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The End of the US-Pakistan Alliance

The end of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance should not be taken lightly. By George Friedman

The United States lost interest in Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet Union. Iran and Iraq, not Afghanistan, were the new threats to the Persian Gulf. But Pakistan could not afford to lose interest in Afghanistan, a country with which it was bound ethnically, religiously and, in light of the years spent fighting the Soviets, martially. It had a strategic interest in any threat that materialized there.

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The threat that would eventually materialize there was jihadism, the adherents of which would use Afghanistan as a base to launch the 9/11 attacks against the United States. The United States invaded Afghanistan, in concert with various factions that were available for alliance for various reasons. Washington expected the ISI to share intelligence on al-Qaida and the Taliban. But this was difficult for Pakistan to do, considering the ISI had spent the 1990s using its anti-Soviet allies to create an Islamic state under the Taliban. The Pakistanis did not want al-Qaida to attack the United States, but neither did they want to bring down the entire political structure they had fought the Soviets to create.

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Looking for an Endgame

Geopolitically, this created new realities in South Asia. The Soviet Union no longer existed, so India was no longer allied with it. China, for its part, was much more interested in economic growth than it was in supporting Pakistan against the U.S. and India, which had begun to enhance relations. In other words, Pakistan was isolated. The government in Islamabad knew that helping the U.S. would destabilize Pakistan because the Islamists within its borders would resent it. But Pakistan could not face a hostile United States and India, especially with limited Chinese help.

In this context, Pakistan crafted a strategy of cooperating with the U.S. in Afghanistan without going so far as to anger its Islamist elements. It walked a very fine line, and the government frequently went too far one way or the other. The United States understood the Pakistani dilemma and saw a stable and vaguely pro-American Pakistan as more important than a total commitment of Pakistan to the American war. Each was forced to get less than it needed from the other.

At this point, the United States is looking for an endgame in Afghanistan. It has spent 16 years fighting a war but has not yet achieved its goals. The U.S. will no longer devote large numbers of troops because large numbers of troops failed before. It is instead creating smaller, highly focused units designed to cripple certain factions of the Taliban and force some sort of politically acceptable outcome. The more tactical the approach, the more the U.S. needs Pakistani cooperation. Pakistan is not prepared to do that, since a U.S. departure would leave Pakistan facing strong hostile forces on its border.

Meanwhile, India has more actively participated in a U.S.-led alliance with Japan and Australia meant to counter Chinese naval power. Caught between the U.S. and India, and cognizant of India’s rise, Pakistan must either get the U.S. to ease up or persuade China to become its ally again. This is the last thing the U.S. wants to see.

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The U.S. has learned what many powers before it have come to know: that engagement in this volatile region is sometimes necessary, but rarely is the outcome pleasant. Washington now finds itself still at war with the Taliban and increasingly at odds with a hostile Pakistan, which may soon reactivate its relationship with China. The end of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance should not be taken lightly.

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