The Obama administration's latest Afghan strategy review correctly finds that to achieve sustainable success in the war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates and to quell the Afghan insurgency, more must be done to eliminate safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border. It concludes that progress toward this goal has been "uneven," at best.
The review goes on to suggest that the challenge of Pakistan's border areas must be addressed through better strategic balance and integration, including greater cooperation with Pakistan, more effective development strategies, and improved dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
All this is fine, but it won't be nearly enough to change Pakistani behavior. Neither U.S. dialogue nor U.S. assistance will convince Pakistan's defense and intelligence leaders that they should finally take up arms against the Afghan Taliban groups (especially the Haqqani Network and Quetta Shura) that have long enjoyed passive or active support from Islamabad. Nor will unilateral U.S. tools--drone strikes on compounds along the Afghan border and limited military incursions--do what is necessary to defeat the Taliban based inside Pakistan. The United States needs Pakistan's cooperation.
But the only way to convince Pakistani leaders to change course would be to demonstrate that the United States is serious about bringing enduring stability to Afghanistan, and that Washington's definition of Afghan stability does not leave a place for the leaders of extremist and terrorist groups now waging war from Pakistani soil. Only then might Pakistani leaders decide that a better way to protect their enduring interests in Afghanistan would be through the support of legitimate, nonviolent political actors.
The review states that the United States is clearly communicating a "commitment to a long-term relationship that is supportive of Pakistan's interests." I disagree. In fact, the review sends mixed messages to Pakistan about U.S. plans for Afghanistan and obscures the areas in which U.S. and Pakistani interests collide.
Pakistani military and intelligence leaders will see that U.S. military progress is so far "fragile and reversible," that Washington is open to some sort of "Afghan-led reconciliation" (negotiations with the Taliban), and that July 2011 will mark the beginning of a "responsible reduction" of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. They will easily interpret these findings as they have in the past: the U.S. is not yet establishing enduring security conditions in Afghanistan, Washington is looking for quick political way out of its quagmire, and Pakistan will have to face a messy post-NATO Afghanistan armed primarily with the influence of its proxy militants.
And that is not yet a recipe for the sort of timely, significant change Washington needs from Islamabad. To some extent, Pakistan will only be convinced of U.S. commitment to Afghan stability if it is a witness to unmistakable signs on the ground. That will take at least through the early summer--the Afghan fighting season--to sink in. So the declared pace of Washington's "responsible reduction" in forces will matter a great deal. Emphasizing plans to remain active in Afghanistan until 2014 and beyond--rather than 2011--is a useful but incomplete shift.
Until then, clarifying what Washington means by "Afghan-led reconciliation"--in particular by answering the question of which Taliban are reconcilable and which are not--could also send a compelling, and constructive, message to Islamabad. Finally, Washington should use opportunities like this review to make it clear that Pakistani inaction against terrorists based along the Afghan border is fundamentally at odds with enduring U.S.-Pakistani partnership.