The trouble with Pakistan

President Trump's threat to cut U.S. assistance to Pakistan because of its duplicitous policies has elicited relatively few angry denunciations from the normally unhinged Trump-haters in the foreign policy establishment.  They have been limited to accusations of endangering American soldiers in Afghanistan because of lack of logistic alternatives to Pakistan.  This essentially implies that the current failed and counter-productive policies are preferable to Trump's calls for change.

To understand why this is a recipe for continued failure in which the Pakistani people are the main victims, some history is in order.  Ever since its violent separation from India in 1947, Pakistan has been an army with a state attached to it.  Its quarrel with India, a vastly more powerful state, became a national obsession from the beginning and determined the military domination in politics.  India, on the other hand, after an initial dalliance with Soviet-style socialism, opted for democracy, and the market and is well on its way to prosperity and, perhaps, superpower status.

There were three things Pakistan needed in order to even pretend to be competitive with India: a unifying ideology, a generous foreign sponsor of its army, and nuclear weapons.  It found the first one with the coming to power in a 1977 coup d'état by the radical Islamist General Zia ul-Haq, who introduced sharia law and began the wholesale Islamization of Pakistani society and the military.  The second occurred after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, when the new American president, Ronald Reagan, decided to support the Afghan resistance in defeating the Soviets.  For that he needed Pakistan, and American (and Saudi) money started flowing to Islamabad.  He was the first American president to believe that not only was the Soviet empire evil, but it was also fragile and could be defeated.  Finally, Pakistan's nuclear weapons, which became operational in the mid-1980s, were reported to be heavily subsidized by Saudi Arabia, which had supposedly given Islamabad a huge discount on its oil imports.

The real problem for the U.S. from the beginning was that its strategic interests and those of Pakistan were not only different, but irreconcilable.  Washington wanted to help defeat the Soviets on the correct assumption that such a defeat could signal the beginning of the end of the evil empire.  Pakistan, on the other hand, was interested in extending its sway over Afghanistan as a client state on the basis of Islamization and "strategic depth" in its struggle with India.  To do this, the Pakistani military and, more specifically, its intelligence organ, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), began using American money and weapons to preferentially supply radical jihadist groups, such as those led by Gulbaddin Hekmatiar and Abdul Rasoul Sayaf, assisted greatly by Saudi Arabia, who sponsored some 20,000 radical Deobandi madrassas preaching hatred to detribalized Afghan war orphans.  This eventually formed the basis of the Taliban.  At least two of the ISI directors (Hamid Gul and Javed Nasir) were later revealed to be dyed-in-the-wool Islamists and sworn enemies of the United States and the West.

What these Pakistani policies and America's misplaced generosity did is not difficult to figure out.  Pakistan is today close to being a failed state if it is not one already.  Terrorist campaigns by groups set up by the military have claimed 35,000 victims between 9/11/2001 and May 2011.  There have been at least 14,000 additional victims by 2013, virtually all of them Muslims.  The economic toll of this carnage is estimated at no less than $68 billion, a figure larger than all of America's aid put together.  No matter how one looks at it, this is a complete disaster with an American participation, and Trump is right to want to put an end to it.

Pakistani politics is not as hopeless as our foreign policy pundits would have us believe.  To maintain its hegemony over civilian politicians, the military is increasingly forced to rely on jihadist elements and rogue politicians, like cricketer Imran Khan, funded by the military to do their bidding.  The main political force in the country, the Pakistani Muslim League (PML-N), led by Nawaz Sharif, has long quarreled with the military and the ISI on account of its pro-business and counter-terror policies.

It is high time for Washington to remind the Pakistani brass that peace with India is the only way for their country to get out of the dead end in which it finds itself – and that neither China nor Saudi Arabia is likely to step in to replace the Americans as the military's paymasters.  This will not be good for some military careers and certainly not for the jihadist culture pervading the country.  But it is the only chance for the Pakistani people to pull back from the precipice.

Alex Alexiev is chairman of the Center for Balkan and Black Sea Studies (  He tweets on geopolitics at and can be reached at