The horrific attack on a school in Pakistan by Taliban gunmen that killed 132 people, mainly children, returned that unhappy country to the news headlines for a few days. But only a few – it’s gone again.
It wasn’t supposed to be like that. In President Obama’s defining 2009 Afghanistan “surge” speech, presented against the backdrop of 4,000 cadets at West Point, Pakistan was an important theme:
As Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. … I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism. … We have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan… both Afghanistan and Pakistan are endangered. … Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan… Our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan…cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That’s why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.
There is a reason the theater was called AfPak, and there were those who believed that stabilizing and securing Pakistan – unstable, nuclear-armed, hostile to democratic India, and plagued by terrorism – was the American endgame. In 2009, the president was in full nation-building mode:
We are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries … [and provide] substantial resources to support Pakistan’s democracy and development. We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting[.] … [T]he Pakistani people must know America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent.
But, announcing the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan last month before a much smaller audience at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, the president took a much more narrow view.
We’ll continue to have a limited military presence (in Afghanistan) because we’ve got to keep training and equipping Afghan forces, and we’ve got to conduct counterterrorism missions… we want to preserve the gains… We want a stable and secure Afghanistan. And we want to make sure that country is never again used to launch attacks against the United States of America.
What happened to Pakistan?
In fact, although the United States spent almost $18 billion in Pakistan between 2001 and 2012, our “partnership” was largely defined by the political and military damage done by vastly increased U.S. drone strikes. There are only estimated statistics, but it appears that the U.S. conducted 381 strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to 2013 (51 in the Bush years, 331 in the Obama administration), killing somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,800 people – the balance between civilians and militants unclear, but certainly there were civilian casualties. The 2014 numbers are 22 strikes, with 104 known dead.
Pakistan may be no more democratic or developed than it was before, but the Taliban on both sides of the AfPak border have been emboldened by the American withdrawal from one and neglect of the other. With increased viciousness, they are back – the school attack may take prize for mind-bendingly vile, but don’t miss Pamela Constable’s frightening essay on her most recent visit to Kabul and the evidence of an ugly and repressive Taliban resurgence.
The president, however, appears to have moved on, or back. Having quietly decided on the tripling of the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq from 1,000 to 3,000 in November, he told the troops at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst:
[In Iraq] we are hammering [ISIL] terrorists, taking out their fighters, their commanders, hundreds of vehicles and tanks, nearly 200 oil and gas facilities, the infrastructure that funds their terror. More than a thousand fighting positions, checkpoints, buildings, barracks – we’re taking them out. We’re cutting their command and control and supply lines, and making it harder for them to maneuver … local forces have held the line in some places and pushed back ISIL in other places. In Syria, our airstrikes are inflicting heavy losses on ISIL fighters and leaders. Because of you, we have blunted their momentum and we have put them on the defensive.
Having withdrawn our forces from Iraq in 2011 and left the field to Iran and ISIS/IL, he has returned them under far less auspicious circumstances. U.S. troops remain, for the moment, off the actual battlefield, but the fighting is getting closer, making an Afghanistan-style fight and support mission that includes American casualties more likely.
The potential fall of Pakistan to jihadists is far more consequential than the (almost inevitable) fall of Afghanistan to the Afghan Taliban, if for no other reason than the presence of nuclear weapons and other modern military infrastructure. It is necessary to ask what circumstances may emerge that threaten American interests or require a refocus on AfPak – and at what cost – before we find ourselves there again.