For years, the leading narrative has been that the US Government stood firmly against talks with insurgents in Afghanistan. There was a tension, however; elements in the Pakistani Government, nominally allied with Washington, were providing support to the "Taliban".
OK, get your head around this. In recent weeks, both political and military figures in the Obama Administration have swung behind negotiations between the insurgents and the Afghan Government, and NATO (read US-led) units have provided support to get Taliban leaders to the talks.
That part is not too challenging to comprehend. Here's the twist: Washington's alleged effort is not only to get the insurgents in but to keep the Pakistanis out.
Back to Dexter Filkins' article in The New York Times, which we posted on EA yesterday:
The discussions appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan's leaders, who are believed to exercise a wide degree of control over the Taliban's leadership. The Afghan government seems to be trying to seek a reconciliation agreement that does not directly involve Pakistan, which [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai's government fears will exercise too much influence over Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw.
Max Fisher of The Atlantic picks up the twist in the tale:
In other words, the U.S., the NATO-led security force, and the Afghan government have all taken the extraordinary step of protecting the Taliban from the Pakistani military because we've decided that the latter is more dangerous. It's no secret that Pakistan's ISI has threatened Taliban commanders against peace with the U.S. -- Pakistan's ally and greatest benefactor. Recently, Filkins confirmed long-held suspicions that the ISI sabotaged Afghan peace efforts by kidnapping a senior Taliban leader who spent much of 2009 negotiating possible peace with the Afghan government. So the fact that Pakistan opposes peace is nothing new. But the decision to actively protect the Taliban, our stated enemy in Afghanistan, from our purported ally seems to set a symbolic new low in thealready abysmal U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
Now one way of settling a confused head would be the analysis that the US has belatedly realised --- or long realised but is only now putting into its strategy --- that the main fight is not with the insurgents in Afghanistan but with the "terrorists" in Pakistan. Settle with the Taliban and concentrate on Al Qa'eda.
That, however, is only a temporary and possibly misleading settlement. As Fisher notes, there are bigger interests --- even bigger than Osama bin Laden --- in play:
For the ISI [Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence], war in Afghanistan is both the end and the means. The military intelligence service wants to project Pakistani influence and ensure that neither India nor the U.S., which they see as India's eternal partner, ever have a stable footing in Afghanistan. There is nothing to negotiate. And, as contemporary military historian John Keegan argued in his book-length response to Clausewitz, sometimes war is driven by culture rather than politics. Whatever the reason for the ISI's continued opposition to peace, the U.S. and Afghan governments now seem to believe that it is the Taliban, of all groups, that would be more willing to lay down their arms and finally reconcile after 30 years of war.
It would be off the mark --- though tempting --- to post the banner headline, "US: Pakistan Now the Enemy", but Fisher is on the mark in noting that Al Qa'eda will be only a diversion and, if necessary, an excuse --- as it has been during the military escalation in Afghanistan --- in the American shift to reconciliation in Kabul and political confrontation with Islamabad.
The prospect of that confrontation has been building in recent weeks, with Pakistan's anger over the NATO cross-border attacks, especially when they killed three Pakistani soldiers, and Islamabad's subsequent closure of the Afghanistan border to NATO tankers. Yesterday Josh Rogin of The Cable offered the latest vignette:
One key meeting [in Washington] Wednesday afternoon was between National Security Advisor in-waiting Tom Donilon and what's known as the "core" group of Pakistani officials: Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, and Ambassador Husain Haqqani.
President Barack Obama dropped in on that meeting and stayed for 50 minutes, according to an official who was there, and personally delivered the tough love message that other top administration officials have been communicating since the Pakistani delegation arrived. Obama also expressed support for Pakistan's democracy and announced he would invite Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to the White House in the near future.
Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped in unannounced on another meeting between Special Representative Richard Holbrooke and Kayani. She delivered the message that Washington's patience is wearing thin with Pakistan's ongoing reluctance to take a more aggressive stance against militant groups operating from Pakistan over the Afghan border. A similar message was delivered to Kayani in another high-level side meeting Wednesday morning at the Pentagon, hosted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, two senior government sources said.
The message being delivered to Pakistan throughout the week by the Obama team is that its effort to convince Pakistan to more aggressively combat groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba will now consist of both carrots and sticks. But this means that the U.S. administration must find a way to work with the Pakistani civilian and military leadership, which have differing agendas and capabilities.
"The Obama side is calculating that Pakistan's military can deliver on subjects important to the U.S. but doesn't want to, while the civilian leadership in Pakistan wants to, but isn't able," said one high-level participant who spoke with The Cable in between sessions.
Rogin's account is far more sympathetic than Fisher's to the notion that Washington wants a resolution, rather than a showdown, with Pakistan. He deals with "carrots", especially the very juicy carrot of $2 billion in military aid, before he deals with "sticks", and portrays the dispute as a recurrent squabble in the bigger battle with the insurgents.
The point remains that this is far more than a need for some American "tough love" with Islamabad --- if Pakistan does think its interests in Afghanistan differ from those of Washington, then no amount of love is going to change that.
I am reminded of the legendary American phrase, "He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch", invoked for Yugoslavia's Communist-but-not-with-the-Soviets leader Tito in the early Cold War.
The Karzai Government, while infuriating, has to be America's SOB for the sake of some alternative to endless intervention in Afghanistan. The Taliban and other Afghan insurgents may become another of our SOBs if they are ready to negotiate as well as fight. (Osama bin Laden is a largely irrelevant SOB.)
And Pakistan? Well, here's the tip-off from the latest possibility that Washington is supporting talks with the Afghan insurgency while shutting out Islamabad....
We're not sure they're our SOBs.