The Problem With Pakistan: They Want Different Stuff Than We Do

I don’t share Joshua Foust’s semi-personal level of animus toward Zalmay Khalilzad but I think Foust’s critique of Khalilzad’s latest offering makes some extremely valuable general points. Khalilzad starts out with a banal point masquerading as insight derived from on-the-ground experience:

When I visited Kabul a few weeks ago, President Hamid Karzai told me that the United States has yet to offer a credible strategy for how to resolve a critical issue: Pakistan’s role in the war in Afghanistan.

But of course everyone knows this and the problem is that it’s hard! The rest of the piece doesn’t really offer any particularly compelling ideas.


Most of Khalilzad’s ideas are not ideas at all, but rather an advocacy for the continuation of the status quo. That is not in and of itself a bad thing, but his ideas for “tweaking” the current state of affairs–more unilateral strikes on Pakistani territory, a general tone of “forcing” Pakistan to do something that is clearly against its interests, and so on–simply don’t make any sense. The last nine years of U.S.-Pakistani relations have been variations on that same theme: forcing Pakistan to do things it is not otherwise inclined to do. The result is a strained relationship and deep, perhaps permanent opposition to the U.S. in domestic Pakistani politics. We are worse off because of it.

It seems to me that oftentimes it’s useful to just go look at a map. Afghanistan is right there next to Pakistan. And it always will be. The United States of America is way over on a different continent. And it always will be. Then there’s India on the other side of Pakistan. So Pakistan is always going to care more about the details of what’s happening in Afghanistan than America does. And Pakistan is always going to care more about India than it does about the United States. We’re not impotent to shape Pakistan’s dealings with all this, but it’s foolish to think we can somehow play a dominant role in determining what the Pakistani government wants to do in the immediate vicinity of Pakistan.

What I think we need to think harder about is what do we care about. It seems kind of perverse to me to look at this whole region and decide to make Afghanistan the pivot around which all our priorities turn. It’s one thing to have a short-term region-wide (indeed, global) focus on Afghanistan for the purposes of a “get Osama” mission. But does anyone think that in 2060 America’s relationship with Afghanistan will be more important than our relationship with India? That Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan will be the centerpiece of the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship?