Whatever else oozed out of Washington's recent Afghanistan generals flap, recognition that Pakistan is key to winning America's longest war may be the most important. Both new Afghanistan supremo Gen. David H. Petraeus and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen finally have gotten around to saying so publicly.
The recognition has been late in coming.
Obviously, as in all wars, there will be a final political settlement. But in most conflicts, that would come only when one side demonstrates overwhelming power. After a decade, the U.S. may well be at the tipping point. That is what is behind Afghan President Hamid Karzai's talk of accommodation and the frenetic shuttle diplomacy by Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
But victory in Afghanistan — if only modestly denying future sanctuary for international terrorists who produced the Sept. 11 attacks — also will demand a truce among cantankerous neighbors. Willful ignorance of the incestuous nature of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indian relations has dominated Washington strategies. "We will treat India and Pakistan's interests completely separately," went the Bush administration's mantra.
At this very moment, those relations are facing a new, even more convoluted crisis.
Pakistan is clumsily shifting from presidential to parliamentary government. The changeover loosens ethnic rivalries and empowers more petty politicians. Meanwhile, figurehead President Asif Ali Zardari fends off charges of massive personal corruption that virtually everyone in the country believes. To compound the disorder, an activist judiciary is trying to establish its own paramount place in the power structure. The only virile national institution, the military, runs a parallel government after Washington helped ditch Pervez Musharraf as president. Mr. Musharraf, a former general himself, is perhaps poised for comeback if his old alter ego, Gen. Kayani, leaves the scene with his scheduled October retirement.
Overall, Pakistan, despite sharp internal divisions, is unanimous in seeing a friendly Afghanistan as quintessential to its precarious survival. Vast and intricate geographic, historical, ethnic and religious ties bind the two countries. But suffice it to say that current enemies for both Washington and Islamabad — and New Delhi — are byproducts of American assistance through Pakistan in the successful 1980s war against the Soviet invading forces. Some of those "holy warriors" want to turn back the clock to a pre-modern regime such as the one in Afghanistan that openly housed Osama bin Laden. It is no wonder, then, that in Gen. Kayani's former spy command, the directorate of Pakistan's ISI intelligence service, old ties to terrorists abound — for better and for worse.
To put the argument in its crudest form, having fought 3½ wars with India since independence after World War II, Pakistan's largely secular political class constantly looks over its shoulder at New Delhi as it tries to fend off rising Islamic extremism at home. New Pakistani-Indian bilateral discussions toward a settlement have regained momentum. But they come when the disputed territory of Kashmir, keystone to their conflict, is seething with anti-Indian violence.
True, Pakistan in the past has fed that conflict. But the fact that more than a half-million Indian security forces cannot pacify an area the size of Minnesota suggests another political compromise is necessary. Uncharacteristically, India's military chief just said so publicly.
But India treads warily, with its own Muslim minority larger and intimately related to Pakistan's 156 million. Furthermore, India's dozen so-called Maoist insurgencies, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh designated the country's biggest security threat, are increasingly attacking economic targets.
None of this has slowed New Delhi's Afghanistan intrigues. India, too, claims the country is vital to its security. From New Delhi's viewpoint, Afghan instability partially checkmates Pakistan and its all-important ally China. This alone puts Afghanistan on the list of Indian strategic priorities.
New Delhi's $1.2 billion in aid to Kabul is deftly leveraged. And an appreciative Mr. Karzai's flirtation with India infuriates the Pakistanis. Islamabad recalls New Delhi's longtime efforts with its then-ally, the Soviet Union, to exploit the same borderland tribal groups that now provide sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban militants. In another source of tension, Mr. Karzai refuses to accept the 19th-century British-drawn border with Pakistan that slashes through these tribal areas, his own ancestral home.
When President Obama made a feint at this fundamental problem by naming boisterous Richard C. Holbrooke super-ambassador to all three countries, New Delhi protested loudly. Like the Bush administration before it, Mr. Obama hoped to use massive aid to Pakistan — $10 billion over five years — as leverage, along with Washington's blossoming strategic ties with India. But Mr. Holbrooke has been reduced to barking around the edges of the bloated U.S. ambassadorial network that Gen. Petraeus is likely to find his greatest headache. It was that network that was injudiciously targeted by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's staff in the infamous Rolling Stone article.
India rejects international arbitration in Kashmir despite the long, violent stalemate. Hanging on is now seen by Indian officials as a strategic and military necessity. Retaining the Himalayan region's 10 million mostly Muslims is "proof" of India's claim to "secularism" — in a country where recent history includes too many Hindu-led depredations against Muslims.
Some in Washington see Gen. Petraeus as harboring political ambitions. If so, now here is a political problem to take on that would make any Potomac River circus look like child's play.
• Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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