A Primer on Pakistan: Why It Matters

05/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New York Times reported recently that David Kilcullen, an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, worried that "within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state."

That matters to me, because I have many relatives there, along with a school and hospital that serve needy village families in my father's hometown village.

But why should it matter to you? Here's a primer that most Americans could use on the urgent relevance of that small, densely populated and troubled homeland of mine.

Q: Why is Pakistan an important ally?
A: Pakistan is important because it represents Washington's bid to co-opt the very kind of country that it has feared most since 9/11: A country that defied the international community to obtain nuclear weapons, a country without a stable democracy, and country with many extremists who are close to an all-powerful army.

Q: Is Pakistan a true friend of the United States?
A: Most ordinary Pakistanis themselves aren't sure, because they are skeptical that America is a genuine friend.

The U.S. has often wooed and jilted Pakistan during its 61-year history. This was especially true during the Cold War, when Pakistan's rival to the east, India, tilted toward the Soviet Union. Since the Cold War, though, Washington has alternated between being cold, bullying and generous toward Islamabad.

Ordinary Pakistanis long admired and envied America, but that envy turned to bitterness and resentment due to their feeling jilted. Those feelings were intensified when America began cuddling with India in recent years. That has led to anti-Americanism among average citizens and the mixed messages from Islamabad that makes snide American pundits say, "With friends like this, who needs enemies?"

Q: What caused the most recent tensions in the U.S.-Pakistan alliance?
A: Washington overlooked Pakistan's nuclear program while Islamabad was funneling support to an Afghan mujahideen resistance that pummeled the Soviets to an exhausted collapse. After the Soviet collapse, Washington found Pakistan's nuke program less forgivable.

Q: What's Pakistan's side of the story?
A: Pakistan was seeking to catch up to its old rival India, which had already gone to war against it a few times in their short histories and which had a head start in developing its own nukes. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, whose daughter Benazir Bhutto also served as premier, declared, "if India develops nuclear weapons, Pakistan will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry" in order to get its own nukes.

Q: Was he right?
A: Yes. Pakistan got nukes, and most of his country ate grass or leaves. The grass-eating was to some degree caused by wrong-headed and counterproductive U.S. sanctions. (We really need to get over the idea that punishing ordinary citizens in other nations will force their government's hand.)

Q: Why has Washington been supporting an unpopular dictator such as Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, while talking about supporting freedom?
A: Pakistan has long attempted to be a democracy, but its elected governments have been beset by a culture of corruption and incompetence. This has prompted its powerful army leaders to take power on occasion, most recently by Musharraf in October 1999. He faced steadily growing domestic opposition after 9/11, when he was labeled a puppet of George Bush. He promised to reinstate democracy after making some reforms, but grew more ruthless as his own popularity has receded. Under pressure from the West, he made nice with an exiled Bhutto family.

Q: How did the late Benazir Bhutto and her husband, current President Zardari, fit into this?
A: Washington liked the idea of a Harvard-educated moderate woman getting a share of power. She was Pakistan's Hillary, however -- some admired her while many despised her, due to allegations against her and Zardari of corruption on a monstrous scale during her previous stints as prime minister. The anti-Benazir crowd suspected that any resuscitation of her career would be orchestrated by the Bush administration. I wrote this a while back as a criticism of the romanticized view of the Bhuttos.

Q: How did Pakistan become such a hotbed of extremists?
The Cold War made Pakistan relevant, as it was the eastern border of Afghanistan, which was invaded by the Soviets on Christmas day in 1979. The U.S. helped finance a fanatical Muslim mujahideen to fight the Soviets.

This has widely been hailed as a move that helped bring down the Soviet empire. But the aftermath and subsequent American bipartisan neglect of Afghanistan exemplified the laws of unintended consequences. Millions of Afghan refugees poured into Pakistan and overwhelmed its struggling economy. Extremism grew in the swamp of despair, especially in the region along the Pak-Afghan border. The Taliban and al-Qaeda's roots both sprang up from the U.S.-funded mujahideen, though U.S. officials and pundits like to put most of the blame on Pakistan for allowing this to happen. Pakistan did play a role, though, figuring that the Taliban might be a safer neighbor than a government that might threaten it the way its eastern nemesis India does. As region expert Daniel Markey once pointed out in a remarkable survey of the issues, the Taliban was the Pakistani army's rebound romance after the U.S. jilted Pakistan once the Soviet threat evaporated.

The biggest reason that Pakistan is relevant is because it has somewhere between 50 and 90 nukes, and the powerful army has many leaders who sympathize with the Taliban. That is why the U.S. has been so cautious with and confounded by Pakistan -- Musharraf was not the democrat that we wanted him to be, but we can now see that the alternatives also can be disastrous.

If a major point of the Bush-era war on terror was to keep Iraq and Iran from giving nukes to terrorists within a few years, it may happen in Pakistan anyway in far less time. So Obama has inherited a conundrum.