mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
A Bleak Alliance

After the NATO airstrike that left two dozen Pakistani soldiers dead, each side predictably rushed to shape perceptions of the incident in ways which supported their self-interest. The NYT reports:

The NATO air attack that killed at least two dozen Pakistani soldiers over the weekend reflected a fundamental truth about American-Pakistani relations when it comes to securing the unruly border with Afghanistan: the tactics of war can easily undercut the broader strategy that leaders of both countries say they share.

The murky details complicated matters even more, with Pakistani officials saying the attack on two Pakistani border posts was unprovoked and Afghan officials asserting that Afghan and American commandos called in airstrikes after coming under fire from Pakistani territory. NATO has promised an investigation.

What’s striking about this blame game is not that America and Pakistan each reflexively interpreted limited information about the firefight in terms of their entrenched worldviews and priorities, but that it reveals just how divergent these worldviews and priorities actually are. Nate Hughes, an analyst at STRATFOR, explains why:

In a way, the Afghan-Pakistani border is a microcosm of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. The U.S. patrols and the Pakistani outposts are there for entirely different and in some cases directly opposing reasons. The Pakistanis are spread thin in the FATA and are focusing their efforts on the Pakistani Taliban, which have their sights set on Islamabad. Not only are they less interested in confronting the Afghan Taliban as a matter of priority, but Pakistani national interest dictates maintaining a functional relationship with the Afghan Taliban as leverage in dealing with the United States and as a way to control Afghanistan as the United States and its allies begin to withdraw.

Last weekend’s deadly showdown was not merely a product of run-of-the-mill wartime confusion between allies. The fog of war which pervades the Af-Pak border is greatly thickened by the conflicting imperatives of each party:

Ultimately […] there is a reason for the long, established history of cross-border incidents and skirmishes. The United States and Pakistan are playing very different games for very different ends on both sides of the border and in Afghanistan. They have different adversaries and are playing on different timetables. The alliance is one of necessity but hobbled by incompatibility, and near-term American imperatives in Afghanistan — lines of supply, political progress, counterterrorism efforts — clash directly with the long-term American interest in a strong Pakistani state able to manage its territory and keep its nuclear arsenal secure. The near-term demands Washington has made on Islamabad weaken the state and divide the country. Obviously, the Pakistani government intends to retain its strength and keep the country as unified as possible.

Worse still, Pakistan and NATO are not the only ones debating strategy in Afghanistan. According to the NYT, the United States government cannot even agree with itself:

The problem, Mr. Nasr said, is that the United States effectively has not one but two strategies for winning the war in Afghanistan.

While the State Department and the White House believe that only a negotiated political solution will end the war, American military and intelligence commanders believe that they must maximize pressure on the Taliban before the American military withdrawal begins in earnest before 2014. The military strategy has led to the intensified fighting in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan, increasing tensions. A major offensive last month involving 11,000 NATO troops and 25,000 Afghan fighters in seven provinces of eastern Afghanistan killed or captured hundreds of extremists, many of them using Pakistan as a base.

Given these stark divergences of strategic interest, the question is why the alliance hasn’t broken up long ago.  The answer is only partly that many people in the US government think that aggressive military action against the Taliban is the only way to prepare the political climate for an acceptable agreement and that this military activism benefits from Pakistani cooperation, however grudging and thin. And on the Pakistani side there is always the money.

More deeply, while neither the US nor Pakistan gets much positive benefit out of the “alliance” (association would be a better word), both believe that continuing association protects them against something worse.  The US is concerned that as a loose cannon, Pakistan would be even more irresponsible in its terrorism promotion than it now is, and that it would become an even more active power in selling nuclear and missile technology to people who should have neither.  Pakistan fears that a complete break with the US would drive the US into a much closer relationship with India when it comes to Central Asia.  Both sets of fears are justified; therefore the world’s most miserable alliance staggers on.

But these two countries are divided not united by their deepest strategic interests, and if the relationship isn’t quite on its deathbed, it isn’t going to get well.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    We should be planning how best to leverage the demise of the alliance.

  • Luke Lea

    I wish Pakistan would “re-demonstrate” it’s status as a nuclear power. That initial demo didn’t scare Israel very much apparently. I wonder why?

  • Corlyss

    Following up on Prof. Mead’s citation to Tony Corn’s insightful article on a Kinder Gentler German Reich, Nigel Farage Britain’s rep to the feckless EU parliament blasted a cavernous hole in the EUP’s handling of their part in the Euro crisis:

    I especially like the emphasis on the “unelected” character of the body. It’s a scandal that all the Eurotrash elites gloss over in the name of more efficient operations.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service