The Obama administration has always been clear that the path to winning the war in Afghanistan goes through Pakistan. But if Bob Woodward‘s new book is accurate, the White House considers its war effort much more dependent on the success and survival of Pakistan’s civilian government than was previously known.
Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars,” which hit bookstores Monday, sheds new light on the Obama administration’s vast outreach to the Pakistani civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari. It paints a picture of an administration working hard to court the Pakistanis while remaining somewhat confused about Pakistani thinking on a range of issues .
Obama himself was confused about the nature of Pakistani intentions during two crucial decision points in his administration’s Afghan policy — the March 2009 strategy rollout and the deliberations in November 2009, which resulted in a troop surge and a huge expansion of covert operations in Pakistan. However, based on advice from the majority of his key advisers, he nonetheless tried to entice Pakistan to commit to a deep and long-term partnership with the United States by offering the Zardari government incentive after incentive, with relatively few pressures.
According to Woodward’s account, the centrality of Pakistan was championed early on by Bruce Riedel, the Brookings scholar who was brought on as a key figure in the Obama administration’s March 2009 Afghanistan strategy review.
Riedel, who referred to Islamist extremists in Pakistan as the “real, central threat” to U.S. national security, personally convinced Obama, only two months after he took office, that Pakistan needed to be the centerpiece of his new strategy. Riedel’s plan involved arming the Pakistani military for counterinsurgency and increasing economic and other forms of aid to the civilian government. This marked the beginning of the term “Af-Pak,” which drove the administration’s belief that stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan were inextricably linked.
Riedel’s Pakistan focus was not due to his confidence that the civilian government could control the military and intelligence services. In fact, he referred to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as a “liar” with regards to the activities of the secretive Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which is widely suspected of aiding the Taliban insurgency. Then Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair reportedly echoed Riedel’s views on this matter.
Inside the administration, Blair argued that Obama was approaching Pakistan with too many carrots and not enough sticks. He at one point advocated bombing inside Pakistan and conducting raids there without the Pakistani government’s approval. “I think Pakistan would be completely, completely pissed off and they would probably take actions against us … but they would probably adjust,” he once told Obama.
Obama, however, opted to pursue a less confrontational path. He concluded the central task would be convincing the Pakistani leadership to throw its lot in with the United States He said at the time of the initial strategy review in March 2009, “that we had to have a serious heart-to-heart with Pakistani civilian, military and intelligence leaders.”
Later that year, when making the decision to send an additional 30,000 “surge” troops to Afghanistan, Obama knew that his plans to also expand the U.S. military presence in Pakistan and widen drone strikes would be a hard sell to the Zardari government. In an attempt to sweeten the deal, Obama framed the policy as a new “strategic partnership” with Pakistan, even tying the success of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to the survival of Zardari and the legacy of his deceased wife Benazir Bhutto.
“I know that I am speaking to you on a personal level when I say that my commitment to ending the ability of these groups to strike at our families is as much about my family’s security as it is about yours,” Obama wrote in a letter to Zardari delivered by National Security Advisor Jim Jones and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan.
Zardari’s response to that letter reinforced what many in the administration already suspected: Pakistan’s government was in the grips of an internal struggle over whether to embrace the United States. Zardari’s initial response focused heavily on India, though the Pakistani president only referred obliquely to his country’s strategic rival. Woodward reports that the White House believed the letter was written by the Pakistani military and the ISI. However, the Zardari government did end up accepting Obama’s offer.
Obama’s top advisors told the U.S. president that he would have to accept something short of complete success in convincing Pakistan to turn away from its longstanding obsession with the military threat it perceives from India.
When Obama had a meeting with Zardari in May 2009, he told the Pakistani president the he did not want U.S. taxpayers to be funding Pakistan’s military buildup against India “We are trying to change our world view,” Zardari told Obama, “but it’s not going to happen overnight.” At times, Obama was downright puzzled by his advisors’ advice regarding Pakistan. For example, intelligence reports confirmed that Pakistani officials were afraid that the United States would leave Afghanistan too early, as they believed had occurred after the end of the resistance to the Soviet regime in the 1980s. On the other hand, Pakistan worried that if the United States was too involved in Afghanistan, it might aid in the establishment of a larger Afghan army than Islamabad was comfortable with.
“What am I to believe?” Obama asked his senior staff. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates all told him these were the types of contradictions that were commonplace when dealing with Pakistan. For its part, the Pakistani government was just as confused and puzzled by the Obama administration. Woodward recounts one anecdote, in which Zardari tells the former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad that he believed the United States was involved in orchestrating attacks by the Pakistani Taliban against the Pakistani civilian government.
Pakistan’s Ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani, a key go-between, tried several times to explain to the Obama administration how to court Pakistani leaders, comparing the dynamic to “a man who is trying to woo a woman.”
“We all know what he wants from her. Right?” Haqqani said in a meeting with Jones, Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and the NSC’s Gen. Doug Lute. “But she has other ideas. She wants to be taken to the theater. She wants that nice new bottle of perfume,” Haqqani told them. “If you get down on one knee and give the ring, that’s the big prize. And boy, you know, it works.”
Haqqani said the “ring” was official U.S. recognition of Pakistan’s nuclear program as legitimate. He also warned that the Pakistanis would always ask for the moon as a starting point in negotiations. He compared it to the salesmanship of rug merchants. “The guy starts at 10,000 and you settle for 1,200,” Haqqani told the Obama team. “So be reasonable, but never let the guy walk out of the shop without a sale.”
Although the Obama administration has had some success improving the relationship between the two governments, Pakistan’s civilian leadership still faces a series of difficulties in its goal of exerting control over its entire national security structure. Stability has also been threatened by the enormous pressures resulting from the war that it is waging inside its own borders, and political attacks leveled against it from the media and the courts. Zardari’s perceived sluggish response to the devastating flood crisis has cost him even more credibility among the Pakistani public.
But while the end of Zardari regime has often been predicted, it appears that he will remain in place for the foreseeable future. The Obama administration, meanwhile, is aware of how crucial his cooperation remains for the success of the mission in Afghanistan.
When Woodward sat down for his interview with Obama earlier this year, he asked the president if the situation was still that Pakistan is the centerpiece of the U.S. strategy. “It continues to this day,” Obama replied.