Cover Story

Pakistan through an American Lens

For Pakistan, the best way forward would be to earnestly understand U.S. goals in the region and determine what role, if any, it can play to support these goals.

By S. Qaisar Shareef | July 2023

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, America launched an aggressive ‘War on Terror,’ going after not only those who were directly responsible for launching the 9/11 attacks but also anyone who was deemed to have been supportive of aggression against America. The then U.S. President George Bush’s famous “with us or against us” statement succinctly framed the U.S. approach.

The 9/11 attacks appeared to have emanated from forces having sanctuary in Afghanistan. It was only a few short weeks before a full-scale U.S. invasion was launched against Afghanistan. Out of necessity, Pakistan became an important partner in America›s war in Afghanistan. Pakistan controlled both land and air access into landlocked Afghanistan.

Over the years much has been written about whether Pakistan was a willing participant in the ‘coalition of the willing,’ or was coerced into it through American pressure. It took no more than a few weeks for the Taliban regime in Kabul to fall. America then soon turned to a nation-building exercise, something it had declared it would not do. This ultimately turned into America›s longest foreign war, costing the U.S. exchequer an estimated $2 trillion.

Somewhere in this 20-year journey, it appears American and Pakistani goals in the region started to diverge. Several moves in Afghanistan by the U.S. started to be seen in Pakistan as counter to its own interests. Chief among them were America›s efforts to carve out an increasingly influential role for India in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s security establishment feared having an emboldened India on both its eastern and western borders.

The U.S., on the other hand, increasingly felt their Pakistani partners were not fully on board with American goals in Afghanistan. Key players of the Afghani Taliban regime who were dispersed within a few weeks of the US invasion of the country, were reported to have appeared in parts of Pakistan. Given the porous nature of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, this was not a huge surprise, but as time went on, there was increasing suspicion in the U.S. that elements of the Afghan Taliban had support from powerful forces within Pakistan.

When in 2011 Osama bin Laden was found to be living in the middle of a prominent Pakistani town, any remaining trust between the U.S. and Pakistan was shattered. In spite of claims by Pakistani leadership that they were unaware of Bin Laden’s presence in their country, there were few believers in America. And the arrest by Pakistani authorities of the doctor who helped find Bin Laden destroyed any remaining trust between Islamabad and Washington.

Fast forward a decade, upon ascending to the U.S. presidency Joe Biden concluded staying any longer in Afghanistan was a fool›s errand. The abrupt and unsystematic departure of the US forces from Afghanistan in August 2021 presented a sad spectacle for the whole world to see. After spending 20 years in Afghanistan and with an expenditure of $2 trillion, America had little to show for their effort.

As often happens, the American public started to search for someone to blame, and Pakistan was a prime candidate. Their nation-building project had utterly failed and unraveled within weeks as the Taliban rode into Kabul, completely unimpeded. For the American public, this brought back flashes of the U.S. exit from Vietnam back in the 1970s.

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