U.S. STRATEGY toward Pakistan is focused on trying to get Islamabad to give serious help to Washington’s campaign against the Afghan Taliban. There are two rather large problems with this approach. The first is that it is never going to happen. As U.S. diplomats in Pakistan themselves recognize (and as was made ever so clear by the WikiLeaks dispatches), both Pakistani strategic calculations and the feelings of the country’s population make it impossible for Islamabad to take such a step, except in return for U.S. help against India—which Washington also cannot deliver.
The second problem is that it gets America’s real priorities in the region back to front. The war in Afghanistan is a temporary U.S. interest, in which the chief concern is not the reality of victory or defeat as such (if only because neither can be clearly defined) but preserving some appearance of success in order to avoid the damage to American military prestige that would result from obvious failure. By contrast, preserving the Pakistani state and containing the terrorist threat to the West from Pakistan is a permanent vital interest not only of the U.S. military and political establishments but of every American citizen.
And while the prospects for any sort of real success in Afghanistan look gloomy indeed, if saving Pakistan is the real priority, then things do not look so desperate, despite all the bad news from that country. This is because while getting large numbers of Pakistanis to help America is virtually impossible, getting enough Pakistanis to preserve their existing state is much easier. To a great extent, this is for negative reasons: the elites, and indeed many of the masses, have an acute sense of the horrors that would result from the country’s collapse. However, a degree of positive loyalty is also present in one key institution and in one key province: namely the military and the Punjab.
If Pakistan is to be broken as a state, it will be on the streets of Lahore and other great Punjabi cities, not in the Pashtun mountains. By the same token, the greatest potential terrorist threat to the United States and its Western allies from the region stems not from the illiterate and isolated Pashtuns but from Islamist groups based in urban Punjab, with their far-higher levels of sophistication and their international links, above all to the Pakistani diaspora in the West.
OF COURSE, the United States and some of its allies are embroiled in a war in Afghanistan, from which they have to try to extract themselves without humiliation. Inevitably, this conflict creates priorities of its own. Indeed, if the war in Afghanistan is to be America’s priority, then present U.S. concentration on the Pashtun areas of Pakistan is logical, since they are adjacent to Afghanistan, and it is there that the Taliban have their bases and from there that they draw much of their support (it is worth remembering that a majority of Pashtuns live in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and that cross-border ties have always been very close).
Nonetheless, it is essential that the makers of U.S. strategy also keep in mind the vital long-term interests of the United States and the safety of its citizens, interests which will remain long after the last American soldier has left Afghanistan. I have been struck, both in the United States and in Britain, by the tendency of officers and officials to speak and write as if protecting the lives of troops from Taliban attack is the first duty of the U.S. and British states. In fact, it is the duty of soldiers to risk their lives to protect the civilian populations of their countries, and the only valid reason why the U.S. and British militaries are in Afghanistan at all is to protect their fellow citizens from terrorism. If that equation is reversed, and the needs of the war in Afghanistan are actually worsening the terrorist threat to the U.S. and British homelands, then our campaign there becomes not just strategically but morally ludicrous.
This statement is not intended as a standard attack either on the overweening power of the American armed forces or on the country’s “militarism.” Paradoxically, the U.S. military is not in general a militarist force in the shaping of U.S. policy, if one gives “militarist” its old connotations of aggression and warmongering. Under the last Bush administration, the military was far more cautious than many of the president’s political appointees, and military opposition reportedly played an important part in blocking a U.S. attack on Iran in the last year of Bush’s second term. Military caution is rooted in a strong and realistic sense of the limits on America’s resources and of the potentially catastrophic risks of further open-ended military commitments. The role of the armed forces in shaping and limiting a U.S. administration’s options may be questionable under the Constitution, but it is something for which we may have good reason to be grateful under a future Republican president after 2012 or 2016.