Can the Obama administration avoid a split with Pakistan?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

RELATIONS BETWEEN the United States and Pakistan, never stable, are once again close to crisis. The immediate cause is the closing by Pakistan of a transport route to Afghanistan for non-lethal U.S. and NATO supplies -- an action taken in response to a border incident last week in which NATO aircraft exchanged fire with Pakistani soldiers, reportedly killing three. The shutdown of the supply route has caused a backup of thousands of trucks carrying fuel and other supplies, which in turn has enabled a series of attacks by Pakistan-based Taliban forces. The latest, on Monday morning, destroyed 20 trucks and killed three people outside of Islamabad.

Though damaging, this dispute can be sorted out. NATO's secretary-general has apologized for the border incident, and Pakistan's ambassador to the United States said Sunday that the supply route would be reopened soon. There are, however, deeper issues. The exchange of fire reflects a more aggressive effort by the U.S. command in Afghanistan to disrupt terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas, using both CIA-operated drones and piloted aircraft. Part of this offensive may be aimed at heading off reported plans by al-Qaeda for terrorist attacks in Europe in the near future. However, many of the drone attacks have been aimed at the Taliban's Haqqani faction, which is believed to be deeply entwined with al-Qaeda -- and with Pakistan's intelligence agency.

Pakistan's punishment of NATO for the border incident is arguably an inevitable response to domestic political opinion. But its resistance to a more muscular U.S. campaign in North Waziristan, where the Haqqani faction is based, is unacceptable. The Obama administration has repeatedly pressed the Pakistani military to act against the Haqqani and al-Qaeda sanctuaries -- and the military has just as often refused, arguing that its forces are stretched too thin by other campaigns and by the need to respond to massive flooding. These explanations have some substance. But if Pakistan is really unable to tackle the sanctuaries, it cannot be allowed to prevent the United States and its allies from doing so.

The events of recent days have demonstrated Islamabad's leverage over Washington. But the Obama administration has powerful cards, too -- including the more than $1 billion annually in military and economic aid it is giving Pakistan and the benefits of the Afghanistan supply trade for the Pakistani economy. The State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, rightly said last week that "success in Afghanistan is not achievable unless Pakistan is part of the solution." The administration must avoid a rupture in relations; it should make amends for mistakes like the border incident. But it must insist on a robust military campaign in North Waziristan -- if not by Pakistani forces, then by the United States.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company