Leading article: A strategy in urgent need of an overhaul

Afghanistan and Pakistan are a lethal and volatile mess

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The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan grows more dangerous by the day. Hamid Karzai was declared the elected Afghan president yesterday after his challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew, claiming that the second round of voting due to take place at the weekend was likely to be rigged.

The hope in Western capitals was that a second round would enhance the legitimacy of the Afghan government. A huge diplomatic effort had gone into persuading President Karzai to accept a run-off poll. Now it is back to square one. The widespread perception is that a crooked regime runs Kabul. This turn of events makes President Obama's decision on whether to give his commander on the ground, General Stanley McChrystal, the extra 40,000 troops he has requested all the more nightmarish.

Meanwhile, a suicide attack across the border in Rawalpindi yesterday killed 35, bringing the total number of civilians killed since the Pakistan army began its assault on militant bases in the western tribal areas last month to more than 300. The United Nations announced yesterday that it is withdrawing staff from north-west Pakistan. After last week's assault on UN staff in Kabul, the organisation is evidently beginning to doubt its ability to operate safely in the region.

Just as ominously, Pakistani public opposition to foreign involvement in their country is growing. Clauses in a recent US military aid package have been interpreted as an infringement on Pakistani sovereignty. And there is resentment at US drone attacks on militants in the tribal areas for similar reasons. It is a lethal and volatile mess.

So what is to be done? The first thing to recognise is that there is no instant solution. The idea that more troops in Afghanistan will make an immediate difference is overblown. It would require hundreds of thousands of troops to pacify such a sprawling and decentralised country. And in Pakistan, the notion that the army alone can impose stability on the tribal areas is similarly unrealistic. It will take years, perhaps decades, of economic development to bring these neglected regions in from the cold.

But there are sensible policy changes that can make a difference. First, it is necessary to re-define the goals of the Nato mission in Afghanistan. The ambitions of Western nations for Afghan democracy need to be radically scaled down. Issues such as the education of women must be subordinated, for now, to the need to establish security. On the political front, Western powers should push for a national unity government between President Karzai and Dr Abdullah to deal with the legitimacy problem.

But Western governments need to be more radical still. They should channel development aid directly to regional governments, bypassing the corrupt administration in Kabul. At the same time, they should offer a truce to the less radical Taliban groups. Meanwhile, whether more US troops are ultimately committed or not, Western forces should be directed towards protecting Afghan civilian population centres. This is urgently needed. More than 1,400 Afghan civilians were killed in the first half of 2009 by Taliban militias, a 40 per cent increase on the same period last year.

Western policy should have a humanitarian focus across the border in Pakistan too. There should be support for the army, which is now finally taking the fight to its internal menace. But aid should also be targeted on those 100,000 Pakistan refugees displaced by the army's push into Waziristan. At the very least, UN humanitarian agencies must be protected while they do their job. The struggle for hearts and minds needs to become a priority in both countries.

Those calling for an immediate Western withdrawal from the region are peddling a fantasy. The West could not tolerate the establishment of a Taliban mini-state in Afghanistan, which played host, once again, to al-Qa'ida. Nor could it risk Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of domestic radicals. And the terrorist threat to civilians in the West – emanating from the tribal regions of both countries – remains real.

President Obama is right to have an "Afpak" focus. The fates of the two countries are entwined. And the Pashtun tribes of the mountainous border have never recognised the distinction. But that is not to say that the same military and political strategy is appropriate in both countries. Pakistan has a functioning state, a strong army and a legitimate government. Afghanistan has none of these things. The Pakistani population is, in the main, religiously liberal. The Afghan population, by contrast, remains deeply conservative. The militant challenge in each country requires a different response.

Yet one theme unites. The Afpak strategy of America and her allies, including Britain, needs to get a lot smarter and more realistic if the mission to stabilise these two precarious nations is to have any chance of succeeding.

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