Negotiations between the United States and Pakistan over the cost of hauling freight from Karachi port to Afghanistan and the wording of a statement of regret or apology over Pakistani deaths at a border clash last November have become demeaning to everyone involved. Patching up these contentious issues will have lasting benefit only if a much larger impasse can somehow be bridged. The central impasse currently afflicting bilateral relations is over a future composition of an Afghan government.
At the rhetorical level, Washington and Islamabad say they want the same outcome in Afghanistan, but at the operational level, the two sides are backing very different horses. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services in Rawalpindi are betting on groups and individuals that most Afghans, Washington, and other Afghan stakeholders will find unacceptable. Washington, NATO, and India are investing in the Afghan National Army and in a government that can prevent the recapture of Kabul by Taliban fighters. Rawalpindi is likely to oppose a future Afghan government that is friendlier to India than to Pakistan.
The tactics employed by Rawalpindi increase Pakistan’s continued isolation and decline. The tactics employed by Washington increase the likelihood of its estrangement with Pakistan. As long as current policies remain fixed, new points of contention seem inevitable between Pakistan, its neighbors, and the United States.
Washington is repeating one of the mistakes of the Vietnam War, thinking that an expansion of the battlefield across an international border could facilitate a successful result. This tactic is proving to be as unsuccessful with drones as with F-4 fighter aircraft. Drone strikes have failed to influence an Afghan settlement while succeeding in poisoning U.S.-Pakistan relations. Nonetheless, they are likely to continue if prompted by deadly attacks carried out by the Afghan Taliban from safe havens in Pakistan. This vicious circle will be hard to break as long as Washington measures the success of drone strikes numerically rather than politically, and as long as target lists do not shrink. An instrument that warrants use only in exceptional circumstances has become almost commonplace.
Rawalpindi is also repeating painful errors. In seeking to secure a friendly government on its western border, Pakistan’s fortunes have plummeted in every way – economically, internally, and externally. The problem lies not with seeking strong ties with Afghanistan, but with the means chosen to achieve this objective. Rawalpindi has good reasons to seek a friendly neighbor to the west, especially as ties with India remain problematic, and while Iran might someday seek to exploit Pakistan’s religious divisions. Pakistan would face intolerable security challenges if Afghanistan, Iran, India, and the United States were all hostile to Pakistan. No other country, besides Iraq, has suffered more incidents of mass casualty attacks over the past five years than Pakistan. These incidents could grow exponentially if tables were turned, and if Pakistan found itself on the receiving end of destabilization efforts originating from Afghanistan and India.
The means chosen to prevent these nightmares have instead brought them closer to realization. Pakistan’s decline over the past quarter century can be directly linked to its policies and its allies in Afghanistan. Yes, outsiders have contributed mightily to Pakistan’s woes, starting with the United States, but outsiders didn’t embrace the Taliban, and outsiders didn’t re-direct jihadist tactics against India after the Soviets departed Afghanistan. The U.S.-Pakistan partnership began to dissolve with this crucial decision to settle scores in Kashmir. And then Rawalpindi’s investments in Afghanistan turned to dust when the Taliban leadership offered a safe haven for al Qaeda and spurned Pakistan’s advice. A new generation of Afghan Taliban leaders operating out of Pakistan’s tribal areas may well prove to be similarly uncontrollable.
Much grief has come to Pakistan from the assumption that a friendly neighbor is required in the east but can never be found in the west. Some in India no doubt harbor the desire to use Afghanistan as a springboard to cause Pakistan’s demise, but sensible leaders in New Delhi have reasonably concluded that Pakistan’s demise would impair Indian security and imperil its economic growth. The advent of nuclear weapons on the subcontinent has served to reinforce the territorial status quo. The threat of clashes between India and Pakistan remains, triggered only by spectacular acts of violence on Indian soil that originate from Pakistan – acts that Rawalpindi is either incapable or unwilling to prevent.
The United States and Pakistan have made poor choices and have suffered the consequences. A partnership re-forged to hasten the Soviet exit from Afghanistan has again fallen on hard times. The United States erred in turning away from Afghanistan after Soviet troops went home, and Pakistan’s leaders erred in believing that their country’s security could be advanced by partnering with the Taliban. These errors have been compounded over the past decade. The U.S. economy is big enough to withstand very bad decisions. Pakistan’s economy is not.