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The End Of AfPak (For The Moment)

Relationship Status: Temporarily Bilateral
Relationship Status: Temporarily Bilateral
It was originally billed as an exciting love triangle (if not quite a menage a trois) that would raise us above plodding everyday concerns. But reality has reared its ugly head again, and now suddenly we're back at two dysfunctional couples with all the old marital issues. We're only two months into the year, but already the "AfPak" strategy is starting to look, like, so 2010.

The Obama administration's decision to mesh its strategies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan was one of its signature foreign policy initiatives. Where the Bush team had all too often treated the two countries in isolation, it was said, the new White House would henceforth integrate its political and military dialogues with Islamabad and Kabul --– up to and including trilateral meetings among the key officials. One of those confabs was supposed to be taking place right now here in Washington. A press release mailed out by the Afghan Embassy a few weeks ago breezily proclaimed:

The Trilateral Meeting, which underscores the three Government’s [sic] strong support for the stability and development in Afghanistan and Pakistan, provides an opportunity for Afghanistan and Pakistan to affirm their mutual commitment to an enhanced bilateral dialogue on security, economic and social issues

All that was before a CIA security contractor named Raymond Davis got himself hauled into jail by the Pakistani authorities after gunning down two locals on the streets of Lahore. The U.S. insists that Davis enjoys diplomatic immunity and wants him released, while the Pakistani government, confronted by a public that is baying for Davis's head, finds itself compelled to demur. The dispute has escalated into a huge diplomatic row that has now prompted the cancellation -- oops, sorry, the postponement -- of the planned Washington trilateral meeting.

Of course, the bureaucracy will always find a way (especially when it’s a matter of circumventing the political obstacles of the moment), and so it is in this case. The Afghan defense and interior ministers made it to D.C. this week anyway for scheduled "bilateral talks" at the Pentagon. And the Americans and the Pakistanis certainly haven't stopped talking completely, either. Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is on a tour of the Middle East, and now we hear that he and a group of other top U.S. military officials have used the occasion to conduct not-so-secret secret consultations with their Pakistani counterparts at a posh resort in Oman. "Stars and Stripes" supplies this useful gloss:
Sunburned European tourists splashed about just yards away from a closely guarded conference room in which Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. David Petraeus, commander of International Security Assistance Force; Adm. Eric Olson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command; and Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, met with Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, and Maj. Gen. Javed Iqbal, director general of military operations.

So we're still talking -- just not as a trio. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, given the chaos in Afghanistan and the equally worrying signs of deterioration in its next-door neighbor to the east. Perhaps one key quote from Mullen's strikingly downbeat testimony about Pakistan at a Senate hearing last week will suffice:

But on the political side, the economic side, at least from my perspective, it looks worse than it has in a long time. So I share your concern. The vector is going in the wrong direction overall for the country. We are very unpopular there.... So I do think we have to continue to work at it, but I am concerned as I have ever been.

Scary. For all three of us, one might add.