Pakistan, they used to joke, is a Triple-A country, meaning power is held by Allah, the Army, and the Americans. Pakistan is in the process of being downgraded to a 2A country, which is good for no one.
It is difficult to fault the Trump administration, which has announced that it will suspend some $2 billion in military aid to Pakistan absent credible action against extremist groups, for feeling frustrated. Pakistan has long been a troublesome ally: It was long governed by a series of corrupt and repressive dictators and juntas, its intelligence service (the infamous ISI) plays both sides of the jihadist game and uses Lashkar-e-Taiba as a proxy, its expansive nuclear plans are a destabilizing force regionally and globally, and its inability or unwillingness to control its remote territories provides a safe haven to terrorists operating in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
About that elsewhere: Pakistan’s border with India has been a flashpoint since the 1940s, and its border with Afghanistan has been very much on American strategic minds since 2001. But Pakistan also borders Iran and the Arabian Sea, and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir borders China. Everything Pakistan touches is of strategic interest to the United States.
Pakistan is a tragedy and a warning. Pakistan and India were partitioned into separate countries in 1947. India embraced the fundamentals of British liberalism and democracy, but also embraced a destructive form of Fabian socialism that Jawaharlal Nehru had picked up in Cambridge. (How strange that so many national-liberation leaders around the world, seeking to free their countries from Western domination, imposed on them that most Western of ideas: socialism.) Socialism made India poor, but democracy and liberalism eventually had their way, and since the economic reforms of the 1990s India has become a genuine powerhouse.
Pakistan went a different way, shaped by the identity politics of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League. It fell almost immediately into strong-man rule, abandoned its original constitution for a sharia-based one, and went through long periods of martial law and repression. But as “nonaligned” India fell into the Soviet orbit, Pakistan fell into the American orbit. The episodes of its history trace a familiar pattern: The charismatic Benazir Bhutto, educated at Harvard and Oxford, was a very pro-Western leader, and the Western leaders were willing to overlook her corruption and her ineffectiveness as a domestic leader. (How does one say “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in Urdu?) Having been dismissed in a corruption scandal and seeking another turn at power, she was assassinated by al-Qaeda (her father, prime minster before her, had been executed after a coup d’état), possibly with an assist from factions in the military and the ISI, and Pakistan remained under military domination. Reform since then has been halting, but the country did have a successful democratic transition in 2013. Its government remains deeply corrupt and so ineffective as to leave large parts of the country ungoverned.
India, once a byword for poverty, today has substantially higher average incomes than Pakistan and radically stronger economic growth (more than 7 percent in 2017), and it is a magnet for global capital. Pakistan is a place you go to if you work for the Foreign Service and got on the wrong side of your boss.
Pakistan presents a problem that bedeviled George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and that will no doubt vex Donald Trump as well: What do you do about a country that really needs some old-fashioned nation-building but resists the idea of being built by Western powers into something useful to Western power and consonant with Western liberalism? In the matter of relations between the West and the Islamic world, we think often of the clash of civilizations, but we may not fully appreciate the conflicts within Islamic civilizations.
Pakistan has fanatics and tribal bosses, but it also has liberals and democrats.
Pakistan hasn’t always been like this. Jinnah may have been the head of the Muslim League, but he was more of an Ataturk than a Khomeini. As recently as the 1990s, Islamabad and Karachi had the feel of more or less normal cities (though Karachi felt dangerous) rather than homes to captive populations behind the Iron Burka. You’ve all seen those before-and-after pictures of women in Iran: One day they look like a bunch of extras from The Mary Tyler Moore Show; the next day it’s wall-to-wall headscarves. Pakistan has traveled a similar though less radical course, and it is an open question whether Pakistan is salvageable. It has fanatics and tribal bosses, but it also has liberals and democrats.
It isn’t clear which of those Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the current prime minister, aims to be. Educated at UCLA and George Washington, he is no stranger to the West, but neither is he a stranger to the Pakistani way of politics, working doggedly to consolidate power (he named himself the head of every cabinet committee touching economic policy) and having managed to amass a substantial fortune while in public service. After Trump announced his get-tough-on-Pakistan policy, Abbasi made his first trip abroad as PM — to Saudi Arabia.
A nuclear-armed Islamic nation bordering China, India, and Afghanistan: Pakistan needs our attention. If we aren’t interested, others are, in Riyadh and elsewhere.