Pakistan’s military and intelligence leadership—the country’s decisive elements—view the United States as a danger to be managed and a resource to be exploited. Its approach to bilateral relations is predicated on three things: The (correct) belief that U.S. interlocutors do not understand the region; the conviction that, eventually, the U.S. will leave Afghanistan; and Pakistan’s need for hegemony over Afghanistan—not only to check India’s strategic moves but, more importantly, to guarantee Pakistan’s internal cohesion.
While Pakistan has been given a pass on its active support for Pashtun terrorists in Afghanistan who have killed and maimed U.S. troops, and has been let off the hook for hiding Osama bin Laden near a military academy, Islamabad does have historical grievances against Washington: Pakistan cooperated with the U.S. during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, only to watch the Americans walk away once the Russians were gone, leaving ruins, bloody rivalries, and rogue organizations behind on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Then in 1990 the U.S. froze the delivery of F-16s for which Pakistan already had paid, aircraft Pakistan’s generals saw as essential to keep pace with India’s might. Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons had alienated Washington and the U.S. Congress.
By the time the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army sent me to Pakistan in the mid-1990s on a temporary mission, ideological stratification already had gripped Islamabad’s military. The generals, with their Anglo-Indian accents and taste for wretched whiskey, wanted to rebuild bridges, viewing the U.S. as, ultimately, a guarantor against India and an important resource that still could be tapped. But below that generation, a transitional stratum of field-grade officers spoke English less fluently and had no memory of close cooperation during the depths of the Cold War. A third military generation of junior officers spoke English poorly, if at all, often sported Islamist beards, and were far less worldly than their superiors. That last layer of officers provided today’s generals.
Atop all this, the U.S. fundamentally misunderstands Pakistan and its internal challenges. We note the borders on the map and imagine a unified state where none exists. Pakistan is, in fact, a small-scale empire. Core Pakistan consists of the provinces lying largely east of the Indus River, which neatly bisects not only the country north to south, but historically has marked the divide between the civilizations of Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. That division endures even today.
The east-of-the-Indus provinces, Punjab, Sindh, and Jammu-and-Kashmir, have the population and the power. Nearly everything west of the Indus is, in essence, occupied territory, from Baluchistan through the Northwest Frontier and on to Gilgit. This is the essential fact that we fail to grasp, and it blinds us to Pakistan’s perceived needs and deep agenda. At best, we acknowledge Pakistan’s desire for influence over Afghanistan for strategic depth in a conflict with India, but that’s a secondary factor. From Islamabad’s perspective, control over eastern Afghanistan is crucial to Pakistan’s territorial integrity.
The British-drawn Durand line, which became the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, was drawn through major tribal populations. Its location was determined by the depth British officers and administrators felt they needed as a buffer west of the Indus to protect the northwestern carats of the “Jewel in the Crown,” India (which, we tend to forget, once stretched from Baluchistan through Bangladesh to Burma).
Today, that Pakistan-Afghanistan border still divides major tribal and ethnic groups, from Pashtuns to Baluchis, who desire to govern themselves—which the colonizing power, Pakistan, cannot permit without suffering dissolution.
Add in explosive Islamist fundamentalism, and one begins to see why Pakistan’s leaders made their choice of tigers to ride, backing terrorist groups in Afghanistan while struggling to suppress ethnically identical groups within Pakistan’s borders.
Anyone who visits, say, Quetta in the west and Lahore in the east of the country will still, today, encounter clashing cultures, from varying foods and spices to contending social norms and rival ethnicities. The unifying factor—beyond military force—is solely Islam; indeed, Pakistan was created at Partition in 1947 specifically to be a state for Muslims (thereby fatefully diluting the political power of the many millions of Muslims who remained in India). The national primacy of Islam has repeatedly damaged Pakistan, from wrecking its education system in the 1970s and 1980s, to its susceptibility to Islamist bullying even in its most-progressive (a relative term) cities. Socially, Pakistan has been slipping backward since 1947.
This, then, is the threadbare imperial state that claims American aid while supporting anti-American terrorists to preserve itself and its regional authority. For the immediate future, Islamabad will continue to seek benefits from its complex relationship with Washington, but cannot be trusted or depended upon. Emotionally, Pakistan aligns with preeminent Islamist governments. Strategically, it views its future as lying in its burgeoning relationship with China. Meanwhile, its leaders wait for the U.S. to leave.