By: David Ignatius
As America begins to pull back its troops from Afghanistan, one consequence gets little notice but is likely to have lasting impact: Pakistan is losing the best chance in its history to gain political control over all of its territory — including the warlike tribal areas along the frontier.
Pakistan has squandered the opportunity presented by having a large U.S.-led army just over the border in Afghanistan. Rather than work with the United States to stabilize a lawless sanctuary full of warlords and terrorists, the Pakistanis decided to play games with these outlaw groups. As a result, Pakistan and its neighbors will be less secure, probably for decades.
This is a catastrophic mistake for Pakistan. Instead of drawing the tribal areas into a nation that finally, for the first time since independence in 1947, could be integrated and unified, the Pakistani military decided to keep the ethnic pot boiling. It was a triumph of short-term thinking over long-term; of scheming over strategy.
America has made many blunders in Afghanistan, which will have their own consequences. But U.S. problems are modest compared with those of Pakistan, which nearly 65 years after independence still doesn’t have existential security as a nation. Like most big mistakes people make in life, this is one that Pakistan’s military leaders made with their eyes wide open.
The Group of Eight and NATO will hold summits in the coming days and announce the exit strategy from Afghanistan. Fortunately, President Obama is planning a gradual transition, with at least 20,000 U.S. troops remaining until 2024, if necessary, to train the Afghan army, hunt al-Qaeda and steady Afghans against the danger of civil war.
But what can Western leaders say when it comes to Pakistan? Basically, the Pakistanis blew it. By playing a hedging game, they missed a moment that’s not likely to return, when a big Western army of well over 100,000 soldiers was prepared to help them. Instead, Islamabad used the inevitability that America would be leaving eventually as an argument for creating a buffer zone that was inhabited by a murderous melange of the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other Pashtun warlords.