Why Pakistan Craves America’s Attention

The country needs American support to maintain its posture against India but once China is involved, Pakistan is in trouble.

One of the jokes that went around during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Pakistan was that America acts like a mother in law who wants her daughter in law, Pakistan, to behave better.

The analogy may be dismissed as trash in the seriousness of international diplomacy but there’s a measure of truth in the comparison. Pakistan has failed to live up to the promise of nationhood and the United States have reason to be frustrated.

There is, however, plenty of blame to go around. One might well argue that Pakistan’s current failures are due to American interference during the Cold War when the West was eager to use the country to check Soviet ambitions in Central and South Asia and limit India’s influence across Eurasia.

The ideology that accompanies a nation’s birth is likely to remain with it for many years. India in recent months has faced civil unrest and protests against corruption but no blood was shed. The country, after all, gained independence nonviolently. It’s a tradition that resonates in India up to his very day.

Pakistan, for much of its existence, received the attention of world powers Russia and the United States. Although the Cold War is over, Pakistan’s elite and military establishment seem to believe that if they don’t win the attention of foreign powers anymore, they are failing to live up to their predecessors and Pakistan’s national character. If the world’s great powers don’t care about Pakistan anymore, there’s a good chance that India’s economic rise one day causes another part of Pakistan to secede as happened with East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971.

The Americans seem likely to take their hands off Pakistan come 2014 when they retreat from Afghanistan but there’s a silent player to this puzzle. China has been an ally of Pakistan’s since the 1962 war with India. Both countries seek to contain India’s rise and prevent it from asserting itself outside of South Asia although from the Pakistani perspective, New Delhi is a more direct foe.

If the 1962 skirmish is overlooked, China and India have lived comfortably in their own spaces for thousands of years. Beijing regards India as an economic competitor foremost and will not be tempted to boost Pakistan’s defenses to such an extent that it might be drawn into a conflict with New Delhi.

That leaves Pakistan in need of support from Washington. It helped drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s and has been a partner in the War on Terror, positioning itself as a reliable and fairly secular Sunni partner in the struggle against radical Islam and Shia Iran.

There’s one blind spot. If China and India continue to rise and the United States engage India to balance against Chinese expansionism in East Asia, Pakistan will have to play a double game of helping both China and the United States. In its war against militant Islamists, Pakistan has had ample experience serving two contradictory goals but in a cold war between superpowers, the stakes are much higher and Pakistan’s strategy of serving two masters could fall apart.