Pakistan: Neither Ally, Nor Enemy

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, INT 52, Hoover Institution Archives.

Last April, Ambassador Robert D. Blackwill, a distinguished diplomat, summarized American policy toward Pakistan. “Every time a new administration in Washington comes to office,” he said, “they get worried about Pakistan, which has a stockpile of nuclear weapons. The US Secretary of State then visits Pakistan and meets the top leadership. He is systematically lied to by Pakistan’s leadership, and this goes on for about two years. In the third year, he tells his colleagues at the (US) State Department that Pakistan’s leaders have been lying to him. Then they think about how to deal with the situation, and the elections come in and a new administration takes charge. The same thing is (then) repeated.”

Ambassador Blackwill neatly encapsulated the Pakistan-American relationship. Pakistan employs deceit as a fundamental tool of diplomacy. Pakistan is even-handed in lying to itself, its enemies, and its allies (if there are any). Upon first meeting an American diplomat, politician, or general, senior Pakistani officials launch into an hour-long litany of how the United States has mistreated and misled them for decades. Once the American is sufficiently chastised and presumably humbled, the Pakistanis launch into geopolitical fantasies about amicable cooperation—provided sufficient aid (reparations perhaps?) is forthcoming. Pakistan has perfected the art of posing as the aggrieved to extract concessions, while having no intention of living up to any agreement. Inherently unstable and untrustworthy, Pakistan trusts no one else. So no country can be its ally, only a temporary convenience.

Most nations have armies; in Pakistan, the army has a nation. During the reign (1978-88) of the military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan embraced sharia law as the basis of “Islamization,”1 to include the state sponsorship of the radical madrassas.2 He also initiated the development of nuclear weapons.3[3]“The basis of Pakistan was Islam,” Zia declared. “The basis of Pakistan was that the Muslims of the sub-continent are a separate culture. It was on the two-nation theory that this part was carved out of the sub-continent as Pakistan.”4

Three decades later, the Pakistani army is struggling to stamp out an internal Islamist insurgency, while continuing to plot against India.

The army also supports the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. By providing the Afghan Taliban a sanctuary along its entire 2,000-kilometer border, Pakistan appears confident that it controls the future direction of any government in Kabul, thus checkmating any effort by India to gain influence. Pakistan is also the logistics conduit into land-locked Afghanistan. So its leverage is considerable.

The army also possesses more than one hundred nuclear weapons. It skillfully plays the card of instability, subtly threatening that if external aid and support are withheld from Pakistan, the Islamist crazies (a movement fostered by General Zia) may seize some nuclear weapons. Then we’d all be in the soup.

Governance is both irresponsible and corrupt. Nearly 70 percent of Pakistan’s lawmakers do not file tax returns. Less than one percent—about one million out of a population of 190 million—pay income tax. According to The Journal of South Asian Studies, “low savings and investment rates, budget deficits, institutional shortcomings, lack of human development and bad governance are the major cause of unsustainable development.”

Pakistan is a nation without a healthy self-image and with no coherent vision about how to improve. It considers itself a victim. It is not an ally and not an enemy. While not trusting Pakistan, the U.S. must deal realistically on a transactional basis; you do this for me and I will do this for you.


Military historian F. J. “Bing” West is the best-selling author of ten books on strategy and battle. He served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Reagan administration. A graduate of Georgetown and Princeton Universities, he served in Vietnam with Marine Force Recon and Combined Action Platoons. His articles appear in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. While serving as assistant secretary, he chaired the U.S. Security Commissions with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, South Korea, and Japan. He also supervised advisory and special operations in El Salvador, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Pakistan. He is the author of ten books on national security. These include The Village, that has been on the Marine Commandant’s Reading List for 40 years; New York Times Bestseller The Strongest Tribe, a history of the Iraq War; No True Glory: the Battle for Fallujah; The Wrong War, a History of the Afghanistan War; and Into the Fire, also a New York Times Bestseller. West embedded with our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan on more than thirty occasions, deploying on hundreds of combat patrols. His latest book is One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War. With retired Marine General James N. Mattis, he is writing a book about combat leadership. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Infantry Order of St. Crispin, West has served on several boards of trustees. Among other awards, he is the recipient of the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Medal, the Colby Military History Award, the Marine Corps Heritage Award (twice), the Goodpaster Prize for Military Scholarship, the Father Clyde E. Leonard Award, the Free Press Award, the Marine Corps Correspondents’ Distinguished Performance Award, the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ National Media Award, and the Marine Corps Russell Award for Leadership. He and his wife Betsy reside in Newport, RI. His website is

 1 Owen Bennett Jones, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (Yale University Press, 2002), pp. 16–17.
 2 Zahid Hussain, ed. Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam (Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 81.
 3 Shahid-Ur Rehman, Long Road to Chagai (Print Wise Publication, 1999), pp. 102–106.
 4 Husain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 135.