It’s impossible to separate the crisis in US-Pakistan relations, which now threatens the Obama administration’s entire timetable for winding down the war by 2014, from the recent flap over an effort by some members of Pakistan’s civilian government, including ex-Ambassador Husain Haqqani, to enlist American support in blocking a military coup in Islamabad.
Let’s look at the pieces of the story.
First, Pakistan has announced its intention to withdraw from the December 5 conference in Bonn, Germany, that was created as a forum to build an international consensus about ending the war through a political accord that involved negotiating with the Taliban and its main sponsor, Pakistan. According to some reports, officials from the Taliban movement were to have been present on the sidelines of the meeting in Bonn, and then United States has spent much of 2011 seeking to open a dialogue with the Taliban. Because Pakistan is the chief backer of the Taliban, which it sees as its guarantor of a long-term presence in that country, Pakistan’s boycott of the Bonn meeting is potentially devastating to the idea of a political accord in Afghanistan.
Second, Pakistan has shut down the critical border crossings that the United States and NATO utilize to resupply the war effort. Without them, the NATO project is doomed. And Pakistan has also told the United States to remove its drones from the not-so-secret air base inside Pakistan, which will undercut, if not cripple, the counterproductive and bloody Predator and Reaper drone assaults on Al Qaeda, Taliban and allied targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas, especially in South Waziristan.
It’s not likely that Pakistan’s response to the killing of twenty-five soldiers by a NATO air strike on a border post is simply a reaction to that event. Pakistan’s military—which created, armed and trained the Taliban, helped install them in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, protected Al Qaeda (including Osama bin Laden) and backs the Haqqani and Hekmatyar terrorist groups that are responsible for horrific acts of assassination, suicide bombings and such high-profile acts as the assault against the Indian embassy in Kabul—has long been chafing at the US presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s army sees the US occupation of Afghanistan as a direct threat to Pakistan’s fundamental interests there, and the more radical-nationalist and Islamist elements of the military see the United States as having designs on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as well. Until now, Pakistan and its ISI intelligence service have been content to keep Afghanistan on a low boil, awaiting the inevitable defeat and withdrawal of NATO. Now, it seems, the clandestine army junta that rules Pakistan from Rawalpindi might be ready to escalate the war.