U.S. relations with Pakistan for long haul

Freedom New Mexico

To be sure, many of the Pakistani government’s troubles are of their own making. Even so, it is possible to have a mild empathy for the Pakistanis, whose situation has become markedly less stable since the terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) in late November.

The Pakistanis have been playing any number of dangerous double and triple games over the last several years — trying to appear to be a reliable U.S. ally in the “war on terror” while funding (or unofficially tolerating) terrorist/guerrilla groups that harass India in the disputed region of Kashmir and increasingly send fighters to Afghanistan, where they confront U.S. and NATO troops.

Several terrorist attacks inside India have been attributed to Pakistan-based jihad groups. And the emerging evidence is increasingly strong that the Mumbai attacks were coordinated by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a guerrilla group based in Pakistani Kashmir that has been officially outlawed since 2002 but operates more or less openly.

Lashkar-e-Taiba was actually formed, in 1989, with the cooperation and sponsorship of the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which sometimes operates beyond the control (or even the knowledge) of the civilian government and was instrumental in installing the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The current civilian government, under President Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, assumed power only months ago and is riven by internal divisions. Even if it were firmly implanted, it is clear that the army and the ISI have more of a say than the civilian government does when it comes to crucial decisions.

Adding to the instability: Al-Qaida and the Taliban seem to have implanted themselves in Pakistan’s northwest territories and Federally Administered Tribal Areas, from which they launch attacks into Afghanistan, and the fact that U.S. drone attacks on suspected militant encampments in these regions almost always kill civilians and stir up domestic anti-Americanism and discontent with the Pakistani government.

The Pakistan government is reported to have conducted a raid on one Lashkar camp and arrested “more than 12 people,” according to The Associated Press. It is unclear, however, whether this was the beginning of a concerted campaign against the organization or a cosmetic action designed to allow the government, which has been under pressure from the Indian and U.S. governments to neutralize Lashkar and similar groups, to be able to say it had done something, even if that is all it does.

All these regional machinations (we haven’t even touched on the historical distrust between India and Pakistan, the main reason both countries now have nuclear weapons) underline the difficulties the United States faces when it expands its interest in a region, as in Afghanistan. The U.S. has enlarged its focus from dislodging a terrorist-sponsoring operation to trying to build a Western-style nation-state in a country that might not be suited to having a central government at all. After 9/11 the U.S. decided Pakistan was essential to the anti-terror effort, but in the process it took on a country some have described as ungovernable and one in which hidden forces are often more important than public commitments.

Thus a course that might seem tempting — offering technical assistance to both India and Pakistan to ensure their nuclear weapons are secure but otherwise washing our hands of the intricate historic hostilities of the region — is almost impossible because of previous commitments. So U.S. involvement in disputes it barely understands is likely to become even more entrenched.