The storytellers of Islamabad hope that Americans, fearful of China, will return hat in hand and accept whatever Pakistan offers. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” is often used to humorously justify an explanation that one knows not to be true.
But it is one thing for a portly individual to declare “I’m not overweight, just naturally large”. It is quite another for a nation to insist on telling a story and sticking to it even when the rest of the world stops finding any humour in it. Pakistan’s version of its external relations over the last several decades falls under the category of falsified narratives that would actually be funny if their consequences weren’t so sad.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar described China as Pakistan’s “only real strategic partner” over the last four decades. China is the only country with whom Pakistan had “a complete alignment of interests,” she said, with a completely straight face, as if Pakistan had never sought (and received) Major Non-NATO Ally Status from the United States or declared it a strategic partner repeatedly.
The new story, aimed at Americans who fret about losing Pakistan as an ally, completely ignores the economic and security assistance of over $45 billion received from the United States since the 1950s; at least $33 billion since 9/11. But it is just a rewrite of the old story, which told of Pakistan’s exertions on behalf of America during the Cold War, its sufferings resulting from the services it rendered to Uncle Sam, and the insufficient reward the US has given Pakistan for being – in President Eisenhower’s words – “America’s most allied ally in Asia”.
As a SEATO and CENTO ally in the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan helped the US spy on China and the Soviet Union. During the 1980s, Pakistan was a frontline ally in Afghanistan. Pakistan sought (and got) massive American assistance in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, primarily because this helped it achieve its own goals in Afghanistan and furthered the cause of jihadis it had already started supporting. After a hiatus in the 1990s resulting from the American disapproval of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, intelligence cooperation formed the basis of Pakistan’s frontline ally status in the Global War on Terrorism after 9/11.
Through all these twists and turns, Pakistan’s leaders proclaimed shared interests with the United States, which showered aid in return. At no stage was it part of Pakistan’s mantra that its interests aligned only with China’s. Pakistan maintained close ties with Beijing but its relationship with the United States was more important.
It is perfectly fine for Pakistanis to assert now that their national interests, as defined by their military-intelligence establishment and endorsed by the civilian elite, converge more with the Chinese than the Americans. But what is the point of insisting on rewriting history?
Pakistani leaders only lose credibility when they resort to intellectual gymnastics to justify convoluted policies. For example, after years of claiming that Pakistan and the United States were partners in efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, Khar seems to have now discovered that the “presence of the United States of America in Afghanistan is not for peace and stability” and instead is causing “chaos”. During the 1990s, when the US partly turned away from Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s storyline was that ‘the US withdrawal so soon after the Soviet withdrawal was the cause for chaos in Afghanistan’.
Afghan civil war, the rise of the Taliban, and even 9/11 were ascribed in that version of events to America turning away from Pakistan’s north-western neighbour. It seems that in the Pakistani storytellers’ accounts, other nations are right only when they share the extremist Pakistani view of India being the source of all of South Asia’s problems, and are prepared to confer primacy on Pakistan within its region.
Americans, generally not known for their interest in history, have successively bought the simplified views offered to them of why things in Afghanistan or Pakistan have gone wrong and how the current batch of Pakistani leaders was committed to helping them solve America’s problem in the region. The harder line taken by Khar about America as the source of chaos in Afghanistan, and of China being Pakistan’s only ally, is directed at the naïve souls who assume that ‘tomorrow is another day’ and that one should focus on building a future without dwelling on the past.
It is a response to President Trump’s tough stance on demanding that Pakistan keep its word to the United States over Afghanistan. Even an astute interviewer such as Christiane Amanpour failed to push back Khar by asking how, if US policies have created chaos, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban since 1994 has contributed to peace-building in Afghanistan?
It would be honest if Khar and others acknowledge the fact that Pakistan’s agenda in Afghanistan has always been very different from America’s. Instead, they still build the argument negatively, by blaming the US and continuing to cite imaginary threats from India.
Pakistan’s desire to install a “pro-Pakistan” regime in Kabul has led to its support of Islamist radicals, including the Taliban, since the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet forces. Its motive for supporting the anti-Soviet Jihad between 1979 and 1988 was also not limited to defeating the Soviets but was motivated by its desire to influence or control Afghanistan through Jihadis.
In his book ‘The Wars of Afghanistan’, US diplomat Peter Tomsen-who served for years as point man on Afghanistan right after the Soviet withdrawal-noted that Americans mistakenly ignored the vision of Pakistan’s generals, formulated by the late General Zia-ul-Haq: “Strategic depth against India, Pakistani hegemony in Afghanistan, and promotion of Islamic holy war in Kashmir.”
Investigative journalist Steve Coll’s new book ‘Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016’ reaches a similar conclusion. According to Coll, “the failure to solve the riddle of the ISI and to stop its covert interference in Afghanistan became, ultimately, the greatest strategic failure of the American war.”
Taliban, and its associated group the Haqqani network, are currently Pakistan’s principal instruments of influence over Afghanistan. They have demonstrated their capability in insurgency and conducting suicide bombings. They continue to threaten the security of Afghanistan, and from Pakistan’s perspective, that is useful in ensuring Kabul’s compliance with Pakistan’s demand to significantly downgrade its relationship with India.
Pakistan remains a safe haven for the Taliban, even if the ISI no longer fully controls the operations of all Taliban factions. Meanwhile, Afghan leaders remain at a loss to understand what they need to do to please Pakistan and ensure that Pakistan no longer supports the jihadis.
Late Afghan leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, once said, “The best way for Pakistan would have been to restore peace in Afghanistan. And it would have been in the interest of all, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. But Pakistanis have greater plans, motives and expectations. Pakistan wants to become the axis of all Islamic countries in the region. But that is something which is beyond the capacity of Pakistan.” Unfortunately, the storytellers of Islamabad do not want to recognize that.
They are still hoping that Americans, tired of trying to solve the Pakistan riddle and fearful of China’s advantage within Pakistan, will return hat in hand to Islamabad and accept whatever Pakistan offers.