By next September 33,000 US troops will have left Afghanistan, and if the Obama administration sticks to its timetable, additional withdrawals will follow, removing nearly all foreign forces by 2014. But worrying recent developments, including Pakistan’s refusal to attend a critical conference in Bonn and horrific massacres of Shiites in Afghanistan, are a stark warning that the country could plunge back into civil war when US and NATO forces leave. To avoid that prospect, the United States will have to execute a deft and complicated series of diplomatic maneuvers, with great urgency.
But it isn’t at all clear that the administration, which is pursuing what appears to be a hopelessly contradictory policy of warmaking, peace talks and development assistance—what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls “fight, talk, build”—knows what it’s doing.
The Bonn conference was a worldwide confab involving scores of nations, including the United States, China, Russia and Iran, and hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Held exactly ten years after the December 2001 Bonn conference that created the framework for post-Taliban Afghanistan, this year’s gathering was designed a year ago to provide a stamp of approval for what Washington hoped would be an accord between Afghanistan, the US-led coalition, Pakistan and the Taliban.
But the Taliban and their allies, who have flirted with peace talks for years, didn’t attend. Worse, Pakistan—which created, armed and trained the Taliban; protected Al Qaeda (including Osama bin Laden); and backs groups like the Haqqani network that are responsible for assassinations, suicide bombings and such high-profile acts as the 2009 assault on the Indian embassy in Kabul—boycotted Bonn, too.
The ostensible reason behind Pakistan’s decision not to come to Bonn, which all but crippled the conference, was the still-unexplained killing of two dozen Pakistani soldiers at a border post near Afghanistan by a sustained US aircraft and artillery barrage on November 26. Pakistan, seething with anti-American resentment over what many Pakistanis see as cavalier US infringements on their sovereignty—from the January killing of two Pakistanis by an armed CIA contractor to the incursion that killed Osama bin Laden on May 1 to the barrage of drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas—was predisposed to react strongly to the border incident. And react it did, not only avoiding Bonn but closing down crucial US supply lines and demanding US abandonment of a drone base in Pakistan. And Pakistan’s army is flexing its muscle again. Amid coup rumors, President Asif Ali Zardari left the country on December 6, after suffering what was called a mild heart attack.
Like other US-Pakistan rifts, this one is likely to blow over. Despite their differences, and there are many, the countries need each other. Pakistan desperately needs US and Western support, since its economy is a basket case and it is outclassed by rival India’s growing might. And the United States needs Pakistan to bring the Taliban and other insurgents to the bargaining table. The last thing the Obama administration needs, as it winds down the Afghan war, is a confrontation with Pakistan.