Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leading a very high-level delegation to Pakistan later this week to try one more time to set U.S.-Pakistan relations back on track, before they go off the rails altogether.
The State Department won't confirm that Clinton is visiting Pakistan as part of her tour this week, which we're told will include stops in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Oman. But two senior officials have confirmed to The Cable that when Clinton arrives in Pakistan (we'll keep dates secret for security reasons), she'll be joined by CIA Director David Petraeus, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, and several other administration officials.
Pakistani media already reported that the very senior U.S. delegation will have meetings with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, and Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The trip was set up by the special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Marc Grossman, who was in Islamabad last week.
"It's Hillary's initiative," one senior official told The Cable. "This is what Hillary convinced the administration to do because although the relationship has been at its lowest in some years, the U.S. side doesn't want to pronounce their effort to improve the U.S.-Pakistan relationship dead."
The Obama team had been playing a game of "good cop, bad cop" with the Pakistanis as a means of ratcheting up pressure, following the uptick of attacks on Americans traced back to militant groups residing in Pakistan. U.S. officials have stated publicly that these groups are working with either the implicit or the explicit sanctioning of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
"Hillary is trying to position herself in the middle and say to Pakistan that there are those of us who want to engage and others who want to fold. How long do you want to play this game of poker?" the official said.
The mixture of threats and outreach coming from different parts of the Obama administration had the side effect of confusing their Pakistani interlocutors, according to experts. Now the administration wants to put forth one clear message, delivered by top diplomats and top military and intelligence officials all in the same room.
"The problem is still that different parts of the U.S. government, as far as Pakistan is concerned, are giving different messages," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. "There needs to be a concise, unified message from Washington as to what the intentions are. In terms of high-level contact, we really haven't had that for a long while, so it's very critical."
The Obama administration is also trying to reprise the basic idea of the now defunct U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, which was meant to improve coordination of policy within both governments and also move the relationship from a "transactional" to a "strategic" one.
Some top officials no longer believe that a "strategic" relationship with Pakistan is possible, and around Washington, there is a growing realization that U.S. and Pakistani long-term strategic interests may not align, said Bruce Riedel, the Brookings Institution scholar who led Obama's first review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy in 2009.
"We must recognize that the two countries' strategic interests are in conflict, not harmony, and will remain that way as long as Pakistan's army controls Pakistan's strategic policies," Riedel wrote in an Oct. 15 New York Times op-ed. "We must contain the Pakistani Army's ambitions until real civilian rule returns and Pakistanis set a new direction for their foreign policy."
In an interview Monday, Riedel told The Cable that the administration should abandon its efforts to seek help from the Pakistanis in bringing the Haqqani network and other militant groups to the table for peace negotiations, especially after the killing of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani by the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership.
"Grossman's primary mission of trying to find political reconciliation with the Taliban has been overtaken by events," Riedel said. "When one party murders the leader on the other side, we pretty much have an answer as to whether or not there's going to be a political reconciliation process."
The administration plans to warn the Pakistani government about the turning tide of public opinion in Washington against Pakistan and congressional threats to punish Pakistan. But if the Pakistanis don't change their approach to these groups, it's unclear what sticks the administration could really use against Pakistan to compel better behavior.
Overall, the Obama administration wants Pakistan to know it can't accept Americans being killed because of what's happening inside Pakistan. But there aren't expected to be any grand, new initiatives or new proposals to lift bilateral relations from what all sides agree is the lowest point in years.
"The U.S.-Pakistani relationship has been deteriorating all year, from the Raymond Davis case to the Osama bin Laden raid to the attack on the American Embassy in Kabul," said Riedel. "And there's really no evidence the bottom is in sight; it may be getting worse and worse."