Pakistan is in a mess these days. The discovery of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden close to a military academy in Abbotabad has deepened suspicions of Washington about Islamabad's alleged double game. Pakistan is finding it difficult to fend off accusations of offering shelter to Laden. Painted in a corner thus, Islamabad has tried to deflect the blame by taking an aggressive line against US violation of its sovereignty. But its defense has struggled to explain Osama's presence in what is a major military town. The two countries are thus at the crossroads. The historical "most allied of allies" relationship faces its most difficult test. But the divorce is most unlikely. This is because the US remains tied to Pakistan by necessity even while old cold war bonds stand long frayed. The two countries are destined to converge even if they may briefly diverge, sometimes as drastically as now.
There are some fundamental differences that divide US and Pakistan in Afghanistan. While US has moved on from the circumstances of the Afghan resistance against USSR through eighties, Pakistan remains still rooted in it. With no rival superpower out to stake a competitive claim to the influence in the region, the strategic importance of Pakistan has little value for Washington except temporarily as a staging post to prosecute campaign against Taliban and Al Qaeda.
But for Islamabad, the strategic world remains confined to New Delhi and the search for an elusive strategic depth in Afghanistan. Besides, Kashmir problem continues to be at the centre of the discord between New Delhi and Islamabad. So while US and Pakistan may be allies in the fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, their interests and objectives clash. While Washington would ideally want to crush Al Qaeda and defeat Taliban before exiting Afghanistan, Islamabad is paranoid about being once again
abandoned and left to mop up the fallout of the war once such a goal is achieved by US. Besides, Islamabad is also wary of India's influence in Kabul which it sees as its encirclement by its hostile neighbour. On the other hand, US though aware of these fears has done little to address these. This is therefore a war that Pakistan has been drafted to fight rather than been recruited as a voluntary ally.
As against this, the objectives of the two countries were aligned right from the word go through eighties' Afghan jihad. In a bipolar world, the things were far more black and white. World was neatly split along communist and capitalist blocks. And in South Asia, Pakistan acted as a bulwark against communist juggernaut with which New Delhi was allied. As a result, there were by and large no problems between Islamabad and Washington. The jihad achieved its goal within a decade. USSR cut and run and soon thereafter collapsed in a massive heap. Today, when US and Pakistan are prosecuting another war in Kabul in a dramatically different context, Washington would need to revisit the past to guide its present. But this is not going to be the case. To alter Pakistan's strategic worldview would need a geo-political shift in the region. Besides, it is not within US means to prevail on New Delhi to make concessions for peace with its western neighbour. So, the best possible option for Washington is to concentrate on its primary objectives which is to try and exterminate Al Qaeda and Taliban. The aim is not to enlarge the canvass of its activities and get bogged down in the entrenched regional rivalries.
But would these underlying dynamics help streamline the war in Afghanistan. It seems unlikely. Post-Osama, the trust deficit between US and Pakistan has plunged to a new low. The current tension between the two countries does not bode well for the future. Once out of Afghanistan, as looks likely, the US-Pakistan relations are bound to change profoundly. This is not due so much to the growing distrust between the two countries as to the fast changing geo-politics of the region. The imminent-looking US exit is likely to radically alter the contours of the ongoing great game being played out in Kabul. Kashmir could again emerge as a place for a fresh violent confrontation between Pakistan and India. And a risen China with stakes in this conflict and on the side of Islamabad will substantially change the nature of the conflict. How will US conduct itself in this scenario. In all likelihood, as the Washington's irrevocable drift towards New Delhi over the past decade would have us believe, as an ally of India, albeit not entirely aligned against Islamabad.
The best way to avoid this trajectory would be for the US to push for a grand bargain among the regional powers including China and Iran to achieve not only its limited goal to defeat terror but also to finally eliminate factors that feed extremism in the region. Resolution of Kashmir could be one such bargain to start with.