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What the 'Military Solution' Looks Like

By Dan Froomkin
1:00 PM ET, 05/ 6/2009


An injured child from the Bala Baluk district of Afghanistan yesterday. (AP/Abdul Malek)

There's a tremendous sense of urgency surrounding President Obama's meetings today with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And a sense of urgency often leads people to focus primarily on military solutions.

So it's worth stopping to consider what the "military solution" has been looking like recently in that region of the world.

Rahim Faiez writes for the Associated Press: "The international Red Cross confirmed Wednesday that civilians were found in graves and rubble where Afghan officials alleged U.S. bombs killed had dozens....

"Women and children were among dozens of bodies in two villages targeted by airstrikes, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported Wednesday, after sending a team to the district. The U.S. military sent a brigadier general to the region to investigate.

"A former Afghan government official said up to 120 people died in the bombing Monday evening...

"The first images from the bombings in Farah province emerged Wednesday. Photos from the site obtained by The Associated Press showed villagers burying the dead in about a dozen fresh graves, while others dug through the rubble of demolished mud-brick homes."

Matthew Lee writes for the Associated Press that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this morning said "the Obama administration 'deeply, deeply' regrets the loss of innocent life apparently as the result of a U.S. bombing in Afghanistan and will undertake a full review of the incident."

But the damage is done, both to the victims and to our goals. Consider what Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in February: "We have learned, after seven years of war, that trust is the coin of the realm -- that building it takes time, losing it takes mere seconds, and maintaining it may be our most important and most difficult objective.

"That's why images of prisoner maltreatment at Abu Ghraib still serve as recruiting tools for al-Qaeda. And it's why each civilian casualty for which we are even remotely responsible sets back our efforts to gain the confidence of the Afghan people months, if not years."

And now let's take a look at what's going on in Pakistan, where, as Warren P. Strobel and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers, "Obama and his team are urging [Pakistani President Asif Ali] Zardari to mount a sustained offensive against the Taliban and its allies, who're imposing a brutal form of Islamic rule across the country's northwest."

The problem: "Religious militants, who aspire to fundamentalist religious rule like the Taliban maintained in Afghanistan for five years until 2001, took advantage of a cease-fire with the government to win control over the scenic Swat valley and have since moved into neighboring districts, some of which are 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad."

But here is what Zardari's solution looks like. As Saeed Shah wrote for McClatchy Newspapers on Monday: "The Pakistani army's assault against Islamic militants in Buner, in northwest Pakistan, is flattening villages, killing civilians and sending thousands of farmers and villagers fleeing from their homes, residents escaping the fighting said Monday...

"[R]esidents' accounts of the fighting contradict those from the Pakistani military and suggest that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari is rapidly losing the support of those it had set out to protect."

Strobel and Talev write that the "heavy-handed military force...could further undermine support for the government.

"'All they're doing is displacing civilians and hurting people,' said a U.S. defense official who asked not to be further identified because he isn't authorized to speak to the media. 'It's not going to work.'"

So what will work? Who knows? As Paul Richter and Christi Parsons write in the Los Angeles Times, Obama seems to have no choice but to "overhaul a painstakingly developed security strategy that was unveiled only five weeks ago but already has become badly outdated."

And the greatest urgency, in fact, is now seen on the Pakistan side of the border. As Richter and Parsons write: "In what is emerging as Obama's first major foreign policy crisis, U.S. officials fear the militants could fracture Pakistan, the far more populous nation, further destabilizing the region and even posing a grave risk to the security of Islamabad's nuclear arsenal...

"Though the situation in Afghanistan may not have improved, it does suddenly seem more manageable. 'By comparison, it looks like Canada,' one U.S. official said in an interview."

Canada? With 60,000 American troops soon to be in harm's way? I don't think so. But you get the point.

Meanwhile, Obama is dealing with two reluctant allies.

As Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes in The Washington Post, "senior members of Obama's national security team say [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai has not done enough to address the grave challenges facing his nation. They deem him to be a mercurial and vacillating chieftain who has tolerated corruption and failed to project his authority beyond the gates of Kabul....

"Vexed by the challenge of stabilizing Afghanistan with a partner they regard as less than reliable, Obama's advisers have crafted a two-pronged strategy that amounts to a fundamental break from the avuncular way President George W. Bush dealt with the Afghan leader.

"Obama intends to maintain an arm's-length relationship with Karzai in the hope that it will lead him to address issues of concern to the United States, according to senior U.S. government officials. The administration will also seek to bypass Karzai by working more closely with other members of his cabinet and by funneling more money to local governors."

And Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "The Obama administration 'unambiguously' supports Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, even as it puts 'the most heavy possible pressure' on his government to fight extremists in the country, Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, told Congress yesterday....

"When the three sit down today, Obama will tell Zardari and Karzai that they 'have to work together, despite their issues and their history. That's just what has to be done,' said one of two senior administration officials who briefed reporters at the White House about the visits on the condition of anonymity."

As the New York Times editorial board writes: "American officials don’t have much confidence in either leader — a fact they haven’t tried to conceal. Most Afghans and Pakistanis share their doubts. But if there is any hope of defeating the Taliban, Mr. Obama will have to find a way to work with both men — and find the right mixture of support and blunt pressure to get them to do what is necessary to save their countries."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company