There are many “problems from hell” that confront U.S. policymakers, but none is more complicated or more important than our relationship with Pakistan. It is once again in the news because of Pakistan’s harsh reaction to a NATO helicopter firing a couple of missiles into Pakistani territory after it came under fire from across the border. The result has been the closing of Torkham Gate, one of the main supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the torching of a number of trucks carrying NATO supplies through Pakistan. This is Islamabad’s way of signaling its displeasure with what it views as a violation of its sovereignty. American officials, for their part, are growing increasingly and understandably exasperated with Pakistan’s double game: while receiving copious American aid and turning a blind eye to American drone strikes primarily directed against foreign jihadists, it is also continuing to support the Taliban and the Haqqani network as they target American and allied troops in Afghanistan.
I wish I knew how to solve this conundrum, but I don’t. No one does. We can’t simply cut off Pakistan, because its government does provide vital assistance in the war against terrorism, and we cannot permit a jihadist takeover of a nuclear-armed state. But nor can we simply live with Pakistan’s continuing role as supporter of terrorist groups that we (and other nations, including India) are fighting. That means we are stuck in a muddle — as we have been for a decade or more. We provide aid to the Pakistani military and try to bolster more moderate elements while realizing that we cannot press too hard because we lack sufficient leverage and risk sparking a destructive backlash.
The Obama administration has gotten slightly more muscular in its approach by stepping up drone strikes — a good idea. But at the same time, the president has made it harder to woo Pakistan because he has given credence to the notion that we are on our way out of Afghanistan. If that’s in fact the case — and I don’t believe it is — then Pakistan has no choice but to look after its own interests, and in the view of the Pakistani military, that means supporting jihadist proxy forces such as the Taliban. There is probably no way to wean the Pakistanis entirely off this strategy in the foreseeable future, but at least if Obama were to clarify his muddled rhetoric regarding a deadline for withdrawal and make it clear that the U.S. is in the region for the long term, he may change the incentive structure for the Pakistani officer corps and make it more palatable for them to take tougher action against terrorist groups, secure in the knowledge that we will not leave them in the lurch.