Four and a half minutes in Zardari’s shoes

November 17th, 2010

For the next four and a half minutes, imagine that you’re Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan. You’re looking westward at your neighbor, Afghanistan, and you see an unstable Afghan government plagued by corruption. You see a weak Afghan military incapable of protecting civilians – let alone defeating the Taliban – without American support. And you hear Americans demanding that President Obama bring their troops home.

You want to support the American effort in Afghanistan. After all, the Taliban is also gaining strength in the lawless tribal areas of your country along the border with Afghanistan, which threatens the stability of your own fragile government. And the United States has given you billions of dollars in aid with expectations that you help them fight the Taliban.

But Obama has promised war-weary Americans that he will begin withdrawing troops next summer. And although this move may win him political points at home, you know it will also leave Afghanistan, with its fledgling government and military, vulnerable to a Taliban takeover.

So here’s the million dollar question: Do you really want to make the Taliban your enemy if it’s entirely possible they could be ruling Afghanistan in a few years?

Of course not. But you can’t make it seem like you’re blatantly opposing the United States either – so you walk a tightrope between appeasing U.S. interests and keeping Taliban sympathies.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. (AFP/GETTY)

And this is exactly what the Pakistani president has been doing. As Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, said in The New York Times last month: “Many of the supply lines and much of the logistical support for NATO forces in Afghanistan run through Pakistan. Drones striking terrorists and militants in the tribal areas do so with the Pakistani government’s blessing and rely on Pakistani bases. And Pakistani security services have worked with the Central Intelligence Agency to capture hundreds of Qaeda operatives. At the same time, Pakistan gives not only sanctuary but also support to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani terrorist network.”

The United States knows Pakistan has been playing this double game. During Obama’s recent trip to Asia, he skipped right over Pakistan and, instead, spent three days in India, its archrival. Some foreign policy analysts think this decision signaled a discreet warning to Pakistan to get serious about fighting the Taliban or risk being isolated by the United States. But that’s no way to deal with Pakistan.

First of all, Pakistan’s complete support is crucial to success in Afghanistan. Without it, the Taliban has a sanctuary to retreat to when it’s being beaten in Afghanistan. Secondly, if the United States takes the rug out from under the feet of the fragile Pakistani government, the country – along with its nuclear arsenal – could fall into the hands of Islamic militants.

But all is not lost. If Obama wants to get Pakistan completely behind him, he needs to make it clear that the United States is not about to abandon Afghanistan.  Obama has made significant improvements to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan by increasing troop numbers, opening up a diplomatic option with the Taliban, and putting Gen. David H. Petraeus in charge of the war effort. However, his 2011 date to begin the drawdown of U.S. troops is premature.

During his presidential election, Obama always said that Afghanistan was a “war of necessity,” and that statement is still true today. The consequences of failure in Afghanistan are too great. Our allies – especially Pakistan – need to know that we’re in this for the long haul. And if that means that we need to have boots on the ground until 2020 or later, then that’s what we’ll have to do.