|Yousuf Raza Gilani, right, the Pakistani prime minister, met Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, in Islamabad for strategic talks in January 2009 [AFP]
As in all primitive societies, the social structure in Washington is made up of many tribes. Among the tribe of foreign policy specialists, there are many clans and sub-groupings, who in turn are divided along geographic and substantive lines.
One finds among their ranks a motley assortment of retired government officials, greying military officers, scholars, think-tankers, NGOers, and others who nurse the memories of influence lost or who indulge their fantasies as political "wannabes" by acting as informal briefers and advisers to those with real, current power and influence.
It was at one such gathering in recent days, where a group of reputed experts on Pakistan were dispensing their wisdom to a senior government official, that I heard one of them say something quite profound: "Beware the word 'must'," he said.
Indeed, that is a word one hears constantly with reference to Pakistan: Pakistan "must" deal with the religion-based militancy permeating its society and "must" get over its decades-long obsession with the security threat from India.
It "must" eradicate the dangerous extremist groups in its midst, "must" move aggressively to rout militants from the tribal areas, and - perhaps most importantly of all - "must" break all ties with the Afghan insurgents, arrest their leaders, and unambiguously aid the Kabul government in its quest to defeat the Afghan Taliban.
I do not disagree with any of that. The problem is that discussions as to how Pakistan is to be induced to do what it "must" usually come down to sterile, two-dimensional formulations regarding the use of "pressure" and "leverage" to induce the Pakistanis to do what they would not otherwise do on their own.
The fact of the matter, however, is that no country will reliably do what it believes to be against its national interests.
That is as true of Pakistan as it is of any other country.
Friendly neighbour needed
With regard to the Afghan Taliban, and their insurgent allies in the so-called Haqqani group and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami (HIG), Pakistan's ambivalence - if that is not too mild a word - in the face of demands from Washington and Kabul derives from its perception of its strategic national interests.
Long concerned about its lack of "strategic depth" in confronting its huge nemesis to the east, Pakistan is understandably concerned about having a friendly regime to its west.
A Kabul government dominated, as it is, by Pakistan's old Northern-Alliance antagonists hardly qualifies, particularly given the eagerness with which it solicits and supports a strong Indian presence.
And lest we dismiss Pakistan's fears of military confrontation with India as some sort of irrational preoccupation, we need only remember the heated war-advocacy of some political elements in India as recently as November 2008, in the wake of the Mumbai attacks.
A strong government in New Delhi was able to resist such calls, but who is to say what might happen in the face of another perhaps worse terrorist outrage emanating from uncontrolled - and largely uncontrollable - militants based in Pakistan?
Given Pakistan's inability to stop such attacks even on its own soil, how could any Pakistani strategist or military planner dismiss the possibility of another Indo-Pakistani crisis like the one we witnessed in May 2002, when a previous attack on the Indian parliament brought the fully mobilised armies of the two powers to the very brink of war?
To say that Pakistan is largely at fault for this state of affairs is not to dispel the danger.
Doubts about Washington's willingness to stay the course in Afghanistan have been exacerbated by Barack Obama, the US president, himself, given his talk of a US draw-down beginning as early as summer 2011.
As Pakistan contemplates the possibility of a near-term US withdrawal, is it any wonder that they are unwilling to unilaterally and, in their minds, gratuitously sacrifice links with the only elements through whom they could hope to exert influence in a country of such strategic importance to them?
I have been heartened by indications that civilian officials, at least, in the Obama administration understand that the key to changing Pakistani policy on Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgency is to change the strategic environment in which such Pakistani decisions are made.
But while the concept might be right, actually changing the strategic environment - which most likely would require a combination of substantial changes in Afghan government policy towards India and very significant, sustained progress against the Taliban on the ground - will be very difficult.
Changing the strategic environment
No doubt, the urgency surrounding these questions was stepped up several notches this week during US discussions with Pakistan's chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who is visiting the US to participate in the Pakistan-US Strategic Dialogue.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more opportune time for such discussions in light of Pakistan's recent arrest of the Taliban's second most senior official, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the reported arrival in Kabul of a senior delegation of the HIG.
It is true that there are persistent rumours in Washington which indicate that the arrest of Baradar was something of a "happy accident", and that his detention, along with those of several other Afghan Taliban officials, do not yet indicate a strategic shift in Pakistani policy.
|Pakistani newspapers reported the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar [AFP]
Meanwhile, others suggest that Pakistan's arrest of Baradar was motivated by concerns that his rumoured involvement in political talks aimed at intra-Afghan reconciliation could leave the Pakistanis out of the loop.
Leaving all of this aside, now is clearly the time for the US and Pakistan to engage in serious talks about both the conditions and prospects for genuine political reconciliation in Afghanistan.
It seems to me that any sort of rational calculus would suggest that the legitimate interests of the US, the Afghan government, and Pakistan do not greatly diverge.
The current Taliban demand for US withdrawal as a precondition for talks is not only a practical non-starter; it would surely lead to renewed Afghan civil war, which cannot be in Pakistan’s interest.
A full break
On the other hand, anything less than the full break with al-Qaeda demanded by the US of Afghan insurgents would be likely only to condemn the region to re-live the past, recreating the conditions which led to the US intervention in Afghanistan in the first place.
Only a peaceful reconciliation which subjects the Taliban to some sort of democratic accountability can assure both continued unity and stability in the country, while ensuring the Pashtun influence on Afghan national policy which Pakistan sees as a safeguard of its own interests.
Make no mistake: I cannot see the current senior Taliban leadership accepting such a future, or such a role for itself.
However, the point of a realistic and constructive dialogue on these issues between the US and Pakistan would be to bring the two countries to the point of actual operational cooperation on the political front.
With eventual three-way agreement on the aims and principles of a political reconciliation process, Pakistan - rather than blindly tolerating a violent and recalcitrant Taliban leadership as its only viable fall-back option for the future - might instead be motivated to break with the irreconcilables in favour of more accommodating leaders.
Pakistan cannot be allowed to, dictate the future of Afghanistan. Without its active and willing co-operation, however, no lasting Afghan peace will ever be won.
To those engaged with Pakistani leaders this week, I would repeat: Beware the word "must".
Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of CIA's counter-terrorism centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
Source: Al Jazeera