U.S. President Barack Obama tried hard to avoid saying the "P" word -- Pakistan -- on his recent trip to India. He didn't mention Pakistan once during his brief remarks commemorating the 2008 Mumbai attacks, to the chagrin of Indian pundits. He treaded carefully on the subject during a question-and-answer forum with Indian students. And in his address to the Indian Parliament two days later, he got scant applause for challenging Indian legislators to support a Pakistan "that is stable and prosperous and democratic."
For all Indian commentators may feel that the United States is hopelessly biased toward their northwestern neighbor, they are missing a key development: As the endgame in Afghanistan approaches, relations between the United States and Pakistan have plunged to their worst depths since 2001. At the heart of this crisis are years of American neglect and drift -- and the Pakistani military's determination to outlast U.S. pressure aimed at ending its ties to the Afghan Taliban.
For nearly a decade, there has been no progress in U.S. aims to improve relations between India and Pakistan or U.S. attempts to persuade the Pakistani military to treat all terrorist groups as equally culpable. The military's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate still allows Afghan and Central Asian terrorist groups to operate from Pakistani soil and refuses to clamp down on the anti-Indian terrorist groups operating from Punjab province, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which launched the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The Pakistani Army admits that it has not gone after al Qaeda in Pakistan since 2006.
This malign neglect has allowed foreign militants to radicalize Pakistani Pashtun tribes, which have now linked up with militant groups in Punjab -- with the aim of overthrowing the Pakistani state. Yet Pakistani strategists still think they can crush the homegrown militants while maintaining the Afghan Taliban as a proxy force for a final settlement in Afghanistan.
If that sounds delusional, so does the U.S. failure to address this crisis honestly. For seven long years, President George W. Bush treated former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf as an ally and hero when a much more calibrated -- and realistic -- policy was needed. The United States also denied the Pakistani public's demands for democracy.
Bush's successor acutely recognizes the problem, but he has yet to move Pakistan in a healthier direction. Bob Woodward's book, Obama's Wars, demonstrates how early on, Obama saw a "cancer" in Pakistan that was leading to U.S. failure in Afghanistan. But his advisors were at odds with one other as to what to do about it. Two years into Obama's presidency, U.S. thinking on Pakistan is just as muddled as before, despite billions of dollars in new aid and a new determination to acknowledge the problems more openly.