Last night I talked to Eliot Spitzer about reports of an April 16 meeting between leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan where, as Eliot said, "these two supposed U.S. allies conspired to throw the U.S. out and look toward China as the benefactor." Here's my view:
Sometimes the United States enters places in South Asia and we assume it is all very simple - there are good guys and bad guys. We are coming in support the good guys, so we presume they should be on our side against the bad guys.
But actually there is an existing set of regional dynamics at work. We’re the interloper. We’re coming into this game pretty late. The regional actors think we are going to leave.
So what you are watching in this event is the return of geopolitics in South Asia. Afghanistan and Pakistan think the U.S. is going to leave so the Pakistanis are trying to become the dominant player. The Afghans aren’t cooperating yet, so the Pakistanis are trying to tell the Afghans, "Don’t rely on Uncle Sam – they’re weak, they’re declining."
What we should do is try to stress to Afghanistan that our commitment to them cannot be measured by whether we maintain 100,000 troops there in perpetuity. Of course we wont do that. But we will have troops. We will give aid. We will politically support Afghanistan.
We should tell Afghanistan: “You don’t want to be a client state of Pakistan. You want to have your options. You want to be a proud, independent country.”
Right now, we're caught in the midst of a regional power dynamic. But we have only one interest in this region: Al Qaeda. Our goal is to make sure that Al Qaeda does not create training camps for people who go out to kill Americans and Westerners.
To do this, we should maintain some level of troop presence - 20,000 or 30,000 troops - along with some relationship with the Afghan government that allows us to do that. This is something that the Indians would strongly support. The Pakistanis and Chinese say publicly that they support this too.
Other than that, if Pakistan thinks the prize is Afghanistan, we should let them have it.
The big question is: Do we need to have this level of involvement in the region? It’s a mess there and all the regional powers are battling for influence. But we don’t have a dog in that fight. Our interest is Al Qaeda.
So we have to ask ourselves: How do we maintain our security and combat Al Qaeda? Now, I may be slightly off about the numbers needed to achieve this goal. If the military tells me you need 32,000 troops to fight Al Qaeda, fine. But you don’t need a 100,000 troops. More importantly, even if 100,000 troops work, they can only continue to work if you keep 100,000 troops there, which we don’t have the finances or the will to do.