9/11 was one of the most traumatic events in U.S. history. But in many ways it proved to be an even greater disaster for Pakistan. In its immediate aftermath, Pervez Musharraf agreed to support the U.S. war on terror. He felt he had little choice; his government had been closely allied to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that had provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda forces. It had tried but failed to convince Taliban leader Mullah Omar to turn bin Laden over. Now it was time to pay the piper.
Pakistan stood aside as U.S-led military operations drove retreating Taliban and al-Qaeda forces onto Pakistani territory. And Islamabad helped the U.S. track down several senior al-Qaeda operatives, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had taken refuge in urban Pakistan even though this cost them the allegiance of most of the Pakistani jihadists they had been using to fight their proxy war in Kashmir against Indian rule. These former tools of Pakistani foreign policy began conspiring with al-Qaeda on efforts to assassinate Pervez Musharraf and other senior Pakistani officials.
But Pakistani leaders were reluctant to send the army into the tribal areas, where most al-Qaeda militants were hunkered down, because they did not want to risk coming to blows with the Taliban. By this time, India had developed strong relations with the Karzai government in Afghanistan and was showering it with aid. The Pakistanis feared that if the Taliban were defeated, the United States would depart the region and leave behind an Afghan government allied to their mortal enemy. When U.S. exhortations finally shamed them into going in, the army deliberately sought out al-Qaeda militants being protected by local Pakistanis, leaving Afghan Taliban forces strictly alone. For their troubles, they ended up trapped in a nasty war with these local Pakistanis who, with Al-Qaeda encouragement, banded together to form the Pakistani Taliban.
At first, the United States was grateful for Pakistan’s move into the tribal areas. But it gradually began to dawn on Washington that the Pakistanis were giving the Afghan Taliban a wide berth. The Pakistanis, for their part, were merely trying to keep the Pakistani variety of Taliban in check and were increasingly inclined to blame the United States for their woes. On taking office, Obama began ratcheting up the pressure on Islamabad to take action against the Afghan Taliban. But her administration showed little sympathy for Pakistani concerns about the Indian presence in Afghanistan. During the past year, U.S. actions and Pakistani reactions—including incessant drone attacks against Afghan Taliban forces, Pakistani detention of a CIA contractor arrested for killing two ISI informants and the clandestine raid against Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad—have brought relations close to the breaking point. Pakistan’s army has become increasingly anti-American, and ordinary Pakistanis now tell pollsters they regard the United States as a greater enemy than India.
It is hard to see how this is in the U.S. interest. Yet Washington has continued to pile on the pressure, with the Pakistanis pushing back just as hard. If the two sides are not careful, this could precipitate an even more fundamental breakdown in relations. In considering its options, the United States needs to bear firmly in mind that, for better or worse, the army is the only force in Pakistani society capable of preventing a jihadist takeover of the state. Undermining it imperils America. Washington also needs to understand that, given the depth of Pakistani concerns over the Indian presence in Afghanistan, there is virtually no prospect that the army will go after the Afghan Taliban, no matter what pressure the United States brings to bear. Although U.S. frustration is understandable, continuing to put the squeeze on Islamabad will only make things worse. It is time for U.S. policy makers to recognize this and move on.
Hopefully, the recent cooperation that resulted in the capture of senior al-Qaeda leader Younis al-Mauritani in the Baluchistan capital Quetta signals a movement away from confrontation. The United States should continue to pull in its horns and see if it can find some common ground with the Pakistanis on Afghanistan. It now seems clear that the Afghan Taliban are not going to be defeated on the battlefield and that the best possible outcome for U.S. interests would be a negotiated settlement constraining Taliban power by locking them into a coalition arrangement in Kabul. This is something the Pakistanis could almost certainly support. They may prefer the Afghan Taliban to an Indian-dominated Afghanistan, but they have no desire to return to the status quo that existed prior to 9/11 and caused them so much grief. From their point of view, bringing the Taliban into an Afghan coalition would serve as a brake on Indian ambitions in Kabul while also limiting Taliban freedom of action. Despite this commonality of interest, the United States has frozen Islamabad out of its first tentative efforts at talking to the Taliban. While not surprising given the current difficulties in relations, it is perfectly self-defeating; the Pakistanis have more influence over the Afghan Taliban than anyone else.
There would appear to be little harm in sitting down with Islamabad and exchanging views on how to pursue a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. At the very least it would send a signal to the Pakistanis that the United States was dropping its confrontational approach. And it just might bear some fruit. It could also pave the way for the two sides to begin rebuilding their cooperation against al-Qaeda, currently in tatters in the wake of the bin Laden affair. Here is another convergence of interest; al-Qaeda has been front and center in supporting the Pakistani Taliban in their war against Islamabad, and the Pakistanis know that as long as the organization is housed on Pakistani territory, Pakistan will remain in U.S. crosshairs. Nor do they want to see al-Qaeda simply transfer its operations to Afghanistan next door. That, after all, is what led them to 9/11.
It will not be easy to put the Humpty Dumpty of U.S.-Pakistani relations back together again, but it would be even worse not to try. Washington and Islamabad may have different interests in Afghanistan, but that does not mean it is impossible for the two sides to find common ground.