ONE CAN only watch in horror as relations between the United States and Pakistan continue to deteriorate, for there will be no chaos-free exit from Afghanistan without Pakistan. We have become accustomed to the loud accusations of perfidy leveled at Islamabad — it is playing a double game, Americans say, protecting terrorists who are attacking our troops in Afghanistan. But to make an enemy out of Pakistan is to lose sight of the fact that Pakistan is far more important to US interests than Afghanistan ever was.
Republican contenders for Barack Obama’s job fall over each other suggesting ways to be tough on Pakistan. But it was Jon Huntsman who put his finger on the problem.
“I would recognize exactly what the US-Pakistani relationship has become, which is merely a transactional relationship,’’ Huntsman said. American aid should be contingent on Pakistan’s keeping up the fight on terrorism and on keeping American supply lines to Afghanistan open, he said.
And that’s the trouble. For although the Obama administration still talks about a strategic relationship with Pakistan, it has long since become a transactional one. Here’s your money, the United States seems to say, so now do what we say and do it now!
Pakistan, on the other hand, would have liked a true strategic relationship in which the United States would take cognizance of Pakistan’s strategic fears, needs, and national interests. Instead, US officials keep scolding Pakistan for not subordinating its strategic interests to America’s.
For example, is it reasonable to demand that Pakistan attack the militant Haqqani network within its borders while at the same time Americans have been trying to negotiate with Haqqani leaders? Since the United States is planning to leave Afghanistan, Pakistan sees a need to maintain relationships with some of the players, especially among the ethnic Pashtuns, who will continue to be involved in the Afghan drama long after the United States has left the stage.
And what a curious doctrine is this “fight, talk, and build’’ that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton keeps talking about. Wasn’t that what we tried to do in Vietnam - bomb Hanoi to make the North Vietnamese come to their senses and do what we wanted? From Pakistan’s point of view, what would Americans say if a Pakistani intelligence officer stepped out of his car in an American city and shot two Americans dead; took their photographs and sped away, as CIA contractor Raymond Davis did to two Pakistanis did in Lahore in January?
Obama was correct to go after Osama bin Laden without telling the Pakistanis, because someone in the Pakistani hierarchy might have tipped off the world’s most wanted man. But we could have included some Pakistani commandos in the attack. We could have asked Pakistan to send us some soldiers to train with ours, and then put a few in the helicopters without them even knowing where they were headed, which would have preserved security. Hypocrisy? Yes, but a little hypocrisy to get bin Laden and still save Pakistan face would have been worth it in order to soften Pakistan’s humiliation about an obvious violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
And now NATO has killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghanistan border. What actually happened last week is in dispute. Both sides may have thought they were being attacked by the Taliban. But one thing is clear. Pakistani soldiers were killed inside Pakistan by American planes and helicopters inside Pakistani airspace.
What was the US-led coalition doing so close to Pakistan? It would have made more sense not to operate so close to the frontier, even if it meant that some Taliban might escape. After all, they can find sanctuary deeper in Pakistan. Limited wars always include restraints. America’s war in Afghanistan is not going to end with a Taliban surrender on the deck of a battleship, as World War II ended. There will be compromises, and one of them needs to be that the United States doesn’t violate Pakistani sovereignty.
America seems oblivious to how unpopular its drone strikes are, or that Pakistan has lost many more soldiers fighting Islamist extremists than has NATO. The average Pakistani views the whole Afghan campaign as America’s war that has brought them only misfortune and death.
It is said that Pakistan has a weak civilian government and that its military and intelligence services are running the show. But can something similar be said of the United States? The US military out-maneuvered an inexperienced president into a deeper Afghanistan commitment than even the Bush administration was willing to make. Is the military-intelligence complex striving to keep the United States involved in Afghanistan longer than it might otherwise be, and getting into heedless and unnecessary confrontations with Pakistan?