WASHINGTON (June 5, 2009) – Success in Afghanistan and Pakistan will require an intimate local knowledge of the tribal culture and a small coalition footprint, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command said here Friday.
Navy Adm. Eric Olson told the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on terrorism, unconventional threats and capabilities that the United States stands ready to do whatever it can to help Pakistan combat extremists, but “I think that we can’t help Pakistan more than they want to be helped,” he added.
The situation in Pakistan is complicated, the admiral said, and the United States will not force help on people who don’t want it.
“One of the filters on sort of their willingness to be helped is how the Pakistan military is perceived within Pakistan,” the admiral said. “It is the strongest element of Pakistan, historically. It is the element of government upon which the people depend.”
Pakistan is a proud country with a proud military tradition, and America cannot take actions that would cause the Pakistani military to appear to be an extension of the U.S. military, Olson said. “We can only help them in a way that truly helps them, and they are much more expert in that than we are,” he told the subcommittee.
The Pakistanis also have never forgotten the cut-off of military contacts in 1990 as a result of the Pressler Amendment, which sought to pressure Pakistan into not developing nuclear weapons. Even though full relations were re-established between the countries in 2003, Olson said, a full generation of Pakistani officers did not work with their American counterparts.
“I think the best thing that we can do is develop the relationships that will erode whatever atmosphere of distrust exists, help the Pakistani people understand that our interests there are theirs and that our commitment is a long term commitment for the good of Pakistan and the stability of the region,” Olson said.
The admiral called the environment in Afghanistan uniquely complex. “It is really a village-by-village, valley-by-valley counterinsurgency,” he said. “One of the things that I’m finding myself saying more often is that presence without value is perceived as occupation.” Afghans have a long history of mistrust toward outsiders, he noted, and they will resist outside influence.
“Much of Afghanistan has not felt … the impact of a central government in Kabul, ever,” Olson said. “I think a large part of our goal there is to encourage the people who are now deciding where their allegiance will be … to decide to place their bet with a legitimate government, at whatever level that is.”
Whether Afghans pledge loyalty to tribal, local, regional or federal government, “it will come down to ultimately where they place their bet,” the admiral said. “I think in the absence of solid metrics, it will be our sense of where the people are beginning to place their bets that will lead us to understand whether or not our efforts are successful in the hinterlands of Afghanistan.”
Any effort in the country will require a careful U.S. approach, and “it will require as small a footprint as we can get away with in the places we go with the capability and the security considerations as part of that,” he said.
“It will require … a shift towards true local regional knowledge, however that is obtained,” the admiral said. “We have to get beyond generalizations in Afghanistan into true deep knowledge of tribal relationships, family histories, the nuances of the terrain and the weather and how that affects how business is done, how money is made, how their world operates.”
Leaders have to be able to assess what impact American operations and just mere presence will have in remote regions of Afghanistan, Olson said.
“I think this is a long-term commitment for us, in order to build that depth of knowledge and then allow it to have the impact in the places where that needs to occur,” he said. “This will not be people deciding overnight where their allegiance is, it’s going to have to be convincing them over a long period of time that they are better off placing their bet with the local regional governments than with the illegitimate power players in the region.”