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Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S.: Repairing relations

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After a year of calamitous turns in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad, many Americans are wondering how this troubled alliance can possibly be repaired. Even more may be wondering whether we can simply extricate ourselves from it, finding other partners and other strategic options in South Asia. Alas, Pakistanis have had similar doubts about America even longer, which goes far toward explaining their hedging behavior; many in the nation's military and intelligence services tolerate or even support the militant Haqqani network and localTaliban (Quetta Shura) in ways that destabilize Afghanistan and lead to the deaths of Afghans and NATO troops. Certainly, it seems safe to conclude that Pakistan is our most complex ally since Stalin's Soviet Union, a poster child for what a foreign "frenemy" looks like for the United States.

We need to arrest this downturn in U.S.-Pakistan relations to the extent we can. But it is at least as important to help our Afghan partners rework their relationship with Pakistan. In fact, that may be the core of the problem we face, and progress there may prove the most plausible path to improved U.S.-Pakistan relations as well.

This will not be easy. Ten years into this war, it is hard to believe Pakistan's explanation for its hedging behavior — that it simply does not have enough troops to fully pacify its tribal areas, and that it also needs to keep some friendly proxies in place should NATO's effort to stabilize Afghanistan fail. The first excuse, while partly valid, does not explain the active collaboration between some elements of Pakistan's intelligence service (the ISI) and the Afghan insurgents. And the second is not justifiable when the United States and other foreign countries have proved their mettle with a 10-year effort in this conflict, as well as a promise to take three more years to leave Afghanistan gradually and responsibly.

As has been repeatedly stated at various levels of government (with only Joe Biden going off message for a moment in recent months, but later correcting himself), the United States in particular does not intend to leave Afghanistan even after 2014. We need to keep driving home this message to Pakistanis until it sinks in. Indeed, the only likely way the Afghanistan effort could fail is if Pakistani actions lead it to fail.

But it may be even more productive to directly confront, and attempt to address where possible, Pakistani concerns about certain aspects of the relationship between Islamabad and Kabul. To the extent that Pakistan's government worries about an India-friendly Afghan government that would create security concerns on its western borders, leading to a form of strategic encirclement of Pakistan by India as well as Indian allies, there are steps that Afghanistan, supported by Washington, can take. They will not suffice to eliminate all such Pakistani paranoias, but they can make a difference — and even incremental steps can help in this situation.

Consider the following possible moves. They can be offered by Afghanistan as quid pro quos for Pakistan agreeing to rein in the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura:

•Building on the results of President Hamid Karzai's recent trip to India, where New Delhi and Kabul agreed that India would help train Afghan security forces, promise Pakistan that such training will occur only under the auspices of NATO's training mission in Afghanistan. This will reduce Pakistani fears that India will develop close rapport with certain units of the Afghan army that might work in cahoots with traditionally pro-India, Tajik-dominated northern alliance elements and leave Islamabad out in the cold.

•Ask India to kindly close its consulates in eastern and southern Afghanistan. Pakistan sees these Indian outposts in Jalalabad and Kandahar as intelligence collection sites and covert action staging bases in disguise. I doubt very much that is the case. No matter; the consulates are not so threatening but also not important enough to warrant the reaction they cause, and Afghanistan should be willing to ask India to shut them down.

•Promise to respect the Durand Line between the two nations as the effective border indefinitely — or at least for an extended period, say until 2050. Afghans continue to resist simply accepting this admittedly arbitrary, British-drawn line from more than a century ago as their formal boundary with Pakistan. But even if the Durand Line is arbitrary, it makes little sense for small, weak Afghanistan to pick a fight with its big neighbor over where the border should be, especially since what is at stake are remote mountain regions that are hardly the heartland of either country. Even if Afghans cannot bring themselves to concede the border permanently, it should be possible to take the issue off the table for the foreseeable future.

•Establish an Afghanistan-Pakistan border management body with high-level government participation on both sides. This body could address various means of enhancing economic cooperation. It could allow for intelligence sharing and tactical military communication and cooperation near the border, where insurgents cross in both directions and threaten both countries. Importantly, it could also allow Pakistan a chance to convey its preferences about who among the Haqqanis or other major tribes might be accorded government jobs in Afghanistan's eastern provinces. Of course, Islamabad should not get to choose Afghanistan's local leaders, but there is no reason to deprive it of a chance to advocate for certain interests. In fact, Afghanistan might do the same in reverse, pointing out its concerns and sharing its preferences for what Pakistan does in some of the tribal areas and other border regions of its own country.

Progress across all these issues will be difficult. But for those looking for a fruitful way to have peace talks in regard to Afghanistan, this sort of conversation between the two legitimate governments of the key countries at issue is a much more promising arena for diplomacy than are high-level peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Michael O'Hanlon, a Maryland resident, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the forthcoming book "The Wounded Giant: America's Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity." He can be contacted at communications@brookings.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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