U.S. commanders have come to accept there is a limit to the steps Pakistani leaders are willing to take toward halting the flow of drugs and bomb-making materials in Afghanistan, says one key general.
The Taliban and remaining al Qaeda forces have long benefited from the relative freedom they enjoy on Pakistani soil, something Maj. Gen. John Toolan calls "a source of frustration."
Toolan, who was NATO's Regional Command Southwest chief until last month, told reporters Tuesday in Washington the movement of illicit items back-and-forth across the rugged Afghanistan-Pakistan border is "free flowing."
On the Pakistani side, Taliban forces have "huge caches of IED-making materials," says Toolan, referring to the makeshift bombs that have been used to attack U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Taliban has been paying for those bomb parts, along with the rest of their operating expenses, by selling narcotics, such as Afghan opium used in heroin production. U.S. officials in southern Afghanistan captured $78 million worth of drugs headed for the Pakistani border between last October and this March, Toolan says.
The opium seizures are just a drop in the bucket. The Drug Enforcement Agency tells the Pentagon that drug materials captured during that six-month period are less than 12 percent of the total opium annually exported from Afghanistan, which underscores how reliant Afghanistan's economy is on the plant, even after a decade of U.S. efforts to develop the nation's agricultural sector.
U.S. commanders and civilian leaders, all the way up to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have publicly and privately urged Pakistani leaders for years to do more on their side of the border. Pakistani leaders tell the U.S. they have been doing plenty, and have the dead and injured soldiers to prove it.
But American commanders like Toolan peer across the border and see the 12th Corps of the Pakistani army and wonder why they aren't doing more.
"As a military commander that has to deal with it, I can keep mopping the floor," says Toolan, now a 2nd Marine Division chief, "but I can't turn off the water."
Still, Toolan says U.S. commanders realize Pakistani officials worry about pressing Taliban forces too hard, fearing the ramifications of major battles inside their own nation.
"Keeping diplomatic pressure on Pakistan is important," he says. "But breaking that government is not in our best interests."
The regime in Islamabad craves relative stability at home, an ingredient needed to retain its grasp on power, experts say.
Pakistani officials often resist pressing Taliban elements on their turf as forcefully as the U.S. wants because doing so is not in their interests, says Joshua Foust, an Afghanistan expert at the American Security Project.
"They choose not to because, fundamentally, the U.S. is working against Pakistan's interests in south Asia," Foust says. "The U.S. is building an Afghan security force with officers friendly to India, and building it to 400,000 strong, and expecting Pakistan to not feel threatened. The U.S. is building an Indian ally."
Pakistan and India are longtime rivals. National security experts say a clash between the two nuclear-armed foes would have severe regional and global ramifications.
Foust also questioned Toolan's focus on the Afghan drug industry.
"A lot of commanders like to focus on the drug issue to avoid focusing on their own role in implementing a bad strategy," Foust says. "In narco-insurgencies, drugs are not the cause of anything. This is a little reversing the chicken and the egg."
Meantime, Toolan said Pakistani officials should re-open supply routes through their nation that have been used by the Pentagon to move equipment into Afghanistan for years. Those transit lines were closed late last year after U.S. forces mistakenly killed nearly 30 Pakistani troops, leaving U.S. forces to rely on moving things by air and other troublesome supply lines in northern Afghanistan.