Gen. Stanley McChrystal this week expressed a truth that military commanders know better than anyone: "A political solution to all conflicts is the inevitable outcome," he told the Financial Times. The problem is getting to that political settlement in a way that the combatants find acceptable. This can take years, even decades.
The United States is now in its ninth year of fighting Muslim extremists around the world. People sometimes wonder whether America has learned anything during this painful time, or whether we are condemned to keep digging deeper holes for ourselves. Certainly, we're still digging in Afghanistan, where McChrystal, the U.S. commander there, believes that an acceptable political settlement won't be possible unless we squeeze the Taliban harder. I think he's right about that.
But I sense there's a growing recognition, especially within the U.S. military, that America has to get out of the business of fighting expeditionary wars every time a new flash point erupts with al-Qaeda. The Pentagon has adopted this proxy strategy of training "friendly" countries (meaning ones that share with us the enemy of Islamic extremism) from North Africa to the Philippines.
This "partnership" approach hasn't been articulated by the Obama administration as a formal strategy, and it doesn't get much media coverage. But it's worth a careful look, because it may offer the best path toward a world where the United States isn't always operating as an anti-terrorist Robocop.
The essence of this strategy is to train other countries to fight Islamic extremism that threatens them at least as much as us. As a senior military officer says: "We can't possibly go everywhere that al-Qaeda metastasizes. The idea is to build capacity for foreign militaries to deal with problems inside their borders."
Yemen offers the clearest example of how this "partnering" can work -- and how it differs from the direct combat the United States waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. For more than a year, the United States has been training Yemeni special forces and intelligence agencies to deal with a growing al-Qaeda presence there. The United States supplies some high-tech hardware, but the Yemenis do the fighting.
The breakthrough came last July, when Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh decided that his regime was threatened. It was his fight, in other words, not just ours. "We had an embrace in July, literally and figuratively," says Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander who has been the U.S. point man with Yemen.
Traveling with Petraeus several months ago, I saw evidence of this forward-training approach nearly everywhere we stopped. They're low-visibility programs, deliberately, and Petraeus was reluctant to discuss some of them. But other military officials sketched the outlines.
Let's start with Central Asia, where the goal is to prevent the Taliban contagion from spreading to former Soviet republics. The United States is training special forces or other security units in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. To gain Russian support, Petraeus dropped the old rhetoric about competing for energy in Central Asia and instead stressed common enemies.
Other below-the-radar U.S. training missions are helping East Asian countries with large Muslim populations, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The big battlegrounds remain Afghanistan and Pakistan. The White House held its first review of its new Afghan strategy on Jan. 15, and a top White House official says Obama came away "satisfied" with progress there. The meeting analyzed new polls showing the Taliban's unpopularity; improved Afghan army recruitment rates; better security in some districts of Helmand and Kandahar provinces; and steps to ensure that at least 90 percent of President Obama's surge of 30,000 soldiers arrives by August. "It's not a critical mass yet, just guideposts," cautions the White House official.
The toughest theater of this conflict is Pakistan. The U.S. advisory role is evident there, as roughly 100 U.S. Special Forces soldiers "train the trainers" of the Pakistani Frontier Corps. But just last week, the Pakistanis balked at closer partnership, saying they would delay for six months the next phase of their campaign against Taliban extremists.
Partnership is about shared interest, and the American fight against the Taliban gives Pakistan a golden opportunity to secure the tribal areas along its western frontier for the first time in its history -- with a big American army over the border to help.
American troops won't be in Afghanistan forever -- all wars do end, eventually -- and the Pakistanis may miss their chance. That would be a historic mistake, but as U.S. commanders have come to understand, it's their fight, not ours.