U.S. policy community, truly understands the comprehensive failure that is Afghanistan. Despite the presence of tens of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan, the country is expected to face a major food shortage this winter.  Karzai, once seen as a saint among sinners, is becoming a typical corrupt third world dictator.  His curbs on the media, dancing with war lords, drug dealing brother, and bribe taking office have made him not only impotent, but hated.

Obama is right to tell Karzai to shape up, but it is also necessary to bring more Afghan power brokers (i.e. war lords) to the table, and, God forbid, think of a U.S. exit strategy.  These are the tough issues that will have to be dealt with after the election.

In respect to a Pakistan policy, Obama’s is more promising.  McCain offers strengths vis-a-vis relations with Pakistan’s military and respect for its sovereignty that Obama fares miserably on.

Combine Obama’s promise for strong ties with Pakistani democrats and McCain’s likelihood of restoring ties with the Pakistan Army, and you have a solid Pakistan policy.

Note: I wonder why Obama did not note in the debate (or other appearances) that he visited Pakistan while in college.  He stayed at the home of Pakistan’s most recent interim president and caretaker prime minister, Muhammad Mian Soomro.  Perhaps Obama does not want to invite further claims of Muslimness.  Perhaps Obama needs to grow a pair and teach these small-minded hillbillies a thing or two.  Recommended reading: Hofstader’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

Another Note: Some Democratic commentators criticized McCain for calling Pakistan a “failed state” when Musharraf took over.  They spun the comment to suggest that McCain called the Pakistan of today a failed state (wouldn’t be a major stretch, actually), which he did not.  Pakistan was on the verge of becoming a failed state when Musharraf took over in 1999.  The reasons for that are manifold, but McCain was not wrong.  A debate over whether Pakistan was a failed state or near that status is too technical for the U.S. presidential election.  Long story short, McCain was neither wrong, nor offensive (unless you’re Nawaz Sharif).

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Joe Biden Obama’s VP Nominee? Implications for U.S.-Pakistan Relations

The Democratic National Convention is less than a week away and that means Barack Obama will probably announce his running mate by this weekend.

The talking heads in Washington presently favor Joe Biden, though there are other heavily mentioned alternatives as well as the chance of a surprise pick.

But, if Biden is selected, the implications for U.S.-Pakistan would be many.  I’ll discuss four — two on the presidential campaign and two if Obama & Biden win in November.


One, an Obama-Biden ticket would bring together two individuals with a strong track record of supporting democracy and development in Pakistan. Both Obama and Biden have consistently argued that Pakistan’s democratization and cooperation in the war on terror are interconnected.  The responses of both Obama and Biden to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination reflected this belief.  In contrast, John McCain framed her death in the context of a battle between “moderates” and proponents of “violent Islamic extremism.” Biden has also proposed a massive increase in non-military assistance to Pakistan, which has been well-received there.

Two, the selection of Biden puts added pressure on McCain to re-vamp his Pakistan policy.  McCain’s Pakistan policy, at this point, is anchorless and hollow.  He hedged his bets on Pervez Musharraf, who is now discredited and out of the scene. Obama and Biden, in contrast, have come out hard on Musharraf for quite some time; they look prescient from Musharraf’s downfall.  In fact, Obama criticized McCain today for supporting Musharraf, stating that his opponent “spent years backing a dictator in Pakistan who failed to serve the interests of his own people.”

In this sense, Obama’s advantage on Pakistan (and Afghanistan) mirrors McCain’s on Iraq.  The latter’s gamble on the surge has paid out; Obama has had to re-adjust and gingerly embrace the surge’s fruits.  One should expect the McCain campaign to make adjustments to a post-Musharraf Pakistan.  McCain, afterall, had to adopt the Obama proposal to increase U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

But it’s unclear as to how far he will embrace the democratic set-up in Pakistan.  At this point, the likelihood is low — despite the fact that McCain has called for a “League of Democracies.” McCain’s response to Musharraf’s resignation, like his previous statements, emphasizes “stability” and a battle against “violent Islamic extremism.”

Stability, however, requires anchors and Pakistan’s cooperation in war requires local allies; McCain is unclear as to who those individuals/institutions are.  It’s a vulnerability for McCain that will be utilized in the presidential (and vice-presidential) debates.  Expect Biden to bring up his Pakistan plan a lot.  And I imagine McCain’s rejoinders to Obama would accuse the latter of threatening to violate the sovereignty of an ally.  But, as I have written earlier, Obama’s threats are consistent with the Bush administration’s policy.  The debate is, therefore, superficial.


An Obama-Biden administration would, one, likely mean that the vice president’s office will play an active, if not dominant, role in shaping U.S. policy toward Pakistan. This would represent some continuity with the Bush-Cheney administration, in which the vice president has been the major force shaping Washington’s relations with Islamabad.  Like Cheney, a Vice President Biden could be the go-to-guy when it comes to Pakistan.

But Biden lacks the unique (and disturbing) personalities traits of Cheney and will likely be more transparent in his dealings. Still, intra-administration turf wars are likely to come about.  They exist are natural to such entities.  Presently, there are tensions between the vice president’s office and the State Department on Pakistan.  While Biden would likely carve out elements of U.S. foreign policy as his own niche/turf (and some of his present Senatorial staffers might prove important), he would have to share space with other foreign policy influencers in the administration, who will likely include Susan Rice and Bruce Riedel.  Moreover, Obama’s intelligence and personality lend toward a hands on style of governance. So you won’t find the president hiding in the corner while Mommy and Daddy fight.

Two, Biden, as vice president can provide leverage to have the Biden-Lugar bill passed in the Congress next year.  The bill, mentioned above, calls for tripling non-military assistance to Pakistan.  Both Obama and Biden have called for building comprehensive, long-term ties with Pakistan  — a “Pakistan policy” as opposed to a “Musharraf policy.”  The passage of such a bill would mark an early foreign policy achievement for the young administration — though there is a chance it could be conditionalized to the extent that it would be useless.


Forecasting the next administration’s policy toward Pakistan is of questionable utility.  Pakistan’s present volatility suggests that U.S.-Pakistan relations could be more shaped by the ground realities in Pakistan than in the United States.  When campaign promises and track records meet present exigencies and the burden of responsibility, the latter two take precedence.

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McCain Attacks Obama on Pakistan; Unilateral U.S. Attacks in Pakistan Could Increase

In his Wisconsin victory speech, likely Republican presidential nominee John McCain attacked probable Democratic nominee Barack Obama as being weak on foreign policy and Pakistan played a bit of a role.

McCain’s eyes are now set on the general election and part of his campaign strategy is to present himself as having the “judgment,” “experience”, and “strength of purpose” to defend national security and the spread of American ideals.   He describes “radical Islamic extremism” as “the greatest evil, probably, that this nation has ever faced.”  McCain’s early offensive could put Obama on the defensive, bringing foreign policy and national security back to the forefront.

Just minutes ago, McCain stated that “political change in Pakistan is occurring that might effect our relationship with a nuclear armed nation that is indispensable to our success in combating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere.” A vote for Obama, said McCain, can push into office “the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested bombing our ally Pakistan.”

Over a week ago, President Bush made a similar attack on Obama, stating, “The only foreign policy thing I remember he said was he’s going to attack Pakistan and embrace Ahmedinejad.”

In reality, Obama never proposed attacking the state of Pakistan. He said, “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” In other words, Obama would attack terrorists on Pakistani soil–a serious violation of Pakistani sovereignty, but not an attack targeting the state of Pakistan.

Moreover, both Bush and McCain criticize Obama for proposing something the Bush administration is already doing: attacking al-Qaeda and Taliban targets without the approval of the Pakistani government.

Robin Wright and Joby Warrick report in today’s Washington Post:

“Having requested the Pakistani government’s official permission for such strikes on previous occasions, only to be put off or turned down, this time the U.S. spy agency did not seek approval. The government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was notified only as the operation was underway, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Officials say the incident was a model of how Washington often scores its rare victories these days in the fight against al-Qaeda inside Pakistan’s national borders: It acts with assistance from well-paid sympathizers inside the country, but without getting the government’s formal permission beforehand.

It is an approach that some U.S. officials say could be used more frequently this year, particularly if a power vacuum results from yesterday’s election and associated political tumult. The administration also feels an increased sense of urgency about undermining al-Qaeda before President Bush leaves office, making it less hesitant, said one official familiar with the incident.”




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Bhutto Was to Give U.S. Senator “Secret” Document on Day She Was Slain

CNN reports that Benazir Bhutto was to give U.S. officials a “secret” document on the day she was killed. The document details measures by which Pakistan’s intelligence services would allegedly rig the elections. Bhutto intended to give the dossier first to Sen. Arlen Specter then to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The choice of these American politicians is interesting. It suggests that Bhutto believed they would be more effective than elements in the Bush administration. Specter, who was in Islamabad ready to visit Bhutto later Thursday evening, often diverges with the Bush administration despite being a Republican. Clinton and Obama are leading Democratic contenders who would relish an opportunity to throw a blow at the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Pakistan provides such an opportunity given the perceived success of the Iraq surge and its integrality to the Afghanistan problem — the primordial post-9/11 U.S. national security issue.

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Pakistan in the Nevada Democratic Presidential Debate

There was an exchange about Pakistan in tonight’s Democratic presidential debate in Nevada. Here’s a summary:

Joe Biden, the only candidate who’s offered a substantive Pakistan policy, said that he opposed maintaining aid at same levels to Pakistan if Musharraf does not take off his uniform and hold free and fair elections. After noting that he spoke to both Bhutto and Musharraf prior to Bush did the same, Biden — as he stated on CNN’s Late Edition on Sunday — called for the cessation of F-16 and P-3 assistance to Pakistan if Musharraf fails to meet the basic demands above. He said that Musharraf is not a sole player in Pakistan; he needs to keep his military happy. He called for a move from a Musharraf policy to a Pakistan policy, reaching out to Pakistan’s middle class by, for example, increasing education aid.

Bill Richardson said that he is worried that cutting off military aid could undermine U.S. relations with Pakistan’s military. He argued that the problem with U.S. policy toward Pakistan is that “we got our principles wrong.” The U.S., he claims, sent the message to Musharraf that it values security more than human rights. Richardson stated that he would make U.S. aid to Pakistan conditional. He would call on Musharraf to end the state of emergency, permit Bhutto to run in elections, resign from the army, hold free and fair elections, and restore the deposed Supreme Court justices. He added that Islamic parties only get 15% of the vote in Pakistan. In free and fair elections, he believes that moderates can win. Human rights, says Richardson, are at times more important than national security; America’s strengths aren’t just its military and economy, but also its values.

John Edwards listed some “basic goals” with respect to Pakistan. They are: make sure that extremists in Pakistan’s northwest are under control; support democratic reformers; elections take place in January; the country’s nuclear weapons are under control. He added that Pakistan is a “living, breathing example” of how the Bush administration’s nuclear policy won’t work in the long-term. The only way to keep the world safe, says Edwards, is to lead a long-term international effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Barack Obama described Pakistan as a “great example” of how human rights and defense of U.S. national security are “complementary.” Pakistan’s democracy, he says, would strengthen the battle against extremists; greater repression would worsen the situation. Obama said that propping up anti-democratic elements with make the U.S. less safe. He also mentioned Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, stating that he would do everything in his capacity as president to ensure that its nukes don’t get in the hands of extremists.

Christopher Dodd distinguished himself from the pack — in his ignorance of Pakistan’s political-security predicament. In a sweeping generalization that countered historical precedent in Pakistan and current opinion polls, Dodd said that in free and fair elections “in these countries” — i.e. Pakistan and the other 50+ Muslim majority countries — “the Islamic Jihad or Islamic Brotherhood” would win 85% of the vote. The odds of Islamists sweeping elections in Pakistan are as low as Dodd’s chances of winning a Democratic primary. Firstly, there is no organization such as the Islamic Jihad or Islamic Brotherhood in Pakistan. The Islamic Jihad is in Egypt and Palestine; the Islamic Brotherhood — a non-existent group, but presumably a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood — is restricted to the Arab world. The handful of Islamist parties managed their best performance ever in the 2003 elections; with the assistance of intelligence services, they formed the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) and got 16.8% of National Assembly seats. Dodd’s 85% nightmare is just that — a nightmare; a scary dream — not reality. In the end, national security trumps human rights in Dodd’s view.

Hillary Clinton offered a discordant perspective on the Pakistan ‘problem’. After stating that national security outweighs human rights, she reverted to her ‘blame it on Bush’ strategy, and stated that the American president failed in capitalizing on the post-9/11 opportunity to achieve democracy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Clinton noted she would inform Musharraf that his recent actions are not in his interest. She also said that she asked the Pakistani president earlier in the year if he wanted a special envoy for his country — presumably to negotiate a deal with Benazir Bhutto — and that despite his reply in the affirmative, the White House had not appointed such a person. Clinton seems to be unaware of Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher’s intimate — and perhaps excessive — role in the Bhutto-Musharraf negotiations.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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