On the other hand, if the U.S. military is already in a war, it does not like to be seen to lose it. This is as it should be. No country should want its armed forces to be made up of quitters. And, of course, apart from military pride, it is of great importance to U.S. power in the world, and to the struggle against Islamist extremism, that America not be seen to leave Afghanistan in defeat. But there comes a time in many wars when victory itself becomes so elusive, and the costs of pursuing it so great, that a broader and more detached view of national interests sees that these are best served by some form of compromise. This seems to me to be becoming the case in Afghanistan; not because of the costs of the Afghan war itself, which are bearable, but because of the way in which that conflict is destabilizing and radicalizing Pakistan, risking a geopolitical catastrophe for the United States—and the world—which would dwarf anything that could possibly occur in Afghanistan.
THAT PAKISTAN is quite simply far more important to the region, the West and the international community than Afghanistan is a matter not of sentiment but of mathematics. With around 184 million people, Pakistan has nearly six times the population of Afghanistan—or Iraq—over twice the population of Iran and almost two-thirds the population of the entire Arab world put together.
A central fact tends to be missed, in part because it is a deeply uncomfortable one for Americans, with their instinctive faith in democracy and their inborn desire to be liked and respected by other nations: that (and with deep regret I can attest to this from my own numerous interviews in Pakistan) the Afghan Taliban enjoy the sympathy of the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis at every level of society. And so the U.S. war there—and America’s demands of Pakistani assistance—are weakening the state. The support for the Taliban is not based in their religious ideology, which is alien to most Pakistanis. It is so prevalent because, as with the anti-Soviet mujahideen of the 1980s (who were also not admired for their extremist ideals), the Taliban are seen as a legitimate force of resistance against an alien occupation of the country.
Underlying this is a hatred of U.S. strategy—and to some extent, hatred of the United States as a whole—which, as repeated opinion surveys have indicated, is among the highest in the world. This feeling is reflected in the fact (which I can also attest to from my own experience) that the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis believe that 9/11 was a CIA and/or Mossad plot intended to justify a U.S. invasion and conquest of parts of the Muslim world. That this is poisonously evil rubbish which no one with two brain cells should be able to believe isn’t the point. The point is that Pakistanis do believe it, and this belief both reflects and reinforces their hatred of America and of Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. In the West, politicians and the media have attacked the Pakistani government and military for not doing enough to help us against the Afghan Taliban. The great majority of Pakistanis by contrast think that Islamabad is doing far too much.
These beliefs and sentiments are dangerous in a wider context as well, since they are wholly shared among people of Pakistani origin in the cities of Great Britain. And it is members of this minority in the UK who pose the greatest potential terrorist threat to the West from within the West. In their weakest incarnation, these anti-U.S. feelings create a willingness to make excuses for anti-Western terrorism; in their strongest, they may lead to active support and even participation in violence.
The help of the Pakistani intelligence services to Britain has been vital in identifying the links of these potential terrorists to groups in Pakistan, and to preventing more attacks on the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Islamabad therefore has been only a partial ally in the “war on terror”—but still a critical and irreplaceable one. For we need to remember that in the end, it is only legitimate Muslim governments and security services that can control terrorist plots on their soil. Western pressure may be necessary to push them in the right direction, but we need to be careful that this pressure does not become so overwhelming that it undermines or even destroys those governments by humiliating them in the eyes of their own people.
More threatening by far, however, is that these beliefs and feelings are almost certainly shared by a majority of Pakistani soldiers—who are to some extent insulated from society by military discipline and culture, but who obviously cannot be cut off from the influence of their families. The greatest potential catalyst for a collapse of the Pakistani state is not the Islamist militants themselves, who are in my view far too weak and divided to achieve this (a capacity for murderous terrorism should not be confused with a capacity for successful revolution); it is that actions by the United States will provoke a mutiny of parts of the military. Should that happen, the Pakistani state would collapse very quickly indeed, with all the disasters that this would entail.