Pakistan's dangerous anti-American game
It's unwise to needle a superpower that you need for resources and global credibility.

Last week a Pakistani court sentenced Shakil Afridi—the doctor who helped the CIA track Osama bin Laden last year—to 33 years in prison after he was accused of treason or possible ties with militants. In response, the U.S. Congress docked a symbolic $33 million from Pakistan's annual aid budget, or $1 million for every year of the doctor's sentence.

U.S. anger is understandable. In the year since bin Laden was discovered in the garrison town of Abbottabad, Pakistan has done little to dispel the widespread belief that the world's most wanted terrorist was sheltered by elements in the country's army and its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. Nobody has been punished for aiding bin Laden. Neither has the rogue nuclear-weapons scientist A.Q. Khan or Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

As U.S.-Pakistani relations continue to nosedive, the risks for Islamabad run deeper than a mere PR disaster. For the first time since the country came into being in 1947, Pakistan is in danger of being seen as implacably hostile to the West. Should the U.S. switch from a policy of engagement to active containment, Pakistan's economic and diplomatic problems, already acute, may become unmanageable.

Dr. Afridi's punishment is only the most recent example of Pakistan's slide away from its founding pro-Western moorings. Earlier this month, Islamabad annoyed NATO countries at a summit on Afghanistan in Chicago by refusing to reopen overland supply routes that it shut after the U.S. mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a border clash last November. Pakistan's negotiators are reportedly demanding upward of $5,000 per supply truck.

And last week Pakistan's Supreme Court suspended Farahnaz Ispahani, a close aide to President Asif Ali Zardari and an outspoken defender of human rights, from the lower house of the legislature. Her alleged crime: having acquired a U.S. passport in addition to the Pakistani one she was born with.

Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center survey released last month shows that only 55% of Pakistani Muslims disapprove of al Qaeda. In Lebanon and Jordan that figure is 98% and 77%, respectively.

Many Pakistani elites think their compatriots' loathing of America is somehow Washington's problem, not theirs. They see Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal and proxy terrorist groups, as too big to fail. In the final analysis, their view holds, the U.S. will always be there to prop up Pakistan's ailing economy with aid and support from multilateral agencies such as the International Monetary Fund.

A superficial reading of U.S.-Pakistani history supports this view. For the most part, Washington has not allowed episodic disagreements to get in the way of the larger relationship. Even Islamabad's clandestine acquisition of nuclear weapons in the 1980s, and proliferation to Iran and North Korea in the 1990s, did not lead to a complete rupture in ties.

Even now, only a handful of hotheads in Washington are calling for all assistance to Islamabad to be scrapped. Most responsible Pakistan-watchers, both inside and outside the U.S. government, would rather fix the relationship than scrap it.

Nonetheless, Pakistanis who expect the future to faithfully echo the past forget that their nation has never confronted the West in the fashion it is today.

The country's founders were drawn largely from the ranks of Indian Muslims who embraced Western learning and acknowledged Western power. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, instinctively understood that he could better advance his interests by coming to terms with the West than by opposing it.

Successive generations of Pakistani leaders, from Ayub Khan to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to Gen. Zia ul-Haq to Gen. Pervez Musharraf, stayed true to this belief. Even when they pursued policies at odds with U.S. interests—Gen. Zia's nuclear bomb or Gen. Musharraf's double-dealing in Afghanistan—they were careful to avoid sustained public confrontation. They knew it was counterproductive to needle a superpower that they depended on for both resources and global credibility.

Pakistan's current rulers, especially the powerful army that calls the shots on national security policy, forget this lesson at their peril. The U.S. cannot be expected to be endlessly patient.

Pakistan's dismal favorability rating in America means there's no real political cost to bringing Islamabad to heel by stepping up drone strikes, giving it a diplomatic cold shoulder and withholding financial support—all at the same time. Washington may even choose to add targeted sanctions against top ISI officials directly implicated in supporting terrorism.

Pakistan is playing a game of chicken without fully grasping the consequences of losing. The shrewd and practical Jinnah would have recognized the folly of this course. His successors have already betrayed his message of religious tolerance at home, and now they're on track to subvert his legacy abroad.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for

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About the Author


  • Sadanand Dhume writes about South Asian political economy, foreign policy, business, and society, with a focus on India and Pakistan. He is also a South Asia columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He has worked as a foreign correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review in India and Indonesia and was a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, D.C. His political travelogue about the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia, My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist, has been published in four countries.

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