Obama's Pakistan Failure

The photos showing NATO supply trucks being set ablaze by insurgents in Pakistan should send a chill up the spine of every American. So should the State Department's travel-alert warning on yet another Pakistan-inspired terror threat.

President Obama's Pakistan policy is going up in smoke, just like those NATO trucks. The bitter irony is that even as Obama is trying to get out of the war in Afghanistan, he may be heading us into one in Pakistan.


  • In 2009, we launched 45 Predator drone attacks into Pakistan. In 2010, we may almost triple that number, with 22 in September alone.

  • US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan are now running crossborder raids into Pakistan to flush out Taliban insurgents, even though the Pakistan government has vigorously protested.

  • Islamabad even warns that the incursions threaten the alliance in the War on Terror. One raid last week killed three Pakistani border guards, which led the Pakistani government to close a key border crossing to a NATO supply convoy--which militants then burned down to the tire rims.

  • Raids by the CIA's Counterterrorism Pursuit Team--with its 3,000 Afghan troops--into Pakistan are also becoming routine. According to Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars," CIA chief Leon Panetta wants even more powers to wage what is in effect a secret CIA war inside Pakistani territory.

All this adds up to a US effort in Pakistan highly reminiscent of the one we undertook in Laos in the 1960s--one of the springboards into the Vietnam quagmire.

Yet despite these efforts, or perhaps because of them, Pakistan has increasingly become the epicenter of terror plots against this country, from the abortive Times Square bombing plot to the Mumbai-style attacks thwarted last week.

If Obama's growing pressure on Pakistan destabilizes that government, the only thing keeping that country's nukes out of the hands of al Qaeda may have to be US troops. That's a shooting-war scenario that will make Obama wish his name was Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council official, has convinced Obama that the focus of the War on Terror needs to shift from Afghanistan to Pakistan. That meant more pressure on the Pakistanis to close Taliban and other terrorist sanctuaries and less desire to stay in Afghanistan longer than we have to.

The policy hasn't worked. Pakistan's rulers like drone strikes that take out terrorists who also threaten them, like the Pakistan Taliban. But they don't see why they should support attacks on groups whose target is the Af ghan government.

Above all, they're still convinced that the real threat to their country comes from the east, from India--not the terrorists hiding along the Afghan frontier. The NATO raid last week was the final straw.

The Obama administration insists that the supply-route closure is temporary. Yet the shutdown still bodes ill. Almost 80 percent of the non-lethal supplies for our war in Afghanistan flows through Pakistan. Another bad omen is the fact that NATO helicopters following insurgents across the border are routinely shot at by Pakistani troops.

Riedel, Gen. David Petraeus and the rest of the Obama team know it's impossible to win in Afghanistan until the Pakistan sanctuaries are blown up or shut down. But the current policy isn't bringing us any closer to that goal--and may ultimately destabilize the Pakistan regime.

It also ignores the two important points of leverage we have, which could still turn the situation around.

The first is India. Administration officials complain that the Pakistanis are too focused on India, not Afghanistan. Instead, we should use that obsession to our advantage. Our unique relations with both India and Pakistan, the two nuclear powers but also the region's biggest democracies, offer an opportunity to work out a durable detente between the two nations that would allow Pakistan to refocus on suppressing militants and see winning the War on Terror as a victory for all three nations.

The other is Afghanistan itself. Obama doesn't see that his obvious eagerness to leave makes the Pakistanis more, not less, reluctant to help us against the Taliban, because they may have to deal with the Taliban running the country again.

Talking about victory in Afghanistan, instead of an exit strategy or focusing our resources elsewhere, just might save his Pakistan policy--and save us from another Vietnam.

Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: White House Photo/Pete Souza

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About the Author


  • Arthur Herman is a historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Bantam, 2008), the Mountbatten Prize–nominated To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2005), the New York Times bestseller How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2001), and many articles on foreign and military policy. At AEI, Dr. Herman authored a new book that traces the mobilization of American industry, technology, and material production over the course of World War II.
  • Email: arthur.herman@aei.org
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