What's Next For Obama's Afghan War Strategy?

Originally published on May 4, 2011 9:21 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Tom, welcome back to the program.

TOM RICKS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: People have been saying the mission really is accomplished. Is it?

RICKS: I think whether or not you think the mission's accomplished, I think we're going to be getting out of Afghanistan sooner rather than later. I think this accelerates President Obama's impulse to do that, which he's had for a long time. But also increases the political pressure to do it.

INSKEEP: Well, you make a couple of assumptions there. One is that the president has an impulse to get out of Afghanistan. Of course, he set this deadline to begin withdrawal later in the year, but he's also the president who ramped up the presence in Afghanistan.

RICKS: But I think even if we didn't want to get out of Afghanistan, it's going to be tougher to stay there, not just for domestic political reasons. But I think relations with Pakistan are going to be declining precipitously. I think Americans are real unhappy with bin Laden hiding out in plain sight on the doorstep of Pakistan's West Point.

INSKEEP: Oh, the idea being that Americans may be inclined to walk away from Pakistan as much as Afghanistan at this point.

RICKS: But if they cut off those convoys altogether, which I think could happen down the road as relations deteriorate, it's going to be very difficult for us to supply our forces in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Let's fully consider the case here though. One of the reasons that U.S. troops were in Afghanistan was to prevent it from being a safe haven for terrorists and to go after such terrorists as could be found. Bin Laden is dead now. But Ayman al-Zawahiri, just to name one, the number two of Al-Qaida - perhaps now the number one of Al-Qaida is someone who according to John Brennan, the president counterterrorism coordinator and advisor on this program yesterday - said is hiding out somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistan border. There're still some very dangerous people in that area.

RICKS: Al-Qaida really strikes me as an organization whose time has passed by, more in the Arab world than in the Afghan-Pakistan world. But even there, they don't seem to be part of the current discussion. Sometimes the best thing you can do with organizations like this is ignore them and make them irrelevant.

INSKEEP: Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker magazine was on this program this week, and he described Pakistan for all its problems as being too big to fail. Is it too big for us, really, to walk away from it?

RICKS: I've got to tell you though, I think with Pakistan we've kind of been like Charlie Brown and the football. For 50 years we've been waiting for a strategic relationship with Pakistan to pay off. It has not paid off. And so I think since 9/11 they've kind of played us for fools.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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