For those of us who are interested in odd and potentially disastrous foreign news, something alarming is going on in Pakistan right now. Pakistan is claiming that some soldiers of theirs were killed in a premeditated attack by NATO troops and is seeking to shut down NATO supply lines into Afghanistan and demanding the Americans leave a base in Pakistan. For their part, the United States and NATO are planning separate investigations and claim (plausibly) that the Pakistan military fired first, and that NATO troops responded to the attack with a successful counterattack. Clearly, this is a controversial incident, and with Pakistan already having been exposed for housing international terrorist Osama Bin Laden within walking distance of their military academy, and having recently sacked their U.S. Ambassador for reportedly looking for aid in dealing with Pakistan’s dangerous military, clearly Pakistan is acting like an insecure and jealous spouse accused of adultery. Which is not that far off given the comparison between love and alliances.
There are some among our political elites, including at least one person running for President of the United States, who are so craven as to believe that Pakistan simply must be our friend because they have the bomb. Nothing could be further from the truth. North Korea has nuclear weapons and in no shape or form are they our friends. Now, clearly, the United States (and plenty of other nations) would prefer that Pakistan’s bombs not get into the hands of terrorists who wish us harm. On the other hand, Pakistan’s actions, especially recently, have not really led them in an area where we can trust what they say any longer. They certainly do not trust us either, and perhaps never genuinely saw us as a friend, only pretending to be so for our money.
This is a serious problem, and not an uncommon one when it comes to nations. Governments often behave a lot less like mature adults like we might expect and a lot more like high schoolers. I find this rather alarming, but assuming nations to be like high schoolers navigating through the cliques of an elite and highly competitive school seems to make a lot of international relations and geopolitics easier to understand and more ‘rational’ than assuming them to be competently led and remotely responsible. This is not comforting, but it is the unpleasant truth. So, Pakistan right now is behaving like a frenemy that is tired of pretending to like the rich kid in school and is showing its true colors. It would be almost comical, something out of a Dandy Warhols album, were not a lot of lives and nuclear weapons at stake.
The problem with Pakistan is a classic trust problem. The United States does not trust Pakistan (for good reason). Pakistan clearly is not on the same page with the United States and is in a longstanding crisis in its own government between political government, its military and intelligence elites, and a whole lot of very dangerous ethnic hostilities ranging from Taliban terrorists in Waziristan to Baluchi and Sind separatists in the southern parts of Pakistan. This is a very combustible situation, and it is entirely possible that Pakistan is seeking to project strength into Afghanistian knowing that the Iranians are doing the same and knowing that the Americans and NATO will not be around for long. Likewise, America’s goodwill towards Pakistan appears at a dangerously low level, meaning that what may have been dismissed in past times as merely errant and accidental shots are not being taken much more seriously and responded in kind (much more successfully).
So, where does one go from here? Each party will investigate the incident, and probably come out with the conclusions that match their own preconceived notions. Ambassadors may continue to be recalled, and there will be saber-rattling, but only a catastrophic loss of trust would lead to an actual shooting war. At that point, Pakistan would not only cease to be a friend but would be an active enemy that would have to be dealt with on a variety of fronts, such as by switching support to India (a more natural cultural ally than Pakistan, albeit a more independent-minded one) and by considering what we need to do to eliminate the threat of Pakistan’s nukes being used against us. That would be a disaster, especially in a political climate where cuts are being made to our military establishment due to a longstanding budget crisis over undeliverable entitlement promises. If we are not careful we will back ourselves into a war we are not prepared to win, have no idea what we are after, and with an army that has already been fighting multiple wars for a decade with no end in sight and increasing burdens with decreasing societal resources. That cannot continue forever without impacting our ability to wage war successfully and defend our own safety and interests. From this vantage point, that looks like trouble.