There are many countries with which America sustains tense political relations, but few as worrisome as Pakistan.
The country is a nuclear power, active battleground for drone strikes, a Taliban safe haven, and was home to the recently killed Osama Bin Laden. Pakistan sits in a delicate and undefined gray-zone between ally and foe – its leadership is victim to a constant tug of war for influence between American interests and those of militant Islam. This is a war America might very well be losing, as the vast majority of the nation continues to see the U.S. as an invasive oppressing force.
Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., is being investigated for blasphemy for remarks she made on TV in 2010. The punishment for defaming the prophet in Pakistan is the death penalty. This is among many displays of power against members of the Pakistani government who support American interests, and a clear sign that our diplomatic efforts in the country aren’t as effective as we’d like them to be.
Anyone who has played the game Risk knows that holding onto power is a difficult task. The Roman and English empires utilized a very effective trick that the American empire is still figuring out: it’s better to have regional powers at each other’s throats, rather than unified against you! In that regard, it is important a delicate balance be sustained in Pakistan. If we abandoned them completely, we would have a strong enemy in the region with nuclear capabilities. On the other hand, if we supported the government too strongly and crushed radical Islam within the country, there would be no neighbor in the region to keep India’s growth in check. It’s Roman style politics: ensuring no one is ever strong enough to challenge the empire.
This may seem like a bleak game to play, but America is spread too thin to try any other tactic. In the 1980s, when the U.S. supported the Afghan mujahideen against Russian forces it was seen as a significant cold war victory. We had an opportunity to follow up the war with an investment in education and aid. Instead, we abandoned the country’s future for more politically appealing projects and allowed Taliban forces to take control – a mistake that came back to bite us in spades.
We can’t afford to make mistakes like that anymore, abandonment is not an option. At the same time, our current program of "soft power" aid and constant drone strikes isn’t winning over the population either. There is a burgeoning movement of pro-democracy youths looking for help in influencing their country's future. They don't want to abandon their faith, but they do want to steer it away from the fanaticism that has gripped it. If the Pakistani government is to keep home grown religious fanaticism in check, and still retain meaningful autonomy, America will need to find a more effective way to support them.
The alternative is a repeat of the Taliban rise in Afghanistan, only this time they will have nuclear capabilities, and a freshly unstable Middle East region to influence.