Pakistan is neither an ally nor an enemy of the United States. Both countries have a long track record of partnering on important strategic goals, such as when Pakistan helped counter communist expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, helped facilitate the Sino-U.S. entente in the early 1970s, and cooperated with the United States to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s.
But in the last two decades, U.S. and Pakistani interests have seriously diverged. Buoyed by the success of Islamic militancy against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Pakistan continued to support these groups to achieve strategic objectives vis a vis Afghanistan and India.
It was only after the 9/11 attacks that the United States fully awoke to the dangers brewing in Pakistan and Afghanistan because of the powerful Taliban/al-Qaeda nexus. And it's only been in the last few months that U.S. officials have acknowledged the role of Pakistan's intelligence service in perpetuating this terrorist nexus.
Reflecting exasperation after four years of unsuccessful efforts to persuade Pakistan to crack down on terrorist sanctuaries within its borders, retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen testified to Congress last month that the Haqqani network that attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is a "veritable arm" of Pakistani intelligence.
So if Pakistani military officials stubbornly refuse to stop supporting terrorists that attack U.S. interests in Afghanistan, why isn't Pakistan considered an enemy of the United States? Because Pakistan has also provided key assistance in stopping global terrorists who might otherwise have killed hundreds, possibly thousands, in the American homeland.
Whether history judges Pakistan as friend or foe of the United States will likely depend on Pakistan's strategy for reconciliation in Afghanistan and the extent to which it is willing to set aside paranoia over India in favor of denying terrorists sanctuary on its soil. A winning strategy will almost certainly entail Pakistan fighting some of its former proxies.
While Admiral Mullen's strategy of engagement and accommodation failed to garner the needed Pakistani cooperation, it remains to be seen whether the administration's current mix of openness to talks with virtually anyone in Afghanistan, and simultaneous military pressure along the Afghan-Pakistani border, will coax a better outcome from Pakistan's military leadership.
American patience has its limits. Without a shift in Pakistan's powerful military leadership toward compromise in Afghanistan, the American scale of perceptions on Pakistan may start tipping toward "enemy" status rather quickly.
Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in U.S. News and World Report