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There's a growing sense that Pakistan may finally be taking on the Taliban, as Washington has pressed it to do for months. But how Washington itself will conduct the war against the extremists seems increasingly unclear: concerns are mounting in Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul over command, long-term strategy, and the controversial use of Predator drones.
The abrupt dismissal this week of Gen. David McKiernan underscored that the administration is still reworking its strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. General McKiernan was overall commander of US forces in Afghanistan, a post usually filled for two years. McKiernan had barely served for one. His replacement by Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a veteran of special operations and unconventional warfare in Iraq, is supposed to signal a "new strategy" and "a new mission," according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Many security analysts who follow US 'Afpak' strategy have welcomed the change, lauding the skill set McChrystal brings. "McChrystal is known as one of the smartest and least conventional thinkers in the Army, and a counterinsurgent's counterinsurgent," wrote Spencer Ackerman at the Washington Independent, an online paper, predicting "a lot of glowing praise for him from the counterinsurgency community." Many experts also supported the appointment of Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez as deputy commander of US forces in Afghanistan.
But exactly how the generals' expertise will be brought to bear remains unclear. According to Joshua Foust at Registan.net, a blog on Eurasian politics and news:
McChrystal's appointment is a jarring shift for U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, which are currently transitioning commands between the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. It is unclear what having a Special Operations commander in charge will do the overall country strategy, just as it is unclear what two major changes of commands in a short period of time will do to the current units who are deployed there.
As the crisis in Pakistan escalates, some Pakistani analysts fear that confusion reigns in the White House, as a recent opinion piece in Pakistan's The News, expresses:
In 100 days on the job, President Obama's response to the growing crisis in Pakistan has been defined by three C's: confused, confounded and contrived.
Confused, because let's face it. Nobody really knows who's running the show on Pakistan. Is it Joe Biden? ... Or maybe ... Richard Holbrooke ... ? Perhaps, it is really Bruce Riedel, whom President Obama tasked with drafting a new Af-Pak strategy? But wait, maybe ... Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, who makes more trips to Islamabad than even General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani does. Or perhaps it is the other military man, Centcom Boss General David [Petraeus]? Maybe, it is ISAF & US forces chief David McKiernan? He thinks Pakistan needs to do more to erase the Taliban.... There's always the other David, David Kilcullen. The one that thinks Pakistan is toast in less than six months.
Pakistani analysts aren't alone. During a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, US senators complained that they weren't briefed on the strategy. They know that the Obama administration is preparing to flood Afghanistan with 20,000 more troops, and Pakistan with billions of dollars of US aid. Beyond that, they're in the dark – and that has them very concerned.
"We are going to be engaged there for many, many, many years. Many men and women will lose their lives. We're doubling down, and we haven't debated this yet," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn) said of the new strategy, reports The Washington Post.
Defending the administration, Richard C. Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy to the region, insisted there was a strategy, The Washington Post adds:
"To defeat the people who pose a direct threat to our homeland: al-Qaeda and its supporters; to stabilize the government of Afghanistan and give it the ability to be self-sufficient in defense of it."
In Pakistan, he said, "We can do more to help the civilian development and economic issues and help them strengthen democracy."
At the hearing, Democrats and Republicans were both equally concerned about where the proposed aid money for Pakistan – including $400 million for Pakistan's military – would eventually end up and with what strings attached, according to Bloomberg.
A House panel last week approved a $94.2 billion war funding bill, including $400 million for counterinsurgency aid to the Pakistani military, $1.9 billion in State Department and foreign operations assistance to Pakistan and $1.52 billion in State Department funding for Afghanistan.
Lawmakers voting on the bill expressed skepticism about Obama's plans to step up the fight in Afghanistan and added provisions requiring the administration to submit a progress report on the effort by next year.
The flow of money and troops isn't the only concern.
In an important development this week, the US military announced a new partnership with Pakistan to jointly control US Predator drone attacks inside Pakistan. Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari, has been complaining for months that unilaterally-controlled drones impinge on Pakistan's sovereignty and create deep public resentment when civilians are killed. So, in the last month, Pakistan has helped direct several attack flights, a move that should alleviate some of those concerns.
The missions have not involved the firing of any missiles, and some U.S. officials have expressed frustration that the Pakistanis have not used the Predator capabilities more aggressively…
The missions are being controlled from the jointly operated command center in Jalalabad.... Debates between Pakistanis and Americans have taken place within the center over whether potential targets are Taliban leaders or Pakistani tribesmen with only a loose affiliation with the extremists. Nonetheless, U.S. officials said most Pakistani officers in the command center understood the militant threat and were eager to move aggressively.