The United States has announced a July 2011 target for beginning a withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan, which has been read throughout the region as meaning that the West will begin a serious pullout then. All the regional actors have begun to prepare for the American-led withdrawal, meaning that Pakistan cannot abandon its only functional national security tool.
This reality poses a particular problem for the United States. That’s because many of the militants were trained and maintained in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which sits next to the Durand Line. The Durand Line is a border negotiated between the British and Afghanistan in the 1890s, when the British ruled what is now Pakistan and held indirect sway in Afghanistan as well.
The Tribal Areas remain semi-autonomous and a barren bastion of Pashtun tribesmen, who are cousins of the Afghan Pashtuns across the border from whom the Taliban sprang. The demographic explosion and economic malaise in Pakistan combined with heightened anti-American sentiment following 9/11 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 to produce a new generation of Taliban, many of whom have abandoned the old ties to the ISI and now pursue their own targets, including Pakistani soldiers, police, public officials, and civilians.
So, for much of the past decade since 9/11, and perhaps even now, Pakistan has played a dangerous double game of helping the Americans destroy some of the Taliban that are located in and operating from safe havens on Pakistani territory, while simultaneously maintaining some of the Taliban against the day when the United States leaves Afghanistan.
How can the US engage Pakistan in a way that leads to a better outcome in the war in Afghanistan? There is no good answer to this question, because it requires both countries to change their historical behavior.
The US would have to go beyond the transactional relationship to develop a strategic partnership with Pakistan, which is unlikely given the far larger population and market of India just next door (and the possibility of India as hedge against rising Chinese influence and power).
Pakistan would have to abandon its militants, which would be hard enough even if everyone wanted to do so, but this is a federal country with a dominant military, important Islamist political parties, and many religious schools. There are numerous ways for the militants to continue even if the policy of the government is to eliminate them. And, since Pakistan believes the US will abandon it yet again, it has no incentive to change its behavior and every reason not to. As for the US, it faces the timeless problem of having to prove a negative – namely, that it is not going to abandon Pakistan yet again. How can it prove that to skeptical Pakistanis?