The relationship between the US and Pakistan is one of necessity rather than a common vision. It alternates between cooperation and hostility, occasionally teetering on the abyss of formally severed ties. Western observers of Pakistan have exhaustively and convincingly written about the dysfunction that Islamabad brings to the partnership and our latest squabble has solicited another dispatch of such articles. But what blame, if any, falls on Washington? For decades Washington has misunderstood Pakistan’s political scene, miscalculated the nature of its security concerns, and all but ignored the complexities of its society. Expectations of Pakistani cooperation are disproportionate to US commitment to Islamabad, even considering Washington’s generous aid. Fears of an unlikely Islamist ascendancy followed by a loss of nuclear warheads garners too much concern while facilitating viable solutions for the Kashmir dispute are dismissed as impossible or irrelevant. And, Washington and Kabul’s own failings in Afghanistan have too often been pinned entirely on Pakistan even though the reality is much more complex. During Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s administration, the US had the opportunity to assure Pakistan of future military aid but chose instead to adopt a risk-averse South Asia policy that would not upset India — the ally Washington wanted but could not have Rather than forming a durable alliance with Pakistan, the US has consistently gauged assistance based on regional events. During Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s administration, the US had the opportunity to assure Pakistan of future military aid but chose instead to adopt a risk averse South Asia policy that would not upset India — the ally Washington wanted but could not have. India’s closeness with the Soviet Union, official policy of non-alignment, and its size allowed it to resist US influence. Several insider accounts of Pakistan’s history also allege that the US was offered an opportunity to have a military base at the Gwadar Port but refused. Washington’s limited ability to dictate Islamabad’s foreign policy is the price of its unwillingness to commit to a monopoly over Pakistan’s security during the first quarter century of its statehood. Viewed exclusively as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, the US lacked the foresight to realise the permanent importance of Pakistan given its strategic location at the nexus of Iran, Afghanistan, India, and China. Over the years, Islamabad has periodically expressed its displeasure with Washington through publicised pivots toward Beijing, usually accompanied by major Chinese investment. For example, when relations cooled in the mid-1960s it led to closer economic ties with Beijing as illustrated by the construction of the Karakoram highway. This is again happening with CPEC, and Daniel Markey, a State Department veteran and Pakistan specialist recently wrote that “looking ahead, the United States will need to take China’s role and interests into account in ways that were unnecessary even just a decade ago.” Washington effectively ignored Afghanistan for years after the original sin of encouraging factionalism within the country. Yet Islamabad could not easily sever alliances with its neighbours, especially while it hosted millions of refugees Pakistan did not capture the imagination of American neoconservatism either which brings into question the movement’s supposed commitment to democracy in the Muslim world. But Pakistan was to play a major role in the ‘War on Terror’. Although neoconservatism draws on many of the same values and strategic posturing as the last century’s colonialism, it diverges in that its proponents often lack a personal investment into the society they seek to influence. The colonial administrators of South Asia possessed a deluded understanding of their colonies but not a superficial one. If one needs an example of this point, then read The Pathans written by Olaf Caroe, who served as Governor of the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Even with an intimate knowledge, gained by the cruelty of generational occupation, the colonial powers failed at managing events. How then could the reactionary interventions of the last two decades be expected to fare any better? This knowledge deficit led some US policymakers to ignore Pakistan’s domestic challenges and oversimplify the war in Afghanistan. Since Pakistan’s formation there has been a competition between genuine Islamists and what historian Ayesha Jalal labels as the, “ruling clique whose inherent secularism even if moderated by its conservatism never seemed to quite add up to the orthodox Islamic view.” US policymakers overstate the risk of Islamists taking over the country even when faced with an abysmal election record, but at the same time, do not fully appreciate the tightrope Pakistan’s “ruling clique” must walk on. With each successive leader Pakistan has become more conservative; Liaquat Ali Khan officially urged Muslims to observe fasting in Ramadan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto closed nightclubs and liquor stores, Nawaz Sharif increased the penalty for a blasphemy conviction from life in prison to death, and the secular dupatta-clad Benazir Bhutto cultivated an image of conservative modesty, while she openly provided support for the Taliban, and Zia speaks for himself. Most recently, PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s answers to media questions while attending the UN General Assembly provides a good example of the conundrum Pakistan’s ruling elite find themselves in. When asked about Islamists coming in third place in the NA120 by-elections he said, “If you’re talking about Hafiz Saeed, he belongs to a proscribed organisation. We have taken action against him. He is under house arrest,” adding that those who used Saeed on their political posters will be sanctioned. However, when asked about the blasphemy law and the death sentence of a Christian Pakistani, he refused to criticise the law or its application except to say that “the courts can comment on the law. But until it’s in force, it’s the job of the government to enforce the law.” In rebuffing Hafiz Saeed, Abbasi defended Jinnah’s secular democracy but he moderated himself in the eyes of conservatives by standing complicit in the gross misapplication of the blasphemy laws. The embrace of some “Islamic” values in governance is perceived by the ruling elite as the first line of defense against the more radical Islamist movements. The “moderate Islam” that Western politicians find so elusive existed in Pakistan at the time of partition, where the Barelvi interpretation of Sunni Islam lived syncretically with Hindu influence. Fundamentalist movements were present, but contrary to popular narratives, today’s extremism and sectarianism neither emerged from within Pakistan, nor were homegrown socio-political responses to regional conflicts. They were imported into Pakistan as a direct result of those conflicts, especially Kashmir and Afghanistan. Both Pakistan and the US made mistakes in their alliance with the mujahedin in Afghanistan during the 1980s-90s. Washington effectively ignored Afghanistan for years after the original sin of encouraging factionalism within the country, but Islamabad could not easily sever alliances with its neighbors, especially while it hosted millions of refugees. Authors such as Shuja Nawaz and former intelligence officers have shown that in the years leading up to September 11, the Pakistan army, ISI, and CIA all made efforts to separate the Taliban from Osama bin Laden but failed. General Musharraf quickly took sides with the US in the ‘War on Terror’ but the criticism that Pakistan should have immediately cut ties with all extremist groups does not consider the large fluctuation of US strategy during the same period. The war began as a limited effort to destroy al-Qaeda rather than replace the Taliban and then it was overshadowed by the war in Iraq. Only since 2009 has the US made a serious effort to consolidate Kabul’s authority in Afghanistan. The failure to achieve this in a very short period is blamed on safe havens in Pakistan when rampant corruption and incompetence in Afghanistan also contribute. How then can Pakistan be expected to maintain a consistent Afghanistan policy? Increasingly, Western analysts argue that Pakistan’s security establishment is beholden not to religious sympathies but to a strategic doctrine that attaches their relevance with the continuation of conflict in the region. It is too often assumed that a preoccupation with the Kashmir dispute is strictly a product of this thinking and that the fear of an Indian threat is disingenuous. This ignores our own threat mythologies in the US that have held foreign policy toward adversaries such as Iran hostage to events in 1979 and 1983. The US tends to view its own reluctance to act as a mediator in Kashmir, or demand that India commit to non-interference in Balochistan both in actuality and in rhetoric, as a position of strength The US appears to view its reluctance to act as a mediator in Kashmir, or demand that India commit to non-interference in Balochistan both in actuality and in rhetoric, as a position of strength. This is because there is a worry that engaging in these controversies would somehow acknowledge a justification for terrorism against India. Resolving Kashmir would likely have little immediate impact in Afghanistan nor would it dramatically reduce terrorism within Pakistan. However, by viewing Kashmir strictly through its connection or lack thereof to Afghanistan, the US has helped permit a human rights catastrophe to continue unabated in the Indian-administered Kashmir. The moral bankruptcy of the US on the Kashmir issue and dismissal of Pakistan’s security concerns as irrational is used by Islamabad’s strongest proponents of strategic depth as evidence that it is both morally right and rational for Pakistan to take a divergent path in combating terrorism. More importantly, most Pakistanis care about the issue of Kashmir, and even creating the illusion of US willingness to mediate the dispute could have improved America’s image within Pakistan and therefore given Islamabad more leeway to cooperate in anti-terror operations. Hearts and minds matter just as much in Pakistan as they do in Afghanistan. The question now is whether it is 2011 again? This was the year when Osama bin Laden was killed near Pakistan’s prestigious military academy and US aircraft killed twenty four Pakistani soldiers after allegedly firing from positions within Pakistan. Could Pakistan’s continued support for the Haqqani network combined with Washington’s unfair finger-pointing spark another incident like this? Possibly — but unlike 2011, the US administration does not have the diplomatic finesse to de-escalate the situation, and Pakistan is entering an election season where populism and standing up to Washington may win at the ballot box. Pakistan and the US do not have an indefinite number of resets available. Nobody within Pakistan’s political scene has offered a serious and practical alternative to the US. Meanwhile, Washington risks a war in Afghanistan where every restive province either borders Iran or an alienated Pakistan. Now more than ever diplomatic engagement is needed between the two nations and cool heads must prevail. The writer is a veteran of the US Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan. He works as a policy analyst and focuses on South Asia and Iran. He tweets at @AdamNoahWho Published in Daily Times, September 24th 2017.