Who’s Vexing Whom?

Gen. Kayani and Adm. MullenThis morning’s Washington Post features a front page story by Karin Brulliard and Karen DeYoung that claims “US courts Pakistan’s top general, with little result.” While writing that Pakistan’s top military commander, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, is hesitant to follow American timelines for battling militant groups, however, the article actually explains that a key obstacle to progress in the fight is America’s inability to view the conflict through a broad historical lens.

The US has approximately 1.5 million active duty personnel – fewer than 100,000 of whom (about 6 percent) are stationed in Afghanistan. By comparison, Pakistan’s active duty personnel number around 617,000 – 140,000 of whom (23 percent) are on the Western border with Afghanistan. Either way you cut it, actual numbers of troops or percentage of total military force, the fact is the Pakistan military actually has more boots on the ground dedicated to fighting terrorist groups.

But the real concern is not that Pakistan is not doing enough, its that Pakistan’s military is not moving against groups in the remote areas of North Waziristan on the timeline preferred by some in the Pentagon.

As I explained last week, this could be addressed in part by giving Pakistan the resources it needs to carry out clear and hold operations against militant groups in the remote tribal areas – namely, helicopters. But the deeper issue is one of trust between the two countries, particularly around the question of America’s “end game” in the region. Pakistan needs to be not only assured but convinced that the US is a long-term ally.

In fact, this morning’s Washington Post article even says as much.

Like the influential military establishment he represents, he views Afghanistan on a timeline stretching far beyond the U.S. withdrawal, which is slated to begin this summer. While the Obama administration sees the insurgents as an enemy force to be defeated as quickly and directly as possible, Pakistan has long regarded them as useful proxies in protecting its western flank from inroads by India, its historical adversary.

“Kayani wants to talk about the end state in South Asia,” said one of several Obama administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive relationship. U.S. generals, the official said, “want to talk about the next drone attacks.”

As I’ve argued before, Pakistan will not be able to change its strategic calculus vis-a-vis Afghanistan until it feels secure against conventional aggression by India. The Pakistani brass see two possible outcomes that they want to avoid facing following an American withdrawal: Fighting militant groups alone or bordering an Afghanistan with a government under the influence of India, effectively leaving them encircled by a historic enemy.

Like any responsible national security team, Pakistan’s strategists must weigh these potential outcomes against the risks of driving historically unaligned militant groups together – a threat that is already materializing, and losing what influence remains with the groups.

For Pakistan’s national security interests to become fully aligned with American interests regarding militant groups in the region, the unacceptable outcomes identified above must be perceived as unrealistic enough to justify the risks. We know this because Gen. Kayani and the Pakistani leadership continue to tell us as much.

Here at home, domestic concern in about the ongoing fight in Afghanistan continues to center on the “end game.” The American people want to know what victory in Afghanistan will look like, and what how long we’ll be in the region. The Pakistanis do to. Until the US can answer that question, it will be vexing Gen. Kayani as much as he’s vexing us.

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