Reports this week that the Obama administration is suspending some $800 million in military aid to Pakistan confirms what everyone already knows: the relationship between the two erstwhile allies in the war on terror is teetering on the verge of collapse. Indeed, there are powerful voices in both countries calling for a complete severing of ties. This is understandable as each country has reason to be distrustful of the other. But it would be a colossal mistake for Pakistan and the United States to give into these voices and give up on each other.
Tensions between the US and Pakistan have been growing for months, long before the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in the Pakistani suburb of Abbottabad, where he had been living just a few miles from a prestigious Pakistani military base. But since that time a series of actions by the Pakistani government has only fueled the fires of suspicion in the US.
Not long after the raid on the Abbottabad compound, Pakistan arrested a number of people suspected of helping alert the CIA to bin Laden's whereabouts. It then expelled American and British military advisers sent to train its soldiers in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And just a few days ago, Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, openly accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency of sanctioning the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad, who had been critical of the ISI's relationship with terror groups.
To be sure, Pakistanis have plenty of reason to be angry at the US. For nearly a decade successive American administrations have treated the country as the front line in the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. As a result, Pakistan has been flooded with terror groups who have murdered thousands of innocent civilians in retribution for its cooperation with the US. And the Pakistani government is rightly incensed that US drones, which have also been responsible for a number of civilian deaths, continue to violate its sovereignty almost on a daily basis.
All of this has many in Pakistan wondering why they are still taking orders from the US, even as many in the US wonder why it is sending billions of dollars to a government that harbors terrorists, murders its own journalists, and colludes with the Taliban. These critics believe that both countries would be better off without the other. They are wrong. Severing the relationship between the US and Pakistan would endanger the safety and security of both nations.
Pakistan is an absolutely vital country for US interests in the region. Geographically, Pakistan shares borders with both Iran and Afghanistan, acting as a bridge between the Middle East and the fractured nations of Central Asia. It is also the main access route for aid and military equipment crossing into Afghanistan, without which the US military mission in that country could not survive.
Abandoning Pakistan now would reverse what gains the United States has made in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda over the last decade. The Taliban already has an unsteady foothold in the Pakistani region of Waziristan, and there is reason to believe that the new head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may be hiding out there as well. Withdrawing economic and military support would no doubt allow these militant groups to gain more ground in the country. It could even put Pakistan's massive nuclear arsenal at risk, creating a nightmare scenario in which al-Qaeda could conceivably attack a US city with nuclear weapons.
But it is not just America's security that is at stake. Whether they admit or not, Pakistanis desperately need American support to ensure that their country does not become a haven for these terror groups. If the Pakistani generals get their way and the relationship with the US ends, Pakistan could become another Afghanistan in the 1990s, when after backing the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union, the US and its allies pulled its support from the country, allowing the Taliban to fill the vacuum left behind.
With a population of more than 180 million, Pakistan is the world's sixth-most populous state and the second largest Muslim country in the world. As with most the Muslim-majority countries in the region, Pakistan is experiencing a youth bulge: 63 percent of the population is under the age of 25 according the United Nations Development Program. This a young, sophisticated, urbane, and globalized population that, for those very reasons, has born the brunt of the Taliban and al-Qaeda's murderous campaign in Pakistan. Abandoning these young people would only further subject them to the same brutal repression the Afghans faced in the 1990s. And we all remember how that turned out.
Right now, the anger and mistrust between the US and Pakistan is palpable. One could even argue that it is justified. But problematic as this relationship may be, it cannot be abandoned. It is time to turn down the heated rhetoric and get back to figuring out a way to work together toward our common goals and interests. Because, like it or not, the US and Pakistan desperately need each other.
Reza Aslan is founder of AslanMedia.com, a portal for Middle Eastern art, literature, culture, news, and politics. His books include No god but God, How to Win A Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism), and Tablet & Pen. He lives in Los Angeles where he is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.
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