Pakistan, National Security, and 2012: It's Complicated

Q.  Is it plausible for the U.S. to forge a viable partnership with Pakistan in combating al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

Despite bin Laden’s presence there, Pakistan has been generally cooperative in fighting al-Qaeda, which they see as comprised of foreigners. They have been more ambivalent about the domestic Taliban. They have seen Pakistani Taliban as fellow countrymen, and dislike fighting their own citizens. Still, Pakistanis dislike violent extremists. Unfortunately, huge majorities are also hostile to the United States. The Pakistan government wants to defeat violent extremists at home, but key members want to maintain a viable relationship with the Afghan Taliban.

Q. Were you surprised when Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai recently said in a television interview “God forbid, if there is ever a war between Pakistan and America, then we will side with Pakistan.”

He is unpredictable and often retracts irresponsible statements. There may have been motivations to that remark that we don’t understand.  He may be signaling to the Pakistanis that he is friendly and making amends for signing a strategic agreement with India. He may also be playing to a popular anti-Americanism.

Q.  Why do you say in your book that Pakistan reflects a culture of paranoia, betrayal, and assassination?

That’s what its history shows. Until Asif Ali Zardari, the current president, each head of state died, was assassinated, forced out, or dismissed.

Because tribal loyalty comes first, the country has a weak national identity. That breeds a culture of conspiracy, paranoia, and betrayal. Another reason their politics are dysfunctional is that for too long the government has responded to the Army and Washington and not Pakistani voters. Because the culture is about power relationships and political patronage rooted in family, tribe, and clan, political party contests are mainly over who controls patronage, not ideas. The culture is an obstacle to modernization and reform.

Q.  What is the story behind the bin Laden mission and has it affected Pakistani politics?  

Outstanding work by the CIA and our military. Two words sum up our viewpoint: mission accomplished.

Musharraf and Bush had an understanding that if we found bin Laden, Mullah Omar, or certain other terrorist leaders, we could take them out. The U.S. always made clear to Pakistan that we would track down bin Laden, no matter how long it took. Musharraf denies that, but his denial rings hollow.

The bin Laden attack has had a huge impact on Pakistani politics. From their viewpoint, the attack put them in an untenable posture. Either they did not know bin Laden was present in Pakistan, in which case they were ignorant or incompetent. Or they did, in which case they were complicit. They feel it was another case of American arrogance in abusing Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Winston Churchill rightly stated that nations have interests, not friends. That applies to Pakistan. The question isn’t whether they love us, but how to secure mutual cooperation in fighting mutual enemies. Sometimes there is confusion over who is an enemy. That confusion is at the heart of why U.S. relations with Pakistan will remain unpredictable and why Pakistan is central to any U.S. foreign policy debate in the 2012 election.