What national interest does the United States have in Afghanistan? According to recent polls, more and more Americans doubt there is any--or at least enough to warrant escalation of the war. This flagging support partly reflects the inadequate job the Obama administration has done explaining its goals and strategy in Afghanistan to a skeptical public. But it also reflects the underappreciated fact that succeeding in Afghanistan and defeating America's enemies there, as important as that is in its own right, is even more so for its effects in shaping Pakistan's future. That is the bigger prize. Put it this way: If we achieve the best case outcome in Afghanistan--a relatively secure and democratic country free of al Qaeda and its allies--but fail to prevent the worst case outcome in Pakistan--a failed or Talibanized state with nuclear weapons--we've still lost.
Of course, the importance of Pakistan has not gone unnoticed. It has spawned the shorthand "Af-Pak"--the idea being that the principal U.S. mission is to defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and that requires stabilizing Pakistan. In truth, it's the other way around: It is Pakistan that is the swing state of South Asia, whose success could propel the region's development and whose failure could mire it in even worse instability. Shaping a positive future for Pakistan requires a new approach to the problem--and central to that is not abandoning the war in Afghanistan, but winning it.
Pakistan is not only a first-order foreign policy challenge for the United States--the nexus of terrorism, nuclear weapons, Islamic extremism, democracy promotion, and the geopolitical intersection of South and Central Asia and the Middle East--it's also the hardest to shape for the better. For all of the U.S. assistance to Pakistan and involvement in its internal affairs over the last decade, our influence remains limited and indirect. We don't have troops on the ground or the leverage to define outcomes directly. We don't have, for security reasons, much opportunity to move around the country, which is essential to conducting broad-based diplomacy and monitoring development programs. We don't have the trust of the Pakistani people, who view America--not unfairly, given recent history--as a fickle ally that only wants a transactional relationship and will abandon Pakistan as soon as it is convenient. And most important, we don't necessarily have common interests with the dominant actor inside Pakistan--the military--which supports U.S. enemies and is hostile to U.S. goals, especially in Afghanistan.
Indeed, the American vision for South Asia is at odds, even in conflict, with that of Pakistan's military. We envision an Afghanistan in which a legitimate, democratic state is capable of defeating the insurgency and fostering opportunity for its people; the Pakistani military views Afghanistan as a source of strategic depth against India and backs Taliban fighters to achieve it. The United States envisions a global strategic partnership with a rising India and an enduring peace between New Delhi and Islamabad; Pakistan's military views India as an existential threat to be countered asymmetrically with terrorists based in and backed by Pakistan. Finally, the United States seeks a comprehensive relationship with a civilian-led, democratic Pakistan to fight extremism and expand justice and prosperity for its people; elements of the Pakistani security establishment undermine exactly these goals by meddling in politics and sponsoring terrorism.
This is in some respects a zero-sum game. The realization of U.S. goals in South Asia would necessarily come at the expense of the Pakistani military's interests, as it currently defines them--for it would undercut the military's political legitimacy and privileged place in Pakistani society. The United States thus finds itself in the unenviable position of having major strategic interests in the future of Pakistan, while the internal actor with the most influence over that future is a military establishment with little incentive to cooperate fully with U.S. objectives. We can neither compel the Pakistani military to decisively change its behavior nor impose change directly ourselves.
How, then, do we further U.S. interests in Pakistan and South Asia?
For too long, the U.S. approach to Pakistan has swung sharply between two extreme assumptions: One, that the Pakistani military is really a U.S. ally with which we have common interests and to which we should defer to do the right thing; the other, that Pakistan's military leaders are hostile to U.S. goals, but that we can directly compel them to work against their own interests. The former overstates the enlightened self-interest of our Pakistani "partners"; the latter our ability to change their behavior.