The thin, stark white contrails of the American B-52 bomber would otherwise have seemed reassuring as they arched against an impossibly blue sky, bound, as they were, for Taliban or al-Qaeda targets to the north and west. But at the Peiwar Kotal border post, in the shadow of the Safed Koh Mountains just south of Osama bin Laden’s sanctuary at Tora Bora, they suddenly seemed distantly menacing and unpredictable.
With amazing equanimity, the Frontier Corps troops and tribal Khassadars assigned there explained to me and my Pakistani military escorts what had befallen them not 72 hours before. Huge bombs had fallen in the middle of the night, obliterating an abandoned Taliban border post just a few hundred metres up the road. One of the American joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs), however, had struck on the Pakistani side, demolishing a building where normally some of these men would have been sleeping. As luck would have it, no one was inside when the shelter was struck: No harm, no foul. One of the troopers smiled fatalistically as he handed me a large piece of shrapnel, as if to return something I had misplaced.
Ten years on, the results of the latest such incident have not been nearly so benign, nor the reactions to it nearly so calm. US air and helicopter strikes against two Pakistani border posts in Mohmand, launched last weekend during what are described as US-Afghan hostilities against Taliban insurgents along the border, have resulted in some 24 Pakistani troops killed, and another 13 wounded. The political firestorm this incident has unleashed, coming as it does after a series of blows to US-Pakistan relations over the past year, is a measure of just how brittle the relationship between the two countries has become in the decade since 9/11.
It is hard to judge such things from a distance, but the Pakistani reaction this time feels qualitatively different from the crises preceding it over the past few months, from January’s Raymond Davis affair, to May’s Abbottabad raid on bin Laden, to September’s public accusations of Pakistani perfidy from the outgoing US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One has the sense that a political and psychological barrier has been broken, and that even if the outward forms of cooperation and civility are restored, and the border crossings for NATO supplies into Afghanistan are reopened, things will not be the same for a very long time.
Observers far closer to the action than me say there is little chance of an outright break in relations. They are probably right. But while the situation may not become so obviously dramatic, the inner reality of US-Pakistan relations is likely to be so insidiously bitter and caustic as to preclude any real co-operation on anything touching regional security and stability.
We have seen this picture before. During the 1990s, finding itself heavily sanctioned by the Americans for pursuing what it felt were core national security interests in countering a nuclear-capable India, Pakistan came un-tethered from the international security and non-proliferation regime which the US was trying to promote. Denied other means, and believing that the US-led international framework was working against its interests, Pakistan was willing to deal with rogue states to acquire what it felt it needed.
Should Pakistan again feel that it has no core stake in co-operative relations with the US and the West, if it should conclude, in fact, that the US is undermining Pakistan’s national security interests, there is no end of mischief which could arise, both in the immediate South Asian region, and much further afield. Difficulties in Afghanistan would only be the beginning. The notion of Pakistan as a nuclear-weapons state seeking other sources of aid and countervailing strategic alliances to oppose a perceived Washington-Kabul-New Delhi axis is one that should give the US considerable pause.
It is time for the US to get serious. The unintended consequences of its grossly disproportionate engagement in Afghanistan are simply becoming unbearable. With a much smaller presence and a sustainable policy, the United States can protect its core counter-terrorism interests in Afghanistan, and do so without further contributing to the international alienation and domestic unravelling of its far more important neighbour to the east.
The United States has some fundamental choices to make in South Asia, and they will not be easy. The US may be on a glide path to a proportionate and sustainable presence in Afghanistan, but the two years between now and 2014 is longer than anyone can afford to wait. The US is hoping that during those two years it can achieve through a political settlement something close to the maximal goals that force of arms could not, and it expects Pakistan to help deliver it. These are not only vain hopes, but ones whose stubborn pursuit threatens disastrous consequences.
Pakistan is, at best, a maddening and frustrating ally. Its combination of poor leadership and social and political weakness make it far more capable of harming US interests than of constructively contributing to them. But the current course is leading to disaster. In the end, by any objective measure, the US has far more at stake in Pakistan than it does in Afghanistan. This is the central, organising policy principle which Washington must grasp, before it is too late.
Robert L. Grenier is chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. He retired from the CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. Grenier served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Centre (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan, before and after the 9/11 attacks.
Previously, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA’s chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA’s Counter-Proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.