Everything about Pakistan from its very beginning has been anomalous.
It was dreamed up by romantic poets, but its survival has depended on a stolid military drawing on British-Indian army professionalism. Its parameters were defined by Islam, but its secularist elite sought a nation-state where none had ever existed. Its ethnic and linguistic diversity matches the Indian subcontinents endless array of races and cultures. It originally grouped noncontiguous areas — East Bengal (Bangladesh), 1,500 miles across India, seceded in 1971. From the beginning, the country was locked with India in the worlds bitterest border dispute, over Kashmir.
Pakistan survived the first decades chaos after the 1947 partition, with 1 million deaths and 25 million “population swaps,” and began to modernize. Laissez-faire economics and signing on to American anti-Soviet military pacts contrasted sharply with Indias Moscow alliance and catastrophic Soviet-style planning. But Pakistan’s grasping feudal elites coupled with repeated military takeovers — plus 3 1/2 wars with India — generated a descending spiral.
Although among the worlds poorest people, Pakistanis have produced brilliant entrepreneurs and talented professionals, many prospering in a diaspora numbering some 10 million people. They remit more than $10 billion annually that helps keep the country afloat.
But now, for all the U.S. satisfaction and strategic and tactical gain in ending Osama bin Ladens career, one outcome of last week’s mission is further erosion for Pakistan. Whatever your favorite conspiracy theory, Islamabad looks weak, incompetent and conflicted to its own people and to the world. A fanatical jihadist minority had already been murdering the country’s most popular secular politicians — including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, wife of President Asif Ali Zardari. Xenophobia arising from poverty and instability grows. Only hours after the American raid, Karachi, Pakistans megapolis port city of 20 million and pivot for U.S. logistics to Afghanistan, was paralyzed by a political assassination only tangentially related to bin Laden.
These problems reveal “a victim syndrome” that dominates Pakistans collective psyche — as it does the rest of the Muslim world. With some justification, Pakistanis believe they were used by Washington during the early Cold War, including as a base for U-2 spy flights over the Soviet Union; abandoned until time came to scotch Russias age-old drive to the Indian Ocean through Afghanistan; and ignored once more after the Soviet Unions implosion until Islamabads cooperation became essential in going after al Qaedas Afghan Taliban sanctuary.
Speculation of another American withdrawal feeds this old complaint and, although whispered, emphasizes Islamabads reliance on its “all-weather” alliance with China. From Pakistans perspective, even the purportedly unofficial A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network — a major friction point with Washington — bought Chinese missile technology, much of it “borrowed” from the U.S.
That gives Pakistan at least a temporary advantage facing much larger, better-armed India, always at the heart of Pakistani nightmares — and strategic worries. The ill will is reciprocated. Before the blood had dried in Abbottabad, Indian Army Chief V.K. Singh publicly claimed that India could replicate the American raid. Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Pervez Kayanis immediate rejoinder: Further American incursions would not be tolerated. Other Pakistani officials warned that an Indian foray would be “catastrophic.” Pakistan recently talked of deploying tactical nuclear weapons.
Not only has Washington waffled, it has fantasized. In the George W. Bush years, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that, henceforth, Washington would treat each country separately without regard to their tangled relationship. But when the Obama administration named Richard C. Holbrooke as the essential coordinator for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Washington caved immediately after Indian officials demanded his purview exclude New Delhi.
These complications show why Beltway blather about Pakistan is not only irrelevant but dangerous. Yes, it would be satisfying to end massive U.S. aid — $7 billion in nonmilitary assistance since 1951, $1 billion arms and training annually since 2005. But then what?
Conspiracy theories — ranging from top-level Pakistanis having safe-housed bin Laden to complicity of those same officials in the raid that killed him — will continue to proliferate. Soon, Pakistans vast population of 250 million could again retreat to the edge of America’s consciousness. Yet Pakistan would be sidelined only at the worlds peril, as the long arm of 9/11 and other terrorist events, many involving Pakistanis, has proved. Washington policymakers must help formulate how to prevent a nuclear-armed Pakistan from turning into a failed state, threatening everyone — not least India and its own Pakistan-sized Muslim minority.
• Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at email@example.com.