Years ago, before Sept. 11, when I first started traveling in South Asia, a Pakistani diplomat gave me a quick tutorial about how his people, Pashtuns, were not so very different from my own people, Texans.
We both follow conservative religions, although not so closely as we like others to believe, said the diplomat, delicately cutting into a plate of enchiladas at a Tex-Mex joint in Washington. Like Texans, we love our guns. We have very traditional beliefs about marriage and the role of women in society. We love barbecued meat. We distrust government, and hate paying taxes. We’re not as different as you might think.
As intriguing as this Pashtuns-are-Texans theory is, it is clear that the differences between the United States (which includes Texas, for the time being) and Pakistan (which includes many ethnic Pashtuns, for the time being) have become vast. US military airstrikes, aimed at Islamist militants but also killing civilians and even Pakistani soldiers, have turned many Pakistanis against what they see as a “great Satan.” Pakistani tolerance of, and even support for, Islamist militant groups on Pakistani soil has pushed many US military commanders to conclude that Pakistan is, in effect, more an enemy than an ally. According to Christine Fair in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine, some are contemplating a new approach: either containment, or benign neglect.
At present, Pakistan no longer allows the US military or the NATO alliance to use its ports or roads to resupply NATO troops based in Afghanistan. And with US elections approaching, and Pakistan’s government increasingly fragile, it is hard to see how the two countries can bridge the gap.
Pakistani public opinion has turned sharply against the United States, with a recent Pew Research poll showing that 74 percent regard America to be an enemy, up from 69 percent in 2011, and 64 percent three years ago.
Recent headlines indicate that things are not getting better, but rather worse.
* In her Foreign Policy piece, Ms. Fair suggests that US military are close to giving up on its tactical alliance with Pakistan. As Fair writes, Pakistan is in such a state of crisis, it couldn’t change course even if it wanted to do so.
Pakistan is in crisis. Its courts act on whim rather than jurisprudence. Its political parties are vast pools of corrupt patronage networks that aggregate elite interests while disregarding the interests of Pakistan's struggling masses. Neither elected politicians nor military rulers have had the political courage to right the nation's fiscal woes by enforcing income tax or imposing industrial and agricultural taxes on the ruling elites and their networks of influence. While the army has retrenched from a direct role in politics, it has done so likely because it has no other option: Pakistan's military suffered a mighty humiliation after the bin Laden raid, which left many citizens wondering whether their country is a failed state, a rogue state, or both.
* Adding pressure from within, the militant Maulana Fazlullah, who briefly took control of the Swat region and ran it along Taliban lines before being pushed out by a Pakistani Army operation, has returned to the Pakistani-Afghan border region. He released a video showing the severed heads of 17 Pakistani soldiers, together with their identification cards, almost taunting the army to come and get him.
* Indian investigators say that an Indian militant, allegedly linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks on Mumbai on Nov. 26, 2008, has reportedly admitted under interrogation that Pakistani intelligence officers were with him in Lashkar’s “control room” in Karachi as the attacks were being carried out. Pakistan has claimed it had no involvement in the attacks, which killed more than 166 people, and wounded more than 300.
* And in Islamabad, Pakistan’s government moved ever closer to paralysis, as Pakistan’s Supreme Court pushed newly appointed Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf to reopen corruption cases against President Ali Asif Zardari. Mr. Ashraf was elected prime minister last week to replace Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who was banned by the Supreme Court from holding office after he refused to reopen the case against Zardari.
So let’s review: US and Pakistani relations are at a low point, with both countries increasingly regarding and treating each other like an enemy. Pakistan’s military may have been implicated in terrorist attacks against India, and it now has an armed militia leader apparently planning to carve out a part of the country to rule as a Taliban-like state. And amid all this trouble, Pakistan’s Supreme Court and its executive branch appear to be facing off in a fight to determine who gets to run the country.
Which brings me back to my Pakistani diplomat friend; if Pakistanis and Americans are more alike than they admit, could the same host of problems affecting Pakistan now – rising religious extremism, military adventurism, constitutional fights, and separatism – happen in the US too? Perish the thought.