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Is Pakistan Britain's friend of foe?

West loses out to fear of local rival

Fawaz Gerges

The dominant narrative now is that Pakistan is a foe, playing a double game, guiding the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand, even as it receives more than $1billion a year from Washington for its help in combating al-Qaeda.

But it is not as simple as that, and Pakistan cannot be viewed simply as an enemy of the West.

What this simplistic argument neglects is that Pakistan serves its own vital national interests and only cooperates with the West to advance those interests.

An underlying premise in interstate relations is that nations have only interests and no permanent friends. Pakistan's foreign policy is a case in point.

Throughout the Cold War rivalry between the US-led Western alliance and the Soviet camp, Pakistan allied itself with the West and fought devastating wars against India, its strategic rival and a close friend of communist China and Russia. When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan's neighbour, Pakistan was America's spearhead in the fight against the "evil empire" and its ISI was in charge of the CIA's campaign to train, arm, and guide the Afghan mujahideen, including the Osama bin Laden contingent of the Afghan Arabs.

More than any other power, Pakistan played a key role in the armed resistance against Russia.

After the Soviet forces retreated in 1989 and Afghanistan plunged into all-out civil war, Pakistani leaders felt deserted by the US and had to pick up the shattered pieces and bring about a measure of stability to the war-torn country.

Pakistan relied on the Taliban, a student-led social movement, that burst into the scene and imposed a Draconian order in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

There is more to the relationship between Pakistan and the West than simple "either/or".

For example, since last year the Pakistani military has launched a powerful offensive against the Pakistan Taliban because they began to threaten the current government.

On the other hand, Pakistan leaders have been reluctant to attack the Afghan Taliban, as the West demands, because they want to leverage the Taliban in any future settlement in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's strategic rivalry with India outweighs any pressure exerted by the West on Islamabad to end support for the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan's conduct via Afghanistan is driven by fear of Indian influence in its backyard, not by intrinsic hostility or friendship towards the West.

Posted 6 August 2010

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fawaz A. Gerges|. This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror|

Fawaz Gerges is a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations.