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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is it time to bomb Pakistan, or give real aid to Afghanistan?

Regular visitors to this blog probably think I read nothing but the New York Times, since so many of my posts start off with stories from the "Gray Lady." A more careful perusal of my posts will show that this is not true, but I do read the Times first of all in the morning. Despite my criticisms of the "mainstream media" (de rigueur for any blogger), newspapers like the Times have far and away the most resources and break the most stories--even if it must often be left to commentators and analysts to make proper sense of them.

Today we learn that a "top Central Intelligence Agency official traveled secretly to Islamabad this month to confront Pakistan’s most senior officials with new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas..." That powerful spy service, of course, is the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, whose ties with the Taliban both before and after 9/11 are well known and well reported. I do not claim to be an expert on the region, but it should be obvious that if the ISI is supporting the Taliban and other "militants" fighting the Afghan central government and NATO troops, it has a reason for doing so--and one that fits in with Pakistan's overall strategy in the region. Some insights into what those reasons might be can be found here, here, and here, and perhaps readers of this blog can recommend other sources on this topic. It seems pretty clear that Pakistani leaders have played the U.S. (and U.S. taxpayers) for suckers, taking billions in military aid and delivering pretty much zip in the "war on terrorism." Why? Well, because basically, they are on the other side (an exception was Benazir Bhutto, thus her fate.)

Now since George W. Bush said after 9/11 that you are either with America or with the terrorists, that must logically mean that we should declare war on Pakistan (oh, sorry, we don't declare war on anybody, we just invade them.) I suppose that this "confrontation" between the CIA official and top Pakistan officials will serve as a first warning; but realistically, don't look for the bombs to start falling on Islamabad any time soon.

So what is my point? It is simply to repeat what I have now said many times on this blog: The U.S. and NATO cannot "win" militarily in Afghanistan, anymore than the Russians could, and they should stop trying. The big mistake, as I think many observers now realize, was to chase the Taliban out of Afghanistan and then do the very minimum to help the country rebuild, despite the promises made by the Bush administration and most notably by Tony Blair at the time. This left a weak central government in Kabul and plenty of maneuvering room for the Taliban and other "insurgent" groups to regroup. The neglect was so blatant that in 2003 the Bush administration actually "forgot" to include aid for Afghanistan in its budget proposal. Since then, the annual budget of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for Afghanistan has gradually increased, from just under $500 million in 2002 to more than $2 billion today. That's not very much compared to the roughly $100 billion we are throwing away every year on the Iraq war.

Here's an idea: As the U.S. withdraws from Iraq over the first 16 months of the Obama adminstration (a plan now de facto endorsed by Iraqi leaders and in principle by the Bush administration, although not by the hapless John McCain), let's increase that aid by many times, including, if you like, cash payments to every Afghan man, woman, and child (estimated population about 33,000,000.) If that influx of funds doesn't give the Afghan population the will and motivation to fight the Taliban as well as other Pakistani-backed militants, it is hard to imagine what else will. And without the people solidly behind them, U.S. and NATO can't win anyway. (By "fight," by the way, I don't just mean with guns. The real conflict in Afghanistan is between Islamic fundamentalists and those who want to modernize the country. I would guess that much or most of the population is stuck somewhere between these two poles, making it a struggle for hearts and minds.)

Does this idea sound crazy? Not any crazier than what the U.S. is trying to do in Afghanistan right now. Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam; will Afghanistan be Barack Obama's Iraq? I hope not, for everyone's sake.

Update (August 1): U.S. intelligence officials have now concluded that Pakistani intelligence operatives were involved in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul last month. The Pakistanis have really suckered the Bush administration in the "war on terror," but that's no reason for Obama and the American people to be suckers too. Oh, and by the way, both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons and neither are signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty--although that has not stopped the U.S. from providing nuclear technology to India.

Update (August 8): Defense Secretary Robert Gates is now calling for $20 billion in additional aid for Afghanistan--military aid, that is.

In Memoriam: News comes that a major figure in my journalism department at Boston University, Jim Thistle, has died of cancer. Jim was head of broadcast journalism; more about his life and contributions can be read here.

Lies, lies, lies, and more lies: I also am a regular reader of the New York Times editorial page, which today calls John McCain out on the scurrilous (and desperate) campaign tactics he has been using against Obama. Any American who claims to be patriotic should be outraged at the kind of outright lies McCain's people have been engaged in, most notably the blatant falsehoods in a television ad about Obama's cancellation of a meeting with troops in Iraq. The notion that a candidate could or would lie his way into office should be offensive to everyone no matter what their politics. On the other hand, there are still too many who don't seem to mind that the current administration lied its way into a war.

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