Oh to be a fly on the wall when President Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani met this week in Seoul. And you thought the recent Netanyahu meeting was awkward.
It may be too flippant to liken the U.S.-Pakistani relationship to a broken record, considering U.S. national security is at stake, but the problem at the heart of this screwed up alliance is what it has always been: distrust.
For the Pakistanis, it is the perception of a continued U.S. assault on their sovereignty, whether it is through frequent drone strikes or direct incursion (think bin Laden). For the U.S., it is the perception of Pakistan as the epicenter of extremism, whether it is by backing a variety of radical groups or harboring militants who wish the U.S. harm (think bin Laden). Given the current unhealthy trajectory of the Afghan war, it would seem imperative that the U.S.-Pakistani relationship be salvaged immediately.
The Obama administration offered this week to drastically reduce the number of drone strikes against Pakistani militants operating in the tribal areas along the Afghan border. The C.I.A. even offered to give Pakistani security officials advance notice of impending strikes, despite the fact that in past instances, the Pakistanis have subsequently notified tribal elders, who then warn the targeted militants before a strike occurs. These concessions still appear insufficient to Pakistani policymakers, who are presently considering a parliamentary committee recommendation calling for a complete cessation of drone strikes.
Drones have proven immeasurably effective in combatting Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border. And lest we forget, these are militants who stage attacks not just against Coalition troops in Afghanistan, but against innocent Pakistanis, as well. Pakistan is as much as victim of terrorism as it is a training ground for it.
And while many analysts maintain that leaving Afghanistan with some semblance of a positive future is reliant upon good relations with Pakistan, Islamabad has been quite clear that it will not take orders when it comes to securing its own strategic vision for Afghanistan after 2014.
Is it time to accept that there is nothing left to gain from this volatile relationship, which has seemingly brought the U.S. nothing but grief in recent years? Maybe it is time for a gamble, albeit a risky one. Obama should tell Gilani that we are ending all counterterrorism operations in Pakistani territory, acknowledging that this is what our Pakistani friends have long demanded, and that we do so with the confidence that Pakistan can and will police its own troubled regions effectively.
But Obama should also offer a word of caution. If, over the course of the next few years, it becomes evident that a plot, or heaven forbid an attack, against the U.S. originated in North Waziristan, the drones are coming back, in full force. And issues about affronts to sovereignty will be the least of Pakistan’s troubles.