SAFE havens are back. For a while it seemed as if the Pakistan-US relationship was being defined by decidedly small-bore issues: apologies, transit fees and the release of monies. However, as the relationship between the nominal allies has gone from awkward to virtually dysfunctional, US officials have turned once again to that perennial thorn in the American side — safe havens along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan which allow the Afghan Taliban to regroup, avoid American fire and plan attacks inside Afghanistan. The North Waziristan Agency in particular is the source of much anger on the American side, there seemingly being a consensus that the Haqqani network is behind some of the most damaging attacks in Afghanistan. There appears, then, more than meets the eye in the latest stand-off between Pakistan and the US: are the interminable negotiations over the normalisation of ties really about the mechanics of an apology, transit fees and the like or is there a behind-the-scenes showdown over to what extent Pakistan should turn on the Afghan Taliban/ Haqqani network even as the international war effort in Afghanistan heads to a close?

Two points need to be made. One, American frustration with Pakistan on the issue of safe havens is more likely to be counterproductive than not. The more US officials go public with their anger and concerns, the more the security establishment here may have to dig in its heels. With anti-Americanism in the public and the army rank and file at a historic high, military action inside Pakistan at the behest of the US will be difficult to sell. The outgoing US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter had the right approach: don’t expect miracles; keep expectations and demands firmly in check; and work with Pakistan to find the spaces in which incremental progress can be made. Unfortunately, the Pakistan hawks in American policy circles appear to be winning the argument at the moment — though they too are unlikely to win the argument with Pakistan through their approach.

Two, Pakistan needs to take a hard look at North Waziristan Agency for its own sake. Left to their own devices — some in return for not attacking Pakistan proper; others because the state doesn’t have the capacity or will to take them on — the dozens of militant groups and offshoots gathered in North Waziristan are a long-term threat to Pakistan. A policy of zero tolerance towards militancy — something yet to become evident — is the only way to Pakistan’s long-term stabilisation and security. Moreover, tackling the North Waziristan threat would diminish the Americans’ case for the much-maligned drone strikes.

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