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In Pakistan, Skepticism At Obama Speech

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In Pakistan, Skepticism At Obama Speech


In Pakistan, Skepticism At Obama Speech

In Pakistan, Skepticism At Obama Speech

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In his speech on Afghan strategy Tuesday, President Obama said that Pakistan and the United States "share a common enemy." Obama also said success in Afghanistan "was inextricably linked" to Pakistan eradicating safe havens within its borders. Many Pakistanis, however, reject that premise.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In Pakistan today, a suicide bomber struck outside the naval headquarters in the capital, Islamabad. Two people were killed. The attack came just hours after President Obama said in his speech at West Point that Pakistan and the U.S. share a common enemy. Mr. Obama also said success in Afghanistan was inextricably linked to Pakistan.

From Islamabad, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on reaction to the president's address.

JULIE McCARTHY: President Obama stated unequivocally that al-Qaida is lodged along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and that he intends no let-up in the pressure on them.

President BARACK OBAMA: We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan, and that's why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.

McCARTHY: The U.S. is clear: Success in Afghanistan depends on eradicating safe havens in Pakistan. But many here reject the premise that militants continue to find refuge within Pakistan's lawless border region.

Former senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed says it's more American posturing than policy, eight years after failing to catch Osama bin Laden.

Mr. MUSHAHID HUSSAIN SAYED (Former Senator, Pakistan): I have no doubt if the U.S. knew where the so-called safe havens are of al-Qaida, they would have bombed the hell out of them long time ago. And I see a lot of double standard here, that they are looking for scapegoats in order to cover up their own failings.

McCARTHY: But Mushahid praises the president's strategic reorientation with Pakistan. The White House wants to strengthen the besieged country's capacity to combat extremism, but also help Pakistan develop with billions of dollars in civilian aid.

Retired general Talat Masood says Washington is dangling a carrot to lure Pakistan into acting against extremists that it had accommodated in the past.

General TALAT MASOOD (Retired, Pakistani Army): And they are also saying that if you were able to sort of get rid of them and take action against them, then we are quite willing to sort of expand our military and economic assistance and also see to it that, you know, your relations with India improve.

McCARTHY: But General Masood says Pakistanis remember well when the Americans abandoned them once the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan ended 20 years ago.

Gen. MASOOD: There is a strong anti-Americanism, which prevails. And that is a very serious problem in Pakistan-U.S. relations.

McCARTHY: The fragility of President Asif Ali Zardari, who is buffeted by corruption scandals and calls for his resignation, compounds the problems for the United States.

Newspaper editor and analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai says deprived of a strong partner, Washington must deal with Pakistan's most stable institution: the army. And that, he says, is tricky for any U.S. president looking to burnish his democratic credentials.

Mr. RAHIMULLAH YUSUFZAI (Editor, The News in Peshawar): This is a delicate balancing act. You don't want to be seen to be too close to the army. But without the army in a country like Pakistan, you cannot achieve much.

McCARTHY: The foreign ministry said today it looks forward to engaging closely with the U.S. in the new strategy, but wants to ensure that there would be no adverse fallout on Pakistan.

Former ambassador Zafar Hilaly speculates on what that fallout may refer to.

Mr. ZAFAR HILALY (Former Ambassador, Pakistan): If there is any unilateral action, let's say against the territory of Pakistan, I think that would be most unfortunate. And it would go down very badly here.

McCARTHY: There is widespread skepticism here that sending additional troops to Afghanistan will make the war any more winnable, nor that it will pacify Pakistan's unruly neighbor to the west. The worry here is that more troops will push more militants across the border into Pakistan.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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Will More Troops In Afghanistan Make A Difference?

U.S. Army soldiers walk toward a motor pool Wednesday at Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak province, Afghanistan. President Obama ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to the war in Afghanistan, nearly tripling the force he inherited as commander in chief. Dario Lopez-Mills/AP hide caption

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Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

U.S. Army soldiers walk toward a motor pool Wednesday at Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak province, Afghanistan. President Obama ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to the war in Afghanistan, nearly tripling the force he inherited as commander in chief.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

In his new Afghanistan strategy, President Obama is counting on an accelerated 18-month surge to reverse the Taliban's momentum and make a dent in the spiraling violence.

The most visible portion of the new effort will be the 30,000 additional U.S. troops that will start flowing into Afghanistan in the next few weeks.

But many military experts remain skeptical that the extra soldiers will be enough to change the fundamental dynamics, particularly if Obama sticks to his new July 2011 target for beginning a drawdown.

The new deadline is emerging as the most controversial part of Obama's strategy. The president said the timeframe is aimed at creating a sense of urgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan to act more aggressively.

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But critics worry that it sends the wrong signal to the Taliban and al-Qaida, and to U.S. allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Setting a date could allow insurgents to bide their time and take up their offensive after U.S. troops leave.

"Anyone who knows Afghanistan says you might be able to make the beginning of a difference there, but once you start telling people you're out of there, it's going to affect people's behavior," says Eliot Cohen, the director of the strategic studies program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "That actually incentivizes bad behavior. If you think the Americans are headed out of there, the obvious thing to do is do things in the old Afghan way."

Not Locked Into Leaving

Senior Obama administration officials insist that the pace of withdrawal will be determined by conditions on the ground.

"I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a Senate committee hearing Wednesday. "But what we have done ... is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan."

The plan is designed so that the lead responsibility for security will be handed over gradually to Afghans on a local basis, depending on the quality and reliability of security forces and government institutions.

"In my own mind, July 2011 is a reasonably well-set timeline to get the Afghans to a point where at least in some portions of Afghanistan, we can start withdrawing," retired Lt. Gen James Dubik, who oversaw training of Iraqi forces in 2007 and 2008 and spent the past summer observing training of Afghan troops, told NPR's All Things Considered.

Deep Skepticism

But given that U.S. forces have spent the past eight years trying to build up the Afghan army, police and government ministries, there is deep skepticism about how much of a difference another 18 months can make, even with an additional influx of resources.

President Obama addresses the nation on Afghanistan on Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama addresses the nation on Afghanistan on Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

"I have no doubt that with 30,000 troops, Gen. McChrystal can put the Taliban on their back foot in 18 months, but those gains will not be sustainable," says Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan who worked extensively on issues in Afghanistan. "At best, you will make marginal progress in the next 18 months at building up the Afghan national army. That will be a very long project."

The U.S. military plans to accelerate its training efforts by requiring all U.S. combat soldiers to actively partner with Afghan forces in a training capacity.

Senior administration officials say that there are currently 92,000 capable Afghan national army forces, but that too many of them remain garrisoned on bases rather than actively protecting the Afghan people.

McChrystal has said privately that Afghan security forces need to eventually number 400,000 if they are going to be able to secure the entire country. That would include about 260,000 army soldiers and another 140,000 police officers.

Objectives Too Small?

"One of the mistakes the Bush administration made, and I hope we will not make it again, is to set our objectives too small for Afghan security forces," says Cohen, who served as counselor to the State Department for the last two years of the Bush administration. "If you want your real ticket to withdrawal for American combat forces, it's going to be the effective development of Afghan security forces, which will probably have to be paid for by the international community for decades to come. But that's worth it."

Obama's review, however, shied away from endorsing any specific target, with aides saying they prefer to set year-by-year targets that are more achievable. "We are going to take this in bite-size chunks," a senior administration official told reporters.

But there are persistent doubts about whether the training of effective forces can be sped up all that much.

"If push comes to shove, we may be able to recruit enough people on this advanced timeline that you can give them uniforms and boots, and teach them to stand in a straight line, but that's about it," Grenier says. "I'm not even sure they can recruit in sufficient numbers to meet this advanced timeline."

Grenier says the U.S. needs to work more actively with local security forces and tribal militias.

Relying On The Afghans

Until now, Washington has been reluctant to arm and train local militias because officials don't want to undercut the national government in Kabul and further empower local warlords.

In his speech Tuesday night at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Obama did not make any specific reference to local militias. But officials suggested that the administration is open to broader grass-roots security efforts as long as they are somehow tied into government institutions.

"The key here is community security organizations that are willing to work with the government in Kabul and that do not become the militias for warlords," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress on Wednesday.

But details remain scarce. And some Afghan experts warn that arming militias could end up fueling more of the internecine conflicts that wracked the country for much of the 1980s and 1990s.

"The risk is that we could lose control because we are arming local groups and we know the Afghan army will be weakened by these groups," says Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "You will have many groups that are more or less criminal. That could have a short-term result against the Taliban, but it could end up destroying the state in Afghanistan."

In his speech, Obama laid out three broad underpinnings of his strategy. The first is the military push to "break the Taliban's momentum." That includes the surge of 30,000 troops, which will be focused in the troubled southern and eastern regions of the country.

The increase will bring the total number of U.S. troops up to nearly 100,000 by next summer. In addition, some 39,000 NATO and international soldiers are there, and NATO officials expect new commitments of 5,000 additional troops, most of which would be deployed in northern Afghanistan.

They will have their work cut out for them. The Taliban have now achieved a "dominant influence" in 11 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. He also said insurgent attacks this past summer were 60 percent higher than in the same period in 2008.

The second portion is the civilian effort to build up the Afghan government, which has been plagued by corruption and incompetence.

By focusing U.S. aid on areas like agriculture and anti-corruption efforts, Washington hopes to reward the best-run ministries and push out the most corrupt officials. But that will require Afghan President Hamid Karzai to uphold his commitment to clean up his government and fight corruption.

Problems In Pakistan

The third plank involves neighboring Pakistan, which is where al-Qaida still maintains a safe haven and where the limits of U.S. power are felt most clearly.

In public, Obama offered few details on any new initiatives involving Pakistan, other than to offer a long-term partnership. He also praised Pakistan for its recent more aggressive campaigns against extremists inside its borders.

But privately, Obama administration officials were much tougher on Pakistan.

"We are very serious about Pakistan changing its strategic calculus," says a senior administration official. "We want them to realize that association with these extremist groups is not a hedge that is in their long-term interests."

Still, U.S. troops cannot operate openly in Pakistan, meaning U.S. influence is felt most strongly with the controversial strikes by unmanned aircraft targeting extremist hideouts in remote tribal areas.

Obama's strategy does reportedly involve boosting U.S. covert operations in Pakistan, as well as its intelligence sharing with Pakistan's government.

"We have pretty much eliminated al-Qaida from Afghanistan. Obviously we don't want them to come back. The next [step] is to help the Pakistanis get rid of them on their side of the border," James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, told NPR's Morning Edition.

But some experts worry that the new July 2011 deadline could make Pakistan reluctant to boost its cooperation significantly.

"I think they are very skeptical of a surge, particularly a short-term surge," Grenier says. "They think it will only push fighters across the border into Pakistan."