The problem with campaign promises, especially far-reaching ones, is that eventually they must be kept. Throughout his campaign, Barack Obama pledged to reverse what he called one of the fundamental strategic blunders of the Bush Administration by returning to, and winning the war in, Afghanistan. But when Obama takes office on Jan. 20, he will inherit a war complicated by years of neglect. Seven years on, military commanders are struggling to find a winning strategy in a fight whose cost in both blood and treasure continues to mount even as security disintegrates. Coalition soldiers are dying in greater numbers now than in any year since 2001. So are Afghan civilians who are victims of the insurgency as well as mistaken aerial bombardments made necessary by a shortage of troops. The Bush Administration, in its assessment due in December, will recommend a doubling of the Afghan military, yet it neglects to say how that impoverished country can support an army of 160,000 or more. Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was not exaggerating when he warned last week that the Afghan war would be the biggest challenge for Obama after the economic crisis.
It's likely that Europe's rekindled love affair with the U.S. thanks to Obama will lead to promises of soldiers and cash for Afghanistan. An eventual drawdown of troops in Iraq will free up U.S. investment as well. But as many diplomats and military commanders have said, this war will not be won by military means alone. If Obama intends to solve the problems of Afghanistan, he would best take a page from his first major foreign policy paper, penned in July 2007. "I will encourage dialogue between Pakistan and India to work toward resolving their dispute over Kashmir," he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, focusing on long-standing tensions over the contested territory that has led to two wars between the nuclear-armed nations. Peace between Pakistan and India will achieve far more for Afghanistan and the war on terror than unlimited troops and an open bank account.
Throughout its history, Afghanistan's many wars have not been fought for territorial gain; instead, its indigenous protagonists have been proxies for bigger, more complicated enemies. During the Great Game, the British fought there to prevent the Russians from invading India. In the 1980s, Americans equipped mujahedin to bleed the Soviet Union dry. In the civil war following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan backed the Taliban, a fundamentalist faction fostered in its own religious seminaries, to counter Indian influence in the rival Northern Alliance. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1994, Pakistan was one of only three nations to recognize their government. The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), Pakistan's clandestine services, then sent militants hardened in the Soviet war to Indian-administered Kashmir in order to wage a low-level insurgency. They used the Afghan mountains as training grounds and looked the other way when Osama bin Laden made the country a base for his terrorist network. Many Kashmiri militants were trained in his camps as part of the global jihad. As long as there was a sympathetic regime in Afghanistan, Pakistan believed, it could stand up to India, its more powerful neighbor to the east. (See pictures of how the Afghan war is portrayed in art.)
But in 2001, the Taliban was toppled, and a Northern Alliancedominated government took its place. Hamid Karzai, educated in India, became President. India stepped in with multimillion-dollar reconstruction projects. Pakistani officials mutter darkly about up to 19 Indian "consulates" based in sensitive border areas as if it were fact (there are only three). "Who is the beneficiary of this war on terror that requires the collaboration of Pakistan?" a retired major in the Pakistani army once asked me. "India is again in Afghanistan, working against us. Unless you demonstrate what good for Pakistan will come out of this collaboration, you will not get any more than grudging support." That was made clear this summer, when evidence emerged that senior members of the ISI were involved in an attack on Kabul's Indian embassy that killed 51. (See pictures of the dangerous passage between Pakistan and Afghanistan.)
Until Pakistan is secure in its relationship with India, it will continue to believe that its interests are best advanced through clandestine support of the Taliban and other elements that destabilize Afghanistan. The way to do that would be to help resolve the festering Kashmir issue. Such a resolution would bring other dividends as well deprived of the Kashmir cause, Islamist militancy within Pakistan would lose support. A strong diplomatic initiative will go a long way toward convincing local stakeholders that the U.S. is not only committed to eliminating extremism, but that it is also invested in regional development. It might even raise America's image in Pakistan; at last count, the U.S. received a 19% approval rating, compared with bin Laden's 34%. Peace would free up vital trade routes to Central Asia that would not only enrich Afghanistan but open markets in India to Pakistani products and resources.
India and Pakistan have fought over Kashmir twice since 1947. Resolving an issue that has been the failure of many great diplomatic efforts will by no means be an easy task. But Obama, strengthened by his mandate at home and even abroad, and spurred on by his pledge to fix Afghanistan, is the man for the job. The time is right. Despite the economic meltdown, the U.S. has leverage in the form of an agreement to sell India civilian nuclear technology and fuel. Pakistan has a civilian government for the first time in nine years, and a desperate need for cash and trade. There is nothing to lose, and everything to gain.