With U.S. relations in Pakistan at a low point and the two countries’ strategic disagreement over priorities in Afghanistan on full display, it is time to review U.S. strategic options. One that deserves a close look is a grand bargain: give Pakistan what it wants in Afghanistan—but on two conditions: Pakistan assumes responsibility for preventing terrorism out of Afghanistan, and Pakistan agrees to settle Kashmir along the present geographic lines. This is not a panacea, nor would it be easy to execute. But it addresses the principal stumbling block to the current U.S. strategy, and provides an incentive to settle the region’s longest-running dispute.
For the past decade, U.S. policy has been based on the assumption that the United States and Pakistan shared the strategic goal of extirpating from the leadership of Afghanistan the Taliban and allied terrorist forces. This objective was at the heart of the partnership struck after 9/11. As with the two previous major U.S.-Pakistan partnerships, in the 1950s/60s and in the 1980s, the assumption of strategic agreement was at best only half true, and the differences between the two countries’ goals have become increasingly difficult to paper over. This time, Pakistan’s desire to ensure what its army chief has referred to as “a friendly government” in Kabul—meaning a government deferential to Pakistan and impervious to Indian influence – has intensified, especially since the beginning of 2011. During that time, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was devastated by the aftereffects of the shooting of two Pakistanis by CIA contractor Raymond Davis and his subsequent arrest, by the raid that killed Osama bin Ladin, and by the harsh public criticism of Pakistan by retiring U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen.
The two governments have been trying to salvage some working elements of partnership. However, their ability to work together toward a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, badly strained by conflicting goals, was for practical purposes ended by the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Karzai government’s designated representative for peace initiatives toward the Afghan Taliban. This was not the first time Pakistan’s insistence on controlling negotiations inside Afghanistan had trumped its stated policy of supporting the Afghan government’s negotiating role, but this incident has brought tentative peace feelers, already rickety, to a virtual halt.
Washington’s response to this situation has been to seek a stronger basis for working with Pakistan. This reflects U.S. recognition of Pakistan’s critical importance to peace in the region and to Afghanistan’s future—as well as the major U.S. stake in nuclear-armed Pakistan’s own political and economic health. These are indeed important considerations—but it does not follow that the United States should continue on essentially the same path that has repeatedly come up short.