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The Problem with Pakistan

By: Christopher Linnan During the presidential foreign policy debate, Mitt Romney was asked whether he believed America should dump Pakistan as an ally due to the fact that quite a few prominent terrorists – including Osama bin Laden – seem to take refuge there, and due to the blatant anti-Americanism in the country.  Romney’s response was that America should continue to try to work with Pakistan because “Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads.  It has a strong military, and there are a lot of terrorists there.  It’s in an important part of the world.”[i]  This is an accurate, if ineloquent assessment of a very dangerous place that Americans tend to forget about.

The question is, who controls this geopolitical and nuclear hotspot?  Well, according to Robert Kaplan, it is none other than “a military obsessed with -- and, for decades, invested in -- the conflict with India, and by a civilian elite that steals all it can and pays almost no taxes.”[ii]  One would think that this would be enough to alarm most Americans about the potential threat posed by Pakistan and its unstable government.  Unfortunately, most of us are more concerned about Iranian nuclear ambitions, North Korean propaganda, and the turmoil in Syria.

America’s alliance with Pakistan, if one can call it that, has been fraught with tension for a plethora of reasons.  Pakistan openly supports Islamic terrorists fighting against India in Kashmir, has little regard for basic human rights, and has prosecuted only one person who helped Osama bin Laden hide in Pakistan.[iii]  Unfortunately, that person was the doctor who helped the U.S. confirm the identity of bin Laden before the raid on May 2, 2011.  This should not be a rationale for going to war or abandoning Pakistan.  It is a nuclear power that is situated in a very important location and it would be unwise to provoke Pakistan.  However, we must remain wary of its every move and intentions.

One should not forget that Pakistan helped sponsor the Taliban[iv] right until September 11.[v]  The decision by the then-Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf to quickly renounce the Taliban was motivated by a fear that “India would gain a golden opportunity in response to Kashmir… [and] second the security of [Pakistan’s] strategic assets would be jeopardized.”[vi]  Musharraf can hardly be blamed for promoting his homeland’s interests.  Every country’s citizens expect their leader to place his nation’s self-interest first; otherwise they would not vote for him.  However, it is extremely unwise to believe that a country into which we constantly launch drone attacks[vii] is anything but an opportunist seeking to outmaneuver India over Kashmir.

Pakistan’s long-standing tension with India is extremely troubling for several reasons, not least of which is the potential to ignite an unprecedented nuclear war.  Besides the immediate physical damage of a war between these two countries, it would have tremendous “environmental costs [that] would be global, stunting agriculture, and posing health problems that would last for generations.”[viii]  Pakistan’s secret service, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), has repeatedly sponsored terroristic attacks on India, including the 2001 attack on India’s parliament, which led to a nuclear standoff.[ix]  To be fair, India’s military has committed its own fair share of atrocities in Kashmir and can hardly be characterized as an innocent victim.[x]  However, India does boast a much more progressive government and has done a significantly better job of creating a more peaceful and stable society.

I am not attempting to argue that we should totally turn our focus to Pakistan as there are threats to our national security all over the globe.  However, it is important that we identify the chief threats to our national security so we can respond accordingly.  Countries such as North Korea and Iran may provide more convenient and louder foes, but we should be careful that we do not forget about quieter threats.  America cannot afford to be unprepared for the next foreign policy crisis that could come from anywhere in the world at any time.  Thus, it is important that we start paying attention to the places that actually pose the greatest threats to our national security, not just the ones that shout the loudest.

Christopher Linnan is a rising senior majoring in history. His chief interests are contemporary European and American politics. He is currently studying abroad in Dortmund, Germany.


[i] The Editors, “The Least Enlightening Debate,” Bloomberg 23 October 2012, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-10-23/the-least-enlightening-debate.html, accessed 9 November 2012.
[ii] Kaplan, Robert, “What's Wrong with Pakistan?” Foreign Policy July/August 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/06/18/whats_wrong_with_pakistan?page=0,0, accessed 9 November 2012.
[iii] Fair, Christine, “Pakistani Power Play,” Foreign Policy November 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/11/05/pakistani_power_play?page=0,1, accessed 9 November 2012.
[iv] To be fair, America’s own history of supporting Muslim extremists in places such as Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion during the 1980s is infamous, even if we choose to try to forget it.
[v] Riedel, 37.
[vi] Riedel, 38.
[vii] Whether these drone attacks are justified and necessary is a topic for another paper.
[viii] Byman, Daniel, “Don’t Assume Iran is the Greatest Threat,” Foreign Policy October 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/10/17/dont_assume_iran_is_the_greatest_threat?page=0,1, accessed 9 November 2012.
[ix] Riedel, Bruce, “Pakistan and Terror: the Eye of the Storm,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 618 (2008), 34.
[x] Stern, Jessica, “Pakistan’s Jihad Culture,” Foreign Affairs 79 (2000), 6: 115.

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