Obama: We're on the right track in Afghanistan

I’m tempted to call this the big climax to the Pentagon’s long-awaited strategic review, but it’s really an anticlimax. Not a bit of it is unexpected, from emphasizing gains on the ground against the Taliban (according to Gates, “the sense of progress among those closest to the fight is palpable”) to reiterating that the start date for drawing down remains July 2011 (the size and pace of withdrawal is, conspicuously, as yet undetermined) to politely avoiding the awkward subjects of phantom peace talks and Karzai’s obstreperous nuttiness. Last month’s news that the White House was shifting from a 2011 start date for withdrawal to a 2014 end date was actually more significant because it confirmed that Obama’s original time horizon was unrealistic and signaled to the region — to Pakistan, especially — that there won’t be a power vacuum across the border that needs filling anytime soon. Which, in theory, should reduce Pakistan’s interest in propping up the Taliban and affiliated jihadis as a potential proxy government in Afghanistan in the future. The question is, even if the Pakistanis wanted to side with us, are they capable? David Ignatius:

[A U.S.] military official says he worries that the Washington debate about Pakistan is becoming “hyper-focused” on a demand that the Pakistani army attack North Waziristan to stop Taliban insurgents from crossing into Afghanistan – a request he says the Pakistanis are incapable of meeting because their forces are “stretched too thin.”…

“We have a nasty tendency of assuming that what we care about is what the Pakistanis care about,” says the U.S. military official. He argues that the problem in Pakistan isn’t that it has a secret agenda; it’s that it has a “bloodied army.”…

The U.S. military official, standing at his map, says Washington should realize that the Pakistanis “are unable to conduct significant new operations without additional troops. That’s not a criticism, it’s a reality.” This official notes that the Pakistani military has lost 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers fighting the extremists, with three to four times that many wounded. Civilian casualties are in the tens of thousands. If America experienced this level of casualties, he says, “we would probably call it a second American Civil War.”

An ominous gloss on that from the Times, reporting yesterday that U.S. intel sees little progress without Pakistani help: “American commanders and Pentagon officials say they do not yet know if the war can be won without more cooperation from Pakistan. But after years and billions spent trying to win the support of the Pakistanis, they are now proceeding on the assumption that there will be limited help from them.” Compare that with the passage in Obama’s speech last year ordering the surge in Afghanistan about building a “partnership with Pakistan” against a mutual enemy. How do you eliminate jihadis in the tribal areas now that the partnership is evaporating? Well, for one thing, you order even more drone strikes, and maybe occasionally greenlight a special forces incursion or two — provided that Wikileaks hasn’t made that politically impossible for Pakistan to approve. And in the meantime, you train as many Afghan troops as you can, hope against hope that the Taliban’s taking such a beating that they’ll finally beg for mercy, and search desperately for an Afghan leader who might hold the country together to replace Karzai. That appears to be the real strategy right now — buying time and hoping things change for the better before the polling here gets so bad that it forces Obama’s hand. Fingers crossed.