Obama: ‘The cancer is in Pakistan’

Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, contains loads of chewy nuggets. But one that risks getting overlooked, amid all the talk about whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai is “on meds” for manic depression, is Obama’s own judgment that “the cancer is in Pakistan.”

Despite all the administration infighting over an Afghan exit strategy last year detailed in the book, Obama is moving forward with his own plan. To my mind, he explained it in his last Oval Office address when he told the American people that his focus needed to be on digging out of the recession to help the middle class and that maintaining a war without end would not help achieve that goal. What will be critical is that when U.S. troops begin to pull out in July of next year, Afghanistan is not left in a worse mess than when the U.S. and its allies went in. Would it be politically justifiable to leave behind a failed state or a de facto partition of north and south?

Obama rightly sees Pakistan as a much bigger problem. It is a nuclear-armed state in strategic competition with its nuclear-armed neighbor, India. Today its democratically elected leaders are grappling not only with an Islamic insurgency but with the aftermath of catastrophic floods. According to Obama’s envoy, Richard Holbrooke, the Pakistani government’s capacity to deal with the militants is being hampered by the flooding that caused tens of thousands of troops to be mobilized to help the homeless.

I can recall that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Bob Gates were grilled in December last year by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Afghan policy, the questions from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and others kept coming back to Pakistan. They naturally wanted to know what the policy was regarding Islamabad.

According to excerpts from Woodward’s book in today’s
Washington Post and New York Times, then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told Obama after his election that “Pakistan is a dishonest partner, unwilling or unable to stop elements of the Pakistani intelligence service from giving clandestine aid, weapons and money to the Afghan Taliban.”

There is no reason to conclude that this view has changed. Last November, according to the book, Obama told his aides “we need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan.” He believes that a more secure Afghanistan is needed “so the cancer doesn’t spread” there.

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