Argument

The Road to Kabul Runs Through Kashmir

Why the key to winning in Afghanistan is peace between Islamabad and New Delhi.

U.S. President Barack Obama tried hard to avoid saying the "P" word -- Pakistan -- on his recent trip to India. He didn't mention Pakistan once during his brief remarks commemorating the 2008 Mumbai attacks, to the chagrin of Indian pundits. He treaded carefully on the subject during a question-and-answer forum with Indian students. And in his address to the Indian Parliament two days later, he got scant applause for challenging Indian legislators to support a Pakistan "that is stable and prosperous and democratic."

For all Indian commentators may feel that the United States is hopelessly biased toward their northwestern neighbor, they are missing a key development: As the endgame in Afghanistan approaches, relations between the United States and Pakistan have plunged to their worst depths since 2001. At the heart of this crisis are years of American neglect and drift -- and the Pakistani military's determination to outlast U.S. pressure aimed at ending its ties to the Afghan Taliban.

For nearly a decade, there has been no progress in U.S. aims to improve relations between India and Pakistan or U.S. attempts to persuade the Pakistani military to treat all terrorist groups as equally culpable. The military's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate still allows Afghan and Central Asian terrorist groups to operate from Pakistani soil and refuses to clamp down on the anti-Indian terrorist groups operating from Punjab province, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which launched the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The Pakistani Army admits that it has not gone after al Qaeda in Pakistan since 2006.

This malign neglect has allowed foreign militants to radicalize Pakistani Pashtun tribes, which have now linked up with militant groups in Punjab -- with the aim of overthrowing the Pakistani state. Yet Pakistani strategists still think they can crush the homegrown militants while maintaining the Afghan Taliban as a proxy force for a final settlement in Afghanistan.

If that sounds delusional, so does the U.S. failure to address this crisis honestly. For seven long years, President George W. Bush treated former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf as an ally and hero when a much more calibrated -- and realistic -- policy was needed. The United States also denied the Pakistani public's demands for democracy.

Bush's successor acutely recognizes the problem, but he has yet to move Pakistan in a healthier direction. Bob Woodward's book, Obama's Wars, demonstrates how early on, Obama saw a "cancer" in Pakistan that was leading to U.S. failure in Afghanistan. But his advisors were at odds with one other as to what to do about it. Two years into Obama's presidency, U.S. thinking on Pakistan is just as muddled as before, despite billions of dollars in new aid and a new determination to acknowledge the problems more openly.

America's biggest mistake is its failure to recognize Pakistan's near-fatal obsession with India. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan's chief of Army staff, and his corps commanders are more consumed with so-called Indian expansion in the region than any of their predecessors. Kayani has frequently voiced his security philosophy as being "India-centric." He has refused to launch an offensive in North Waziristan, where most Afghan Taliban leaders are housed, using the excuse of not wanting to deplete the Pakistani Army's strength on the Indian front. Pointing to the India threat is convenient for Kayani: It allows him to explain why he cannot do more on the Afghan border and helps him retain the loyalty of junior- and middle-ranking officers who are increasingly angry about being forced to fight America's war. But his fears about India are also deeply rooted in a Pakistani military mindset that will require major Indian overtures before it changes.

Before he was elected, Obama suggested he would try to resolve the India-Pakistan rivalry and the Kashmir dispute that fuels it, telling Time magazine it was one of the "critical tasks" of his presidency. Needless to say, that hasn't happened -- and he didn't mention the "K" word once during his Parliament speech. While the United States has remained silent on Kashmir, a new Indo-Pak rivalry has erupted over the battle for influence in a post-U.S.-withdrawal world, manifested in terrorist attacks on Indian diplomats and road workers in Afghanistan and, Pakistan claims, Indian-sponsored unrest in Baluchistan.

Obama cannot afford to keep ignoring this blood feud. Some blunt public speaking, not just cautious private messages or boilerplate rhetoric about improving relations between India and Pakistan, could serve as a wake-up call. There can be no peace in Afghanistan until these two neighbors sit down and talk about a common approach to both Kabul and Kashmir, rather than negotiating by proxy war.

The real game-changer in the region can only come, however, when the United States gives its full support to negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Merely facilitating talks is not good enough -- only the United States has the power to enforce a deal -- but U.S. generals are resisting deeper involvement. The Taliban have to be weakened first, the generals argue. The danger is that this strategy, if it even works, will bring to the surface a much more bitter, radicalized Taliban leadership with closer ties to al Qaeda, making negotiations next to impossible.

Pakistan will seek to dominate any future settlement. However, over the course of what are likely to be long and painful discussions, Pakistan will come under tremendous pressure to water down its demands -- which, given the weakness of the Pakistani state, if coupled with more realistic thinking in the Army and greater dialogue with India, it is likely to do.

The problem is the Pentagon. If Obama's generals have their way -- and in an eerie parallel of the way things work in Islamabad, they are increasingly calling the shots in the relationship -- the war in Afghanistan could drag on indefinitely. Pakistan will dig in its heels, as will other regional powers. Taliban attacks will multiply, and the U.S. military and the CIA will escalate their actions along (and maybe even across) the Pakistani border. We are at the cusp of either a broader peace in the region or an ever-widening chaos. It's Obama's choice.

NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Russians Return

Russia's back in Afghanistan, this time in cooperation with the West -- but do objectives really align?

At the annual NATO summit in Lisbon later this month, Russia plans to make a surprising announcement: It will assist the Western military alliance's war effort in Afghanistan, the land from which it was forced to make a humiliating withdrawal two decades ago after failing to defeat a U.S.-backed insurgency that dealt a decisive blow to an already crumbling Soviet Union.

NATO is portraying the announced cooperation with its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as the fruit of a broader rapprochement between Russia and the West, which both Washington and its European allies are eager to cultivate. "The meeting in Lisbon is a real opportunity to turn a new page, to bury the ghosts of the past," Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary-general, said last week during a pre-summit visit to Moscow. (Rasmussen presented a similar request last year, which the Russians spurned.)

NATO could certainly use more help in Afghanistan (though it would be preferable if its own members, some of which have been hesitant to send more forces and have bound those already in the field under overly stringent rules of engagement, picked up the slack). But it should be clear-eyed about Moscow's motives. The initial appeal of Russia's assistance -- that the country has knowledge of Afghanistan thanks to its own, decade-long engagement -- is belied by its brutal record. Afghans do not have fond memories of their former invaders, and it's not hard to understand why. Possibly 1 million Afghan civilians died in the Soviet war, which was waged with typical Russian carelessness and a complete lack of regard for winning hearts and minds. Russia carpet-bombed huge swaths of territory, laid mines that still maim and kill Afghan civilians, and wiped out entire villages suspected of sheltering mujahideen militants. By contrast, ISAF, though it has been criticized for civilian casualties incurred via drone strikes, is at least cognizant of how such deaths negatively affect its mission and has invested billions of dollars in reconstruction projects. The United Nations estimates that civilian casualties in the latest war, which has lasted nearly as long as the Soviet one, number somewhere between 12,000 and 30,000.

Moreover, the actual Russian commitment is small. Russia will not be contributing troops, the most badly needed resource in a counterinsurgency effort where success depends on dispersing soldiers throughout remote areas. Initial reports peg the promised assistance at a few helicopters and military trainers. The newfound Russian support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan (supposedly predicated on opposition to Islamist militants gaining a foothold in its neighborhood and distress at rising heroin addiction fueled by Afghan opium) does not exactly square with the attempts it has made to undermine the war. When, shortly after 9/11, the United States asked Tajikistan whether it could use the former Soviet republic's territory as a staging ground for the initial attack into Afghanistan (with which Tajikistan shares a 700-mile-long border), the Tajiks resisted due to vigorous Russian arm-twisting. When the United States convinced Kyrgyzstan, another poor, landlocked, former Soviet Central Asian republic, to allow the erection of a transit center that has proved crucial in transporting soldiers and equipment to Afghanistan, Russia immediately complained and began pressuring its government to evict the base. Last year, Russia persuaded Kyrgyzstan's then president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to expel the Americans in exchange for a $2 billion loan package. Only when the United States offered to triple the rent it was paying to the Kyrgyz government did Bakiyev back down. This year, Bakiyev was violently ousted in an uprising that Moscow helped instigate, and Russia has been quietly pressuring the new Kyrgyz government to evict the Americans yet again.

To be sure, last year Moscow did agree to allow increased transit of supplies to Afghanistan over Russian air space and territory. But this pledge, made just two months after U.S. President Barack Obama announced that U.S. troops would begin withdrawing from the country in July 2011, only illustrates that Russia is preparing for what it sees as a hasty American exit. Russia of course wants to see the Taliban -- whose forefathers it unsuccessfully fought in the 1980s -- defeated and some form of stability restored to Afghanistan, and in that sense it shares a fundamental goal with NATO. But, and perhaps more importantly, it rejects long-term Western influence in the region, which explains why its actions have been so schizophrenic. Indeed, the Kremlin's goals may be mutually exclusive: A stable Afghanistan with some form of decent and representative government (ISAF's stated mission) is hardly compatible with a Central Asian region devoid of an extended Western security presence.

More important than any of these factors, however, is the cynical way in which Moscow will use its paltry assistance to ISAF as leverage with the West in negotiations over other matters, from NATO expansion to human rights to missile defense. More than two years after it invaded Georgia, Russia continues to occupy its neighbor's territory, rendering meaningless the European Union cease-fire agreement it signed at the end of the war. Its recognition of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and distribution of Russian passports to citizens there is a continuing violation of international law. In August, Russia deployed high-precision air-defense missiles to Abkhazia, and it has signed deals to build permanent military bases in both territories. No doubt Moscow will use its token assistance in Afghanistan as a bargaining chip to solidify its position in Georgia, a country whose westward integration both the European Union and NATO have made a priority. Indeed, Russia has already asked that caps be lifted on the number of ''peacekeepers'' it is allowed to maintain in the breakaway territories.

At the same time it is insisting that the West ratify its occupation of a sovereign country, Moscow is challenging NATO's force posture among its own member states. According to a draft Russia-NATO cooperation agreement that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov submitted to Rasmussen last December, the Russians are insisting that NATO cap the number of forces deployed in Soviet bloc countries (Russia's so-called ''privileged sphere of interest'') at 3,000 and that it station no more than 24 aircraft in those countries for more than 42 days a year. Such demands represent an unprecedented infringement on the non-offensive military decision-making processes of NATO members.

To understand how Moscow views its relationship with Washington, it's best to hear Russian leaders in their more candid moments. "Let's not kid ourselves," Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin insider, said last year in an interview with a Russian magazine. "Obama is no ally of ours. Remember, Obama has no support and is on the brink of an abyss... He needs us more than we need him." Like most transactions, the Russian offer of assistance to NATO in Afghanistan is a quid pro quo. America and its allies should think hard about what they will be asked to offer in return for this meager pledge.

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images