President Trump outlined his new strategy in an address to the the nation from Comney Hall on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, just up the hill from the Pentagon Tuesday evening. Some of what he said was a departure from his previous positions, as he admitted in the speech, and some of it was what uniformed personnel have wanted to hear from the Oval Office for quite some time.
His speech included the expected red meat: conditioning our withdrawal on conditions, not on the calendar; killing terrorists rather than nation-building; and not telegraphing our intentions to the enemy. Those points were all expected from a Republican president following eight years of democrat rule. What was surprising, though, was his approach to Pakistan.
“We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America,” the president said. That idea has been central to the war in Afghanistan from the start. But then the president went where his two predecessors have not — but should have.
President Trump announced that a new pillar of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is “to change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan.” In words that were music to my ears, the president said “we can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe haven for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”
It’s something with which I have a little first-hand experience.
CONQUERING AFGHANISTAN ONE GRID SQUARE AT A TIME
I took my Civil Affairs team to Afghanistan in October 2002, 13 months after 9/11 and months before we even began to muse publicly about invading Iraq. In the spring of 2003, my team visited the village of Gulam Khan, on the border between Afghanistan’s Khost province and Pakistan’s North Waziristan region. From the village, we could just make out Miram Shah, which we called “al Qaeda central” since it was the home of the bombers who were growing increasingly bold throughout Khost.
Those al Qaeda bombers would eventually be successful, after several attempts, at killing the man who had become my friend, Gov. Hakim Khan Taniwal, an anthropology professor who was Hamid Karzai’s hand-picked choice to run the province. Professor Taniwal was truly “one of the good guys” and gave his life in the service of his country.
Since anyone coming into Khost from Pakistan needed to pass by Gulam Khan, I assessed that those villagers were a prime target for our outreach efforts. After all, I maintained then and I continue to insist that when dealing with an insurgency, killing the enemy is not enough; you need to separate the insurgent from his base of support among the local population to achieve victory in the the long run. I believed it in 2002 and I believe it today.
The Pakistani Tochi Scouts had a different idea. As my team and our Afghan guards were preparing to leave, these frontier guards appeared on the next ridge east of the village. They asked me to cross the ravine to meet them, which, after a few shouted negotiations across the gulch, I did — but not before telling one of my soldiers to make sure his M203 grenade launcher was loaded.
They asked me why I was in Pakistan. “I wasn’t until you asked me to come here to meet you,” I said. “That village is in Afghanistan.”
They pointed to an arrow made of white-painted rocks on a mountainside several kilometers to the north, and insisted that was the border. I laughed. Our Special Forces roommates had told us how Pakistan was conquering Afghanistan “one grid square at a time,” moving their border checkpoints farther inland in the middle of the night. This was my first exposure to that in practice.
No, I said, my maps and my GPS confirmed the two-hour conversation I had with the village elders over several cups of chai: Gulam Khan was Afghan. We didn’t resolve the border issue that day on the ridge, but our conversation ended when I reminded them we were supposed to be allies in the war on terrorism. Their own president had said so. “Well, just let us know the next time you’re coming,” they said.
“Right,” I thought, but didn’t say aloud. “So you can have the al Qaeda welcoming committee waiting for me.”
pakistan is not our friend
I soon went off to take my mid-tour leave, but instructed my team to return to Gulam Khan while I was gone, to look for concrete ways we could aid the villagers and demonstrate our goodwill; in my words, “rent their friendship.”
The team followed my orders, and caused an international incident. After they left, the Tochi Scouts reentered Gulam Khan, guns blazing, and arrested several of the elders who had met with us. My team watched helplessly from the mountainside. When I returned, my commander in Kabul told me, “from now on, that village is in Pakistan.”
While President Pervez Musharraf may have said all the right things to Washington, the truth is the government in Islamabad has never had much control over the Afghan frontier. Their intelligence service, the ISI, created the Taliban, and after we kicked the Taliban to the curb, the ISI sought to continue to control Afghanistan… or of they couldn’t control it, make it uncontrollable.
But make no mistake: at no time since 9/11 has Pakistan been on the same side of the fight as the United States. Anyone who thinks differently is fooling themselves. For too long, our leaders in Washington have tried to convince us otherwise. Those of us who have spent time on the ground in places where Pakistan wields its influence know all too well that it has no interest in seeing the Afghan conflict resolved in any way other than that which preserves its influence.
Last night, President Trump took the first concrete steps in the last 16 years to address Pakistani intransigence. Afghanistan will never know peace until Pakistan is brought into line. I’m thankful that fact is finally in the open.