The White House on Thursday released an overview of the much awaited Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review ordered by U.S. President Barack Obama last year as a National Security Staff (NSS)-led assessment of the war effort. Perhaps the most significant (and expected) aspect of the report is the extent to which the success of the American strategy relies on cooperation from Pakistan. The report acknowledges recent improvement in U.S.-Pakistani coordination in the efforts to bring closure to the longest war in U.S. history, but also points out there is a lot of room for improvement in terms of Pakistani assistance.
Indeed, this is an issue that has been at the heart of the tensions between the two allies since the beginning of the war. However, the United States - now more than ever before - needs Pakistan to offer its best, given that Washington has deployed the maximum amount of human and material resources to the war effort that it can feasibly allocate. To what extent such assistance will be forthcoming is a function of how Islamabad is looking at the war.
From the Pakistani point of view, this war has been extremely disastrous. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 to deny al Qaeda its main sanctuary led to the spillover of the war into Pakistan. Al Qaedas relocation east of the Durand Line forced Islamabad to side with Washington against the Afghan Taliban and laid the foundation for the Talibanization of Pakistan.
Any Pakistani effort to effectively counter this threat is dependent upon the U.S. strategy on the other side of the border. Just as the United States is dealing with a very difficult situation where it has no good options, Pakistan is also caught in a dilemma. There are two broad and opposing views among the Pakistani stakeholders in regard to what the United States should do that, in turn, would also serve Pakistani interests.
On one hand are those who argue that the longer U.S. and NATO forces remain in Pakistan's western neighbor the longer the wars will continue to rage on both sides of the border. The thinking is that since there is no military solution, Western forces should seek a negotiated settlement and exit as soon as possible. Once a settlement takes place in Afghanistan, Pakistan will be in a better position to neutralize its own Taliban rebellion and restore security on its side of the border.
Yet there are those who - while they accept that a continued presence of foreign occupation forces in Afghanistan will continue to fuel the jihadist fire - are more concerned about the ramifications of a premature withdrawal of Western forces. The fear is that a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan will only galvanize jihadists on the Pakistani side. At a time when it is struggling to re-establish its writ on its side of the border, Islamabad is certainly not in a position to exert the kind of influence in Afghanistan it once was able to in the pre-9/11 years.
In other words, an exit of foreign forces from Afghanistan will not restore the old arrangement. Islamabad is therefore in uncharted waters. What the Pakistanis hope for is some form of negotiated settlement that will help restore some semblance of security on their western periphery and allow for some measure of influence in a post-NATO Afghanistan. How to get from the current situation to that endgame state is quite opaque and what lies beyond is fraught with uncertainty, given the destabilization that has taken place in the last five years. What makes this situation even more problematic for the Pakistanis is that they feel that they are not the only ones who are without options. Their benefactor, the United States, is in the same boat.