Posts Tagged ‘ NATO ’

Peace Effort Takes Karzai to Pakistan .

By Yaroslav Trofimov, Tom Wright and Adam Entous for The Wall Street Journal

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday met with Pakistan’s leaders, trying to gain Islamabad’s support for his peace outreach to the Taliban, as U.S. officials worked to keep expectations in check about the strategy’s prospects for yielding direct peace talks with the Islamic militant group.

The Taliban, meanwhile, denied Mr. Karzai’s claim that they have been negotiating with the Afghan government.On the first day of his three-day visit to Pakistan, Mr. Karzai met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who promised Pakistani cooperation in investigating the September assassination of the chief Afghan peace negotiator and voiced support for an Afghan-led peace process. Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who wields considerable influence over the country’s foreign policy, also took part in the talks.

In Islamabad, Mr. Karzai reiterated that respect for the Afghan constitution and for women’s rights remain his “crucial conditions” for any future deal with the Taliban.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has been skeptical of reconciliation efforts in the past, at a Thursday news conference lauded Mr. Karzai’s remarks—made in a Wall Street Journal interview—about Kabul’s willingness to engage with the Taliban.

“What President Karzai’s statement confirmed is that Afghanistan is very much involved in the process of reconciliation and that is extremely helpful and important to determining whether or not we are ultimately going to be able to succeed with reconciliation or not,” Mr. Panetta said. “The news that Afghanistan has joined those reconciliation discussions is important.”

Mr. Panetta said he didn’t know whether additional three-way sessions between the U.S., the Afghan government and the Taliban have been planned.

Another senior Obama administration official remained cautious about whether such confidence-building contacts would translate into direct peace talks, calling the process “complicated and precarious.”

A day after Mr. Karzai told the Journal that Afghan government representatives have had contacts with U.S. and Taliban officials in an attempt to end the 10-year war, the Taliban said they had no intention of negotiating with “the powerless Kabul administration.”

“If someone met the Karzai administration representing the Islamic Emirate, he is an impostor,” said a statement by the Taliban leadership, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban in the past denied reports of peace talks with the U.S., only to confirm them in recent months.

U.S. officials have confirmed Mr. Karzai’s remarks, saying at least one three-way negotiating session occurred in recent weeks.

Admitting negotiations with Kabul would be fraught will political risks for the insurgent leadership, possibly undermining the morale of Taliban fighters, and weakening the militants’ resolve amid coalition offensives.

The intensity of the conflict already declined dramatically in recent months, Afghan and coalition officials say, though it is unclear whether this drop is due to the spreading news about peace talks, unusually harsh winter weather, or a strategic decision by the Taliban to hold their fire as foreign forces withdraw.

Pakistan, which U.S. officials say provides shelter and support to the Taliban leadership, plays a crucial role in Afghanistan’s peace outreach.

Mr. Karzai’s relations with Pakistan neared a rupture point after the September assassination of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the peace negotiator, by purported Taliban peace emissaries. At the time, Afghan officials blamed the killing on Pakistan, something that Pakistani officials denied. Two suspects have since been arrested in Pakistan.

The White House wants to show progress on the reconciliation track before a May summit of North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders in Chicago. There, NATO leaders are expected to announce plans to shift to a train-and-assist mission in Afghanistan in 2013, giving Mr. Karzai’s security forces the lead role in combat operations before most U.S. and NATO troops pull out at the end of 2014.

Where Pakistan fits into tentative peace talks with the Taliban remains unclear. The U.S. has not kept Islamabad informed about developments in the peace process, Pakistan civilian and military leaders claim.

U.S. and Afghan officials say they are concerned Pakistan might try to undermine peace talks. In January 2010, Pakistan detained a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Afghan and U.S. officials claim Pakistan arrested him for contacting the U.S. and Mr. Karzai’s government without Pakistan’s knowledge, a claim denied by Pakistan.

Afghanistan has asked for Pakistan to transfer Mr. Baradar to Kabul, but this hasn’t happened so far. Pakistani officials deny they back the Taliban.

Pakistan will stay on the sidelines in the tentative peace process as long as the U.S. remains distrustful of Islamabad, said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies.

“We’re not sure to what extent the U.S. wants Pakistan to play a role,” Mr. Gul said. “The Pakistani role at this moment seems very limited.”

Pakistan’s ability to play a meaningful part in talks has further been hampered by a deterioration in relations with U.S. after an American helicopter strike in November mistakenly killed 26 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border.

U.S. officials say they are still trying to hammer out an agreement with Taliban representatives on a sequence of confidence-building measures aimed at laying the ground for any future direct negotiations on ending the war.

In addition to the establishment of a political office for the Taliban in Qatar, the U.S. wants the Taliban to issue a statement distancing itself from international terrorism and to agree to stop fighting in certain areas of the country.

The U.S., in turn, would transfer of up to five Taliban militants held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar. Key U.S. lawmakers have raised objections to the prospective prisoner transfers.

Officials have identified the five Guantanamo detainees who may be transferred to Qatar as Muhammad Fazl, a former senior Taliban defense official; two former local governors, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Noorullah Nori; former Taliban intelligence official Abdul Haq Wasiq; and top Taliban financier Muhammad Nabi.

Messrs. Haq Wasiq, Fazl and Nori were among the first 20 detainees who arrived at Guantanamo Bay 10 years ago, when the prison was opened on Jan. 11, 2002.

The U.S. has received assurances from Qatar that the five militants, if transferred, won’t be released by the government or handed over to the Taliban. But officials said the men could be freed later as part of a future Afghan-Taliban peace deal.

Punishing Pakistan Is Not The Way To Go

By Nancy Birdall for Foreign Policy

In the January/February 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs, Stanford political scientist Stephen Krasner claims that “current U.S. policy toward Pakistan has failed” and recommends that the United States take a radically different approach: credibly threaten to sever all forms of cooperation, including all U.S. aid – military and civilian – to force Pakistan into cooperating with the United States on security matters. Center for Global Development President Nancy Birdsall responds.

Stephen Krasner (“Talk Tough to Pakistan: How to End Islamabad’s Defiance,” Jan/Feb 2012) wants to change the Pakistani government’s behavior. He argues that its failure to cooperate with the United States on Afghanistan and on terrorism is not due to its weakness as a state. Instead, it is a rational response of Pakistan’s military leadership, whose priority is to defend itself against India – with a nuclear deterrent and support for terrorists and the Afghan Taliban. Therefore, the only way the United States can win cooperation from Pakistan is to threaten “malign neglect”- cut off military and civilian assistance, sever intelligence cooperation, maintain and possibly escalate drone strikes and initiate unilateral cross-border raids. If that isn’t enough, then the U.S. could move on to “active isolation” — declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, making it a pariah, and impose sanctions.

If only it were this easy. Krasner fails to mention that the U.S. has tried this approach before. In the 1990s it cut off military and civilian assistance to Pakistan and imposed sanctions in an effort to dissuade Pakistan from developing a nuclear capability. We all know how that story ended. But let’s suppose this time the threats or the follow-through worked and brought the military and intelligence establishment to heel in Pakistan. Let’s suppose the United States got what it wanted on the security front – helping assure a timely U.S and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Would that solve the problem Pakistan poses for America’s security in the long run? No.

What Krasner doesn’t say is that the U.S. wants something more than compliance from Pakistan’s military and intelligence communities with its immediate security needs. The U.S. wants a capable and stable civilian government that plays by the rules of the international community. It wants a democratic state that would not abuse and misuse its nuclear capability and that would find its way to peaceful relations with India.

In other words the U.S. has a long-run vision for Pakistan, very much in its own interests, as well as a set of short-term demands. In the 2009 Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act (known as Kerry-Lugar Berman, or KLB) Congress recognized the resulting need for a two-track approach. That legislation made U.S. security assistance (not actually authorized in the legislation) conditional on Pakistani cooperation on security matters. But its fundamental purpose, and the money it authorized for civilian aid, was the rebuilding of a serious partnership with the civilian government and the people of Pakistan. With KLB as the framework, since 2009 the Obama Administration has engaged fully with the civilian government and with civil society and private sector leaders in Pakistan on a range of issues — energy, water, agriculture, macroeconomic issues, private investment and trade.

In short, the purpose of U.S. civilian aid to Pakistan is to help build a better state. It is not to bribe or reward the “government” (neither the military nor the civilian leadership). Withholding military aid would likely not punish the military anyway. It would, however, reduce the resources available to the civilian government, since the evidence is that the military can get what it wants from the government’s overall available resources. And withholding civilian aid obviously would not punish the military. It would, however, take away a modest tool of America – investing to educate kids, create jobs, and strengthen civil society and representative institutions and thus give Pakistan a better shot at becoming a stable, prosperous and democratic country in the long term.

There are of course real questions about the effectiveness of U.S engagement with the civilian government – with aid and dialogue – given the prevailing suspicion there of U.S. motives, the inherent difficulties of operating in a complex and insecure environment, and the bureaucratic shortcomings of the U.S. aid system itself. But then those are reasons to put relatively more emphasis on other forms of engagement: trade, investment, and encouraging the normalization of relations with India. They do not warrant bullying the weak civilian government that the U.S. wants to strengthen.

Krasner begins and ends his article by invoking the testimony of former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen during his last appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Krasner is right in pointing out that Mullen was critical of Pakistan’s role in supporting extremist organizations and the need to get tough with Pakistan. Yet, Krasner fails to mention the conclusion Mullen reached in his statement. Mullen recognized that the U.S. has a variety of objectives in Pakistan and the region, and that by focusing too intensely on short term interests, the U.S. will end up short-changing itself over the long haul: “We must also move beyond counter-terrorism to address long-term foundations of Pakistan’s success – to help the Pakistanis find realistic and productive ways to achieve their aspirations of prosperity and security.” Mullen concludes, “Isolating the people of Pakistan from the world right now would be counter-productive.”

Nancy Birdsall is the founding president of the Center for Global Development, a Washington, DC based think tank.

Pakistan is Helping Afghan Taliban, Says Nato Report

As Reported by The BBC

The Taliban in Afghanistan are being directly assisted by Pakistani security services, according to a secret Nato report seen by the BBC.
The leaked report, derived from thousands of interrogations, claims the Taliban remain defiant and have wide support among the Afghan people. It alleges that Pakistan knows the locations of senior Taliban leaders.

A BBC correspondent says the report is painful reading for international forces and the Afghan government. Pakistan has strenuously denied any links with the Taliban on previous occasions.

“We have long been concerned about ties between elements of the ISI and some extremist networks,” said US Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby, adding that the US Defence Department had not seen the report.

The BBC’s Quentin Sommerville in Kabul says the report – on the state of the Taliban – fully exposes for the first time the relationship between the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) and the Taliban.

The report is based on material from 27,000 interrogations with more than 4,000 captured Taliban, al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters and civilians.
It notes: “Pakistan’s manipulation of the Taliban senior leadership continues unabatedly”. It says that Pakistan is aware of the locations of senior Taliban leaders.

The report states: “As this document is derived directly from insurgents it should be considered informational and not necessarily analytical.”
Despite Nato’s strategy to secure the country with Afghan forces, the secret document details widespread collaboration between the insurgents and Afghan police and military.

Lt Col Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan, said the document was “a classified internal document that is not meant to be released to the public”.

“It is a matter of policy that documents that are classified are not discussed under any circumstances,” he said.
The report also depicts the depth of continuing support among the Afghan population for the Taliban, our correspondent says.
It paints a picture of al-Qaeda’s influence diminishing but the Taliban’s influence increasing, he adds.

In a damning conclusion, the document says that in the last year there has been unprecedented interest, even from members of the Afghan government, in joining the Taliban cause. It adds: “Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over the Afghan government, usually as a result of government corruption.”

The report has evidence that the Taliban are purposely hastening Nato’s withdrawal by deliberately reducing their attacks in some areas and then initiating a comprehensive hearts-and-minds campaign.

It says that in areas where Isaf has withdrawn, Taliban influence has increased, often with little or no resistance from government security forces. And in many cases, with the active help of the Afghan police and army.

When foreign soldiers leave, Afghan security forces are expected to take control. However according to the report, rifles, pistols and heavy weapons have been sold by Afghan security forces in bazaars in Pakistan.

How Pakistan Continues to Help US Drone Campaign Despite Political Tensions

As Reported by Reuters

The death of a senior Al-Qaeda leader in a US drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal badlands, the first strike in almost two months, signaled that the US-Pakistan intelligence partnership is still in operation despite political tensions. The Jan 10 strike-and its follow-up two days later- were joint operations, a Pakistani security source based in the tribal areas told Reuters. They made use of Pakistani “spotters” on the ground and demonstrated a level of coordination that both sides have sought to downplay since tensions erupted in January 2011 with the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in Lahore.

“Our working relationship is a bit different from our political relationship,” the source told Reuters, requesting anonymity. “It’s more productive.” US and Pakistani sources told Reuters that the target of the Jan 10 attack was Aslam Awan, a Pakistani national from Abbottabad, the town where Osama bin Laden was killed last May by a US commando team.

They said he was targeted in a strike by a US-operated drone directed at what news reports said was a compound near the town of Miranshah in the border province of North Waziristan. That strike broke an undeclared eight-week hiatus in attacks by the armed, unmanned drones that patrol the tribal areas and are a key weapon in US President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy.

The sources described Awan, also known by the nom-de-guerre Abdullah Khorasani, as a significant figure in the remaining core leadership of al Qaeda, which US officials say has been sharply reduced by the drone campaign. Most of the drone attacks are conducted as part of a clandestine CIA operation.

The Pakistani source, who helped target Awan, could not confirm that he was killed, but the US official said he was. European officials said Awan had spent time in London and had ties to British extremists before returning to Pakistan. The source, who says he runs a network of spotters primarily in North and South Waziristan, described for the first time how US-Pakistani cooperation on strikes works, with his Pakistani agents keeping close tabs on suspected militants and building a pattern of their movements and associations. “We run a network of human intelligence sources,” he said. “Separately, we monitor their cell and satellite phones. “Thirdly, we run joint monitoring operations with our US and UK friends,” he added, noting that cooperation with British intelligence was also extensive. Pakistani and US intelligence officers, using their own sources, hash out a joint “priority of targets lists” in regular face-to-face meetings, he said. “Al-Qaeda is our top priority,” he said. He declined to say where the meetings take place. Once a target is identified and “marked,” his network coordinates with drone operators on the US side. He said the United States bases drones outside Kabul, likely at Bagram airfield about 25 miles (40 km) north of the capital. From spotting to firing a missile “hardly takes about two to three hours”, he said.

It was impossible to verify the source’s claims and American experts, who decline to discuss the drone program, say the Pakistanis’ cooperation has been less helpful in the past. US officials have complained that when information on drone strikes was shared with the Pakistanis beforehand, the targets were often tipped off, allowing them to escape. Drone strikes have been a sore point with the public and Pakistani politicians, who describe them as violations of sovereignty that produce unacceptable civilian casualties. The last strike before January had been on Nov 16, 10 days before 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in what NATO says was an inadvertent cross-border attack on a Pakistani border post. That incident sent US-Pakistan relations into the deepest crisis since Islamabad joined the US-led war on militancy following the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. On Thursday, Pakistani foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar said ties were “on hold” while Pakistan completes a review of the alliance.

New Year’s gift: Obama signs bill freezing aid to Pakistan

As Reported By Reuters

President Barack Obama signed a sweeping US defense funding bill on Saturday which includes new sanctions on financial institutions dealing with Iran’s central bank, and curtailing up to $850 million in aid to Pakistan. The bill was signed despite concerns about sections that expand the US military’s authority over terrorism suspects and limit his powers in foreign affairs.

The massive defense bill Congress passed on earlier in December freezes 60 per cent of the $850 million aid, or $510 million, until the US defense secretary provides lawmakers with assurances that Pakistan is working to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs). US lawmakers say that many Afghan bombs that kill US troops are made with fertilizer smuggled by militants across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

“The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it,” Obama said in a statement, citing limits on transferring detainees from the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and requirements he notify Congress before sharing some defense missile information with Russia as problematic.

The bill, approved by Congress last week after its language was revised, aims with its Iran sanctions to reduce Tehran’s oil revenues but gives the US president powers to waive penalties as required. Senior US officials said Washington was engaging with its foreign partners to ensure the sanctions can work without harming global energy markets, and stressed the US strategy for engaging with Iran was unchanged by the bill.

The bill may also prove problematic for Pakistan in ways other than providing assurances of concrete steps to counter the manufacture of IEDs. The sanctions placed on dealing with Iran’s central banks may weigh on Pakistan’s plans for the Iran-Pakistan pipeline which aims to provide gas to Pakistan.

Pakistan needs the gas supplies from Iran to augment its own gas reserves which have been shrinking fast, leading to widespread gas shortages affecting its industry and daily life.

Imran Khan’s rally defies Pak’s ruling party

As Reported by IBN Live

Pakistan’s former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan brought at least 100,000 people into the streets of Karachi on Sunday in a massive rally that increases pressure on the civilian government and cements his standing as a political force.

Khan, 59, is riding a wave of dissatisfaction with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, who co-chairs the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, and is facing challenges from the military, the Supreme Court and political opponents after a year of cascading crises.

Police estimated the rally had been attended by between 100,000 and 150,000 people. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf, or Pakistan Movement for Justice, estimated the crowd at more than 500,000.

Even at the lower estimate, it is among the largest political rallies held in Karachi in recent years.

Khan, in a rousing speech punctuated with patriotic musical refrains, pledged, if elected, to curb Pakistan’s endemic corruption.

“We need a government that changes the system and ends corruption, so we need the PTI to come to power,” Khan told the crowd. “The first thing we need to do is end corruption.”

“I promise we will end big corruption in 90 days,” he added.

Khan’s massive rally comes at a time of crisis in Pakistani politics. Tensions are rising between Pakistan’s civilian leaders and its generals over a memo that accused the Army of plotting a coup after the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.

There are signs that Pakistan’s powerful Army is fed up with Zardari and wants the Supreme Court or early elections to force him from office. The Army chief dismissed any rumours of a coup, however, as “speculation”.

“It’s time for a change and only PTI and Imran Khan can bring about that change,” said Sabina Saifi, 28, a school teacher. She was wearing a PTI cap and had come with her two brothers.

Several recent polls have shown Khan is Pakistan’s most popular politician. He is especially favoured in urban areas.

“He is riding a wave of popular politics right now,” said Mutahir Ahmed, a professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi. “There is a lot of frustration among ordinary people, as well as political workers right now, which he is cashing on.”

On October 30, Khan staged a similar rally in Lahore that observers said pulled between 100,000 and 200,000 people, then one of the largest political rallies ever in Pakistan.

“He has… managed to bring people out on the roads, and this is a big achievement, especially in Karachi, where three months back people were not ready to come out of their houses because of rampant violence and killings,” Ahmed said.

But popularity doesn’t always translate into political power. The majority of Pakistan’s voters are rural, where feudal relationships determine generations of political loyalty.

Khan, for all the enthusiasm shown for him among young people and the urban middle class, has yet to demonstrate the party machinery that the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-N faction have had decades to perfect.

In the last 15 years, the PTI has only briefly held one seat in Parliament – Khan’s. Most analysts say Khan could score an upset of 20 to 30 seats in Parliament, but that’s not enough to give him the premiership. It is enough to make him a major political player, however – or even a kingmaker.

“It’s too premature to get into speculation of whether he becomes prime minister or not but the chances of his party getting into Parliament look very good,” said security analyst Imtiaz Gul.

He also has a touchy relationship with the United States, Pakistan’s ally and aid donor.

He says that if elected prime minister, he would end cooperation in the fight against militants based in tribal areas, end the covert campaign of bombings by US drones and refuse all US aid, which totals some $20 billion since 2001.

Relations with the United States have reached a crisis point because of a November 26 cross-border incident in which NATO aircraft killed 24 Pakistani troops. Pakistan has since shut down NATO supply routes into Afghanistan and demanded an apology.

NATO’s full report on the incident, which Pakistan has already rejected based on media leaks, is expected to be released on Monday. It reportedly faults both sides in the incident.

Khan’s anti-American stance is often thought to reflect the views of the security establishment, which includes the powerful Army and its Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence.

The US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, however, said in November that he didn’t see Khan as anti-American.

“Imran Khan is, as far as he tells me, for the same kind of values that we think are important,” Munter said on a popular talk show on November 22. “He says he’s for democracy, he’s for governance that’s clean, he’s for economic growth. We’re all for those things.”

The Pakistanis Have A Point

By Bill Keller for The New York Times

As an American visitor in the power precincts of Pakistan, from the gated enclaves of Islamabad to the manicured lawns of the military garrison in Peshawar, from the luxury fortress of the Serena Hotel to the exclusive apartments of the parliamentary housing blocks, you can expect three time-honored traditions: black tea with milk, obsequious servants and a profound sense of grievance.

Talk to Pakistani politicians, scholars, generals, businessmen, spies and journalists — as I did in October — and before long, you are beyond the realm of politics and diplomacy and into the realm of hurt feelings. Words like “ditch” and “jilt” and “betray” recur. With Americans, they complain, it’s never a commitment, it’s always a transaction. This theme is played to the hilt, for effect, but it is also heartfelt.

“The thing about us,” a Pakistani official told me, “is that we are half emotional and half irrational.”

For a relationship that has oscillated for decades between collaboration and breakdown, this has been an extraordinarily bad year, at an especially inconvenient time. As America settles onto the long path toward withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan has considerable power to determine whether the end of our longest war is seen as a plausible success or a calamitous failure.

There are, of course, other reasons that Pakistan deserves our attention. It has a fast-growing population approaching 190 million, and it hosts a loose conglomerate of terrorist franchises that offer young Pakistanis employment and purpose unavailable in the suffering feudal economy. It has 100-plus nuclear weapons (Americans who monitor the program don’t know the exact number or the exact location) and a tense, heavily armed border with nuclear India. And its president, Asif Ali Zardari, oversees a ruinous kleptocracy that is spiraling deeper into economic crisis.

But it is the scramble to disengage from Afghanistan that has focused minds in Washington. Pakistan’s rough western frontier with Afghanistan is a sanctuary for militant extremists and criminal ventures, including the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, the notorious Haqqani clan and important remnants of the original horror story, Al Qaeda. The mistrust between Islamabad and Kabul is deep, nasty — Afghanistan was the only country to vote against letting Pakistan into the United Nations — and tribal. And to complicate matters further, Pakistan is the main military supply route for the American-led international forces and the Afghan National Army.

On Thanksgiving weekend, a month after I returned from Pakistan, the relationship veered precipitously — typically — off course again. NATO aircraft covering an operation by Afghan soldiers and American Special Forces pounded two border posts, inadvertently killing 24 Pakistani soldiers, including two officers. The Americans said that they were fired on first and that Pakistan approved the airstrikes; the Pakistanis say the Americans did not wait for clearance to fire and then bombed the wrong targets.

The fallout was painfully familiar: outrage, suspicion and recrimination, petulance and political posturing. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of the army and by all accounts the most powerful man in Pakistan, retaliated by shutting (for now and not for the first time) the NATO supply corridor through his country. The Pakistanis abruptly dropped out of a Bonn conference on the future of Afghanistan and announced they would not cooperate with an American investigation of the airstrikes. President Obama sent condolences but balked at the suggestion of an apology; possibly the president did not want to set off another chorus of Mitt Romney’s refrain that Obama is always apologizing for America. At this writing, American officials were trying to gauge whether the errant airstrike would have, as one worried official put it, “a long half-life.”

If you survey informed Americans, you will hear Pakistanis described as duplicitous, paranoid, self-pitying and generally infuriating. In turn, Pakistanis describe us as fickle, arrogant, shortsighted and chronically unreliable.

Neither country’s caricature of the other is entirely wrong, and it makes for a relationship that is less in need of diplomacy than couples therapy, which customarily starts by trying to see things from the other point of view. While the Pakistanis have hardly been innocent, they have a point when they say America has not been the easiest of partners.

One good place to mark the beginning of this very, very bad year in U.S.-Pakistani relations is Dec. 13, 2010, when Richard C. Holbrooke died of a torn aorta. Holbrooke, the veteran of the Balkan peace, had for two years held the thankless, newly invented role of the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The antithesis of mellow, Holbrooke did not hit it off with our no-drama president, and his bluster didn’t always play well in Kabul or Islamabad either.

But Holbrooke paid aggressive attention to Pakistan. While he was characteristically blunt about the divergent U.S. and Pakistani views, he understood that they were a result of different, calculated national interests, not malevolence or mere orneriness. He was convinced that the outlooks could be, if not exactly synchronized, made more compatible. He made a concentrated effort to persuade the Pakistanis that this time the United States would not be a fair-weather friend.

“You need a Holbrooke,” says Maleeha Lodhi, a well-connected former ambassador to Washington. “Not necessarily the person but the role.” In the absence of full-on engagement, she says, “it’s become a very accident-prone relationship.”

On Jan. 27, a trigger-happy C.I.A. contractor named Raymond Davis was stuck in Lahore traffic and shot dead two motorcyclists who approached him. A backup vehicle he summoned ran over and killed a bystander. The U.S. spent heavily from its meager stock of good will to persuade the Pakistanis to set Davis free — pleading with a straight face that he was entitled to diplomatic immunity.

On May 2, a U.S. Navy Seals team caught Osama bin Laden in the military town Abbottabad and killed him. Before long, American officials were quoted questioning whether their Pakistani allies were just incompetent or actually complicit. (The Americans who deal with Pakistan believe that General Kayani and the director of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, were genuinely surprised and embarrassed that Bin Laden was so close by, though the Americans fault the Pakistanis for not looking very hard.) In Pakistan, Kayani faced rumbles of insurrection for letting Americans violate Pakistani sovereignty; a defining victory for President Obama was a humiliation for Kayani and Pasha.

In September, members of the Haqqani clan (a criminal syndicate and jihadi cult that’s avowedly subservient to the Taliban leader Mullah Omar) marked the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with two theatrical attacks in Afghanistan. First a truck bomb injured 77 American soldiers in Wardak Province. Then militants rained rocket-propelled grenades on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, forcing our ambassador to spend 20 hours locked down in a bunker.

A few days later the former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, spread his arms to welcome an emissary from the Taliban to discuss the possibility of peace talks. As they embraced, the visitor detonated a bomb in his turban, killing himself, Rabbani and the talks. President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, without any evidence that American officials are aware of, accused Pakistan of masterminding the grotesque killing in order to scuttle peace talks it couldn’t control.

And two days after that, Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took to Capitol Hill to suggest that Pakistani intelligence had blessed the truck bomb and embassy attack.

His testimony came as a particular shock, because if the turbulent affair between the United States and Pakistan had a solid center in recent years, it was the rapport between Mullen and his Pakistani counterpart, General Kayani. Over the four years from Kayani’s promotion as chief of the army staff until Mullen’s retirement in September, scarcely a month went by when the two didn’t meet. Mullen would often drop by Kayani’s home at the military enclave in Rawalpindi, arriving for dinner and staying into the early morning, discussing the pressures of command while the sullen-visaged general chain-smoked Dunhills. One time, Kayani took his American friend to the Himalayas for a flyby of the world’s second-highest peak, K2. On another occasion, Mullen hosted Kayani on the golf course at the Naval Academy. The two men seemed to have developed a genuine trust and respect for each other.

But Mullen’s faith in an underlying common purpose was rattled by the truck bombing and the embassy attack, both of which opened Mullen to the charge that his courtship of Kayani had been a failure. So — over the objection of the State Department — the admiral set out to demonstrate that he had no illusions.

The Haqqani network “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency,” he declared. “With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck-bomb attack as well as the assault on our embassy.”

Several officials with access to the intelligence told me that while the Haqqanis were implicated in both attacks, there was no evidence of direct ISI involvement. A Mullen aide said later that the admiral was referring to ISI’s ongoing sponsorship of the Haqqanis and did not mean to say Pakistan authorized those specific attacks.

No matter. In Pakistan, Mullen’s denunciation led to a ripple of alarm that U.S. military “hardliners” were contemplating an invasion. The press had hysterics. Kayani made a show of putting the Pakistani Army on alert. The Pakistani rupee fell in value.

In Washington, Mullen’s remarks captured — and fed — a vengeful mood and a rising sense of fatalism about Pakistan. Bruce O. Riedel, an influential former C.I.A. officer who led a 2009 policy review for President Obama on Pakistan and Afghanistan, captured the prevailing sentiment in an Op-Ed in The Times, in which he called for a new policy of “containment,” meaning “a more hostile relationship” toward the army and intelligence services.

“I can see how this gets worse,” Riedel told me. “And I can see how this gets catastrophically worse. . . . I don’t see how it gets a whole lot better.”

When Gen. David H. Petraeus took over the U.S. military’s Central Command in 2008, he commissioned expert briefing papers on his new domain, which sprawled from Egypt, across the Persian Gulf, to Central Asia. The paper on Afghanistan and Pakistan began, according to an American who has read it, roughly this way: “The United States has no vital national interests in Afghanistan. Our vital national interests are in Pakistan,” notably the security of those nuclear weapons and the infiltration by Al Qaeda. The paper then went on for the remaining pages to discuss Afghanistan. Pakistan hardly got a mention. “That’s typical,” my source said. Pakistan tends to be an afterthought.

The Pakistani version of modern history is one of American betrayal, going back at least to the Kennedy administration’s arming of Pakistan’s archrival, India, in the wake of its 1962 border war with China.

The most consequential feat of American opportunism came when we enlisted Pakistan to bedevil the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The intelligence agencies of the U.S. and Pakistan — with help from Saudi Arabia — created the perfect thorn in the Soviet underbelly: young Muslim “freedom fighters,” schooled in jihad at Pakistani madrassas, laden with American surface-to-air missiles and led by charismatic warriors who set aside tribal rivalries to war against foreign occupation.

After the Soviets admitted defeat in 1989, the U.S. — mission accomplished! — pulled out, leaving Pakistan holding the bag: several million refugees, an Afghanistan torn by civil war and a population of jihadists who would find new targets for their American-supplied arms. In the ensuing struggle for control of Afghanistan, Pakistan eventually sided with the Taliban, who were dominated by the Pashtun tribe that populates the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. The rival Northern Alliance was run by Tajiks and Uzbeks and backed by India; and the one thing you can never underestimate is Pakistan’s obsession with bigger, richer, better-armed India.

As long as Pakistan was our partner in tormenting the Soviet Union, the U.S. winked at Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program. After all, India was developing a nuclear arsenal, and it was inevitable that Pakistan would follow suit. But after the Soviets retreated, Pakistan was ostracized under a Congressional antiproliferation measure called the Pressler Amendment, stripped of military aid (some of it budgeted to bring Pakistani officers to the U.S. for exposure to American military values and discipline) and civilian assistance (most of it used to promote civil society and buy good will).

Our relationship with Pakistan sometimes seems like a case study in unintended consequences. The spawning of the mujahadeen is, of course, Exhibit A. The Pressler Amendment is Exhibit B. And Exhibit C might be America’s protectionist tariffs on Pakistan’s most important export, textiles. For years, experts, including a series of American ambassadors in Islamabad, have said that the single best thing the U.S. could do to pull Pakistan into the modern world is to ease trade barriers, as it has done with many other countries. Instead of sending foreign aid and hoping it trickles down, we could make it easier for Americans to buy Pakistani shirts, towels and denims, thus lifting an industry that is an incubator of the middle class and employs many women. Congress, answerable to domestic textile interests, has had none of it.

“Pakistan the afterthought” was the theme very late one night when I visited the home of Pakistan’s finance minister, Abdul Hafeez Shaikh. After showing me his impressive art collection, Shaikh flopped on a sofa and ran through the roll call of American infidelity. He worked his way, decade by decade, to the war on terror. Now, he said, Pakistan is tasked by the Americans with simultaneously helping to kill terrorists and — the newest twist — using its influence to bring them to the bargaining table. Congress, meanwhile, angry about terrorist sanctuaries, is squeezing off much of the financial aid that is supposed to be the lubricant in our alliance.

“Pakistan was the cold-war friend, the Soviet-Afghan-war friend, the terror-war friend,” the minister said. “As soon as the wars ended, so did the assistance. The sense of being discarded is so recent.”

A Boston University-educated economist who made his money in private equity investing — in other words, a cosmopolitan man — Shaikh seemed slightly abashed by his own bitterness.

“I’m not saying that this style of Pakistani thinking is analytically correct,” he said. “I’m just telling you how people feel.”

He waved an arm toward his dining room, where he hung a Warhol of Muhammad Ali. “We’re just supposed to be like Ali — take the beating for seven rounds from Foreman,” he said. “But this time the Pakistanis have wised up. We are playing the game, but we know you can’t take these people at their word.”

With a timetable that has the United States out of Afghanistan, or mostly out, by the end of 2014, Pakistan has leverage it did not have when the war began.

One day after 9/11, Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, summoned the head of Pakistani intelligence for a talking to. “We are asking all of our friends: Do they stand with us or against us?” he said. The following day, Armitage handed over a list of seven demands, which included stopping Al Qaeda operations on the Pakistani border, giving American invaders access to Pakistani bases and airspace and breaking all ties with the Taliban regime.

The Pakistanis believed from the beginning that Afghanistan had “American quagmire” written all over it. Moreover, what America had in mind for Afghanistan was antithetical to Pakistan’s self-interest.

“The only time period between 1947 and the American invasion of Afghanistan that Pakistanis have felt secure about Afghanistan is during the Taliban period,” from 1996 to 2001, says Vali Nasr, an American scholar of the region who is listened to in both academia and government. Now the Bush administration would attempt to supplant the Taliban with a strong independent government in Kabul and a muscular military. “Everything about this vision is dangerous to Pakistan,” Nasr says.

Pakistan’s military ruler at the time, Pervez Musharraf, saw the folly of defying an American ultimatum. He quickly agreed to the American demands and delivered on many of them. In practice, though, the accommodation with the Taliban was never fully curtailed. Pakistan knew America’s mission in Afghanistan would end, and it spread its bets.

The Bush-Musharraf relationship, Vali Nasr says, “was sort of a Hollywood suspension of disbelief. Musharraf was a convenient person who created a myth that we subscribed to — basically that Pakistan was on the same page with us, it was an ally in the war on terror and it subscribed to our agenda for Afghanistan.”

But the longer the war in Afghanistan dragged on, the harder it was to sustain the illusion.

In October, I took the highway west from Islamabad to Peshawar, headquarters of the Pakistan Army corps responsible for the frontier with Afghanistan. Over tea and cookies, Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, the three-star who commanded the frontier (he retired this month) talked about how the Afghan war looked from his side of the border.

The official American version of the current situation in Afghanistan goes like this: By applying the counterinsurgency strategy that worked in Iraq and relying on a surge of troops and the increasingly sophisticated use of drones, the United States has been beating the insurgency into submission, while at the same time standing up an indigenous Afghan Army that could take over the mission. If only Pakistan would police its side of the border — where the bad guys find safe haven, fresh recruits and financing — we’d be on track for an exit in 2014.

The Pakistanis have a different narrative. First, a central government has never successfully ruled Afghanistan. Second, Karzai is an unreliable neighbor — a reputation that has not been dispelled by his recent, manic declarations of brotherhood. And third, they believe that despite substantial investment by the United States, the Afghan Army and the police are a long way from being ready to hold the country. In other words, America is preparing to leave behind an Afghanistan that looks like incipient chaos to Pakistan.

In Peshawar, General Malik talked with polite disdain about his neighbor to the west. His biggest fear — one I’m told Kayani stresses in every meeting with his American counterparts — is the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces, an army of 170,000 and another 135,000 police, responsible for preventing Afghanistan from disintegrating back into failed-state status. If the U.S. succeeds in creating such a potent fighting force, that makes Pakistanis nervous, because they see it (rightly) as potentially unfriendly and (probably wrongly) as a potential agent of Indian influence. The more likely and equally unsettling outcome, Pakistanis believe, is that the Afghan military — immature, fractious and dependent on the U.S. Treasury — will disintegrate into heavily armed tribal claques and bandit syndicates. And America, as always, will be gone when hell breaks loose.

General Malik studied on an exchange at Fort McNair, in Washington, D.C., and has visited 23 American states. He likes to think he is not clueless about how things work in our country.

“Come 2015, which senator would be ready to vote $9 billion, or $7 billion, to be spent on this army?” he asked. “Even $5 billion a year. O.K., maybe one year, maybe two years. But with the economy going downhill, how does the future afford this? Very challenging.”

American officials will tell you, not for attribution, that Malik’s concerns are quite reasonable.

So I asked the general if that was why his forces have not been more aggressive about mopping up terrorist sanctuaries along the border. Still hedging their bets? His answer was elaborate and not entirely facile.

First of all, the general pointed out that Pakistan has done some serious fighting in terrorist strongholds and shed a lot of blood. Over the past two years, Malik’s forces have been enlarged to 147,000 soldiers, mainly by relocating more than 50,000 from the Indian border. They have largely controlled militant activities in the Swat Valley, for example, which entailed two hard offensives with major casualties. But they have steadfastly declined to mount a major assault against North Waziristan — a mountainous region of terrorist Deadwoods populated by battle-toughened outlaws.

Yes, Malik said, North Waziristan is a terrible situation, but his forces are responsible for roughly 1,500 miles of border, they police an archipelago of rough towns in the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, and by the way, they had a devastating flood to handle last year.

“If you are not able to close the Mexican border, when you have the technology at your call, when there is no war,” he said, “how can you expect us to close our border, especially if you are not locking the doors on your side?”

Americans who know the area well concede that, for all our complaints, Pakistan doesn’t push harder in large part because it can’t. The Pakistan Army has been trained to patrol the Indian border, not to battle hardened insurgents. They have comparatively crude weaponry. When they go up against a ruthless outfit like the Haqqanis, they tend to get killed. Roughly 4,000 Pakistani troops have died in these border wars — more than the number of all the allied soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

“They’re obviously reluctant to go against the Haqqanis, but reluctant for a couple of reasons,” an American official told me. “Not just the reason that they see them as a potential proxy force if Afghanistan doesn’t go well, but also because they just literally lack the capability to take them on. They’ve got enough wars on their hands. They’ve not been able to consolidate their gains up in the northern part of the FATA, they have continued problems in other areas and they just can’t deal with another campaign, which is what North Waziristan would be.”

And there is another, fundamental problem, Malik said. There is simply no popular support for stepping up the fight in what is seen as America’s war. Ordinary Pakistanis feel they have paid a high price in collateral damage, between the civilian casualties from unmanned drone attacks and the blowback from terror groups within Pakistan.

“When you go into North Waziristan and carry out some major operation, there is going to be a terrorist backlash in the rest of the country,” Malik told me. “The political mood, or the public mood, is ‘no more operations.’ ”

In late October, Hillary Clinton arrived in Islamabad, leading a delegation that included Petraeus, recently confirmed as C.I.A. director, and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Mullen’s successor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Petraeus used to refer to Holbrooke as “my diplomatic wingman,” a bit of condescension he apparently intended as a tribute. This time, the security contingent served as diplomacy’s wingmen.

The trip was intended as a show of unity and resolve by an administration that has spoken with conflicting voices when it has focused on Pakistan at all. For more than four hours, the Americans and a potent lineup of Pakistani counterparts talked over a dinner table.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about the dinner was the guest list. The nine participants included Kayani and Pasha, but not President Zardari or Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who provided the dining room at his own residence and made himself scarce. The only representative of the civilian government was Clinton’s counterpart, the new foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, a 34-year-old rising star with the dark-haired beauty of a Bollywood leading lady, a degree in hospitality management from the University of Massachusetts and, most important, close ties to the Pakistani military.

For a country that cherishes civilian democracy, we have a surprising affinity for strong men in uniform. Based on my conversations with American officials across the government, the U.S. has developed a grudging respect for Kayani, whom they regard as astute, straightforward, respectful of the idea of democratic government but genuinely disgusted by the current regime’s thievery and ineptitude. (We know from the secret diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks that Kayani has confided to American officials his utter contempt for his president and “hinted that he might, however reluctantly, have to persuade President Zardari to resign.”) Zardari, whose principal claim to office is that he is the widower of the assassinated and virtually canonized Benazir Bhutto, has been mainly preoccupied with building up his patronage machine for elections in 2013. The Americans expect little from him and don’t see a likely savior among his would-be political challengers. (As this article goes to press, Zardari is recovering from chest pains in a hospital in Dubai; there are rumors he won’t return.) So, Kayani it is. The official American consensus is less enamored of Kayani’s loyal intelligence underling, General Pasha, whose agency consorts with terrorists and is suspected of torturing and killing troublemakers, including journalists, but Pasha is too powerful to ignore.

The day after the marathon dinner, Clinton’s entourage took over the Serena Hotel for a festival of public diplomacy — a press conference with the foreign minister, followed by a town meeting with young Pakistanis and then a hardball round-table interview with a circle of top editors and anchors.

Clinton’s visit was generally portrayed, not least in the Pakistani press, as a familiar ritual of America talking tough to Pakistan. In the town meeting, a woman asked why America always played the role of bossy mother-in-law, and that theme delighted editorial cartoonists for days.

But the private message to the Pakistanis — and a more careful reading of Clinton’s public performance — reflected a serious effort to reboot a troubled relationship. Clinton took care to pay tribute to Pakistani losses in the war against terror in the past decade — in addition to the military, an estimated 30,000 civilian dead, the equivalent of a 9/11 every year. She ruled out sending American ground troops into Pakistani territory. She endorsed a Pakistani plea that U.S. forces in Afghanistan do a better job of cleaning up militant sanctuaries on their own side of the border.

Questioned by a prominent television anchor, she repudiated Mullen’s testimony, not only disavowing any evidence of ISI complicity in the attack on America’s embassy in Kabul but also soft-peddling the spy agency’s coziness with terrorists.

“Now, every intelligence agency has contacts with unsavory characters,” she said. “I don’t think you would get any denial from either the ISI or the C.I.A. that people in their respective organizations have contacts with members of groups that have different agendas than the governments’. But that doesn’t mean that they are being directed or being approved or otherwise given a seal of approval.”

That particular riff may have caused jaws to clench at the C.I.A. compound in Langley, Va. The truth is, according to half a dozen senior officials with access to the intelligence, the evidence of Pakistan’s affinity for terrorists is often circumstantial and ambiguous, a matter of intercepted conversations in coded language, and their dealings are thought to be more pragmatic than ideological, more a matter of tolerating than directing, but the relationship goes way beyond “contacts with unsavory characters.”

“They’re facilitating,” one official told me. “They provide information to the Haqqanis, they let them cross back and forth across the border, they let this L.E.T. guy (the leader of the dangerous Lashkar-e-Taiba faction of Kashmiri terrorists) be in prison and not be in prison at the same time.”

And yet the Pakistanis have been helpful — Abbottabad aside — against Al Qaeda, which is America’s first priority and which the Pakistanis recognize as a menace to everyone. They have shared intelligence, provided access to interrogations and coordinated operations. Before the fatal border mishap Thanksgiving weekend, one U.S. official told me, anti-terror cooperation between the C.I.A. and Pakistani intelligence had been “very much on the upswing.”

The most striking aspect of Clinton’s trip, however, was her enthusiastic embrace of what is now called “reconciliation” — which is the polite word for negotiating with the Taliban.

Pakistan has long argued that the way to keep Afghanistan from coming to grief is to cut a deal with at least some of the Taliban. That would also mean Afghanistan could get by with a smaller, cheaper army. The notion has been anathema to the Americans tasked with killing Taliban; a principled stand against negotiating with terrorists is also a political meme that acquires particular potency in election seasons, as viewers of the Republican debates can attest.

Almost unnoticed, though, reconciliation has moved to a central place in America’s strategy and has become the principal assignment for U.S. officials in the region. Clinton first signaled this in a speech to the Asia Society last February, when she refocused Afghanistan strategy on its original purpose, isolating the terrorists at war with America, meaning Al Qaeda.

The speech was buried beneath other news at the time, but in early October, Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, met Kayani in Abu Dhabi to stress to skeptical Pakistani leaders that she was serious. Clinton’s visit to Islamabad with her generals in tow was designed to put the full weight of the U.S. behind it.

Clinton publicly acknowledged that the ISI (in fact, it was General Pasha in person) had already brokered a preliminary meeting between a top American diplomat and a member of the Haqqani clan. Nothing much came of the meeting, news of which promptly leaked, but Clinton said America was willing to sit down with the Taliban. She said that what had once been preconditions for negotiations — renouncing violence, shunning Al Qaeda and accepting Afghanistan’s constitution, including freedoms for women — were now “goals.”

In diplomacy, no process is fully initiated until it has been named. A meeting of Pakistani political parties in Islamabad had adopted a rubric for peace talks with the Taliban, a slogan the Pakistanis repeated at every opportunity: “Give peace a chance.” If having this project boiled down to a John Lennon lyric diminished the gravitas of the occasion, Clinton didn’t let on.

Within the American policy conglomerate, not everyone is terribly upbeat about the prospect of reconciling with the Taliban. The Taliban have so far publicly rejected talks, and the turban-bomb killing of Rabbani was a serious reversal. There is still some suspicion — encouraged by Afghanistan and India — about Pakistan’s real agenda. One theory is that Pakistan secretly wants the Taliban restored to power in Afghanistan, believing the Pashtun Islamists would be more susceptible to Pakistani influence. A more cynical theory, which I heard quite a bit in New Delhi, is that the Pakistani Army actually wants chaos on its various borders to justify its large payroll. Most Americans I met who are immersed in this problem put little stock in either of those notions. The Pakistanis may not be the most trustworthy partners in Asia, but they aren’t idiots. They know, at least at the senior levels, that a resurgent Taliban means not just perpetual mayhem on the border but also an emboldening of indigenous jihadists whose aim is nothing less than a takeover of nuclear Pakistan. But agreeing on the principle of a “stable Afghanistan” is easier than defining it, or getting there.

After Clinton left Islamabad, a senior Pakistani intelligence official I wanted to meet arrived for breakfast with me and a colleague at Islamabad’s finest hotel. With a genial air of command, he ordered eggs Benedict for the table, declined my request to turn on a tape recorder, (“Just keep my name out of it,” he instructed later) and settled into an hour of polished spin.

“The Taliban learned its lesson in the madrassas and applied them ruthlessly,” he said, as the Hollandaise congealed. “Now the older ones have seen 10 years of war, and reconciliation is possible. Their outlook has been tempered by reason and contact with the modern world. They have relatives and friends in Kabul. They have money from the opium trade. They watch satellite TV. They are on the Internet.”

On the other hand, he continued, “if you kill off the midtier Taliban, the ones who are going to replace them — and there are many waiting in line, sadly — are younger, more aggressive and eager to prove themselves.”

So what would it take to bring the Taliban into a settlement? First, he said, stop killing them. Second, an end to foreign military presence, the one thing that always mobilizes the occupied in that part of the world. Third, an Afghan constitution framed to give more local autonomy, so that Pashtun regions could be run by Pashtuns.

On the face of it, as my breakfast companion surely knows, those sound like three nonstarters, and taken together they sound rather like surrender. Even Clinton is not calling for a break in hostilities, which the Americans see as the way to drive the Taliban to the bargaining table. As for foreign presence, both the Americans and the Afghans expect some long-term residual force to stay in Afghanistan, to backstop the Afghan Army and carry out drone attacks against Al Qaeda. And while it is not hard to imagine a decentralized Afghanistan — in which Islamic traditionalists hold sway in the rural areas but cede the urban areas, where modern notions like educating girls have already made considerable headway — that would be hard for Americans to swallow.

Clinton herself sounded pretty categorical on that last point when she told Pakistani interviewers: “I cannot in good faith participate in any process that I think would lead the women of Afghanistan back to the dark ages. I will not participate in that.”

To questions of how these seemingly insurmountable differences might be surmounted, Marc Grossman, who replaced Holbrooke as Clinton’s special representative, replies simply: “I don’t know whether these people are reconcilable or not. But the job we’ve been given is to find out.”

If you look at reconciliation as a route to peace, it requires a huge leap of faith. Surely the Taliban have marked our withdrawal date on their calendars. The idea that they are so deeply weary of war — – let alone watching YouTube and yearning to join the world they see on their laptops — feels like wishful thinking.

But if you look at reconciliation as a step in couples therapy — a shared project in managing a highly problematic, ultimately critical relationship — it makes more sense. It gives Pakistan something it craves: a seat at the table where the future of Afghanistan is plotted. It gets Pakistan and Afghanistan talking to each other. It offers a supporting role to other players in the region — notably Turkey, which has taken on a more active part as an Islamic peace broker. It could drain some of the acrimony and paranoia from the U.S.-Pakistan rhetoric.

It might not save Afghanistan, but it could be a helpful start to saving Pakistan.

What Clinton and company are seeking is a course of patient commitment that America, frankly, is not usually so good at. The relationship has given off some glimmers of hope — with U.S. encouragement, Pakistan and India have agreed to normalize trade relations; the ISI has given American interrogators access to Osama bin Laden’s wives — but the funerals of those Pakistani troops last month remind us that the country is still a graveyard of optimism.

At least the U.S. seems, for now, to be paying attention to the right problem.

“If you stand back,” said one American who is in the thick of the American strategy-making, “and say, by the year 2020, you’ve got two countries — 30 million people in this country, 200 million people with nuclear weapons in this country, American troops in neither. Which matters? It’s not Afghanistan.”

Bill Keller, a former executive editor of The Times, writes a column for the Op-Ed page.

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