Retreat to Move Forward

After Pakistan protested the violation of its airspace by NATO helicopters from Afghanistan over the weekend, the organization quickly backtracked from its earlier stance of “pursuing Afghani militants wherever they may be”. ISAF used self-defense as its reason why it was pursuing Pakistani-based insurgents back into the North Waziristan area. Why did NATO reverse its position?

Because the US’ interests in Pakistan outweigh NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. And the Americans need Pakistan’s cooperation to continue the offensive in Afghanistan because in the end, Afghanistan is the United States’ legacy. It is also helped that that the Pakistanis had justifiable grounds for their outcry, since no “hot pursuit” clauses were ever discussed with Islamabad and NATO was in violation of the UN mandate.

NATO walking back its position just highlights the relation between the United States and Pakistan, which have been fraught with tensions, mounting since the CIA has increased drone attacks in Pakistan this September. With the Taliban now with more of an effective presence in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, the CIA is trying to stem the flow of casualties and deal with the root cause that started the war eight years ago. When President Bush announced the war in Afghanistan, it was meant as present retaliation and future deterrent. By increasing the costs of attacking Americans on home soil to unacceptable levels, the United States was supposed to have regained security. However, now the US is embroiled in a war with an exit strategy that only considers the short term repercussions and may very well drag down this administration. In case any  more complications were needed on the Afghanistan issue, American policy makers have to defend their stance on having Pakistan as their chief ally in this venture while the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments do nothing substantial towards this supposedly common goal of ridding the Taliban and other terrorist elements.

Its easy to write off Pakistan as a breeding ground for violent extremism but sometimes it is hard to stem the flow of norms that have been cultivated over generations. Lack of education makes people susceptible to rhetoric. Corruption and frustration with national leadership abets extremist action. Put it all together and you get a mess. Sometimes its important to retreat to move forward (as Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock would say). By prioritizing goals, the Americans would be better off finishing their job in Afghanistan, leaky as the end result may be, before engaging with Pakistan.*

And from the Pakistani perspective, the NATO encroachment and the drone attacks provide an easy distraction to the mounting discontentment at home. With the recent devastation caused by the floods and the mounting frustration with the state of domestic affairs (lack of leadership and extremist attacks seem to be a constant cycle), the government is more than willing to practice a little slight-of-hand trick and channel negative emotion into anti-American sentiment. Why fuel such backlash for an uncertain return? On the one hand, open hostility from Pakistan would allow the US to reply in kind; on the other, attack on yet another Muslim nation can only exacerbate extremist against the United States. President Obama has his own political future to consider and going with the data from the war in Afghanistan, engaging militarily with Pakistan can only be exponentially worse.

* Also, the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear state acts as a deterrent against American action. The US would think twice before creating conditions that would make this highly unstable region even more volatile with nuclear weapons and a shoddy chain of command thrown into the mix.

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