Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Neither Friend nor Foe: Why America must recognize that Pakistan is just a state protecting its interests

By Hassaan Bin Sabir Published May 6, 2018

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In recent years, the U.S. and Pakistan have shared an increasingly troubled relationship, with Washington urging Islamabad to "do more" in the war against terrorism. This post argues that such policy is counterproductive to U.S. interests for peace and stability in the region, which cannot be achieved without significant assistance from Pakistan.


Written by Hassaan Bin Sabir, 5/6/2018


In recent years, the U.S. and Pakistan have shared an increasingly troubled relationship, with Washington urging Islamabad to "do more" in the war against terrorism. This post argues that such policy is counterproductive to U.S. interests for peace and stability in the region, which cannot be achieved without significant assistance from Pakistan.


Months after his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela arrived in the United States on a much-anticipated visit. In a town hall with Ted Koppel in New York during the trip, Mandela was asked about his party's support for leaders such as Fidel Castro and Yasir Arafat, who shared famously tenuous relationships with the Western world. In response, Mandela replied, "One of the mistakes which some political analysts make is to think that their enemies should be our enemies." The underlying point that Mandela made was that every sovereign nation has a duty to protect its interests, even when those interests are antithetical to those of the West. This notion, which America has yet to adopt, holds the key for better relations between the United States and Pakistan.
In recent years, the U.S. and Pakistan have shared an increasingly fraught relationship, largely due to American accusations that Pakistan provides sanctuary to terrorist outfits that impede peace and stability within Afghanistan. This allegation reemerged as recently as January, with President Trump directing anger at Pakistan in a New Year's Day tweet. Trump wrote that the U.S. has "foolishly" given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid despite the country's support of terrorist outfits. In particular, Washington is perturbed by the close relationship Pakistan's military intelligence shares with the Haqqani network, an insurgent group that America blames for unrest in Afghanistan and one that, ironically enough, the U.S. itself supported during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This ratcheting up of pressure on Islamabad has not produced the desired results for the U.S., as the Pakistani political and military leadership has only distanced itself further from America and developed closer military and economic ties with China and even Russia. And so, unless the U.S. reorients its policy with respect to Pakistan, it is unlikely that Pakistan's attitude towards America will change.
It is imperative for the United States to recognize that its own actions in the past, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's failed invasion of Afghanistan, have contributed directly to Pakistan's actions today. Pakistan is still reeling from the socio-economic effects of that war, and from a U.S. tendency to forge alliances that serve its short-term benefit only to dispense of its partners when American interests are met. This was the case following the defeat of the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan, when the U.S. and Pakistan combined to train and arm the Mujahideen who later became the terrorist outfits that the U.S. has struggled to defeat during its nearly two-decade stint in Afghanistan. Following Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, the U.S. turned a blind eye to the far-reaching socio-political impact which the funding and arming of the Mujahideen had on the region, conveniently leaving it to Pakistan to clean up the mess. The memory of this still lingers in the minds of the Pakistani populace and its civil-military leadership. So, to avoid a repeat of that scenario, Pakistan has its sights set firmly on ensuring stability in the region, or at least within its own borders, when the U.S. does decide to leave Afghanistan. It is therefore critical for America to recognize that there is a method to what it perceives as Pakistan's madness.
This madness also holds the key to a smooth U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which can only be achieved if Washington comes to terms with the fact that it cannot achieve an outright military victory in the country. The Taliban's recent resurgence is evidence of that. And so, rather than threatening to cut aid to Pakistan, the Trump administration must recognize Pakistan's importance. For the past 16 years, U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan have relied on transit through and overflight of Pakistani territory. Now, America must depend on Pakistan's political capital. The ties that Islamabad has maintained with the Taliban and other outfits over the years need to be leveraged to create the environment necessary to thrash out a political settlement to the Afghan war that secures the interests of the Afghan people and regional stakeholders such as Pakistan and the United States. If those in the White House and Pentagon fail to acknowledge this, the Afghan war's legacy may soon resemble that of Vietnam.