Is Pakistan Finally On Our Side?

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From the moment that Pakistani officials began arresting a string of high-ranking Taliban leaders, including top Talibani Mullah Baradar, there's been widespread talk that Pakistan has finally abandoned its support for violent proxy groups and made itself a fully invested ally of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. That talk now includes a Newsweek column by Fareed Zakaria, the very embodiment of mainstream U.S. foreign policy thinking, declaring that President Obama has successfully brought Pakistan in line. Zakaria and others are right that Pakistan could turn the tide of the Afghan war: A Pakistan-U.S. partnership is absolutely fatal to the Taliban. But America's newfound alliance may not be what it seems, and the evidence suggests that Pakistan's long-term approach has probably not changed.

It's true that President Obama's bold counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan has changed Pakistan's calculus. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the shadowy and influential CIA-like outfit within the Pakistani military, looks to have turned against the Taliban it once supported. But ISI was funding radical insurgents long before the Taliban showed up in 1994, still backs other insurgent groups today, and will probably continue long after Obama begins his July 2011 troop reductions in Afghanistan. The ISI, and thus Pakistan, cannot be considered to have changed strategies as long as it maintains support for its favorite insurgent group of all: Lashkar-e-Taibi (LET). A sort of anti-India Taliban, LET wages endless warfare in Kashmir, the disputed India-Pakistan border region, and was behind the brutal 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 173.

As a New America Foundation report details, LET still operates freely in Pakistan with ISI support. Its network of recruitment centers and training camps provide an ideal "gateway" for the Taliban and even al-Qaeda. As the Taliban wanes and LET grows, the traditionally India-centric group could very well absorb Taliban hard-liners and take up its mission in Afghanistan. As long as Pakistan supports radical terrorist and insurgent groups, there will be chaos in South Asia, and Obama's long-term goal of a peaceful and stable Afghanistan-Pakistan-India triangle will go unfulfilled.

Many pundits have pointed out that the Taliban's popularity in Pakistan, already low, is rapidly declining. That's good. But the underlying factors that led to Pakistani support of the Taliban may very well remain: Poverty and all the rage it creates, anti-Western sentiment, religious fundamentalism, and fear of India. As Americans learned during the Cold War, seeing another state as an existential threat can lead to all kinds of irrational and self-destructive behavior. Just imagine how Americans would have acted if the Soviet Union had shared a large and contested border region with the U.S., as India does with Pakistan.

Even if Pakistanis no longer support the Taliban, their conspiratorial loathing of India, which helped beget Pakistani support for the Taliban in the first place, is holding strong. A May poll asked Pakistanis about the Mumbai attacks, "The news is reporting that the attacks were planned in Pakistan and carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba. Do you believe this is true?" Only 7 percent said yes, with 78 percent saying no. The vast majority believe, fantastically, that either America or India itself carried out the attack. That many India-fearing Pakistanis associate the U.S. with those fears should be troubling to Americans. We remain on the wrong side of Pakistani paranoia.

Pakistan's anti-Taliban turn is just one short-term victory in America's struggle against extremism in Pakistan. That battle has waged since 1979, when the Pakistani government stood idly by while fundamentalist college students, inspired by the Iranian revolution, burned down the U.S. embassy while it was full of Americans. (Miraculously, all but two survived.) Ending the turmoil still at the heart of Pakistani society and politics will take longer than any one U.S. presidency. Zakaria is right that "pressing Pakistan is a lot like running on a treadmill. If you stop, you move backward, and, most likely, you fall down." Let's hope American leaders don't give up hope when they realize just how daunting a diplomatic challenge Pakistan really poses.


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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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