Obama's Next Big Challenges: Afghanistan and Pakistan

The president will address concerns about the Taliban in a meeting with Zardari and Karzai.

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As he basks in the glow of the favorable reviews of his first 100 days, President Obama faces two looming crises that jeopardize the outlook for his next 100 days—Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama acknowledged the twin challenges at a town meeting in Arnold, Mo., last week. "In Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, we do have real problems with the Taliban and al Qaeda," he said. "They are the single most direct threat to our national security interests." He will address these concerns today and tomorrow when he hosts Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai at the White House.The weak government of Pakistan is having enormous difficulty pushing back against increasingly aggressive Taliban insurgents on its own territory. Obama told a news conference Wednesday night that he was "gravely concerned" about the situation in Pakistan and the possible emergence of a "nuclear-armed militant state." Gen. David Petraeus, whose responsibilities as head of U.S. Central Command include the region, is seeking congressional support for more flexibility on assistance to increase U.S training and equipment for Pakistani forces, which traditionally have focused on neighboring India rather than on counterinsurgency operations.Afghanistan, the focus of a major policy review by the incoming Obama team, is another potential disaster area. Obama calls the war there the central front in the battle against terrorism, and he is sending 21,000 more U.S. troops into that country to help root out and destroy al Qaeda terrorists and their allies. Those additional American forces will raise the total U.S. troops level to 60,000, still short of the number sought by his commanders.The U.S. military admits that the war in Afghanistan has not been going very well. Obama's new strategy couples increased U.S. military power with expanding political and development efforts. But the anti-American forces are following a long tradition of successful operations against foreign occupiers. The Soviet Union invested vast sums of money and thousands to troops but failed to tame the country in the 1980s, and the U.S.S.R. eventually was forced to withdraw in humiliation. In fact, scholars say the cost of the Afghanistan war, in which the United States supported the anti-Soviet insurgents, was one reason the Soviet Union collapsed.In the 19th century, the British also had a miserable experience trying to pacify Afghanistan. The writer Rudyard Kipling summarized the situation in a poem, "The Young British Soldier":
"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to our Gawd like a soldier."Such is the vicious nature of warfare in Afghanistan. And it's worth pondering that Afghanistan has a long history of prolonged resistance to outside forces, not only the Soviets and the British but also Macedonians, Persians, Scythians, Mongols, and Arabs.Today, the situation is complicated by the elected Afghan government, regarded by many Afghans as ineffective and corrupt, and by the lucrative cultivation of opium poppies, a major source of income for Afghan farmers and for the Taliban. U.S. experts say more development aid is needed for farmers because eradication programs otherwise push aggrieved farmers into the hands of the Taliban.Even though Obama is wading in deeper, with both military and civilian aid, his conservative critics say that he still isn't doing enough. "He needs a new strategy," says a GOP activist who advised Republican presidential candidate John McCain last year. "When he distanced himself from Iraq, he emphasized the need to focus on Afghanistan as the central front in the war on terror. Now he needs to do whatever he can to solve it, but his party's left wing is holding him back."Obama addressed this pressure when he told his town meeting, "I had some grumblings and complaints from certain factions in the Democratic Party" when he decided to send in extra troops. He said, "As commander in chief, it is my responsibility to make sure that bin Laden and his cronies are not able to create a safe haven within which they can kill another 3,000 Americans."A former senior official at the State Department says, "Having a positive outcome in that part of the world is always problematic." And now it is Obama who is in the hot seat.