Opinion: Doomed to disagree


BOSTON — It’s been clear for years that Pakistan and the United States are not in full agreement about the nature of the extremist threat or the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. is at war with the Taliban because it once harbored Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda gang. But in Pakistan’s view, the Taliban was a useful creation to bring stability to warlord-torn Afghanistan after the Soviets left, and it might be useful again once the Americans leave, as every other foreign power has done after trying and failing to subdue the Afghans by force. 

When the U.S. failed to capture either the Taliban or Al Qaeda’s top leadership back in 2001, the extremists moved their operation over the border into Pakistan to set up shop in the mountains and border towns of the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan. Thus, as many Pakistanis see it, the U.S. war in Afghanistan simply swept the extremists over the border into Pakistan. And Pakistan is afraid that the Obama troop surge will drive even more militants its way, creating ever more problems for Pakistan. Instead of going into Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda, and then leaving, the U.S. has undertaken to create a modern and unified pro-Western state. This gives new life to the once-defeated Taliban who can now claim to be fighting to free Afghanistan from foreigners. Whereas many of Afghanistan’s other tribal groups had their own militias, many Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and who make up Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, came to look upon the Taliban as representing Pashtun interests.

Right after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. confronted Pakistan with a “with us or against us” ultimatum, which Pakistan accepted. Pakistan would join the U.S. in the fight against extremist Islam, but not as the Americans would want it. Pakistan was able and willing to capture and hand over Al Qaeda operatives, who were mostly Arabs and foreigners, but was less willing to turn its military might on its own citizens — especially in the frontier regions where the central government’s writ has always been tenuous.

Pakistan inherited the tribal territories from the British — self-ruling regions on the Northwest frontier that did not answer to central authority as other regions did. A quarter of a century ago I took a train from Peshawar, capital of the Northwest Frontier Province, to the top of the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border. I noticed that armed tribesmen getting on and off the train in the tribal territories did not have to buy a ticket. I asked a heavily armed tribal commuter why. “This is my ticket,” the tribesman said, slapping his rifle. The Pakistanis who live in those frontier areas consider themselves Pashtuns first and Pakistani only because of an accident of borders. Pakistan was, and is, reluctant to alienate the tribes.

In Baluchistan, next door, there has been a low-level rebellion against the Pakistani state for many years. The last thing Pakistan needs is more trouble with the Baluchis. Compare it to the problem Obama faces with some Democratic congressmen. They are hesitant to carry out the president’s wishes, not because they aren’t loyal to the president, but because they know the president’s program will get them into trouble with their home constituencies far from Washington.

Thus Pakistan plays something of a double game. Doing what is necessary to please the Americans, but being careful not to further alienate their already alienated border regions. In the meantime Islamic militants are extending their operations down into the Punjab and the Sind — the Pakistani heartland. Pakistan is willing to crack down on militants, as they finally and reluctantly did in the Swat Valley, when the militants threaten the Pakistani state. But the Taliban was Pakistan’s creation designed to end the chaos of warring warlords following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and to insure a friendly power on the other side of their frontier with India.

Pakistanis have long felt that America uses them when it needs Pakistan, but then discards it like an old Kleenex. They suspect that in the end America will leave Afghanistan in a mess to Pakistan’s detriment.

In Pakistan’s view, to commit too many Pakistani troops to the northwest leaves the frontier with India under-guarded, and one should never underestimate the power of paranoia when it comes to Indo-Pakistani relations. India and Pakistan have fought three wars, in 1947, 1965 and 1971 , as well as a mini-war in Kargil, Kashmir, in 1999 that was sensibly contained. All but one of these wars was fought over Kashmir. Pakistan has encouraged terrorist organizations to harass India over what Pakistan sees as India’s occupation of the Kashmir.

An attack by Pakistan-based terrorists on the Indian parliament in 2001 nearly caused a fourth war with India and Pakistan both rushing troops to the border. But when a similar attack occurred in Mumbai last year cooler heads prevailed and India did not send troops to the border, as the Pakistan-based terrorists had hoped. Tension on the Indian border can only mean less Pakistani military pressure on the Afghan border, or so terrorists hope.

India shares one great fear with the U.S.: It is that a nuclear armed Pakistan will disintegrate into chaos with Islamic militants making the country ungovernable. Therefore, despite provocations, India is moving toward easing tensions with Pakistan. It is no longer reasonable for the Pakistani military to fear an invasion from India, but paranoia doesn’t bow to reason. India could make a further gesture by unilaterally lessening its military presence on the Pakistani border, but the U.S. has to accept and understand that Pakistan will never see the threat in Afghanistan through the same lenses as Americans do.