US Sen. Mark Udall: Plan B for Afghanistan

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U.S. Sen. Mark Udall

The hard truth is that it is time for the United States to adopt more realistic goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We must acknowledge that there will not be a military solution to the Afghanistan conflict — there can only be a political one — and that requires Pakistan to take responsibility and be held accountable for its actions.  If peace can’t be achieved by 2014 when our combat troops are set to leave, we need a Plan B that leaves Afghanistan capable of securing its own territory and ensures Pakistan understands the risks it faces in forcing us to choose between it — our ally — and American lives. 

Our troops have fought valiantly and won real security gains in Afghanistan, but the question now is whether the Afghan government and its security forces can sustain those gains. The administration’s proposed schedule to withdraw U.S. combat forces by 2014 is a realistic goal and one that I support, but during the next three years, we must focus on the few areas where our limited leverage still can make a difference.

In a visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan a few weeks ago — my third to the region as a U.S. senator — I felt a new urgency to our mission. U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan are focused strongly on training the Afghan National Security Forces and preparing them to take over — even before our troops begin to withdraw. The Afghan National Security Forces must be capable of providing security independently, especially if the hoped-for political reconciliation between the Afghan government, the Taliban and Pakistan doesn’t materialize.

But if peace can’t be achieved before we draw down our combat troops, we need a plan that aims to keep the country as stable as possible. That requires not only a capable Afghanistan security force but also a robust effort to hold Pakistan’s feet to the fire about safe havens it provides to the Haqqani network and other terrorist groups that operate across the border into Afghanistan.

Pakistan is the major obstacle to stability and the potential key to an overall resolution to the conflict. I believe that solely taking a hard-line approach to Pakistan — a nation with nuclear weapons — discounts the pivotal role it plays in the region and its importance to peace.

However complicated and frustrating our relationship with Pakistan, it is a strategic relationship that we cannot afford to ignore.

That said, Pakistan cannot be allowed to play both fireman and arsonist, taking U.S. military aid while allowing insurgents to slip across its border with impunity. I emphasized this message during my visit in a meeting with the chief of staff for the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

Pakistani leaders want Americans to understand the depth of their commitment to beating back militants on their own territory. Indeed, more than 30,000 Pakistani civilians have been murdered in terrorism attacks during the past decade. But as I told Gen. Kayani, even if Pakistan lacks the ability to take on insurgent strongholds in a head-to-head fight, it still is in a position to hinder insurgents’ ability to conduct cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.

But Pakistan continues to hedge its bets, believing that the Taliban will be a more steadfast partner than the United States in the long term and that Pakistan’s control of its airspace and NATO supply lines gives it leverage to ignore U.S. interests and to indirectly support our enemies. Pakistan must understand the danger of this approach.Whether Pakistan’s military and intelligence services simply are turning a blind eye, or worse, are complicit in attacks by the Haqqani network and other Pakistan-based militant groups against U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, such attacks increasingly are assumed to have some level of Pakistani government involvement.

With the Pakistan-based enemy conducting ever more devastating attacks against coalition targets in Afghanistan, there soon may come a time when we will have no choice but to conduct a serious response to such an attack, no matter how deeply we value our strategic relationship with Pakistan. At that point, all bets may be off. 

The future stability of Afghanistan increasingly rests on the shoulders of Afghan security forces and Pakistan’s willingness to act as a responsible regional ally. As 2014 approaches, those two factors may be all that matter, and therefore we must put our best diplomatic and military efforts forward.

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