One feels tempted to describe the recent years’ interactions between the United States and Pakistan in terms of the proverb of the tail wagging the dog. However, that would be inappropriate since neither the dog nor the tail is in control of their respective actions. Simply put, the United States does not have a set policy for Pakistan; instead, it is defined on almost a daily basis by the events or series of events taking place in the general area encompassing Pakistan and Afghanistan, separated as they are by a border, the Durand Line, that was drawn in the sand by the British Raj more than a century ago and is not recognised by any Afghan in power in Kabul.
Today, the U.S.”“Pakistan relationship turns on the fundamental contradiction of intense mutual distrust and desperate mutual dependence.
Washington does not necessarily respond to most of these events, but their cumulative effect continually changes the dynamics on the ground, prompting further confusion and paralysis in Washington. Some developments, such as Pakistan’s building up of its nuclear arsenal, however, have clearly widened the chasm between the two capitals. But overall, it is the misuse and abuse of bilateral relations by both countries for decades that have led to the present impasse.
Today, the U.S.–Pakistan relationship turns on the fundamental contradiction of intense mutual distrust and desperate mutual dependence. It is not altogether different from the relations that Washington “enjoys” with some of the Arab nations that have been engaged in the decades-old Palestine–Israel issue.
To meaningfully discuss current policy and evaluate future options, it is useful to first step back and take a look at the broad contours of the U.S.–Pakistan relationship as it has developed since World War II.
Pakistan: A mere utility
During the early Cold War days of the 1950s, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the U.S. president and tensions between the West and the Soviet Union were on the rise, Pakistan, less than a decade old but already in the process of shedding its democratic façade, was used as a military base for the American U-2, the plane of choice for spying missions. By 1960, the U.S. had flown numerous “successful” missions over and around the USSR, but on 1 May, a U-2 was brought down near Svedlovsk. The event had a lasting (negative) impact on U.S.–USSR relations and, for the first time, made the world aware that Pakistan, already a member of the U.S.-led anti-Soviet military outfit, CENTO, had been allowing the United States to use Badabur, near Peshawar, as a base.
“¦the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was based on a common agenda, namely containment of the Soviet communists.
Further U-2 launches were called off, but the Cold War was beginning to gather momentum and a replacement intelligence-gathering reconnaissance aircraft was needed. For a time, RB-57D models were flown along the air borders of both the USSR and Communist China (at the time, not a friend of Pakistan) by the Pakistan air force (PAF). But these aircraft lacked the wing size to attain a sufficiently high altitude. In 1964, the U.S. air force produced the RB-57, with a much larger wing structure, and promptly loaned two to the PAF for free.
At this time, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was based on a common agenda, namely containment of the Soviet communists. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, this agenda determined the U.S. policy toward Pakistan. There were ups and downs, particularly during the five-year stint of the late Pakistani premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1972–1977), who was hanged by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979. General Zia came to power in 1977 through a military coup that ended Bhutto’s civilian rule. In Washington, many in and out of the Carter administration had difficulty with the rise of a military dictator in Pakistan, but such concerns were not permitted to get in the way of the main goal of the alliance: to give the Soviet communists a bloody nose.
Pakistani ISI and military leadership, in clear view of the U.S. authorities, set up terrorist groups whose chief objective was to carry out attacks within the India-held part of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state in order to pry the area loose from India.
That opportunity came about in late 1979, when thousands of Soviet military personnel with tanks and armoured cars moved into Afghanistan to install a puppet regime under their asset, Babrak Karmal. The invasion was strongly opposed by the United States, the West and most of the Middle East. Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan, instantly became a frontline nation and the recipient of the West’s military and financial support to launch armed guerrilla warfare against the Soviet enemy. Pakistan was allowed to select, train and arm the Afghan and Arab warriors to serve the West’s interests as well as its own. This period was the heyday of U.S.-Pakistani mutual trust.
It was also, however, the time when Pakistan’s abuse of Washington’s trust began in full earnest. It was then that Pakistan’s intelligence and military developed a close working relationship with the “successful” opium-growing mujahideen leaders. It was then that opium was used by everyone involved to run the off-budget “black operations” to beat back the Soviets. It was then that the Pakistani ISI and military leadership, in clear view of the U.S. authorities, set up terrorist groups whose chief objective was to carry out attacks within the India-held part of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state in order to pry the area loose from India. Also, during this time, General Zia-ul-Haq, acclaimed as a champion in his defence of the democratic West against the Soviet dictators, began procuring funds from Saudi Arabia, flush with the oil-cartel cash windfall, to spread its state religion, Wahhabism, the most virulent form of Islam. An orthodox Muslim, Zia believed that terrorist cells imbued with Wahhabism had a stronger motivation to fight “Hindu India” than the nonorthodox Muslims of Pakistan.