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Closing the Gap Between the United States and Pakistan

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The Obama administration's announcement two weeks ago to negotiate with "reconcilable" members of the Haqqani network continues its prudent and sensible policy of engaging Pakistan to combat terrorism and rebuild Afghanistan. But the Pakistanis do not see things quite the same way, and this evolution in U.S. strategy may actually drive a wedge further between Washington and Islamabad. Before implementing any new policies, U.S. and Pakistan government officials should take great care to align their strategic interests, and should clarify what exactly they want to achieve in Afghanistan.

At the end of October, U.S. Secretary of State Clinton and Pakistani Army General Ashfaq Kayani announced that after a meeting between American and Pakistani officials, they were "90 to 95 percent" in agreement on how to achieve common objectives regarding Afghanistan and the Haqqani network. What those common objectives actually are, however, remain unclear.

First, while both countries do want to see a generally stable and independent Afghanistan, differences arise over who Afghanistan's primary partner would be. As Howard and Teresita Schaffer write in Foreign Policy, Pakistan does not have quite the same vision for post-war Afghanistan as the United States -- what is more important to Islamabad is to have in place an Afghan government that is immune to Indian influence (it certainly doesn't help that Kabul and New Delhi recently signed a security agreement). Therefore, one of the ways to prevent this outcome is to use organizations like the Haqqani network to ensure that after NATO forces pull out, the people in charge of governing Afghanistan are pro-Pakistan.

This creates a second difference in perspective between Pakistan and the United States. While Pakistan would be quite content to give the Haqqani network space to wear down NATO troops and the Afghan National Army through relentless attacks, Washington clearly intends to crack down on and dismantle the organization -- Secretary Clinton recently sent a clear message "to the insurgents on both sides of the border that we are going to fight you, and we are going to seek you in your safe havens, whether you're on the Afghan side or the Pakistani side."

And in turn, this brings up difficult questions on whether Pakistan is a trusted partner of the United States in combating terrorism. Earlier in September, outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen was unequivocal in his choice of language, calling the Haqqani network a "veritable arm" of the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency. To his credit, General Kayani indicated in October that his troops could take some action to constrain the "space" in North Waziristan where the Haqqani group operates and moves with virtual impunity. But this is a proposed baby step at a time when leaps and bounds are needed.

These differences get to the fundamental problem of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Over the past decade, Islamabad has successfully convinced the United States that it is a willing and cooperative partner in the U.S. campaign against terrorism in the region, but at the same time, it has fostered, either directly or indirectly, the growth of terrorist and insurgent networks on its soil. As a result, the likelihood that Pakistani officials would now crack down militarily on the Haqqani network is slim - indeed, two weeks ago they expressed enthusiasm for engaging Haqqani members in negotiations, but have not guaranteed the U.S. they will participate in further military operations in the tribal areas.

This means that if Secretary Clinton and General Kayani's statement that they are "90 to 95 percent" in agreement is true, the remaining five to ten percent needs to be addressed right away. Before the Obama administration decides to go ahead with its idea of sitting down at the table with "reconcilable" members of the Haqqani network, it should clarify with Pakistan how to address the challenges described above.

As a part of the Obama administration's larger "fight, talk, build" strategy to reconstruct a stable, secure Afghanistan, the decision to involve Haqqani members in negotiations is a forward-looking and sound idea. But the difference in ends and means between the United States and Pakistan is sufficiently large that any attempt at Afghan reconciliation that doesn't first get Islamabad and Washington on the same page will surely fail.