When discussing the various inconvenient friendships of convenience in which the United States is entangled, Pakistan is a country that comes to mind almost immediately. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, the South Asian nation has had a difficult time maintaining pace with other economic juggernauts in the neighborhood—namely, China and India. Though Pakistan’s stagnating agrarian-based economy deserves its fair share of the blame for the country’s current state, the directionless and at times counterintuitive national-defense policies adopted by the ruling elite have also played their part in this downward spiral.
In its seventy-five years of existence, Pakistan has fought four wars with its archrival India, gone through a civil war that saw the liberation of its eastern wing (now known as Bangladesh), and has been facing waves of terrorism for the past two decades. As a result of such constant geopolitical turmoil, the country’s democratic institutions have continued to erode over time, paving the way for military dictators to rule the country for over half of its lifespan. Even in times when elected civilian governments have existed, the all-powerful military establishment has continued to exert its dominance over defense and foreign policy.
And to the detriment of both Pakistani and American long-term interests, the military establishment has consistently maintained its policies of appeasing and sponsoring terrorist groups. Outfits like al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have been known to have institutional support from the Pakistani military through its premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Among the multitude of reasons why the Pakistani military establishment has chosen this calamitous approach is an eternal quest for “strategic depth.” Pakistan is sandwiched between India in the east and Afghanistan and Iran in the west. Given the intense and bloodied rivalry with India, a country four times as big in land mass and almost seven times as big in population, the Pakistani military establishment determined that the best approach would be to install a puppet government in Afghanistan.
In the view of the country’s top military brass, this would give Pakistan the strategic depth the nation needed to offset India’s growing military and geopolitical stature. To achieve this decade-long goal, the military establishment, through the ISI, has been arming, training, and logistically supporting certain terrorist groups deemed to be both capable of establishing their rule in Afghanistan and loyal to Pakistani interests.
For the United States, Pakistan’s cozy relationship with armed militant groups was a trump card in the Cold War, when these very groups were used to take down the mighty Soviet military as it invaded Afghanistan starting in 1979. Washington provided extensive financial support to the Mujahideen through a CIA-run covert program, Operation Cyclone. Using these funds, ISI operatives ran training camps for thousands of Mujahideen fighters. The effort paid off when the Soviets fully withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. The Soviet Union could never recover from this geostrategic low and ended up being dissolved in 1991.
Fast forward a few more years and the extremists, ever loyal to their ISI handlers, won control of Afghanistan, giving Pakistan the much-coveted comfort of ‘strategic depth’, and giving the United States a victory in the Cold War. Win-win situation, right? The thousands of Americans and the millions of Afghanis affected by the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath would say otherwise. You see, Operation Cyclone was all about creating a lethal guerrilla force, capable of defeating the mighty Soviets. This task was accomplished successfully, but as we learned in the era of former President George W. Bush, “Mission Accomplished” can often mean something different than its literal meaning.
Eventually, the monster that the U.S.-Pakistani partnership of convenience created would come back to haunt both countries. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Washington pressed the Pakistani military establishment to completely dissociate itself from any and all radical Islamist terror groups, an ultimatum that some Pakistani policymakers found hard to swallow. In subsequent years, Pakistan continued to covertly nurture these terrorist groups, using them against India and the Western-backed government in Afghanistan.
As Pakistan continued to adhere to its strategy of double-facedness, the United States kept bestowing its former ally with political and financial accolades. Pakistan was even given arguably the most prestigious friendship bracelet that America issue—being designated a major non-NATO ally (MNNA). Currently, only nineteen countries have been declared MNNAs, with the most controversial and questionable being Pakistan. Additionally, in the last two decades, Pakistan was provided with billions of dollars of American taxpayer money in military aid to earn its support in the post-9/11 War in Afghanistan.
Yet the policy of backstabbing continued. In fact, when asked about who is most responsible for the 2021 Fall of Kabul into Taliban hands, any seasoned and impartial member of the United States Intelligence Community will point toward Pakistan and the ISI in a heartbeat. In the last few years, American leaders and policymakers have become increasingly wary of Pakistan’s deceitful practices. This has pushed Pakistan more towards China’s sphere of influence, with the latter signing on to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2015, a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project seen as the centerpiece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The United States has two options in its partnership with Pakistan. The first option is to conduct exhaustive lobbying efforts through international organizations to woo Pakistan’s military leadership. Specifically, the United States can use its influence over the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to secure bailout packages for Pakistan’s cash-strapped economy. In exchange, Pakistan can be made to grant certain assurances that it will use its intelligence capabilities to monitor potential threats to the United States and its allies from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The alternative is to accept Pakistan’s status as China’s “all-weather friend” and focus on boosting ties with a country that sees both Pakistan and China as adversaries: India. Obviously, this approach would mean abandoning a geopolitically important country and leaving it in the hands of an increasingly powerful rival. If you accept domino theory, this may not seem like the finest strategy, but it sure is an option. Now, it is up to the decisionmakers in Washington to make the call as soon as possible. As onlookers, we can only hope that they make the right one.
Zoraiz Zafar is a student at Colorado College.
This essay was a runner-up in the 2023 John Quincy Adams Society Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.