Hirsh: McCain and Obama Miss the Real Crisis

There's nothing like a presidential race for getting the big issues wrong. While John McCain and Barack Obama engage in a pseudodebate about Iraq—where things are going relatively well, and both candidates will probably end up pursuing similar courses—the real emerging crisis is in Pakistan. And that is where no coherent U.S. policy exists, nor is there even a debate occurring. The problem: while President Pervez Musharraf, the old soldier, is fading slowly away, new Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani is said to be quietly cutting deal after deal with Al Qaeda-linked militants, whose safe haven is growing beyond the tribal regions. And the still-green civilian government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is all but powerless to interfere. The result is that militant and terrorist groups, feeling almost cozy in their newly secured territory, are mounting a fresh military and propaganda campaign and establishing a breathing space from which to plot future acts of terror.

Bush administration officials are growing steadily more alarmed by Pakistan's instability, and they are at a loss about what to do. More bombing only seems to create more jihadis. At a meeting in the city of Rawalpindi in early June, radical groups including Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba—which have been surreptitiously supported by the Pakistani military as proxies in its longtime border struggle with India—agreed that the joining the fight with their Taliban brethren against NATO in Afghanistan was now more of a priority than the disputed province of Kashmir, The Associated Press reported. A month later, nine U.S. soldiers died in the most costly ambush of U.S. forces since 2002. The Taliban's propaganda capabilities have grown much more sophisticated as well, a new report by the International Crisis Group says. The number of propaganda videos coming out of the Pakistani tribal region has jumped from just six in 2002 to 97 videos last year, according to figures compiled by Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council official.

South Asia expert Chris Fair of the Rand Corp. says that what's developing in Pakistan is "a proliferating archipelago of radical micro-emirates ratified by peace deals." She says "it's no longer just the FATA [federally administered tribal areas] that are safe havens; the area has most definitely grown." Since 2004 in Waziristan, she says, there have been at least seven major pacts of non-aggression signed with Pakistani tribal groups. "What all of them seem to have in common is that the military is legitimizing the Taliban as a negotiating entity. They [the militants] are being compensated for losses both material and human, allowed to keep weapons, in return for promising not to harbor foreign fighters. But the military doesn't leave itself any enforcement mechanism."

The policy of appeasement began under Musharraf, but Kayani has stepped it up because he wants to focus on rebuilding the Pakistani Army's stature after eight years of military rule, says Fair and other analysts. "First and foremost, Kayani has to protect the institution of the Army," says Fair. "So he's putting counterinsurgency aside. The civilians have no control, it's not their portfolio." In some cases, says Robert Pempler of the International Crisis Group, Gilani's government is trying to negotiate deals that will wean some "reconcilable" tribes away from the militants, "but in some ways these are being undercut by the military," which just wants to withdraw its troops. "It reflects a longstanding failure by the Pakistani military to tackle issues in this area." And politically, he adds, Pakistan is "still an incredibly delicate situation. It has not completed the transition from military to civilian rule" despite Gilani's planned visit to Washington next week as head of state. The administration's currying of favor with Kayani by upgrading his F-16s—as reported by The New York Times—is no answer.

Afghanistan was once known as "the forgotten war," but that's no longer true. Now everybody's paying attention; even McCain has joined Obama in calling for the deployment of more U.S. troops there. But no matter how many forces are sent to Afghanistan, that war will remain unwinnable while the bad guys have a safe haven across the border. And that problem is not being addressed. When Obama, in a speech last summer, suggested that he would send in the U.S. military unilaterally if Pakistan's government did not act against Al Qaeda (he repeated the threat during a visit to Afghanistan last Sunday), he was pilloried by almost everybody—including his fellow Democrats—for allegedly offending an ally. Unilateral action is still not a good solution, since it would only further damage America's already tenuous ties with Pakistan's government. But no one in Washington has offered a better answer yet.

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