My Weekly Reader 9 June 2017.

Once upon a time, a professor of American diplomatic history said that there were two kinds of countries—lions and jackals.[1]  The United States is a lion (with tooth problems) and Pakistan is a jackal.  Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has battened on great powers—first Britain and later the United States—by pretending to associate itself with their causes in return for the aid that keeps the failed-from-the-beginning state afloat.  Pakistan also sees India as the chief opponent.  As a result, it sees Afghanistan as a vital interest, whether to give Pakistan “strategic depth” or to prevent the country from being caught between two fires.  In practice, this meant joining the anti-Communist alliance in the Cold War.  Then it meant playing a leading role in the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.[2]

In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Pakistan’s ruler, Pervez Musharraf, that either his signature or his brains would be on an agreement with the United States to cooperate against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Musharraf agreed.  Then didn’t.  In 2009, Richard Holbrooke struck a deal that tripled non-military aid to Pakistan provided the country returned to civilian rule.  Pakistan didn’t.  In May 2011, Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hide-out.[3]  Soon afterward, another American diplomat told the Pakistanis that the SEALs who killed Bin Laden had uncovered a treasure trove of information that—among other things—compromised the government of Pakistan.  Either Pakistan began cooperating with the United States or trouble would follow.  Pakistan agreed to cooperate.  Then didn’t.[4]  Yes, hundreds of greater and lesser members of Al Qaeda fell captive.  However, the attacks continued in Afghanistan.

Countries, like individuals, are prone to blame others for their troubles.[5]  Pakistan’s elites blame India and the United States for Pakistan’s troubles, rather than a historical record of incompetent governance.  Still, there is something to be said for the Pakistani position.  Had the United States guaranteed control of Afghanistan to Pakistan, the Pakistanis might have been willing to act seriously against the Taliban.  The Taliban guarantees Pakistan would remotely control Afghanistan, so Pakistan—through the ISI—arms and aids the Taliban.

Americans seems reluctant to acknowledge that allies may have foreign policy interests of their own.  Similarly, Americans are reluctant to acknowledge that its opponents may have legitimate—to them—foreign policy objectives.  So long as the United States remained the “biggest, baddest” power in the world, it didn’t matter much what foreigners thought.  However, in the last two presidential administrations (Obama, Trump), the United States has engaged in a policy of strategic retreat.  Henceforth, it will matter what foreign powers—like Afghanistan or Israel, or Saudi Arabia—think about American power.

In the Afghan case, however, there is a pattern that has repeated itself from 1979 to the present.  So, American leaders may yet get it right.

[1] W. Stull Holt, in conversation.

[2] Husain Haqqani, Magnificent Delusions (2013); Daniel Markey, No Exist from Pakistan (2013).

[3] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKht-_lX-u0

[4] Iran opposes Iraq, but the United States refused to choose during the Obama administration.  Pakistan opposes India, but the United States refused to choose during the Obama administration.  Now Donald Trump is president.

[5] Some are more prone to this habit than are others.  British colonial officials, who had wide experience with people subjected to troubles by the British, held Persians (modern-day Iranians) in absolute contempt for this trait.