America and Pakistan will never be mistaken for kindred spirits, yet despite their differences, they share some striking similarities.
The United States and Pakistan will never be mistaken for kindred spirits.
One is the world’s sole superpower and enjoys relative peace and prosperity. The other is a frail and fractured nation ravaged by poverty and violence. They disagree about drone strikes, militant sanctuaries, India and paths toward an Afghan endgame. Apologies and reopened NATO supply routes won’t make these disagreements disappear.
Yet despite their differences, the two countries share some striking similarities.
British colonial possessions. In both countries, the vestiges of British rule remain strong. Pakistan loves its tea and is crazy about cricket. It also grapples with the consequences of the Durand Line (the porous Afghan-Pakistan border established by Afghan and British officials in 1893), and of the repressive laws — still enforced today — that the British imposed on Pakistan’s tribal belt in the 19th century to weaken opposition to their rule. Meanwhile, the British gave Protestantism to the United States, and our obsession with the royal family is well known. The U.S. Constitution — from the philosophy of John Locke to the Magna Carta and habeas corpus — is heavily influenced by the British. Today, both countries enjoy warm relations with their former colonizer. U.S.-UK ties are airtight, and Islamabad and London are talking about deepening an already-strong partnership.
Resounding religiosity. Recent polling of Pakistani youth (two thirds of Pakistanis are 30 years old or younger) finds 81 percent strictly or moderately observant. Experts describe Americans as “more pious than people in any Western country, with the possible exception of Ireland,” and point to “the steady and spectacular decline” in religiously unaffiliated Americans (from 65 percent in 1900 to about 15 percent today). For many Pakistanis, piousness is accompanied by robust support for Islam in politics — and even for an Islamic state. Few Americans want a religious state of their own, but God is never far from politics — as evidenced by debates about gay marriage and federal funding for stem cell research.
Hostile medias. Each country’s mainstream press portrays the other nation in a one-sided, often-hostile fashion. Pakistani television channels depict America as a sinister, aggressive force intent on bringing harm to the country — from spying and seizing the country’s nuclear assets to manipulating weather patterns to trigger floods. Rarely do these outlets spotlight brave and benevolent American aid workers in Pakistan (except when they’re abducted), much less the positive dimensions of American life. Major U.S. media mainly cover Pakistan’s violence and instability, while branding it as the ally from hell and the world’s most dangerous nation. Little is said about Pakistan’s success stories (a technology professor at a prestigious university in Lahore was recently recognized as one of the world’s top young innovators) or the civil society humanitarians — such as Abdul Sattar Edhi — who, by providing basic services that the government does not, help keep Pakistan from falling apart.
Water woes. Pakistan lacks governance, stability, and the rule of law, yet it’s also deeply deficient in water. Per capita availability hovers at around the water-scarce threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. With 1.2 million Pakistanis dying from waterborne illnesses annually, it’s also one of Pakistan’s biggest killers. America faces its own water problems, which extend well beyond therecent droughts in the Midwest. Arizona imports its drinking water supply, while New Mexico has less than 10 years’ worth remaining. Large water bodies in New England and the South — and even Lake Superior — are all running dry. Dirty water sickens up to 19 million Americans a year.
Tight with the Saudis. Both countries count Saudi Arabia as a critical ally. Islamabad and Riyadh have enjoyed decades of mutual trust, military cooperation, and intelligence sharing — “one of the most enduring alliances of modern times,” according to Pakistan specialist Bruce Reidel. Ideology certainly plays a key role; Saudi funding of Pakistani religious education has facilitated the diffusion of Wahhabism throughout the country. Another major Saudi contribution to Pakistan is oil — the same product that ensures Washington’s close ties to the House of Saud. The Saudi regime’s stability — its hold on power has been largely unaffected by the Arab Spring’s regional reverberations — and its rivalry with Tehran also help explain why Washington and Islamabad prize their relations with Riyadh.
Seeking stability in Afghanistan. This represents one of the few interests shared by Washington and Islamabad. With the Pakistani Taliban using Afghanistan as a sanctuary to launch cross-border attacks into Pakistan, and with unrest threatening to spill more intensely into Pakistan — bringing both fighters and streams of refugees — an exploding Afghanistan is as troubling a prospect for Pakistan as it is for America.
Of course, Washington and Islamabad have very different ideas about how to get to this stability. In this troubled relationship, even where there is convergence, divergence always lurks nearby.
Follow Michael Kugelman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/michaelkugelman
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