By George Friedman
The U.S.-Pakistan alliance is over. The Pakistani foreign minister said as much during a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, a statement made in response to the announcement that the U.S. would cut off all aid to Pakistan for its failure to suppress jihadists in Afghanistan and, according to some, for its role in aiding them. There is reason to believe the statement is not just politics as usual. The interests of Pakistan and the U.S. are profoundly different, and though it is possible for them to reconcile them, it is unlikely.
Structures in South Asia
The U.S.-Pakistan alliance began in the early days of the Cold War, shortly after the Partition of India created Pakistan in 1947. India and Pakistan, now distinct countries, were immediate enemies. The Indians claimed to be neutral but were ideologically and strategically aligned with the Soviet Union. The alliance concerned the United States but terrified Pakistan, which saw it could not survive a war against India if India were backed by the Soviets. An alliance with the United States was therefore inevitable.
But the alliance structures of South Asia quickly became more complex. China, another major player in the region, was initially aligned with the Soviets after World War II but would, over the course of the next two decades, slowly break away from Moscow and informally align with Washington. China viewed both the Soviet Union and India as potential threats, making Beijing a natural ally to Pakistan. Washington may not have been thrilled with this newfound relationship, but the alliance did not undermine U.S. interests in containing the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union, in an effort to stabilize its southern border, invaded Afghanistan in 1980 and, in doing so, established a presence near Pakistan’s border – a presence that pleased India. The Soviet invasion frightened the United States, which had just been kicked out of Iran by the revolution in 1979. Washington thought the Soviets would use Afghanistan as a base from which to move on the Persian Gulf. Far-fetched though that may have been – there are easier ways to move into Iran than through Afghanistan – the United States was still compelled to contain the Soviets.
Military engagement against Moscow was not an option, given the distance and the terrain. Instead, Washington armed Muslim forces to wage war on its behalf. And it did so with the help of Pakistan, which likewise wanted to block Soviet expansion, and Saudi Arabia, which had been under pressure from Moscow to break its alliance with Washington since the 1950s. A three-party strategy was thus created. The Saudis would recruit what were called mujahedeen fighters, who would be trained in Pakistan and controlled by the CIA and Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency.
But the war had an unintended consequence: It galvanized the more radical elements in Afghanistan and in the ISI. Pakistan is, after all, a highly religious country. These elements framed the battle against the Soviets in religious terms, not political ones, and so jihadism was institutionalized not just in the untamed reaches of Afghanistan but also in Pakistani intelligence. (Ethnicity also complicated the situation. One major ethnic group, the Pashtuns, lived in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and, along with the jihadists, would be the object of U.S. retribution after 9/11.)
The United States lost interest in Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet Union. Iran and Iraq, not Afghanistan, were the new threats to the Persian Gulf. But Pakistan could not afford to lose interest in Afghanistan, a country with which it was bound ethnically, religiously and, in light of the years spent fighting the Soviets, martially. It had a strategic interest in any threat that materialized there.
The threat that would eventually materialize there was jihadism, the adherents of which would use Afghanistan as a base to launch the 9/11 attacks against the United States. The United States invaded Afghanistan, in concert with various factions that were available for alliance for various reasons. Washington expected the ISI to share intelligence on al-Qaida and the Taliban. But this was difficult for Pakistan to do, considering the ISI had spent the 1990s using its anti-Soviet allies to create an Islamic state under the Taliban. The Pakistanis did not want al-Qaida to attack the United States, but neither did they want to bring down the entire political structure they had fought the Soviets to create.
Looking for an Endgame
Geopolitically, this created new realities in South Asia. The Soviet Union no longer existed, so India was no longer allied with it. China, for its part, was much more interested in economic growth than it was in supporting Pakistan against the U.S. and India, which had begun to enhance relations. In other words, Pakistan was isolated. The government in Islamabad knew that helping the U.S. would destabilize Pakistan because the Islamists within its borders would resent it. But Pakistan could not face a hostile United States and India, especially with limited Chinese help.
In this context, Pakistan crafted a strategy of cooperating with the U.S. in Afghanistan without going so far as to anger its Islamist elements. It walked a very fine line, and the government frequently went too far one way or the other. The United States understood the Pakistani dilemma and saw a stable and vaguely pro-American Pakistan as more important than a total commitment of Pakistan to the American war. Each was forced to get less than it needed from the other.
At this point, the United States is looking for an endgame in Afghanistan. It has spent 16 years fighting a war but has not yet achieved its goals. The U.S. will no longer devote large numbers of troops because large numbers of troops failed before. It is instead creating smaller, highly focused units designed to cripple certain factions of the Taliban and force some sort of politically acceptable outcome. The more tactical the approach, the more the U.S. needs Pakistani cooperation. Pakistan is not prepared to do that, since a U.S. departure would leave Pakistan facing strong hostile forces on its border.
Meanwhile, India has more actively participated in a U.S.-led alliance with Japan and Australia meant to counter Chinese naval power. Caught between the U.S. and India, and cognizant of India’s rise, Pakistan must either get the U.S. to ease up or persuade China to become its ally again. This is the last thing the U.S. wants to see.
The U.S. has learned what many powers before it have come to know: that engagement in this volatile region is sometimes necessary, but rarely is the outcome pleasant. Washington now finds itself still at war with the Taliban and increasingly at odds with a hostile Pakistan, which may soon reactivate its relationship with China. The end of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance should not be taken lightly.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this analysis listed Pakistan’s prime minister as the subject of a Wall Street Journal interview. In fact, it was the foreign minister. The error has been corrected on site.