Pakistan has been featuring prominently in the news for quite some time now. Questions abound regarding why Pakistan seems to be a willing host to terrorists and insurgents. In the aftermath of the death of bin Laden on Pakistani soil the Pakistanis are expressing righteous indignation about their violated sovereignty and muted approval for the death of the poster child for international terrorism. Still, questions remain about the nexus of complicity and incompetence in the Pakistani security apparatus. “Why,” we ask, “do the Pakistanis harbor our enemies from Afghanistan and permit the most wanted man in the world to dwell right under their noses?”
Did the Pakistanis know that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad? The world may never know. Of course, it may… but that will undoubtedly take time. Eventually we will likely know the truth. In the meantime, why does the Pakistani government appear to be duplicitous in their relations with us? The Afghans don’t really wonder about it. Many, if not most, I’ve spoken with view Pakistan with a jaundiced eye. They have their own understanding of the history of Afghan relations with their populous and well-armed neighbor.
Everyone looks out for their perceived interests, we all know that. How is the Pakistani government likely to view their interests? Pakistan has only existed as a nation since 1947. A goodly chunk of what is now Pakistan was traditionally the land of the (then united) Pashtun. Roughly 60% of the Pashtun ethnicity currently reside in the under-governed areas of Pakistan’s northwest. The other (roughly) 40% of the Pashtun live in Afghanistan. They are separated by a border which was artificially and vengefully laid out by the British and named after its architect; the infamous Durand Line. Only one Afghan government… ever… has officially recognized the Durand Line as the rightful border of Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Taliban. Presumably this recognition was in return for the Pakistani patronage that sponsored the Taliban in their growth from local uprising to national power in the 1990’s.
Afghanistan has, historically, had good relations with India and Iran and poorer relations with Pakistan, including the severing of diplomatic relations in 1955. Pakistan claims to have repelled a major cross-border incursion by Afghanistan in Bajaur in 1961. While Pakistan may have made inroads in Afghan eyes due to their support for the Mujaheddin during the Soviet occupation, any good will was squandered with their seizing upon the Taliban as their opportunity to further their influence in post-Soviet Afghanistan. Average Afghans and government officials alike take a fairly dim view of Pakistan and particularly of the ISI, sometimes blaming them for more trouble than the ISI can actually cause. The ISI is the bogeyman of the Afghan man on the street.
Sometimes it was a chore to redirect the Afghans away from the problems they could not solve (Pakistani machinations) and back onto problems they could solve.
Pakistan does not likely view a strong and viable Afghanistan (with its own national interests) on its western border. Their paranoia is not unfounded, as I have heard otherwise reasonable Afghans, good friends, express optimism that one day Afghanistan will be strong enough to push out to what they view as the natural border; the Indus River.
That’s a big chunk of (currently Pakistani) real estate. Pakistan is not enamored of this idea, regardless of how viable the concept.
It’s not the threat of Pashtun reunification that realistically disturbs the Pakistanis, though. It’s not likely that they view an Afghan invasion to seize the NWFP as a real danger to their security. They are threatened by the concept of a stable Afghanistan, which will likely see good relations with India as being more beneficial than Pakistani goodwill. This idea irks the Pakistani security apparatus. So our desired end state is not necessarily how all Pakistanis see their best interests being upheld. But that’s only half of the equation.
Anyone who sees a foregone conclusion coming down the pike will get on the train and ride it. We view our commitment to Afghanistan as strong (well, sort of), but the Pakistanis do not see the commensurate commitment of what they would consider to be the resources necessary to make it a foregone conclusion. The Pakistanis have the sixth largest military in the world, with a couple of the largest land armies on the planet camped out on their borders; India (viewed with enmity), and China (viewed as a useful ally).
Yes, I know the People’s Liberation Army is not literally camped on the Pakistani border, but you get the idea. The Chinese are not viewed as a threat by Pakistan. Neither Pakistan nor China views Indian power as a joyful thing.
In any case, Pakistan has a large army and a not-insignificant air force. But they are not as adept as humanly possible. Being somewhat clumsy by our standards, the Pakistanis must dedicate several times as many troops-to-task as we normally would. They cannot fathom how we can expect to subdue a pernicious insurgency with such paltry numbers as we have committed (certainly in the early days… the first 8 years). To their minds, we cannot possibly be trying to achieve our stated goals. Add to this the Pakistani view that America is by its nature capricious and you have a deep conviction that the American presence in, and support for, Afghanistan is transitory. Pakistan must position itself for post-America (and Coalition) Afghanistan. Without Pakistani support and interference, there is a chance that GIRoA can succeed. With Pakistan hedging its bets, the issue remains in doubt and Pakistan has a shot at maintaining influence in post-GIRoA Afghanistan.
A couple of disclaimers are in order. First, the Pakistani government is not by any means monolithic. President Zardari, shortly after taking office, declared that the ISI would fall under civilian control. Shortly thereafter, the ISI announced that this was not the case… and that was the end of that. We have a military that is totally subservient to the civilian authorities in the United States. Pakistan has been ruled by it’s generals no less than three times since its inception… and that wasn’t that long ago. Pakistan’s short history has been rife with warfare, and on no less than three occasions, the Pakistanis have felt abandoned by what they perceive as a “sometime ally” in the United States. The US has imposed an arms embargo against both the Indians and the Pakistanis on these occasions of confrontation between Pakistan and India, but the Pakistanis were more reliant on US aid than the Indians.
The Pakistanis then turned to China, who is eager to stoke the coals of conflict between India and Pakistan. The Pakistanis build a license-built copy of the Chinese version of the T-72. The Pakistanis call their version the “Al Khalid.” They also build a licensed copy of a Chinese fighter-bomber that the Pakistanis call the JS-17. The Pakistani nuclear program had significant outside support as well, which did not come from the United States.
Then comes yesterday’s declaration by Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani that China is Pakistan’s “best and most trusted friend.” While this is seen as a being a “dig” at the United States, it is really a clear statement of how Pakistan views their relationships and has throughout the past several decades. They view us as powerful, currently angry, and capable of considerable largesse; but capricious and untrustworthy. They view the Chinese as having goals and interests that are mostly aligned with their own and likely to remain that way in the future.
It is important to understand how Pakistan views the relationship between them and ourselves. It is important to understand why they see things the way that they do. Understanding does not mean agreeing with their viewpoint, but it does help in reviewing their behavior and the disconnects between what they sometimes say and do.
The above is the work of an amateur, so take it for what it’s worth. But it is taken from the experiences and conversations of an amateur who has spoken with Afghans and Pakistanis as well as having been briefed by intelligence officers who have worked with the Pakistanis. Nothing classified has been disclosed. Academics would no doubt find the synopsis above to be less than adequate. It is by no means complete, but it is my understanding, and the actions of the Pakistanis seem to agree with this depiction of their mindset and motivations. Also, I’m not seeing strong attempts being made to “break it down” for people who are asking why the Pakistanis and ourselves seem to be at such great odds when we should see each other as natural allies in the struggle against extremism.