When US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta went through Afghanistan in the past week, his comments on Pakistan underlined what is, indeed, an emerging US dilemma. Speaking to reporters on Afghan soil, Panetta stated that the US was reaching the limits of its patience with Pakistan.

“It is difficult to achieve peace in Afghanistan as long as there is a safe haven for terrorists in Pakistan,” said Panetta, repeating an oft-claimed US line, urging Islamabad to target locations in the country’s tribal areas along the Afghan border. The use of Pakistan’s territory by militants may be an element that drives the conflict in Afghanistan. But there are other key aspects.  For instance, a decade after a US-led campaign targeted Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime in Kabul, the Central Asian country remains in the grip of a tough battle.

The insurgency that is ongoing in Afghanistan has certainly not been curbed by the US-led alliance, which invaded the country after 9/11. A decade later, the fate of Afghanistan is unlikely to be different from the conflict that surrounds it today just by virtue of Pakistan taking a different stance.

But by continuing to antagonise Pakistan, the US and its allies are only making it more difficult to build a medium to long-term alliance with the only country that can become a credible partner to stabilise Afghanistan.

Countries cannot change geographies. Washington’s dilemma remains that of being stuck with the reality of Pakistan’s 2,400 kilometre border with Afghanistan. It is roughly the same length as Afghanistan’s border with the rest of its neighbours.

The other part of Washington’s dilemma, however, is the state of relations between the US and Pakistan for the past few months. Since November last year, the two countries have been locked in an unprecedented rift after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a Nato air attack from Afghanistan that targeted two of Pakistan’s army posts along the Afghan border.

Clearly, Panetta’s latest statement will only further provoke what is an already vitiated atmosphere in Pakistan.

In the meantime, Pakistan has begun reaching out to alternative key players in the hope of further strengthening some of its most vital alliances. On the one hand, Pakistan has reaffirmed its old and durable alliance with China when the Chinese Foreign Minister visited the country. On the other hand, the country has sought to open up new channels in its relations with Russia with the recent visit of a top Russian diplomat. Soon, Pakistan will likely see Russian President Vladimir Putin pay a state visit, marking a rare occasion for Islamabad to begin establishing a closer relationship with Moscow.

Pakistan’s position as the Islamic world’s only country armed with nuclear weapons makes it far too important for significant players on the global stage to ignore. Moreover, irrespective of how far the US seeks to intensify pressure on Pakistan over matters related to Afghanistan, its utility as a stabiliser of in Afghanistan will simply not go away!

If, indeed, the US is losing the war in Afghanistan, its policymakers must seek to review conditions in their own backyard. The campaign to invade Afghanistan under former President George W. Bush began as an initiative to press for not just a regime change. It was, in fact, an initiative to recreate a state that would fit the aspirations of a US-styled Western democracy. That objective has obviously failed.

But within that failure also lies the failure of plans to conclusively curb Afghanistan’s indigenous militancy. On the contrary, the US is now clearly in a mood to depart from Afghanistan by 2014, giving further impetus to the militancy. Pakistan may be one factor in reaching this conclusion, but not the only one.

n    The writer is a Pakistan-based commentator, who writes on political and economic matters. This article has been reproduced from the Gulf News.