The Corner

Afghanistan: The Pakistan Problem

The news from Pakistan that two more Taliban commanders have been arrested in the aftermath of Mullah Baradar’s capture in Karachi has been promptly hailed by the New York Times as yet another sign of a “turning point” in Pakistani cooperation with the U.S., and as the “best possible news for Obama and NATO” by the ever-sanguine Obama acolytes at the Brookings Institution cited by the paper. Maybe so, but most likely not. It is not difficult to understand why. Pakistani policies vis-à-vis the U.S. and the campaign against the Taliban are driven mostly by the military’s perceptions of its strategic and tactical interest rather than any abstract loyalty to its putative American ally. The key determinant here is the basic incompatibility between the two players’ long-term objectives in Afghanistan. The U.S. desires an independent and democratic Afghanistan strong enough to prevent its territory from becoming again a breeding ground of international terrorism; Islamabad, on the other hand, would prefer a client state it can easily control. At the same time, Pakistan is economically dependent on the United States and given to prevarications and dissembling rather than open disagreement with its patron.

Thus, for seven long years, Pres. Pervez Musharraf claimed staunch support for Washington’s anti-terrorist policies while doing very little to contain the Taliban and other terrorist groups operating at will in the country.

This duality of Pakistani policies has continued to the present day, with the only positive difference being the growing realization of the leadership that the Pakistani Taliban now presents a national-security threat to Pakistan itself. And so the ISI decision to let Americans interrogate the captured mullahs is certainly a positive sign, but the preceding hostile campaign by the military against the Kerry-Lugar bill on non-military aid is the exact opposite. The army’s successful offensive against the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan was a significant step forward; but its refusal to extend it to Northern Waziristan and its Taliban sanctuaries was a clear setback for the Afghan campaign. And it is very unlikely that we’ll get “the best possible news” until Islamabad moves to deny the Taliban its sanctuaries in Baluchistan and does its best to stop the river of opium that funds the Taliban flowing into Pakistan, neither one of which it has even remotely tried to do so far. Washington can help push them in that direction by informing friend and foe alike that we’ll not leave Afghanistan before the job is done — and misguided talk about quitting at a date certain is just that, even if it comes from high places.

– Alex Alexiev is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

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