Obama Focuses on Cooperation With Afghanistan and Pakistan

The administration is devising a plan to fight insurgent groups including the Taliban.

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As President Barack Obama stood side by side with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan after a day of closely watched joint meetings last week, he struck an optimistic tone and pledged cooperation. This was no small feat, particularly on the heels of news that a U.S. military bombing in Afghanistan Monday killed dozens of civilians, prompting profuse apologies from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The promise of stepped-up coordination is a welcome one; Obama went so far as to call it "unprecedented." The great need for more synchronization between the countries has been evident, U.S. military officials say, as the Taliban continues to inch closer to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. In Afghanistan, a network of Taliban-led insurgents is fighting with ever greater skill and coordination. "There is much to be done," Obama said.

This comes as no news to officials within the Obama administration, who have been busy laying out a strategy for the region in the months leading up to these meetings. Ideally, and broadly, the goals include dismantling insurgent groups in Afghanistan and ensuring that al Qaeda can't remain in Pakistan.

But some in Congress, Democrats among them, have been stressing that sound strategy doesn't guarantee military success—progress does. The question now is how to measure it. This becomes particularly vital as the Obama administration raises the stakes in Afghanistan, sending in 21,000 more U.S. troops and a surge of civilians even as violence is on the rise in Iraq. There are more aid dollars on the way as well. And so the administration has been working to come up with benchmarks to gauge success as the new resources roll in. Some of these are certain to include ways to assess the capabilities of the Afghan National Army and police.

Trickier, however, is how to measure progress in Pakistan, which may well be the greatest strategic challenge currently facing the Pentagon. That this continues to be the case even after America has given some $12 billion in aid to the country is the chief argument for setting benchmarks to measure progress in order to keep the funds flowing. What those will be, precisely, has yet to be determined. But the key, adds Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy, will be "holding both ourselves and our Pakistani partners accountable," a topic no doubt broached during the trilateral talks.

On Capitol Hill, however, there has been some disagreement about how to do this. In recent testimony, Obama officials made it clear that they opposed attaching too many conditions to new aid money for Pakistan. They have come out against a bill introduced by California Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to tie aid to assurances that Pakistan's intelligence service is not supporting terrorist groups, a frequently recurring accusation.

That would constrain U.S. strategic options in the country, say senior Pentagon officials, including Flournoy, who called the proposed legislation "too inflexible." But absent such assurances, U.S. lawmakers say they have little confidence in the ability of the Pakistani government, in the words of Wisconsin Democrat Dave Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, "to do one blessed thing."