The United States and Pakistan: a high-risk relationship

The American strategy towards Pakistan has favored goals linked to operations in Afghanistan without necessarily taking Islamabad’s interests into account. The army and the Pakistani opinion are therefore more and more sensitive to American intrusions in the country. A possible agreement with the Taliban in which Pakistan would play a decisive role could restore national Pakistani interests to a place of importance. Pakistan’s most pressing interests remain concerned with the growing power of India in the region.

Article published in Politique étrangère vol. 76, n° 3, written by Anatol Lieven.

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The Tensions between US Afghan and Pakistani Strategy

In its policies towards Pakistan, the United States has to deal with an acute tension between the short-term needs of the US-led war in Afghanistan, and the considerably more important long-term needs of US and international security in the struggle against Islamist extremism and terrorism. US officials have tried to square this circle by arguing that the US presence in Afghanistan is necessary in order to protect Pakistan from the Taliban. The problem is that this is almost the diametrical opposite of the truth.

Present US strategy in the war against the Afghan Taliban requires the US to put great pressure on Pakistan to deny them shelter, and for the US to launch drone attacks against Taliban targets within Pakistan. This makes sense from a narrowly military perspective since the Afghan Taliban’s bases in Pakistan are in fact of critical importance to their campaign (just as the Vietminh benefited immensely from bases in China after the Communist victory there, and the FLN from bases in Morocco and Tunisia after the French withdrawal from those territories).

The long-term terrorist threat by contrast requires the US to build up the Pakistani state to resist Islamist revolution within Pakistan, while putting pressure on Islamabad to take action against Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups on Pakistan’s soil. How the US manages to balance these priorities in the years to come will be of immense importance not just to Afghanistan and Pakistan but to global security as a whole.

The real US objective in Afghanistan has become to a considerable extent not victory but the avoidance of defeat, as a senior US general said to me in private in 2009. That is to say, to prevent the severe blow to US military prestige and morale that would result from evident defeat in Afghanistan, along the lines of the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. This is of course not in itself a mistaken or unimportant objective, because by the same token the clear defeat of the US in Afghanistan would have an emboldening effect on Islamist and other anti-American forces around the world. The question is whether this goal is contributing to mental confusion when it comes to real Western interests in Afghanistan, and also whether it is sufficiently important to justify damage to other, more important Western and global interests in the region.

To say that the survival of the existing Pakistani state is the greatest of those interests is a matter not of sentiment but of mathematics. With around 170 million people Pakistan has nearly six times the population of Afghanistan – or Iraq – twice the population of Iran, and almost two thirds the population of the entire Arab world put together. Pakistan has a large diaspora in Britain (and therefore in the EU), some of whom have joined the Islamist extremists and carried out terrorist attacks against Britain. Possessing British passports and free to travel within the EU and to North America, the Pakistani community in Britain provides the greatest single potential base for Islamist terrorism within the West.

Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons, and one of the most powerful armies in Asia. International anxiety concerning the possible collapse of the Pakistani state has focused on the apocalyptic threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists; but it should be recognized that even a limited but substantial fraying of the Pakistani military’s conventional forces would vastly increase the international terrorist threat, because of the number of antiaircraft missiles, other munitions and trained engineers who would become available for terrorist recruitment.

To contribute to the destruction of Pakistan would therefore be an act of insanity on the part of Washington; yet in many ways that is what the needs of the war in Afghanistan demand. The US has sought to square this circle by two means, the first practical, the other rhetorical. Practically, the US has sought to reconcile the Pakistan to US strategy through aid, especially to the Pakistani military. Since 9/11, on average around one quarter of Pakistan’s military budget has been paid for by the US.

Pakistan and Terrorism

Many Americans have always felt that the US has got very little in return for this aid, and this feeling has grown enormously in recent months due to the location of Osama bin Laden not just on Pakistani soil, but very close to a Pakistani military academy. The likelihood is that while the Al Qaeda leader was probably not sheltered by the high command of the Pakistani military, sympathetic elements in Pakistani intelligence knew of his whereabouts. Coming on top of Pakistan’s shelter to the Afghan Taliban, this has led to very strong hostility to Pakistan in the US. If God forbid a terrorist attack should occur in the US with links to Pakistani groups, then some form of US attack on Pakistan would be very likely.

It would still however be a mistake. For to understand the relationship of the Pakistani security establishment to militant groups, it is necessary to understand that this is not a two-faced approach (as it is often called in the US) but a four-faced approach. One face is turned towards the Pakistani Taliban and other militants who are in revolt against the Pakistani state; a second face towards the Afghan Taliban and their allies who are fighting against the US and the Karzai administration within Afghanistan; a third face towards international terrorists based in Pakistan; and a fourth towards Pakistani militants who have targeted India.

As far as the Afghan Taliban are concerned, their leadership have enjoyed shelter from the Pakistani military establishment just as the Taliban as a whole have enjoyed shelter from the population of Pakistan’s tribal areas. With rare exceptions, however, what the Pakistani army has given has been shelter and not active support – at least to judge by the fact that Taliban explosives technology is still considerably below that of the insurgents in Iraq.

The reason for this shelter by the Pakistani high command is strategic and not ideological. The Pakistani generals are convinced – and with good reason – that the US is going to fail in Afghanistan, that US withdrawal will be followed by civil war, and that in that civil war India will give backing to bitterly antiPakistani forces among the Panjshiri Tajiks and others. It is therefore essential for Pakistan to retain allies in Afghanistan, and the only available ones are the Afghan Taliban and their allies in the Haqqani network and the Hezbe-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

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