Pakistan and the United States: Frenemies in Need Can Be Friends Indeed

Senior Pakistani and U.S. officials met today in Washington to start what’s being billed as the third in a series of high-level “strategic dialogues” between the two war on terror partners.

Over the remainder of this week, thirteen working groups on a wide variety of issues, ranging from energy to women’s empowerment, will finalize their recommendations for enhancing cooperation and furthering objectives that are said to be mutually shared. A few major transactions, including a new $2 billion military aid package, will reportedly be announced. But the pomp, circumstance, and scale of the pledges belie the reality that Islamabad and Washington are as much strategic competitors as they are partners.

Glaringly, the two governments are pursuing separate and largely antagonistic endgames to the Afghan war. Recent press reports claim that NATO is facilitating peace talks between the Karzai government and Afghan insurgents, including the infamous Haqqani network that the Pakistani military allegedly sponsors to purge Afghanistan of arch-rival India’s influence.

General David Petraeus is promoting (or wants us to believe he is) a peace process in Afghanistan sans Pakistan but with the very groups that the Pakistani military-intelligence apparatus has urged the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reach out to. Yet, at the same time, the United States is asking Pakistan to smack the hornets’ nest in the North Waziristan tribal area, home to the Haqqani network.

Why would Pakistan create bad blood with an entity that could very well be integrated into the Afghan power structure in the coming years in a U.S.-endorsed reconciliation process? So its own Taliban-style insurgencies can live on even after the Afghan war comes to an end?

Unlike the United States, Pakistan cannot engage in a front-loaded withdrawal from the region. Barring a dramatic subcontinental drift, Pakistan and Afghanistan are — in Karzai’s words — “conjoined twins.” What goes on in Afghanistan doesn’t always stay in Afghanistan — it often bleeds into Pakistan. The thousands of Pakistani civilians and security personnel killed since 9/11 are case in point.

Pakistan and the United States can continue their transactional relationship. But no amount of money will induce Pakistan to commit strategic suicide. And no American president can be indifferent toward a safe haven in Pakistan where terrorist plots against the United States have been and continue to be plotted.

Maintenance of the status quo will not produce a lasting peace in Afghanistan, which is essential to the security of both Pakistan and the United States. Only a joint effort by the United States, (the predominant occupying force in Afghanistan) and Pakistan (the entity with the most leverage over Afghan insurgents) can end the thirty-year conflict in Afghanistan once and for all, and thereby seriously weaken regional and transnational militants in Pakistan’s border areas, such as al-Qaeda, that have thrived off of instability and foreign occupation across the Durand Line.

Pakistan, as the glue holding together a peace deal between the many Afghan factions and armed with a potent counterinsurgency force to man its frontier with Afghanistan, can serve as the guarantor for an enduring Afghan peace. But for this formula to even be fathomable requires adjustment by both Pakistan and the United States. Pakistan needs to take more seriously the threat posed to the United States and Western Europe by al-Qaeda and its affiliates inside its border regions with Afghanistan. And the United States will have to accommodate Pakistan’s legitimate fear that rising Indian influence in Afghanistan will result in it being strategically encircled by an emerging superpower on a $50 billion dollar military spending spree with which it’s fought three wars.

Peace in Afghanistan and containment or defeat of al-Qaeda are not possible if Pakistan and the United States work at cross-purposes. And so if the status quo continues, it will remain mission unaccomplished for both countries.


Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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