Take a look at this Washington Post piece about a measure of optimism emerging from the Obama administration about Pakistan. Discount the happy talk — apparently al-Qaeda is taking some hits in Pakistan, and that would be nice to believe, but the claim is asserted and not demonstrated — and focus on the balance sheet for U.S. strategy. According to the piece, the cardinal consideration from Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, is building a durable relationship with the Pakistani government. And that’s plausible enough: such an attitude has informed all of the Obama administration’s measures on Pakistan, from the new multibillion dollar aid packages to the counterinsurgency-support nest egg to the text-message fundraising for Swat Valley refugees. The result is a reluctance to take actions that the Pakistani government can’t tolerate, such as approving U.S. ground raids:

Although U.S. Special Operations teams are on continuous alert on the Afghan side of the border, the Obama administration has not authorized any ground operations in Pakistan, and the military is divided over their advisability. "We ask all the time," said a military official who favors such raids. "They say, ‘Now is not a good time.’ "

And yet the drone strikes continue at the pace set by the Bush administration, despite the urging of counterinsurgency experts close to Petraeus. Interviewed on NPR last week, Petraeus conceded their points but declined to comment on the drones, which are operated by the CIA.

Now, it’s apparently the case that the Pakistani government has a healthy tolerance for the drones, despite what it feels compelled to say in public. But the CIA’s prerogatives in Pakistan aren’t to build a long-term relationship with the Pakistanis. They’re to kill members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. And the Post reports that the CIA has authority from the Obama administration to fire missiles from the drones without prior White House approval. So it’s hardly the case that the CIA is acting in Pakistan outside the boundaries of administration policy. But how much coordination does Petraeus really have with the CIA? And how much incentive does the agency really have to think of a broader strategic picture than the job it’s tasked with executing? And if there’s an element of incoherence in administration strategy, how can it be reconciled before the tensions damage the U.S.-Pakistani relationship?

Crossposted to The Streak.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman