Even the Europeans continue to describe the issue as a problem of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, although their own blood and treasure are at stake. “The Americans are completely paralyzed by this situation,” one European diplomat said, on condition of anonymity. Another senior NATO official also laid the problem on the Americans. “It’s quite difficult at times to find a single U.S. policy on Pakistan, much less coordination with others.”
The administration’s paralysis has been evident in an intense, months-long internal debate over whether to issue an apology to Pakistan over the errant NATO strikes that killed at least 24 Pakistani soldiers last fall, even though five months have passed since the completion of an official Pentagon investigation that partially blamed U.S. forces for the incident. Obama, facing charges of appeasement from Romney, has repeatedly hesitated, and even Crocker bluntly opposed the move in an interview.
To be sure, the way out is not easy or clear, and some critics, such as the senior NATO official, are sympathetic about the muddle in Washington. “How would you deal with it, even if you decided you wanted to deal with it?” he asked. “The United States has tried being nice to Pakistan. It’s tried being nasty to Pakistan. It’s tried giving them money. It’s tried taking money away. Once a country has got it into its head that it has a national policy which is in its national interests, you can exert huge amounts of pressure, but it becomes almost impossible to shift, partly for domestic political reasons. And let’s face it: In Pakistan, there is a huge amount of support for the Taliban.”
At his closing news conference in Chicago on Monday, Obama merely alluded to the problem—even though it was the first question put to him by reporters. “I don’t want to paper over real challenges there,” the president said. “There is no doubt that there have been tensions between ISAF and Pakistan, the United States and Pakistan, over the last several months.… But, ultimately, it is in our interest to see a successful, stable Pakistan, and it is in Pakistan’s interest to work with us and the world community to ensure that they themselves are not consumed by extremism that is in their midst. And so we’re going to keep on going at this. And I think every NATO member, every ISAF member, is committed to that.”
The bottom line remains, however: Washington has no comprehensive approach to a region that hatched the worst-ever attack on the nation’s home soil, a strategy that would wean the Pakistanis away from their retrograde, anti-Western policies. Even as they have become increasingly forthright about Pakistan’s involvement in terrorism, U.S. and NATO officials remain wary of offending Islamabad because of a bedrock fear that if Pakistan becomes destabilized, its nuclear arsenal could fall into the wrong hands. That caution also ruled in Chicago, where all the talk was simply about NATO getting permission from the Pakistanis to use their overland routes to expedite the troop pullout.
Nor does Washington have a senior diplomat with enough authority, toughness, and vision to handle the problem, according to U.S. and European officials. Richard Holbrooke, the only one thought to have all those qualities, was named Obama’s “special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan” in 2009. But the White House partially stymied him—lobbied by India, Obama denied Holbrooke’s request to make Kashmir part of his portfolio even though Islamabad uses that disputed province, situated between Pakistan and India, to justify the army’s strategic support of jihadist proxy groups. After Holbrooke died suddenly in December 2010, he was succeeded by career diplomat Marc Grossman, who is widely considered ineffective and has provoked backbiting from the State Department’s South and Central Asian Bureau, where the assistant secretary, Robert Blake, has been largely cut out of deliberations. “It’s all Holbrooke’s broken china,” one official said. The two leading figures in U.S. policy in the region, Ryan Crocker, the ambassador to Afghanistan, and Gen. Allen, are already making plans to leave (in Crocker’s case, back to retirement; Allen is expected to be named NATO commander in Europe). Ambassador Cameron Munter, described as increasingly agitated over the failure of U.S. policy, is also leaving his post early.
Although Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been praised for her approach to the region, having recently proposed a “New Silk Road” to induce Pakistan and other countries to work with Afghanistan, she is involved in the issue only sporadically.
The Taliban leadership, on the eve of the NATO summit, issued a statement from its comfortable sanctuary in tribal Pakistan, where it pledged to “keep proceeding with … ongoing jihad until it attains its goal.”
THE WAY FORWARD
What should the strategic vision be? Based on interviews with a wide range of U.S., European, Afghan, and Pakistani officials, here are some suggestions. First, there should be a démarche of the kind the Pakistanis have not been given since just after 9/11, when then-President Pervez Musharraf was presented with a stark choice: Fully support the war against the Taliban, or you’re through. Now, Pakistan should be confronted with a clear and harsh update of that choice: If you defy the international community, you will be turned into a sanctioned pariah, á la Iran, in which case your country will lose ground economically and militarily to archrival India. Alternatively, if you repudiate violent extremists, you will be rewarded with more economic assistance and a voice in the region’s future, such as Clinton’s New Silk Road, which seeks to turn central Asia into a commercial hub once again.