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Is Pakistan trying to push the U.S. out of Afghanistan?

Is Pakistan trying to push the U.S. out of Afghanistan?

As the United States debates the future of its role in Afghanistan, anti-U.S. rhetoric in both Pakistan and Afghanistan is on the rise. Now, a small cadre of officials in Washington and Islamabad are doing their best to get the embattled U.S.-Pakistan relationship back on track.

The most recent public evidence of this phenomenon came Wednesday, when the Wall Street Journal reported that Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani "bluntly told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the Americans had failed them both," in a recent meeting and that Karzai "should forget about allowing a long-term U.S. military presence in his country."

The article explained that the information on the meeting came from pro-U.S. elements in Karzai’s camp, who apparently wanted to scare the Obama administration into speeding up negotiations on a long-term strategic partnership agreement with Karzai. That agreement could provide for U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014, when President Barack Obama has said the transition to Afghan security will be complete.

Senior U.S. and Pakistani officials, in interviews with The Cable, said they could not confirm the exact quotes attributed to Gilani but doubted that he would criticize the United States in such stark terms to Karzai. However, officials on both sides of the relationship said that Gilani, along with large parts of the Pakistani government bureaucracy, were now preparing for an endgame in Afghanistan that doesn’t include a U.S. military role and doesn’t accord with U.S. expectations for the region’s future.

"Major international military involvement in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, so everybody is adapting to that," a senior U.S. official said. The official noted that this included the Pakistanis, who are forging a bilateral relationship with Karzai that is independent of the United States. "Everyone is trying to position themselves as to what they think is in their best interests. But at the end of the day, the overlapping interest is a stable Afghanistan."

Referring to the Wall Street Journal story about the Karzai-Gilani meeting, the U.S. official said, "The Afghans may be signaling that bad things can happen if they don’t get what they want in the strategic partnership agreement."

A senior Pakistani official told The Cable that the alleged statements by Gilani were unlikely, but that there is a basic disagreement between the U.S. and Pakistani governments about the way forward in Afghanistan.

"American policy seems to be they want to continue to fight while trying to talk [with the Taliban]," the Pakistani official said. "The Pakistani preference is for the negotiations to take priority."

It’s true that many other countries — including China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — are also discussing the endgame in Afghanistan with the Pakistani government, but Pakistan does not believe that the crucial role played by the United States can be replaced by another power.

"As long as the Americans play straight with Pakistan and take into account Pakistani concerns, Pakistan would rather work with the U.S.," the senior Pakistani official said.

Of course, that opinion is not universally shared inside the Pakistani government. Elements of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s primary spy agency, and the Pakistani military are still resisting cooperation with the United States and maintaining ties to groups fighting against U.S. forces.

Weeks of discord related to the killing of two men who were allegedly ISI agents by CIA contractor Raymond Davis brought cooperation to a halt, both on intelligence and diplomatic matters. A major trilateral Afghanistan-Pakistan-U.S. meeting was cancelled and the ISI-CIA relationship was temporarily frozen.

The U.S. and Pakistani governments are now starting to set relations back on course. The new Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman will travel to Pakistan in early May for a trilateral meeting with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts. If all goes well, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could travel to Islamabad in late May, although nothing is set in stone.

Inside the Pakistani government, three key officials who deal with the United States recently had their tours extended until 2013: Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani. All three are considered to be constructive interlocutors with the United States and are seen as key to mending U.S.-Pakistan relations.

However, there are fundamental differences between the United States and Pakistan that ensure the relationship between the two countries will never be entirely smooth sailing.  The Pakistani official said that some level of discord is to be expected as Pakistan looks out for its own interests in a post-war Afghanistan.

"Pakistan has never been able to get what it wants in Afghanistan, but it will never give up trying," the official said.

There’s also the issue of the United States’ alliance with India, Pakistan’s arch-rival. Though the Obama administration feels it has bent over backwards to give Pakistan aid and high-level attention, the government in Islamabad still feels that it plays second fiddle to India in eyes of the Washington.

In the end, the U.S. relationship with Pakistan may never be as important as Washington’s ties with New Delhi, the senior Pakistani official said, but the administration does not have to choose between the two.

As the official put it: "You don’t have to fuck Pakistan in order to make love to India."