WASHINGTON — Afghanistan's future matters much more to Pakistan than to the United States. This basic truth is forgotten in U.S. deliberations on how best to leverage Pakistan to achieve a political settlement in Afghanistan.
Pakistani military and intelligence services have demonstrated that they are willing to risk ties with Washington to achieve a friendly government on their western border — a government that most Afghans and Washington would oppose. This is the central roadblock to U.S.-Pakistani relations and to a stable Afghanistan.
Pakistan's leaders will continue to seek U.S. assistance even as they tirelessly pursue a government in Kabul that, after most U.S. troops withdraw in 2014, will be friendlier to them than to India. If the Pakistanis fail to ensure this negotiated outcome, they will employ allies to upend an Afghan government that they deem unfriendly.
Pakistani resolve is rooted in the assumption that, if India gains a strong foothold in Afghanistan, then Pakistan's largest and most resource-rich province, Baluchistan, would be ripe for an India-supported insurgency. Pakistan's military knows how this game is played — it played it in the Indian state of Jammu and in Kashmir for more than a decade after Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989. Baluchistan is as disaffected today as Kashmir was then.
Pakistani distrust is heightened by events of four decades ago: India severed East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from West Pakistan in their 1971 war. Pakistani leaders will not abide another territorial loss or an extended, foreign-backed insurgency, not when they are feeling so vulnerable. Pakistan has suffered the second-highest number of mass-casualty attacks — behind only Iraq — over the past five years. Pakistan's military and intelligence services firmly believe that sooner or later, New Delhi will be unable to resist the temptation to dismember their country again. In fact, Pakistan's dissolution would jeopardize Indian growth and security. And Pakistan's nuclear capabilities have frozen a territorial status quo, which serves Indian interests. The prospect of a clash would be raised only if spectacular acts of terrorism originate from Pakistan.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. and Pakistan have maintained a strained, transactional partnership. When faced with the George W. Bush administration's ultimatum — Are you with us or against us? — Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan's chief executive, agreed to a limited U.S. presence at air bases, restricted use of Pakistani airspace and a logistical supply corridor for U.S. troops. Pakistani agents were instrumental in capturing al-Qaida leaders, including Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in March 2003. Pakistan was allocated U.S. military and economic assistance, although far less than its bill for services rendered.
Today, it is fashionable in Pakistan to blame Musharraf for giving away the store to the Americans. But refusing to cooperate would have ensured a much closer partnership between Washington and New Delhi and an embarrassing disregard for Pakistani sovereignty by U.S. forces. Ironically, Pakistani efforts to secure a friendly government in Afghanistan have produced the scenario Musharraf sought to avoid.
What's more, Musharraf's promises to the Bush administration were highly qualified, even at the outset. Pakistani military and intelligence services, based in Rawalpindi, provided havens for Afghan Taliban leaders and for proxies operating across the poorly demarcated border. The longer Pakistanis protected those who would presumably serve their interests in a future Afghan government, the more drone strikes Washington authorized on their havens. These strikes will ultimately fail to influence the outcome of an Afghan settlement — but they have already succeeded in making the U.S. more hated in Pakistan than India.
Tensions were inflamed by the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the NATO attack on a Pakistani border post that killed 24 Pakistani troops in November. Now the U.S. and Pakistan are again haggling — over the price of hauling freight and the wording of an apology for the November incident. This time, however, more Pakistanis and Americans are reaching the same conclusion: that it is not worth the effort, money or subterfuge required to patch up relations.
While Pakistan's policies have remained consistent, U.S. policies are becoming more incoherent. President Barack Obama invited President Asif Ali Zardari to the recent NATO summit in Chicago, then declined to meet privately with him before publicly declaring, "We think that Pakistan has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan." U.S. policy seeks a mutually agreeable political settlement in Afghanistan, but there is no sense haggling over price if the government that Pakistanis want to see in Kabul is unacceptable to most Afghans and the other external stakeholders of Afghanistan.
Pakistan has a poor track record of controlling its proxies in Afghanistan, but its proxies are considered better than the alternatives. Pakistani military and intelligence services are holding a losing hand that they cannot lay down, while Washington's cards grow weaker with time.
Michael Krepon is cofounder of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institution, and is director of its South Asia program.