David Ignatius
Opinion writer May 16, 2012

As America begins to pull back its troops from Afghanistan, one consequence gets little notice but is likely to have lasting impact: Pakistan is losing the best chance in its history to gain political control over all of its territory — including the warlike tribal areas along the frontier.

Pakistan has squandered the opportunity presented by having a large U.S.-led army just over the border in Afghanistan. Rather than work with the United States to stabilize a lawless sanctuary full of warlords and terrorists, the Pakistanis decided to play games with these outlaw groups. As a result, Pakistan and its neighbors will be less secure, probably for decades.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

This is a catastrophic mistake for Pakistan. Instead of drawing the tribal areas into a nation that finally, for the first time since independence in 1947, could be integrated and unified, the Pakistani military decided to keep the ethnic pot boiling. It was a triumph of short-term thinking over long-term; of scheming over strategy.

America has made many blunders in Afghanistan, which will have their own consequences. But U.S. problems are modest compared with those of Pakistan, which nearly 65 years after independence still doesn’t have existential security as a nation. Like most big mistakes people make in life, this is one that Pakistan’s military leaders made with their eyes wide open.

The Group of Eight and NATO will hold summits in the coming days and announce the exit strategy from Afghanistan. Fortunately, President Obama is planning a gradual transition, with at least 20,000 U.S. troops remaining until 2024, if necessary, to train the Afghan army, hunt al-Qaeda and steady Afghans against the danger of civil war.

But what can Western leaders say when it comes to Pakistan? Basically, the Pakistanis blew it. By playing a hedging game, they missed a moment that’s not likely to return, when a big Western army of well over 100,000 soldiers was prepared to help them. Instead, Islamabad used the inevitability that America would be leaving eventually as an argument for creating a buffer zone that was inhabited by a murderous melange of the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other Pashtun warlords.

Yes, it would have been hard to bring under Pakistani law the rebellious badlands known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. I have a shelf full of books describing how the process of pacification eluded the British raj and was gingerly handed over to the new government of Pakistan like a bag of snakes. But hard is not impossible — especially when you have modern communications and transportation and the most potent army in history ready to help.

What comes through reading these old books is how long the problem has persisted. A 1901 British “Report on Waziristan and Its Tribes” lists the tribes, clans and sub-clans the British were paying off more than a century ago through their political agents, rather than risk a fight with these stubborn warriors. After their disastrous Afghan wars, the British decided that payoffs made more sense than shootouts — a decision the Pakistanis have repeated ever since, at the price of permanent insecurity.

The notion of the tribal areas as a warrior kingdom, impenetrable to outsiders, has a romantic “Orientalist” tone. I was disabused of it in 2009 when I met a group of younger tribal leaders who had gathered in Islamabad to tell U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke that the region needed economic development, good governance and less hanky-panky from the central government. In a move that embodied everything that’s wrong with the Pakistani approach, these brave young men were intercepted on the way home by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and quizzed about why they had dared talk to the farangi.

Surely the most foolish move the Pakistanis made was to compromise with the terrorist Haqqani network, which operates from its base in Miran Shah, a few hundred yards from a Pakistani military garrison. This was like playing with a cobra — something the Pakistanis seem to imagine is an essential part of regional realpolitik. No, you kill a cobra. If the ISI had been up to the task, it would have had some formidable snake-killing allies.

The Pakistanis lost a chance over the past decade to build and secure their country. It won’t come back again in this form. That’s a small problem for the United States and its allies, but a big problem for Pakistan. What a shame to see a wonderful nation miss its moment so completely.

davidignatius@washpost.com