“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?
Americans do not like duplicitous allies, but they especially do not like subsidizing the duplicity. Almost every major Islamic terrorist with American blood on his hands whom our forces have captured or killed, from Khalid Sheik Mohammed to Osama bin Laden, was finally tracked down in Pakistan — often in upscale urban areas. As far as Afghanistan goes, Pakistan might do its worst, and we will try to do our best, and that is just the way it is, in this eternally bad/worse-case scenario.
There are all sorts of important nuclear powers that we do not subsidize. Russian Communism in Afghanistan was a greater threat to Pakistan than it was to the United States. Should we have given no aid then, or given aid and then stayed on? Either policy would have incurred Pakistani animosity. Again, as for nukes, it is not in Pakistan’s own interest to give nukes to anyone, unless it wishes current terrorism against it to include a nuclear component or prefers to lose its Islamic nuclear exclusivity. The United States would assume that any use of a nuclear device against America by an Islamic terrorist would ultimately be traced to Pakistan — and, of course, we would take the necessary countermeasures and retaliation. We would hope that deterrent message was by now well known.
India is democratic and pro-American; Pakistan is not. India is also huge, successful, and an ally in the war against jihadism. The question is not balance, but why we do not tilt farther toward India, a free-market economy that shares many of our own goals and aspirations. India is a natural and strategic ally; Pakistan is increasingly a natural and strategic belligerent.
As for our own rationales, consider the following rebuttals:
The good and bad elements of the Pakistani military and government are now so intertwined that even they cannot sort them out. What counts is not factions within Pakistan, but how they are expressed and play out. Among the worst setbacks in American foreign policy in the last twenty years were Pakistan’s acquisition of the bomb, and Pakistan’s hand in ensuring that bin Laden was largely safe for a decade. We care about those facts, not about Pakistan’s internal politics.
If Pakistan renounces American aid, it will nevertheless still incur terrorist attacks. Again, terrorism is endemic to Pakistan for reasons that transcend America.
Pakistan’s wild lands are useful to Pakistan, both providing deniability (e.g., “We can’t go there either”), and as an ongoing excuse for American aid. Terrorists get their own play yard, and their eternal presence justifies eternal billions in aid to Pakistani elites.
When we used to give aid to Pakistan it nevertheless still started work on the bomb; has resumption of that aid done much of anything to curtail its nuclear posturing?
The inability to explain the Pakistan alliance in any convincing fashion to the American public is not a reason to maintain the aid, but one to end it outright.
In conclusion, over the last two decades we have had all sorts of relationships with a nuclear and non-nuclear Pakistan: estrangement; an anti-Soviet, anti-Indian alliance; restored diplomatic relations; massive foreign aid; etc. We often change our approach; Pakistan stays the same.
What is the problem? The majority in Pakistan, so far as we can tell, is religiously intolerant, anti-American, and tribal. A plebiscite, fairly conducted, would result in a far more illiberal government than the Westernized megaphones that the often rigged and corrupt elections produce. Because elite Pakistani military and political leaders do not have real legitimacy, they must alternately disguise and lament, and then indulge and appease, the illiberal natures of their constituents.
What is the solution? Praise Pakistan. Avoid provocative statements. But by all means gradually and without fanfare prune back aid — say, at the rate of about $100 million a month. And then accept that in reaction Pakistan will more shamelessly hide terrorists, threaten nuclear proliferation, and destabilize the Karzai government, as it is freed to express its natural proclivities and “national interests” as a de facto enemy of the United States. Develop much closer relations with India. All of this will not make the situation in the region any better, but it will bring clarity, send a message that America is tired of treacherous allies — and save money. And in this ungodly mess, that at least counts for something.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.