May 11, 2010 | 11:09 GMT

5 mins read

Conflicting Objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
AFGHAN PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI ON MONDAY began a four-day trip to Washington, where he is reportedly scheduled to have candid conversations with U.S. President Barack Obama and other senior American officials about the war effort in the southwest Asian nation. Karzai's visit comes after a rather nasty spat that broke out between Washington and Kabul largely over corruption within the Karzai government, which the Obama administration sees as a major impediment in regards to its exit strategy from the insurgency-wracked country. Responding to repeated statements from U.S. officials criticizing the Afghan leader, his family and close associates, Karzai accused the United States and its European allies of attempting to subvert his government by engaging in fraud in the presidential polls held last year. Karzai went on to warn his Western allies that their pressure on him would only strengthen the Taliban, and that he could be forced to join the Afghan insurgent movement. These remarks from the Afghan president stem from the bitterness between his government and the Obama administration that kicked off shortly after Obama took office, and which largely manifested itself in the controversy surrounding the presidential vote. Therefore, it is unlikely that this one visit will heal matters –-regardless of any handshakes, press statements or photo- or video-ops. In addition to the issue of corruption, there is significant disagreement over how to approach the matter of negotiating with the Taliban. Washington insists on reaching out only to low- to mid-level leadership to divide the movement from within, while the Karzai regime wants to talk to the senior leadership. This state of affairs between Kabul and Washington is deleterious for their mutual interests, especially at a time when anti-Taliban forces need to be on the same page to effectively deal with the Afghan jihadist insurgency. This is particularly true given the short time frame Washington has set for itself. Islamabad presents an even greater case of conflicting goals for the United States than Kabul. At the end of the day, the Obama administration will likely have to seriously scale back its expectations of good governance on the part of the Karzai regime — whose nature is partially reflective of the nature of Afghanistan — to be able to focus on the core objective: containing the Taliban insurgency. Ironically, Washington is not just in the throes of uneasy relations with its Afghan partners. The failed Times Square bombing attempt appears to have adversely affected the nascent process of improving relations with Pakistan, whose cooperation is critical to the success of the American mission in the region. Islamabad presents an even greater case of conflicting goals for the United States than Kabul. Having realized that their policy of pressuring the Pakistanis to "do more" in terms of aggressive action against the diverse gamut of Islamist militant actors had dangerously weakened the Pakistani state, the Americans recently altered course and rushed toward stabilizing the Pakistani polity. This shift in U.S. attitude to a great degree was facilitated by Pakistan's own rude awakening about a year ago when it launched a full-scale offensive against rogue jihadists who had declared war on Islamabad. It was only a few months ago that Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus came out praising Pakistan and defending its position, saying that Islamabad was doing the best it could. He said its security forces were overstretched in terms of their human and material capacity, and argued that it was not reasonable to ask for more for the time being. This new approach toward Islamabad is also based on the fact that the United States cannot deal with Afghanistan if Pakistan is destabilizing. Effectively dealing with Afghanistan requires not just Pakistani action east of the Durand Line but also U.S.-Pakistani intelligence cooperation to its west, which is the key to being able to distinguish between reconcilable and irreconcilable jihadist actors in Afghanistan. The problem, however, is that while such a policy might help the United States deal with the Afghan Taliban, it does not address the challenge posed by al Qaeda and its local and transnational allies based in Pakistan. And here is where the Times Square bomb plot has created a policy dilemma for the United States. That the attack has been traced back to Pakistan's murky jihadist landscape forces the Obama administration to return to pressuring Islamabad's civil-military leadership to once again "do more." In fact, there have been reports that U.S. officials have warned Pakistan of "serious consequences" if it does not expand its counterinsurgency efforts to North Waziristan, the main hub of a variety of jihadist forces. Many of these forces are hostile to Pakistan, some are neutral and still others are somewhat friendly. Despite this tough talk, which has the potential to throw a wrench into the process of growing cooperation between the two sides, the Obama administration cannot really afford to return to the status quo ante with the Pakistanis because of the larger goal of exiting Afghanistan within a very narrow window of opportunity. Ultimately, Washington is faced with difficult policy choices in the case of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In terms of the latter, how does it balance the need for improved relations with Pakistan while at the same time dealing with the threat posed by transnational jihadism? As for Afghanistan, how does President Obama work with Karzai vis-a-vis the Taliban problem and at the same time deal with Kabul's corruption? It is unclear that the Obama administration will be able to balance these conflicting objectives, especially since its current relationships with its two key partners are far from where they should be from the point of view of U.S. national interests.

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