The Afghan War is Becoming the Pakistan War

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Even for the already troubled Pakistani "partnership" with the U.S., the past two weeks have seen a rapid and alarming disintegration in Pakistan's support of the U.S. and NATO presence in South Asia. Pakistan refuses to reopen a crucial border crossing into Afghanistan, one of the most important U.S./NATO supply routes. NATO convoys in Pakistan have suddenly come under heavy attack, with insurgents destroying dozens of supply trucks and oil tankers bound for troops in Afghanistan. Now the Wall Street Journal reports that Pakistan's powerful spy services, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is pushing Taliban leaders to keep fighting the U.S., resist any move towards peace, and, in the words of one Taliban commander, "kill everyone--policemen, soldiers, engineers, teachers, civilians--just to intimidate people." Pakistan has never been a real ally, but it's never been a real enemy either--until now.

On Wednesday, one week into Pakistan's blockade of the supply route into Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported that senior representatives from the Afghan government and Taliban are engaged in high-level peace talks to end the war. The direct negotiations, which have been a top U.S. goal since President Barack Obama took office, have the support of the White House. This morning, the Guardian reported that the Afghan and U.S. governments had made contact with the Haqqani network, a brutal and extremist militant group, to negotiate terms of peace. The Haqqani network is by far the most violent and least reconcilable of the major insurgent factions; if the U.S. is reaching out to Haqqani, and willing to make it public, then it is very serious about striking a deal for peace.

It's not hard to see why peace has become such a priority this week. The loss of Pakistan's support and the additional challenges posed by its antagonism make the Afghan war's already brutal challenges nearly insurmountable. If Pakistan's abrupt turn isn't the central motivating cause for the equally suddenly peace talks between Afghan and Taliban leaders, it should be. The longer this trend of Pakistani hostility continues, the more inseparable it will become from the Afghan war, and the more like that the U.S. will be sucked into invading the Pakistan border region where much of the Taliban is based. After all, Pakistani militants and ISI officers can choke off the entire U.S. effort in Afghanistan from their side of the border. If they continue, we'll have little choice but to counterattack and regain our supply routes. But that would set off an unthinkably catastrophic chain of events as Pakistanis rebel against the U.S. presence and possibly threaten to topple the tenuous civilian government. So the status quo, clearly, is not an option. If we can't bring Pakistan back into the fold, the only real alternative is to establish peace in Afghanistan as quickly as possible, preventing a broader Afghanistan-Pakistan war before it happens.

Pakistan has long played both sides of the Afghan conflict, overtly supporting the U.S.-led mission while it quietly sponsors the same insurgent groups we're at war with. That's never been a great mystery to the U.S., and few were surprised by recent revelations that Pakistani officials captured a senior Taliban leader not to help the U.S. but to sabotage that leaders' high-level peace talks with the Afghan government. The U.S. was willing to play along because it had no choice--the problems it faces in Afghanistan are vast enough without adding Pakistani corruption, militancy, and poverty, three intertwined problems that would make Afghanistan seem like a cake walk. But despite all our efforts, it is the Pakistani side of our partnership that appears to have collapsed. That the catalyst for these two awful weeks -- a U.S. cross-border raid that killed two Pakistani soldiers confused for militants -- was so banal and provoked such a wildly disproportionate response suggests that Pakistani tolerance for our presence was far more tenuous than we thought.

We always knew that Pakistan was the powder keg of South Asia. President Obama, speaking to Bob Woodward, made clear that a top goal of our mission in Afghanistan to prevent the Pakistani powder keg from blowing. Now that it looks like we might be too late, the U.S. appears to have decided that we'd better leave before we make the looming blast any worse.

Image: Another NATO convoy burns in Pakistan. By Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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