Nuclear-armed Pakistan is too critical for Washington to abandon again as it moves to withdraw from Afghanistan. The tragic flooding in Pakistan gives the United States a rare opportunity to demonstrate goodwill and break the cynical cycle of its relationship with Islamabad.
The recent Wikileaks exposure of over 90,000 classified US documents about the Afghan war revealed a Pakistan that has been both a major American ally and, at times, engaged in supporting the very Taliban who kill US soldiers in Afghanistan.
No wonder Washington's and the American public's frustration with Pakistan is growing. As public support for the war in Afghanistan flags, so, too, could America's commitment to Pakistan.
That would be a big mistake. America has abandoned Pakistan before, after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, with regrettable results. It can't afford to do so again - nuclear-armed Pakistan is simply too important and dangerous now.
Instead, both Washington and Islamabad must break the cynical, transactional bonds of their relationship, and work to form a partnership that supports their long-term, mutual interests. That won't be easy. But it's the only way the United States can protect its national security interests in Southwest Asia.
A most important - and least understood - country
America can begin by educating itself about a land of which it remains terribly ignorant.
With 177 million people, Pakistan is the sixth-most-populous country on the planet and it has a very young population, with 64 million people 14 years of age or younger.
It is also the only country that within the past 15 years has manufactured, tested, and proliferated nuclear weapons; had a military coup d'etat (and a subsequent peaceful return to power of civilian politicians); been forced to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund to avoid an economic collapse (2008); and become the global epicenter for Islamist militancy and extremism. Yet, few people in the West understand all of these problems, or Pakistan's efforts to solve them.
Mostly, we see Pakistan as we always have, as an on-again-off again "ally" whose relationship with the United States is transactional - that is, we enlist them when we need help against the Soviet Union or Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, for example, pay them generously while the relationship is on, and then drop the relationship when we do not need them.
Our fecklessness is due in part to the fact that we know virtually nothing about Pakistan, a place far from and alien to the US.
Although the Pakistani diaspora population is significant, with more than seven million Pakistanis living abroad, only 300,000 or so live in the United States, where there is no appreciation for the ancient Indus River Valley civilization (the pharaohs and pyramids of Egypt's Nile River Valley Civilization are much better known), Pakistani sports (cricket, anyone?), music (Junoon, Pakistan's biggest rock band of the 1990s, just put out a new song), or the latest movies from Lollywood (its Lahore-based movie industry).
While we treat Pakistan as an unreliable client, Pakistan treats the US as a far-away, fair-weather friend. Pakistan and the United States currently find themselves embroiled in an on-again period of uncertain friendship, but neither side counts on the relationship to last.
Pakistan expects the United States to walk away again, while the US believes that Pakistan will continue to see itself as caught between two rising great powers, China and India, each with nuclear arsenals and aspirations to dominate Asia. China (which also sees India as a rival) is Pakistan's northern neighbor and "all-weather" ally. India is Pakistan's great resented rival and hegemon of the South Asian subcontinent.
The two countries were created by Britain's partition of the subcontinent in 1947, when the colonial territory ruled under the British Raj was divided into a Hindu-dominated India and Muslim- dominated Pakistan (then including East Pakistan, which in 1971 would become independent as Bangladesh). …