President Obama said, referring to Osama bin Laden’s killing, “If we had asked Pakistan permission, we would not have gotten him.” But if Pakistan can’t be trusted, the president owes the American people an explanation of how he’d deal with a nuclear-armed impoverished country over the next four years.
Mr. Romney seems committed to changing Pakistani behavior. And although he claims he wouldn’t “divorce” Pakistan, Mr. Romney’s answer showed that he would downgrade Pakistan’s status as an American ally. Demanding policy changes from Pakistan in return for American support and friendship is a sound idea but neither candidate has spelled out what specific instruments of persuasion or coercion the United States might successfully deploy to that end.
The discussion over Afghanistan and Pakistan needs to be put in the context of the wider issue of containing Islamist extremism. Mr. Obama defines success against Al Qaeda very narrowly, glossing over how jihadist networks are already preparing to regroup in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region after the withdrawal of American combat forces in 2014. Mr. Obama has not articulated a plan to deal with that challenge.
Killing bin Laden was a positive development but it alone will not make the United States and its allies safe from terrorists. Al Qaeda and its affiliates continue to recruit all over the Muslim world and their ability to organize and train in remote parts of Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan has not been completely disrupted. Little has been done to limit the influence of ideas or organizations that lead young Muslims into terrorist training camps. And the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan has strengthened the jihadi narrative that America simply does not have the staying power and can be forced to withdraw from Muslim regions at very little cost.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have neither been decisively defeated nor forced to the negotiating table. It is unrealistic to assume that a professional Afghan National Army can be raised and fully assigned the task of securing the country within a short time frame. The Taliban’s ability to infiltrate this hastily assembled army reveals the excessive optimism of this policy.
The United States could have withdrawn from Afghanistan far more successfully if it hadn’t announced a deadline for its withdrawal. That deadline also took away any incentive for Pakistan’s military to work with the United States against the Taliban, thinking that it could instead sit the Americans out and wait for the chance to maximize its influence in a post-American Afghanistan. The Obama administration didn’t succeed in persuading or coercing Pakistan into acting against the Taliban, and its unilateralism has only made it more difficult for the few pro-American elements in Pakistan to fight their own battle against jihadists.
It’s fine to say, “We do not want or like war,’‘ but wars against an ideologically motivated enemy, such as Al Qaeda and its affiliates, are wars of necessity. Such wars cannot be fought according to a neat timeline and without effective allies who share both the war’s aims and its strategy.