Will the United States and Pakistan ever trust each other enough to cooperate fully in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida?
This was the question haunting last week's high-level strategic dialogue between top officials of the two countries, which aimed to put their prickly relationship on a new, deeper footing. Although Pakistan's delegation was headed by its foreign minister, the urbane Shah Mahmood Qureshi, it also included its stern-faced, powerful military commander, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.
Washington promised to speed up delivery of economic aid and military equipment, along with compensation for Pakistan's increased efforts at battling militants on the Afghan border. "This is a new day," declared Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who hopes to shrink the yawning trust deficit between the two countries.
But are there grounds to believe that, when it comes to fighting militants, the two countries' interests can converge?
Skeptics abound. Washington has been frustrated in the past by Pakistan's focus on its archenemy India, and its unwillingness to root out Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida from havens along the Afghan border. Pakistan helped train the (anti-Indian) Afghan Taliban in the 1990s, and views them as a useful card should the United States quit Afghanistan soon.
Yet, times are changing. In 2009, Pakistan began seriously fighting its own militants along the border. There is intense U.S.-Pakistani intelligence cooperation on drone attacks -- against their Taliban enemies and ours. And in a secret joint raid, Pakistani and U.S. intelligence forces recently captured the Taliban's top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Pakistan then arrested several other senior Afghan Taliban.
Doubters may question the motives for these arrests. But I agree with Bruce Riedel, the director of President Obama's 2009 review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, who says: "While there is every reason to be skeptical, one shouldn't let skepticism hide the fact that there is something going on."
Riedel said he thinks the Pakistani military realized they could no longer tolerate their own Taliban, who had broken deals and were attacking army and intelligence bases. Once the Pakistanis began a war against their own militants, Riedel said, "they found that the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban were joined at the hip, and hard to separate." So their attitude toward the Afghan Taliban changed, too.
That doesn't mean the United States and Pakistan now operate from from the same playbook. Some U.S. officials doubt Pakistan will move against other Afghan Taliban groups in North Waziristan. The Pakistanis say they have enough on their plate for now and want to attack in sequence.
Some speculate the recent arrests were part of an effort by Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency to ensure it controls any talks between Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government of President Hamid Karzai; there were rumors one of his brothers had been meeting with Baradar. Pakistan should definitely have a seat at the bargaining table, but the ISI can't control all.
The Pakistanis, for their part, have genuine concerns about our intentions, and how they will affect Pakistani interests. Having lost more than 2,200 men in the fight against militancy, they feel they have earned a sizable reward (although their expectations may be overinflated). They also want to know whether the Obama administration is focused on tactics or on strategy for the long term.
With all the buzz about a U.S. pullout from Afghanistan starting in 2011, Pakistanis worry we're going to exit hastily and leave them with an unstable border. "Part of our price," says one Pakistani official, "is that you don't get us into this fight and (then) you leave us holding the bag."