Michael Brenner Headshot

Paking It In?

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Osama bin Laden's death could transform the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Politically, it creates the opportunity to scale back the military campaign and lower the objective. Strategically, though, a shift in thinking about stakes and purpose is still required for the change to occur. That is, if American foreign policy is driven by logic. For those who seek an end to this fruitless enterprise, it may be better that it isn't. Here's why.

At the heart of the problem is ambitious American objectives that are not tied to the person of bin Laden. They aim to eliminate all threat from the region for all time. That has been the source of mounting conflicts between the United States and Pakistan. One can hypothesize that the location of bin Laden just outside Islamabad has something to do with that dispute. Is it conceivable that the very efficient Pakistani intelligence services were not aware of his presence? Had they, indeed, lured him there? They might well offered him as a sacrifice to the Americans intended to reduce Washington's passionate commitment to an all-out, unending way that has sucked a fragile Pakistan into its vortex. Of course, the CIA will take and be given public credit. That is unimportant to the Pakistani leadership if that means getting the United States off its back. The background and context is essential to understanding how the crisis has arisen and why it will not go away unless Washington is now prepared to ease back from its far-reaching goals.

The United States and Pakistan have divergent interests in Afghanistan. Therefore, their views as to desirable/acceptable outcomes are different. The United States and Washington have different conceptions as to what constitutes a satisfactory relationship. Therefore, there is no easy diplomatic mechanism for reconciling interests in a shared strategy. Today's heightened tensions as reflected in the hostile tone of public remarks stem directly from those disagreements.

Cumulative grievances have created such strain that each side is fed up with the other. That untenable state of affairs is the natural outgrowth of Washington's relentless pursuit of unreachable war aims and Islamabad's implacable resistance to being America's client.

The initial purpose of the American operation in Afghanistan was to eliminate any further al-Qaeda threat. That meant not just neutralizing al-Qaeda as an organization able to mount attacks on the United States. It came to mean something more ambitious: ensuring that no group like al-Qaeda would be able to do so in the future. As a consequence, this more extreme formulation dictated that Afghanistan territory be under the secure control of political forces hostile to al-Qaeda, beholden to the United States, and, therefore, that the Taliban too be eliminated as a viable political force throughout the entire country. Zero threat tolerance permits no place for the Taliban and their allies in the country's political life and no possibility of their acquiring one in the future. Talk about engaging in a dialogue with some Taliban elements is just talk since it is heavily conditioned on their being sanitized and their suing for peace on bended knee.

By logical extrapolation, reaching this goal has meant eliminating, or at least neutralizing the Taliban, its affiliates and its supporters across the Durand Line in Pakistan, too. A grand project! One that has demanded a Pakistan fully committed to serving as Washington's auxiliary in carrying out those tasks. Following this line of thinking, any outcome that did not guarantee zero threat forevermore necessitates the continued presence of some American counter insurgency forces in Afghanistan indefinitely. Bases to support them also are required.

Those bases, in which the United States already has invested several billion, have taken on a strategic life of their own. The Pentagon wants to hold them in perpetuity as a key component in an archipelago of bases from the Persian Gulf far into Central Asia. This latter objective explains the desperate efforts now underway to muscle the Baghdad government into asking for a major American military presence beyond the agreed December 31 deadline for withdrawal. This presence would be independent of the 16,000 mercenaries who will serve our diplomatic mission and will report to Secretary of State Clinton.

Little of this strategic vision is shared by the Pakistani leadership, certainly not by the powerful military under General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's direction. Their strategic concerns in Afghanistan are keyed to their preoccupation with the growing military and economic might of India which they view as a hostile neighbor. For the Pakistani leadership, it is imperative that Afghanistan be in friendly Afghan hands. In concrete terms that means a predominantly Pashtun government whose military and intelligence services are not under Tajik or Uzbek control. It means that ethnic, tribal and religious bonds across the Durand Line remain viable, that Pakistan's friends (such as the Haqqani network) remain politically intact, and that Pakistan's voice will be heard and respected in the negotiation of any settlement. The Pakistanis draw a crisper line of distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban (broadly defined) than does the United States. Islamabad has no use for al-Qaeda; it has considerable use for the others.

It is not obvious that these different conceptions of the situation are compatible. That can only be determined, in the Pakistani view, if Washington treats Pakistan as a true partner. That precludes dictation, coercion and the presumption that Pakistan as the dependent party must subordinate itself to the United States. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of the ISI, personally took that message to the Pentagon and CIA last week and had it flatly rejected. If Islamabad feels that's its core interests are being jeopardized and/or that the United States is trespassing on its sovereignty, it will react -- whether by blocking the supply route through Pakistan from Indian Ocean ports, by restricting autonomous American intelligence operations anywhere on Pakistani soil, or by refraining from pressuring 'non-cordial' Taliban and Taliban friendly elements in the Northwest.

It already has evicted the United States from the airbase near Quetta that has been used to launch drones. This position has been bluntly stated recently by General Kayani and General Pasha, who cut short his tumultuous visit to Washington incensed at America's unremitting demands. The United States has responded by intensified drone strikes against Pakistan friendly groups in North Waziristan reinforced by angry public remarks from Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates. As Brigadier F. B. Ali has explained, there is an inexorable conflict dynamic in these increasingly acrid relations.

The political climate in Pakistan, moreover, is growing progressively more averse to American pressure. Anti-American sentiment is spreading and growing more embittered by the drone strikes and the killings in Lahore by CIA hireling Raymond Davis. Washington has relied on the compliant attitude of President Asif Ali Zardari -- an American dependent in more ways than one. His current popularity ratings barely break into double digits. He is almost certain to be ousted in the next election to be replaced by opposition leaders less chummy with Washington.

In short, Washington is irrevocably committed to dominate Afghanistan on its own terms, based on a dire reading of its own interests, and expects Pakistan to serve as an obedient client. The objective (including a permanent military presence in Central Asia) and the method conjure visions of a supposedly bygone era. The self-righteousness and hubris that are hallmarks of American foreign policy in the 9/11 decade mean that everyone out there is a 'native'. It is a an archaic vision based on simplistic thinking that has taken root among the faction that now controls the Pentagon. Mr. Obama has neither the conviction nor the character to override them. He is further handicapped by having surrounded himself with the weakest national security team in living memory, with Obama his own self-appointed NSA. We will see whether the death of Osama bin-Laden changes this -- whether politics or policy logic prevails.