The central plank of the American fight against al-Qaeda rests on brittle foundations
The U.S. embassy cables shed a stark halogen light on the darkest corners of America's troubled relationship with Pakistan. The reader risks being overwhelmed by detail: that Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Kayani raised the possibility last year of pushing the unpopular president Asif Ali Zardari from power; that the U.S. military toyed with the idea of bombing refugee camps and aid agencies on the border with Afghanistan; that the Saudis regarded themselves not as observers but as players in Pakistan; that hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military aid continue to be diverted into government coffers.
In the thousands of words devoted to the subject, one sentence written by the perceptive former ambassador Anne Patterson leaps off the screen. In it, she states that no amount of US money will change the view in Pakistan that India is the principal enemy. Pakistan cannot be bought. Although Washington had given the Pakistan army $9bn to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the tribal belt (and a month ago the White House announced an extra $2bn), there was, in Patterson's view, "no chance" that the Pakistan army could be persuaded to stop sponsoring four militant groups – including the one responsible for the Mumbai attack.
Patterson's is not a casual remark. It goes to the heart of US strategy: the idea that if you cannot invade the country or fight on its territory, you can at least buy it off. Patterson holes this policy below the waterline, and she is right to do so. She concluded, before she left, that the only way to end Pakistan's covert support for the Taliban would be to change the Pakistan government's own perception of its security needs. Resolving the 63-year-old Kashmir conflict and reassessing Indian involvement in Afghanistan and the U.S.'s own policies towards India would all go some way to ending the perception that India is the mortal foe. New Delhi has resisted any attempt to link Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Other home truths are revealed: that America and Pakistan are locked in a transactional relationship based on mutual distrust. Neither likes the other, but neither can afford to abandon the other either. The generals are so confident that the money from Washington will keep flowing that they are capable of delaying visas for US diplomats, blocking import permits for armoured vehicles, sabotaging a security contract and detaining embassy vehicles. It is not the only dysfunctional relationship. Gen Kayani "disliked" Zardari but "distrusted" the main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif even more. And it is on these brittle foundations that the central plank of the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda rests. It cannot have a good outcome.