Does Pakistan Really Want a Stable Afghanistan?

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In recent weeks, ties between Islamabad and Washington have grown more strained than a cup of sickly sweet South Asian chai. A prolonged kerfuffle over Raymond Davis, the American CIA agent who gunned down two Pakistani men allegedly pursuing him in Lahore, sparked protests across the country and triggered a diplomatic crisis that, while temporarily calmed, likely led to the next severe test of U.S.-Pakistan relations: last week’s Pakistani demand that the U.S. drastically curb its CIA activities in the country and scale back its drone attacks. There were more drone strikes this weekend and Pakistani ire shows no sign of abating.

But a Monday op-ed by Huma Yusuf, Pakistan fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, in the Pakistani daily Dawn pours cold water on the “histrionic” reaction of many Pakistani politicians to the latest drone attack, suggesting  that, while the “Pakistanis have believed that their unified outrage can coerce the US into suspending the strikes… the consensus in Washington is that the drones are here to stay for the foreseeable future.” Moreover, Yusuf adds that many in Pakistan’s tribal areas prefer these targeted attacks as they “cause less collateral damage than the Pakistan Army’s conventional bombing tactics, and they’ve disrupted a variety of militant operations.”

So what’s really stoking the political furore? Beyond Pakistan’s own fraught domestic politics, an April 18 article in the New York Times situates the tensions between Washington and Islamabad north of the border, in the spiraling mess that is the war — and desperate American search for an endgame — in Afghanistan:

Broadly, the Americans seek a strong and relatively centralized Afghan government commanding a large army that can control its territory. Almost all those ends are objectionable to Pakistan, which while it calls for a stable Afghanistan, prefers a more loosely governed neighbor where it can influence events, if need be, through Taliban proxies.

The Times piece is grim, though not altogether surprising reading, pointing to a fundamental lack of trust between American and Pakistani diplomats and a growing sense that both sides’ visions for an ideal end as the U.S. and NATO scale down their troop presence in Afghanistan widely diverge. For decades now, as is well documented, Islamabad has nurtured and tolerated the presence of Pakistan-friendly Taliban in Afghanistan as “strategic depth” in a broader South Asian geo-political contest with India. The key architect of this policy has been Pakistan’s military, the country’s most powerful institution and one whose raison d’etre for most of its existence has been as a counterweight to Pakistan’s larger neighbor to the southeast.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Apoorva Shah singles out the Pakistani military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, a man many in Washington hoped would prove a reliable ally, for being too possessed by an “India-centric” focus:

Washington has tried engaging with Gen. Kayani, but doesn’t seem to be succeeding… Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen clearly wishes to ensure that his counterpart focuses on the Taliban in the west of Pakistan, instead of India on the east. But he has not succeeded.

Instead, it seems the more bellicose and fundamentalist-friendly in the country’s military firmament are now pushing to actively undermine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Arif Jamal, a prominent Pakistani scholar and journalist, claimed in an April 15 story in Foreign Policy that we may soon see a similar blockade of American supply shipments into Afghanistan as took place in September 2010 — this time with the clear connivance of some in the Pakistani military. Says Jamal:

A group of former Pakistani servicemen are currently preparing an unofficial “plan B” to once again halt the flow of supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with the knowledge of the Pakistani military. According to this plan, if the Americans do not agree to the new terms of cooperation from Pakistan [the departure of CIA operatives and greater sharing of drone technologies with the Pakistani military], various civilian and political groups will block the highways leading to Afghanistan at some date in the not-so-distant future. Sources tell me that the legendary former Pakistani intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, one of the key coordinators of [U.S.-funded] weapons and money to the anti-Soviet mujahideen and a vocal supporter of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, is playing a key role in the preparation of this plan.

If true, such a development is entirely in keeping with the complex, schizophrenic U.S.-Pakistani relationship, one that is front-loaded with years of tragic irony and now seems to be lurching down another dark alley.