Armed With Hope

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Army photo / Capt. Thomas Cieslak

Sgt. 1st. Class Alan Sutton, a platoon leader with the 82nd Airborne Division, radios an update as his paratroopers clear a compound in Ghazni Province, Aug. 1.

A senior U.S. defense official met Wednesday with defense reporters in Washington to discuss the way ahead in Afghanistan. He insisted he’s a “glass half-full” kind of guy, and blasted the press for its continued reporting on how bad it sees things going in Afghanistan.

His sunny countenance darkened only twice, when he brought up, unsolicitedly, the “safe havens” that continue to persist across the border in Pakistan.

Home to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan and other militant groups, these havens are used as launching pads for strikes against U.S., allied and Afghan forces, whose perpetrators rush back to safety after unleashing their attacks.

The frustration was plain to read on his face that, after 10 years of war, Washington and Islamabad are no closer to shutting down these Pakistani sanctuaries than they were a decade ago. “I can’t really say there’s been any progress,” said the official, who only agreed to speak with reporters if he were not named.

On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Daily Times quoted a Pakistan military officer denying a report that there are plans afoot for joint U.S.-Pakistani military operations to wipe out safe havens on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Coordinated efforts, yes; joint operations, no, the official said.

So the bottom line in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly clear.

Battleland’s question to the senior U.S. defense official was simple: as the U.S. winds down combat ops, leading to their end by 2015, can Afghanistan survive beyond  that if the safe havens outlast the U.S. combat presence?

The senior Pentagon official gave a measured, carefully-calibrated answer:

— The Afghan security forces are getting better.

— If they continue to improve, the safe havens in Pakistan will not represent a “mortal wound” to Afghanistan once the U.S. ends combat operations.

— But if they don’t, all bets are off.

Gamblers call this “betting on the come” – meaning you don’t have what you need now, but you’re hoping you’ll have it in the future.

It’s the wrong way to fight a war. Hope has never been a dependable wartime ally.