Center for a New American Security: New Paper—Same Old Ideas

Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

Thinking long-term about South Asian security issues often requires choosing between conventional/uninspiring and unrealistic/contradictory policy recommendations.   Amazingly, the Center for a New American Security has a new paper entitled “Beyond Afghanistan:  A Regional Strategy for South and Central Asia” that manages to be both uninspiring/conventional and unrealistic/contradictory at the same time.

The CNAS report spent the first twenty-five pages pointing out the obvious: In the future, the U.S. goals of combating terrorism and promoting stability will increasingly face fiscal and geopolitical constraints.  True but also readily apparent to anyone with the slightest knowledge of foreign policy.

But the real problems are in CNAS’s “recommendations”.  First, they suggest that the U.S. needs to work out a strategic agreement with the Afghanistan government.  Why not?  The Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq allowed us to disengage from that quagmire relatively successfully.  But CNAS wants the U.S. to agree to an open-ended commitment, very different from the one Maliki negotiated in 2008.

“Such an agreement must contain the broad outlines of continued U.S. defense, diplomatic and development commitments to Afghanistan…” There’s no mention of our limited interests in Afghanistan, or even an understanding that Afghanistan will have to govern itself someday.

Furthermore, they base this recommendation on the assumption that “the U.S. has sent mixed messages about its long term commitment to the region”.   As Kandahar based researcher Felix Kuehn pointed out two weeks ago, if you asked almost any local in Afghanistan, the worry is not that we are about to cut and run, but rather that that we won’t leave when we say we will.  In other words CNAS has it completely backwards[i].

CNAS then offers a series of contradictory and generally ill-thought out recommendations regarding Pakistan.  They suggest that the U.S. can pressure Pakistan into acting on U.S.’s interest by conditioning U.S. aid.

“Continued covert Pakistani support for terrorist groups of any dispensation should be a U.S. “red line”, triggering suspension of military and intelligence funding.”

The notion that the U.S. can pressure Pakistan to do our bidding with the threat of reduced military aid is utterly preposterous.  Did CNAS sleep through the 1990s?  To refresh the memory, U.S.  canceled most military and economic aid under the Pressler amendment starting in 1990 in order to dissuade Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions.  Not only did these sanctions fail at slowing Islamabad’s nuclear program—Pakistan detonated a nuclear weapon in 1998—this “sanction period” was marked by increased support for insurgent radicals, a war with India in the Kargil region of the Kashmir, the continued development of AQ Khan’s nuclear proliferation network, and of course the rise of the Taliban with ISI’s support in Afghanistan.  (See Dennis Kux for a good synopsis of this history).  Put simply, CNAS’s belief in the efficacy of economic coercion is at odds with our sixty-year history with Islamabad.

The covert aspect of Pakistani support for Islamic radicals makes a reduction of military assistance even more difficult. Pakistan strives to maintain plausible deniability in its dealings with the Islamic radicals, and as the authors of the CNAS report like to point out, Pakistan is not a unitary actor, so reducing aid may serve to further isolate moderate members of the military whose interests are more aligned to our own.  All of these facts suggest that coercing Pakistan on the Islamic militancy front will be more difficult than our failed efforts in the 90s regarding Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions.

Lastly, note that Pakistan has another major power backer in China, who could potentially step in if the U.S. actually followed through with our threat to cut back aid.  As Afghanistan Study Group member Anatol Lieven argued in a New York Times op-ed last week any long run solution to the power politics in South Asia has to include the Chinese.  CNAS barely mentions China in its recommendations, a glaring omission if the idea is to threaten to isolate the Pakistani military.

In short this report is deeply problematic, and this post only scratches the surface:  For instance they recommend focusing on public diplomacy, which suggests that anti-Americanism in Pakistan is mainly a “messaging problem”, a dubious assertion if you ask me.  The challenges facing South and Central Asia are incredibly complex and CNAS deserves some credit for putting their ideas out there; however, in this case they should probably go back to the drawing board.

[i] The only reason to maintain a residual force long-term in Afghanistan is to bolster the bargaining position of the Karzai government in the event that there is some sort of negotiation to end the war.

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