The tone of the question was startlingly hostile – not what one expects in the hushed, tony recesses of New York’s Council on Foreign Relations, perhaps the preeminent foreign-affairs think-tank in the United States and one whose membership is a virtual "Who’s Who" of the American foreign policy elite. The questioner, a highly respected former government official, was visibly angry. "When," he demanded to know, "are we going to do something about Pakistan? We’re providing them with billions per year in assistance, and yet they refuse to take action against terrorist safe havens on their territory, and their intelligence service provides support to insurgents who are killing American troops. Just how much longer are we going to remain patient?"
The gentleman’s sentiments were hardly new, but they reflect a view which is gaining wider currency in the US, to include both Congress and the Executive branch. They are an indication of the wide gulf in perspective which divides the US from its putative Pakistani ally, and serve as a stark warning for the future. In the words of one of my fellow panelists speaking before the Council, "We are only one successful car bomb away from an abrupt breach in our relations with Pakistan, and a radically different approach [in US policy]." In short, the status quo in US-Pakistan relations is like a ticking time bomb.
Haven and hell
In the US, it is often put as an either/or proposition: Is Pakistan simply unwilling to take action against the terrorist and insurgent safe havens on their side of the border, or do they lack the ability, as they claim? The answer, unfortunately, is: Both.
Pakistan’s military is legitimately over-stretched. It has fought major campaigns over the past two years in Bajaur, in the Swat Valley, and in South Waziristan; fighting continues sporadically in many parts of the country’s north-west, particularly in Orakzai, to say nothing of the devastating terrorist bombing campaign which has struck many parts of the country. Hostilities with Pakistani-based militants have cost the country thousands in military casualties, tens of thousands in civilian losses, and hundreds of thousands in internally-displaced persons – and that is before one even takes into consideration the unimaginable devastation of the country’s recent historic floods, for which the Pakistani military has also had to take the lead in humanitarian relief. It is hardly a wonder that military leaders are hesitant to launch yet another bloody, protracted conflict in North Waziristan, despite US insistence that they move against the al-Qa’ida terrorists and Haqqani-family-led Afghan insurgents who shelter there.
It must also be conceded, however, that even if it were at liberty to do so, Pakistan would be loathe to take action against the Afghan Taliban, for at least two reasons. First, Pakistan has its hands full with its own militants, who include – but are not limited to – the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and who have reacted to Pakistani attempts to interfere with their operations across the Durand Line by striking back at the Pakistani state. Part of the tacit – or perhaps explicit – understanding between Pakistan and the Afghan insurgents is that the latter will refrain from providing assistance to militants who target Pakistan. This is not a natural state of affairs, as the Afghan Taliban’s natural sympathies would tend to lie with their co-militants; indeed, Tehrik-e Taliban founder Baitullah Mehsud swore bayat to Mullah Omar before his missile-induced demise.
Were Pakistan to disrupt its marriage of convenience with any of the various elements of the Afghan insurgency – and particularly the Haqqanis -- the wronged party could well opt to combine forces in support of the Pakistani insurgents, which would be a most unwelcome development in Islamabad.
Even more critically, however, Pakistan has compelling national security interests in Afghanistan which it believes are not well served by the current government in Kabul. With the staying power of the US and its NATO allies very much in question, Pakistani strategists confront the near-term prospect of another Afghan civil war – a civil war again pitting the Pashtuns against Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities -- which would inevitably trigger a proxy struggle between India and Pakistan. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that Pakistan will opt to forego harmonious ties with Afghan actors who provide its sole viable means of countering a perceived Indian attempt at encirclement.
A delicate balance between allies
As to the more extreme elements of the US bill of particulars against Pakistan, I have not seen compelling evidence that Pakistan is providing material support, either military or financial, to the Afghan insurgents. It is clear, however, that Pakistan is maintaining an active dialogue with insurgent elements, turning a blind eye to their cross-border activities, and collaborating, at least on occasion, against non-NATO (read: Indian) targets – all of which, to American eyes, amounts to the moral equivalent of betrayal.
When President Obama rolled out his new Afghan strategy at West Point in December, 2009, he stressed that a broad partnership with Pakistan would be one of the fundamental elements of US policy toward the region. This was coded language for inducing Pakistan to take action against the insurgent safe havens whose continuation, in the US military view, could ultimately doom the US-led counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. To their credit, Obama administration spokesmen quietly stressed that the effort to bring the Pakistanis around would not be based on the usual hectoring, but instead on creating a strategic environment in which Pakistan would see cooperation against the so-called “Quetta Shura,” the Haqqani network, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as serving its national interests.
As has been so often the case with this administration, execution of the Obama strategy in the region has been very much at odds with its stated intent. Yes, the Americans have helped to foster some marginal improvements in tactical cooperation between Pakistan and the Kabul regime; and yes, the US is stepping up financial support both for Pakistan’s domestic counter-insurgency operations and its economic development. But on the critical issues of war and peace in Afghanistan, to include desultory efforts at fostering reconciliation between the Karzai government and the Afghan Taliban, the US has clearly refused to bring the Pakistani government into its confidence.
Indeed, if there were a viable process toward reconciliation with at least some elements of the insurgency, the US would be most unlikely to reveal it to the Pakistanis, for the simple reason that there is no trust between the two; the US and Afghanistan would fear Pakistani sabotage of any Coalition initiative which it might perceive to work against its clients. In short, there is nothing approaching alignment of strategic interests, let alone strategic coordination on Afghanistan between the US and Pakistan, and their respective policies there remain fundamentally adversarial. Unless decisively addressed, this situation will inevitably lead to a serious rupture between two states which, whether they like it or not, desperately need one another.
When a plan comes together
So, what should the US do? First of all, it needs to show that it is both committed and capable of remaining engaged in Afghanistan indefinitely, if necessary. To do this, paradoxically, it should scale back both the size of its presence and the extent of its core objectives in Afghanistan to a point where the latter is achievable, and the former sustainable. Transparent sustainability of effort would serve to demonstrate to the Taliban that it can never defeat the current government, nor assert its control over Kabul and the non-Pashtun regions of the country. The prospect of an open-ended, unwinnable civil war in Afghanistan should convince both the Taliban and the Pakistani government that the status quo does not serve their interests.
Second, the US must strongly encourage the Afghan government to re-channel Indian assistance and shift the Indian presence in a transparent way designed to allay Pakistani fears. This does not mean that Afghanistan should reject a relationship with India from which it clearly benefits, but it should manage the relationship in a way which does not appear to threaten Pakistan.
This is simple prudence, and an Indian government more devoted to enlightened self-interest would be willing to cooperate. There are a number of regional powers, including Iran, which have strong national interests at stake in Afghanistan, but none whose interests match Pakistan’s in perceived importance. Like it or not, these interests must be at least minimally accommodated if there is to be peace. On the other hand, Afghans can comfort themselves that Pakistan can never begin to control their country, for even the Pashtuns reflexively distrust the Punjabi-dominated state next door.
Third, with the above two conditioning factors in place, the US, Pakistan, and the Afghan regime – in coordination with other regional powers as necessary -- must come to agreement on the broad outlines of a viable Afghan settlement toward which all can work. For Pakistan, the price of inclusion in this regional consultation would be its commitment to exert its influence, including some degree of coercive pressure, on the Afghan insurgents to reach political accommodation at home.
Such a process would inevitably be messy and uncertain. Although the Taliban has always used traditional tactical accommodations to advance its interests, there is little in the movement’s history to suggest a willingness to bargain in good faith over strategic outcomes. Should a negotiated agreement with the Quetta Shura and the Haqqanis prove impossible, as it likely, the Pakistanis must be willing to use their influence and leverage to help undermine the current Taliban leadership and induce local commanders to enter the political process in their home areas – preferably under a reformed and decentralized Afghan political scheme designed in part to coopt them.
The Pakistanis have long over-estimated their influence over the insurgents, very much to include the Haqqanis, and in any case would have to work within the constraints imposed by their current military limitations and their fear of collusion between the Afghan insurgents and Pakistani militants. If, however, they could develop a common strategic framework with Washington and Kabul, the frictions which would inevitably arise among them would at least be confined to matters related to differences of perception on tactics and capabilities – not strategic intent.
Over time, and with the development of a greater level of trust, Pakistan’s relations with the insurgents would begin to appear more as a strategic asset, and less an indication of perfidy.
The US-Pakistan strategic partnership should very much extend to the eastern side of the Durand line, where US military and economic support must be harnessed to fundamentally transform the status of the tribal areas. The precise nature of that transformation would have to be worked out in consultation with the inhabitants of those areas, but must end in the reliable extension of responsible state authority over erstwhile militant safe havens.
Establishing a stable and benign political arrangement in Afghanistan will take years, and the effort to incorporate the lawless tribal areas into the Pakistani state many years more. But the strategic understandings underlying both of these projects cannot come soon enough, for the anger I witnessed in the otherwise staid halls of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the corresponding resentment building in Islamabad threaten to blow up any chance of genuine partnership between two countries whose most compelling national aspirations depend, perhaps more than either realizes, on the cooperation of the other.
Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.