President Obama seemed to be engaging in photo-op diplomacy yesterday, by rounding up two leaders-Presidents Karzai and Zardari-who wield little control over their own countries. And while such a mini-summit may seem innocuous enough, it is liable to foment at least some deserved cynicism and even outrage in Pakistan.
Indeed, no amount of Washington summiting is likely improve the AfPak situation, as long as Pakistan's intelligence services and military regard Afghanistan as so much real-estate to hunker down in, should that much-anticipated showdown with India ever materialize. Such is the strategic calculus of those who call the shots in Islamabad, and it is a kind of centrifugal force for all other decisions and actions. What is needed is a reason for Pakistanis to change that calculus.
It may be possible to at least attenuate, if not neutralize, Pakistan's perennial quest to secure sway in Afghanistan. If, for example, the Pakistanis began to see Afghanistan as a vital conduit for much-needed electricity, then they may come to see their own stake in that country's stability, noted Afghanistan expert and Boston University professor Thomas Barfield. The first steps in that regard are being taken. A Soviet-era hydroelectric plant in Tajikistan is slated to supply Afghanistan with seasonal electricity. Unlike the even more attractive, yet still elusive, prospect of a gas pipeline connecting Afghanistan with central Asia, transmission lines from the Tajik dam are currently being laid. Those lines could be continued into Pakistan and could supply as much 25 percent of Pakistan's summer electricity, when the demand for air conditioning peaks.
The project is viable because the lines would travel through a relatively stable and peaceful part of Afghanistan. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher recently made reference to the project, and said that Tajikistan could begin supplying electricity to Afghanistan over the next year or two-and that eventually electricity could be exported to the broader region, all the way down south to Pakistan.
What's the harm, then, in a bit of inconsequential photo-opping in the meantime? Since 9/11, Pakistanis have been witnessing a recurrent plotline, whereby their security services aid and abet jihadi groups targeting U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, and Washington registers strong complaints. Then the Pakistani military launches some assaults on the militants, as it is doing with their president currently visiting Washington. No substantive changes are made, but the Pakistanis can showcase a headcount to Washington. The civilians in the crossfire pay the price. If Pakistanis regard Zardari's visit as a continuation of that plotline, they are probably right.
Pakistan's confrontations with militants are regarded as Washington's bidding. Those Pakistanis that might otherwise support a rollback of the Taliban instead perceive, and resent, Washington's interventions. Zardari and Karzai's Washington visit could also accentuate the perception that they are Washington's agents, bought and paid for. And while neither leader appears prepared to vigorously pursue U.S. priorities (or even their own countries' interests), they do seem to be focused on securing American's continuing financial support.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.