That which has for years been obvious to anyone willing to see beyond official pronouncements has finally become unmistakable even to the casual observer: The U.S. and Pakistan are pursuing different, and often conflicting objectives in Afghanistan. The illusions that have guided a decade of U.S. policy in Afghanistan have been shattered: whether the final straw came in the form of the Ray Davis incident last winter, or the raid on Abottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, the attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul by the Pakistan-backed Haqqani network, or the accidental killing of more than 20 Pakistani troops by NATO aircraft in a border incident in December (which prompted Islamabad to shut down NATO supply lines to its Afghan mission and order the U.S. to vacate a base from which drone missions are flown).
The U.S. is reportedly now acknowledging the limits of its relations with Pakistan even as it tactically escalates a war in Afghanistan in which the supply lines depend on Pakistani goodwill.
Pakistan has its own strategic interests in Afghanistan, which include installing a friendly government in Kabul, as distinct from the current one which Islamabad views as a proxy for India. And where its interests diverge from those of the U.S., it has shown time and again that it will pursue its own course. While U.S. officials routinely insist that Pakistan ought to share Washington’s goals lest it be drowned in its own homegrown extremist problem, the generals who are the power behind the throne in Islamabad see getting the U.S. to leave Afghanistan as the key to tamping down militancy inside Pakistan — a battle that has cost Pakistan tens of thousands of lives. Not only has Pakistan consistently refused to act against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis; it is also moving to negotiate understandings with some of those militant groups on its own soil against which it has previously fought. Plainly, the Pakistanis are beginning to act on the basis that the U.S. is on its way out of Afghanistan, and hoping that China will make up for any shortfalls in aid created by distancing itself from Washington. Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems to share the same assumption, shaking off U.S. tutelage on issues ranging from corruption and governance to negotiations with the Taliban and localized security arrangements.
Pakistan is not going to make life easier for the U.S. and Karzai in Afghanistan in the coming year, or help them shape a transition towards U.S. withdrawal on terms unfavorable to Pakistan’s goals. There’s more chance, unfortunately, of the increasing hostility between the U.S. and Pakistan leading to ever more dangerous clashes.