The outcome of the fighting in Afghanistan and whether the coalition forces can prevent the Taliban from re-gaining influence there will largely determine how safe and secure civilized nations will remain from future terrorist attacks. Taliban terrorists and their al-Qaeda allies have stepped up attacks mostly in southern Afghanistan to test the mettle of NATO forces and to try to demonstrate to the Afghan people they remain a powerful force in the country. They have taken advantage of the Karzai government’s shortcomings and capitalized on the increase in civilian casualties from coalition military operations to press their agenda.
In Pakistan’s tribal border areas, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have taken shelter, mainly in North and South Waziristan, and have forged working relationships with different Islamist extremist groups in the region to help protect themselves and keep Pakistan military forces at bay. U.S. Predator strikes in the area have recently been successful in eliminating several high profile terrorist targets, including Rashid Rauf, a suspect in the August 2006 London-Washington airliner bomb plot who had escaped from Pakistani custody in December 2007.
The fact that U.S. sophisticated missile technology can better protect the world from a future catastrophic terrorist strike than a Pakistani security guard should not come as a surprise to anyone. But the fact is it will take more than technology to confront the terrorists in South Asia that still threaten our way of life and democratic ideals. It will take a concerted and multi-pronged effort that involves education, economic development, political reconciliation, and a close integration of U.S. policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. The naming of a high-level Pakistan-Afghanistan envoy by the Obama foreign policy team (as seems increasingly likely) would be welcome. This person will have to work hand-in-glove with CENTCOM Commander General Petraeus, just as Gen. Petraeus worked so effectively with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker to help stabilize the situation there.
Disaggregating the enemy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is indeed important. But equally important is ensuring the U.S. and Pakistan agree on exactly who that enemy is. Part of the failure to defeat extremist forces in South Asia is due to Pakistan’s ambivalence toward religious militancy it has relied on in the past to achieve its aims in Afghanistan and India. While Pakistan’s military leadership increasingly comprehends that these extremists can easily get out of their control and pose an existential threat to Pakistan itself, they also lack a comprehensive, bold plan to face down the threat. The extremists, on the other hand, are clear on their vision, which in the short-term includes carving out a space in the tribal areas from which to plan and launch terrorist attacks. Developing an effective U.S.-Pakistan partnership to jointly address the threat will be one of the greatest challenges facing the new Obama administration.