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Published on: October 28, 2009
Carpet Bombing

There’s a beautiful kilim on the blogging room floor here at the stately Mead manor in Jackson Heights; I bought it in Peshawar about three years ago when I was giving a series of lectures on American foreign policy across Pakistan.  I couldn’t buy it in the market; the security situation in Peshawar was so […]

There’s a beautiful kilim on the blogging room floor here at the stately Mead manor in Jackson Heights; I bought it in Peshawar about three years ago when I was giving a series of lectures on American foreign policy across Pakistan.  I couldn’t buy it in the market; the security situation in Peshawar was so dicey at the time that my State Department minders wouldn’t let me set foot in the bazaar. Fortunately the head of the AID mission was a rug collector and he persuaded a dealer to bring the market to me: dozens of glorious Central Asian rugs were laid out across his carport and lawn as I wandered around trying to figure out how many of these dazzling rugs I could bundle into my luggage for the trip home.  From time to time the ground would shake as heavily laden planes took off headed for the nearby warfront in Afghanistan just over the mountains.

This morning I see that they’ve bombed the market in Peshawar; some months ago a suicide bomber drove a truck into the hotel where I stayed.

There’s no doubt that Pakistan is the toughest and most dangerous problem in American foreign policy; it’s one of the most complicated, dangerous and engaging places in the world.  Hilary Clinton is visiting the country as I write; she will find, I suspect, as I did that there are few places with more brilliant, talented and well intentioned people than this country – but that these brilliant and talented people have no idea among themselves how Pakistan’s problems can be solved, and the more time she spends with them the more confused she is likely to become about what America should do.

But there’s one thing she needs to bear in mind; I bring it up because I’ve found that both in the news coverage of Pakistan and even in the expert discussion about it, Americans consistently seem to underestimate the importance of a single, central topic in our relations with Pakistan.

That subject is India.

No relationship in world politics has changed as dramatically in the last ten years as the U.S.-India relationship.  The Bush administration gets the historical credit for pushing this relationship to a new level, but the logic is clear to both sides.  The emergence of India as a great global power is the centerpiece of America’s Asia policy – and America’s Asia policy is the centerpiece of our grand strategy for the twenty first century.

The logic is pretty compelling.  If India continues to prosper and grow, the danger that the United States and China will clash dramatically declines.  A weak India means an unbalanced Asia – China would stand alone as an economic and military superpower and the United States would have to choose between trying to ‘contain’ China by rounding up an alliance of its nervous neighbors or it would have to accept China as the dominant superpower in the world’s most dynamic economic region.

But if India emerges as a strong economic and military power, Asia is a very different place.  India, China and Japan between them would form a rough balance of power; any two of them, especially with the prospect of American support, would be able to balance the third.  A strong India dramatically increases the chance that Asia will be stable and prosperous in the twenty first century; it also increases the chance that the United States would enjoy a unique global role in a world of strong regional powers.

This is pretty much game, set and match from the standpoint of the traditional goals of Anglo-American foreign policy.  (Readers who want to know more about this can look at my recent book God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World.)

This logic is why the Bush administration reached its historic agreement with India over nuclear weapons and why, despite reservations by long time opponents of nuclear proliferation, Congress agreed to it.

The only problem with this otherwise excellent initiative is that it totally destroyed the historic foundations of Pakistani foreign policy.

Ever since British India was partitioned between India and Pakistan, Pakistanis have felt they were engaged in a desperate and uneven struggle for survival against a hostile, larger rival.  The loss of most of Muslim-majority Kashmir and the subsequent secession, with India’s help, of modern Bangla Desh (formerly East Pakistan) have both dramatically reduced Pakistan’s economic and military potential and reinforced Pakistani fears of a hostile, aggressive India.

The Pakistani military has always looked to outside powers – first to Britain and more recently to the United States – for the financial and technical aid that would enable Pakistan to maintain a military force that could deter the feared Indian aggression.

During the Cold War, we were willing to pay up; India tilted toward the USSR and the U.S. tilted toward Pakistan.

Now that logic has changed.  The United States talks about a strategic global partnership with India – while relegating Pakistan to a secondary ally in a nasty local conflict in Afghanistan.  The United States has accepted India’s nuclear arsenal and opened the door to widespread cooperation by other nuclear powers with India’s nuclear industry.  Nothing like that is currently on the table with Pakistan.

Americans don’t think about all this very much; Pakistanis think about it often, sometimes obsessively.

They also look ahead.

India has a larger economy than Pakistan’s and it is growing more rapidly.  As India’s influence in the world grows, what happens to Pakistan?  Even before the wave of radical violence now shaking the country, Pakistan was divided between different ethnic and regional groups and tribes.  Not all of them are happy with the status quo.  Socially, Pakistani elites are sitting on a volcano.  Many Pakistanis live under conditions of feudal exploitation and oppression.  When the Taliban occupied the Swat valley, there were stories of guerillas driving unpopular landlords away.  Let religious insurrection meet a peasants’ revolt and you have a true nightmare scenario from the standpoint of Pakistan’s rulers: Osama bin Laden, meet Mao Tse Tung.

This is the world of Pakistan’s rulers, and it is a dark and scary place.  Pakistanis have traditionally looked to the Saudis and the Chinese for alternatives to their American connection; Saudi money is widely rumored to have helped support the Pakistani nuclear program.

China is attracted to Pakistan.  Chinese-Indian relations have deteriorated sharply even as U.S.-Indian (and Japanese-Indian) relations have improved.  Yet so far, the Chinese have been cautious; Pakistan is a troublesome partner and the Chinese have their own issues with Islamic radicalism in Central Asia.

So far, Americans and Pakistanis remain trapped in a dysfunctional relationship that doesn’t really work for either one of us – but one neither of us is able to end.  Unfortunately, the clock is ticking.  Pakistan’s internal and external problems are growing steadily worse, and the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is steadily becoming less attractive but more necessary to both sides.

It is hard to see how this ends well for either side.

The last time I visited Pakistan, I spent a lot of my time surrounded by heavily armed police, moving through cities like Peshawar on carefully plotted routes.  I hope to return before long – though I fear that it will be a long time before I can do what I really wanted to do in Peshawar: wander freely through the markets and streets, enjoying the hospitality and admiring the creativity of some of the kindest and most generous and intelligent people anywhere on earth.

show comments
  • Ben

    But what could be done in the short term to improve US-Pakistan relations without endangering the progress made with India?

  • Julia

    What is your opinion on the Kerry-Lugar bill? It seems well-intentioned, but even with the amendments that have been made, an inevitable source of frustration and anger in Pakistan.

  • Sandeep Yadav

    Pakistan has become a problem none smaller than climate change, not only for India but for the world as well. Unfortunately, the scale is yet to dawn on most of the global “players”. Pakistan has all the ingredients for most catastrofic disasters boiling in the pot: a ‘Large’ population fed on radical Islamism with easy access to AK-47 and worse “Export organisations” with deep pockets; crippled economy; a nonfunctional democracy; a military and political class surviving on jingoism, conflict and fear; Insecure nuclear weapons.

    Pakistan’s potential to cripple the Whole world through an out of control terrorism is too great to ignore, yet the players of the game of the Nations ignore it. Why?

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  • Michael

    The most singular issue in the region is the prevalent Pakistani paranoia and yes mostly related to India in the case of the gov but the people in the street are more and more conditioned to thinking it is the west that is at fault, the mullahs have been active in the pulpits. Until the gov and army of Pakistan start to face reality and ensure that the population understands the real issues Pakistan is going to be a powder keg just waiting to go off and destroy all those around it.

  • Billy

    Sandeep, i can see where you coming from and your biased opinion. Anyways, back to the point. I think U.S would do a world of a good to its interest and Pakistan’s by withdrawing from Afghanistan. The pakistanis think that the U.S have a year left in Afghanistan before packing up and once again they have to clean up the mess in afghanistan left by the U.S and clear india out of its backyard.

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  • Walter Russell Mead

    Foreign policy isn’t easy; some problems have to be lived with — they can’t be solved. We’ve tried to press for some kind of solution to the Kashmir issue; this probably isn’t going to happen quickly and our leverage is limited. However, taking the issue seriously and making an attempt to address Pakistan’s concerns is a help.

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