Pakistan's Moment to Grab

Pakistan's Moment to Grab

By David Ignatius - December 17, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The United States and Pakistan, always prone to bickering, need a big idea to unite and sustain them through the testing battle in Afghanistan. So here's a strategic concept I've been trying out with officials in both countries: By partnering with America, Pakistan can gain sovereignty over all its tribal territory for the first time in its history -- and thereby finally complete the task of building its own nation.

This is a classic example of what strategists call a "positive sum" game, where Washington and Islamabad could gain benefits by working together that they would not achieve alone. But instead of cooperating, they have been trading resentful messages over the past month in which the U.S. requested Pakistan's help in closing Taliban safe havens and the Pakistanis responded, in effect, "Don't tell us what to do."

Here's the cold, hard truth: America's success in Afghanistan depends on Pakistan's gaining sovereignty over the tribal belt. If the insurgents can continue to maintain their safe havens in North Waziristan and other tribal areas, then President Obama's surge of troops in Afghanistan will fail. It's that simple.

The Obama administration wants the Pakistanis to take decisive action. That's why national security adviser Jim Jones visited here last month. And it's why Centcom Commander Gen. David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen visited this week. But they've encountered Pakistani skepticism and suspicion. "The narrative is about mistrust and betrayal," says a U.S. embassy official here.

The Americans should be knocking on an open door. For a second cold, hard fact is that Pakistan will not be a confident and fully successful modern state until it has extended its writ to the lawless tribal regions. Lacking that control, the Pakistanis fear that their national fabric could rip along its seams.

America's war in Afghanistan paradoxically provides Pakistan with a golden moment to achieve what it has lacked since independence in 1947, which is political and military control over the Pashtun tribal belt. Even the mighty British Raj ducked this challenge, preferring a loose system of tribal governance that made the border areas a haven for bandits. That ungoverned status is no longer tolerable in an age of potential nuclear terrorism.

By bringing a mighty army into Afghanistan, the United States is offering Pakistan a rare opportunity. If the two nations can coordinate their military forces across this border every hour and every day, a war that sometimes looks hopeless from Washington and Islamabad will prove much more manageable.

This war against the Pashtun insurgency can be a decisive final chapter in the making of the modern Pakistani and Afghan states. For a comparison, think of the way the Mexican-American War helped make the United States a continental nation, or the European wars of the 19th century helped unify both Germany and Italy. The alternative, of a de facto "Pashtunistan" that straddles the two countries, is a recipe for permanent discord.

This vision of a sovereign Pakistan that controls all its territory has two important corollaries: first, a future common market between Pakistan and Afghanistan that can power economic development in both countries; and second, the relaxation of tensions between India and a Pakistan that no longer worries about dismemberment and discord.

It has been clear over the past several months that the publics in America and Pakistan are skeptical about war, and are looking for some animating vision to justify the sacrifices. What's needed now, I think, is a process such as the strategic conversations that took place in 1944, as the allies were escalating their campaign against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan:

Wise American and European statesmen began planning the consequences of the peace. They imagined the network of institutions that would secure the postwar world -- the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund. The United States and Pakistan need to show that same vision and maturity now.

The Af-Pak wars may seem like a mad gamble, but if given the right strategic framework, they represent a common effort to create a stable structure for Central and South Asia in the 21st century. The payoff is immense, especially for Pakistan. To understand why this conflict makes sense, people need to see the big idea that lies behind it -- the stabilization of a lawless tribal region that has been causing trouble for 150 years.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius

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