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With a Friend Like This

November 1, 2011 |
As far as Afghanistan is concerned ... Pakistan is acting to all intents and purposes as an enemy of the United States.
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If Washington wishes to improve relations with Pakistan, it needs to stop regarding Pakistan as an ally, and to start regarding it as an enemy — at least as far as the Afghan War is concerned.

Seeing Pakistan as an ally has not only obscured the reality of the situation, but has bred exaggerated bitterness at Pakistani “treachery.” And since Pakistanis also believe that America has “betrayed” them, the result is a thin veneer of friendship over a morass of mutual distrust and even hatred.

It would be far better from every point of view to admit that the two countries’ policies over Afghanistan are opposed to the point of limited conflict — and then seek ways to negotiate an end to that conflict.

Very little affection has ever been involved in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, and both sides have sought their own advantage at the other’s expense. The Pakistani masses have long harbored deep hostility to the United States, which is now being reciprocated by many Americans. Given the appalling consequences for both countries of an armed clash, there is every reason why both sides should seek to keep their mutual hostility from getting out of hand.

The need for a change in U.S. attitudes toward Pakistan forms part of what should be a wider shift in U.S. attitudes to the outside world. Not just in the “Global War on Terror,” but in the Cold War, Americans have been strongly influenced by the belief that “you’re either with us, or against us.”

This belief has been fed by the strong Manichean element in U.S. culture which sees the United States as entirely good and its enemies as entirely evil. Any country which does not side entirely with the U.S., but tries to pursue its own interests through dealings with both sides, is liable to be seen as part of the powers of darkness.

This picture was not true of most countries during the Cold War, and it is certainly not true today. Rather, we are returning to a world which would have been familiar to our ancestors, of a multiplicity of states pursuing their own interests, sometimes in cooperation, sometimes through rivalry, and occasionally through conflict, either direct or through proxies. An additional and central feature of this new picture is that America’s ability to coerce other countries to obey it — whether by economic or military means — has been drastically reduced.

Even where the United States does still deploy aid on a relatively large scale — as in the case of Pakistan — it may only get part of what it wants as a result.

Then again, this too is part of a very old pattern. Americans tend to see U.S. aid as a product of American generosity, to which recipients should respond with unconditional gratitude and loyalty. When given for geopolitical reasons, however, aid may more closely resemble the subsidies paid by empires of the past to nomadic kingdoms beyond their frontiers.

I don’t suppose that anyone in Constantinople or Chang’an believed that these subsidies ever bought real loyalty; they just bought off some of the raids that would otherwise have occurred. Americans might see this as humiliating, but if you can no longer be Rome, Byzantium isn’t a bad second best.

In the case of Pakistan, a mixture of U.S. aid and U.S. threats has produced limited but often effective cooperation against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups targeting the United States and its allies in Europe. The Pakistani military has also put effective pressure on its own militant allies not to launch attacks on American soil.

Since the Mumbai attacks of 2008, American, Indian and other pressures have also persuaded the Pakistani military to suspend such attacks against India, though militant groups believe that one day they will be allowed to resume. And, of course, the Pakistani military is acting strongly against Islamist rebels within Pakistan, whom it now sees as a real threat.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, however, Pakistan is acting to all intents and purposes as an enemy of the United States — though the motivation of the top Pakistani generals is hostility not to America but to India, which they fear will dominate Afghanistan (through India’s local Tajik allies) after U.S. forces leave.

There is no prospect at all of the Pakistani military abandoning its support for the Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani network. The most that U.S. aid and pressure can achieve will be to keep Pakistani support fairly covert and limited.

Instead of pushing at a Pakistani door that will never open, the Obama administration instead should treat Pakistan as a sponsor of the Taliban and on that basis involve Pakistan in talks on Afghanistan.

An essential part of such negotiations should be to force both Pakistan and the United States to place on the table their own terms for an Afghan settlement and their minimum conditions as far as their own interests are concerned. On that basis, and on that basis alone, it may be possible for these two de facto enemies to make peace with each other. If that is not possible, at least the U.S. will be clearer about the realities of the Afghan War.

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