Sometimes, the most telling facts are the ones your briefers don’t want to mention. On a hot, sunny day in early May, I sat with other reporters at an International Security Assistance Force briefing in Afghanistan’s violence-wracked Ghazni province, otherwise known as Regional Command East. The ISAF civilian-military team, using laser pointers on a map, highlighted a few peaceful districts colored green and many others colored red, where the Taliban was still fighting, although the briefers said that “progress” was evident. One district in the south called Nawa, a spit of Afghan land that descended close to Pakistan’s tribal regions, was colored black, not green or red.
Why black? “That means we don’t go there at all,” one briefer explained. “It’s totally under the sway of the Taliban.” He moved on quickly, but the forbidding dark blot on the map sent a clear message: Even though this region is now as secure as it’s ever likely to get—NATO forces are still near the height of President Obama’s 33,000 troop “surge,” before troops leave in 2014—the allies have already written off this part of the country bordering Pakistan as lost.
The next day, the dangers of this outcome were driven home to us in the nearby village of Zana Khan, when U.S. and Afghan officials presided over a huge hold-and-clear operation to proudly host a shura—a village meeting—demonstrating how the Afghan government is winning hearts and minds (Although ISAF described the operation as Afghan-led, Polish helicopters hovered, dropping flare-like countermeasures.) All went well, but sitting on the side of the dusty square, a 32-year-old farmer named Mohammed quietly warned us: “Two hours after you leave, the Taliban will be back.” Mohammed then pointed to the crowd squinting into the sun and listening docilely. “They are all Taliban,” he declared.
And sure enough, shortly after the meeting—less than a half hour later—mortar shells from the hills surrounding the village sent us scurrying for cover. The Taliban munitions almost certainly were ferreted in from Pakistani tribal regions.
Fast-forward two weeks to the NATO summit in Chicago, which ended on Monday. Lots of triumphal talk from attendees about a 2014 exit and a stable Afghanistan. Fifty—count ’em, 50—nations committed to Afghanistan’s future. Also among the invitees, however, were Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and other senior officials. Zardari was there even though he and his government had refused even to allow overland NATO travel in the wake of bitter tensions resulting from U.S. strikes at the border and from last May’s raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.
More significantly, U.S. officials have begun to acknowledge, more bluntly than ever before, that Pakistan’s senior military and intelligence apparatus is supporting and funding the same Taliban fighters who are killing NATO soldiers—not just Americans, but also Germans, French, Italians, and Canadians—and endangering the outcome of America’s longest war. Even the U.S. Embassy in Kabul—“which is American soil,” U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker angrily noted in an interview—was twice attacked by what Crocker described as “Pakistan-based insurgents.” Last fall, outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen called the terrorist Haqqani network in Pakistan’s tribal regions, the suspect behind the embassy attack, a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence service.
Yet there it was in Chicago, the Pakistan delegation, welcomed because President Bush in 2004 had designated Pakistan a “major non-NATO ally,” ushered around as if it was just another ISAF member in good standing. Pakistan, America’s ally in the war on terrorism. Pakistan, supporter of terror, aider and abettor to the killing of Americans, and now an adversary of the greatest military alliance in history.
There is nothing very new, of course, about Pakistan’s two-faced behavior. It is a problem that has dogged Washington since well before 9/11. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, which effectively run that nominally democratic country, have long seen radical Islamist groups, including the Taliban, as a strategic counterbalance to the influence of Pakistan’s bitter rival, Hindu-dominated India, in Afghanistan and south-central Asia. The upshot is that despite fitful efforts to rein in the worst of the jihadists, Pakistan offers a safe haven to the rest of them—and permanent access to Afghanistan just across the border. “Any other country, we’d be calling them a state sponsor of terrorism,” said a former senior U.S. diplomat who has served as ambassador to Islamabad. “It’s inconceivable that we give $3 billion a year to a country that would harbor Osama bin Laden.” Yet we do.
What is new about this moment in history is that, for Washington and other leading NATO members, the stakes are higher than they have ever been, and the Pakistan problem, which until now has been considered a mere complicating factor in Afghanistan, has become acute and central. So much so that failing to deal with it could very well lead to the biggest foreign-policy failure of the Obama administration. Why? Because even as NATO troops prepare to depart, Obama in recent weeks has committed the United States—and NATO—to remain there in a robust way, to “train, advise, and assist” for years, possibly decades, to come, as he said in Chicago on Monday. And there may even be some hope, for the first time, in Afghanistan, absent the Pakistan problem.
This article appears in the May 26, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.