The Americans have finally figured out that "success," however defined, in Afghanistan runs through Pakistan. How to be successful in Pakistan is another matter.
Pakistan is an incredibly complicated country, and in many ways a broken, unsuccessful one. It lost part of itself in 1971 when East Pakistan seceded (with India's help) and became Bangladesh; it has done poorly in wars against India. It has never been able to establish durable democratic institutions, but has wobbled between dictatorship and unstable popular rule led by dynastic families. Even when democratically elected people have ruled, Pakistan has remained a sort of quasi-military state in which the military and intelligence services operate as mini-states within the state.
Pakistan's governments have often been duplicitous, saying one thing to foreigners - especially the gullible Americans under president George Bush's crowd - while doing another. Never was this more evident than during the military rule of the vainglorious Pervez Musharraf, who governed from 1999 until recently.
The general made a habit of doing just what the Pakistan government is doing today: sending in the armed forces to a troubled place, or rounding up a few al-Qaeda militants, to impress the Americans that Pakistan was fully committed to the "war on terror." In exchange for being an ally in the "war," the Bushites turned a blind eye to the general's duplicity and dictatorship. As long as Gen. Musharraf seemed to be chasing al-Qaeda leaders, the blind mice running the Bush administration's foreign policy were content.
Pakistan wasn't much of an ally because institutions within the Pakistani government were themselves encouraging al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban. These elements saw militant Islam very differently from the Americans; indeed, some key members of these institutions were themselves closet militants.
Ahmed Rashid, the brave Pakistani journalist who has been chronicling the Taliban and his own country, lays bare Pakistan's bifurcated view of threats in Descent into Chaos, a must-read book as the Obama administration starts driving the mission in Afghanistan with more troops, new equipment (Apache helicopters!), a new commanding officer and a tough approach toward Pakistan.
Mr. Rashid's book was published before the new U.S. approach, but no one reading his long, detailed account can believe it can work. That it might is all that can be said, or, to be even less upbeat, it could not be less certain of success than previous U.S. and NATO policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Progress might be made, for the first time, only if Pakistan's armed forces and intelligence services come to believe that the militancy they have often encouraged in their own midst now threatens their own state's stability.
Thus far, as Mr. Rashid explains, Pakistan's military intelligence agency has feared India more than terrorism, fomented terror in Kashmir directed at India, and wanted a government in Kabul at least friendly, if not somewhat subservient, to Pakistan.
The Inter-Services Intelligence directorate and the military have refused to take on the indigenous Taliban in Pakistan, or their Pashtun cousins who cross from Afghanistan with impunity. A direct fight, such as the one now taking place in the Swat valley against militants, costs military lives and might turn the population against the military. Better, therefore, to sign deals with insurgent leaders who promise to be good boys and not cause trouble for the central government as long as they can impose sharia law.
These deals have been disastrous, since they have allowed the Taliban to spread geographically and deepen their control of parts of Pakistan. And, of course, this spreading and deepening has aided the insurgents across the border in Afghanistan, who can rest, regroup, plan and refinance themselves in Pakistan.
The insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan is now much worse than a few years ago, which is why even top American officials acknowledge the mission is "failing." How else could one define the Afghan mission after so much blood and treasure have been spent with so few tangible results?
Mr. Rashid believes more progress might have been made if the Americans had not handed so much power to local warlords, took a genuine interest in Afghanistan instead of being distracted by Iraq, and had poured development money into the country. And if they had not mollycoddled Gen. Musharraf. All might-have-beens, alas.
His account of the sustained ineptitude of the Bush administration leadership - Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice (who in their right minds in Calgary paid Mr. Bush's terrible secretary of state to speak there on Wednesday night?) - is hair-raising. But we all knew of that ineptitude long ago.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is Mr. Rashid's friend. He lauds Mr. Karzai for his courage in returning to Afghanistan to lead the fight against the Taliban regime and for becoming the country's democratically elected president.
Mr. Karzai is seeking re-election, on a ticket with a notorious warlord. Even his old friend Mr. Rashid writes that the president has been a major disappointment, because "he has compromised too much with warlords, thieves and drug-smugglers."
He has also been trying to build a stable country, and fight an insurgency, against the wishes of powerful institutions in neighbouring Pakistan.