October 29, 2004

Bush's Dead-End in Central Asia

Does Krauthammer have a point?
In 2001, we had nothing [in Afghanistan]. What had the Clinton administration left in place? No plausible military plan. Virtually no intelligence. No local infrastructure. No neighboring bases. The Afghan Northern Alliance was fractured and weak. And Pakistan was actively supporting the bad guys.

Within days of Sept. 11, the clueless airhead president that inhabits Michael Moore's films and Tina Brown's dinner parties had done this: forced Pakistan into alliance with us, isolated the Taliban, secured military cooperation from Afghanistan's northern neighbors, and authorized a radical war plan involving just a handful of Americans on the ground, using high technology and local militias to utterly rout the Taliban.
Leave aside the fact that some people in Clinton's administration—especially Gen. Anthony Zinni—were working on isolating Afghanistan and securing cooperation from its neighbors, including Uzbekistan. The initial post-9/11 steps that Bush took were truly revolutionary. It's true that many of them were also fairly uncontroversial—most Democrats supported an invasion of Afghanistan—and the military successes owed largely to the competence of the Special Forces and the stunning capabilities of our Air Force, both of which were developed under the Clinton administration. (For all of Rumsfeld's talk about a "revolution" in military affairs, he hasn't taken us very far beyond William Cohen's changes in the mid-1990s.) Still, I think you can give Bush credit, and acknowledge that his refusal to get bogged down by NATO early on, and his decision to strike Kabul before winter settled in, were crucial steps that a Democratic administration might not have taken.

The transformation of Pakistan, furthermore, was a very big deal. Again, Zinni was the first guy to recognize that Musharraf was an invaluable ally. But the point is that Clinton never really followed up on this line of thought (although he made some decent initial steps), while Bush did. In late 2001, the Bush administration used the threat of nuclear war with India to push Pakistan into the pro-American column. Cynical, yes, but effective. The Bush administration also put pressure on Musharraf to clean out Pakistan's intelligence services, a gamble that appears to have worked out. I'm not sure a Democratic administration would have been quite so bold. So again, I'll readily give Bush credit for all this, and recognize that Gore might not have done things so well.

On the other hand, look at where we are now, and what lies ahead, in the region. Afghanistan needs more foreign aid and probably a greater peacekeeping force. In Pakistan, we have yet to interview A.Q. Khan about his nuclear proliferation ring. We still haven't made any headway on the Kashmir issue, which, I would wager, is one of the biggest sources of Islamic radicalism in the region. Musharraf's regime is hanging by a thread, and he quite probably spends too much of his political capital chasing down high-value al Qaeda targets in Waziristan (in the service of Bush's re-election campaign) rather than reforming homegrown radicalism and tackling nuclear proliferation threats. So yes, give credit for what Bush did in Central Asia thus far. But the election is about the future, not the past, and it's clear that the current White House has hit a dead end.
-- Brad Plumer 5:47 PM || ||