Give credit to the vice president: He really does enjoy politics and “can’t see a room without working it,” as a colleague of mine half-admiringly remarked last Wednesday morning. We were waiting to enter the studio and comment after Biden had finished his interview with the Scarborough/Brzezinski team, in which the main topic was Afghanistan. Exiting, he chose to stop and talk to each of us. Not wanting to waste a chance to be a bore on the subject, I asked him why he had mentioned India only once in the course of his remarks. Right away Biden managed the trick—several good politicians have mastered this—of reacting as if the question had been his own idea. Of course, he said, it was vexing that Pakistan preferred to keep its best troops on the border with India (our friend) rather than redeploying them to FATA—the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas—where they could be fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida (our enemy). My flesh was pressed, and it was on to the next. The newspapers that morning revealed that Pakistani authorities showed no interest in apprehending a Taliban leader in Afghanistan whom they considered an important asset. The newspapers the following morning reported that Pakistan was refusing to extend the visas to U.S. Embassy and other American personnel, resulting in a gradual paralysis of everything from intelligence-gathering to the maintenance of helicopters.
Several questions arise from this. The first: Who is in charge of policy in the area? When some hard words had to be spoken to President Hamid Karzai about the dire and ramshackle nature of his regime, it was the vice president who drew the job of delivering them. For the rest of the time, the Af-Pak dimension is supposedly overseen by Richard Holbrooke, who seems lately to show some outward signs of discontent. Yet on one day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may appear on the tarmac at Kabul or Islamabad. On another it will be Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or the CIA or any number of a series of generals. If this is really a “team of rivals,” it doesn’t seem to have had the effect of clarifying policy differences by debate. It looks more like one damn thing after another.
The next question is a version of an older one. Why do the Pakistanis hate us? We need not ask this in a plaintive tone of “after all we’ve done for them,” but it is an apparent conundrum nonetheless. The United States made Pakistan a top-priority Cold War ally. It overlooked the regular interventions of its military into politics. It paid a lot of bills and didn’t ask too many questions. It generally favored Pakistan over India, which was regarded as dangerously “neutralist” in those days, and during the Bangladesh war it closed its eyes to a genocide against the Muslim population of East Bengal. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Washington fed the Pakistani military and intelligence services from an overflowing teat and allowed them to acquire nuclear weapons on the side.
This, then, is why the Pakistani elite hates the United States. It hates it because it is dependent on it and is still being bought by it. It is a dislike that is also a form of self-hatred of the sort that often develops between client states and their paymasters. (You can often sense the same resentment in the Egyptian establishment, and sometimes among Israeli right-wingers, as well.) By way of overcompensation for their abject status as recipients of the American dole, such groups often make a big deal of flourishing their few remaining rags of pride. The safest outlet for this in the Pakistani case is an official culture that makes pious noises about Islamic solidarity while keeping the other hand extended for the next subsidy. Pakistani military officers now strike attitudes in public as if they were defending their national independence rather than trying to prolong their rule as a caste and to extend it across the border of their luckless Afghan neighbor.
This is, and always was, a sick relationship, and it is now becoming dangerously diseased. It’s not possible to found a working, trusting, fighting alliance on such a basis. Under communism, the factory workers of Eastern Europe had a joke: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” In this instance, the Pakistanis don’t even pretend that their main military thrust is directed against the common foe, but we do continue to pay them. If we only knew it, the true humiliation and indignity is ours, not theirs.
This will continue to get nastier and more corrupt and degrading until we recognize that our long-term ally in Asia is not Pakistan but India. And India is not a country sizzling with self-pity and self-loathing, because it was never one of our colonies or clients. We don’t have to send New Delhi 15 different envoys a month, partly to placate and partly to hector, because the relationship with India isn’t based on hysteria and envy. Alas, though, we send hardly any envoys at all to the world’s largest secular and multicultural democracy, and the country itself gets mentioned only as an afterthought. Nothing will change until this changes.
One reason the Pakistani army coddles the Taliban in Afghanistan is because it has recently been told that the United States will not be deploying there in strength for very much longer. Who can blame them for basing their future plans on this supposition and continuing to dig in for a war with India that we are helping them to prepare for? Meanwhile, though, it is the Afghans who get the lectures about how they need to shape up. “Lots of luck in your senior year” was the breezy way in which the vice president phrased his message to Kabul as I watched. (I wonder how that translates into Pushtun.) Speed the day when the Pakistanis are publicly addressed in the same tones and told that the support they so much despise is finally being withdrawn.