The end of the Cold War, globalisation and the media and technology revolution have triggered history-making changes. Some countries have handled them better than others. The US and Pakistan, in their own different ways, have not done well specially under the impact of 9/11. The US perhaps because of hubris and temptation to overreach; and Pakistan because of endemic failure of leadership and policies, lack of sense of national purpose and crisis of identity. They have ended up now at the receiving end of multiple issues, some of them affecting them both, to which, ironically, their relationship, past and present, had made a shared contribution. The US is bogged down in unending wars and so is Pakistan.
Obama is basically anti-war but as a presidential candidate had to own the Afghanistan war to prove that he had strong national security credentials. Having already rejected the Iraq war, he had no choice. He now knows, along with the majority of Americans, that the Afghanistan war cannot be won. And he has to bring it to a closure to rebalance US foreign policy and focus on economy and other pressing domestic issues. But equally importantly, he wants to get re-elected.
And for that he has to go back to the base that had elected him last time but is now somewhat estranged for the failure of the Obama promise. The base wants him to get out of Afghanistan. But strategic imperatives and mainstream public opinion in America dictate that the war should not look like a failure. Whether he can actually achieve it or not, he will try to create the impression by election time next year that he has reconciled these contrary objectives. That is what is driving his current Afghanistan strategy. Its symbolism is withdrawal but its substance is continued military engagement.
What will this solution be? Could it be peace with honour? I doubt it. Now the only realistic objective, given the time and resource constraints, is peace without dishonour, now or later. And, of course, withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014.
If Obama is re-elected, he can and will try for such a solution. If it works, well and good; if not, too bad. After all, some US presence will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, ownership of the war will have been passed on to the Afghans and, hopefully, with the help of regional players and strengthened non-Pashtun forces in a changed balance of power, the challenge of the Taliban can be managed. Technically, the war would have been over for the US. And that is good enough.
As for Pakistan, the US cannot retreat or walk away. Fighting terrorism is a very serious national security objective for any American leadership, specially if the threats are located in a nuclear armed country facing prospects of increased radicalisation. But that does not mean the US is going to embrace Pakistan. The US cannot really do much about changing Pakistan radically unless Pakistanis themselves want to change. But Pakistan is not ready for change; it neither has the compulsion or incentive to change nor, perhaps, the capacity. And the US is not ready for a meaningful long-term strategic commitment without this change.
The relationship will continue at a lower level of satisfaction for both sides. US-Pakistan intelligence cooperation will continue as will drone attacks and the troubled aid relationship.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2011.