Cliff May

Afghans and Pakistanis both dislike the term "AfPak." But the fact is the two nations now constitute a single front -- the most "kinetic" front -- in the global war being waged by militant Islamists.

During his presidential campaign, Barak Obama emphasized his opposition to the conflict in Iraq but he was adamant about the need to prevail in Afghanistan. And this month, American marines launched Operation Khanjar (Thrust of the Sword), Obama's own "surge" of troops into Helmand Province where, over the past two years, the Taliban has been regrouping and regaining power. The White House has pushed the Pakistani government to challenge the Islamist insurgents on its territory as well.

The goal is straightforward: to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" both the Taliban and al-Qaeda in their southern Asian strongholds. But the means to those ends are deceptively complicated, as was made clear at a recent "experts workshop" on the "AfPak Theater" organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the policy institute I head. Among those participating in the conference: current and former ambassadors, scholars, foreign correspondents and representatives of organizations working on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Taliban took over Afghanistan in the 1990s and promptly gave safe haven to al-Qaeda. From its headquarters in the southern city of Kandahar, al-Qaeda plotted - and then celebrated -- the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001.

In response, the United States, allied with anti-Taliban Afghans, toppled the regime. But the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and al-Qaeda's leader, the Saudi multi-millionaire, Osama bin Laden, escaped across the border into northwestern Pakistan, an area so wild Pakistanis sometimes describe it as "Jungle-stan."

Over the years since, the U.S. and its NATO allies have attempted to bring security and stability to Afghanistan - with limited success. During this same period, both al-Qaeda and the Taliban have expanded their operational bases in Pakistan. In 2008, the Taliban moved into the Swat valley - a beautiful area in which I happily trekked 20 years ago -- just a short march north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.