Long after the last U.S. or NATO soldier leaves Afghanistan -- and no matter who wins on Tuesday -- Pakistan will continue to present fundamental challenges to U.S. regional interests and international security.
The self-proclaimed "land of the pure" has used Islamist militants as tools of foreign policy since its earliest days of independence. In the fall of 1947, tribal marauders from Pakistan's Pashtun areas, benefiting from extensive government support, rushed into the princely state of Kashmir in hopes of seizing it for Pakistan. Leaders of the newborn Pakistani state feared that the king of the Muslim-dominant state of Kashmir would seek independence or agree to join India. The strategy triggered the very event Islamabad was trying to prevent: The king, watching with apprehension as his own security forces failed to stave off the attackers, sought India's help. India agreed to come to his aid, provided that the maharaja join India's dominion. Indian troops thus joined the fight to defend its newly acquired territory. The eventual ceasefire left the princely state divided between the dominions of India and Pakistan.
To wrest all of Kashmir from India, Pakistan has since then raised and nurtured numerous Islamist militant groups. In 1989, an indigenous insurgency erupted in Kashmir in response to gross Indian malfeasance. Pakistan swiftly took advantage of the surge of so-called mujahideen who had trained in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets. Pakistan's "foreign" militants overtook the Kashmiri insurgency. By the mid-1990s, the violence in the valley was mostly conducted by Pakistani terrorists -- predominantly ethnic Punjabis -- ostensibly on behalf of Kashmiris.
Given Pakistan's unrelenting pursuit of Kashmir, its inability to coerce concessions from a militarily superior India and its failure to muster international diplomatic and political support for its agenda, Islamabad has increasingly relied upon its expanding nuclear umbrella to advance its goals. Today, Pakistan deters the Indians from responding militarily to any number of Pakistani outrages by invoking the ever-present possibility of nuclear escalation. Nuclear weapons have also served to ensure that the United States will always intervene in an Indo-Pakistan crisis to preclude it from escalating to full-scale war.
"Asymmetric conflict under the nuclear umbrella" has served Pakistan well. Pakistan has been able to rely upon thousands of Islamist terrorists to prosecute its policies in India as well as Afghanistan with impunity, confident that its nuclear program makes any punitive response infeasible. The United States, Pakistani leaders know, will have difficulty isolating, punishing or even containing Pakistan in response, if for no other reason than the United States needs to remain engaged in order to monitor Pakistan's discomfiting nuclear program.
Pakistani leaders learned the lessons of 1989 when the United States finally sanctioned Pakistan for nuclear proliferation. Throughout the 1980s, Washington bent its own laws so that it could continue providing security assistance and weapons to Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad with full knowledge that Pakistan was developing a nuclear weapon. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, the United States was no longer dependent upon Pakistan and pursued anew its nonproliferation objectives in South Asia. Finally in 1990, Washington imposed proliferation-related sanctions that had been deferred under the Pressler Amendment. Soon thereafter, Washington denounced Pakistan for its reliance upon Islamist terrorists in Kashmir and elsewhere and even threatened to declare it a state sponsor of terrorism. In 1999, following Pervez Musharraf's military coup, the United States applied coup-related sanctions. On Sept. 10, 2001, Pakistan was a virtual pariah state encumbered by layers of nuclear and missile-proliferation sanctions and was viewed suspiciously for its close ties to the Taliban and dozens of Islamist terror groups.