The latest border incident with Pakistan underscores some unfortunate truths in the Afghanistan War. Pakistan remains a safe haven for insurgents, which makes military victory almost impossible. Islamabad is also unwilling to allow coalition forces to root out the Taliban and foreign fighters because they may, one day, come in handy.
Pakistan argues that it opens fire on coalition forces to defend its national sovereignty, but Pakistani troops do not seem as interested in preventing the insurgent cross-border operations that make hot pursuit necessary. Nor will they coordinate action with NATO or Afghan troops to stop the fleeing insurgents at the border. When these incidents take place, the fire always seems to be directed at the coalition, and the result of this firepower mismatch is dead and wounded Pakistani troops. The ritual U.S. flag burnings and effigy hangings then follow, and the manufactured crisis runs its course.
Insurgent warfare is hit-and-run, and ensuring guerrillas have nowhere to retreat can dissuade them from attacking. If insurgents do mount an assault, hot pursuit is the way to guarantee that they don’t get away with it. The need to destroy guerrilla safe havens was one of the lessons of the Vietnam War. Officially neutral Cambodia provided the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong a convenient sanctuary for operations in South Vietnam. The Cambodian government was both too weak and unmotivated to take action to secure its frontier. The threat remained until the communists were run out by allied cross-border air and ground action in 1969-70. President Nixon’s political opponents condemned his “secret war” in Cambodia, but it was one of the most successful military actions of the Vietnam era.
Similar action against enemy sanctuaries in Pakistan would be much more complicated. The border is much longer, the terrain is more difficult, and many of the enemy forces are indigenous to the area. Also, while the Cambodian government’s response was limited to lodging official protests against the United States, Pakistan can take more direct action, pinching off U.S. supply lines from Karachi to Kabul and calling for the closure of the secret drone bases that Islamabad says do not exist.
The United States and Pakistan share few strategic interests, especially regarding Afghanistan. Islamabad supported the Taliban regime that gave sanctuary to al Qaeda in the 1990s and only cooperated in its destruction because the alternative would have been to court American fury in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. This cooperation with the coalition had its limits; the full story of Osama bin Laden’s escape to safety in Pakistan for almost a decade has yet to be told.
So long as Pakistan is a safe haven for extremists, the insurgency in Afghanistan will continue. So long as the insurgency continues, Afghan democracy is threatened. Pakistan’s strategic rationale for supporting the Taliban - to have a sympathetic, radically Islamist neighbor on its western flank - is an inescapable fact of geography. The Obama administration has let it be known, in subtle and obvious ways, that the United States is going to exit Afghanistan as soon as possible. Whatever side Pakistan is on, it isn’t ours.