While pondering the current crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations, my mind was drawn to a conversation that I had years ago with a Druze living on the Golan Heights. After hearing the familiar refrain about how terrible the Israelis were to have annexed the Golan, I remarked that Israel had done far more to develop the plateau than Syria. I then asked him why he would prefer to live in a poor police state instead of a wealthier, more free democracy.
His answer was logical: As long as there was even the slightest chance that Israel would eventually return the Golan to Syria as part of a comprehensive peace agreement, he would hedge his bets by publicly denouncing Israel at every opportunity. If the Golan stayed Israeli, he knew that the Israeli government wouldn’t care about his denunciations. If, however, the Golan were handed over to the Syrians, he could not be accused of being a Zionist collaborator.
In order to understand what the U.S. is asking Pakistan to do in its war in Afghanistan, I tried to imagine what my Druze friend’s attitude towards Israel would be if its government announced that it would be leaving the Golan in three years, but would appreciate any help the local Druze could render in the meantime to the Jewish state.
Pakistan is one of the most rabidly anti-American countries in the world (a recent poll showed that only 12 percent of Pakistanis like the U.S.), and the recent deadly cross-border NATO attack on two Pakistani border posts from Afghanistan have done little to endear Pakistanis to the U.S. cause in our war against the Taliban.
In a recent congressional hearing, Admiral Michael Mullen testified that the Pakistan-based terrorist Haqqani network is a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence agency. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff minced no words as he denounced Pakistani support for the Taliban and other militant groups operating from Pakistan, collaboration which has resulted in the deaths of American soldiers.
Much of the media’s analysis focuses on why the U.S. needs to work with Pakistan in spite of its support of these anti-U.S. groups. After all, some elements of its government may be trying to kill our soldiers, but Pakistan is a nuclear power whose cooperation is necessary to bring about the long-awaited U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014.
What I have yet to see is a cogent argument on why it makes sense from a Pakistani perspective for the country to cooperate with the U.S. in its war on these militants. As I see it, both the U.S. and Pakistan are pursuing their own interests here. We want Pakistan to work with us to prevent the deaths of American and NATO soldiers, and to help stabilize Afghanistan prior to our withdraw. Pakistan wants to side with the eventual winner in Afghanistan and to reduce or eliminate Indian influence on its northern border.
Pakistan’s national security obsession is India. The two countries have fought several wars, and Pakistan pulled out all the stops in order to become a nuclear power as a counterweight to nuclear-armed India. If Pakistani leaders sometimes appear to be paranoid, perhaps they have reason to be. Kashmir on their southeast border is a perpetual source of friction with India, and India has just signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan.
It’s safe to assume that the powers that be in Islamabad have long memories when it comes to U.S. actions in the region. The U.S. supported the mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan against Russia, then abandoned the country once the Russians left. This led to the rise of the Taliban (many of whose members were former mujahideen), which hosted al-Qaeda, which led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.
Now the U.S. is preparing to leave the country, which will likely lead to another attempt by the Taliban to seize power. Put another way, now that the U.S. has announced that it’s leaving Afghanistan in a few years, what incentive does Pakistan have to cooperate with foreign troops who will soon leave Afghanistan to its fate?
I don’t claim to be a prophet, but it’s pretty clear to me that the Taliban will regain control over all or most of Afghanistan following the exit of American and NATO troops. With Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his cronies the only major obstacle to a Taliban coup, I’d say that it will likely happen soon rather than later. If you’re a Pakistani general and you want to have long-term influence on your northern neighbor, which political horse would you bet on — the Taliban or Karzai?
Apparently even the obtuse Karzai got the memo. In a recent interview with Geo Television following the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Kabul, he had this to say about choosing sides: “God forbid, if there is ever a war between Pakistan and America, then we will side with Pakistan.” He went on to say that Afghanistan would side with Pakistan in a conflict with any other country, including India.
It’s also pretty clear which country will be a big winner in all of this: China. China and Pakistan have historically been close allies. So close, in fact, that President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger used Pakistan’s good offices to establish a dialogue with China 40 years ago. Increased Chinese influence would almost certainly be welcomed. Pakistan is both one of the most anti-American countries on earth and the most pro-China one (86 percent like Beijing). In addition, China is the one country in the region that has the resources to compensate for any reduction or elimination of U.S. aid to Pakistan.
The future of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation looks bleak. The real power brokers in Islamabad are the army generals, who, until now, were content to accept U.S. aid in exchange for limited cooperation in the war against extremists and the freedom to offer covert assistance to the Afghan Taliban and other anti-U.S. groups.Their country’s strategic location and nuclear program protected them from U.S. reprisals.
The day may soon come, or may have already arrived, when the generals decide to end collaboration with the U.S. This would enormously complicate our efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, and would probably delay our withdrawal from the country. However, the Pakistani generals know that sooner or later the U.S. will be gone, and they will have to deal with powers that be in Kabul.
However much I may deplore Pakistani support of anti-U.S. militants, it’s hard to argue that the generals in Islamabad are not ultimately acting in their own interests to wait out the Americans in Afghanistan.
Mark served as a U.S. diplomat in Israel and Mexico. He also blogs for the Jewish Journal and Meridian Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @jewsandmormons.