DAVID IGNATIUS: Shift in U.S. priorities needed toward Egypt

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – Samuel Johnson famously observed that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind. The same could be said about America’s current budget crisis: It should force some hard decisions about foreign policy priorities – so that we spend more to support the democratic revolution in Egypt and less to seek a military solution in Afghanistan.
Today, the United States is allocating about $110 billion annually for the Afghan War, about $3.2 billion for military and economic aid to Pakistan, and about $150 million in special assistance to help Egypt’s democratic revolution. In terms of U.S. national interests, those spending levels don’t make sense. The pyramid is upside down.
President Obama should seize this budget-crisis moment to change national-security spending for the next fiscal year. The rationale for the shower of cash in Afghanistan is to prevent future attacks by al-Qaeda. But, frankly, a successful, democratic Egypt will be a more potent counter to the spread of Islamic terrorism than a stable Afghanistan. And a prosperous, democratic Pakistan would be the best safeguard of all.
This is not an argument for pulling the plug in Afghanistan, especially at the start of this year’s “fighting season.” The U.S. should stick to its broad timetable for transferring responsibility to the Afghans in 2014. But we should spend less, going forward, as we move along the exit ramp. This will mean a smaller military footprint, more use of paramilitary forces and more emphasis on diplomacy.
The time is right for this pivot. Recent weeks have seen new outreach to the Taliban. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Feb. 18 announced a “diplomatic surge” and subtly shifted what had been preconditions for Afghan peace talks so that they were instead “necessary outcomes.” And she hired Marc Grossman, a veteran diplomat who strongly favors negotiation with the Taliban, as her new Afghanistan representative. The quiet, low-key Grossman may have better luck facilitating this process than did his high-voltage predecessor, the late Richard Holbrooke.
There’s new momentum from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani visited Kabul last weekend to meet with President Hamid Karzai. They upgraded plans for a “joint peace commission” that, crucially, will include Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani and Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the chiefs of Pakistani army and intelligence, respectively, who accompanied Gillani to Kabul. The message is that Pakistan wants to help broker a peace deal, now.
Another push for the Af-Pak peace train is coming from Britain, which also wants a prompt start for negotiations. The British are working several possible contacts with the Taliban and are circulating a plan that they are calling, in classic Anglo-speak, a “non-paper.”
The awkward question, of course, is whether the Taliban are ready to play. Some intermediaries have been saying yes, but Grossman wants more clarity about who’s on the other side. The U.S. wants a Taliban representative who can make decisions, who is connected with Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader, and who will work toward a settlement that would include America’s three “outcomes” of renouncing al-Qaeda, halting violence and respecting the Afghan constitution. Grossman hasn’t yet found such a negotiating partner, but he’s looking – with British, Afghan and Pakistani help.
Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Kabul, favors negotiations in principle, but wants more time to squeeze the Taliban for leverage. Petraeus has supported the recent negotiating feelers. In the meantime, he’s hoping to disarm enough low-level Taliban that Omar will have trouble fielding a robust insurgency.
Petraeus surely won’t win a military victory before he is expected to hand off command this fall, but it’s intriguing to ponder how he might oversee the coming phase, which may lean more on paramilitary forces, if he should become the next CIA director. The CIA will also remain the key point of contact with Pakistan, which is the decisive battlefield for combating al-Qaeda.
Which brings me back to support for Egypt’s democratic revolution. Simply put, there is no greater priority for U.S. counterterrorism policy than helping the Tahrir Square revolutionaries build a strong new country that can lead the rest of the Arab and Islamic world toward a better, saner future. The Egyptians are going to need help, big-time, to repair their damaged economy and their demoralized police.
America needs to put its money where its interests are. That’s the unifying link between the Arab Spring and Af-Pak: The promise of the former must lead us to change our spending mix for the latter, and the time is now.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.