Since the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, Pakistan has lost
more than 35,000 people, the vast bulk of them civilians. While the US has had
slightly over 1,800 soldiers killed in the past 10 years, Pakistan has lost
over 5,000 soldiers and police. The number of suicide bombings in Pakistan has
gone from one before 2001, to more than 335 since.
"Terrorism," as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari says, "is not a statistic
For most Americans, Pakistan is a two-faced "ally" playing a double game in
Central Asia even as it siphons off tens of billions of dollars in aid. For
Pakistanis, the spillover from the Afghan war
has cost Islamabad approximately US$100 billion. And this in a country with a
yearly gross domestic product (GDP) of around $175 billion and whose resources
have been deeply strained by two years of catastrophic flooding.
Washington complains that its $20.7 billion in aid over the past nine years has
bought it very little in the way of loyalty from Islamabad, while Pakistan
points out that US aid makes up less than 0.3% of Pakistanís yearly GDP.
Both countries' opinions of one another are almost mirror images. According to
a US poll, 74% of Americans do not consider Pakistan to be an ally, while the
Pew Research Center found that six in 10 Pakistanis consider the Americans an
"enemy" and only 12% have a favorable view of the United States.
This mutual distrust in part results from mistakes and misjudgments by both
countries that date back to the 1979-89 Russian occupation of Afghanistan. But
at its heart is an American strategy that not only runs counter to Pakistan's
interests, but will make ending the war in Afghanistan a far more painful
procedure than need be.
If Pakistan is a victim in the long-running war, it is not entirely an innocent
one. Pakistan, along with the United States, was an ally of the anti-communist,
right-wing mujahideen during the 1980s Afghan war.
Pakistan's interest in Afghanistan has always been multi-faceted. Islamabad is
deeply worried that its traditional enemy, India, will gain a foothold in
Afghanistan, thereby essentially surrounding Pakistan. This is not exactly
paranoid, as Pakistan has fought - and lost - three wars with India, and
tensions between the two still remain high.
Over the past six years, India has conducted 10 major military exercises along
the Pakistani border. The latest - Viajyee Bhava (Be Victorious) - involved
20,000 troops. India has the world's fourth-largest army, Pakistan the 15th.
By aligning itself with Washington during its Cold War competition with the
Soviets in Afghanistan, Islamabad had the inside track to buy high-performance
American military hardware to help it offset India's numerical superiority.
Indeed, it did manage to purchase some F-16s fighter-bombers.
But when Pakistan allied with the Taliban, India aligned itself with the
Northern Alliance, composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who opposed the
Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Pashtuns are a plurality in Afghanistan's complex
mix of ethnicities, and traditionally they dominated the Kabul government.
Islamabad has always been deeply concerned about the Pashtuns, because a
long-time fear of Islamabad is that Pakistani Pashtuns could ally themselves to
Afghani Pashtuns and form a breakaway country that would fragment Pakistan.
From Islamabad's point of view, the American demand that it corral the Taliban
and the Haqqani network that operate from mountainous northwest frontier and
Federally Administrated Tribal Areas of Pakistan could stir up Pashtun
In any case, the task would be beyond the capabilities of the Pakistan
military. In 2009, the Pakistani army used two full divisions just to reclaim
the Swat Valley from local militants, a battle that cost billions of dollars,
generated two million refugees, and inflicted heavy casualties.
Current US strategy has exacerbated Pakistan's problem by putting the Northern
Alliance in power, excluding the Pashtuns from any meaningful participation,
and targeting the ethnic group's heartland in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun, but he is little more than window dressing
in a government dominated by other ethnic groups. According to Zahid Hussain,
author of a book on Islamic militants, this has turned the war into a "Pashtun
war" and has meant that "the Pashtuns in Pakistan would become ... strongly
allied with both al-Qaeda and the Taliban".
The United States has also remained silent while India moved aggressively into
Afghanistan. On October 4, Kabul and New Delhi inked a "strategic partnership"
that, according to The New York Times, "paves the way for India to train and
equip Afghan security forces." The idea of India training Afghan troops is the
equivalent of waving a red flag to see if the Pakistani bull will charge.
One pretext for the agreement was the recent assassination of Burhanuddin
Rabbani, head of the Afghan High Peace Council, killed by the Taliban under the
direction of the Pakistani secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence
(ISI), according to Karzai government claims. But evidence linking the Taliban
or Pakistan to the hit is not persuasive, and the Taliban and the Haqqani
network - never shy about taking the credit for killing people - say they had
nothing to do with it.
Pakistan's ISI certainly maintains a relationship with the Afghan-based Taliban
and the Haqqanis, but former Joint Chiefs of Staff head, Admiral Mike Mullen's
charge that the latter are a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's ISI is simply false.
The Haqqanis come from the powerful Zadran tribe based in Paktia and Khost
provinces in Afghanistan and North Waziristan in Pakistan's tribal area.
When their interests coincide, the Haqqanis find common ground with Islamabad,
but the idea that Pakistan can get anyone in that region to jump to attention
reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the deeply engrained cultural and
ethnic currents that have successfully rebuffed outsiders for thousands of
years. And in the border region, the Pakistan army is as much an outsider as is
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Dealing with the mess
There is a way out of this morass, but it will require a very different
strategy than the one the United States is currently following, and one far
more attuned to the lens through which most Pakistanis view the war in
The United States and its allies must first stand down their military offensive
- including drone attacks - against the Taliban and the Haqqani network, and
negotiate a ceasefire. Then the United States must open immediate talks with
the various insurgency groups and declare a plan for the withdrawal of all
The Taliban - the Haqqanis say they will follow the organization's lead - have
indicated that they will no longer insist on a withdrawal of troops before
opening talks, but they do want a timetable. Any government in Kabul that
emerges from such negotiations must reflect the ethnic make-up of the country.
Pakistan's concerns over Indian influence must also be addressed, including the
dangerous issue of disputed Kashmir. President Barack Obama ran on a platform
that called for dealing with Kashmir, but he subsequently dropped it at the
insistence of New Delhi.
Pakistan and the United States may have profoundly different views of one
another, but on at least one issue they agree: slightly over 90% of Pakistanis
would like US troops to go home, and 62% of Americans want an immediate cut in
US forces. Common ground in this case seems to be based on a strong dose of
Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus.