Pentagon's quiet shift on Afghanistan war: Maybe safe havens aren't crucial

For years, the Pentagon has stressed the importance to the Afghanistan war of eradicating safe havens for the Taliban and other insurgents in Pakistan. Now, it's easing off those claims.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/File
A Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan in this Jan. 31, 2010, file photo. The success of drones in striking insurgent strongholds in Pakistan's North Waziristan has made the need to clear our safe havens in Pakistan less urgent.

After stressing for years that removing insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan is vital to winning the war in Afghanistan, US military officials are subtly deemphasizing the importance of that goal as realities on the ground shift.

Foremost among Pakistan's sanctuaries has been North Waziristan, which has served as headquarters for a key insurgent group allied with the Taliban, the Haqqani network. Without the Haqqani network, many senior US military officials believe, the Taliban would likely not be able to sustain operations against NATO troops throughout Afghanistan.

Yet in comments that surprised many analysts, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of US troops in eastern Afghanistan, told Pentagon reporters last month that, even if Haqqani network forces aren't cleared out of North Waziristan, it is still possible for the United States to win the war in Afghanistan.

“I think that’s doable if it doesn’t continue, you know, if it doesn’t get significantly worse,” Rodriguez said of insurgent attacks launched from North Waziristan. The continued operation of the Haqqani network is “not a mission-stopper in my mind.”

Changes on the ground

Puzzling compared with the military's past statements, the assessment nevertheless makes sense in light of recent developments on the ground in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, military experts argue.

For one, the CIA’s drone campaign in North Waziristan has targeted senior Al Qaeda leadership with great success, according to senior US officials.

In addition, during the past year, US Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan have grown by more than 50 percent, they add. Most are focused on targeting the Haqqani network in the key provinces of Khost and Paktia – near the border with North Waziristan – in eastern Afghanistan.

These measures are at least partly a response to the Pakistan Army's unwillingness to go after the Haqqani network. The Pakistani military has maintained ties with the network since its founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, came to the country during the days of the mujahideen to fight the Soviets at the behest of the US and Pakistan. It is one of Afghanistan’s “most experienced and sophisticated insurgent organizations,” according to a study from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

As such, the network remains a valuable chip for Pakistan’s intelligence service, says Jeffrey Dressler, a research analyst and author of the ISW study. The Haqqani network attacks Indian targets in Afghanistan and helps to rein in elements of the Pakistani Taliban, which has turned against Pakistan.

For these reasons, the Pakistani military has long been reluctant to launch military operations in North Waziristan, despite the additional presence of senior Al Qaeda leadership there. While there are some six Pakistani Army brigades currently in North Waziristan, “none are engaged in operations against the Haqqani network,” Mr. Dressler says.

Making do without Pakistan's help

The two-pronged US approach of drones and special operations, however, has increasingly helped to drive the Haqqani network out of North Waziristan, making it a less strategically vital sanctuary. US military officials are beginning to ratchet down the rhetoric against Pakistani Army inaction, too – particularly “given that they don’t see it changing,” says Dressler.

Rodriguez seemed to emphasize this point as well. “We’re going to encourage them [the Pakistani military] to do more because that makes it easier on what we’re doing,” he said. “But I think it’s still doable without them.”

Such comments make good strategic sense, adds Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Pakistan’s internal stability is key to US national security interests and for that reason, it is not wise to undermine the Pakistani military.

While “winning in Afghanistan” may not be possible with large insurgent sanctuaries, Dr. Cordesman says, both the United States and Pakistan are acutely aware that “It is absolutely pointless if Pakistan becomes a failed state or not stable.”

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