Paul Pillar

Going Beyond the Borders of the Pakistan Problem

Today I was on an English-language television program broadcast in Pakistan that includes guests in studios in both Islamabad and Washington. The subject was the current state of U.S.-Pakistani relations, particularly regarding the two nations' intelligence services. All the tensions and imbroglios of recent days were hashed over: the bitterness from the Raymond Davis matter, the involvement of Pakistani officials in terrorism by Lashkar-e-Taiba, the circumstances of where bin Laden was found and what this implies about Pakistani knowledge and complicity, the reports that U.S. commandos who conducted the bin Laden operation were braced for a firefight with the Pakistanis, and other unpleasantness. The guests on the Pakistani end, who were a couple of retired military officers, expressed views that did not stray far from Pakistan's official line but probably also reflected some more widely held Pakistani sentiments. The idea of the raid at Abbottabad as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty came up. U.S.-Pakistani relations at the moment are indeed lousy.

A burst of commentary over the past few days has addressed what to do about that relationship. A lot of good ideas have been expressed. In these spaces an example of very useful observations from someone highly knowledgeable about Pakistan comes from Anatol Lieven. The principal deficiency of most of the commentary, however, is that it focuses narrowly on the bilateral relationship without placing it in a broader regional context. Conceived narrowly, the Pakistan problem will remain unsolvable because the United States is dependent on the Pakistanis to do things that the Pakistanis' other concerns preclude them from doing, or at least doing very much of. The only ways to square this circle are to reduce the U.S. dependency or to alleviate the Pakistani concerns. The United States can do a lot on the first; it can do less, but still something, on the second.

The biggest source of current U.S. dependency on Pakistan is the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. That military effort still presents the bizarre situation of a war that is rationalized partly in terms of protecting the Pakistani political order from instability, but in which Pakistanis who are part of that political order give aid and comfort to some of the enemy in that war. Last week I gave several reasons that bin Laden's departure presents an opportunity to draw down in Afghanistan. Reducing the dependency that makes Pakistan seem more of a problem is a reason to take advantage of that opportunity.

Pakistani concerns revolve around the competition with India, and the United States is unable to make that conflict go away. Washington ought to be attuned, however, to any opportunities to help lessen its intensity. Kashmir is at the core of the conflict, but Afghanistan is again where the United States has an opportunity. Vigorous and comprehensive regional diplomacy in which Pakistan (as well as India) plays a major role would not only be an important means for assisting the negotiated settlement of conflict inside Afghanistan but also would lessen the Pakistani motivation to hedge its bets by assisting elements of the Afghan insurgency.

Pakistan is too important for a frustrated United States simply to wash its hands of the relationship. But dealing successfully with the frustrations means looking beyond Pakistan's borders and remembering what else in South Asia is fundamentally important to the United States. India, beyond the eastern border, certainly is. The internal political order of Afghanistan, beyond the western border, ultimately is not.