By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — After several years of a passionate but star-crossed courtship, the U.S. and Pakistan seem to be trying something different: A calmer, quieter relationship with lower expectations, greater distance and fewer feuds.
The two countries, in effect, have taken a step back from their intense partnership and moved toward a more pragmatic framework. If this were a marriage, you wouldn’t speak of a divorce, or even a separation, but of a cooling off — with each side happy to have a bit more breathing space.
The changed tone dates back to a Nov. 26, 2011, incident in which U.S. aircraft attacked a border post inside Pakistan, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani military was furious about this violation of its sovereignty — which came on top of the May 2 U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and the January killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor named Raymond Davis.
This time, the Pakistanis stayed mad. They cut off road access to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan and took other steps to signal their displeasure. Rather than chase after them, as it has often done in past flaps, the Obama administration stood back and let tempers cool.
Over the past several months, both sides seem to have become comfortable with the increased distance. A Pakistani parliamentary committee is completing an official review of the relationship.
What seems likely after the dust settles is what a U.S. official terms a “new normal,” in which the two nations still cooperate but with less intensity and visibility. The watchword for each side will be “stop driving yourself crazy,” jokes the official.
To complete this reset, the two nations will have to work out quiet compromises on three key issues: drone attacks on militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas; border access to Afghanistan; and reconciliation talks with the Taliban. On each, the trick will be finding a formula that balances Pakistani sovereignty and American security interests.
Reading the tea leaves, you can see the outlines of likely resolutions on all three:
— Drone attacks: Pakistan has already taken the decisive and symbolic step of evicting U.S. drones from their former center of operations at the Shamsi air base in southwestern Pakistan. The U.S. still mounts occasional Predator strikes from a base in Afghanistan, but there have been fewer in recent months — which means less irritation for Pakistan.
The slowdown in the drone war has gone largely unnoticed, but U.S. officials say there have been several changes: First, so many al-Qaida leaders have been killed that there are fewer high-level targets; second, the CIA is conducting fewer so-called “signature attacks” on lower-level fighters, with correspondingly less risk of civilian casualties; and third, there is a broader process of interagency review in Washington before strikes are conducted.
“It’s not that we took the CIA out of the driver’s seat, but there are more back-seat drivers now,” says one U.S. official.
— Reopening border crossings: The Pakistanis must have thought they held a trump card when they closed the so-called “ground lines of communication,” or G-LOCs, last November. But military logisticians have managed to keep supplying U.S. forces in Afghanistan through a “northern distribution network,” through Russia and its southern neighbors. The biggest drawback of this alternative route, other than its higher cost, is that it can’t handle the outflow of old equipment assembled during 10 years of war.
The likely resolution is that the Pakistanis will open the land routes but charge the U.S. more to use them. Exacting this toll will salve national pride while providing a lucrative new source of cash. Even under the old system, Pakistan was said to earn at least $1 million a day on the cross-border shipments.
— Reconciliation talks: For more than a year, the State Department has conducted quiet outreach to the Taliban leadership and agreed on a Taliban office in Qatar. Pakistan’s policy is hard to read, but Islamabad at least hasn’t played the spoiler. The Pakistanis clearly don’t want to be blamed for failure of negotiations, yet they don’t seem to be pushing actively for a deal, either. That’s the most delicate issue ahead, as the U.S. begins its slow move toward the exit ramp in Afghanistan.
Recent months have offered something that is rare indeed in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, which is a measure of calm. Neither side is showing much love, but there’s less anger, as well — which perhaps can keep this tempestuous couple together a good while longer.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.