In his landmark strategy speech Tuesday, President Obama stressed the importance of Pakistan to the success of the fight against terrorism and extremism in South Asia, but he didn't offer many details. One reason could be that there are no new concrete deliverables or changes in approach related to Pakistan to announce, and all of the ideas Obama has for advancing the relationship are waiting for Pakistani buy-in.
Conventional wisdom in Washington is that that Obama didn't want to trigger Pakistani sensitivities by talking too much about the U.S. military operations there. In reality, the substance of any new items of cooperation Obama is proposing to Pakistan are a long way from being finalized.
At West Point, Obama talked about the need to help Pakistan economically, build Pakistani civic institutions, and even work on some sort of rapprochement between Pakistan and India, all while pressing Pakistani leaders to do more to confront extremists in their midst.
"Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust," Obama said. "We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear."
But everything Obama said regarding Pakistan was already administration policy, so what's new as of Tuesday's announcement? Nothing yet.
"Beyond what the president said in his speech in terms of a roadmap for building U.S.-Pakistan relations, I do not believe there is anything else [planned or agreed at this point]," a State Department official involved in the issue said in an interview with The Cable.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that Obama sent Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari a letter, delivered by National Security Advisor James L. Jones, offering Pakistan a new strategic relationship with the U.S. in exchange for really tackling the extremist problem once and for all, in what some insiders are calling a "grand bargain."
But the State Department official downplayed the significance of the letter (which he had not personally seen), describing the administration's outreach to Pakistan as a "methodic, long run policy."
"We're not pivoting this relationship on any big transaction," the State Department official said. "I do not believe the new Pakistan strategy is based on suddenly introducing a big offer on the table to get the Pakistanis to carry out a specific act. It's trying to really build a long-term partnership that hasn't existed in a long time."
Then on Wednesday, the New York Times came out with a story about how Obama had secretly authorized a significant expansion of U.S. military and intelligence operations inside Pakistan, including expanded drone strikes targeting Afghan Taliban in addition to those insurgents attacking the Pakistani government.
But even the Times piece acknowledged, regarding Obama's Pakistan expansion, that "the Pakistanis, suspicious of Mr. Obama's intentions and his staying power, have not yet agreed."
Pakistani sources told The Cable that Zardari has not responded to Obama's letter and while the Zadari government was generally open to greater cooperation, negotiations could take months.
That didn't stop Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from testifying today to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "We will significantly expand support intended for Pakistan to develop the potential of their people." Of course, that's true based on the Kerry-Lugar Pakistan aid bill, which passed in September, and other initiatives, but that's not new.
Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, honed in on the gaps in the administration's announced strategy.
"It is not clear how any expanded military effort in Afghanistan addresses the problem of Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens across the border in Pakistan," he said. "If these safe havens persist, any strategy in Afghanistan will be substantially incomplete."
Underlying the dynamic is the open question of whether the Pakistani military, which has been getting attacked ruthlessly and repeatedly by extremists lately, has either the capacity or the will to expand its fight to militants who are only interested in creating havoc on the other side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
"[The Pakistani military] feels that they're stretched; they feel that they need to maintain [their ties to the Afghan Taliban] due to potential hostilities with India and uncertainty about the long-term American presence," said J Alexander Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace.
He said getting Pakistan's government to give up supporting the Afghan Taliban, "out of all of this stuff, is the hardest sell."
Shuja Nawaz, director for South Asia at the Atlantic Council, said that until the Pakistanis respond to Obama's overtures, there is no "grand bargain."
"Basically I think it's a reaffirmation of the commitment to Pakistan," he said, "which is probably all the president can do in letter form."