President Obama's decision on a timetable for withdrawal of American troops only makes official what everyone here has known for a while: the clock is ticking in Afghanistan. The Taliban have long recognized this, and many captured militants have reminded their interrogators that "you have the watches, but we have the time."
As we quicken the pace, the top American commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has repeatedly noted that there are many issues to focus on: building more competent Afghan Army and police forces, adopting more effective anticorruption measures and reintegrating "moderate" Taliban and other insurgent fighters into Afghan society and politics.
But perhaps the most difficult issue is largely outside of General McChrystal's control (and got short shrift in President Obama's speech at West Point): undermining the Taliban's sanctuary in Pakistan. Thus far, there has been no substantive action taken against the Taliban leadership in Baluchistan Province, south of the Pashtun-dominated areas of Afghanistan. This is the same mistake the Soviets made in the 1980s, when they failed to act against the seven major mujahadeen groups headquartered in Pakistan.
This sanctuary is critical because the Afghan war is organized and run out of Baluchistan. Virtually all significant meetings of the Taliban take place in that province, and many of the group's senior leaders and military commanders are based there. "The Taliban sanctuary in Baluchistan is catastrophic for us," a Marine told me on a recent trip to Afghanistan's Helmand Province, across the border from Baluchistan. "Local Taliban fighters get strategic and operational guidance from across the border, as well as supplies and technical components for their improvised explosive devices."
Like a typical business, the Taliban in Pakistan have an organizational structure divided into functional committees. It has a media committee; a military committee; a finance committee responsible for acquiring and managing funds; and so forth. The Taliban's inner shura, or governing council, exerts authority over lower-level Taliban fighters. It is composed of the supreme Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, his principal deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, his military commander, Abdullah Zakir, and roughly a dozen other key leaders. Many Taliban leaders have moved their families to Baluchistan, and their children attend Pakistani schools.
Mullah Baradar is particularly important because he runs many of the shuras involving senior Taliban commanders, virtually all of which are in Pakistan. "Omar is reclusive and unpolished," one Taliban figure recently said to me, "and has preferred to confide in a small number of trusted advisers rather than address larger groups."
Yet Pakistan and the United States have failed to target them systematically. Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps forces have conducted operations in Pakistan's tribal areas to the north, and the United States has conducted many drone strikes there. But relatively little has been done in Baluchistan.
The United States and Pakistan must target Taliban leaders in Baluchistan. There are several ways to do it, and none requires military forces.
The first is to conduct raids to capture Taliban leaders in Baluchistan. Most Taliban are in or near Baluchi cities like Quetta. These should be police and intelligence operations, much like American-Pakistani efforts to capture Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other Qaeda operatives after 9/11. The second is to hit Taliban leaders with drone strikes, as the United States and Pakistan have done so effectively in the tribal areas.
The cost of failing to act in Baluchistan will be enormous. As one Russian diplomat who served in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan recently told me: "You are running out of time. You must balance counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan by targeting the leadership nodes in Pakistan. Don't make the same mistake we did."
Seth G. Jones, the author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan, is a civilian adviser to the American military and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in The New York Times on December 4, 2009.