During his four-year tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen embodied the quiet professionalism of the American officer corps. He had been chief of naval operations, yet became the steward of two difficult and draining counter-insurgency campaigns, freeing generals in the field​—​David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno in Iraq, then Stanley McChrystal and Petraeus in Afghanistan​—​from Washington worries.

But his signature contribution to the wartime effort was trying to cultivate an improved relationship with the military leadership in Pakistan, particularly General Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani Army chief of staff. Mullen flattered Kayani in dozens of high-profile visits. In 2009, he convinced Newsweek that the general-to-general chemistry was “the most important relationship in the fraught dynamic between the two countries.” Mullen trumpeted the good news that Kayani “was making promises and keeping them.”

In hindsight, it would seem that Kayani had no intention of promising or delivering anything that mattered to the Pakistani Army and its officer corps. Pakistan’s generals have been masters at playing their American counterparts. A passage from the autobiography of General Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command during the initial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, gives a hint as to who gets the better of these “relationships.” Recalling his first meeting with one of Kayani’s predecessors, Franks wrote: “It struck me that it was appropriate that we both wore uniforms. For years, American officials and diplomatic envoys in business suits had hectored soldier-politicians such as Pervez Musharraf about human rights and representative government.”

Mullen never quite sank to such romance-novel heavy breathing with Kayani, and by the end of his term as chairman he saw the truth clearly. Osama bin Laden had been living in Abbottabad, Pakistan’s West Point. Mullen publicly has charged Pakistan’s military intelligence agency​—​once commanded by Kayani​—​with supporting attacks by the insurgent Haqqani network, including the September 13 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kabul. In a valedictory interview with columnist David Ignatius, Mullen admitted it took him a long time to appreciate the “trust deficit” with the Pakistani Army. He also worried that they are on a “declining glide slope.”

Plus ça change

The tragedy of American policy is its failure to see that Pakistan has been on a very long downward slope​—​arguably since 1947, when independent Pakistan and India separated from the British Raj. Indeed, Husain Haqqani, currently Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, has described his country as “in some ways a state project gone wrong.”

Pakistan has had a confused and troubled identity. The original idea of Pakistan, as Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution has written, was of an “extraordinary” state, “a homeland for Indian Muslims and an ideological and political leader of the Islamic world.” At the same time, the ideology of the Pakistan founding was opaque and contradictory, with the contradictions seemingly captured in the figure of its leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Karachi-born but trained as a lawyer in England and retaining a lifelong affinity for fine English tailoring. Though a partner of Gandhi and Nehru in the India Congress, Jinnah was suspicious of their all-India approach, and as British imperial power on the subcontinent began to wane in the early 20th century, the compact between India’s Hindus and Muslims weakened.

Thus, at the 1928 session of Congress, Jinnah proposed not only guaranteed seats for Indian Muslims in national and provincial legislatures, but the creation of three “designated Islamic states”​—​Sind, Baluchistan, and the Northwest Frontier Province​—​within a future independent Indian federation. In other words, while the subcontinent was still struggling to separate itself from British rule, Jinnah was proposing an ethnic state-within-a-state that held within it the promise of further separation. To Jinnah and his contemporaries, the allegedly inclusive All-India Congress appeared more like a vehicle for Hindu political dominance. And the broad definition of who was a Muslim—mostly in terms of antagonism to Hinduism—elided traditional differences between regions and tribes. The deeply secular Jinnah declared in 1940 that the two communities “are not religious in the strict sense of the word, but are in fact different and distinct social orders. And it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality.”

Jinnah’s own dream, boldly assertive and fundamentally brittle, begat an expansionist tendency. When -Gandhi embarked upon his “Quit India” campaign at the nadir of Britain’s fortunes in World War II, Jinnah seized the moment to double his territorial demands, adding Kashmir, the Punjab, and Bengal to his list of Muslim provinces. He had his way, though it would exacerbate the instability of the Pakistani state: In the dissolution of the Raj, the Punjab and Bengal were split from the central mass of India, inciting massive ethnic cleansing and resulting in the deaths of nearly one million and leaving Kashmir a contested province. The violent but perhaps inevitable result was the 1971 secession of East Pakistan. That the nascent Bangladesh would rely on Hindu India to secure the separation showed the weakness of Jinnah and Pakistan’s ideas of Muslim brotherhood. The bond of Islam was not strong enough to convince Bengalis that they should remain confederate with, and subordinate to, Punjabis.

“Pakistan is a paranoid state that has enemies,” writes Cohen. Pakistani strategists and political elites fear they may become a “West Bangladesh​—​a state denuded of its military power and politically as well as economically subordinated to a hegemonic India.” Yet, somewhat perversely, the result is a strategic “adventurism,” by which Cohen means Pakistan’s ambitions in Kashmir and Afghanistan, but which applies equally to Pakistan’s nuclear program, its relations with China, and its ambiguous stance vis-à-vis the Taliban, al Qaeda, various “associated movements” internationally, and its homegrown radicals.

Paranoia begins at home

The bitter result of the 1971 war and the “second partition” heightened the domestic political contradictions that lie at Pakistan’s heart. In Ambassador Haqqani’s telling, a Jinnah-style “commitment to an ‘ideological state’ gradually evolved into a strategic commitment to jihadi ideology .  .  . then the Pakistani military used Islamist idiom and the help of Islamist groups to keep secular leaders .  .  . out of power.” As their larger ambitions collapsed, Pakistan’s elites​—​the army leaders and Punjabi oligarchs, for all their secular habits​—​became ever more Muslim, solidifying what Haqqani describes as an alliance between mosque and military.

A second-order effect was a widening gap between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries. Strategic and military-to-military ties had been close in the early decades of the Cold War, and many Pakistani officers received both general and professional education in the United States. But the defeats in the 1965 war with India and the 1971 independence of Bangladesh convinced many in Pakistan that the United States was an unreliable partner. In the mid-1970s, the civilian government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of the late Benazir Bhutto, tried to constrain the domestic political power of the Pakistani Army​—​which had been twice bested in the wars with India that supposedly were the justification of the army’s privileges​—​while developing a civilian nuclear weapons program.

But that attempt at “reform” likewise crashed when Bhutto was ousted in a coup (and subsequently executed) and the military assumed control of the government under the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq. Though Zia died in a 1988 plane crash, he set the course that Pakistan and its security services have followed ever since. Zia broke down the distinction between politicized Islamism and military professionalism, and public displays of Islamic orthodoxy became good for one’s military career. Although continuing to try to build up Pakistan’s conventional military strength​—​and to pry modern weapons like F-16 fighters out of the United States​—​Zia increased the emphasis on irregular and proxy wars, not only in Afghanistan but against India, including providing arms to Sikh separatists. And finally, he both gave the army control over the nuclear program and accelerated it, thanks to the proliferation program of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Despite assertions by many experts in Pakistan and the West that later generations of generals​—​not just Kayani but Musharraf before him​—​are more reform-minded and anxious to get the Islamist elements back under control, it’s hard to detect any significant change of strategic or domestic political course. The Islamist genie has, if anything, increasingly turned on its sponsors. Pakistan has never given up its investment in the Afghan Taliban, either in its Mullah Omar-Quetta shura guise or its regional strongman-Haqqani network manifestation. Proxy groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba conduct spectacular attacks on American, Indian, and other international targets as well as in Pakistan proper; whether such groups are always operating under direction of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency is beside the point. It was the ISI that created them in the first instance. And Pakistan has lately accelerated and expanded its nuclear program, stockpiling materials and building new missiles and warheads. Islamabad likes to live dangerously.

What is to be done?

The temptation for Americans to walk away from Pakistan in frustration and disgust or, alternatively, to administer a stiff spanking is strong, particularly in Congress. But the effects of such acts​—​most notably the 1985 Pressler Amendment​—​are at best partial and at worst counterproductive. In the absence of a long-term, coherent strategy for Pakistan, this amendment pretended to deal with Pakistani nuclear proliferation by banning economic and military aid​—​unless the president “certified” that Pakistan had no nukes. Which President George H.W. Bush proceeded to do annually, despite complaints that it was all a fiction. This had the effect of driving Pakistan into the arms of the Chinese, who were happy to help with sales of ballistic missiles.

The highly touted Lugar-Biden-Kerry “Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009” represents the other congressional extreme. Offering $1.5 billion of economic aid a year for five years, the bill was an effort to help Pakistan’s civilian government and provide an alternative to the strictly military aid that had been offered after 9/11. However, it was so loaded with intrusive “oversight” measures​—​just good government in Washington, but portrayed as an affront to sovereignty in Islamabad​—​that it soured relations even more.

The alternative policy, deeply embedded in the Washington establishment, is that the United States must continue to work with the Pakistani military, because it’s the only institution in Islamabad that works or because Pakistan’s politicians are weak and corrupt. As Richard Haass, former policy director for the State Department and now head of the Council on Foreign Relations, once explained, “The coup that brought Army Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf to power .  .  . should not be condemned out of hand. And it well may bring stability to a country and a region where stability is in short supply.”

Both these attitudes betray Washington’s lack of long-term interest in Pakistan, and that is the first thing that needs to change. Pakistan’s problems are deep; indeed, they are embedded in the country’s very identity. But our strategic interests are equally deep. The war in Afghanistan and the rise of India are indicators that the balance of power in South Asia​—​like the balance of power in Europe, the Persian Gulf, or Pacific Asia​—​is emerging as a core security concern of the United States and an increasingly important test of the international system.

A coherent American strategy rests on convincing Islamabad of three things: that the United States has come to South Asia to stay; that India’s rise should be met with strategic cooperation, not competition; and that playing a “China card” won’t work.

Long experience has convinced Pakistani leaders that the United States will lose interest in them and in South Asia, and that they will be left with what they see as an existential crisis​—​these were the lessons of 1965, 1971, the Cold War, and after. The Obama administration’s plans to draw down and “transfer the lead” in Afghanistan to Kabul fits Pakistani preconceptions perfectly; and they’re making plans accordingly. But the greatest strategic reward of Operation Enduring Freedom, well beyond killing Osama bin Laden, disrupting al Qaeda, or suppressing the Afghan Taliban, would be to begin to curb Pakistan’s longing for “strategic depth” in Central Asia. That requires retaining a substantial military presence and developing a strategic partnership with the Afghans.

Relieving Pakistan’s paranoia about India will take even longer. But the cost of this paranoia has been devastating to Pakistan, militarizing the state, politicizing the faith of its people, debilitating civilian political and economic development. This is the “declining glide slope” that Admiral Mullen lamented. Pakistan does not need to achieve eternal enlightenment, just a rational policy that would put things like economic cooperation above recovering Kashmir. The United States needs to follow two principles to improve the prospects for success: continue to develop its strategic partnership with India​—​to slowly convince Islamabad that its traditional strategies can no longer work​—​and demand that military-to-military ties take a back seat to civilian diplomacy. We must cure ourselves of the “Tommy Franks syndrome.”

Convincing Pakistan that the Chinese won’t be the sugar daddy who makes up for their mistakes won’t be easy. In response to Mullen’s accusations, the Pakistanis reaffirmed their love for China as, in the words of Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani, “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel, sweeter than honey.” The Chinese, however, prefer more tangible expressions of regard, such as material resources, the deep-sea port at Gwadar, and an expansion of the Karakoram highway into western China. China’s presence in the Indian Ocean is growing, but part of U.S. strategy for Asia is to preserve a favorable maritime balance there. India shares that interest; one of its prime strategic directives is to stymie a China-Pakistan axis.

In sum, there’s a lot that the United States can do when it comes to Pakistan, but none of it can be done quickly. Nor can it be done without facing, as Admiral Mullen did at last, the truth about the Pakistani Army.

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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