Any desire to deal firmly with cross-border militancy is trumped by the military’s perceived need to retain its ties to this or that militant group in order to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. The army continues to fear that the United States could simply lose interest in Afghanistan once it captures the senior leadership of al Qaeda (as Washington did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan), leaving Pakistan exposed to Indian (and Russian) “encirclement” — evidence of which it sees in New Delhi’s alleged support for the insurgency in Pakistan’s resource-rich Baluchistan province and Indian funding for a 135-mile road connecting Afghanistan’s Nimroz province with the Iranian port of Chabahar. Intelligence officials privately concede their mentoring of militant groups in the past, but say they have now escaped the military’s orbit — an assertion not fully consistent with the facts. There appears to be a pervasive belief in the army, among both mid-level and senior officers, that the United States and India are destabilizing FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and the rest of the country as a prelude to depriving Pakistan of its nuclear weapons. Officers who have served in FATA have told me that they face a U.S.-Indian combined offensive and that the local Taliban receive their funds from across the border. The army might inculcate such beliefs in order to motivate its soldiers, but they also connect to the military’s larger worldview. For the generals, the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal is proof of an evolving Indo-U.S., or even Indo-U.S.-Israeli, strategic alliance — not to mention American duplicity.
I have no idea whether or not this is right. But I think it reflects something we need more of in our “Af-Pak” commentary — more from people who actually speak local languages talking about how the world looks through the eyes of the Pakistani institutions that matter. If Shah has this right, then I don’t think a lot of fine talk about building a strategic partnership with Pakistan is going to get us very far. Maybe he’s way off base, but I think it’s telling that none of the other participants in the forum say “that’s absurd — this guy has no idea what he’s talking about.” So apparently a lot of experts think this is at least a possibility worth taking seriously. But it rarely seems to penetrate into discussions of American policy in the region.
A few more points on this general subject:
- The historically pro-Pakistan tilt of U.S. policy on the subcontinent goes against the logic of culture, values, and domestic ethnic politics so it’s not crazy of Pakistan to think we might abandon it.
- The India nuclear deal was made on the U.S. side with remarkably little attention to its implications for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
- An overwhelming Pakistani security focus on the India issue is important in justifying the military’s enormous power over the Pakistani state.
- India is much bigger than Pakistan, and also adjacent to China, so at any reasonable size the Indian military is going to look terrifying to a Pakistan that insists on viewing India as a threat.
I would also venture that 30 years from now people are going to look back and see America’s relationship with India and China as rising great powers as more important issues than our relationship with Pashto-speaking town elders in rural Afghanistan.