U.S. spread thin in Mideast, south Asian conflicts

Friday, October 16, 2009 | 12:51 p.m. CDT

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: The announcement that Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize came just hours before he convened a meeting in the White House Situation Room to talk about escalating the war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, there have been at least five major attacks by insurgents against Pakistani facilities in the last 10 days. The most recent came (Thursday) as militants attacked three major facilities in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city. What started eight years ago as an attempt to flush out Osama bin Laden and the rest of the al-Qaida leadership has escalated into a major regional conflict. Tell us what happened in Lahore and how is the situation unfolding now?

Qasim Nauman, assistant editor, Daily Times, Lahore, Pakistan: Three attacks took place at various security facilities across Lahore starting around 10 a.m. (Oct. 15). Two were at Federal Investigation Agency buildings, which conduct terror investigations; the second attack took place at a police training school that was attacked previously. The third was on a new facility, which trains elite forces involved in urban policing activities. The first two attacks ended quickly, but the third involved a hostage situation. These have come after several other high-profile attacks since the Pakistani Army and the government decided to launch a full-scale operation in South Waziristan, which is considered the hub of all Taliban activity in the country.

Loory: South Waziristan is near the Afghan frontier, but Lahore is close to the Indian border. Does this indicate that the violence is spreading from the mountainous areas to the most populous areas of Pakistan?

Nauman: It is spreading, in the sense that the Taliban has always preferred to go after soft targets. Lahore is key because it is the largest city in the largest province and because it is easier for them to conduct these attacks here. It is not about the spread of violence as much as attacks to strike fear into the population and remove the support in favor of military action against the Taliban.

Loory: Is the increased activity in Pakistan having any impact in Afghanistan?

Jean MacKenzie, program director, Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Kabul, Afghanistan: Certainly psychologically. Violent activity has increased in Afghanistan over the last several months, particularly over the election period, including the bombing of the Indian Embassy last week. As violence grows in Pakistan, the perception is that the situation is becoming increasing intractable here also.

Loory: The Obama Administration has to decide how much to increase the military effort. What does the outlook appear to be?

Gordon Lubold, Pentagon correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, Washington, D.C.: The president has said repeatedly that they will take their time to get the strategy right and then make the decision about resources. General (Stanley) McChrystal’s formal request for troops level increases, by 40,000 or more, is on the president’s desk. Many Democrats are obviously uneasy about sending a lot more troops in. But that said, no one is talking seriously about not sending more forces. With General McChrystal, General (David) Petraeus, Admiral (Michael) Mullen, all saying more troops are necessary, it will be hard for President Obama to say no in any substantive way.

Loory: Is there any alternative to a major troop increase?

Kim Barker, Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, New York: There are always alternatives. Joe Biden is talking about scaling back troops on the ground and to increase offshore drone campaigns focusing on Pakistan. There is the middle ground that Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has been talking about, which is focusing more on training the Afghan police and army.

Philip Smucker, independent journalist and documentary filmmaker, Alexandria, Virginia: What is overlooked is that we have sent mixed messages to the Afghans. American foreign policy has to be direct and send a message to the people it is trying to help. Hamid Karzai was the poster boy for the War on Terror. Now, the election may not have been fair at all. It is about the Afghan people and the commitment that we made early on.

Loory: Isn’t that a euphemism for “nation-building,” which is not something the military does well?

Barker: This new counterinsurgency plan is, in fact, nation-building. The military would argue they are trying a different approach with Afghanistan than in the past. It is not just about increasing the number of troops on the ground. It includes a lot of time working with the Afghan government to stand on its own feet. There has been a lack of a coherent strategy in the last eight years.

Loory: What impact are the international forces operating in Afghanistan having?

MacKenzie: Despite the drastic change in rhetoric, American forces are operating pretty much as they have been, and their interaction with international forces is much the same. In the view of ordinary Afghans, the international troops, particularly the Americans, have never been more unpopular. If we don’t go beyond a change in rhetoric to a sharp change in action very quickly, more troops are not going to be beneficial.

Loory: McChrystal has withdrawn American troops from rural areas, particularly near the Pakistani border, and has redeployed them in populated areas. Is that to improve the image of American forces or to take them out of harm’s way?

Barker: The goal is a more classic ink spot counterinsurgency to protect the population than to win over hearts and minds. In the past, they had remote outposts that were not heavily secured and the soldiers were not really able to go out. When they do go out, they’re viewed with hostile eyes, and they’re not able to clear, hold, and build.

Loory: There is not much said about al-Qaida anymore, why?

Nauman: There have been successful operations in the tribal area where al-Qaida was supposed to be. However, there hasn’t been much cooperation there. Several drone strikes over the last eight months have killed many high-profile al-Qaida targets. That indicates their base of operations remain in the tribal areas. The Taliban is in a much better position than al-Qaida financially. There are also rumors within Pakistan that al-Qaida is shifting its operations back into Africa, particularly Somalia. They don’t even know if Osama bin Laden is dead or alive.

Loory: How important is al-Qaida internationally these days?

Smucker: They’re very important and often underestimated. Obama has done a good job rhetorically of playing against their propaganda game. We have made headway, but al-Qaida is in South Asia. Folks that downplay the need for more troops suggest that al-Qaida has no bases in Afghanistan, which is true, but al-Qaida does operate and does move around in Afghanistan. The larger bases in Pakistan are sounding a bit strident at the moment. They’re calling Obama a “house negro.” These metaphors don’t play well in the broader Islamic world. Despite not getting bin Laden, al-Qaida seems to be retrenching a bit.

Loory: What does that say about the possibility of more U.S. military involvement in Pakistan?

Lubold: No question the U.S. will be more involved militarily with Pakistan, the question is the form it takes. They need to respect Pakistani sovereignty and convince the Pakistanis to make a genuine effort. Congress is trying to pass a nonmilitary aid package for more money. The U.S. also needs to play a diplomatic role in the region and convince India to convince Pakistan that it is not a threat, freeing the Pakistani government to go after the militants. This is tricky because the U.S. has had a fleeting relationship with the region and uses these countries only whenever it suits them. Meanwhile, these nukes in Pakistan make everybody nervous.

Loory: What is the danger of this war escalating into one between India and Pakistan?

Barker: They haven’t actually fought a direct war for quite awhile. Instead, they have proxy wars, whether in Kashmir or Sri Lanka. Now, the proxy war may be happening in Afghanistan and Baluchistan. These attacks in Mumbai, attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, have only further driven a wedge of mistrust.

Loory: The decisions that a few men and women make in the White House Situation Room in the coming days will affect lives and cause the deaths of an untold number of soldiers and citizens halfway around the world for years to come.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, Melissa Ulbricht and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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