This week, we got a real insight into the way Barack Obama’s strategic mind works.
From his campaign on, Obama has clearly felt that the United States has a lopsided foreign policy with too large a military commitment to certain crisis points on the globe.
He has wanted to rebalance American foreign policy to shift the focus away from the problems of the past – Iraq and Afghanistan – and toward the challenges of the 21st Century – the rise of China and Asia more generally.
This week he made good on those ideas, announcing a significant drawdown of troops from Afghanistan and effectively reversing the surge that began 18 months ago.
When he came into office, the United States had almost 200,000 troops engaged in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By next year it will have half that number, most of them in non-combat operations. Some would wish this drawdown was slower, others faster, but Obama has basically made the right call.
The United States cannot disengage instantly from a war it has fought for a decade with allies from dozens of other countries, international institutions, and commitments made to those allies and the Afghan people. Henry Kissinger once said getting out of a war is not like switching off the channel on a television set.
I understand that General Petraeus and other key advisers wanted a smaller drawdown to consolidate the gains that American forces have made in Afghanistan. But there will never be the perfect time.
Afghanistan is a troubled country in which some progress has been made. But parts of the country remain unsettled, beyond Kabul’s control and with some Taliban control. That would be true now; it will be true two years from now.
The Taliban cannot be defeated purely militarily. They will reconstitute.
At some point, you will have to find a way to bring them into the governing structures of the country. They are an indigenous force in Afghanistan, representing part of the large Pashtun community.
The much bigger problem with stabilizing Afghanistan is that the solution does not lie in the number of American troops or Afghan troops.
It lies with getting Pakistan – specifically the Pakistani army – to cooperate in this endeavor. Right now the signs in that direction are troubling.
There are signs everywhere that the Pakistani military has been infiltrated by radical Islamists who view the Taliban as their natural allies and the United States and the west as their natural enemies. This week, a brigadier general was arrested for his ties to the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Last month, well armed militants stormed an important naval base in Karachi – an operation that clearly required internal help.
Also last month, a brave Pakistani journalist who had detailed this Jihadi infiltration into the military was tortured and killed almost certainly by the Pakistani Intelligence Services, which does deny it.
And, of course, Osama Bin Laden could not have been happily ensconced in a villa in an army cantonment without some help from some elements of the Pakistani military.
The Pakistani military has been trying to deflect attention from these problems by stoking anti-Americanism at home. It has been trying to cozy up to China. It has been trying to thwart or sabotage any serious investigation into its problems.
If it continues on this path – a path of conflict, isolation and geopolitical games – it will mean backwardness for Pakistan and it will mean no peace for Afghanistan.