Why the United States Need Pakistan

America’s alliance with Pakistan is relevant beyond the war in Afghanistan.

Presidents Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan and Richard Nixon of the United States speak in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 16, 1971
Presidents Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan and Richard Nixon of the United States speak in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 16, 1971 (White House)

One of the oddities of international politics is why despite being close to a failed state and haven a proven record for exporting terrorism, Pakistan has so far largely escaped disaster from outside. The answer lies in the support it receives from the United States.

Questions of strategy tend to be analyzed within the context of recent history and the foreseeable future. In order to fully understand the Pakistan conundrum however, one needs to go back further.

Pakistan was created by the British in 1947 as a separate state for the Muslims of India. It simultaneously prevented the Soviet Union from gaining access to a warm water port along the Indian Ocean. Indian national leaders had dreaded the disintegration of the Turkish Empire after World War I and warned against the rising specter of Arab nationalism in the Middle East but Pakistan perfectly served the Western interest.

Although the problem of Pakistani terrorism began during the Cold War, for the duration of the conflict, the United States maintained close ties with the Muslim nation. Pakistan simultaneously checked Indian, Iranian and Russian pretensions and helped the Americans mend fences with Red China in the 1970s. With the exception of the decade between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America has been compelled to court Pakistan ever since the end of World War II.

India has long found itself caught in the middle of the American-Pakistan dynamic. Presidents since Dwight Eisenhower up to Barack Obama have praised India for its democratic traditions and potential but all that rhetoric appears to amount to little when they return to Washington and gaze at a map.

Geography matters far more in international relations than national leaders do for unlike them, geography never changes. Geopolitics shape the actions that nations take far more than the values they uphold can. This is why the United States would like India to focus eastward, on Southeast Asia, instead of westward, toward Pakistan.

American geostrategy has historically been influenced by three thinkers — Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder and Nicholas J. Spykman. Of these, Spykman, a Dutch American and critic of both Mahan and Mackinder comes closest to modern day American strategic thinking.

If Mahan proposed to dominate the oceans and Mackinder asked to concentrate on what he called the “heartland,” Spykman suggested that in order for a nation to attain hegemony, it should seek to control the “monsoon lands” or the rimland. “Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia,” he declared. “Who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”

If the United States are to remain a superpower into the twenty-first century, it has to secure its presence in the monsoon lands. It needs a base from where to balance against Indian, Iranian, Russian and Chinese designs. It needs Pakistan.

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