Explaining Pakistan's "Bad Ally" Behavior


Like an unlikely pairing in a 1980s buddy cop movie, the United States and Pakistan are two unlikely allies who, ever since 2001, have banded together to face down violent extremists along the Pakistani-Afghan border. But here comes the third act twist where America, eyeing Pakistan warily, believes that this alliance of convenience has run its course. But to abandon the Pakistani government now — when the alliance has, arguably, done more harm for Pakistan than it has for the United States — would be, quite frankly, idiotic.

The U.S. is enduring one of its most torrid diplomatic periods in its decade-long cooperation with Pakistan in the War on Terror. Almost all Republican presidential hopefuls have expressed concern over Pakistan's seemingly duplicitous conduct. In exchange for millions of dollars in military and economic aid, the government of Pakistan was supposed to follow in-step with American military adventures in Afghanistan and, theoretically, turn a blind eye to potential American intrusions into Pakistani sovereign territory. Prominent commentators in both nations have since decried the alliance as harmful to national interests.

From a comfortable position a hemisphere away, American policymakers are constantly flustered when Pakistan doesn't live up to the perceived bargain. The global War on Terror (different President, same war) demands that American allies provide unconditional support towards the nebulous end of 'defeating' terrorism. Given Pakistan's strategic location in Central Asia, the State Department picked the Pakistani government to corral into the American camp. For America, the alliance was always a matter of convenience and little was or is being done to understand how and why Pakistan would choose to enter into such an agreement. After all, Pakistan had no direct quarrel with either Al-Qaeda or the Taliban; why should it risk her sons and the fragile peace it administers for a foreign power?

Let's just say that the United States made an offer Pakistan couldn't refuse — not just with financial incentives but with brutal military threats.

With such ham-fisted diplomacy, the U.S. barely concerned itself with Pakistan's own strategic and political goals. The need to placate American demands was added to the classic mess of Pakistani strategic concerns: the eternal contest with neighboring giant (and warming American friend) India, the need to balance the concerns of competing ethnic groups, and the delicate see-saw between the powerful military, the scheming intelligence services, and the fragile civilian government. Finding and capturing Osama bin Laden and stopping al-Qaeda were simply never high priorities on the Pakistani table.

Most branches of the Pakistani government, at least initially, did tackle the tasks America had set for it with some earnestness. But America quickly pursued its own policies without consulting Pakistani interests. In the ongoing drone war over Pakistani airspace, around 2000 Pakistani citizens have died. It is almost certain that a significant number of them were civilians who had little to no connection with terrorist activities.

With the American alliance now seemingly more trouble than it’s worth, top Pakistani leadership is publicly questioning the need to maintain the alliance. This is a natural response to the Pakistani public's massive discontent with the American alliance — seen by many as dealing with the devil — and a recognition that American foreign policy goals do not, and have not, aligned themselves with Pakistani national interests.

And yet, America's leaders have consistently and loudly denounced Pakistan's seeming inaction and hesitation to pursue issues outside of Pakistani national interest. 

Ultimately, America may have fundamentally misread Pakistan's capacity for alliance in one crucial aspect: Pakistan's fragile government. The balance of political power in Pakistani politics is notoriously delicate — cajoling the sitting government does not necessarily mean that one wins over all governmental apparatus. The notoriously autonomous intelligence services have acted brazenly and independently, often without official sanction. And, in all likelihood, if perfidy was performed in Pakistan's name, it was these clandestine operatives, with an independent agenda, that carried them out.

Which leaves the Pakistani government holding all the blame. Not only does America criticize the Pakistani government for failing to hold up their end of the bargain, the Pakistani people too ferment rebellious ideas at the thought of their government bending at the knee to Washington. The alliance, in many ways, has ruined the Pakistani government with little benefit to either side.

With the resources at its disposal, with the game so heavily rigged against it, the Pakistani government was never going to be able to be a serious partner in the War on Terror. That both parties have pretended that it lasted this long is an example of cynical diplomacy and gaming statecraft at its finest.

And yet, if the American alliance should crumble tomorrow, could signal a catastrophic destabilization of Pakistani civilian rule. If you think Afghanistan presented problems, imagine Pakistan collapsing.

Photo Credit: expertinfantry