Delegations from Afghanistan and Pakistan land Monday in Washington for meetings at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon.
The visitors arrive at a key moment. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he will deploy an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and teams of U.S. officials are busy conducting a major strategy review of U.S. policy in the region.
The teams will meet Tuesday through Thursday for bilateral meetings between U.S. and Afghan officials, U.S. and Pakistani officials, and joint meetings of American, Afghan, and Pakistani officials, a U.S. official involved in the strategy review told The Cable.
The visiting delegations "will be asked to seriously deal with the hard issues: how do the Afghans want to deal with [the insurgent activity on] their border, how to do this better, how to undermine those insurgents that run across their territory," the official said, on condition of anonymity.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, announced the planned visits of the delegations in an interview last week on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
The official said that as many as 20 officials from across the U.S. government are involved in the strategy review, which is being conducted under the auspices of the National Security Council and being led by former CIA and NSC official Bruce Riedel, who has taken a 60-day leave from the Brookings Institution to conduct it. Also involved in leading the review are Michèle Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, and Holbrooke.
"The optics are good," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. "The U.S. seems to want to bring its partners into the analysis.
"But I am not sure if it will extend beyond that," Nawaz continued. "Will Pakistan's or Afghanistan's views carry much weight? Not likely. There is still too much distrust. And U.S. aid to Pakistan, both military and economic, is still small compared to what it gives Egypt or Israel and there is no demand for accounting for each dollar sent to those two countries. Pakistan, meanwhile, is subjected to a reimbursement system that is fraught with suspicions and problems. And Pakistan lacks the tools it needs to fight an insurgency. Helicopters in the main. Why not give them the Blackhawks they need from the U.S. stock that has and is being replaced with newer models?"
"One of the issues for discussion with the U.S. will be: the Afghans want greater coordination on military activities," a former advisor to the Afghan government told The Cable. "They also want less military activity in Afghan villages as al Qaeda is not in Afghan villages," he asserted.
"These meetings are unusual," said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is a high wire act to bring everyone to D.C. But probably also a good idea, considering the extent to which tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been a part of the broader challenge there.
"I think the Pakistanis and Afghans appreciate being brought into the process, rather than simply informed of our strategy," Markey continued. "There's a potential that if they don't like what they hear, or if they feel slighted [or] ignored, that they will voice those concerns in ways that are unhelpful. Still, for now the symbolism is good."
The U.S. official said there is growing consensus among Washington security experts "about some of the key dominant themes: the need to halt the security slide, and for more troops. ... The need to take a whole government approach, and to have greater civilian capabilities in there. The need to work harder with Pakistan to increase its capabilities" to counter the insurgent threat.
A continuing point of contention for both the Pakistani and Afghan governments is the United States' stepped-up use of Predator drones to strike suspected terrorist networks on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Anonymous U.S. intelligence officials have defended the strikes in the press, but both governments have complained about the civilian casualties and the resulting domestic political pressure the strikes have put them under. A recent UN report found that more than 500 Afghan civilians had been killed by air strikes in 2008.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chairperson of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, seemingly revealed at a recent congressional hearing that the United States was flying such Predator missions from an air base in Pakistan, news that had been reported in 2006 in the Washington Post, her spokesman later pointed out. The U.S. government does not officially acknowledge the use of the Predators.
"The Predators are a mixed blessing," said Nawaz. "They have been successful in putting pressure on the targeted groups. They also represent increased collaboration between Pakistan and U.S. intelligence, for without ground level intelligence, the Predator cannot be fully effective.
"But keeping this collaboration under wraps harms the perception of the U.S. among the Pakistani population and that prevents the government from gaining their support in this effort as part of 'Pakistan's war,'" Nawaz added.
Holbrooke also told the NewsHour that a delegation of senior Indian officials would be coming to Washington "a couple weeks down the road."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.