Any marriage counselor will tell you that relationships suffering from degrading lines of communication are fraught with peril. The Pakistan-US alliance is a living example that this truth is not restricted to struggling couples. Dysfunction has pock-marked the last two years of the alliance, with impacts that have spilled over into the wider region. The Raymond Davis incident, the execution of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the Salala affair and subsequent closure of NATO supply lines ushered in a murky fog that engulfed the partnership, obscuring the mutual interests that had long united both democracies.
Thankfully, for those who longed for the normalization of the US-Pakistan relationship, recent developments should offer some satisfaction.
The alliance was missing two key strategic assets in the wake of 2011: clarity in objectives and communication. Though both the U.S. and Pakistan strive to construct a peaceful, independent, economically vibrant region through the reconstruction of Afghanistan, their methods often differ. Without an open, transparent line of communication to express these differences, the alliance suffered. The US approach to Afghanistan depended on incorporating the interests of various regional powerbrokers. Pakistan’s approach was more targeted. The Government of Pakistan firmly believed that the immediate solution to the Afghanistan problem resided solely on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Intense diplomatic overtures during the past year have centered on resolving these disagreements over tactics. The US has expressed frustration with Pakistan’s efforts to target Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. Despite initial hesitation from the American side, Pakistan could not envision peace in Afghanistan without incorporating the Afghan Taliban into the peace process. The US continues to encroach upon Pakistan’s sovereignty through its continued use of drone warfare, despite collecting countless innocent casualties in its bid to target dangerous militants. At the same time, The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) continues to strike Pakistan from safe havens in Nuristan and Kunar, conducting suicidal raids against the Pakistani troops stationed along the border.
And yet, despite strategic disputes, the US and Pakistan have the same endgame hope: a peaceful Afghan transition. This final push starts with agreement over a power sharing arrangement which aims to be all-inclusive through its support for the Afghan Peace Commission. The framework, which has recently concluded its trip to Pakistan, aims to opens the dialogue to all Afghan factions, especially the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The commission met with top political and military leadership to broker the release of Afghan prisoners held in Pakistan. The hope is that those who were released will play constructive roles in intra-Afghan dialogues. Uniting the disparate factions will ensure unanimity on the fundamental issues that are crucial to the region’s future: counterterrorism, opposition to al-Qaeda, and commitment to the Afghan constitutional and electoral transition process. The tremendous price Pakistan has paid to see Afghanistan through a peaceful transition should nullify any lingering international skepticism that Pakistan values Kabul as a tool for guaranteed strategic depth.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta underscored that the US and Pakistan have initiated a new era of relations when he stated: “Despite challenges in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Pakistan, one area in which our national interests continue to align is defeating the terrorists on Pakistan soil that threaten both of us…we remain committed to pursuing defense cooperation based on these shared interests.” The Secretary wholeheartedly pledged continued US engagement with Pakistan and a sustained commitment to Afghanistan in the years ahead.
Both the US and Pakistan realize that the ramifications of the Afghanistan quandary are not restricted to Afghanistan’s borders. Like the recent crests and falls of the US-Pakistan alliance, the implications of securing Afghan stability will reverberate across the region. In a world where the security and economic divisions between nations are fluid, the prosperity of Afghanistan must be constructed on a regionally united foundation. Several regional economic initiatives are already underway that hold enormous development potential including a permanent transit trade agreement with Pakistan with the possibility of extension to India, hydroelectric power development in the Pamirs of Tajikistan and neighboring regions of Kyrgyzstan, the establishment of large-scale irrigation projects in northern Afghanistan using the waters of the Amu Darya–Panj system, the construction of the proposed TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline, and the promotion of infrastructure growth around the two main Indian Ocean ports of Karachi and Gwadar, permanently linking the ports via road and railroad for shipment of goods and energy to and from Central Asia, China, and the Russian far east.
At present, the primary obstacle to the realization of regional economic development plans is competition. Governments across the region have been merciless in their attempts to undermined each other’s economic goals. Regional organizations such as SAARC, ECO, and SCO have proven relatively weak and incapable of providing a forum for trust and mutual understanding. This lack of harmony has not flown over the heads of Pakistani officials who have labored to reach out to their nation’s neighbors. Pakistan recently signed a watershed free trade agreement with India while also maintaining a close working relationship with China. Pakistan’s regional initiatives will be an asset in its relationship with the US because it offers a new role to the Pakistan Government: a coordinator of regional diplomacy.
The author is a graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.