October 4, 2011

THE OBAMA administration has been loudly accusing Pakistan of playing a double game in Afghanistan, supporting U.S. military operations and accepting U.S. aid while harboring and sometimes steering Taliban leaders. Pakistan’s denials of these links are unconvincing. But as President Ali Asaf Zardari pointed out in a Post op-edon Sunday, the United States has also been pursuing contradictory policies — if not exactly a double game — of its own.

The administration has demanded that Pakistan crack down on the Haqqani network, an extremist group that professes fealty to the Taliban and that has carried out a number of spectacular attacks — including an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul last month. But according to Pakistani officials and the group’s leader, American officials have also sought contacts with the Haqqanis in the hope of drawing them into Afghan peace negotiations. “While we are accused of harboring extremism,” Mr. Zardari wrote, “the United States is engaged in outreach and negotiations with the very same groups.”

U.S. policy aims at inducing both Pakistan and the Taliban to reconcile themselves with the political order Washington has created in Afghanistan, including a government whose relations with Islamabad are often frosty, and a large, NATO-trained army. Yet the Obama administration has repeatedly underlined its intention to withdraw U.S. troops from the country by 2014. That gives the Taliban a powerful incentive to wait, and Pakistan a reason to hedge. “As the United States plans to . . . once again leave our region, we are attempting to prepare for post-withdrawal realities,” Mr. Zardari frankly declared.

It is possible, of course, that a coherent U.S. policy could include both a drive to destroy Taliban capabilities — including its leaders’ safe havens in Pakistan — and an attempt to broker a political settlement. The Post’s David Ignatius recently reported that some U.S. officials believe hard-line members of the Haqqani clan are staging attacks in order to undermine potential negotiations, and want Pakistan’s help in eliminating these “unreconcilable elements.”

Still, just as Pakistan can be fairly charged with failing to adopt a clear or constructive vision of Afghanistan’s future, the United States appears stranded between its military and diplomatic strategies, and between its goals of entrenching the current Afghan order and leaving the country within the next 40 months. This is particularly true when it comes to what is really wanted from Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders. Is the goal to push Pakistan into attacking the Haqqani group and other Taliban factions based on its territory? Or is it to broker a political settlement between those groups and the government of Hamid Karzai, with Pakistani participation?

In fact it has become increasingly clear that the Taliban is uninterested in a political deal — as the recent assassination of Mr. Karzai’s chief negotiator brutally demonstrated. It follows that U.S. policy should be focused on destroying the insurgents’ leadership while offering rank-and-file militants opportunities for reintegration. The message to Pakistan should be one-dimensional and clear: Eliminate the sanctuaries or expect stepped-up U.S. efforts to do so. The way to end Islamabad’s double game is to clarify U.S. strategy.