When America and Pakistan Fight, It’s Afghanistan That Suffers

Protesters step on an image of the United States flag and President Trump in Peshawar, Pakistan, this month. Credit Arshad Arbab/European Pressphoto Agency
Protesters step on an image of the United States flag and President Trump in Peshawar, Pakistan, this month. Credit Arshad Arbab/European Pressphoto Agency

The failing relationship between the United States and Pakistan has been failing for such a long time that experts are running out of breakup metaphors to describe it: separation, divorce and — that mutual favorite — back-stabbing friends.

When Hillary Clinton visited Islamabad as secretary of state a few years ago, she was asked why America behaved like a disgruntled mother-in-law. An American official was once quoted as saying that Pakistanis were the kind of people who would sell their mother for a few thousand dollars. That hurt.

These banal analogies hide the basic facts. A monstrous pact between these two countries has destroyed another country called Afghanistan, twice over. The destruction of Afghanistan didn’t start, as most experts tell us, just after 9/11. It first happened nearly 40 years ago, in 1979, when an American president and Pakistani generals walked hand in hand into Afghanistan, with their Saudi friends carrying suitcases full of dollars, all with the dream of giving the Soviet Union a bloody nose and defeating Communism.

Their declared intent was to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet occupation. More than two generations of Afghans have seen nothing but war.

After all these years of the United States twisting arms and playing footsie, its current president says America has been foolish to give Pakistan billions of dollars because it got nothing but deceit in return. So the Trump administration recently decided to cut off aid to Pakistan for not helping out with Afghanistan. But that’s as bad as giving aid to Pakistan for helping out with Afghanistan: The war will continue, still under false pretenses. Trump is only hiding behind the myth of American innocence — much like Pakistan disguises its deceit as strategic interest.

During these four decades, Pakistan’s military establishment has convinced the nation that a permanent war is not such a bad thing after all. Never mind the experts who say that Pakistan is on the verge of becoming like Afghanistan — another casual insult, which rankles both countries.

Pakistan has not only paid in blood as the Pakistani Taliban have blown up schools, mosques and churches, and assassinated leading politicians. It has also acquired a new mind-set that normalizes, even glorifies, mini-massacres. The mass murder of school children is called a collective sacrifice; civilians randomly blown up while going about their business are celebrated as martyrs. A radical (takfiri) interpretation of Islam, imported from Saudi Arabia and perfected during the Afghan jihad, has become so normal that any citizen who opposes violence committed in the name of religion is called an American stooge or a heretic (kafir).

Americans say that Pakistan is playing a double game, but they should see the kind of games Pakistan plays with its own citizens.

The Pakistani establishment, both political and military, is quick to point out its sacrifices in the war on terror. Look at our causalities, look at our economic losses, it tells America. Then it turns around and tells its own people that the Taliban are not the problem, that America is.

The day after the establishment embraces the Taliban, it says to America: “You can use our bases to bomb the Taliban, but hush, please, because we have told our people that the Taliban are our true friends. And please don’t hold it against us if we tell some Taliban, the good ones, to take cover as your planes take off”.

And then some Taliban who attack the state say they’ll stand behind the army if Pakistan comes under attack by America or India. This ideological confusion was at its peak after American soldiers killed Osama bin Laden in 2011: We still haven’t decided if it was Bin Laden who violated our sovereignty by hiding in Pakistan, or the Americans by killing him there. People wonder if the Pakistani army was complicit or just incompetent. Why can’t it be both?

But Pakistanis who have asked questions like that have been hounded. The military has whipped the nation into jumping through so many hoops of fire that we have almost internalized the logic of a war without end.

The Pakistani Army believes America can’t win the war in Afghanistan without its assistance. The security establishment is committed to the age-old fantasy of controlling Afghanistan through proxies, even though it is clueless about what to do with its proxies, past and present.

Like Pakistan, America is addicted to this conflict. Here’s a permanent Vietnam, another war essential to America’s existence as a world power. Whenever Pakistan and the United States have squabbled over the years, it has been about the amount of dollars paid versus the number of bad guys killed. In this accounting from hell, what are a few mass murders between friends?

Although some American pundits say that Trump is bonkers when it comes to his domestic policies, they expect the rest of the world to believe that he is O.K.-ish when it comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Just another American president, like a half-dozen before him, who is going to fix this part of the world.

Some experts’ solution to the current tensions is that Trump, that stable genius, should ask his new Saudi friends to use their influence over Pakistan to play broker. Imagine this: Four decades on, an American president, a Saudi prince and a bunch of Pakistani generals walk back into Afghanistan.

What could go wrong?

Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, and the librettist for the opera Bhutto.

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