For the past 16 years, whenever the United States has been faced with the reality of a failing war in Afghanistan, it has blamed Pakistan. Efforts to bring freedom to the valleys of Afghanistan, this narrative claims, have been thwarted by a double-dealing “ally” that takes American aid while supporting its enemies.
The narrative inadvertently casts American presidents, generals, diplomats, spies and others who have been part of the war effort as credulous dupes and casts poor light on the American military, stuck in a quagmire despite having the world’s most advanced weapons and largest financial resources. It also assumes that Pakistan has a clear interest in harming both the United States and Afghanistan.
Those assumptions are wrong.
Pakistan joined President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism reluctantly but proved itself an effective ally in the fight against Al Qaeda and helped decimate its ranks. That contribution was sullied by Pakistan’s failure to locate Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States established a partnership with Pakistan over a decade and a half — handing out substantial amounts of aid, sophisticated weapons and the status of major non-NATO ally. Pakistan continues to require American military hardware, and middle-class Pakistani children continue to dream of attending American universities and of working on Wall Street. The United States is the biggest market for Pakistani exports, and Pakistani-Americans form its seventh-largest diaspora group.
China’s rising global status, and its explicit push for regional influence, has reduced Pakistan’s dependence on the United States, but the rumors of the demise of America’s importance in Pakistan are greatly exaggerated.
Despite these factors, neither the United States nor Pakistan has gained all that it would like from the relationship. Pakistan has not been able to convince the United States of the validity of its primary interest in Afghanistan — preventing it from becoming a “proxy for India” and stemming fears of “encirclement” in Pakistan despite India’s proclamations of merely offering economic assistance to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s leaders have recently taken to brazenly welcoming an ever-increasing Indian footprint in Kabul and beyond. Pakistani hawks used to be merely suspicious of collusion between the most anti-Pakistan Afghans and the Indian establishment. In the past two years, that suspicion has turned into conviction.
For its part, the United States has failed to convince Pakistan of the urgency of its primary interest in Afghanistan — shutting down the Haqqani network, the principal planner and executor of the most lethal terrorist attacks in Afghanistan over the past decade. Pakistanis have hemmed and hawed, offering up low-level Haqqani operatives and occasionally trimming the space available to them.
And the Haqqanis have evolved from a relatively minor player in the Taliban world to being the dominant operational group. The United States doesn’t believe that the rise of the Haqqanis was possible without support from Pakistan.
Neither Pakistan nor the United States has been able to convince the Taliban to negotiate in good faith for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan — the one supposed issue on which there is a complete convergence between the two countries.
The torturous United States-Pakistan relationship has seen several dramatic lows. It is only the American grievances that have been registered; the humiliations seem reserved for Pakistan. Everyone remembers the killing of Bin Laden in 2011 and the subsequent embarrassment of Pakistan. Few recall the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border with Afghanistan by American forces later that year.
American military leaders have publicly heaped scorn on Pakistan. But American spies have killed ordinary people on the streets of Pakistani cities, while the United States government has dissembled about their status. American officials who have appealed for a more nuanced understanding of the country have been forced out of their jobs and even investigated by federal agents.
Pakistan is hardly innocent of its own failures. Terrorists facing sanctions from the United Nations freely cross borders to attack neighboring countries without any fear of being intercepted, and some even appear on television, conferred with a respect most politicians would crave. Pakistan has a damning ability to behave in ways that has often left even its friends shaking their heads in disbelief.
President Trump’s threats and his unpredictability have filled Pakistan with anxiety about what may be coming despite a difficult history. American drones have already dropped tons of ordnance; Navy SEALs have already dropped in to assassinate terrorists; American military and civilian assistance has already dropped to a trickle of what it was. And the trust between Pakistani generals and American commanders in Afghanistan is already at a historical low.
President Trump’s speech has only aggravated the concerns that motivate Pakistan’s behavior in Afghanistan. Mr. Trump’s call for greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan has stoked the fire that burns deepest in Pakistan. On this, it is not the Pakistanis who are irrational but those who attempt to minimize Pakistan’s concerns. Pakistan would not risk the wrath of the United States if its concerns were imaginary.
Pakistan’s willingness to lose American patronage is the clearest indicator that its interests in Afghanistan are not a product of ambition, or grandeur, but of deep and existential fears about the damage an unchecked India can do to Pakistan.
Until Americans learn how to have an honest conversation with India about what Pakistan sees as its proxy warfare in Afghanistan and its brutal occupation of Kashmir, no amount of threats to Pakistan will help. Countries can be weaned from many things, but not from protecting themselves. Pakistan is definitely a problem in Afghanistan, but it is a problem of America’s making.
Mosharraf Zaidi, a policy analyst and columnist, worked for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 2011 and 2013.