“I don’t care if someone is giving us money; we are not a purchasable commodity. We cannot be bought. We can live in hunger, but we won’t compromise our national interests.”
– Bashir Bilour, a Pakistani senior minister, in angry response following an al-Qaeda reprisal for the American killing of Osama bin Laden
That quotation sums up in a nutshell our current impasse with Pakistan and why it is time to redefine our relationship. If one were to follow the counterfactual logic of Mr. Bilour, it was not in the national interests of Pakistan to arrest the mass murderer of 3,000 Americans living in sanctuary in the suburbs of its capital city. It was not in Pakistan’s interests because a vast segment of the Pakistani population favors the agenda of radical Islam, either condones or is indifferent to its jihadism, and feels that only American cash prevents the government from overtly supporting a preferable Islamist agenda. So Bilour is quite right: Pakistan should not be a “purchasable commodity,” and instead should feel free both to reject American aid and not to compromise its “national interests” by opposing radical Islam.
For years, we have heard ad nauseam both Pakistan’s excuses for why it acts so duplicitously and our own diplomatic community’s reasons why we, in response, cannot cut off aid.
The two narratives often run something like this:
The Pakistani Plea
(a) We suffer more from radical Islamic terrorism than do you, and in fact have experienced an upswing in violence because of our decade-long, post–9/11 alliance with you.
(b) The United States does not respect our sovereignty and violates both our land borders and our air space at will.
(c) There is no hope for Afghanistan without us; cut us off and we will cut you off from all logistics coming in and out of Afghanistan.
(d) Your aid — $3 to $4 billion a year — is not all that much.
(e) We are the only Islamic nuclear nation, and we deserve a respect commensurate with our strategic importance, especially given your use and abuse of us during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
(f) You already favor India, and you must show some modicum of diplomatic, political, and strategic balance.
American diplomatic, academic, and military experts tend to agree, and they usually offer us somewhat similar apologies.
The American Argument
(a) Yes, elements of the Pakistani government support terrorists — both al-Qaeda and the Taliban — who kill Americans and disrupt Afghanistan, but other, “good” elements of the military and government oppose these “rogue” actors and help us. So we are in a partnership with good Pakistanis against rogue Pakistanis.
(b) In truth, Pakistan is more duplicitous and untrustworthy in its alliances with Islamists than it is with the United States.
(c) A poor Pakistan has vast regions of wild borderlands and frontier that it simply cannot control; how can it be faulted for failing at what it cannot possibly do?
(d) Pakistan has the bomb; our aid, humiliating to us as it sometimes is portrayed, actually serves as valuable bribe money, ensuring that Pakistan does not “lend” a nuke or two to another illegitimate Islamic dictatorship or “lose” three or four bombs to assorted terrorists.
(e) The American public does not grasp, and cannot be fully told, of the myriad ways, informal and stealthy, that Pakistan helps us in the region.
All of these narratives have some merit but are ultimately unconvincing reasons to subsidize Pakistan.
First, we regret that Pakistan is a victim of domestic terrorism; but it antedated and will postdate our alliance, and is the wages of Pakistan’s own endemic corruption, religious intolerance, and government illegitimacy.
We can hardly respect a theoretical sovereignty that the Pakistani government itself admits it does not exercise. Are we to assume that Pakistan cannot enter its own borderlands, and so America cannot either, when those areas harbor killers of our citizens?