The growing confrontation between the United States and Pakistan is one of the most dangerous security threats in the world today. It also illustrates the dysfunctionality into which US strategy has fallen. For, US pressure is exerted on Pakistan in order to support their efforts to create a state and an army in Afghanistan that can survive US withdrawal and prevent al Qaeda re-establishing its base. Yet groups based in Pakistan pose a far greater threat of international terrorism than do al Qaeda or any groups that Afghanistan could generate—and it is precisely US actions against Pakistan that risk immensely strengthening this terrorist threat.

The reasons for Pakistan’s greater importance should be obvious enough. With more than 180 million people, Pakistan has six times Afghanistan’s population. A very large Pakistani diaspora exists in Britain and North America, and as shown by the July 2005 bombings in London and Faisal Shahzad’s failed terrorist attack in New York in 2010, parts of that diaspora are ready to listen to terrorist propaganda. Pakistan has armed forces of more than 500,000 men. If they disintegrated, the resulting flow of weapons and specialists to extremist groups would vastly increase the terrorist threat to both India and the West; and beyond that lies the apocalyptic threat that if the Pakistani state and army collapse, Pakistani nuclear weapons could find their way into terrorist hands.

In these circumstances, it seems lunatic for Washington to pursue a strategy that is clearly undermining Pakistan and helping to radicalise parts of its population. There are three reasons for this lunacy. Firstly, like all wars, the war in Afghanistan has acquired a logic of its own, independent of the wider interests of America and the West. The prestige of the United States in general, and of the US military and the Obama Administration in particular, have become bound up with success in Afghanistan.

The other reasons for this mistaken US approach lie in deeper errors of analysis concerning support both for the Afghan Taliban and for Islamist extremism more widely. There is still a deep unwillingness among many Western analysts to recognise both that the Afghan Taliban enjoy genuine mass support in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that terrorist recruitment rises and falls in response to US actions.

Thus most Western analysts and media commentators have seen the Pakistani shelter provided to the Afghan Taliban as stemming from the calculations of the Pakistani security establishment. Such calculations do exist, but at least as important is the sympathy felt by most of the Pakistani population in general (to judge both by opinion polls and by my interviews in recent years) and the Pashtuns of Pakistan in particular for what is seen as a legitimate war of resistance against foreign occupation—in Islamic parlance, a defensive jihad against an infidel occupation of Muslim land, which it is incumbent on all Muslims to support. In other words, ordinary Pakistanis tend to see the Afghan Taliban of today as directly analogous to the Afghan Mujahideen who fought against the Soviet occupation of the 1980s (I should say clearly here that this is not a view that I endorse.).

Much has been made in Western commentary of the difference in Islamic thought between the lesser jihad of war against the infidel, and the greater jihad of personal and social self-purification; but in order to analyse the mass appeal of the Taliban and even to a certain extent al Qaeda, it is necessary to understand that they do not present themselves, or mostly see themselves, as carrying out offensive jihads to spread the message of Islam to other lands by force of arms, but defensive jihads against enemy invasion and occupation.

The writings of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s successor as leader of al Qaeda, make clear his own awareness that the great mass of Muslims do not sympathise with al Qaeda’s totalitarian Wahabi theology or revolutionary agenda within the Muslim world. Al-Zawahiri sees that the path to gaining their support lies in relentlessly stressing al Qaeda’s commitment to liberating Muslim land in Palestine and elsewhere. Most frighteningly of all, this sympathy for the jihads in both Afghanistan and Kashmir extends to large parts of the Pakistani diaspora in Britain. Like Pakistanis in general, their attitudes have been profoundly influenced by the US invasion of Iraq, which seemed to confirm everything that militants had been saying about American ambitions to dominate the Muslim world by force. As an indirect result, the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis with whom I have spoken in both Pakistan and Britain now believe the grotesque, cretinous lie that the CIA and Mossad carried out the 9/11 attacks in order to give America the excuse to conquer Afghanistan. This belief is as widespread among Pakistani and Pakistani-origin students at University College London as it is of uneducated Pakistanis in Bradford and Leicester.

Above all, the portrayal of the Taliban as a legitimate resistance against illegal occupation resonates among the Pashtuns of Pakistan; and the Taliban are assiduous in presenting their struggle as part of a Pashtun tradition of resistance stretching back to the wars against the British and beyond.

IN recent years, a feeling has grown among Pakistanis that not only is Afghanistan under US occupation, but Pakistan is under US attack. Most dangerously of all, this feeling extends to the rank and file of the military—at least to judge by my travels in some of the main areas of military recruitment. Ordinary soldiers feel deeply humiliated by their failure to respond to these attacks and what they see as the cowardice of Pakistani generals.

This creates a real risk that if Pakistani soldiers run into US troops on what is or is believed to be Pakistani soil, they will fight—which seems to be what happened in the incident on 25 November 2011 which led to the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers and a drastic deterioration in relations. If, on the other hand, Pakistan’s generals order their troops not to fight, then those troops may mutiny. At that point, the disintegration of Pakistan would come a giant leap closer, and with it the West’s ultimate nightmare in the war on terror.