With Pakistan, being consistent is key

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The thousands of secret documents released to the news media last week about the war in Afghanistan have once again raised questions about Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban. Pakistan’s ties to extremists are well known, of course, but now Americans can read for themselves how difficult it is for our troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan when it enjoys a haven across the border in Pakistan, a sanctuary where it can resupply, train and plan attacks.

Not all the reports from WikiLeaks are accurate; raw intelligence rarely is completely reliable. But taken together, they confirm what experts have been saying for years: Pakistan is playing a complex double game in Afghanistan. What is not clear from the documents is why and how we came to this point.

In poll after poll, Pakistanis say they do not believe America is a reliable ally. They are right. For more than six decades the United States has had a love-hate relationship with Pakistan, embracing a long succession of military dictators in the country and sending mixed messages about our commitment both to democracy and to foreign aid.

President Obama has an opportunity to change that. He was a critic of George W. Bush’s embrace of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and he promised while campaigning to wage the war in Afghanistan relentlessly and to also go after Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

He has so far followed through on that commitment, using drones far more often than Bush did and sending additional troops to Afghanistan. But doubts persist in Pakistan that the United States is in for the long haul, and the doubts are strongest in the Pakistani army, which has little confidence in America. It repeatedly has relied on American arms to fight its wars, only to find the arms supply cut off when it’s most needed. So the army keeps its ties with the Afghan Taliban as a hedge in case America abandons the fight.

The president has rightly called the border lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan “the most dangerous place in the world” for American interests today. The remote region is the epicenter of a global jihadist movement that still sends terrorists to New York City to blow up subway trains and Times Square. The released documents also accurately reveal the close links between Al Qaeda, its longtime Taliban allies and a host of other extremists in Pakistan.

In the best case, a year from now the president’s strategy will have shown signs of modest success. In Afghanistan, the momentum of the Taliban insurgency will have been broken and parts of the insurgency will be open to political dialogue with the Kabul government. In Pakistan, our dialogue will have moved the government toward a tougher line on terrorism.

In this best-case scenario, the U.S. and NATO can then begin the gradual process of handing off security to Afghan forces. But we have to accept that doing so will take years and will require a substantial NATO residual presence to provide intelligence support and other help to the Afghans.

America will also need to be Pakistan’s partner during the process. One crucial lesson of the last three decades is that stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan are interlocked. Chaos on one side of the 900-mile border breeds chaos on the other. The jihadists cannot be effectively fought with partial or short-term measures, or on one side of the border only. Thus the Kerry-Lugar bill the president signed last year to triple economic aid to Pakistan rightly commits to maintaining that level for at least five years.

If the situation a year from now is not moving in the right direction, then Obama will face a dilemma. He knows he can’t cut and run. That would give Al Qaeda a world-changing victory, jeopardize the stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan and increase the threat to the American homeland. So how should he proceed?

One alternative option would be to trim down our presence in Afghanistan and focus on a smaller counter-terrorist mission, much as Bush did from 2002 to 2008. This option could best be described as creating a Fortress Kabul. NATO would concede much of southern Afghanistan to the insurgents but would maintain a large base in the north to wage drone and special forces attacks on Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorists. We would be committed to containing terrorism rather than truly destroying the terrorist nest.

This approach has many flaws, but the worst is that it removes any incentive for Pakistan to cut its ties to the Taliban. Rather, Islamabad would have to come to an accommodation with the insurgents, because in all likelihood they would control the border region.

There are several things America can do now to help strengthen Pakistan’s young democracy and wean it from playing both sides. The first is to follow through on our commitments. Pakistan desperately needs helicopters and other military equipment to fight the extremists within its borders, and we must help meet that need.

Second, the economic assistance promised in the Kerry-Lugar bill should be concentrated on visible infrastructure projects, including highway construction and power plants, so that Pakistanis see tangible benefits of a relationship with the United States. American tariffs should also be adjusted so that more Pakistani textiles and other goods can be sold here. Every think tank that studies the Pakistani economy has concluded that trade will do more than aid to foster better relations and improve life for ordinary Pakistanis.

The U.S. should have no illusions about Pakistan; it is our most important ally in the war with Al Qaeda, but it is also our most difficult ally. We need to be open-eyed, but we also need to be consistent.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. A CIA officer for three decades, he has advised four presidents on South Asia and chaired President Obama’s review of policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009.