The Pakistan Narrative: Reality or Best Screenplay?

The question to ask with regards to the covert American “training” mission to the Pakistani military on the Aghan border is, Why leak it to the NY Times now?

The answer plays a central, if so far unexamined, role in Gen. David Petraeus’ COIN doctrine: narrative.

As the heat lowers — real or perceived — in Iraq, American troops aren’t the only thing being diverted to Afghanistan. Outside of a rearguard action planning Iraqi withdrawal routes, the D.C. policy-making brain trust is migrating to the Afghanistan problem as well. The consensus is that the problem in Afghanistan is Pakistan, and that the problem in Pakistan is that we have no liberty of action — outside of occasional drone missile strikes — to pursue Taliban safe havens there.

Combined with the resulting steady stream of dismal news in Afghanistan, that makes for bad COIN narrative. The recent announcement of troop increases was meant to respond to the impact that has had on domestic opinion (in addition to being a signal to European allies that the Obama administration is serious about its requests for more support).

The leak of the more elaborate U.S.-Pak cooperation (including Pakistan’s involvement in the controversial drone strikes) now addresses the impact of the Pakistan problem on domestic opinion.

Toss in Steve Coll’s New Yorker account (WaPo summary here) of how India and Pakistan were close to a peace deal on Kashmir, and the narrative now reads: Afghanistan is not in utter chaos, U.S.-Pak cooperation on the border is bearing fruit, and an Indo-Pak peace deal has been set back by Mumbai but isn’t hopeless. That makes for a decidedly more upbeat storyline.

The narrative dissonance remains the ways in which all of these elements play differently to the Pakistani domestic audience than they do to American viewers. Drone strikes in the FATA and Pakistani cooperation with American forces might draw approval Stateside, but they inflame Pakistan’s burgeoning domestic anti-Americanism.

Meanwhile, the converse is true of the Pakistani government’s tendency to negotiate peace deals withmilitants, and its continued emphasis on the Indian border as itsprimary security threat. American producers are trying to cut those plotlines from the script, but they play well to Pakistani audiences.

The trick will be how to resolve those tensions to fashion a narrative that generates the political will necessary for effective action in both target audiences.

It’s interesting to note that before her assassination, Bhenazir Bhutto had suggested more cooperation with American forces in FATA. It seems that her widower, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, is pursuing that agenda. Gen. Parvez Kayani, the American-trained chief of staff of the Pakistani military who took over from Pervez Musharraf, was widely expected to be more open to it as well. But his concerns over domestic support for the military have so far stood in the way. Pakistan is also bargaining for dual-use hardware (F-16s and tactial airlift) and, as importantly, accessories (satellite-guided missiles) that would be effective both in the FATA and in the event of hostilities with India.