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Inside the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill Tuesday, there were two distinctly different hearings on Pakistan. One featured the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and it was packed with mainstream media–standing room only. At the conclusion of his testimony–just one floor up from that hearing–the Congressional Progressive Caucus held its fifth forum on Afghanistan, this one focusing on the administration’s Pakistan strategy and how it impacts both countries.
Holbrooke faced very few tough questions–not even on drone strikes. Rep. Lynn Woolsey did press Holbrooke on the fact that 90 percent of the administration’s war supplemental goes towards military expenses, while the counterinsurgency strategy calls for a ratio of 80 percent political and 20 percent military.
“Where is the place for smart power, investing in humanitarian needs and infrastructure, economy, food, so that we can shore up the people?” Woolsey asked.
“Smart power,” Holbrooke said, “… is exactly what this bill is trying to do.”
“Well, Mr. Ambassador,” Woolsey said, “if the ratio to smart investment is 1 to 10, with 10 being military investment, I don’t know how we get [there].”
“I don’t think it is 1 to 10 anymore,” Holbrooke said. “It was… But this bill is one of a number of bills now in the Congress to correct that.”
The simple fact is that the funding ratio will not approach what the counterinsurgency strategy calls for, and one senior congressional staffer told me this: “The bottom line is that [the bill] is the same funding, for the same military efforts, it’s just coming from a State Department account instead of DoD.”
The most outspoken critic of the escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan was Republican Congressman Ron Paul. “It just seems like we never learn from our past mistakes,” he said. “It’s going to cost a lot of money and it’s going to cost a lot of lives…. And the odds of it working are so slim…. How do you win the hearts and minds of these people if we’re seen as invaders and occupiers… I’d like to know where you stand on the killing of innocent Pashtuns…?
Holbrooke didn’t answer Paul’s question — which was the ONLY question of the hearing that (sort of) challenged the use of drones and airstrikes.
Instead, he said, “Afghanistan-Pakistan is not Iraq…. The reason we are in this area is because the people in this area attacked our country on September 11th, 2001 and have stated flatly they intend to do it again.”
Democratic Rep. David Scott asked, “What is our end game and our exit strategy ?”
“… There’s a difference between an exit strategy and an exit timetable, and we have defined our strategy but we certainly can’t put a timetable on it,” failing yet again to articulate an exit strategy.
It would have been smart if Holbrooke or even one person from the mainstream media feeding frenzy had ventured upstairs to the Progressive Caucus forum. There, the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, offered this wise advice once given by a British General who was a veteran of wars in the frontier area: “When you invade Pashtun areas, have a good exit strategy with you, because sooner or later you are going to need it.” Having also served as the head of two civil agencies in the tribal areas and completed a doctoral thesis there, Ahmed has a kind of expertise and intimacy with the issues that Holbrooke certainly doesn’t.
Ahmed’s frustration with both the Pakistan government and the US foreign policy was palpable. He said Obama was “absolutely right” when he called Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the Afghan border “the most dangerous place in the world today,” and his frustration stems from what he sees as a completely wrong strategy in dealing with it.
Ahmed said the tribes in the area have a sense of history, pride and dignity and live on both sides of the border — “if something happens on this side of the border, it impacts on that side” — and they are connected by kinship, politics and religion. “A successful strategy to deal with them [is] not — I repeat, not — to take them head on… sending troops, throwing grenades and missiles, or sending in airplanes and tanks….. The best strategy for them [is] to work through tribal organizations, tribal networks, tribal leadership…. [It requires] both strength and skill — strength alone will not do. And we see the consequences of just a military strategy….”
Indeed the approach over the past decade has been a military one. The result, Ahmed said, is that authority in the region once shared by “three pillars” — central government, tribal authority, and religious clerics — is now left with only the clerics who have “morphed into Taliban.”
Ahmed, said that Pakistan needs to begin by reestablishing the authority of the state and restoring tribal authority. He said Pakistan — with the encouragement of the US — is attempting to do that through military means alone rather than through “what remains of the tribal leadership and civil structure.” He said if the state worked through the tribal structure there would be “resistance to the Taliban, not from up 30,000 feet in the sky, right on the ground….”
Another key to success in the border region that Holbrooke didn’t touch on is reformation of the madrassas. Ahmed said much of US aid should be earmarked for education, and half of that to the madrassas. Madrassas are the network of education for the tribes, and if they are closed down by the government there will be “hundreds of thousands of young men ready to fight a religious war against the Americans.” Reform through aid, Pakistanis and Pakistani Americans serving as advisors and teachers, new syllabi and teacher training — these are the kinds of steps that would bring change and long-term security.
“After 8 years of giving Pakistan money — $17 billion or $15 billion since 9/11 — what have you achieved?” Ahmed asked. “Had you put 10 percent of this into madrassas by now young men… who are [now] prepared to fight you… would be wanting jobs and to be part of the process…. And they would want to resist those who want to disrupt their society…. The one thing every Pakistani wants for his kids is education…. Within one to three years you will turn that entire region around. The greatest enemies of the Americans will become their allies.” (Another witness — Azhar Hussain, of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy — pointed out that less than 1 percent of US aid went to the FATA region in the past 6 years.)
Finally, Ahmed spoke plainly of the drone strikes: “My advice is this… please, please don’t…. The drone strikes… are very counterproductive.” He said the former top advisor to General Petraeus — David Kilcullen “>– has it right. Hussain noted that there have been 61 drone attacks “in the last few years”, and only 10 have hit the intended target. The result? 798 civilians killed and “less than about 50 insurgents.”
“That is a large number of innocent people getting killed by drone attacks,” he said. “That creates an incredible amount of incitement and rage in the Pakistani community.”
As to the issue of escalation in Afghanistan, Ahmed had this to say:
“When there are more American deaths — alas, because these young men and women are out there serving their nation, they’ve got families — when these deaths take place, what message is it sending to the tribesman…? The message [is]: ‘Guys, continue this, rally around, because we are now on a winning streak.’ And what message is it sending to Taliban…? It’s 60 miles now from Islamabad! It’s saying, ‘Guys, continue doing this. The Americans can’t last….’ If that mood takes hold — don’t you see how difficult it becomes for us — talking about recreating structures? There’s no hope. You might as well hand it over to the Taliban.”
This expertise and candor–from Pakistanis who have devoted their lives to a region we are further destabilizing with this escalation — was sorely lacking at the Holbrooke hearing. Tell Congress to demand what Holbrooke didn’t give them–an exit strategy .