It should come as little surprise, but U.S. headlines are again dominated by dour news out of Pakistan. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is today under severe strain, rattled by heated disputes over CIA drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas; clandestine U.S. intelligence operations inside Pakistan; and Islamabad's persistent refusal to crack down on the Taliban and their radical allies. Intelligence cooperation is at an all-time low.
This latest series of rifts may indeed prove more damaging and permanent than previous disruptions, but they fit all too neatly in the general narrative of U.S.-Pakistan relations. One day Islamabad is touted as an indispensable ally; the next it is a back-stabbing fountain of Islamist militancy. For the longest time, these competing tensions were encapsulated in the Washington debate over whether or not Pakistan was playing a "double game."
But we were debating the wrong question. Of course Pakistan is playing a double game. Of course its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), supports Islamist militants. The relevant question is not if Pakistan is playing a double game, but why? The simplest answer is that Pakistan believes it needs a pliant, anti-Indian regime in Afghanistan and - as it has for decades - Pakistan is using Islamist militants as an extension of its foreign policy.
In short, Islamabad sees a Taliban-led government in Kabul as the best guarantor of its interests in neighboring Afghanistan. But this, too, begs the question: What are its interests? Why risk international condemnation and the ire of your superpower benefactor for influence in a desolate, landlocked country with few natural resources or infrastructure, and of questionable strategic value?
Two motivations are often cited: First, Islamabad is said to covet Afghanistan for "strategic depth." Pakistan is geographically narrow and its major cities, positioned as they are near its eastern border with India, are vulnerable to attack in the event of a war with its rival. Thus, Pakistan's military planners - for whom an Indian invasion is always imminent - yearn for the rugged Afghan terrain to the west, where a retreating army could regroup and coordinate a guerrilla war, if necessary.
Second, Pakistan is fearful of Indian influence in Afghanistan. Around every corner in Kabul, Pakistanis see Indian agents and behind every Afghan initiative, a nefarious Hindu plot. That India's presence in Afghanistan has been benign, civilian and economic in nature has not stopped the ISI from backing brazen jihadi attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul.
This suggests that Pakistan's perceived interests in Afghanistan are India-centric. However, the fear of ethnic (specifically Pashtun and Baluch) nationalism may play an even greater role in Pakistan's strategy, penetrating to the heart of what constitutes Pakistani identity and the integrity of the Pakistani state.
There are roughly 40 million Pashtuns straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border, the notoriously autonomous "martial race," with legendary fighting prowess (virtually all Taliban are Pashtun, but not all Pashtun are Taliban). The Af-Pak border that cuts this stateless nation in half was drawn by India's colonial British overlords in 1893. Incorporating a sliver of the Afghan frontier into northwestern India, the Durand Line, as the border is called, was designed to create a buffer zone between India and the lawless hinterland beyond. But after partition in 1947, the new (West) Pakistani state inherited these Pashtun tribal areas.
Like their countrymen in the east, the Pashtuns - and the even more disaffected Baluch minority in the south - are Muslim, but they share little else in common in terms of culture, language, allegiance or history. So it comes as no surprise that they have periodically agitated for greater autonomy, independence or even incorporation into Afghanistan. As the saying goes, the Afghans have a terribly weak state but a cohesive national identity. In Pakistan, the strong, military-run state is in part compensation for its fragile national identity.
Consequently, Islamabad is hypersensitive to ethnic nationalism and separatism. Pakistan already lost nearly half its territory - East Pakistan - to another disgruntled ethnic minority in the 1971 war that created Bangladesh. To complicate matters further, successive Afghan governments, including the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime of the 1990s, have refused to recognize the Durand Line. Pakistan fears that a strong and independent Afghanistan - let alone one allied to India - could challenge their artificial border and agitate Pashtun or Baluch nationalists, undermining Pakistan from within. A friendly, Taliban-led regime in Kabul is thus seen by Islamabad as the best defense against this possibility and against Indian "encirclement."
Of course, none of Pakistan's "interests" in Afghanistan justify its backing fanatical jihadists that slaughter the innocent, the majority of which are Muslim. But Washington must better understand the misguided logic behind Pakistan's double game if it insists on being a party to it until 2014. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been obsessing for so long over a phantom menace, it is blind to the real threat to its strategic interests: a fundamental split with the United States. Ten years of supporting America's Islamist enemies has poisoned its reputation in America. Its once-mighty defenders in Washington are isolated and shrinking in number, while a younger generation of policymakers knows nothing of Pakistan but militancy, corruption and deception. When the United States inevitably departs Afghanistan, so too, will Pakistan's "leverage" over America. Only then will Pakistan's leadership realize the true cost of their double game.
By Jeff M. Smith, a fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.