The United States could be enmeshed in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas for the next 30-50 years, according to The New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent David Sanger.
In San Francisco to promote his new book, The Inheritance, Sanger told members of The Commonwealth Club of California Wednesday that securing the typically unaccessible border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to be a cornerstone of American foreign policy for decades to come. “I suspect no American president can afford to allow that sanctuary to continue along the border and while there is a border for us, there's no border for them,” said Sanger. “This is why you're going to see President Obama extending the U.S. military operation and the covert operations over the border into Pakistan.”
The mountainous region know for craggy cliffs and impassable roads feature a unique opportunity for insurgents to hide from military intervention. This is the area that includes the infamous Tora Bora region where Osama bin Laden was able to escape capture shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. “There are not really many places in the world that are really effective sanctuaries for al Qaeda and the groups that will succeed them,” Sanger told Commonwealth Club President and CEO Gloria Duffy, who moderated the program. “There was a lot of talk after 9/11 about where does al Qaeda go when they no longer go the tribal areas? Well, the answer is: they go to the tribal areas.”
With Afghan presidential elections slated for the summer, Sanger doubts that a nation that has never been effectively held together by a central government can do so in the future. “If you decide that the country is going to be run by a series of different tribes and then you go out and do the equivalent of what we did in Iraq -- buying off the tribes -- to keep the peace and keep the country from again being that sanctuary,” said Sanger, “everybody who has looked at this hard says to me and everyone else, This is harder than Iraq.”
While the Obama administration has ramped up efforts to eventually switch the focus of military operations from Iraq to Afghanistan, Sanger says the strategic political question lies in Pakistan because of the prevalence of nuclear weapons in the country and the United States' interest in keeping those weapons from falling into the wrong hands. Sanger says he believes that the Pakistanis do a credible job of basic security of their weapons inventory, but he worries about their ability to keep nuclear knowledge within the state's laboratories. “Pakistan is a close ally on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for their own reasons, they have been supporting the Taliban,” said Sanger, “I don't think the civilian leadership wants to do that, but certainly elements of the army and the ISI do, and they want to do it because they think we're leaving Afghanistan and when we do the Indians will move into Southern Afghanistan and, to their mind, will surround Pakistan and crush them.”
In the end, the troubling conundrum that faces the United States is, When does your ally become your enemy? While having drinks with a senior military officer, the source told Sanger, “You know David, the problem with Pakistan is: 'How do you invade an ally?' That is the Pakistan problem.”
Acclaimed author and expert on the Taliban Ahmed Rashid will discuss the issues involving the Afghanistan and Pakistan border in addition to his new book, Descent into Chaos at The Commonwealth Club of California on March 11 at noon.
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