The history of U.S.-Pakistani relations is one of wild swings between feigned friendship and ill-disguised mistrust. When the United States needs Pakistan, Washington showers Islamabad with money, weapons and expressions of high esteem. Once the need wanes, the gratuities cease, often with brutal abruptness. Instead of largesse, Pakistan gets lectures, with the instruction seldom well received.
The events of 9/11inaugurated the relationship’s most recent period of contrived warmth. Proximity to Afghanistan transformed Pakistan overnight from a pariah — the planet’s leading proliferator of nuclear weapons technology — into a key partner in the global war on terrorism. Prior to 9/11, U.S. officials disdained President Pervez Musharraf as the latest in a long line of Pakistani generals to seize power through a coup. After 9/11, PresidentGeorge W. Bush declared Musharraf a “visionary” leading his country toward the bright uplands of freedom.
But seldom has a marriage of convenience produced greater inconvenience and consternation for the parties involved. Simply put, U.S. and Pakistani interests do not align. Worse, neither do our preferred forms of paranoia. Pakistanis don’t worry about Islamists taking over the world. Americans are untroubled by the prospect of India emerging as a power of the first rank.
The United States stayed in this unhappy marriage for the last decade in large part because Pakistan provided the transit route for supplies sustaining NATO’s ongoing war in landlocked Afghanistan. In addition to exacting exorbitant charges for this use of its territory, Pakistan has closed that route whenever it wishes to make a point. No more: A recently negotiated agreement with several former-Soviet Central Asian republics creates alternatives, removing Pakistan’s grip on NATO’s logistical windpipe.
The Obama administration now seems ready to declare this troubled union (once again) defunct. With Pakistan no longer quite so crucial in an Afghan context, and still unable to explain how Osama bin Laden found sanctuary on Pakistani soil, evidence that this erstwhile U.S. ally remains in cahoots with various and sundry terrorist organizations has become intolerable. During a recent visit to India, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly stated that U.S. leaders were “reaching the limits of our patience” with Pakistan.
As with most divorces, the proceedings promise to be ugly. Already, the U.S. is escalating its campaign of missile attacks against “militants” on Pakistani soil. U.S. officials dismiss complaints that this infringes on Pakistan’s national sovereignty. “This is about our sovereignty as well,” Panetta has explained, thereby redefining the term to grant the United States the prerogative of doing whatever it wants and can get away with.
Yet there is a back story to the crumbling relationship that goes beyond U.S. frustration with Pakistani double-dealing (and Pakistani anger over American highhandedness). A larger reorientation of U.S. policy is underway. Occurring in two spheres — the Greater Middle East and East Asia — that reorientation reduces Pakistan in Washington’s eyes to the status of strategic afterthought.
In the Greater Middle East — the geographic expanse in which the global war on terrorism has been largely waged — the Obama administration has now abandoned any pretense of liberating or pacifying or dominating the Islamic world. Through a campaign of targeted assassination (supplemented in the case of Iran with cyber attacks) the aim is now merely to keep adversaries off-balance in a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. In that context, Pakistan serves chiefly as a target-rich environment.
In East Asia, the Obama administration touts its proposed strategic “pivot” as the emerging centerpiece of U.S. national security policy. In Washington, however, “pivot” is a code word, translated by those in the know as “containing China.” The imperative of thwarting China’s perceived (but as yet indecipherable and perhaps undetermined) ambitions elevates the importance of India. In the eyes of aspiring Kissingers, an India aligned with the United States will check Chinese power just as aligning China with the United States once served to check Soviet power. Here too the effect is necessarily to render Pakistan, which views India as its mortal enemy, redundant.
Yet while a certain logic informs the coming U.S. abandonment of Pakistan, there are massive risks as well.
Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world. (Go ahead: Plug that sentence into your search engine.) Mired in poverty, burdened with a dysfunctional government and weak institutions, dominated by deeply fearful military and intelligence establishments that have little regard for civilian control or democratic practice, it possesses one trump card: a formidable nuclear arsenal. A potential willingness to use that arsenal is what ultimately makes Pakistan so dangerous — and should give U.S. policymakers pause before they give that country the back of their hand, as the United States has done so many times before.
To the extent that foreign policy ends up figuring in the upcoming presidential election, Iran’s putative nuclear weapons program will probably attract some attention. OK, but that’s a potential bomb, not a real one. The bomb that will keep the next president up late is not the one that Iran may be building but the one that Pakistan already holds in readiness to use.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.
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