Ever since President Trump singled out Pakistan as the primary reason for the U.S. failure in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been “showing eyes” (آنکھیں دکھا نا) like never before. Historically, Pakistan has been timid and obsequious — but not anymore. “Showing eyes” is an idiom in several South Asian languages, including Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. Showing eyes is a look, a scowl, a stare that radiates confrontational, rude, and contemptuous annoyance. John Steinbeck came close in capturing the meaning of showing eyes, when he wrote: “I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.”
Showing eyes is a more persistent deportment, and not just a quickly vanishing disdain. For example, Pakistan has trimmed down its lavish protocols once reserved for the U.S. officials. Gone are the days when a junior state department officer could demand seeing the Pakistan prime minister. Gone are the days when the U.S. senators were greeted with sumptuous dinners, flattering conversations, and unlimited access to civil and military top brass.
Pakistan’s foreign minister tells a story of meeting with National Security Advisor General McMaster in Washington D.C. Minutes after entering the conference room, the General says to the foreign minister: “We have very minimal trust in Pakistan.” The defiant foreign minister, known for his abrasive retorts, responds, “General, you should also know that Pakistan has zero trust in the United States.” This exchange captures the essence of showing eyes.
Nothing exasperates Pakistan more than when another country, be it Iran, Afghanistan, or the U.S., ditches Pakistan to woo India. The Trump administration has been affirming the Indian policy of painting Pakistan as the mother of international terrorism. While the U.S. bleeds in a defiant Afghanistan and India in a resurgent Kashmir, both have a shared interest in scapegoating Pakistan as the surreptitious villain.
In 2001, Pakistan, as a recipient of civil and military assistance, had no choice but to support the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. At the same time, however, Pakistan could not bluntly ignore the powerful domestic religious forces that advocate jihad against anti-Islamic nations. Short of fighting on the side of the U.S. military, Pakistan argues that it has delivered all possible assistance. Pakistan yielded its airstrips for flying the CIA drones in the region, allowed its roads and ports to be used for the movement of U.S. military hardware, and shared indispensable intelligence that resulted in the killing of numerous Afghans fighting the occupying forces in Afghanistan.
Muslim militants all across the world, from Somalia to Yemen to Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan, share a common conviction that the U.S. is an anti-Islamic superpower. When they see Pakistan supporting the U.S. invasion forces, they divert their wrath against the civil and military targets, abundantly available throughout Pakistan. Pakistan cannot openly fight the militants because that means an unending civil war, no different than the one in Iraq or Syria.
In supporting the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, therefore, Pakistan opted for pretense and double-dealing. Pakistan ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds. Even the killing of Osama bin Laden could not have occurred without the support of Pakistan high command that played deaf and dumb while the raid was taking place in Abbottabad. President Obama, who ordered Osama’s assassination, knew that Pakistan simply could not own the U.S. military operation. The narrative that Pakistan was hiding Osama was deemed more palatable to the people of Pakistan than the account that Pakistan helped the U.S. in assassinating Osama bin Laden.
Shift in U.S. Policy
For decades, the U.S. policymakers have counted into the foreign policy calculus that Pakistan is made in the name of Islam and it cannot survive if Islam loses its unifying authority. They know that Pakistan is an ungovernable nation of historically discrete ethnic populations yoked together with the ideology of Islam. Some U.S. presidents understand this historical constraint more than others. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, while tilting toward India, worked under the historical constraint. President Trump, it seems, is willing to see Pakistan dismantled – and that indeed is a major shift in the U.S. policy toward South Asia.
Pakistan calculated its options for survival and chose to shift completely toward China. China, a neighbor to both India and Pakistan, trusts vulnerable Pakistan as a more reliable ally than relatively stronger India who has had territorial disputes with China. With restive Muslim minority of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, but no sizable Hindu population in China, China-Pakistan friendship makes credible geopolitical sense. Furthermore, China comes across as a pro-Islamic superpower as its leadership rarely makes anti-Islamic statements as do policymakers in the Trump administration.
Pakistan’s showing eyes to the U.S. underscores a major development in international affairs. First, Pakistan is no longer an obsequious U.S. ally. Pakistan now insists on working with the U.S. on the basis of equal respect and dignity. Second, the U.S. has fewer reservations if Pakistan falls apart as it would make a strong case for the denuclearization of Pakistan, a scenario many nations might actually welcome. Third, China will not allow Pakistan to be dismembered and the China-Pakistan alliance is likely to grow “taller than the mountains and deeper than the oceans,” a piece of rhetoric that both countries repeatedly extemporize in various other forms.