The Most Dangerous Threat to the World Is ... Collective Psychosis in Pakistan?

Yikes. Islamabad's former ambassador to the United States has a provocative frame for a nuanced analysis of his home country.

Senior Pakistani army officials and scientists before test firing the Shaheen-1 medium-range ballistic missile on January 25, 2008. (Reuters / The Atlantic)

It may not be the most dangerous place in the world, but, with its mix of political instability and nuclear capability, it's plausibly the most dangerous place for the world. Yet according to Husain Haqqani, Americans have a chronically hard time understanding why.

"I do believe that Pakistan is a dangerous place," Haqqani said, speaking with The Washington Post's David Ignatius and retired U.S. general Stanley McChrystal at the Aspen Ideas Festival today, "but ... not for the reasons the Americans think it is. The Americans don't get Pakistan."

Haqqani, who served as Pakistan's ambassador to Washington from 2008-2011, thinks that U.S. diplomats and military leaders have, after decades of on-again, off-again engagement with Pakistani officials, internalized a distorted sense of possibility in the United States' involvement in Pakistan as a whole.

Haqqani believes that Islamabad's generals in particular have played a big role over time in flattering Americans' sense of efficacy in Pakistan -- and seems to believe that U.S. generals have been particularly susceptible to their Pakistani counterparts: "American generals look at Pakistani generals and see fellow soldiers. Pakistanis, especially those who have been imprisoned by generals at one point or another, look at them as politicians in uniform."

It's not that American officials' thinking about Pakistan is insufficiently complex, according to Haqqani (McChrystal, after all, had just emphasized the importance of not looking for simple fixes in Pakistan); it's that American officials' thinking about Pakistan serially overestimates the United States' ability to promote stability and development in the country at all.

U.S. foreign policy naturally looks for levers to pull. But what if, despite all the complexity among all the issues where the U.S. has been looking for levers, there is, after all, a central, defining issue with no lever connected to it? "It's not America's problem to solve Pakistan's problem," Haqqani said. "It's Pakistan's problem to solve Pakistan's problem."

So what's the problem?

Haqqani's account here is rather meta: The problem is a dominant and determining sense of collective insecurity that prevents Pakistan from understanding its situation in the world.

It was a country that was created with very little prior discussion and analysis. People forget: There's been an Egypt for 5,000 years; there's been an Iran for centuries—for millennia. There's been an India for millennia. Pakistan is only 66 years old. So therefore it has, essentially, a lot of psychoses, more than it has actual threats and challenges.

India, for example—I understand that Pakistanis have a lot of concerns about India. But, as a Pakistani, I look at history. ... Yes, India has never philosophically accepted the idea of Pakistan. But it has never been responsible for initiating any of the wars with Pakistan. Let's be real about that. Afghanistan is too weak and too poor to attack Pakistan. So most of the problems that Pakistan sees itself in are psychological rather than real.

Which isn't to say Pakistan doesn't have real problems. This is, after all, a country now with a population of 210 million and the highest population-growth rate in the region. Half the country's population is below the age of 21. One-third of them have never been to a school of any kind. One-third of the population overall is below the poverty line, with another one-third just above it.

And this country has nuclear weapons.

"The nuclear weapons should have been enough to make us finally secure about India," Haqqani said. "We have mutually-assured destruction, so they will never invade us. Well guess what? We are now like the guy who keeps buying guns to try and protect himself, and then says, 'Oh, gosh, I can't sleep because I'm afraid that somebody will steal my guns."

So Pakistan's threat to itself and the world, Haqqani believes, is essentially a failure to come to terms with itself as a nation. Which is, here as anywhere, not just a broad, collective failure but a failure of political leadership—and one that Pakistan has previously shown promise of overcoming: "Benazir Bhutto, before she was assassinated, had a new vision for Pakistan," Haqqani said. "And her vision was: We will focus inward. We will put the kids in schools. We will keep the nukes, but we will eventually sign up for some kind of international agreement that will make sure that we are not looked upon as a pariah. We will join globalization."

Haqqani isn't overly optimistic about the prospect of Pakistan's new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, now bringing the kind of leadership that can meaningfully change his country and move it beyond its "psychoses." But Haqqani doesn't take a pessimistic stand, either, seeing Pakistan as the scene of both instability and potential.

So is there any role at all for the United States in helping realize that potential? Haqqani thinks that there can be, but only if Pakistan assumes the national self-possession to define that role in the right way. "... if America is available to us, we will use it like Korea did or Taiwan did," Haqqani said—in the notably optimistic future tense. "We are not going to live as an insecure nation, because that insecurity then makes people think, 'Al Qaeda? Well, how can we use them against our enemy, India?’—instead of considering them the enemy."